Written by Pastor Ed
Ecclesiastes: A Reality Check
February 8, 2015
Ecc. 1: 1-11
Ecc. 9: 1-12
Bob Dylan suggested that many of the answers to life’s profound questions were simply Blowin’in the Wind. The Rolling Stones lamented that they could get no satisfaction, no matter how hard they tried. Simon & Garfunkle spoke of the Sounds of Silence, and in another song lamented, “Ah, but it doesn’t matter anymore.” The Beatles sang about the Nowhere man, “sitting in his nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans for nobody.”
And that was all years ago when times were relatively good. Probably every generation could find songs, poetry and other art that spoke of the same feelings. All the way back to the 3rd century B.C. when Quohleth penned his famous words, “Vanity of vanity, all is vanity.” Or more literally, It’s all vapor, breathe that doesn’t matter and doesn’t last.
The book of Ecclesiastes might be labeled the Eeyore of the Bible. In some ways it reflects that bumper sticker that says, “Life is hard, and then we die!” Or as this quote says, “Life is hard. And then you die. Then they throw dirt in your face. Then the worms eat you. Be grateful it happens in that order. “
Yet for all that and its small size, there are certain passages from Ecclesiastes that have become part of common usage and that are often referred to. Along with Ecclesiastes 3: 108 which Pete Seeger and the The Byrds made popular, there are the verses about the value of a friend, often quoted at weddings
9 Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. 11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? 12 And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken. (4:9-12)
and the passage from chapter 12 often used at funerals
12 Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; 2 before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with[a] the rain; 3 in the day when the guards of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the women who grind cease working because they are few, and those who look through the windows see dimly; 4 when the doors on the street are shut, and the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low; 5 when one is afraid of heights, and terrors are in the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along[b] and desire fails; because all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets; 6 before the silver cord is snapped,[c] and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern, 7 and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath[d]returns to God who gave it.
And all this from a document that almost didn’t make it into the Old Testament, Hebrew, canon. While the opening lines would seem to refer to Solomon, and Ecclesiastes was often attributed to Solomon in his old age, there are many indications that this writing comes from a time much later than the time of Solomon. Not only that, but its outlook on life is almost diametrically opposed to much of the rest of the Old Testament. Yet it was accepted, and in fact in read in Jewish synagogues every year on the Feast of Tabernacles. And while it is generally ignored otherwise, except for those passages I mentioned, the fact that we do know some of those passages seems to imply that there is something in the book that strikes a cord with much of our own experience.
And well it should, because Qoheleth reflects on human experience by observing it. He doesn’t claim any kind of divine revelation. He doesn’t say, “This is how life should be.” He looks around and reflects, “I said to myself…” this is what life looks like from where I sit.
The common message of the day was that if you followed the commandments, were a good person, and worked hard, God would bless you and you would find fulfillment and joy in life. Doesn’t sound too fare from messages we hear today sometimes. But as the writer looked around, he saw something quite different. Some people who were very pious, lived right and worked hard ended up sick and penniless, while others who seemed to flaunt the law at all turns were living well. And in the end, everyone died anyway.
So what was the meaning of life, if there was to be meaning. Qoheleth explores all kinds of things that are supposedly what gives meaning to life. Evidently being a person of some means, he tries pleasure, but that soon turns meaningless. He seeks wisdom and throws himself into his work thinking that those will give meaning to life. And yet ,no matter what he tries, he always ends up with the same conclusion – it’s all futile.
Shakespeare knew Ecclesiastes well. After Macbeth has killed off his rivals and achieved all he thought he wanted, he looked around and came to the same conclusion as Qoheleth. As Shakespeare wrote,
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
And in all of this, God seemed to be far away and mostly unconcerned. A bit like the image of God as a great watchmaker who created the watch and wound it up (it’s an old image – you used to have to wind watches) and then left it to simply run as long as the spring holds out, and eventually wind down and stop.
It seemed to him that no matter how hard one tried, or what you did, no matter how lazy you were or whether you were good or not, everyone ends up the same. As we read from Chapter 9
11 Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all.
And who of us hasn’t felt that way at times? Or perhaps we’re not sure we can admit to feeling that way. The writer in the Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible notes, “All too often “religious” people tend to overlook the painful discrepancies between their faith and the facts of life.” IDB Supp. P250
One of the criticism I hear sometimes about Christians is the message people hear that if you only have enough faith, or pray hard enough, or are good enough, then things will work out well for you – a modern version of Job’s friends. And yet we all know that Christians die young, have financial and other difficulties, just like everyone else. Our pious language doesn’t always fit the reality we see around us.
Yet Ecclesiastes isn’t totally a book of despair. The writer does find that some things are better, or provide more meaning that others. While he may not have a philosophy of life, he does seem to have some philosophy of living. While life may not be much, or predictable, it is all we have, and so we might as well make good use of it. Seven times throughout the book he says in one way or another,
“There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink and find enjoyment in their toil.” (2:24) If this is the way life is, then you might as well enjoy it. However he also notes that even then moderation is the best policy.
16 Do not be too righteous, and do not act too wise; why should you destroy yourself? 17 Do not be too wicked, and do not be a fool; why should you die before your time? (7:16-17)
In other words, if you try to be perfect, you are bound to fail, in fact he notes that no one is so righteous that they don’t sin. On the other hand, to simply live it up and not pay any attention is to head for an early grave.
Moreover, he notes the value of friendship and community. Going it alone in life is hard and if you put others down in your attempt to get ahead in life, you’ll only end up more alone. How much better to live in community, to help each other through life and look out for each other.
But is that all we can take away from This Teacher or Preacher, as Qoheleth is often translated? Is that the world view we are left with, or should we just ignore Ecclesiastes, as we tend to do? Or does the writer of Ecclesiastes provide us with a reality check, as I suggest? Certainly for us Christians who live on the other side of the incarnation, the world view of Ecclesiastes in incomplete.
For us God is not some distance watchmaker who sits back and waits for the watch to run down. God has come near to us in Jesus and is interested in this world and all of God’s creation. God so loved the world has become real for us and that provides meaning not only for the life to come but for this life as well. As children of God we are called co-heirs of the kingdom, a royal priesthood and holy nation. There is value to life simply because God loves us.
But Ecclesiastes should remind us that life here is indeed fleeting and perhaps we shouldn’t always take it as seriously as we sometimes do. As the writer states, “time and chance happen to us all.” or as my daughter –in-law put it, “Hey, nothing this side of heaven matters; it all wastes away. The only lasting and important thing is God and His Kingdom.” And if we base our worth on everything working out great, or build our lives on seeking after pleasure or even great knowledge, we may well end up disappointed at what that gets us.
How many people have you known whose identity and worth was wrapped up in their work, or their family, or their position and then when they retired, or no longer held that position, or the family was gone, suddenly had no more purpose in life and felt lost and ready to say with Qoheleth, “It was all vanity and a chasing after wind.”
It was the Greek philosopher Socrates, whom the writer of Ecclesiastes may have been familiar with, who said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Ecclesiastes challenges us to examine ourselves and see what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. Every life is valuable because we are made in God’s image and are called to be children of God. When we can embrace that as the foundation of our lives, then we can also be free to enjoy life and community to its fullest.