Why We Do What We Do–Ecclesiastes 4:4

Bad things will happen if I don’t get some grading done today. I’m teaching two sections of Comp I online this summer, and I will confess that I am behind on my grading. What happens if I get too far behind? My students will start to complain. They’ll start by bothering me: “Where’s my grade?” “I don’t have a grade for X!” Then, should I not respond, they might begin to complain to my dean. He would contact me, and I would have to explain my behavior. I suppose if I totally fell apart, I could conceivably lose my job. That’s why I will get that grading done today.

Or maybe that’s not why I will do the grading. Instead, I will do it because it is the right thing to do. I take a healthy amount of pride in being a productive and ethical writing teacher. I believe that my remarks on a student’s paper, if thoughtfully considered, will help that student become a more capable communicator and thus a more successful person. That’s why I will do that grading today.

Either of those motivations makes sense, but I can, with great confidence, say that there’s not one bit of jealousy driving me to put comments on papers today. Frankly, I don’t care what David or Monica or Maureen or Nathan are doing or how they look to others. That’s why I’m confused by our text today.

I saw that all labor and all skillful work is due to one person’s jealousy of another. This too is futile and a pursuit of the wind.

Ecclesiastes 4:4

What if “all” isn’t all?

Perhaps my problem with these verses is in that pesky word “all,” which pops up twice in the first sentence. Once I accept that Solomon is using hyperbole–exaggeration for effect–then the verse makes a lot of sense. Certainly my grading efforts today won’t be done out of envy, and they won’t provoke envy. On the other hand, a great deal of what we do is motivated by appearances and the desire to have what others have, including status and reputation.

As much as I hate to admit it, I enjoy my positive reputation among students. When I hear that student X recommended me to student Y, it warms my heart a bit. And I really don’t want my dean to think that David or Monica or Maureen or Nathan is better than me.

Perhaps not “all” of my labor and striving is born out of jealousy of someone else. Perhaps not “all” of it will be apt to create jealousy, but some of it can and does. When Nathan spends much of the summer in Southeast Asia, I wonder why my bank account won’t support that sort of travel.

Getting in Tune

At least before the Resurrection, Jesus’ disciples were a muddled bunch. In Matthew 20:20-28, the mother of James and John asks that her boys sit at Jesus’ left and right hand in the kingdom. These guys, it seems, were serving Jesus to “work on their résumés,” to establish their credentials and raise themselves up above their peers.

What we do, whether it be in the church or in our jobs, should be done, as much as we can manage it, without any comparison to another. It should be done without any desire for self promotion. That’s hard to achieve in a world that values followers and likes and shares, but the defeat of envy will help us stop pursuing the wind.

I Could Eat a Whole Cow: Understanding Hyperbole in the Bible

You’ve heard that old saying, haven’t you: “I’m so hungry I could eat a whole cow”? Actually, I’m not sure anyone ever says that anymore, but I think we’ve all heard this and other exaggerated statements. Try these on:

  • When I posted that, my phone blew up.
  • I ate something bad. I’m dying.
  • Everybody in the world was at the airport today.

Let’s be clear. When we say things like these, we don’t mean that our phone literally exploded, that we expect to be fitted for a grave, or that billions of people were at the airport. The person who says them doesn’t mean them to be taken literally, and the person who hears them understands that they are exaggerations for effect. There’s a name for this figure of speech: hyperbole.

That’s all fine, but when there is hyperbole in the Bible, things get interesting. When we take the Bible to be the inerrant Word of God, hyperbole can be a troublesome actor on the page. Do we take a particular statement at face value or understand it in its rhetorical context? Sometimes that seems easy, but other times it is more difficult. Let’s look at a few examples.

