Every year The Living Church‘s student essay contest draws several excellent submissions. The first-place essay will be published in the October issue of The Living Church magazine, but several other essays were of such quality that we have decided to publish them here on Covenant.

By Jacob Garrett

I would see what is good for humankind; what they shall do under the heavens
— Ecclesiastes 2:3

Clear apprehension is key to ethics. To act rightly we must correctly understand ourselves and our situation. This study will begin, therefore, by surveying both the kind of world we live in and the kind of beings we are, according to the three mainline wisdom books from the Hebrew Bible: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. From here we will be better able to discern the contours of their ethical teachings in the light of these undergirding realities.


Where are we? What kind of world do we live in?

The first premise of the wise is that we live in the LORD’s world. He is the sovereign creator of all that is and actively engaged with it, upholding justice and guiding its course. As the wise king of the universe, LORD’s world exhibits the orderliness of “a well-ruled kingdom”;[1] an order rooted in his character and will.[2] Indeed, the natural world witnesses “to humanity of God’s goodness and majesty.”[3] our world is one of steady regularities (Ecc. 1:4-9), having been founded in wisdom (Prov. 3:19) and marked out with clearly delimited boundaries (Job 38:5-11). Inextricably bound up with its physical order is the moral tenor of reality. Wisdom, who was instrumental in the creation (Prov. 8:22-31), also entreats mortals to keep her ways: not doing so is a form of self-harm, while heeding Wisdom’s instruction is synonymous with life itself (Prov. 8:32-36).

The orderly pattern of the cosmos therefore extends to human conduct: there is a grain to life in such a place, and “those who go against the grain … get splinters.”[4] Just as hot coals burn, so immoral acts bring punishment (Prov. 6:27-29). In this context, the imperative to “get wisdom, get insight” (Prov. 4:5) takes on categorical force: this world is one where only those who do not understand it would want to do otherwise.

Yet the wisdom writers also acknowledge that things are not quite so simple. Importantly, this is not merely the business of Ecclesiastes and Job challenging “the moral certainties found in Proverbs”[5] as if “the three Wisdom books do not agree on much.”[6] While the differing goals of each book produce differing emphases, the extent of their common outlook is striking.

As Anne Stewart’s recent work on the pedagogical effect of Proverbs’ structure persuasively suggests, the sages saw the world as a place requiring careful navigation: a realm of diverse circumstances and contradictory voices, with few easy answers. The way of wisdom thus “cannot be indexed in a reference book,”[7] but must be cultivated through imaginative reflection. Many proverbs also intimate the impossibility of human beings fully comprehending or controlling the rich complexity of the world (e.g., 14:12, 16:9, 19:21, 20:24, 27:1, 30:2-3, 30:18-19).

A similar view is evinced in the LORD’S speeches of Job, which not only expand Job’s vision of God’s purposes beyond the mechanical application of retributive justice, but also highlight the presence of chaotic elements in creation. The behemoth is made alongside Job (40:15), while the Leviathan, a source of terror to human beings, is as a delightful pet to the LORD (41:5), who rejoices in his strength and ferocity while remaining entirely sovereign over him (41:10). For some reason, God does not evict evil or danger completely from his world, “but contains it within certain boundaries,”[8] and seems to find great beauty and joy in the “barren” and “untamed” places of the earth (Job 38:22-39:30).

Qohelet, of course, is the master observer of this strange and “ambiguous reality called life.”[9] He sees there is real pleasure to be found under the sun (2:24-26, 3:12-14, 3:22, 5:18-20, 8:15), but there is also great sorrow and difficulty (1:18, 2:17-23, 4:4-8, 6:1-9, 12:1-8), and ultimately this world is hěḇěl: not necessarily “futile” or “meaningless,” as many English translations suggest, but enigmatic: “ungraspable or incomprehensible”[10] in many respects.

Who are we? What kind of being are humans?

