words

Besides being wise, the Teacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs. The Teacher sought to find pleasing words, and he wrote words of truth plainly.

The sayings of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings that are given by one shepherd. Of anything beyond these, my child, beware. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:9-14

Jacques Derrida was a twentieth century philosopher who had a lot to say on words and specifically on their limitations. I would like to understand better what he was saying, but it seems to be about how words and texts themselves over time deconstruct or lose sense of whatever was their intent in being written in the first place. Words are written in a specific time and place, and seem to have all the meaning in the world at the time, probably connecting well with others when they’re well said or written. And it seems the continued need for that remains, so that every generation continues to write. Yet there’s value in the old texts and traditions, to be carried over from generation to generation. But how?

Maybe Ecclesiastes gives us something of a clue. Even though we’re far removed from its times and culture, we can readily identify with some of it. Regardless of whether we agree with all of it or not, we have to acknowledge that Qoheleth, translated “Teacher” (or traditionally, “Preacher”) wrote them with plenty of weight, and perhaps down in the mouth much of the time in doing so. And it is one of my favorite books of Scripture. Maybe that’s because it has to do with words. And consonant with Deridda’s thought: their limitations.

In the end, the one who shares the Teacher’s words seems to caution about putting too much weight in them, and in words in and of themselves. The goal is obedience to God, not the veneration or ornamentation of the words themselves. The words remain such as they are, but it’s God, the Spirit who helps us beyond them we could say to their goal. That we might live before God as those responsive to God, to God’s will. Not to set words aside as of no value, otherwise why would we have the book of Ecclesiastes, or Scripture itself? But to understand that words are meant to point us to the reality of God. And help us understand God’s will so that we might live in obedience. In love. In and through Jesus.

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