This past Sabbath, our congregation’s retired pastor gave a deep and thoughtful message on the book of Ecclesiastes , and one of the elements I found particularly intriguing was his discussion of the way that Solomon reported the results of his experimentation in how to live life. As someone who spends a great deal of my professional life dealing with matters of reporting on data , I found the subject to be practical in a way that may not have been the case for most of the other people listening to the message. After all, reporting is something I do on a daily basis for other people, so that they may be able to draw conclusions and make appropriate decisions based on the findings I present, and Solomon, as an early scientist himself, had the same ends in mind even if his research was definitely qualitative in nature and not the sort of quantitative data that is preferred in current ages. For a variety of reasons, not least the lack of technology devoted to measurement and calculation or the reductionism that is so ubiquitous in our own times, Solomon lived in an age that was not as obsessed with data points as we are, but all the same there was reporting and it was taken seriously. Let us therefore see what insights we can gain from looking at the reporting that Solomon does.
Before demonstrating the scientific reporting of Solomon, it is worthwhile to examine how Solomon’s wisdom is said to have been scientific in nature. 1 Kings 4:33-34 speaks of Solomon in this fashion: ” Also he spoke of trees, from the cedar tree of Lebanon even to the hyssop that springs out of the wall; he spoke also of animals, of birds, of creeping things, and of fish. And men of all nations, from all the kings of the earth who had heard of his wisdom, came to hear the wisdom of Solomon.” In the book of Proverbs, there are numerous and well-known examples of Solomon drawing insights from the world of plants and especially animals to examine those areas of human conduct that Solomon was so fond of, and that are in such abundant evidence when looking at the book of Ecclesiastes. To be sure, we may not in our contemporary age be used to thinking of 3000 years ago as being a fertile time for any sort of scientific examination. We are used to thinking of science as related specifically to Greece, and are often surprised when we see scientific work in the ancient world outside of the orbit of Greek philosophy. Yet Solomon’s work was scientific, and was recognized as being wise and knowledgeable within his own time, even though it was not a particular tradition that endured among the royalty of Israel and Judah during the divided kingdoms period after him, at least as we have record of.
At least six times in Ecclesiastes, Solomon reports on his findings in an incremental fashion, showing a remarkable consistency in what he says and the recommendations he makes as a result of his scientific investigations in which he served as a guinea pig to test various theories of how best to live. It should be noted that while these particular ways of scientific experimentation may seem highly unusual to us, the use of scientists as their own guinea pigs in experimentation is not so unusual as we may assume. During the late 19th and early 20th century, for example, numerous scientists engaged in the exploration of X-rays and radioactivity, most famously Marie Curie, used themselves as guinea pigs in their research and as a result died horrific deaths as a result to radiation poisoning. Later on, as was commented on yesterday by our retired pastor, the pioneers of aviation used themselves as guinea pigs by being test pilots, often at extreme risk to their own health and well-being, to experiment on aircraft. The same was true of early astronauts with regards to spacecraft. Let us therefore look at these examples of Solomon reporting his results and see what parallels we can find between the cases that can provide insight to contemporary reporting efforts in our own lives:
Ecclesiastes 2:24-26: “Nothing is better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and that his soul should enjoy good in his labor. This also, I saw, was from the hand of God. For who can eat, or who can have enjoyment, more than I? For God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy to a man who is good in His sight; but to the sinner He gives the work of gathering and collecting, that he may give to him who is good before God. This also is vanity and grasping for the wind.”
Ecclesiastes 3:9-13: “What profit has the worker from that in which he labors? I have seen the God-given task with which the sons of men are to be occupied. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end. I know that nothing is better for them than to rejoice, and to do good in their lives, and also that every man should eat and drink and enjoy the good of all his labor—it is the gift of God.”
Ecclesiastes 5:18-20: “Here is what I have seen: It is good and fitting for one to eat and drink, and to enjoy the good of all his labor in which he toils under the sun all the days of his life which God gives him; for it is his heritage. As for every man to whom God has given riches and wealth, and given him power to eat of it, to receive his heritage and rejoice in his labor—this is the gift of God. For he will not dwell unduly on the days of his life, because God keeps him busy with the joy of his heart.”