The first thing we might say about humans in this context is that we are creatures: though uniquely made in God’s image, we are limited in understanding and regularly find “the contingencies of an unpredictable world impinge on [our] agency, so that [we] must relinquish control.”[11] The definitive proof of this is death. Arguably the main obstacle Qohelet sees to living well is that “mortal beings consistently refuse to accept their mortality and finitude.”[12] Instead, we strive after wealth, security, or status and distract ourselves with pleasure, when really we ought to face reality head-on (Ecc. 7:2). We are not gods, and cannot command our destinies.

Moreover, our status as creatures brings inherent responsibility to honor our creator. The wise affirm that even a non-Israelite like Job is right to serve the LORD and seek to please him, for “the very gift of the chance of life … is more than enough warrant for worship of the Creator.”[13] Qohelet similarly concludes that we should remember (zāḵǎr) our creator (12:1): not simply recall, but resolve to act on the basis of relational obligation,[14] an idea closely associated with the frame narrator’s summary injunction to “[f]ear God and keep his commands, / for this is humanity’s all” (Ecc. 12:13). Furthermore, the final verse of the book emphasizes that God sees what we do on earth and will judge accordingly (cf. Prov. 15:11, 20:27, Job 31:4).

Indeed, God does not seem to hold the hungry lion, foolish ostrich, or fearsome Leviathan to account: humanity alone is morally culpable. However, though “the eyes of the LORD are everywhere” (Prov. 15:3), and Job complains of being made a target by the ‘watcher of men’ (Job 7:20), it is noteworthy that right conduct in the wisdom literature is not normally seen as an external burden, but the internal desire and delight of a wise soul (cf. Prov. 2:9-10, 10:23, 21:15). Moreover, even in adverse or confusing circumstances, the sages consistently prefer “a little with righteousness / than much gain with injustice” (Prov. 16:8, cf. Ecc. 4:13), while wisdom and discipline are the best means to counter the vagaries of life (Prov. 31:15-27).

How, then, should we live?

Much may be built upon this foundation, far more than can be said here. The following comments will focus on some ways the wisdom books help correct or extend a few popular perspectives within Christian ethics. The first is that piety does not denote some rarefied, specific set of religious actions, for there is “no separation between godly conduct and ethical conduct.”[15] Our entire lives are lived before God, and his interest in us is holistic. Significantly, the sages lay “a stress on a person’s inner thoughts.”[16] Thus it is Job’s heart which the śāṭān accuses (Job 1:9): he cannot fault the outward signs, but Job is tested to discover “the anchor for such devotion.”[17]

If God alone is not our deepest desire or the center of our life and vision of the cosmos, something else will be, and our allegiance will be divided. As Iain Provan maintains, “[t]here is no place for any ‘God and … ’ in Christian thinking. ‘God and … ’ is idolatry.”[18] Moreover, a self-decentered life is lived not just in the pursuit of one’s own righteousness or purity, but humbly for the sake of one’s community. Concern for the effect of conduct upon communal life is a core subject in Proverbs (e.g., 10:17, 18:18-19, 19:28), while Job’s “care for his neighbors stemmed from his relationship with God”[19] (Job 31:16-23).

We can push this concept even further, however, for as Patricia Vesely argues, the LORD’s speeches cause Job to see he occupies just one small place in the community of creation, each member of which is loved by God, invites wonder, and is worthy of respect. The heavenly tour engenders awe at the beauty and diversity of the cosmos, and fosters a sense of solidarity and interdependence with it (cf. Prov. 30:24-31).[20] Ethics, therefore, is not only a matter of human-God and human-human(s) relations, but also human-fellow creature(s), whether an eagle, a star, or “a desert with ‘no-one’ in it” (Job 38:26). Consequently, God-fearers cannot treat the world in which God delights as mere “natural resources”: the value of the world is not determined by its utility, but by the relationship each being shares with its Creator.

Secondly, the wisdom books direct our attention to the goodness and meaning of life here and now. While not inconsistent with developments in eschatological thinking elsewhere in the Bible, the wisdom writers rarely (if ever) invoke hope beyond death to justify or make sense of life as we presently experience it. Passages which seem to do so are usually ambiguous and subject to much scholarly debate. The positive thrust of Proverbs remains that true life of righteousness under God through wisdom is meaningfully attainable now, the substance of which is exemplified in the figure of Job, who not only thrives before and after his trial, but curiously finds resolution to his complaint even before being restored (Job 42:1-9).

