Tag Archives: Joy

Ecclesiastes 11- Proverbs for Life in an Uncertain World

Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750) Vanitas

Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750) Vanitas

Ecclesiastes 11

1 Send out your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will get it back.
2 Divide your means seven ways, or even eight, for you do not know what disaster may happen on earth.
3 When clouds are full, they empty rain on the earth; whether a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie.
4 Whoever observes the wind will not sow; and whoever regards the clouds will not reap.
5 Just as you do not know how the breath comes to the bones in the mother’s womb, so you do not know the work of God, who makes everything.
6 In the morning sow your seed, and at evening do not let your hands be idle; for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.
7 Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun.
8 Even those who live many years should rejoice in them all; yet let them remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity.
9 Rejoice, young man, while you are young, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Follow the inclination of your heart and the desire of your eyes, but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.
10 Banish anxiety from your mind, and put away pain from your body; for youth and the dawn of life are vanity.

As we approach the end of the reflections that make up Ecclesiastes there is a sense of peace as the mundane moments of day to day life are lifted up against the vanity and uncertainty of the future. In the much more secular age that we live within perhaps Ecclesiastes is one of the voices of the canon that rings truest to our experience. While there is much in the New Testament, and some in the Hebrew Scriptures as well that deals with the transcendent the wisdom of the author of Ecclesiastes is in the discovery (or rediscovery) of the pleasure of the present. As Charles Taylor can describe our time as one where, “many people are happy living for goals which are purely immanent; they live in a way that takes no account of the transcendent.” (Taylor, 2007, p. 143) These proverbs for life in an uncertain world lift up joy and generosity in the face of foolishness and vanity.

Over 105 years ago the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegard stated:

Philosophy is quite right in saying that life must be understood backward. But then one forgets the other clause—that life must be lived forward. The more one thinks through this clause, the more concludes that life in temporality never becomes properly understandable, simply because never at any time does one get perfect repose to take a stance—backward. (Pauw, 2015, p. 200)

Or put more simply, ‘hindsight may be 20:20 but we don’t walk through life backwards.’ We may understand much of our life much better with the hindsight of experience and the separation of time but we don’t have that option. Life is lived forward and so within the unknowable future and in the immanent present one chooses how one will approach it. The approach to life in these initial verses of chapter eleven is one of generosity, of spreading rather than hoarding. Of letting one’s bread float out upon the waters and dividing one’s wealth numerous ways. There are no guarantees but generosity and trust seems to be the way lifted up here by the Teacher. If we wait for the rains to come down from the heavens or trees to fall or until we understand all the secrets of life we will not act and we will miss life. Going out to work and planting without a guarantee of harvest is a part of the risk of life. Sometimes our work will come to nothing, sometimes the things we nurture and care for will fail. Here there is the ability to enjoy the light when it comes in all its sweetness while rejoicing even in the dark days. Ecclesiastes is not a moralistic crusader trying to put off passion, he encourages those who are young to follow the inclination of their heart even while knowing that their lives ultimately rest in God’s hands. We do not always see or understand the interaction between the work of our hands and the gifts of God’s work for our sake, yet we can move ahead without knowing the “blueprint for God’s work.” (Pauw, 2015, p. 201)

Finally, the chapter closes with a note on anxiety which has several echoes in the New Testament, probably the most famous being in Matthew 6:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? (Matthew 6:25)

Many of the things that cause anxiety are indeed hevel (vanity). This is not to belittle those who suffer from anxiety but Ecclesiastes’ focus is on the present. Often anxiety or worry may come from an unknown future and the desire to secure that future and that is in Ecclesiastes’ view hevel. Youth and the dawn of life may be vanity but they can also be joyful. Often joy is stolen by trying to hoard one’s gifts to ensure an uncertain future but we are reminded to enjoy the immanent present. To enjoy the sweet times of light even though days of darkness may be many. To go out and sow without guarantees and to follow the inclination of your heart before it is too late. Carpe diem, to seize the day not because one is fatalistic about the future but instead because they have not invested securing the future as an ultimate concern.

