The Old Testament is a gagged book. Indeed, a careful reading of the Hebrew Bible will show whole books, chapters, and verses that have been silenced. A prime example of this are the imprecatory psalms, such as Psalm 137 (see especially Psalm 137:7-9); but there are some examples that are lesser known, such as Ecclesiastes. But why is it so? Because those texts have the power of making ourselves or our church leaders uncomfortable. Very, very uncomfortable.
After all, how could one preach about God’s love and then read the Word of God where the Psalmist vent his desire of squashing some babies against the rocks? How could one reconciles the image of God as Father and then read a prophet claiming that he was practically raped by God (!)? Or, how could be a king, renowned for its practical wisdom and sharp intellect, contemplating suicide (Ecclesiastes 2:17)? It is undoubtedly a challenge; but it is the Word of God. We cannot simply ignore it and pretend that those texts do not exist, as we are doing now.
Because of this, I would like to offer a hermeneutical model that might be helpful to approach those texts. My goal is to do justice to the message of those portions, while at the same time preserve the analogy of faith that obviously regards rape and the murder of babies as unworthy of a loving, merciful and just God. This approach is going to be the undercurrent for my interpretation of Ecclesaistes. I would like to call this hermeneutical model as “the Fellow Traveler.” Below are some guidelines for the model:
1. The starting point of the model is an unyielding conviction of the integrity of the Word of God and its normativity for the Christian faith, (2 Timothy 3:16; Isaiah 8:20, etc), and the fact that God has spoken (Hebrews 1:1,2). This Word is eminently true and our path to holiness (John 17:17).
2. However, the text we are approaching is not an “easy” one. It seems to contradict our expectations of the Word of God. It usually runs counter to many Christian discourses today. And we are to be faithful both to the problematic text (the pericope) in particular, and to the message given by the whole corpus of revealed literature, in general.
3. We know that God is a loving, merciful and generous Father. He is Almighty, yet He gave His only Son so we would have salvation. He knows the meaning of loss and despair. And He delights when His children engage Him in powerful dialogue.
4. Therefore, I would like to offer that these problematic texts, such as many Psalms, some portions of the Prophets, and a great deal of Ecclesiastes, are reflections of God’s character. These “problematic” texts shows us a God that:
- Is aware of our grief. He knows about our grief, our pain, our sorrow, our depression, our losses, our hidden fears, our intimate corruption. And truly so, God, as the Revelator, was pleased to inspire the authors of the Bible to let us know that He is aware of what we feel.
- He respects our affliction. Not only is He aware of our sorrows; He respects us by way of the silence (see e.g. Job 2:13). When our suffering is “very great”, the best answer is simply to remain silent. What else we could say to someone beaten by the rod of human loss?
- But, moreover, and especially, God show His care by the simple gesture of “being there.” Like the friends of Job, in these harrowing passages he is showing us nothing less and nothing more than His presence. The inspiration of those “problematic texts” without any correcting commentary by our Lord definitely shows that He is there with the ones who are suffering, and yet, He is silent. God is with those who suffer, with those who find absolutely no trace of meaning in the midst of a horrid life; He is walking with us in our pilgrimage, perhaps offering His shoulder to grab so we could keep walking despite all the wounds. Yes; the fact that there is an inspired record of these “texts of despair” is definite proof that God is there with the suffering.
- Finally, God show His care to the suffering by inspiring these texts and allowing them to become, thanks to His gracious will, part of our Holy Bible, the Word of God. This should be concrete evidence that there is nothing so insignificant that does not merit concern by God. Even when these texts might be apparently against more “standard” teaching, God wanted those stories of grief and sorrow to be heard. He does not take the sorrows of His people lightly.
Anyone who has had the slightest experience in pastoral care of the bereaved and the wounded knows that these texts are very helpful in situations of personal crisis (see this article by Jeph Holloway for example). Many persons feel reflected by them, and they learn that God knew somehow how they feel, and therefore, can begin a path towards the healing of the soul with a renewed, dependent and confident relationship with God.
In the midst of a world tha can be justly called “horrible”, God is once again, our only comfort in life and death.