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“Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” Vanity of vanities, says the preacher, all is vanity.
Welcome to Ecclesiastes.
All is vapour. All is smoke. All is meaningless. All is hebel. This is the Hebrew word that is repeated 38 times in the book. Someone has compared it to a leitmotif in a musical piece. It’s like a droning bass note that plays throughout a song. We sang “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” earlier. I’m going to ask Adolfo to play it – listen for the hebel.
Someone has also said that if you were introducing someone to the Bible, you probably would not start with the book of Ecclesiastes. You’d probably start with one of the Gospels – John let’s say. You may then suggest reading some Psalms to learn about prayer and praise. One of the letters of Paul to learn about new life in Christ and what this life together looks like. If our church wanted to do a series on mission we might look at Acts. If we wanted to do a series on social justice we might look to the book of Isaiah or Amos.
What are we supposed to do with the book of Ecclesiastes?
Traditionally ascribed to Solomon, most Biblical scholars believe it was written sometime between the 5th and 3rd centuries BC. The Jewish community had been restored from exile by the Persians but were still a client state. This would continue through the ages of the Selucids, the Ptolemies, right up to the time of the Romans and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. It was “a time of cultural malaise that gripped much of the ancient world beginning with the Persian period. It was a time of turbulent socioeconomic change that prompted many to question the wisdom of the past…an age of melancholy and questioning, a culture of death and disillusionment.”
The view that Christians have held of this book have varied widely. One view goes like this – “The book thus shows the low-water mark of God-fearing Jews in pre-Christian times.” It acts simply as a foil to the Gospel and there is really very little for us to be gained from it. Another said “This book, which on many counts deserves to be in everyone’s hands and to be familiar to everyone… has until now been deprived of its reputation and dignity and lain in miserable neglect, so that today we have neither the use nor the benefit from it that we should.” That was Martin Luther actually.
I believe that this book is in the Bible for a reason and that in it God has something of great significance for us friends. It’s been described as the second most difficult book of the Bible (Job being first) but I say let’s embrace the difficulty together (it can’t be more difficult than Judges surely!). I believe that for the long time follower of Christ it might make a welcome change from the things that we tend to hear quite a lot of in church. I think for those outside of a relationship with Christ it might present a welcome window. One writer puts it like this – “For many modern agnostics this book is the last bridge to the Bible. Some Christians today find in Qoheleth a kind of back door – at once sinister and highly esteemed - through which their minds can admit those skeptical and melancholy sentiments that would be refused entry… [at other points].”
The thing is, this book is brutally honest about the human condition. I believe much of its attraction and worth is to be found in this honesty. Pop culture is often honest about the human condition. You may have heard me talk about “Is That All There Is?” before. Is that all there is to a fire, to a circus, to love? Then the only thing to do is keep dancing I suppose. I can’t get no satisfaction. Can’t you see I’m on a losing streak? Can’t you recognize this? This resonates with people. To a song called “Born To Die” – Keep making me laugh/Let’s go get high/The road is long we carry on/Try to have fun in the meantime/Choose your last words this is the last time/Cos you and I we were born to die.
Where do we find meaning in all of this?
The hebel note sounds right from the beginning. Generations come and go but the earth remains forever. The writer has not seen God in nature the same way the Psalmist does – “In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun” - just a meaningless circularity. The sun rises, the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south, and goes round to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full, to the place where streams flow, they continue to flow. Old man river, he just keeps rolling along. There’s almost a sense of the indifference of the world here. We may feel like a meaningless speck in a vast universe which just keeps going along, sometimes it feels in spite of our situation. We want to be recognized. We want our pain to be recognized. WH Auden puts it like this in “Funeral Blues” (which you’ve heard if you’ve ever watched “Four Weddings and a Funeral”) - The stars are not wanted now; put out every one, Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun, Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood; For nothing now can ever come to any good.
It’s not just nature either. All things are wearisome. What has been is what will be, and what had been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. Edna St. Vincent Malloy put it like this in a letter – “The problem is not one…thing after another, it’s the same… thing over and over.”
