Bible scholars are not sure who wrote Ecclesiastes. Possibly it was written by Solomon, one of his offspring who reigned later in Israel’s history, or a learned teacher in the Israelite assembly. Within Ecclesiastes, the writer refers to himself as Teacher. One proverb that the Teacher wrote was, “Like the crackling of thorns under the pot, so is the laughter of fools. This too is meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 7:6, NIV-SB, 2002).
In ancient Israel, cooking fires were located in outer courtyards or inside homes. The time of year influenced where the fire was located. In hot weather it could be found in the courtyard. While in cooler or cold weather, the fire was probably located inside the home to add warmth. Many poorer Israelites cooked over a simple hole in the ground (a fire pit) with rocks around it. Others had ovens, either inside the home or in the courtyard. When King Jehoiakim sat in his winter house with a fire burning in the firepot (Jeremiah 36:22), the firepot was probably a three-legged hearth of copper or bronze.
Wood was the primary fuel used for cooking in ancient Israel; however, in Ecclesiastes 7:6 thorns fueled the fire. Thorn bushes burn faster than dense wood. Many times when thorns were collected and burned, green branches were present at the base of the thorn plant even when the bush appeared dry. Burning green branches contributed to the crackling sound when thorns were burnt. Thorns as the fuel made the point of the Teacher’s proverb. The laughter of fools is like a short-lived fire fueled by thorns not wood. A fool’s laughter, although perhaps loud, does not last very long. It is valueless or meaningless.
The Thorny Burnet
The thorn plant of Ecclesiastes is the Sarcopoterium spinosum. Other names are the thorny burnet and prickly burnet. The thorny burnet’s origins are prehistoric, but it may be native to the Middle East. In present-day Israel, the plant is wide spread in Israel from Mount Hermon and Galilee in the north to the Negev hills and Eilat in the South including the Mediterranean coast. The thorn burnet is a dwarf, perennial shrub that resembles a ball or pillow. In the female flower, two or three ovaries are set in 4-5 joined sepals. The top of the corolla is covered by the tips of the sepals which make the female flower resemble a covered pot. These flower pots are numerous on stems. When the female flower is young, it is green, but turns reddish at maturity and rusty brown as it dries. In the heat of fire, the flower “pots” pop and produce a small explosive sound which sounds like crackling. The thorny burnet is used to make brooms, to stuff mattresses, and to form low-growing hedges.
In the Bible, thorny plants were often associated with desolation and ruin. In the Teacher’s parable in Ecclesiastes 7:6, the meaning was futility. Although a thorny burnet fire may snap, crackle and pop, and be pleasing to the ears, the sound adds nothing to the heat. Futility implies an action that has no use or purpose. Synonyms are ineffective, pointless, and vainness and the antonym is useful.
Malachi is one of the few, if only, prophet in the Old Testament who wrote about futility. He related a hypothetical conversation between God and men of Israel (Malachi 3:13-18). One group identified that it was futile to serve God and carry out his requirements. Arrogant, evildoers prospered. The redemption (Messiah) that good men looked for had not appeared even after many centuries. Another group of men feared and followed God. God wrote this group’s names in a scroll of remembrance, similar to a record of notable deeds kept by earthly kings (Esther 6:1-6; Isaiah 4:3). God promised that in the day he makes up his treasured possessions, the men’s names in the scroll would be spared. Malachi’s point is that fearing and serving God are not futile but have long-term rewards.
Paul identified several ways and situations where man’s thoughts were futile, e.g., useless and ineffective (Romans 1:18-23, 8:20; 1 Corinthians 3:20-21, 15:17; Ephesians 4:17). Two points seem particularly important today. First, God is revealed though his creation, yet unrighteous men neither glorify God nor give him thanks (Romans 1:18-23). Instead their thinking becomes futile and their foolish hearts are darkened. They exchanged worship of the immortal God for worship of man-made images, e.g., birds, animals and reptiles. Today, most men and women do not worship animals, but, sometimes, they let their admiration for another man or women approach worship of them. They hang onto the words of these men/women rather than focusing on God’s instruction for life. Reading commentaries of the Bible should never take the place of reading God’s word.
Writing to the Corinthian church, Paul stated that “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sin” (1 Corinthians 15:17, NIV-SB, 2002). Redemption of our bodies, eternal life in Christ, depends on a risen Christ. When I was in college, The Passover Plot (Schoenfield, 1995) was required reading for anyone trying to be intellectual. The book argued that Christ implemented an elaborate plan to have himself declared the Messiah. He never died on the cross but was hidden away by his closest associates. He appeared three days later to fulfill the Jew’s expectations for the Messiah.
The problem with The Passover Plot’s argument is the lived experiences of individuals who saw Christ’s death and his resurrected body. Evidence of Christ’s death comes from eye-witness accounts of non-believers as well as believers (Mark 15:39; Luke 23:46-49). In his resurrected body, Christ appeared at least 11 times to over 500 people. The phenomena of Christ’s death and resurrection may confound the wise; but do not make the phenomena any less real.
Reflection. The Lord knows that the thoughts of the (supposed) wise are futile (1 Corinthians 3:20). We cannot believe everything we read in books. Truth is not a prerequisite for publication.
Copyright: April, 14, 2015, Carolyn A. Roth