“I applied my mind to acquire wisdom and to observe the business which goes on upon earth…and always I perceived that God has so ordered it that one should not be able to discover what is happening here under the sun. However hard you may try, you will not find it out.”
This from the Bible!
And this: “a live dog is better than a dead lion.” Why? Because there is still hope for the dog, whereas for the dead, love, hate, passion all are over. “Never again will they have any part in what is done under the sun.”
So…Go to it! Eat, drink and be merry. Enjoy life with the wife you love all the days of your allotted span here under the sun, empty as they are.
The book is Ecclesiastes – the word “empty” (“vain”) is the clue. Vanity, vanity, all is vanity. It is the Old Testament book appointed for the week in the Daily Office and I find myself chortling as I read it again and again. It is so unabashed, and so true…and this on a number of counts.
There is an empty thing found on earth (vanity, vanity…): when the just person gets what is due to the unjust, and the unjust what is due to the just. (Eccles 8:14 NEB).
Since we all tend to think we are unfairly treated, this resonates; the Teacher knows his audience. How true, we think. At last, the vindication we have all been thirsting for. Yes! The unjust person prospers while I in my virtue languish quite undecorated.
But this is a book in which you never quite know for sure when the speaker has taken tongue out of cheek. The Teacher, it turns out, is not interested in vindication. He does not say (to all of us in our virtue): “Never mind. Some day that guy will get his come-uppance and you will be crowned with glory.” No. The Teacher says, That’s the way it is. “So I commend enjoyment,” since there is nothing good for a person to do here under the sun but to eat and drink and enjoy yourself (Eccles 8:15).
I chortle, again, and am reminded of my brother, who works very hard as a lawyer in a big city and who said to me not long ago, “I was taking a walk through a graveyard the other day and I saw all those tombstones and I thought, ‘We all end up here. There is no distinction. I am going to enjoy myself.” Did he know he was channeling Ecclesiastes?
Or rather, that Ecclesiastes channels him, and every one of us faced with the vastness and vanity of life. It is ungraspable. God is ungraspable. Far from seeking to “justify the ways of God to men,” Ecclesiastes – the Teacher, the son of David, the voice of Wisdom herself – says: Full disclosure. I don’t get any of this.
And that is not a bad place to be. Our problem too often is that we think we know.
Ecclesiastes sees that there is no way to moralize life, to make sense of it in terms of just deserts. Bad things happen to good people, good things happen to bad people, and in any case “good” turns out to be a rather flexible adjective as a self-descriptor in most of our lives, and in the business of the world.
A servant becomes a king and princes party in the morning – woe betide the land! (10:16). People’s hearts are full of evil; half the time we behave like crazy people, and after that they go down to join the dead” (Eccles 9:3).
We don’t know what is good for us, or we know and we don’t do it.
There was a small town with few inhabitants, and a great king came to attack it, and he besieged it and built great siege-works against it. There was in it a poor wise man, and he alone might have saved the town by his wisdom, but no one remembered that poor wise man (9:14-15). This, too, is an example of wisdom as I have observed it under the sun, The Teacher says, drily (9:3).
I know that poor wise man speaking faithfully in a church on fire while his words go unheeded.
I know this world: all of it, everything the Teacher says. So do you. The unrighteous thrive and the fool holds high office and also never stops talking (10:14). Could Ecclesiastes have imagined the fool’s word magnified by the web?
The fool talks on and on – but no one knows what is coming; who can tell him what the future holds? (10:14).
How true. On March 12, I was planning to drive down to D.C. the next day. On March 13, I was not. I have still not got there.
Ecclesiastes is a word for our time, because the Teacher knows what we have forgotten: we are not in charge of things. We do not and we will not make sense of them. And that is because we are not God.
Ecclesiastes does not, like some of the new atheists (and the old ones, for that matter), boldly proceed from the incomprehensibility of things, the moral irrationality that plagues the world, to the conclusion that there is no God.
Quite the contrary. In Ecclesiastes, God is the one constant. If we cannot understand, that does not indicate that there is no God. It indicates that God is God. It is as God says to Job,
Who is this whose ignorant words
Cloud my design in darkness?
Brace yourself and stand up like a man;
I will ask the questions, and you shall answer.
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? (Job 38: 2-4)
Or in the Teacher’s words:
The righteous and the wise and all their doings are under God’s control: but is it love or hatred? No one knows (9:1).
Challenging words for us whose one non-negotiable in matters of faith is “God is Love” (or perhaps, more accurately, Love is God).
Ecclesiastes says, “I do not know.” On the evidence, I do not know. And that is because God is God.
Ecclesiastes is a call to humility. And it is a call to us, because humility is a virtue we have largely forgotten. We believe we understand, and so we design God according to our own specifications (God is Love/Love is God) and we make his Word fit the label. Ecclesiastes is useful, because it interrupts the narrative — “but is it love…or is it hatred? – and so reminds us that God is God.
I have an ongoing dispute with my sons about pulling down statues. They say yes, I say no. I say no not because Robert E. Lee (to take one example) does not stand condemned for his participation in and support for slavery. Indeed he does stand condemned. But who among us is fit to throw the first stone? Surely there is no one on earth so righteous as to do good without ever sinning, Ecclesiastes says (7:20). And Jesus bends down and writes with his finger in the dirt at the sinning woman’s feet as her accusers – who are correct in their charge of sin – one by one drop their stones and go away.
I say no because I fear the loss of humility, which is the loss of God in our hearts. We think that we will make right the world – and the desire to make it right is good, born of our longing for God. But we will not make the world right, because we are flesh, and the flesh is at war with the spirit in us and even our desires are implicated, and we too stand condemned in ways that we cannot see and will not know until, 150 years from now, our children’s children tell us, because they have finally enough distance to see it.
Humility: the knowledge that we are flesh and God is God. This is Ecclesiastes’ word.
It is the first word, though it is not the last word. “Wretched man that I am,” Paul cries, sounding a lot like the Teacher. “Who will free me from the body of this death?” And then he says, “Thanks be to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Paul too has a word for us: Jesus Christ the Lord. Scripture holds these two words together.
Both words are necessary. If we cannot hear Ecclesiastes’ word – no one is able to find the truth of things – we will not hear Paul’s glad cry “Jesus Christ!” We will be too busy pulling down all the statues, the whole race of offending humans, by ourselves. We will be too busy being righteous to lift our eyes, in joy and wonder, to the one who alone is righteous, and who will make this world right. We will be too busy to hear Ecclesiastes’ call to happiness.
Because it is a call to happiness, this book. “Drink your wine with a cheerful heart!” the Teacher says. Why should we eat and drink and be merry? Because our lives, this whole beautiful and embattled world, are in God’s hands.
And that means, finally, Jesus Christ.
Already Ecclesiastes points to Christ: “Drink your wine with a cheerful heart, for already God has accepted what you have done” (9:7). How could this be? How could it be accepted, what we have done, this world in which the fool reigns and never stops talking and no one remembers the wise man? Who will free me, Paul cries, from the body of this death?
Thanks be to God in Jesus Christ our Lord.
To know that God is God is to be free – free to be humble, and to be glad.