For those who want a change from the Gospel
Trinity 7 – Ecclesiastes 1:1 – 2:23 (Related)
‘There is nothing new under the sun’ the Teacher, called Qoheleth in the Hebrew, tells us in 1:9. As we encounter these ancient words of an Israelite philosopher from maybe 2300 years ago, we may be struck by the similarity of mood between his world and ours. There are two points in particular which may speak to us from this selection of verses (the Lectionary as usual fillets out much material which I have put back in for the purposes of this blog). In summary, Qoheleth proclaims everything meaningless (‘vanity of vanities’, 1:2 as it is most often remembered). Nothing new ever happens. He has tried wisdom, fun, building projects, sex, hard work, and found them all to be meaningless. So what is he to make of this world? There is a minor conclusion in v.24, but we have to wait until the end of the book to find out how we cope in a meaningless world (11:7 – 12:14).
It is worth asking, first of all, just what the terms ‘vanity’ and ‘meaninglessness’ mean. We tend to think of the words as totally negative, but the Hebrew hebel actually means ‘vapour’ or ‘breath’. The point isn’t that breathing is evil or pointless, but that it is ephemeral, and needs to be done again and again. To try to catch our breath, or to hold onto it, is a waste of time, literally like trying to catch the wind in our hands (1:14).
Our lectionary skips over many of these ephemeral activities, but concentrates in 2:17-23 on the world of work. How topical is that! As a result of the Covid pandemic and several lockdowns, many people have re-evaluated their working lives. A good friend is currently looking around for a new job because he simply can’t buy in to the American work-ethic of the company he works for, where in return for reasonable but not excessive pay they think they own every hour of his life. His church Men’s Group recently had a discussion about the insidious nature of the term ‘work-life balance’ which has insinuated itself into our vocabulary. It suggests that work and life are two different things which somehow have to be held in balance against one another, as though work wasn’t a part of life. Many many people have been offered by the pandemic a chance to re-examine their working lives and their value, and as a result have left jobs for a more healthy lifestyle. Qoheleth would approve! As a recent retiree, I can’t help but look back over my years of work and ask myself what it has all been about. 1:3-11 remind us that nothing we do will last (I would exclude evangelism from this) and that future generations will have to do it all over again. Rather than being the cynical and godless piece of philosophy which Ecclesiastes appears at a casual glance to be, it is actually profoundly up-to-date, and invites us to gain perspective, we might say ‘wisdom’, about all that we spend time and effort on.
The other point this passage makes for us is more of a negative one. It seems to pay little regard to the generations who will follow us, suggesting that they will just get on with life and make all the same mistakes we have made. Yet another agenda, bang up-to-date, challenges this. 1:7 tells us that the sea is never full, yet we know that it is getting much fuller, and one of the main concerns of our day is that we need to protect our planet not for ourselves, but for our grandchildren. The kind of me and now-centred thinking which Qoheleth suggests, is exactly that which, in the eyes of the environmentalists, is behind the apathy and the reluctance to make changes and sacrifices for the sake of generations to come.
So how then do we live in a world like this? In the end, Qoheleth is going to tell us to put God at the centre, which is great news, but in 2:24, just after our lectionary selection stops, he comes up with a temporary solution to help us cope with the meaninglessness of life. It’s a surprising one, and again curiously postmodern: eat, drink and be merry. Find pleasure where you can, for this too ‘is from the hand of God’. Stop looking like you’re sucking lemons, stop fighting the system, stop trying to save the universe singlehandedly, and gain satisfaction from the little moments of joy. This afternoon we’re off to our daughter’s (delayed) graduation a year after her qualification as a doctor. She’s not going to cure all the world of its ills, but we’re so proud of her doing what she can, and finding among the coaldust some beautiful diamonds here and there.