Everyone has heard these verses: "there is a time for war and a time for peace", "a time to love and a time to hate", "a time to keep silent and a time to speak", and so on.
It was even quoted extensively by a popular 60's band, the Byrds.
What does it mean?
Some have used it to justify war or other things, which sounds reasonable unless you're aware of the context. In actuality, contextually, this misses the point.
This approach assumes these verses were designed for decision-making, which is typically how the Bible is chopped up and used today.
Here's a bit about the context to illuminate the passage's meaning and significance.
Ecclesiastes is broadly written in the Jewish Wisdom tradition to address what the author calls hevel in life. Hevel is the word for vapor, or breath, and it speaks to the transitory nature of the human phenomenon.
It's traditionally translated into English as "vanity", since it means to be unsubstantial or worthless.
This meaning emerges as Ecclesiastes unravels its arguments, the first of which is a rhetorical question: "What does a man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?" (1:3).
The answer is clear: man gains nothing from his toil, which the author spends most of the book describing.
This is hevel.
There is no effect, just like the items listed in 1:4-8:
"All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full"
"The sun rises and the sun sets"
"A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever"
"The eye is not satisfied in seeing"
The theme that threads through all of these occurrences is ineffectuality.
Activity with no result. Hevel.
These things keep happening but nothing changes: "nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it" (3:14).
That's why he concludes that there is nothing new under the sun (vs. 10).
And on a parenthetical note: this verse is erroneously misquoted to prove that no new theologies exist, and that if you hear something new then you should automatically dismiss it. Not only is this anti-intellectual, but it misses the point by a few light years.
The point is that "all things are weariness" (vs. 8), a picture of laboring for nothing, like "striving after wind". Someone can chase wind all day but they won't get anywhere because the wind only blows in circles (vs. 6), going nowhere, producing nothing.
This is a huge problem to the author, who then goes on a series of esoteric experiments to test the fabric of human reality to see if there is something good for humans.
He explores all the pleasures and wealth available, then concludes that "all was vanity and striving after wind", which means "there was nothing to be gained" (2:11).
There is no good effect produced from these human efforts. No matter what is done or pursued, it seems to only result in hevel.
Then he writes the section on times, "For everything, there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die" and so on (Eccl. 3:1).
Ecclesiastes here isn't elaborating on what people should be doing, but on the nature of our experience based on the Preacher's experiments; he's describing what life is, not prescribing what people should do.
And more specifically, he's describing how "all is vanity". Everything is ineffectual. He's repeating what he said in 1:4-8 about the cyclical nature of the universe: things come and go but the world stays the same. It's hevel.
That's what he means by saying that, "there is a time for war and a time for peace." Nations are always going to war but it doesn’t solve anything in the long run. Nations are still at enmity with each other.
It accomplishes nothing. It's hevel. That's what the context leads us to.
This isn't about what we should or shouldn't do; rather, it’s a commentary on the bleakness of reality.
But without the context, we won't get the message.
Without the context, we will go right through the Bible to produce a reading that is itself hevel.
This is why we desperately need to hear out scholars in the field of Biblical studies.
The last article went over the importance of sifting through the findings of Biblical scholars who have devoted their entire lives to studying the nuances of Biblical studies.
Including the multilayered context of the Biblical world, culture, and history.
Now, we will explore some of the ways Biblical scholarship has changed Christianity for the good.
Self-Mutilation in Jesus's Name
In Luke 24:47, Jesus charged “that repentance and the forgiveness of sins should be preached in my name”. He used the Greek word μετανοέω, which is usually translated into English as “repentance”, and means “to change one’s way of life” (Louw & Nida, 41.52).
But the Latin translation used paenitentiam. Paenitentiam, or penance, eventually was understood to mean enduring a “punishment” to appease God.
Think about that sour definition in Jesus's command to, "repent for the kingdom of God is at hand" (Matt. 4:17). If this is what the word means, it should be translated as, "Punish yourselves for your lousy way of life because the kingdom is at hand".
This is not at all what the word means, but because the Latin readers didn't know any of this, they ignorantly read this alien meaning into “repentance”.
Every time. In every homily, sermon, and book. This diseased idea became viral.
But the effect was even worse: church-goers started cutting themselves and harming their bodies, thinking that it was what Jesus wanted. They even whipped their backs and used torture devices to flail their flesh! (see, The Story of Christianity, by Gonzalez, pg. 288, 429).
This is a Christianity deformed by lack of scholarship.
And though this looks unthinkable and obviously stupid to us. It looked right to them.
This should make each of us ask right now: What “unthinkably and obviously stupid” thing are we doing because of our ignorance?
