The book of Ecclesiastes has a number of texts that make us scratch our heads and wonder a little. To give just a few examples:
“In much wisdom is much grief, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow” (1:18).
“Therefore I hated life” (2:17).
“A time to hate” (3:18).
“I praised the dead who were already dead, more than the living” (4:2).
“Do not be overly righteous, nor be overly wise”(7:16).
Statements of this puzzling kind come up so much that I’ve reached the conclusion that it’s deliberate. Ecclesiastes means to make us stop and think. One of the things we seem to need is brain teasers of one kind or another.
Scripture was given not just to inform, but to transform. Starting from that basic principle, we can ask what value there is to being puzzled or stumped from time to time. There ought to be some value, because it keeps happening! Ecclesiastes might have the most texts like that, but they crop up in other books of the Bible as well.
How might challenging texts serve to transform us? Of course, each verse in its context will have a specific content it communicates, and the impact of the verse will largely depend on what it says. But if we can group all the head-scratching texts together, is there some quality they are eliciting in us when we listen to them carefully and receive them by faith?
One suggestion is that they’re meant to keep us from being simplistic. In other words, puzzling texts help us to cultivate the character quality of discernment. That’s a quality the Bible commends (Proverbs 2:3 and Philippians 1:9). That’s a sort of X-ray vision, where we know there is something under the surface.
This is a quality we need in order interpret a text in context. But we also need it to distinguish subtle forms of good and evil, or to see through the sheep’s clothing that wolves sometimes wear.
So the next time you come across a puzzling passage in your Scripture reading, let me encourage you not to hurry past it. If you slow down, take it in, chew on it a while, maybe the verse itself will shine with meaning — and maybe that difficult text will help you grow in discernment.
Rev. Ruben Zartman has been the pastor at Ebenezer Reformed Church in Shafter since 2017.