The Wisdom of the Qohelet applied by Jesus and Paul
One of the last books to be written in the Old Testament is Ecclesiastes. Scholars say that it was written during the Persian period (when Israel was under Persian captivity) or even later than that, maybe during the Hellenistic period (which was close to the time of Jesus). I mention the date here because it shows that the book is a pinnacle of Hebrew wisdom, written after reflecting on the history of Israel. It’s a reflection on all the good stuff that has come before. It famously begins with the utterance that everything is meaningless, but chapter three is more measured. In it, the teacher, or the Qohelet says there is a time for everything. “A time to break down, and a time to build up.” That lasting piece of wisdom is prescient in this moment because we are seeing a lot of tearing down, and perhaps it is a time for that. But it’s worth wondering if it also isn’t a time to build something too. It’s also worth thinking about what the costs of tearing down are and what the cost of building things back up is.
God tells the young prophet Jeremiah (who oversaw the destruction of Jerusalem as the Babylonians took over the land):
“Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”
Jeremiah prophesied that because of Judah’s disobedience to God, they would be taken over by another force. Jeremiah’s role as a prophet may have been to “pluck up and pull down” evil kings (he served under five kinds, the last four were unfaithful to God), but failing that the Lord destroyed and overthrew Judah with the Babylonians. Perhaps the time to tear down is a time to suffer the punishment under God, even.
By the time we get to Jesus (and Paul), there is a different kind of tearing down and building up happening. You can see the conflict in the text itself. The New Testament speaks a lot to the idea of Christ fulfilling the Law. In Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus plainly says he is here to “fulfill” the Law:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus here seems to be delicate in saying, in this Gospel written to Jewish people, that he is offering a reform, not a revolution. That he’s adding on to it, building something alongside of the Law to bring it to its common purpose.
Paul even goes further than Jesus in Romans 10:4, where he says, “Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” And in Galatians 3:24-26 he says, “So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.”
What we’re seeing here is a radical change from Old Testament thought coached as a fulfillment of it. I think Paul and Jesus are using gentle language here to dull the shock of the intensity of the changes that they are proposing. Paul will go on to change parts of the holy covenant that God had with Israel by saying that you no longer need to be circumcised to receive the promise of salvation.
Here, Paul and Jesus are both tearing down the old and building something new. Perhaps this is the best expression of the wisdom of the Qohelet. What Paul and Jesus are doing is offering a new institution while uprooting an old one—they are actually saying that Christ fulfilled that old institution. Sometimes tearing down the old and starting something new is what we need to do. And maybe that’s what we need to do now. But not so fast.
Restoration, renovation, revolution, and recklessness
We are literally witnessing statues that remember racist leaders of the short-lived Confederacy torn down across the country. Historical racists that planted seeds of hatred are being brought to account in one way—they are no longer being honored or preserved. This sort of “statue destroying” has affected many sectors of our public life. University buildings are being renamed, for example. This statue tearing down feels to some people more like Babylon destroying Jerusalem than Jesus and Paul’s approach.
And for folks, even like myself, who think it is easier to tear down old institutions than to build new ones, I want to take a measured approach to how we go forward. Some folks think that the institutions of the United States being preserved is what will get us to become an anti-racist society. They believe that the Founding Fathers, even if some were slave owners, gave us the blueprint for a free and just society. If our society was a building, they would want to restore it.
Others think that while we were off to a good start with the U.S Constitution, there are serious reforms to the institutions that we have in the United States that will bring them to their true fulfillment. We saw this happen after the Civil War with major amendments to the Constitution (as opposed to abolition of the Constitution). If our society was a building, they would want to renovate it.
I also want to acknowledge that tearing down status is symbolic for the kind of reform some people think we need, because they believe that the entire country’s foundation is rooted in racism. So for them, there is no reforming these old institutions because they are rotten from the core. That’s why the President and others have said that these protesters are attacking the United States itself. And some of them don’t deny that. If our society was a building, they would want to demolish it and build something new, more just, more accessible, more environmentally friendly.
However, we’re seeing another kind of institutional destruction in the United States. And it also comes from the man who has claimed that his detractors are the ones destroying the country, though he has done his fair share of his own destruction. Rather than preserve the country’s institutions (classical conservatism, mind you), Trump is reacting recklessly. He is destroying institutions and attempting to replace them with wicked ones. One example is how he gutted the pandemic office, which by this gutting helped get us into the mess we are experiencing with covid-19. If our society was a building, they would want to demolish it in order to strength their own positions, for their own benefit.
What we are seeing with Trump is the danger of institutional destruction, especially done recklessly. Though some of our institutions must be destroyed, doing so without care can be dangerous. On top of that, the ones that may simply need reform are the ones he’s destroying.
What institutions are worth preserving and what need to be torn down today?
We have to soberly consider what to do in the church and even in the state. I do not mean to conflate these two institutions, but when it comes to reform, change, and growth, I think they beg similar questions. Plus, it can tempting to simply react to Trump or the cultural moment without interrogation. I’m not ready to destroy the valuable parts of the church, and I want to preserve the good, reform what I can, and make sure I destroy what needs to be destroyed. That’s the work we need to do.
What are the institutions that we need to preserve? What do we need to tear down? And how will it look?
Our faith moves us to change the world as we bring God’s kingdom to earth. And I think we’ve seen that throughout the ages. Jesus and Paul were just getting us started. But the dialogue that followed in the body brought further reforms, and sometimes with those reforms came division. Some examples are when the church solidified its teaching on the nature of Jesus(the orthodox view is that Jesus has two natures, human and divine, in one “hypostasis”), or when the church split between East and West in the eleventh century. The Protestant Reformation was another examples. Here you had reformers who wanted to return the church to its roots, whether it was to the time of Thomas Aquinas (Luther), Augustine (Calvin), or before Constantine (the Radical Reformers). These are examples of when Christians soberly considered what direction the Spirit was leading us. And I believe those are questions that we need to wrestle with today. There are costs to reform, revolution, and preservation that we need to consider. However, it’s a worthy project that is part and parcel with our faith.
We’ve seen more changes occur in recent history as we grapple with the way the world has deformed us. The world’s sin addiction has hurt the church and we need sober eyes to see that and change in the ways that move us closer to the will of God. Indeed, then, there are times to break down and times to build up. Sometimes that breaking down will seem wrong because the institutions that are being threatened feel important and sentimental to people, and they might even preserve their power. On the other hand, reckless destruction in the name of justice, may cause more damage than we intend. There is a temptation, though, to think that all of our reforms need to be mild-mannered and polite, and while I think Paul and Jesus often did act in those ways, they also acted assertively in ways that may have seemed “impolite.”
So, taking the wisdom of the Qohelet, let’s acknowledge that there are times for breaking down and times for building up. We might be in a time where breaking down is essential for our way forward, and I believe we are: there are racist institutions in the country and the church that must be destroyed. But while we have the sledgehammer now, let’s realize that it’s not the only tool we need to uproot racism out of our society. Additionally, we need to remember that what needs to follow is a time to build something new. It is easier (and sometimes more fun) to demolish than it is to build something. Furthermore, some things just need a reform, while others need a complete uprooting. Most of these matters are up for debate, as I said in the brief summary of some schools of thought above. There probably isn’t a side that has it all worked out together, and so I hope we can come to good solutions through dialogue and discernment. I think we need both courage to know when to tear things down, wisdom to know how to rebuild them, and caution to when we need to reform things or even preserve them.