Ecclesiastes: Trying To Achieve The Perfect Life?

There was an ancient philosophy that taught how to achieve the perfect life.  The "Teacher" in Ecclesiastes responds to this philosophy.

This is part of a series on mirror-reading the books of the Bible.  You can view all posts in the series here.  They are only cursory mirror-readings and, although I give evidence for their validity, further research is desired for support.

Mirror-Reading The Book Of Ecclesiastes Gives Us A Greater Understanding

From the numerous references to youth and how to deal with the king, we can infer that the Book of Ecclesiastes was aimed at young courtiers who interacted with the king on occasion.  These courtiers had embraced, or were at least exploring, a philosophy that held that one could achieve a perfect life, perhaps even avoiding death.  This was achieved by going to extremes, either of wisdom and righteousness or folly and wickedness.  The results of this philosophy had caused them to become greedy, envious and oppressive of the poor.  They also tended to be argumentative to achieve what they wanted, spewing words at the king and even at God. The "Teacher" in Ecclesiastes teaches to counter this philosophy.

Six Points That The "Teacher" Uses To Shut Down The So Called Perfect Life Philosophy

1. The Teacher already tried the philosophy and it didn't work

The "Teacher" also called "Preacher" in some Bible translations, or "Koheleth" in the Hebrew, was also a king.  If anyone was able to go to the extremes, it would be him.  The pursuit of wisdom was upheld and encouraged in the wisdom literature of the Bible, but folly is never shown as something to be pursued.  However, the Teacher pursues both extremes because the author of Ecclesiastes is not responding to Biblical wisdom teachings but the so called "perfect life philosophy". 

Ecclesiastes 1:16-17 (see also 2:9)
I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind.

This gives rise to one of the most bizarre passages when compared to the rest of the Bible:

Ecclesiastes 7:16-18
Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time? It is good that you should take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand, for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them.

"Don't be too righteous" sounds odd but makes more sense when one realizes that the Teacher is responding to a philosophy that was promoting extremes in order to achieve a perfect life.

So the young courtiers are encouraged to not bother pursuing the philosophy because the Teacher already pursued both extremes, and concludes that it is a "chasing after the wind"

Ecclesiastes 2:12
So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly. For what can the man do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done.

2. God controls the good times and the bad times and they can't be changed

@@The Teacher explains that God sets the "times" and they can't be changed by extreme wisdom or folly@@.

Ecclesiastes 3:14-15
I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.

What will be, will be and there is nothing the young courtiers could do about it.

Ecclesiastes 1:9
What has been is what will be,
    and what has been done is what will be done,
    and there is nothing new under the sun.

The young courtiers had been trying to make their paths straight by eliminating all the bad times, but the Teacher responds:

Ecclesiastes 7:13 (see also 1:15)
Consider the work of God:
    who can make straight what he has made crooked?

But God ordains all the times, both good and bad:

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
Ecclesiastes 3:17
 I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work.

3. They can't know the future

Although there are plenty of examples of prophets of God foretelling the future, the young courtiers thought they could foretell the future with wisdom.  The Teacher said that's impossible.

Ecclesiastes 3:11
He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.
Ecclesiastes 6:12
For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow? For who can tell man what will be after him under the sun?
Ecclesiastes 8:17
then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out.
Ecclesiastes 7:14
In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him.
Ecclesiastes 11:3-6
If the clouds are full of rain,
    they empty themselves on the earth,
and if a tree falls to the south or to the north,
    in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie.
He who observes the wind will not sow,
    and he who regards the clouds will not reap.
As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything.
In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.
Ecclesiastes 9:11
Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all.

Although all of the times were planned by God, they would not be able to figure out what the plan was, so that "time and chance" happened to them all.

4. Shut your mouth

The Teachers also addresses the issue of being argumentative in order to achieve their desires:

Ecclesiastes 5:2
Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few.
Ecclesiastes 6:10
Whatever has come to be has already been named, and it is known what man is, and that he is not able to dispute with one stronger than he.
Ecclesiastes 10:14
A fool multiplies words,
    though no man knows what is to be,
    and who can tell him what will be after him?
Ecclesiastes 6:11
The more words, the more vanity, and what is the advantage to man?

5. They will die eventually

All of their wisdom and folly would not be able to save them from death.  

Ecclesiastes 9:1-3
But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God. Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him. It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath. This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead.
Ecclesiastes 7:2
It is better to go to the house of mourning
    than to go to the house of feasting,
for this is the end of all mankind,
    and the living will lay it to heart.
Ecclesiastes 8:8
No man has power to retain the spirit, or power over the day of death. There is no discharge from war, nor will wickedness deliver those who are given to it.
Ecclesiastes 9:10
Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.

6. Enjoy life

After destroying the philosophy that the young courtiers were pursuing, the Teacher gives guidance on how they then should live:

Ecclesiastes 2:24
There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God,
Ecclesiastes 5:18
Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot.
Ecclesiastes 5:19
Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God.
Ecclesiastes 3:22
So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Who can bring him to see what will be after him?
Ecclesiastes 8:15
And I commend joy, for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.

Herding the Courtiers

@@The narrator of Ecclesiastes echoes the Teacher and warns the young courtiers not to go to extremes@@.

Ecclesiastes 12:11-12
The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd.  My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

Goads and nails were used by shepherds to keep the sheep from straying.  Likewise, the narrator uses the terms to describe the words of the Teacher to keep the young courtiers from straying into extremes.

What Do You Think?

What do you think of this mirror-reading of Ecclesiastes?  Was the Teacher addressing young courtiers trying to achieve the perfect life?  What other situations do you think Ecclesiastes was responding to?