Not One Stone

In Matthew 24:2, Jesus looks at the temple and says, “Do you see all these things? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here on another that will not be thrown down.” In A.D. 70, Roman armies breached the walls of Jerusalem and put an end to Jewish dominance there for many centuries. Most notably, the Romans razed Herod’s Temple. But if we had walked onto the Temple Mount in, say, A.D. 75 and seen two stones still stacked, would that prove Jesus a liar or a false prophet?

If we see the mighty retaining wall known as the Western Wall, a wall that stood in Jerusalem when Jesus spoke, does that prove Him wrong? Of course not. Jesus did not mean His “not one stone” statement to be taken literally. Instead, it was hyperbole, intended to mean that great destruction was coming.

Elective Surgery?

In Galatians, Paul rails against those who are insisting that Greek believers in Jesus need to be circumcised. In a bit of a rage, Paul eventually says this:

I wish those who are disturbing you might also let themselves be mutilated!

Galatians 5:12

The King James is even more cryptic: “I would they were even cut off.” Basically, Paul is saying that he wishes these people who advocate a fairly invasive bit of cutting on others would do even greater cutting on themselves. Maybe it could be translated “let themselves be castrated!”

This is similar to Jesus, in Matthew 5, urging people to chop off hands or pluck out eyes that cause them to sin. We understand this to be an exaggeration. Otherwise, who among us would have two eyes and two hands?

When All Isn’t All

In many places in the Bible, words like “all” apparently don’t mean what they mean to us. That seems troubling, but we do it ourselves. For example, if I say, “All my children were here Sunday,” you should expect my four children. But what if I say, “The whole family was here on Sunday.” If you discover that actually one of my grandkids was not here, would you dismiss me as a liar?

Now let’s look at the Bible. In Exodus 9:6, in the fifth plague on Egypt, we read that “All the Egyptian livestock died.” All means all, right? How many Egyptian cattle were left? If I take this literally, then the answer is “zero.” Then how can I read, a few verses later, that the plague of boils afflicted people and animals? I suppose that could have been wild animals. But the seventh plague, the hail, specifically mentions livestock (Exodus 9:19-21). So the Egyptians protected the livestock that they didn’t have anymore? How do we explain that?

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Maybe the Egyptians stole all the livestock that the Israelites had after plague five. I suppose that’s possible, but wouldn’t we expect to hear something like that mentioned? That seems a bit more significant than having to make bricks without straw! Finally, in Exodus 11:4-5, Moses announces the final plague, which will kill the firstborn of the livestock. Again, how many times are these animals going to be killed? Perhaps the simplest answer is best: all doesn’t always mean all.

But wait, you say. If “all” doesn’t mean all in in Exodus 9:6, then how do we know that it means “all” in Exodus 11 for the Passover? How do we know that “all” have sinned or that “everyone” in John 3:16 really means everyone? Isn’t this a pretty treacherous slippery slope?

Getting in Tune

Sometimes it is exceptionally easy to know that hyperbole is in use. When we hear John’s disciples say “everyone is going to” Jesus in John 3:26, we don’t insist that they mean literally “everyone.” That would have to include all the Pharisees and the Romans and, well, everyone. Instead, they meant a lot of people. We don’t think that Jesus really wanted us mutilating ourselves. (Paul remains an open question to me.) We don’t call Jesus a liar when we see the Western Wall. We recognize and understand many instances of hyperbole.

We can also see things that clearly need to be read literally. When Moses is given the specifications for building the Tabernacle, they’re not hyperbole. Where the trouble arises is in the areas between these two.

I would suggest testing for hyperbole by asking, “What difference would it make if I were to read this as exaggeration for effect?” If I read John 3:16 as hyperbole, then the gospel is utterly changed. If I read Exodus 9:6 as hyperbole, then the ensuing story makes more sense and a large number of animals can still be lost.

The bottom line is that we need to read the scripture with an open mind and a humble spirit, recognizing that the Holy Spirit can bridge the gaps in our cultural and language knowledge.

In John 16:13, we read

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.

Is that all truth or a great deal of truth? I’m going to have to stew on that one.