Ecclesiastes overview

I thought I would enjoy this, and I did. Also, I read it mostly in a week when I was on holidays so, for better or worse, the reduced time pressure allowed more rumination than usual.

It’s the antidote to proverbs: for when you are good and diligent, and you get nowhere. For when the lazy cheaters are rewarded while your life sucks.

The book piles up examples of life not making sense, promising a lot but not delivering, and God and eternity being obscure.

By about half way through it has plumbed the depths of despair. But the unsparing honesty of the venting allows a happy ending of sorts.

You may as well enjoy the good bits of life while you can, and wisdom, once you have identified its limits, does have a role in giving us the context of god and eternity. Enriching our enjoyment of being God’s creation, within his creation, and helping us accept aging and death.

One of the bloggers I follow said she regarded the whole book as an instruction to relax, I loved that.

This book has kept me sane when God and life seem not to make sense for many years. I love that God put it in the Bible. Jesus came to earth to show us God understands and loves us on a deep level. This book reaches forward in trust to that empathy. “Remember your Creator” the teacher says in the end. I will, aware that my creator remembered me.

1 Life is a circle, no progress. I consider the pros and cons of reading this book now
2 Pleasure, achievement, success. Eternity makes all of them insubstantial. I consider authorship, structure, and the meaning of “meaningless”
3 A time for everything under heaven, how having eternity in our hearts is a mixed blessing. Great chapter!

Observations

4 Justice, work, relationships, fame. Observations of the limits of all leave the teacher deeply unsatisfied.
5 Don’t promise, don’t question, don’t dream. The often unsatisfying nature of religious and intellectual pursuits. Better to be a simple worker, flopping exhausted to bed at the end of the day
6 Wealth and fate – when wealth leaves you wishing you hadn’t been born, and how even when fate delivers good things, the randomness of it feels vulnerable

Reflections

7 We’re all going to die, happiness is inane, sex is a trap, why frustration is good for you and other happy thoughts.
8 Railing against the randomness of life, wisdom can help in good times and bad
9 Quite a focussed conclusion to the problem that wisdom doesn’t always work as nearty as it could: death is the great leveller, it’s still better to be wise.
10 Since it’s better to be wise, a series of proverbs. A retreat from some of the negativity we’ve been through.

Conclusions

11 Concludes the list of proverbs with some thematically appropriate ones about coming to terms with randomness and starts a poem about wisely enjoying life when you can
12 Finishes the poem about youth lived wisely but enjoyably by vividly, but with calm resignation, describing old age and death. His ending refrain is “remember your creator”. Then the narrator wraps it up.

I wrote this song a few years back with my daughter based on Ecc. 3:11… what a pleasure to collaborate!

Ecclesiastes 12

It is, for the most part, a really humble and beautiful poem about getting old. The chapter divisions are rather clumsy here… The poem started half way though chapter 11 with the verse about the light of the sun being sweet, which I quoted yesterday.

There is a delicacy in his description of being old, and his advice to young people.

The advice is to balance the sensual joy of being in your prime with a sense of God – of being created (coming from God) and eternity (going to God).

You can be young in an arrogant and ignorant way, thinking that you have solved the trick of being beautiful and strong, and you are the first person who ever discovered the exciting things the world has to offer.

But he says it’s better to be young in context. To know it is your prime, to enjoy it while remembering your creator, and realising that you have an identity that is larger than the beguiling pleasures of youth.  What we call ‘grounded’ is an aspect of that, I suppose.

The teacher makes aging and death very vivid with metaphors which are a first person narrative of everything failing and then breaking down all together.

But I don’t find it depressing. I was moved by a beauty in this passage I can’t quite describe. It has an elegiac acceptance. It recalls that sense of accepting the seasons of life and time from chapter 3.

He uses objective images to describe the subjective affects of aging on different parts of your body:

when the keepers of the house tremble,
and the strong men stoop,
when the grinders cease because they are few,
and those looking through the windows grow dim;

Ie: when your hands shake, you stoop, your teeth fall out and your eyesight fails. I guess the unusual point of view is a way of emphasising that it happens to everyone.