What insidious thoughts have infected our versions of Christianity? Quite a lot, as we will see.
Without scholarship, the Latin readers of the Bible became victims of their own ignorance as they brutalized themselves, and worse: they missed the real message Jesus was giving.
In the context of Second Temple Judaism of the first century, Jesus's message was that God was finally fulfilling his long-awaited promises. The Jews were waiting for hundreds of years for God to arrive and rule, and in his rule, to fix all that was wrong.
Read, for example, Isaiah 40, which describes the coming of God to rule: "Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him" (vs. 10), which is called the "good news" in vs. 9 (same word for "gospel" in the Greek version).
Jesus was saying, "You've been waiting for God to come back to rule, and he has arrived in me. I'm now here to set things right, so follow me."
Jesus called people to change their lives in light of this news that he was coming to be king. That's what it means to repent.
How would history be different if instead of self-beatings, people lived in a way that said, "Jesus is king"?
With scholarship, the Bible is often more sensible and beautiful, and more importantly: it leads us to live out the beauty of Jesus.
But without scholarship, reading the Bible can often be like seeing through a foggy cataract while driving down the Autobahn at night.
Stupid and dangerous.
Luther and His Angry God
At the end of the Dark Ages, around the 16th century, people rediscovered a few Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of the Bible (see, The Text of the New Testament, by Metzger, 142-146, 203).
This resulted in people like Martin Luther updating some of their views.
Perhaps the most significant discovery for Luther was the meaning of “the righteousness of God”, a common expression in Romans.
At first, Luther unknowingly followed the tradition of interpretation handed down to him, which included reading the Latin Vulgate and concluding that “righteousness” meant justice, as in vengeance.
As in, “God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust”. In other words, Luther understood this as the good news of the gospel in Romans (the starting point for Reformed theology).
This explains why this Catholic era focused on penance and indulgences to appease an angry deity.
Luther rightfully saw this as a horrid thing, to which he said, “I did not love [this] just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him” (taken from The Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Writings).
He bought the Satanic lie that God was merely a sinner-destroying judge.
Can you blame Luther for being resentful?
Again, this is what we all do insomuch as we do not know the Biblical culture of the Bible.
Like too many, God was thought of as a cosmic bully; a grumpy man with a club, ready and eager to beat us.
Then he learned Greek, which itself took a sort of scholarly research into ancient grammar and vocabulary. He finally read the Greek New Testament for himself, and it was like having the cataracts removed and the lights turned on to see with fresh eyes.
Consequently, he changed his view. And history!
He then saw this righteousness as, “that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith”, a sweet interpretation that has rightly remained in Protestantism.
Biblical scholarship matters.
The Wrong Ending On Mark’s Gospel
But even the Greek New Testament Luther read wasn’t great.
It was based on a handful of manuscripts (about six), the earliest of which was written nearly 1000 years after Christ, meaning that it was copied a lot.
And like the telephone game, this increased the potential for alternations and mistakes (Metzger, 148). See more about textual criticism here.
Today, we have over 5700 New Testament manuscripts, some as early as the second century, giving us a much clearer vision of the original content.
For example, it’s now well accepted that passages like Mark 16:9-20 are not original, but were added sometime later. The earliest textual witness is written in the fifth century (The Greek New Testament: Fourth Revised Edition, 10, 189).
Your Bible should have a textual note in that section.
These discoveries aren’t significant enough to cause another reformation, but it’s still important. It gets us closer to the original message God gave us.
And maybe one day, this discovery will put an end to poison-drinking and snake-handling festivals still held in Jesus’s name ( based on Mark 16:18).
Yes, that’s a thing, because without careful research into the Bible, we will inevitably conclude wrong things that will lead us into all kinds of absurdities in Jesus's name.
Without the proper research, our conclusions are disastrous: like thinking self-mutilation is repentance, or that God is in fact a bully with a magnifying glass, looking for sinners to fry.
What else are we missing? How much violence are we doing to God's character to this day?
What are Tongues of Fire?
There have been seemingly endless discoveries that have had a direct impact on our interpretation of the Bible.
I’ll list a few more to solidify the point.
One goldmine the Reformers did not have access to is the original culture of the Old and New Testaments.
One important part of this culture is Jewish literature, including the Pseudepigrapha, which are ancient Jewish books about the Bible, Judaism, the end times, and other matters.
These were overwhelmingly influential in Jesus’ day, and even quoted and alluded to hundreds of times in the New Testament.
The small chapter of Jude quotes from three different Pseudepigraphic works, and a great deal of Revelation is inspired from 1 Enoch—not just verses here and there, but entire themes and chronological layouts.