Let me seek out wisdom, said the Teacher. “I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.” (Don’t make that your school motto). Let me seek pleasure, said the teacher. “I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasures of kings and of the provinces; I got singers, both men and women, and delights of the flesh, and many concubines.” Let me seek work, said the teacher. “I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me – and how knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun.” What is the use of wisdom, pleasure or toil or going back to Jagger/Richards “And a man comes on the radio/He’s telling me more and more/About some useless information/Trying to fire up my imagination/And when I’m flying around the world (like a king?)/And I’m doing this and I’m trying to do that/And I’m trying to make some girl/Tells me baby better come back later next week/Can’t you see I’m on a losing streak?” and they want this to be recognized and the Teacher wants to be remembered, for there is no enduring remembrance of the wise or fools, seeing that in the days to come all will have been forgotten.
We want to be remembered.
We ask “What’s it all about?”
And the Teacher says “So I hated life…”
What are we to do with this?
There is a time for everything. We’ll look at this next week. A time to be plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted. A time to mourn, a time to dance. You know it. If there is a time for hebel, there is also a time for non-hebel. If there is a time for absurdity, there is a time for non-absurdity. Coming to the realization that all is a chasing after wind brings us to the realization that we need outside help. We need outside intervention. We’re beyond the point of looking for meaning within ourselves or being inspired by motivational Facebook posts or posters like this one.
Embracing the absurdity leaves us open to the possibility that we might need some help from somewhere outside ourselves. Reading “I hated my life” shouldn’t merely cause us to say “How terrible!” but it should remind us of someone who once said “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Jesus is not talking about founding a death cult and we’re not called to desire death. He’s talking about finding out the meaninglessness of constant striving for wisdom and pleasure and wealth and toil.
To be remembered in him. By him. “Remember me when you come in your kingdom,” was the prayer uttered beside Jesus on the cross. It’s the prayer Jesus answered. The Teacher cries out “There is no enduring remembrance of the wise or fools” and then Jesus strides onto the stage and says “Wait a minute.” He comes to remember us who have become dismembered. In the midst of a world which is at worst hostile and at best indifferent; in a world in which it might seem it’s the same thing over and over; Jesus comes to us and remembers us.
He calls us to his table. God’s gift calls us to his table. The Teacher recognizes this. The importance of acknowledging gifts, particularly when it comes to God. It’s terrible to give a gift and not have it acknowledged no? A thank you. A thank-you card maybe. To recognize that everything we have in life is a gift from God. As one writer puts it, to find glory in the ordinary. “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also I saw is from the hand of God: for apart from him who can eat and drink and have enjoyment.” To hate life doesn’t mean to hate the things in our lives – it means to come to a realization that to base your life on striving is absurdity – to recognize that we do not find fulfillment in constant striving after whatever it is we strive after but in receiving the gifts of God. It’s quite a joyful attitude really. Think about it. The banana I ate this morning was a gift from God. So was the coffee I drank. I love that!
Coming around the Lord’s Table is a constant reminder of this. One writer puts it like this – “For Qoheleth, those who continually strive for possessions bar the door…and thereby forsake the joy that is found within the most ordinary and natural of events in the daily rhythm of life…At the Lord’s Table, all self-striving is banished. Acknowledging the fellowship and unity of the body – the church – is paramount…The integrity of the Table rests in part on the quality of fellowship and hospitality…As the Eucharist is the supreme act of fellowship and joy in community, so ‘eating and drinking’ for Qoheleth is the communal embodiment of the joy that comes from the ‘hand of God’.”
Who has given us the gift of a Son. So may we eat and drink this day friends, finding the glory in the ordinary. May we find God’s glory – God’s love and grace and mercy in the ordinary – in cups of Welch’s and pieces of bread. The same way we saw God’s glory in some water - surely one of the most ordinary things around – here not too long ago. May we ever more come to know that apart from him there is only vapour. May these things be true for us all.