Here’s his metaphors for dying:

Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
and the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
and the wheel broken at the well,
and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

Everything on earth, the good times, the bad times, is still insubstantial smoke (“meaningless”). But we’ve gone on a journey from holding eternity and the seeming contradiction of the ephemeral world at odds and being filled with despair, to them enhancing and informing each other.

Youth is still smoke, age and death are still smoke, but knowing it is doesn’t stop its vibrancy being beautiful, or doesn’t mean its sadness makes a mockery of being alive. If it doesn’t define us, we can appreciate it.

Thinking back on my youth, the memories are predominantly happy, but they are also random – sort of messy. I regret a certain lack of boldness to make the most of my opportunities, but I still have that, so its just me.

Indeed I feel a strong sense of consistency. I feel at my core I’ve always been the same person. My mum used to call me a dreamer, and I think that’s probably right. I live a lot in my own head.  I’m hoping that will make for a relatively satisfactory dotage. My wife says I find my own thoughts the most entertaining thing in the world… That’s kind of true too!  The playlist of my own thoughts will no doubt get a lot shorter, but it will probably still be my favourite music!

I liked studying post modern theory at uni because I related to the idea that almost nothing is absolute. Beyond cores of belief in God and eternity, I do see so much as insubstantial, up for grabs.

I’m sort of more ‘woke’ these days, I think my religion was more cultural when I was young.  It still expresses itself in habit and the comfort of personal relationship with God, but I feel my responsibility in the world, to be God’s presence, for justice, love and truth, more than I used to.

I don’t want the book to end, its a lovely place to be.  Perhaps that’s why the narrator – who returns in the dying verses – warns against writing many books and studying too much.

“Now get on with it!”  he seems to say. You can’t spend your whole life in reflection. Fear God and keep his commandments: “Next!”

 

Ecclesiastes 11

I was grumpy yesterday about the abrupt change in tone from philosophical to practical but it works better read together with this chapter, which continues but deepens this direction of thinking.

A certain calm has come over the writer, having been in a spiral that descended in restless logic down to the despair of chapters 8 and 9, he now comes to terms with what can be known and what can’t.

He talks about trying lots of different ideas because you don’t know what will succeed.

He uses metaphors of randomness such as the unpredictable patterns of rain and wind, of a hedging against uncertainty by investing in many different things in life and trees falling random times and directions.

He reminds us of how deeply we don’t know the way of God by saying we don’t even know how we are made in the womb. Mysteries of even our origin are veiled from us. Science has come a long way since that was written, but we are still yet to create new life forms in a womb of our making.

Jesus linked wind and birth images to the experience of god’s presence:

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit John 3:8

To me the point is that only the now intersects with eternity. The past is fixed, the future is unknown. In the present moment we have choices and opportunities to affect things which will last. In the present, we have a sense of interacting with destiny, like an eternal being.

He returns to the “under the sun” language but with, I thought, a relatively carefree and optimistic twist:

“Light is sweet,
and it pleases the eyes to see the sun.
However many years anyone may live,
let them enjoy them all.

To me this is using a single day, even a single moment, walking out doors and seeing the sun, as a metaphor for life. Life is the now, our time in the sun, the interaction with eternity we know and experience. Use it well.

N T Wright, theologian and for a long while bishop of Durham cathedral had an example that comes to mind of stone masons working on Jigsaw pieces of the cathedral. A plant-inspired column top here, or a curved arch section there, but not necessarily having the master plan or visualising how they would sit in the finished cathedral. So, he says, it is with the eternal work we do on earth, that is stored up as treasure in heaven.

The teacher here can come to terms with questions about why and how we came to be, and the insubstantial darkness over god’s future, by clinging to the revealed wisdom of how to live happily and in accordance with god’s wishes while the sun is bright.

He’s gone from finding God’s wisdom annoyingly limited and incomplete to finding it the best we can get, and valuable for what it is.

Starting back at work after a weeks break, feeling quite negative and unprepared to cope with life, worth repeating to myself as I step out this morning into the sun….

Ecclesiastes 10

This seemed like a series of random bits of practical advice.

The commentary tried to make a case that it was starting to bring all that had gone before to a conclusion, to a place of meaning after so much meaninglessness. But I was unconvinced.

