Review: Work and Wisdom

By David Gill, reprinted from The 313.

J. Daryl Charles is director and senior fellow of the Institute for Critical Thought & Practice at Bryan College. Among his books are Retrieving the Natural Law: A Return to Moral First Things (2008) and The Unformed Conscience of Evangelicalism: Recovering the Church’s Moral Vision (2002). Work and Wisdom is a wonderful read and I would put it at the top of my list of the best studies of Ecclesiastes and certainly on my top ten list of books about the theology of work.

Ecclesiastes is well-known for its repeated refrain “vanity (or “meaningless”) of vanities, all is vanity.” Our work, our possessions, our life stories – they all seem so impermanent and transient, so unappreciated, so out of our control. Even our pursuit of wisdom seems like a “chasing after wind.” And this is all true enough from the perspective “under the sun.” Let’s just be honest about it, Ecclesiastes writes.

Charles calls our attention to the recurring vocabulary of labor and work and of wisdom and goodness and brilliantly shows how the author sets up dialectical counter-perspective throughout the book. In this second perspective, “under the heavens,” God is at work, however mysteriously, granting significance to the times of our lives (to plant, to love, to gather, to break apart, etc.). We may not be able to see clearly the meaning of our work and our life events, and we may not be able to control them in any significant way. But the way is open to us all to find joy in our daily work, and in eating, drinking, and loving with our companions, living in the reverent fear of God. We can find joy in our work as a gift from God, somehow, providentially, a part of God’s enduring, good work. Work need no longer be about striving in our own strength.

Charles summarizes the many “rhetorical questions” raised by Ecclesiastes, the multiple descriptions of what constitutes “meaninglessness,” the multiple comments on “enjoyment” and true joy, a listing of how Ecclesiastes details out the “work of God,” and the way the book identifies what is “good.” He draws together the eight “enjoyment refrains” scattered through Ecclesiastes into a wonderful philosophy of work. Charles draws deeply and widely on the whole biblical canon as well as the great (as well as the not-so-great) commentators. His descriptions of Martin Luther’s approach to Ecclesiastes, work, and vocation are especially rich and insightful. Some books have maybe one valuable insight, others one good insight per chapter. Work and Wisdom is packed with one good insight in each paragraph, if not each sentence!

Work and Wisdom is highly recommended for pastors and biblical scholars – but just as enthusiastically for individual workplace disciples and study groups.

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