Ecclesiastes 9 Staring into the Abyss and Finding Peace

La Porte dr l'Enfer a ete dressee dans les jardins du musee Rodin (The Thinker at the Gates of the Inferno and the Museum in Rodin)

La Porte dr l’Enfer a ete dressee dans les jardins du musee Rodin (The Thinker at the Gates of the Inferno and the Museum in Rodin)

Ecclesiastes 9

1 All this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God; whether it is love or hate one does not know. Everything that confronts them 2 is vanity, since the same fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to those who sacrifice and those who do not sacrifice. As are the good, so are the sinners; those who swear are like those who shun an oath. 3 This is an evil in all that happens under the sun, that the same fate comes to everyone. Moreover, the hearts of all are full of evil; madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. 4 But whoever is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. 5 The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no more reward, and even the memory of them is lost. 6 Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished; never again will they have any share in all that happens under the sun.
 7 Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. 8 Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. 9 Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.
 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. 12 For no one can anticipate the time of disaster. Like fish taken in a cruel net, and like birds caught in a snare, so mortals are snared at a time of calamity, when it suddenly falls upon them.
 13 I have also seen this example of wisdom under the sun, and it seemed great to me. 14 There was a little city with few people in it. A great king came against it and besieged it, building great siegeworks against it. 15 Now there was found in it a poor wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city. Yet no one remembered that poor man. 16 So I said, “Wisdom is better than might; yet the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are not heeded.”
 17 The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouting of a ruler among fools.
 18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one bungler destroys much good.

There are those both inside and outside the Christian community who see faith as a house of cards that if one thing is removed then the whole house crumbles. I see this from many of my friends who are agnostic or atheist who read the bible in a way that is as fundamentalist as the most fundamentalist Christian in order to discredit it and I see it in people who I are so afraid of the modern world challenging their faith that they are fearful of science or culture. Often the latter never move beyond trying to defend the timeline of creation in Genesis 1 (and may miss even the beauty of the way that passage poetically talks about the creation) and the former would never realize that within the scriptures there is one who asks their questions and takes them deeper. Ecclesiastes takes us to the edge of the abyss of meaninglessness, willing to rest his observations in the experience of the vanity of the present moment and his own experience. Ecclesiastes, knowing that in this present life being wise, righteous, faithful, religious or good do not guarantee one a blessed life nor does being foolish, wicked, unfaithful, irreligious or evil do not guarantee that one will be cursed, is willing wonder are the righteous loved or hated by God. There is no way to ensure one’s security in this life or beyond this life in Ecclesiastes view. Ecclesiastes stands at the edge of the abyss, where death is the only certainty and finds peace. It may take us a little longer standing in this place before we can find peace, but it can be found. It is a wisdom that may take us a bit of a journey to get to because it undercuts many of the narratives we are used to living with, but once we do we can find joy even in the midst of the often inscrutable nature of God or the perversity of life.

One of the narratives that Ecclesiastes undercuts is an orientation towards the future that is unable to see the gifts of the present. In its most extreme form it is a focus on the afterlife, awaiting joy in heaven, at the expense of enjoying the gifts of this day. Sometimes the apostle Paul is used to support this argument when he says to the Corinthians, discussing the resurrection, that, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15: 19) yet Paul would learn to “be content with whatever I have.” (see Philippians 4: 11). While there has been a predominance in much Christian preaching on heaven (and also hell) over the generations much of the Bible is concerned with how to enjoy the present life. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing from his cell in Tegel Prison, wrote:

I believe we are so to love God in our life and in the good things God gives us and to lay hold of such trust in God that, when the time comes and is here—but truly only then!—we also go to God with love, trust, and joy. But—to say it clearly—that a person in the arms of his wife should long for the hereafter is, to put it mildly, tasteless and in any case is not God’s will. One should find and love God in what God directly gives us; if it pleases God to allow us to enjoy an overwhelming earthly happiness, then one shouldn’t be more pious than God than God and allow this happiness to be gnawed away through arrogant thoughts and challenges and wild religious fantasy that is never satisfied with what God gives. (Bonhoeffer, 2010, p. 228)

Wisdom is not deferring life until the next life or living with a contempt for the world. Wisdom that is really willing to come to the edge of the abyss and ask difficult questions of one’s experience if it isn’t going to fall into cynicism one will learn to embrace the good in the present in the midst of its impermanence.

A second narrative that Ecclesiastes refuses to let stand is the myth of living for one’s legacy. If one’s legacy is as transient as one’s life then a focus on one’s curricula vitae to the exclusion of one’s life with a partner one loves the enjoyment of food and drink and labor is truly vanity. There is no enjoyment of life and accomplishment beyond the boundary of death. The memory of the person we are and the life we lived is rarely preserved beyond a couple generations and even the wise among us are forgotten.

Another narrative that is potent in the American context is the narrative of security. Security may be the great American idol and we invest a lot of our resources into attempting to guarantee ourselves against financial, medical, or any other disaster. Yet, even with our security complex we often suffer from foreboding joy, a sense that even in moments of joy we are unwilling to trust them because they may be temporary. Yet, Ecclesiastes is willing to be honest about the elements of our lives that we cannot control and that when disaster strikes it pulls us out of what we know like fish in a net or a bird in a snare. Worrying about the possibility of disaster doesn’t prepare us for disaster but it can steal the joy out of the moments of joy in our life that we are gifted to enjoy.