It was one of those days or chapters that just didn’t grab me. There was little about God directly, in fact nothing.

It kept bringing to my mind 1 Corinthians type statements about wisdom which seem to contradict it “Since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.

Many of Jesus’ parables challenged conventional wisdom, such as the one about the workers all being given the same generous payment for different amounts of work. I’d never call grace meaningless, but it does have an irrationality about it.

One thing that stuck me was the attitude to kingship. It was quite essentialist in a way that jarred with my 21st century sensibilities.

So it said that it was a great evil under the sun that a commoner would be in a ruling position, ‘blessed is the land whose king is of noble birth.’ When low born rule, they get drunk and sleep in, never happens to the toffs, apparently!

The writer has never heard of democracy, but really, it’s not that bad! Jesus of course was born of David’s line and of God himself. David was low born and had kingship destined for him by grace.

Commentators suggested it was a model model about ideal kingship… I guess.

There’s another bit about how the foolish display how stupid they are just by the way they walk down the street. Wisdom or script of mean girls?

It ends with a warning against gossip and laziness, a hearty recommendation of feasting and wine, plus “money is the answer for everything”. What am I supposed to be getting from this?

It’s partly me… I’m very flat at the end of holidays. Having trouble with priorities. Maybe I’m feeling betrayed because the commentary is right .. the book is getting back to a more balanced place and I don’t want to go there! I’m still in the mood for angsty bleakness…

Anyway, I don’t feel like any great revelation will open up from continuing to rabbit on. See what tomorrow brings!

Ecclesiastes 9

The book is roughly divided into observations (1-6) and conclusions (7-12).

After two chapters of relatively random conclusions, including a series of proverbs inspired by the observations, this is quite a focused conclusion.

Within the limits of observable revelation – (‘under the sun’) – with eternity apparent in principle, but it’s specifics obscured by smoke (‘meaningless’):

– death is the great leveler.

– it’s still a good idea to be wise.

The chapter alternates poetry and prose – it’s the same structure as the first 6 chapters of the book. I like it: when you’ve got something serious to say, you should regularly break into poetry/song. It’s not our culture, but it’s a good culture that balances and respects the observational and the reflective, the creative and the scientific.

I think of it as like Willy Wonka and the chocolate factory. Each child touring the factory models a character flaw of mankind, and each episode is summed up in a little song by the mythical factory workers, the oompaloompas.

Though there is a more highbrow precedent in baroque choral works like the Messiah or Matthews passion: you have recitative and dramatic choruses to move the plot along, interspersed with hymns, and arias to reflect on the lessons and significance.

Anyway, the “death” part of the conclusion acts as a an antidote to the improbable neatness of proverbs.

The teacher is clearly a lapsed try-hard, and he’s bitter about the evil of death meaning that the race is not won by the swift, or favour given more to the learned. That like fish in a net, death comes randomly and catches us regardless of how much we do or don’t deserve it.

But to more average folk, who aren’t elite Kings famed for great learning and wisdom, his almost sneering suggestion to enjoy time with your spouse, have a glass of wine and a good plate of food because none of the effort means anything, well to us, it sounds not to bad a way to wait for death.

And the second half of his conclusion moderates his “Homer Simpson” prescription for life – wisdom is still better than folly. He gives an example of wisdom that indeed was not honoured or celebrated, but which he knows however saved many many lives in a city under attack.

The advice adds up to something like the serenity prayer which generations of recovering alcoholics have clung to:

God, grant me the serenity to accept
the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Chillax, but woke, perhaps? Oh dear! I just reduced the whole book to most cringe worthy church youth group talk! I must make a note for work!

I’m emphasising the chillax/yolo part of the equation today – rolling some public holidays into a week of holiday, off on a car camping adventure with Kelly, woot! And Rennie, (youngest son, 15) is off camping with buddies too.

Ecclesiastes 8

It’s the same ideas again largely, and more in a jumble than other chapters. Elsewhere he talks about his mind being restless, but here I feel I experience that restlessness. Maybe he wrote this one in the middle of the night… He mentions people getting no sleep.

