Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Ecclesiastes

We have already noted that the three main OT books of ‘Wisdom Literature’ might be compared to the building of a house. Proverbs tells us how to build well, and Job explores how we react when that house is suddenly struck by lightning. As we come to our third book today we have a very different scenario: our house is old, decrepit and falling to bits. How do we cope with that?

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As with David and the Psalms Solomon is clearly the ‘patron saint’ of wisdom, although in what sense he was the ‘author’ of this book is much debated. We seem to have a narrator or editor, probably a fan or disciple of Solomon, who writes up his story and his musings in the third person in the name of ‘Qoheleth’. The Hebrew word means something like ‘one who gathers an assembly in order to address it’, and so is usually translated ‘the Teacher’ or ‘the Preacher’ in English Bibles. The story of Qoheleth is difficult not to identify with that of Solomon, but he is never named as such. It is virtually impossible to date the book, but it must be later than the time of Solomon.


It has been said that these words are those of a cynic. He has tried all that life has to offer, all its pleasures, excesses and delights, but found at the end of the day that they just do not satisfy. So the lasting message is that in returning to his childlike faith he finds wisdom, the best way to live. The book oscillates between misery and joy: having found pleasure and work useless, his advice is simply to enjoy food and work, which are a gift from God (1:24). This refrain recurs: in 5:18, having found wealth to be meaningless, we should simply enjoy food and get on with our work. Even wisdom itself comes under scrutiny, and in chapter 2 is declared a waste of time too, as both wise and foolish people come to the same end eventually. But wisdom is, we’re relieved to hear, all in all better than folly, even if only just.


The final verdict, and the great purple passage of the book, comes in chapter 12, where we are counselled to ‘remember our Creator’ while we can still enjoy life and have the faculties to do so. The symbolic description of the decrepitude of old age in 12:2-7 is devastatingly accurate. The bottom line, according to 12:13, is to fear God and keep his commandments, an instruction which reinforces the motto of all biblical wisdom literature, that ‘the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord’.


What does the book do for us today? It reminds us, first of all, that wisdom is not necessarily ‘nice’. It is not afraid to look at the realities of life head on, and to acknowledge that for much of the time it does all seem pointless. It never pretends that with God everything will be lovely, and it clearly comes out of a rich life experience which, although having left Qoheleth wiser, has also left him much sadder. Yet it is fundamentally a book of apologetics: it shows us life without God as fundamentally meaningless, and offers us an alternative which at least makes some sense, as it puts us in touch with a God who is repeatedly said to be generous. Qoheleth, during his lifetime, has tried pretty much everything, but returns to a relationship with God as the only thing which makes any real sense. This book, therefore preaches a significant message to our consumerist, cynical, experience-driven culture. God is the only one who can make any sense of all this, and who can make life in any way worth living.



What’s Church For? Church as ‘Retirement Home’

When is the time to retire?

Here I am still ranting on about the elderly nature of my bit of God’s church. Last week I made a plea for the active recruitment of younger clergy: this week I want to talk about the other end: retirement. My thesis is simple: we don’t have a culture of retirement in the church, and this is profoundly unhealthy.

In a recent visit to the Church Times jobs website there were 49 British parish posts on offer, of which 11, over a fifth, were on a House for Duty basis. (In other words, for non-Anglicans, they were expecting mostly retired clergy to work for nothing but get free housing.) I don’t know what proportion of Anglican parishes are currently being run by ‘retired’ clergy, but I know that we’d collapse overnight if they were all suddenly raptured.

Of course for many retiring clergy the offer of a free house is a life-saver. If you’ve lived in tied accommodation all your life and haven’t somehow managed to get on the property ladder it can be a very difficult thing suddenly to acquire a retirement home. But I’m more concerned about what our increasing reliance on elderly people is doing to the church, particularly when coupled with our relative failure to recruit younger ordinands. I’m also concerned about what it is doing to them.

‘Ah, but …’ I hear you say. Surely there is no place in God’s church for retirement. Nowhere are we told that St Paul stopped gadding about and settled down to grow vegetable marrows. Good old Moses was still at it on his 120th birthday. I’ve heard all sorts of sermons on this very theme. But I think there is another side to this. For a start you can’t simply read a 21st century retirement lifestyle, complete with state pension, B&Q Diamond card and bus pass, back into biblical times. With a low life expectancy most people simply did not have much of a chance to grow old gracefully. And what about the claims of St Paul (or whoever wrote the Pastorals) in 2 Tim 4 that he had fought the good fight, finished the race, kept the faith, and was now awaiting the crown of righteousness in store for him? What about Jesus throughout Hebrews having finished his earthly work and sitting down? We’re not good at finishing things. We prefer facing a task unfinished.

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I once heard that in the USA 80% of those who resign from Christian ministry enter the construction trade. It was suggested that this is because at the end of a project you have something concrete (literally!) to show for it. But the work of Christian ministry rarely has these built-in end points. There is always more to do, and we are socialised into feeling guilty if we’re not busy doing it. Many of us have been so busy, and so bad at work-life balance, that once we retire we fear we’ll have nothing at all to live for. I once worked with a guy who had given his life on the mission-field in Asia. He was unmarried, had no close family, and in fact had no life at all outside his voluntary work for his parish church. Well into his 80s he was still going, although to be honest not particularly strong. Another parish I knew had a priest who had been there since before some watershed date and so did not have to retire ever. He was well into his 90s, and people were simply waiting for him to pop his clogs so that the church could move on.

So what should we do? I believe we should be helping Christian disciples to believe that retirement is an honourable estate, and preparing them more thoroughly to enter it healthily. We should mark it with a significant rite of passage after which life does not simply go on as before. We should make space for the considerable gifts which older people have to contribute to the life of a church, but without expecting them to run it themselves. We should find a way of ending our dependence on retired clergy to keep the C of E show on the road, and if that means some churches have to die, so be it.

Let me say again that chronological age is not to be equated exactly with youthfulness or otherwise. But I leave you with a question, one which I often ponder myself: when I do eventually get past my sell-by date, and am doing the church no favours by continuing, how will I know?