Ecclesiastes keeps circling back to the gift of enjoyment of the things that are a part of our life now. Eating and drinking, dressing in festive garments (as white garments were in an ancient culture where people rarely washed their clothes and water was a precious resource), enjoying one’s relationships and enjoying one’s labor. They are not permanent, you cannot guarantee them, and yet they are precious and enjoying them is a gift from God. Better to be the dog, a scavenger and a dishonorable animal in Jewish thought, who is alive than the proud lion who is dead. Whatever one’s lot the best one can do is to find enjoyment in it. One can worry that life is not fair or that it is too short or one can embrace what one has. One may be a king or a poor but wise person whose wisdom is not heard and yet be quickly forgotten in the turning of the seasons.

Yet, even wisdom is often overcome by shouting and foolishness. It seems that perhaps the life of wisdom is at least partially tragic. The story told in verse eleven of the poor man who delivered (or as C.L Seow translates it might have delivered had anyone listened to the poor man whose wisdom was despised) (Pauw, 2015, p. 196)but is quickly forgotten seems to lead to the final brief proverbs about the struggle for wisdom in Ecclesiastes and our own time. People may overlook wisdom for the shouting of the ruler among fools or in favor of the weapons of war and one bungling individual can undo much of the wisdom of generations. Wisdom may continually struggle and often be overcome in the public arena by the louder or more powerful voice but ultimately the wise and the foolish voices are all forgotten by a new generation and their legacies forgotten. Yet, the wise person can learn to enjoy the gifts and the impact they can make in their brief span of life.

 

Life May Be Good…

Dosso and Battista Dossi, Democrito (1540)

Dosso and Battista Dossi, Democrito (1540)

Life may not be fair but it can still be good
Taking the moment to savor food and drink
The embrace of a friend or the lover’s kiss
To enjoy the quest for knowledge and wisdom
Or to delight in the produce of one’s hands

Life may not be fair but it can still be good
When one doesn’t obsess about one getting more
And another getting less than their works deserve
When one doesn’t let fame or prosperity define
The enjoyment of the day or the measure of life

Life may not be fair but it can still be good
When one accepts the gifts one has with gratitude
And celebrates the relationships one has in life
Remaining thankful for all that the seasons bring
For life can be good even when it isn’t fair

This is the poem inspired by the day 8 prompt of intro to poetry (pleasure) using anaphora (repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of a verse). This was also inspired by book of Ecclesiastes which I’ve been working my way through over the last several weeks

 Ecclesiastes 6: The Illusiveness of Joy

Detail from L'Avaro by Antonio Piccinni (1878)

Detail from L’Avaro by Antonio Piccinni (1878)

Ecclesiastes 6

1 There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy upon humankind: 2 those to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that they lack nothing of all that they desire, yet God does not enable them to enjoy these things, but a stranger enjoys them. This is vanity; it is a grievous ill. 3 A man may beget a hundred children, and live many years; but however many are the days of his years, if he does not enjoy life’s good things, or has no burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. 4 For it comes into vanity and goes into darkness, and in darkness its name is covered; 5 moreover it has not seen the sun or known anything; yet it finds rest rather than he. 6 Even though he should live a thousand years twice over, yet enjoy no good– do not all go to one place?

 7 All human toil is for the mouth, yet the appetite is not satisfied. 8 For what advantage have the wise over fools? And what do the poor have who know how to conduct themselves before the living? 9 Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of desire; this also is vanity and a chasing after wind.

 10 Whatever has come to be has already been named, and it is known what human beings are, and that they are not able to dispute with those who are stronger. 11 The more words, the more vanity, so how is one the better? 12 For who knows what is good for mortals while they live the few days of their vain life, which they pass like a shadow? For who can tell them what will be after them under the sun?

Ecclesiastes can acknowledge that joy and the enjoyment of one’s toil, food, drink, prosperity and success are all gifts from God but then wonder about the lack of joy among those who have so much and perhaps the illusiveness of the Teacher’s own joy. To use Amy Plantiga Pauw’s clever phrase the unhappy person is described as a “biblical patriarch on steroids” (Pauw, 2015, p. 173) who has possessions, honor, wealth, an abundance of children and a life over twice as long as Methuselah (who lives 969 years according to Genesis 5:27). None of these things can exhaust the insatiability of the human appetite which continually needs to be fed and yet never seems to be satisfied. This insatiability is a great evil that weighs upon humankind and perhaps leads to perception of scarcity where one is continually competing with others for the perceived limited resources of land, possessions, time, family, honor and wealth. Without the gift of God to be able to enter the space of gratitude the insatiability and drive for acquisition continues to leave the person who applies their wisdom to gaining these things unsatisfied.

