Ecclesiastics, Ecclesiastes, and Ecclesiasticus
Thoughts From Long Ago
It's All About Church
Ecclesiastics is the study of religion, but Ecclesiastes and Ecclesiasticus are two separate books in the "Old Testament" section of the Bible. While "ecclesiastics," "ecclesiastical," and "ecclesiastic" might be terms used by college professors to refer to things pertaining to church, "Ecclesiastes" and "Ecclesiasticus" are words used by the translators of ancient Hebrew authors who composed writings containing advice and wisdom, later incorporated into what Christians call the "Old Testament." Other books like them include the Books of Wisdom, Proverbs, and Canticle. These books are filled with deliberate attempts to impart wisdom to readers and are called the "Sapiential" books of the Bible, the word "sapient" meaning wise. They either were written by Solomon or by unknown Hebrew authors attempting to extend the wisdom of the real or fictional person, King Solomon, son of King David.
The Many Faces of Wisdom
There are so many topics and opinions that can come under the heading of wisdom that a person hardly knows where to begin describing what wisdom is in a list of examples. In modern times, wisdom is something that is useful in bringing about an inner peace. It is a psychological advantage. In fact there exists today a group of faith healers who even call themselves the Church of Wisdom, associated with a university in the United States in Georgia. They are dedicated to holistic healing through Christianity. But in ancient times the Book entitled Ecclesiastes was written to place into perspective the lifetime of a human being, filled as it is with thoughts and motivations having nothing to do with God. The advice in that ancient book was to keep concentrating on God and not get distracted.
"Ecclesiastes" had as its original title an ancient Greek word that means "preacher." The book preaches a stern theory that everything in our lives amounts to "vanity" and that all that matters is to fear and respect God. It emphasizes the ephemeral nature of things and even calls knowledge and wisdom "vanity." To the author or authors, it seems that no matter whether someone is wise or foolish, we all will perish regardless of how many pleasures and riches were experienced in a lifetime, and no matter how hard we worked. All the good things are said to come from God, who holds our happiness in His hands. We should not expect justice during this life on earth, which may be filled with oppression, envy, greed, loneliness, and foolish pursuits. The Book of Ecclesiastes cautions that we should be careful in our speech and vows, that any authority we have on earth is limited by the fact that God is supreme, and that wealth and riches never will satisfy anyone as much as the joy that comes from God.
In fact things people desire, such as riches and having children, can bring misery and sorrow. We should seek things that are above, argue the authors of Ecclesiastes, and never dispute matters with God. The authors claim that sorrow can be better than revelry, rebukes better than flattery, and moderation, wisdom, and patience better than anger. According to Ecclesiastes, mankind is ignorant. Wicked people will be punished. It's better to be obedient and happy because we cannot understand God. It is better to be wise than to be powerful. Diligent labor and acts of mercy are good things.
"The Wisdom of Solomon"
Such would have been the wisdom of King Solomon who, with all his power and wealth, nevertheless negated these advantages to prefer humility and reverence for God. "All is vanity," he proclaims. (Ch 1) "In much wisdom is much grief." (Ch 1) Solomon confesses that when he realized these things, he "hated life." (Ch 2) There could be no greater understanding than this among men. Later, Jesus, according to the Gospels of the New Testament, would teach that he who loves this life will lose it, but he who hates his life may find eternal life in heaven.
