Whatever exists has already been named, and what man is has been known; no man can contend with one who is stronger than he. The more the words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone? Ecclesiastes 6:10, 11.
For years now that last sentence has haunted me. I’m a talker, as anyone who knows me locally can tell you, and the verbiage can run on and on. But as I was looking at various translations of this passage it started to look like Solomon made a statement more about naming things than just talking too much—though I’m sure this principle still holds even there.
The context suggests that increasing the names of whatever exists or who man is doesn’t mean anything; for it doesn’t change who we are. Today’s names mean less than nothing to us. We don’t name a child for heritage most of the time, nor do we give them names because they represent something about our lives or the future of our children. We give them exotic sounding names or good, solid traditional ones for the sound of it. The reasons hold no depth, no life, no identity, merely a nice way of getting someone’s attention.
Solomon is not only suggesting but emphatically proclaiming that the names humanity gives things matter very little because God has already identified them. In our modern societies (and this holds mostly for the western nations) we don’t give depth, history or identity to much of anything. In fact, in all our pursuit of self-actualization and –realization this is the one area we’ve abandoned. From my perch up on this soapbox I see Americans and Europeans alike obsessed with knowledge and information but rarely about the true meaning of individual identity. Oh, we’re lonelier and more isolated than ever, for sure, but the more “individual” we become, the less part of the tribe, family or nation we feel or behave. On the other hand, genealogy is very popular as way of connecting us to our past but deriving much in the way of meaning about lives today. Whereas in God’s view we are who we have become precisely because of where come from and from whom we are descended.
I’ve often passed by a stream or river and wondered how it got its name. I mean, living in Portland, Oregon, there are lots of those names running around too. Just thinking about the name “Portland” makes me stop to consider why it was named this. Was it just because someone liked the name? I mean Maine has a city named “Portland” too, which is much older than ours. Does that mean anything? Yes. Ports were places were goods were loaded and unloaded. “Port land” is a landing spot for goods and services on the Willamette river several miles up from the Columbia river. What started out as a docking place in a river or beach because a community of traders and whatnot, which turned into a village, then a town, then a city.
I find it strange, now that I know Scripture fairly well, how we lost this tradition of identity through one’s name. In Hebrew literature a name meant being known for oneself and finding a place within the community. In a lot of ways this sounds limiting because societies tend towards conformity to the point of pain if we don’t. Yet in a healthier sense it is about belonging to a family group, tribe and nation. John tells his readers in Revelation we will all be given new names that only God and we know. A name is our identity; the more we name things different out of new traditions or convenience, the more they lose their meaning for us as monuments to our past, which plays into our identity. David met up with a man named “Nabal” meaning “fool”. I’m sure it wasn’t his given name but one which his reputation warranted. In our era to call someone a fool is to imply they are stupid and can’t learn, in David’s era it pointed to a person’s lifestyle morally and ethically.
So the more names we give our memorial stones (a tradition Israel had of remembering important events by piling stones up) the less we remember the meaning. Part of this is due to the language changes over the centuries and especially in the twentieth century. Five hundred years ago the language adjusted every hundred or so years; today it does so every five to ten (the latter time might be off because the article I read about it is probably two years old). This means global communication affects how language is used. Technology changes how words and some names are applied now more than ever. For thousands of years the abacus was the most sophisticated common “computer” known to mankind; now it is a relic.
How does this affect our subject?
Simply this: when we change the use of a name or word we affect society’s reaction and understanding of it. The most we increase the names and rhetoric around a subject or person the less either of those mean to us. I believe the enemy of our souls knows this and is using an abundance of literature to cloud the person and name of Jesus. Those who refuse to believe His teachings or in Him as the Son of God will look for and find other explanations for the gospels and Jesus’ life. The more the words the less the meaning, which ends up not benefiting anyone. If we truly want to grasp Jesus as He and the disciples presented His message, we must go back to the original language intent on finding words in our own which will as accurately as we can convey His meaning.