Similarly, Tremper Longman’s interpretation of “under the sun” thinking in Ecclesiastes as futile, requiring the frame narrator to lift our perspective “above the sun,”[21] does a disservice to Qohelet’s nuanced stance toward life. Instead, Qohelet advocates “an authentic and full-blooded experience of the world”[22] as a creature of God, taking hold of pleasure and joy as his good gifts, accepting tragedy and hardship in their time, all the while acknowledging God in his sublime sovereignty. We are right to hope in future glory, but not to the neglect of life now. Christians have much to gain by adopting such a stance. For in a context where many both inside and outside the church see Christian faith as increasingly irrelevant to normal life, or for those grieving the disenchantment of reality wrought by the secular outlook, the wise affirm that there is magic in the mundane, value and dignity in the daily, and divine meaning even in our often messy and meandering lives.

God is in heaven, and we are on earth: we cannot penetrate the deeps of all life’s mysteries, but through wisdom we can truthfully apprehend ourselves and our place in God’s world. Such wisdom equips us to live out our lives meaningfully and faithfully before him, whatever comes.

Jacob Garrett lives in Melbourne, Australia with his two housemates, studies theology and works for Manna Gum, an organization all about the intersection of economics and ecology with Christian faith. In his spare time he makes his own hiking equipment from natural materials and experiments with adventurous slow travel.

[1] Andrew Brown, “Ethics in the Old Testament Wisdom Books,” in Engaging Ethically in a Strange New World, ed. Michael Bräutigam and Gillian Asquith (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2019), 16.

[2] Ernest C. Lucas, Proverbs, TOTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 182.

[3] Kathryn Schifferdecker, “Creation Theology” in Dictionary of the Old Testament Wisdom, Poetry & Writings, ed. Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008), 68.

[4] A. Brown, “Ethics,” 14.

[5] William P. Brown, “Virtue and Its Limits in the Wisdom Corpus: Character Formation, Disruption, and Transformation,” in The Oxford Handbook of Wisdom and the Bible, ed. Will Kynes (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021), 54.

[6] W. Brown, “Virtue and Its Limits,” 45.

[7] Anne W. Stewart, “Teaching Complex Ethical Thinking with Proverbs,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Hebrew Bible and Ethics, ed. C. L. Crouch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 248.

[8] Norman C. Habel, The Book of Job: A Commentary, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1985), 66.

[9] Habel, The Book of Job, 68.

[10] Craig G. Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 65.

[11] Eunny P. Lee, “Ecclesiastes,” in The Old Testament and Ethics. A Book-by-Book Survey, ed. J. B. Green and J. E. Lapsley (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 100.

[12] Iain Provan, “Fresh Perspectives on Ecclesiastes: ‘Qohelet for Today,’” in The Words of the Wise Are like Goads: Engaging Qohelet in the 21st Century, ed. Mark J. Boda, Tremper Longman III, and Cristian Rata (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2013), 404.

[13] A. Brown, “Ethics,” 17.

[14] Cf. God “remembering” Noah and the animals after the Flood (Gen. 8:1).

[15] A. Brown, “Ethics,” 16.

[16] Lindsay Wilson, Proverbs: An Introduction and Commentary, (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 2017), 300.

[17] A. Brown, “Ethics,” 23.

[18] Provan, “Fresh Perspectives,” 413.

[19] Wilson, Proverbs, 299.

[20] Patricia L. Vesely, “Virtue and the ‘Good Life’ in the Book of Job,” Horizons in Biblical Theology 41 (2019): 18-20.

[21] Tremper Longman III, The Fear of the Lord is Wisdom: A Theological Introduction to Wisdom in Israel, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 43-46.

[22] Lee, “Ecclesiastes,” 100.

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1 month ago

Nicely done. Carefully balanced account of these interlocking works.