This illusiveness of joy which the author is describing is an affliction of both Ecclesiastes’ time and ours. Too often happiness is both marketed and believed to be the product of acquisition and the only cure for the insatiability is the continued consumption of things that at best satisfy us momentarily. This escalating quest in our time and the continued presentation before our eyes of the things we don’t have but we should want has led our society to be the most depressed, medicated, addicted and overweight in history. There is something missing that we keep trying to find, something wrong that we continue to try to cure, some empty place we continue to try to fill. We search for something new, something novel but even the new things are imitations or improvements of things that came before. There is nothing new under the sun that can satisfy. The vanity and chasing after wind that go with searching for this illusive joy may indeed be a part of the human condition, what is missing is the grace of gratitude. As mentioned before this gratitude and joy is a gift of God that allows one to enjoy the gifts one has, to be satisfied in the moment, to embrace the seasons of life as they come and go.

The place of humanity is not to dispute with the one who is stronger (NRSV here in verse 10 takes the singular one who is stronger, which probably refers to God, and makes it a plural). The original temptation in the narrative of Genesis is to attempt to be like God. Yet, just as Job is challenged with his own inability to stand before the immenseness of God’s power and work (Job 40-42) humanity as a whole is not in the place to wrestle with the Creator’s plans or limits. We know the experience that comes in the span of our own days and the wisdom we can acquire within them. We cannot control what the future will hold after our days or what our legacy will be, those things rest in the hands of the Creator and those who come after us. Our days can be gift or curse or perhaps both at once. Perhaps if we cannot embrace the joy of the moments and gifts that we have then we would be better off to never have been born. Yet, I’m not willing to fully give in to the pessimism of this turning point of Ecclesiastes, I still believe in the gift that the author found in the toil and relationships, in the eating and drinking, in the accepting of one’s place within the seasons. At the place where he turned away from the insatiable appetite for acquisition and rested in the moments of joy that were a gift of grace.

Ecclesiastes 5-The Gift of Mortality Before God and in the World

Samuel Cursing Saul by Hans Holbein the Younger (1530)

Samuel Cursing Saul by Hans Holbein the Younger (1530)

 Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 Silence Not Sacrifice

1 Guard your steps when you go to the house of God; to draw near to listen is better than the sacrifice offered by fools; for they do not know how to keep from doing evil. 2 Never be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few.

 3 For dreams come with many cares, and a fool’s voice with many words.

 4 When you make a vow to God, do not delay fulfilling it; for he has no pleasure in fools. Fulfill what you vow. 5 It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not fulfill it. 6 Do not let your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake; why should God be angry at your words, and destroy the work of your hands?

 7 With many dreams come vanities and a multitude of words; but fear God.

Perhaps it is my skeptical nature but I’ve always been wary of those who knew too clearly what God wanted from them and others. I think that sometimes the quest for certainty fills that uneasy quiet space of waiting for God to speak. In our own time there has become more common for people to claim they are spiritual but not religious, where that organized religion for various reasons may not speak to them. There are times where Christianity has tried to model itself after the ancient mystery religions where you did certain acts to try to appease a god or goddess to act on your behalf, but the LORD the God of Israel’s ways are not our ways. As Amy Plantiga Pauw can say memorably, “God does not exist to satisfy human aims and desires. God is not a mascot for our favorite causes.” (Pauw, 2015, p. 166) There are many times when people have used their religious piety as a way of bringing glory to themselves or securing their own sense of place within the chosen people. Qohelet encourages us to enter into that space of silence and waiting to draw near and listen to God.

It is possible that the narrative of 1 Samuel 15, where King Saul uses sacrifice as a way to cover up his disobedience to God’s command in the defeat of the Amalekites, informs this portion of Ecclesiastes. Saul is commanded to utterly destroy the people and the animals but when the battle is won in addition to sparing King Agag’s life the people also spared the best of the sheep, cattle, and other valuables. Capturing the spoils of war was a normal practice but here the Amalekites are dedicated as herem where they are consigned to destruction. (For much more about the understanding of war, herem, as well as an ethical reflection on how to address texts like 1 Samuel 15 see my post on Deuteronomy 20). When the next day King Saul is confronted by Samuel he claims that these best animals are to be a sacrifice to God. Samuel informs King Saul that he has earned the LORD’s disfavor and states:

“Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obedience to the voice of the LORD? Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is no less a sin than divination, and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you from being king.” 1 Samuel 15: 22f

