Ecclesiastes as experiment

Berry worksWhat does Ecclesiastes look like from a scientist’s point of view? People have long struggled with how best to understand Ecclesiastes and the approach of R J Berry provides a refreshing change to some of the theologian’s arguments over whether it is ‘pessimistic’ or ‘optimistic’. On another note, Ecclesiastes has also provided the inspiration for this blog.

In his book on the theology of nature, God’s Book of Works (2003), the professor of genetics R J Berry argues that there is an urgent need for a complete doctrine of creation, so that we recognise the glory of God in his creation and worship God through our stewardship of his creation.

As one part of this discussion, Berry describes Ecclesiastes as “one of the most detailed examinations involving experimental testing” (p219), as he sees it as describing a series of experiments carried out on different facets of human existence. Berry sees the author of Ecclesiastes as adopting a scientific approach, with a ruthless analysis of data, an empirical methodology and an experimental approach which validates ideas experientially.

Berry also argues that this approach best explains the structure of the book, which many commentators have struggled with. He argues that the structure is that of an experimentalist, with the results of the previous experiment suggesting new lines of enquiry.

In short, Berry argues “Read from the standpoint of a scientist, the book shows a clear development of understanding.” He sees verse 3:11 (which I’ve already blogged about) as a preliminary judgement and verses 12:13-14 as the definitive pronouncement at end of experimental programme. This says:

Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgement,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.

This means, Berry says, that our proper fear of God “flows from the mystery and incomprehensibility of God; if one cannot understand what God is doing, reverential fear is a proper response, and one which provides the context but not the motive for obedience”.

I think that this is an interesting reading of Ecclesiastes, and one which further strengthens the discussion which I’ve blogged about over Ecclesiastes being used to encourage scientific discovery. It also gives a better approach for preaching on Ecclesiastes than commentators who simply want to support those end verses and essentially discard the rest of the book. On Berry’s approach, it’s worth re-examining the rest of the book to see how and why he reached his experimental results, particularly as we as individuals and a church are often re-doing one or more of the experiments…

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2 thoughts on “Ecclesiastes as experiment

  1. It would appear the that the conclusion of the author at the end of Ecclesiates is actually written by a third party telling us why we would read and trust the wise words of Ecclesiastes. Not sure how this would qualify as an end to the experiment if if was written by someone else.

    Vance – artofwork.ca

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    • Thanks Vance,
      that is quite a common view – and I did mention commentators who are more keen on the conclusion than on the rest of the book!

      The epilogue (12:9-14) is written in the third person, rather than the first, so obviously some difference is intended – but what that difference is, and what was intended is debated. In his commentary (NICOT series, 1998) Longman (p274) says “Within this section we encounter some of the most significant disputes concerning translation and interpretation of the text.”

      I think that many of the commentators who argue that the epilogue is by a third party (the ‘frame narrator’ to use Longman’s terminology) do so in part because they think there is a disjunction between it and the rest of the book. Longman (p274) thinks that “the epilogist both affirms and critiques Qohelet’s views”

      So, he would probably agree with you. However, there are other views. So, for example in his commentary (Two Horizons, 2011) Enns, whilst talking about a ‘frame narrator’ as well, also argues that the epilogue essentially confirms the rest of the book, whilst offering the corrective of placing it in a wider framework (p6). Enns also argues that the frame narrator is probably the author. All of which rather supports Berry’s understanding of how and why the epilogue is written in the way that it is.

      Hope that helps; and thanks again for the comment!

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