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.