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Those Many Contradictions?

by Alex Wilson

William Barclay writes as follows in Bible Study Aids: “Ecclesiastes reveals the strangest contradictions. In one place it says that chance rules over all (9:11) and in another that God rules over all (3:10,11). In one place it says that of all disillusionments woman is the most bitter (7:26), in another that life is at its best with a woman you love (9:9). At one moment it hates life (2:17), and at another it says that life is sweet (8:15; 9:7; 11:7,8). At one time work is hateful (2:10; 2:18), at another it gives life meaning (3:22; 5:19). At one time there is no justice (3:26), at another judgment is coming (3:17).”

AVW writing now: There are several possible explanations for the seemingly undeniable contradictions. Here is one which Barclay mentions (he also tells of 3 other far-out views offered by various folks): “It has been suggested that we simply have the different moods of one mind, each mood honestly recorded at the time.” (Or, similarly, he presents his own varying beliefs which resulted from different experiences and circumstances throughout life: At one period his work was pleasant, at another time hollow; etc.)

A 2nd option is that one “side” of the contradiction is the secular, “under the sun” view, while the other side is from the standpoint of “stand in awe of God,” for we’re responsible to Him. He shows two basically differing outlooks and also their results–the fruit they bear– in order to persuade people to “fear God and keep His commands” (12:13). At one time in his life he himself held the under-the-sun view, which is why he made his numerous experiments recorded in chapters 1:12-2:26, the best-known part of the book. Having proved the emptiness of that philosophy, he warns others to benefit from his experiences.

A 3rd possibility (somewhat like #2, but more complex) is that the author at various points in the book presents several differing ideas or even schools of thought–such as pessimism, hedonism, agnosticism. He presents them not because he believes them to be true, for as a matter of fact he disagrees with them–though he doesn’t reveal that fact at first. His purpose in airing these views is in order to evaluate and later demolish them as he progresses with his treatise. In today’s terminology, he repeatedly took the role of “the devil’s advocate,” hoping that his readers will see the falsity of the ideas he presents.

A 4th option is that due to life’s complexity and variety, those contradictions don’t actually contradict! In some men’s experience, woman is indeed the most disappointing aspect of life (and vice versa); others have found her delightful! In some cases work is only futile, tedious toil; others are privileged to have jobs that fulfill. Some experience the gravest of injustices even from their own governments; others have been blessed with rulers of integrity. Etc. As for the first contradiction Barclay mentioned–the conflict between God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom (involving chance)–philosophers throughout history have wrestled with this problem and never solved it. Thus the conflicting statements can all be true, at least at some times and to some extent.

Perhaps you can think of other solutions to Ecclesiastes’ contradictions.

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Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.

2 corinthians 1:3-4