He talks about civil obedience, a bit Paul-like per Romans 13, including the criminal justice system. He notes there are both holy and pragmatic reasons to submit to the social order. But he also comments on how easily it can go wrong.

He turns the evocative “time for this, time for that” into ghastly sort of puppet show / nightmare life, with God pulling the strings. We don’t know the plot of our story and we don’t have choices. It may be time to live miserably under an oppressive ruler. It may be party time.

His advice is essentially, if it’s party time, enjoy it a lot. If it’s not party time, maybe it will be again, but there’s nothing you can do and don’t even try to understand it because it won’t make any sense.

How about I try to note the bits that speak to me.

I loved the opening verse about wisdom brightening and softening the hard appearance of a person’s face. One of life’s most affirming things is seeing kindness, comprehension and gentleness in a face.

We watched a documentary on ABC yesterday about disabled people getting employment, and I saw that wisdom light up the face of a wonderfully driven and focused downs syndrome woman who they tracked through getting a TAFE certificate and a job as a carer at an aged care facility. When she did her trial time with the residents, she was so switched on, and they responded so warmly, it was beautiful.

I was struck by the wisdom of the verse: “When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, people’s hearts are filled with schemes to do wrong“.

It reminded me of the angst and opportunism that Donald Trump’s brazen shamelessness over lying, being dishonorable etc has caused. It’s almost worse for the souls of those, such as many evangelical Christians, who struck an ungodly bargain with him to advance their agenda, than it is for those he outright marginalises and bullies. But the fact that he gets rewarded for being so indecent has shaken many people’s faith in justice, and emboldened many others.

The world is increasingly riven by violence been ‘Christians’ and ‘Muslims’. Blessed are the peacemakers, DJT!

And this is notable: “I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun.” Simple food and drink always tastes good, but especially so when times are hard. There is a reason all churches involve themselves in simply handing out food and drink.

Lord in this tumultuous world, help me cling into the good things, give them time, and see you brightening and softening them, giving me hope in the eternal value of goodness.

Ecclesiastes 7

This is a bit of a shocking chapter at first.

Chapter 6 ends with a bleak summary of a series of observations of meaningless things, and now this is a series of thoughts, presented as proverbial wisdom. It talks appreciatively about death and has almost a suicidal vibe at times: “death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart“.

It’s feels like we’re descending deeper and deeper into darkness, and the book is getting somewhat claustrophobic. Can we get some light soon?

But strangely at the same time, it’s also quite soothing

The overarching theme, if I understand it right, is that God plans for the hard stuff to happen to us as well as the good stuff, and to not stress, but value the difficult things because they are part of God’s world and help us grow.

It’s an old man, probably old Solomon, realising that the sad times, the deaths, the frustrating times and time in mourning were when he learned more about what is really important than the sillier times.

He memorably compares the laughing of foolish people to the crackling of burning thorns, which were used as tinder in those days. It’s a sense of them being loud, bright and hot but short lived, ephemeral. Sadness touches eternity, hard life lessons that last.

It harks back to the calm of chapter three: there is a time for everything. But it’s more provocatively put, eg: ‘Frustration is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart.

Perhaps he’s also regretting his vast harem of wives and concubines. I’m probably being charitable. It comes across like he’s blaming women for being a corrupting influence, but the fault really is his. His female arrangements were excessive even by the potentate standards of the day; it was his obsession and his system, much more than his women. As if lesser princesses had many options in those days other than to be political pawns?

He’s puts both his youthful zeal and creeping nostalgia into perspective.

On one hand he embraces that softening that age brings, where things don’t seem as absolute as they did when you were younger. Don’t be foolish, but don’t kill yourself with ‘over-righteousness’ either:

It is good to grasp the one
and not let go of the other.
Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes.

Related to that is letting go hurts, a lovely verse… If you overhear disrespectful things about yourself, ignore them. You know you often think or say similar when you think no one will hear you. Great tip for parenting teens.

One the other hand, resist thinking everything was better in the good old days.

Sadness, mortality, abandoning plans, things ending. All these things make you step back from the giddy noise and stimulation of plans and the daily roundabout.

They hurt, but they give you pause. They can be a path back to the essential things, the eternal things. They clarify life.