Ecclesiastes 8:10-17: “ Then I saw the wicked buried, who had come and gone from the place of holiness, and they were forgotten in the city where they had so done. This also is vanity. Because the sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil. Though a sinner does evil a hundred times, and his days are prolonged, yet I surely know that it will be well with those who fear God, who fear before Him. But it will not be well with the wicked; nor will he prolong his days, which are as a shadow, because he does not fear before God. There is a vanity which occurs on earth, that there are just men to whom it happens according to the work of the wicked; again, there are wicked men to whom it happens according to the work of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity. So I commended enjoyment, because a man has nothing better under the sun than to eat, drink, and be merry; for this will remain with him in his labor all the days of his life which God gives him under the sun. When I applied my heart to know wisdom and to see the business that is done on earth, even though one sees no sleep day or night, then I saw all the work of God, that a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. For though a man labors to discover it, yet he will not find it; moreover, though a wise man attempts to know it, he will not be able to find it.”
Ecclesiastes 9:7-12: “Go, eat your bread with joy,
And drink your wine with a merry heart;
For God has already accepted your works.
Let your garments always be white,
And let your head lack no oil.
Live joyfully with the wife whom you love all the days of your vain life which He has given you under the sun, all your days of vanity; for that is your portion in life, and in the labor which you perform under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going. I returned and saw under the sun that—
The race is not to the swift,
Nor the battle to the strong,
Nor bread to the wise,
Nor riches to men of understanding,
Nor favor to men of skill;
But time and chance happen to them all.
For man also does not know his time:
Like fish taken in a cruel net,
Like birds caught in a snare,
So the sons of men are snared in an evil time,
When it falls suddenly upon them.”
Ecclesiastes 12:9-14: “And moreover, because the Preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yes, he pondered and sought out and set in order many proverbs. The Preacher sought to find acceptable words; and what was written was upright—words of truth. The words of the wise are like goads, and the words of scholars are like well-driven nails, given by one Shepherd. And further, my son, be admonished by these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is wearisome to the flesh. Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter:
Fear God and keep His commandments,
For this is man’s all.
For God will bring every work into judgment,
Including every secret thing,
Whether good or evil.”
Let us make a few notes about these passages as time permits insofar as they serve as a case study of scientific reporting. For one, let us note that vanity should be translated as vapor or passing or temporary or evanescent, not as vanity in the sense of taking ourselves too seriously or viewing ourselves too highly. What is meant by Solomon’s discussion of life under the sun and under heaven is not so much a condemnation of venal forms of sin related to pride or superciliousness, but rather a discussion of everything in this life as quickly passing, like the grass which grows up and is then burned in the oven, or a flower that blooms and then withers away. With that said, it is striking to note the conclusions that Solomon comes to consistently. These recommendations, which are repeated over and over again, are for people to enjoy the fruits of their labors, to eat and drink and to be merry and happy and joyful, to spend time with one’s spouse (if one has one), and to do good, because we will be judged for our deeds, and if we are righteous our deeds are accepted by the Eternal. Likewise, we see at the end that the conclusion of the whole matter is consistent, and that Solomon even refers to himself in the third person as is common among those who strive for objectivity in their reporting.
What lessons can we learn from Solomon’s example? For one, we can learn the importance of recognizing the importance of reporting both in terms of qualitative as well as quantitative results. In our rush to see numerical data, we should not reject insight that comes in terms of recommendations and not in terms of numbers and data points. Likewise, we should see our own lives in some way as an experiment in how to live rightly, with the knowledge that we are involved in a grand experiment for which we are responsible for the tests we subject ourselves to and the insights we gain or fail to gain from our experiences. Just as Solomon used his own experiments in living to teach and guide others in wisdom, and to point people to their ultimate responsibility before God to how they live, so too our lives will serve as lessons for other people, either as examples of what conduct to emulate and repeat or as object lessons in how not to live our lives. Let us live soberly, but also joyfully, with that in mind, for our lives are not lived for ourselves alone, but are part of a larger context and therefore also part of a larger significance than we may often grasp.
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