Solomon's thoughts are expressive. "To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven." (Ch 3) "Better a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king," he proclaims. (Ch 4) Just as Jesus later downplayed the rituals of religion and emphasized its essence instead, so Solomon cautions, "Walk prudently when you go to the house of God; and draw near to hear rather than to give the sacrifice of fools." (Ch 5)
How can wisdom be recognized? "A man's wisdom makes his face shine, and the sternness of his face is changed." (Ch 8) Are the Ecclesiastes meant to depress us? No, they say, "Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has already accepted your works...Live joyfully...all your days of vanity." (Ch 9) Does the Book of Ecclesiastes contain proverbs? Yes. "The words of a wise man's mouth are gracious, but the lips of a fool shall swallow him up." (Ch 10) Are there famous sayings? Yes. "Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days." (Ch 11) Do the authors of Ecclesiastes give us a quick summation at the end? Yes, thank goodness. "Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man's all." (Ch 12)
A Second Book with a Similar Title
What about the other book with a similar name, "Ecclesiasticus"? This book also is found in some Christian Bibles in the "Old" Testament. It is similar to the Book of Proverbs and was used by rabbis in Jerusalem to instruct churchgoers. The Book of Ecclesiasticus talks about nature, wisdom, families, and society. It was written by a man named Jesus, but not the founder of the Christian religion, who was said to have lived centuries later.
Ecclesiasticus teaches that wisdom is eternal. It comes from God. We are told to fear the Lord and live a good life, honoring parents, being humble and charitable, and knowing when to keep silent. Human strength and wealth are frail. The difference between false friends and true friends is discussed. People are told not to break the law or be overbearing and scornful of others. Advice is given regarding avoiding arguments with wealthy people, respecting old age, being careful to avoid sins concerning wives and womanizing. We are advised to respect innocent people, beware of quarreling with dangerous people, avoid loaning money or being a surety for others, and don't give advice to strangers.
The "New" Testament's Golden Rule of sympathetic treatment of neighbors is suggested by, "Remember not any injury done you by your neighbor, and do nothing yourself by deeds of injury." (Ch 10) Pride is considered hateful and punishable by God. Wisdom is praised. "The wisdom of the humble shall exalt his head, and shall make him sit in the midst of great men." (Ch 11) We should not be deceived by people's appearances; it is wrong to become rich by living too cheaply; we must avoid sinners; but beware of enemies. "Never trust your enemy, for as a brass pot his wickedness rusts." (Ch 12) Simply put, Ecclesiasticus tells us, "Love God all your life, and call upon Him for your salvation." (Ch 13)
Many worldly traps are to be avoided including drunkenness, impurity, slander, hypocrisy, anger, unprofitable habits, improper speech, lying, eavesdropping, and bribery. Associating with the right people is emphasized. "Talk not much with a fool, and go not with him who has no sense." (Ch 22) Advice is often male-oriented. Good and bad women are discussed in Chapter 26. Specific practical matters of everyday life are topics in Chapter 27, including sins of business, profanity, and revealing a friend's secrets. It is good to be charitable. "Towards the poor be hearty and don't delay to show mercy." (Ch 29) Chapter 30 contains confident advice such as good health is more valuable than riches, and excessive grief is harmful. Chapter 31 warns against excessive eating and drinking. As to sickness, we are to "honor the physician for the need you have of him," and "pray to the Lord and He will heal you." (Ch 38) The eternal power of God is recognized. "God is from eternity to eternity, and to Him nothing may be added, nor can He be diminished, and He has no need of any counselor." (Ch 42) Seeing the stars in the sky, the authors write, "The glory of the stars is the beauty of heaven; the Lord enlightens the world on high." (Ch 43)
Ecclesiasticus closes by praising the great people of the Old Testament such as Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joshua, Samuel, David, Solomon, Elias, Isaias, Jeremias, Ezechiel, and Simon. (Ch 44-Ch 50) Urging everyone to seek wisdom, the authors say, "Draw near to me, you unlearned, and gather yourselves together into the house of discipline...receive discipline as a great sum of money." (Ch 51)
Notes on Bible Reading
The tremendous wisdom and sage advice of these Biblical books cannot be summarized adequately. They could be read slowly, daily, and with patience, resulting in intellectual profit as great "as a great sum of money." (Ch 51) Picking up a Bible and turning at random to any page to read only a short phrase or a few sentences is a practice of browsing that can impart wisdom through the use of one's imagination to connect preexisting knowledge of the Bible to current thoughts and preoccupations. The Bible is one big book of advice on millions of topics, but has the common thread of insistence upon faith in God to guide people's decisions.