As he says in conclusion:

God created mankind upright,
but they have gone in search of many schemes

It’s about letting go the schemes, and simply accepting the messy, hard bits.

Jesus didn’t want the hard things either, he prayed for them to go away. But they came, they are part of life anyway.

Ecclesiastes 6

“The few and meaningless days we pass through like a shadow”

This chapter doubles down on the themes of wealth and destiny. Wealth being pointless if you can’t enjoy it.

He contemplates a world where a rich person can die unloved and unnoticed, and says bitterly that even a stillborn baby would be better off, because, essentially, at least they never knew disappointment.

Seriously bleak stuff.

And on destiny he gets Job-like, thinking about the inequality of God and man. We can’t change our destiny, we can’t argue the case with God. He’s bigger than us. We’ve nowhere to turn.

Then the closing verses have the line I quoted at the top: we slip through life like a shadow. The last chapter wrapped up with a bit of a neat formula for living that would provide a degree of comfort. This chapter won’t give you an inch.

The authorship question is interesting here I think.

If it’s Solomon, talking like Job, it’s a poor-rich-guy narrative. So sad to live in luxury, and have everything you want!

But if it’s the later period, post exile, it is written by and for a broken people after a period of hideous persecution and cruelty towards the Jews. That would make this a work of post traumatic despair, like Dadaist art after world war One, or the cynical film noir of Hollywood in the late 1940s, or the lost-soul-of-Europe existentialism of Jean-Paul Satre, Camus and Kafka.

If it’s Solomon himself, I suppose it’s a rare journey, since as we are perhaps experiencing now, long periods of peaceful prosperity tend to numb people to spiritual matters.

I thought that as I watched a news item puff piece reporting on Easter. Lots of montages of kids looking for chocolate eggs. We appropriate the innocent delight of kids to feel good about life, but if we’re telling them Easter means no more than extra serves of chocolate, are we doing them a favour? The complications of life are hurtling towards those sweet, open little faces.

Do we have a theory of a meaningful existence to give them to replace the ones – and I include lots of religions in this – we are perversely overlooking? If you’re gonna dump religion, what else have you got? Long weekends? Chocolate?

Either way life works out: reaping a windfall from, or being buried by, the random injustice of this world, both undermine your peace and give you no lasting sense of security.

But actually, fear not! Love and justice triumphed.

At Easter, Jesus conquered death.

Ecclesiastes 5

Don’t promise, don’t question, don’t dream.

The teacher can’t help but toss out wonderfully memorable, profound observations about most aspects of life as he dismisses them. But dismiss them he does.

Despite being clearly a person of learning and refinement, the structure of his book sometimes reminds me of an angry old alcoholic ranting to nobody at a train station: “And another thing: politicians. Liars the lot of them. And kids today: no respect…”

It’s a whinge list. Erudite, nuanced, but a whinge list.

In chapter 5, first up: extravagant promises, vows to God, that you don’t keep.

I think I get the scenario. Their religion involved pilgrimages to the temple to offer sacrifices atoning for sin. In a moment of religious ecstasy, and/or showing off/fake public piety, you make a big promise to God that you later regret. Easy target – loud, hypocritical religion.

But he also throws dreams in there… “Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore fear God”.

Don’t dare to dream?

Then he says not to be surprised by oppression, because it’s not isolated injustice, it’s systemic injustice, going all the way up to the mindless, bottomless, greed of the king. It’s too big to fight. There’s nothing you can do but observe it, presumably. It would be sort of socialist if it weren’t so defeatist. Perceptive observation, dismissed.

The rest of the chapter is about the dissatisfaction of labouring and scheming for fleeting wealth, which death mocks; compared to the dreamless heavy slumber of a working class labourer.

It ends with a perceptive, yet cynical little sermon: wanting more won’t make you happy, learn contentment with what you have be it a little or a lot, and exhaust yourself during the day with honest work so you don’t question or dream, and life will be as good as it can get.

I think it’s time to grapple with the phrase “under the sun”.

It appears many times in the book: a condition, the context, of most of the observations. In the book the refrain is like “and another thing” of the old drunkard’s rant. “And I saw this meaningless thing under the sun”.