Or take the expression of “tongues of fire” in Acts 2.
Where does this come from?
You can search through the Bible in vain for the origin of this phrase (Is. 5:24 isn’t it!). But it’s in 1 Enoch, which was as popular then as The Lord of the Rings is today.
When Enoch goes into the presence of God in this account, he enters the holy of holies in the heavenly temple, where he describes the structure as “built of tongues of fire” (1 Enoch 14:9-15).
There it is!
“Tongues of fire” is a picture of the presence of God in the holy place of God’s temple, so when the Spirit of God indwells the apostles on Pentecost, it’s picturing them as:
The holy of holies
The host of God’s presence
The temple of God
That makes so much more sense in the context of Acts 2 (see also 1Q29, 4Q376). There are hundreds of more examples like this. See the extensive list at the end of the Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, Beale & Carson.
Discovering this is like reading a poem as a newspaper your whole life, then finally learning what poetry is!
It’s revolutionary, and scholars are hard at work unearthing the treasure hidden beneath this layer—if only we would read their findings.
There are similar connections in the Apocrypha, which is extensively quoted by the New Testament authors as well.
The Peak of Leviticus
Literary criticism is a vast field of research that examines the traits and structure of Biblical books.
For example, it has long been observed that the Pentateuch is a unit, but, by examining the linguistic clues and rhetorical devices of the Hebrew text, it has been shown to be a giant chiasm.
Chiasms use parallelism to mark off sections of verses, which functions like grammar, to point to the center, like this:
The outer structures highlight C.
Here is the chiasm of the Pentateuch:
Leviticus is the center. And too often we want to skip it!
It has also long been observed that Leviticus is itself a chiasm, with chapter 16 at the center (see The Literary Structure of the Old Testament, Dorsey).
All this points to the high priest entering the holy of holies on the Day of Atonement to be in the presence of God.
This means “the primary theme and theology of Leviticus (and of the Pentateuch as a whole) is YHWH’s opening a way for humanity to dwell in the divine presence.” (Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord, Michael, L. Morales).
The implications are devastating to ignorance.
Words With Unknown Meanings
There are words that are used only once in the Bible, which doesn’t give translators much context to work with for understanding their meanings.
Often, these rare words can’t even be found in other literature.
How could we know their meaning?
Scholars have found, for example, that some of these rare words in Hebrew are used in other neighboring languages of the time. They not only sound the same, but they're used the some way.
This field is called philology, and it gives translators and interpretors additional options for understanding the Biblical text (see Philology and the Text of the Old Testament, James Barr, 6-8).
One example may be the episode when Moses’ wife circumcises their son and threw the bloody skin at Moses. She said, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!”
“Bridegroom” is one of those rare words, but it has cognates in Akkadian and Arabic that mean “protect”, or “circumcise”, which could mean that she is the circumciser, or that she is a protector—both of which make more sense than “bridegroom” (see The Jewish Study Bible).
Scholarship changes things.
More could be said about research in:
The Ancient Near Eastern
Intertextuality (a favorite!)
And of course, the holy grail of discoveries: the Dead Sea Scrolls
The list could go on and on.
It matters that we use the God-given gift of Biblical scholars because it matters what we think. And how we think dictates how we live, and how we live matters immensely.
As church history sadly show us, when our starting points are off, the results are literally brutal. Much worse than self-mutilation, misunderstanding the Bible has led self-proclaimed Christians to:
Mass murder Muslims and Jews in the crusades
Mass murder Spaniards during The Inquisition
Murder and banish Native Americans from their land
Participate in near-genocide during WWII
Traffic and enslave people from Africa
We need to ask: If other generations could sincerely believe that Jesus wanted them to destroy the very people he died for, then what destructive things are we still unknowingly doing today?
If all previous generations had such devastating blind spots, then what are our blind spots?
If the history of Jesus's people is sprinkled so heavily with violence and prejudice, then what horrors are we committing today?
What “unthinkably and obviously stupid” thing are we doing that future Christians will be disgusted by?
Here's a start:
Beating children and calling it "loving discipline"
Subjugating women and calling it "Biblical"
Dividing over peripheral theology and calling it "right"
Dehumanizing people who have different views and calling it "like Jesus"
Focusing on accurate ideas instead of loving actions and calling it "Christianity"
In all of us is a cloud of ignorance that keeps us blinded to what we don't know, and what we don't know can result in every ugly evil imaginable.
And worse, it's all done as the representatives of Jesus, saying to the world, "This is what Jesus is like."
We must learn what we can from Biblical scholarship so we can expose our blind spots and truly live out the Gospel.