Guarding one’s actions before God also involves the words that we say and the promises that we make. The misuse of the name of God was a serious offense for the people of Israel, enough so that it became enshrined within the ten commandments. When speaking about vows in verse four, Ecclesiastes begins with a direct parallel of Deuteronomy 23: 21. Making promises before God is a serious measure, in discussing Deuteronomy 23 I mentioned Jephthah’s rash oath and since I have just been discussing King Saul there is his rash oath in 1 Samuel 14: 24 which puts his son Jonathan’s life in danger. Ellen Davis shares, “To vow something before the priest (NRSV: “messenger”) that one has not considered carefully or, even worse, has no intention of fulfilling is to mock God” (Davis, 2000, p. 165)

Ecclesiastes has been pondering the place of humanity with its mortality within the seemingly timeless nature of creation and the eternity of God. Humanity, with all its limits, is placed in the position of listening to the wisdom of the eternal one. Ecclesiastes has striven to pay attention in the present moment to the gifts that God provides. It may be a paradox but a part of wisdom is learning to be patient with the finite gift of time. Making space and silence to be in that place where our words and wisdom fade before the words and wisdom of God.

Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel, can take the words of Ecclesiastes a step further. Ecclesiastes stated it is better to not vow than vow and not fulfill it but Jesus says not to swear an oath at all. For Jesus all words were to be faithful to what is said, whether they are under oath or not, and as in Ecclesiastes our power to fulfill these vows is often limited by the reality that one ‘cannot make one hair on one’s head white or black.’ (Matthew 5: 33-37)

Ecclesiastes 5: 8-20

 8 If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and right, do not be amazed at the matter; for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them. 9 But all things considered, this is an advantage for a land: a king for a plowed field.

 10 The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This also is vanity.

 11 When goods increase, those who eat them increase; and what gain has their owner but to see them with his eyes?

 12 Sweet is the sleep of laborers, whether they eat little or much; but the surfeit of the rich will not let them sleep.

 13 There is a grievous ill that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owners to their hurt,14 and those riches were lost in a bad venture; though they are parents of children, they have nothing in their hands. 15 As they came from their mother’s womb, so they shall go again, naked as they came; they shall take nothing for their toil, which they may carry away with their hands. 16 This also is a grievous ill: just as they came, so shall they go; and what gain do they have from toiling for the wind? 17 Besides, all their days they eat in darkness, in much vexation and sickness and resentment.

 18 This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot. 19 Likewise all to whom God gives wealth and possessions and whom he enables to enjoy them, and to accept their lot and find enjoyment in their toil– this is the gift of God. 20 For they will scarcely brood over the days of their lives, because God keeps them occupied with the joy of their hearts.

 

Gratitude and joy are the gifts from God in Ecclesiastes, not wealth or wisdom (even though it is better than foolishness). Our desire for wealth, power, possessions, land, position, and numerous other things we think will make us happy is insatiable. When riches and status become the central quest in life they leave the seeker unsatisfied. Governments may be corrupt, the system may be unfair, riches may be lost suddenly and all may be vanity yet joy can be found.

Ecclesiastes can recognize the problems and corruption that are a part of government and bureaucracy and still believe they ultimately benefit the land and the people. The oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and right are real, and a person may not be in a position to change these things. Yet, the author is no revolutionary. Even with all of the government of his time’s flaws he still sees the king (and by extension the rest of the government) put in place to serve the land and the farmer. The people placed in positions of authority may be motivated by a quest for greed or power, yet in the balance there is justice in the midst of the injustice, protection of justice and right in the midst of the injustice and ultimately even a bad government is in service of its people. Ecclesiastes is wisdom literature, not prophetic literature, so do not be surprised that it is invested in the maintaining of the way things are. Yet, there is wisdom in learning the balance of where one can invest in change and where one learns to live in an imperfect system.

Wisdom that is applied to the increasing of goods or the increasing of position and power is never satisfied. The human appetite for acquisition is insatiable. Riches can be hoarded and lost and never enjoyed. The future is never guaranteed, permanent security is never guaranteed, one’s position in society is never guaranteed. If one lives one’s life only for the future never enjoying the food and drink that one has, never giving thanks for the banquets one can be a part of or host, then one lives impoverished. If one spends one’s nights continually plagued by insecurity over one’s possessions or plotting how to increase one’s wealth or stature, one lives an impoverished life. If one never is given the gift of enjoying their labor and their time of leisure, one lives an impoverished life. The paradox of Ecclesiastes wisdom is that it is by embracing one’s limits-one’s mortality, one’s possessions, one’s position, and one’s companions that one is able to be thankful. Gratitude and joy is a gift of God in the midst of our brief days, our limited resources, our imperfect situations and governments and in our families and friends. Ecclesiastes is not, as I once thought, dismissive of life but actively seeks to embrace life as it is lived in the present.