Quick Google scan, the consensus is that it’s somewhere between the literal “on earth” and the metaphysical “without God”.

I visualise it like those science pictures that show bands around the earth of atmosphere and stratosphere. The band closest to the earth is “under the sun”, the realm of time and the realm of the physical, flesh: that which can be perceived through the senses. Even in this realm we will experience something of God and eternity… enough to drive us mad, as it said. But not much.

Above that is heaven, which is referred to when discussing eternity in chapter 3 (“a time for every purpose under heaven”). The realm of God, relatively unknown and eternal. The supernatural, things that last, the kingdom of God.

Jesus said to pray every day for ways to reduce the discrepancy between the eternal order and the world as we know it: “thy will be done on earth as in heaven”.

St Paul picked up ideas from parts of Greek philosophy about spirit and flesh and was inspired to put up with temporary difficulties because he saw the long term eternal nature of Christ: “for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.

In many respects, despite Easter, we are still in the world of Ecclesiastes, under the sun. Imperfect people acutely aware that the world falls short of what if could be. Still seeing God through a glass, darkly.

All three reactions are probably still part of a normal believer’s life at different times, coping strategies for chronic personality traits or current temptations:

– Ecclesiastes: observe the madness around you, but don’t let it drive you too crazy. Enjoy the things that are good, do a good days work and sleep sound.

– Jesus: do what you can, with God’s help, to make things better. Start building heaven on earth: tell the good news, fight for justice, model love.

– Paul: try to disregard the flesh, suffering will pass. Tune out to the world, tune into eternity.

Ecclesiastes 4

Here the teacher, our guide on this journey in search of meaning (and/or into the mind of a depressed person), looks at 4 big topics.

He makes thoughtful observations on each, but they all leave him numb in terms of larger significance. It’s still all meaningless.

The topics are justice, work, relationships and fame. The last particularly seems to include some wry self mockery.

He finds injustice, oppression simply appalling. He says it would be better to die, or not to be born at all, rather than experience a world that contains such evil. This verse is actually used as evidence that the real king Solomon didn’t write this book… It’s in the “…said no actual king ever” territory. It’s brief, but he is devastated.

On work, he’s a fan of what we would now call work-life balance. Laziness leads to ruin, but too much work destroys your tranquility. Indeed he seems to say working less will make life feel less meaningless – the first concession I think we’ve had to the possiblity of a somewhat satisfying life. And touching that tranquility is the opposite of meaninglessness… It’s a restless search, he’s deeply dissatisfied.

I appreciated how he said ambition springs from envy. Yesterday I confessed to mildly resenting my relative lack of career success, today a little gift/prompt from the holy spirit.

What he says about relationship highlights the question of tone. I can’t tell if he’s being rhetorical and ironic.

It’s the “two are better than one” quote often used at weddings. But it probably applies to platonic friendships too… (At least I hope so, since he moves on to three strands being stronger again… Oh Solomon!)

He says relationships are good because they make you wealthier, stronger, better able to defend yourself and warmer at night. No mention of love? We’re a long way from where st. Paul got to when he held up marital love as the closest spiritual equivalent we can comprehend of Christ’s love for the church.

Or is his omission of love deliberately leaving the elephant in the room? Is he asking “is that all there is?” or is he stating “That is all there is!” Ironic or cold? I don’t know!

On kingship, which I think also suits fame or celebrity… he tells the age old story of a star is born. The old king who’s lost touch, the new king who everyone follows. Twist: they are the same person. He switches the first person from being the old king in decline to remembering being the young king on the up and up, challenging the previous king in decline. Neatly illustrating his theme of endless, pointless cycles.

So what does it tell us of God? Nothing! To such a perverse degree that his absence is suffocating, God is the elephant in the room. It’s no accident that every human culture has reached for him. Thinking about his absence too much gets you to an aggravated, inflamed sense of cruel pointlessness that is so wrong, you ‘d rather you’d never been born.

In contrast, we gathered around a bonfire under the old old tree at church to sing and wash each other’s feet yesterday, re-enacting what God’s love is like in a human form. Intimate and unglamorous.