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.