Ecclesiastes 4- The Things That Steal Our Peace

Ecclesiastes 4

1 Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed– with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power– with no one to comfort them. 2 And I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive; 3 but better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.

 4 Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from one person’s envy of another. This also is vanity and a chasing after wind.
 5 Fools fold their hands and consume their own flesh.
 6 Better is a handful with quiet than two handfuls with toil, and a chasing after wind.

 7 Again, I saw vanity under the sun: 8 the case of solitary individuals, without sons or brothers; yet there is no end to all their toil, and their eyes are never satisfied with riches. “For whom am I toiling,” they ask, “and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is vanity and an unhappy business.

 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.

 13 Better is a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king, who will no longer take advice. 14 One can indeed come out of prison to reign, even though born poor in the kingdom. 15 I saw all the living who, moving about under the sun, follow that youth who replaced the king; 16 there was no end to all those people whom he led. Yet those who come later will not rejoice in him. Surely this also is vanity and a chasing after wind.

The Hebrew word shalom is only used in Ecclesiastes in the previous chapter in the contrast between war and shalom (peace). Yet, beneath all of the vanity and chasing after the wind is perhaps the search for this concept of shalom, which is far more than an absence of conflict. Shalom has the sense of harmony, balance, living at peace with God’s will for one’s life and world. It is a greeting and a wish for one’s friends and neighbors and for one’s own life and yet then and now it seemed illusive. Qohelet turns his wisdom to the things that rob us of the joy and shalom of how life should be. In the brief verses of chapter four he addresses in a form that moves towards proverbs the issues of oppression, comparison and competition, overwork, isolation and institutional incompetency.

Oppression robs us of our humanity, both the oppressed and the oppressor. For the oppressed it means living in a sick society where their lives and work seem to matter less than those who operate in a more privileged state. For the oppressor it often means unconsciously adopting the views of a sick society that have allowed them to prosper only at the (often unseen) expense of others. Wisdom has opened the eyes of the privileged author of Ecclesiastes and it sickens him. The reality of oppression makes death better than life for him because it is not simply that an oppression can be stated and once brought into the open it dies under the light of day. Oppression involves a lifetime of learned and observed behaviors that require patience, prayer, struggle and dis-ease if the disease is ever to be healed. Oppression can be learned in families, in economic structures and in political systems and they in their own way are demonic. They so weave their ways into the thoughts and actions of ordinary people that they become a part of us. When the demons speak through us they reveal the uglier side of our lives and the inability to see one another as a gift, but instead we begin to see others as people who are to be oppressed or are our oppressor.

In the United States there has been a long struggle among people of color, women and people who because of race, sexuality, economic status, religion (or lack of religion), manner of dress, or numerous other reasons have felt their voices and lives did not matter. While I hope that the struggles of the last several years may eventually lead to a society that moves towards greater equality, for now there is no one to console the tears of the oppressed or the comfort those in power as they deal with the ways privilege has stolen a piece of their humanity as well. Perhaps there may come a day when those who have not been born yet don’t have to wonder if black lives, to use one of the red hot points of struggle in our time, matter less than other lives. There are places where our society is sick and its disease has infected all of us making our lives less human and less worth living. The oppression has possessed the soul of our society in the way it allows us to demonize others and to not see or hear them. The conflict that oppression creates robs our lives and our society of the shalom that wisdom seeks. Ecclesiastes does not offer the cure, only the diagnosis of the thing that steals our joy and peace, both the privileged and the excluded.

Envy is what Ecclesiastes names the second element that steals our joy and peace. This seems to encompass the ways we compare and contrast ourselves with one another. One the one hand toil and skill in work come from learning from and measuring oneself from the work of others. The author of Ecclesiastes can find joy in his labor, yet it can also become a source of anxiety. If our lives are continually measured by the gifts, talents and abilities of others then we will rarely, if ever, be satisfied. Our gifts and talents are not another’s gifts and talents. There is joy in learning to do what one is able with one’s gifts and abilities, for seeking what excellence might look like with one’s talents. Yet, envy of another’s gifts can steal the joy we find in our skills and work.

In a transition it appears that Ecclesiastes pulls from some preexisting form of proverbs about laziness and overwork. There are reasonably close parallels within the book of Proverbs:

A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want, like an armed warrior. Proverbs 24: 33-34

Do not wear yourself out to get rich, be wise enough to desist. Proverbs 23: 4

Which Amy Plantiga Pauw (Pauw, 2015, p. 162) points out as possible connections with Proverbs, but for the second I actually find Proverbs 17: 1 closer

Better a dry morsel with quiet than a house full of feasting with strife. Proverbs 17:1

Especially when one takes into account the following verse about the slave who deals wisely and the child who acts shamefully in the context of the end of chapter four.

Ecclesiastes looks at the contrast between overwork and strife on the one hand and laziness and poverty on the other. Neither pole holds the answer, the wisdom is to find the balance point in the middle. A person who only applies their wisdom and knowledge in the quest for goods, wealth, and the insatiable quest for more will have to face the injustice that others will use the goods and wealth they have acquired. Overwork leads to an inability to the enjoy the gift of joy that God grants to the worker in their toil. Idleness also leads to a different type of challenge when the person doesn’t have what they need to feel filled or fulfilled. In our society being busy is a mark of success and achievement, as if the work of business is the work of busy-ness. As Ellen Davis can highlight,

“We regard work as primary, while the rest of what we do is “time-off.” But it was the opposite in the ancient world. The Latin word for “business” is neg-otium, literally, “not leisure”; the time when one does not have to work is the norm by which other activities are measured.” (Davis, 2000, p. 191)

There is wisdom in the practice of Sabbath, the practice of resting from one’s labor and toil. There is wisdom in finding joy in one’s work and pleasure in one’s leisure and knowing the balance of both. The wisdom of not wearing oneself out to be rich, of knowing when to desist but also not folding one’s hands only to consume one’s own flesh.

Isolation can also be a source that can rob us of joy. Sharing our labor with another, being able to share in the triumphs and the travails is one of the joys of life. Isolation can take many forms in life, isolation in the home, at work, in our leisure time and in our public time. A life that is driven by competition and envy shatters our community with one another. We were built for lives of partnership in our various vocations to support, strengthen and renew one another. In a world of increasing connection through digital media we face the struggle of maintaining the physical and personal connections that once formed the communities of our ancestors. In an unfair and often unjust world we need our solidarity with one another so that together we might be a cord not easily broken by the injustices and oppression of the world.

Qohelet seems to have little faith in the institutional structures of his day to provide wise, fair and just governance and a place where a life of shalom comes naturally. We live in an age where people have also become wary of the institutional structures of government, religion, and economics. There are some who still wonder, like Jesus’ disciples, that if a rich young man cannot easily enter the kingdom of God, then who can be saved, for the wealthy and powerful were supposed to be the blessed and the wise. Too many times we have seen the wealthy act only out of self-interest, the powerful act foolishly, and those supposed to be righteous commit horrible acts. Wisdom still has its place, even without power or wealth or fame, to navigate the way of the world. In the midst of oppression to find those moments of peace and the solidarity of one another. From the blindness of being the oppressor to cherish those moments, as difficult as they may be, when one’s eyes are opened and we can perhaps see a different future. Wisdom finds the balance between idleness and overwork and can find satisfaction in one’s own abilities and accomplishments. Like all things of shalom, they are transient. The seasons continue to turn and times of conflict do arise. The quest for permanence, security, and a lasting name ultimately give way to mortality and the turning of the seasons. These evanescent moments may not last for long but they are the gift of God that gives meaning to the toil and the struggle.

Ecclesiastes 3- Approaching Time Wisely

Ecclesiastes 3

1 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
 2 a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
 3 a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
 4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
 5 a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
 6 a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
 7 a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
 8 a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

 9 What gain have the workers from their toil? 10 I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. 11 He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12 I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; 13 moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. 14 I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him. 15 That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.

 16 Moreover I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, wickedness was there, and in the place of righteousness, wickedness was there as well. 17 I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for he has appointed a time for every matter, and for every work. 18 I said in my heart with regard to human beings that God is testing them to show that they are but animals. 19 For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. 20 All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. 21 Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth? 22 So I saw that there is nothing better than that all should enjoy their work, for that is their lot; who can bring them to see what will be after them?

 

The Byrd’s version of Turn! Turn! Turn!, Pete Seeger’s adaptation of the first half of Ecclesiastes 3, was one of the records I remember my mother and father playing when I was growing up. This is probably the best know piece of Ecclesiastes and its poetic parallelism makes it easier to grasp some sense of rhythm in the contrasts and the seemingly opposing ebb and flow of life and death, happiness and sadness, that which seems good and that which seems evil. This beautiful little poem grasps something of the essence of time which is far different from the way our digital world often thinks about time.

Like many people, I have a schedule that I work out of that maps out my day by hours and minutes, and if I needed to I could measure the precision down to seconds. Chronological time which is mechanically measured by clocks with incredible accuracy is a fixation of the Western world, but it is not that way everywhere. Many cultures the understanding of time is more fluid, transportation is less reliable, schedules are less packed, food takes longer to prepare and many other factors figure into a very different conception of time in many places. Yet, even in these places where the correlation between a watch and time is looser there is still a desire to control time. Yet, the wisdom of Ecclesiastes sees time differently, not measured primarily by what we are able to do but by what is happening to us. We don’t get to choose when we are born or die, when planting and harvest time are. We don’t choose when we fall in love or when we begin to hate someone and most of us don’t occupy an office where we can determine the times of war or peace. Part of wisdom is knowing in which time you are in, embracing the joy of the good times and learning from the difficult times. There is no way to guarantee how the cycle of time will play out in one’s lifetime as it continues to turn, turn, turn, but one can find pleasure in one’s toil.

We are a people of infinite appetites limited by finite time and abilities and placed within a world where our actions frequently are insignificant in the broader movement of seasons. Yet, there is a place for our work under heaven and wisdom can perhaps find joy in the ephemeral. Beginning in verse nine Qohelet (a commonly used way of referring to the author of Ecclesiastes) takes the wisdom and works of mortals and places it within the far wider wisdom and work of God. The wisdom of any person is limited, there is a sense of their current time and some time before and perhaps an intuition of the future, but within the universal scope of time it is infinitesimally small. God is the one who is behind the cycles of time and even though portions of the cycle are painful they can ultimately be beautiful. Yet, between the finite time of humanity and the vast unseen and unending time of the creator, the gift of God is to find joy in the present. God’s work, God’s creation may endure forever but our portion of that is small. Our contributions may be ‘vanity’ and meaninglessness in the larger realm of time but they can still be joyful. Perhaps it is the limits that make the joy more profound, just as happiness without sadness loses its reference and contrast. Perhaps the wisdom of the poem in 3: 2-8 is in placing the opposites in parallel and allowing speech and silence, love and hate, war and peace to dwell together giving meaning to the other and still allowing the wise to know the time they inhabit and the gift of that time.

The flow of time may be beautiful but it is not always just or fair. Too often the places where justice should be are devoid of that justice and the places of righteousness and holiness are often infected by the greed and brokenness of the surrounding world. Ultimately Ecclesiastes leaves the final judgment of these things to God, yet it also is honest that evil things happen to good people and that wicked people often flourish in many ways.

Ecclesiastes, like most of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament does not have a conception of the afterlife that would be familiar to many Christians or groups like the Pharisees at the time of Jesus. Ecclesiastes and most of the Hebrew Scriptures are concerned with the way in which God’s promises occur within the earthly experience of the writer. Ultimately, within this frame, Ecclesiastes is willing to point out the perceived unfairness of the world-that the righteous may not be blessed while the wicked prosper, that wise and foolish the humans will share the mortality of the rest of the animal world, and that our ambitions and achievements are ultimately vanity. Yet, contrary to my initial expectations when looking at the book, Ecclesiastes far from being dismissive of the joy and pleasure of the earthly things embraces them. They may be ephemeral and transitory but so is joy and that doesn’t make it any less precious. Martin Luther almost 500 years ago could grasp the ways in which we need the lesson of Ecclesiastes:

What is being condemned in this book, therefore, is not the creatures but the depraved affection and desire of us men, who are not content with the creatures of God that we have and with their use but are always anxious and concerned to accumulate riches, honors, glory and fame, as though we were going to live here forever; and meanwhile we become bored with the things that are present and continually yearn for other things, and then still others. For this is the height of vanity and misery, to cheat oneself of the use of present goods and vainly to be troubled about future ones. (LW 15:8)

In a much different time Brené Brown can write about the culture of scarcity which can transform joy into foreboding joy where there is an inability to embrace the present moment because we are vainly rehearsing tragedies that could happen[1]. Ecclesiastes understands the wisdom of knowing what time one is in and knowing that ultimately one is not in control of the movement of the seasons and times within one’s life. Eating, drinking, enjoying one’s labors in the present time are all gifts of God and are to be enjoyed in their time. Our mortality may indeed serve as a gift to limit our ambitions and to allow us to embrace the present that is placed before us. Qohelet, for all the wisdom he or she possesses, doesn’t know how to describe or quantify what happens after death any more than any of us does. In the midst of the unfairness and unpredictability of life the wisdom they find is in the gratitude for the gifts and challenges, the joy and the tears, the eating and drinking and working in the present. Beyond this is vanity and to be unaware of time in which one lives.

[1] She talks about this in Daring Greatly at the beginning of chapter 4 discussing the Vulnerability Armor we use to attempt to protect ourselves.