Ecclesiastes for Everyday: Day 14

 The one where Qohelet talks about the importance of relationships. 

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Again, I saw vanity under the sun: 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 mere breath, and an unhappy business.

 

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.

 

 

The first part of this passage reminds me of Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. He had given himself to work and money, but after an eventful Christmas realizes that he needs more in his life. He needs other people. Qohelet is condemning singleness here. He is writing about people who chose work over relationships.  He is writing about people whose children are orphans because their parents choose not to be with them. He is writing about people whose “eyes are never satisfied with riches.”

Qohelet has just said that work is one of the things we can do that gives our lives some purpose, but here he is providing a corrective. Work may add meaning to our lives, but the crucial word here is “add.” In the end work cannot be the end-all-and-be-all of our lives. If we try to make it more than it is, well, it is mere breath.

At this point Qohelet does talk about the value of relationships. “Two are better than one,” he says, and gives a host of practical examples why. (Coming from Alaska, my favorite is the one where two people keep each other warm!)

I usually read the last section at weddings I perform. Qohelet talks about the value of having someone to share your life with. He is echoing a long tradition of people who teach that the best life is one centered around relationships. Aristotle taught that friendship was the highest ethical virtue, and that a friend was a part of your true self. Athanasius of Alexandra wrote that the Triune God is, by definition, a series of relationships (Father to Son, Son to Spirit, Spirit to Father) and that without these series of relationships, the Christian God could not exist.

In the end Qohelet says that a three-ply cord cannot be easily broken. From my limited time doing braid-work, I know that you cannot braid two strands. The two need a third to give them stability. I use this in the wedding sermon, and tell people they actually need more in their marriage than just each other. Being a preacher type I am naturally going to point them to God, and tell them that Christ is that third strand. I’m sure Qohelet, living at least 400 years before Jesus, did not mean that, but why does he talk about a three-ply strand after just extolling the virtues of two helping each other? What did he think that third strand was?

 

Thoughts and Questions

  1. While Christianity has been about loving other people, there is also a tradition of people who choose the solitary life—monks, hermits, and others. Do you think one can live a fulfilling life if they have chosen to live in isolation from others?
  2. Many people do not chose to live alone; it is thrust upon them. What would Qohelet say (or what would you say) to the person who wants to be in a relationship, but cannot find one?
  3. What do you think Qohelet was referring to when he talks about a “three-ply strand?”

 

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Ecclesiastes for Everyday: Day 14

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I also observed that people work hard and become good at what they do only out of mutual envy. This too is pointless, just mere breath.

Fools fold their hands and eat their own flesh.
    But better is resting with one handful
than working hard for two fistfuls and chasing after wind.

 

Why do we work hard? Whether it is in an office, on a construction site, or in keeping a home, why do we work hard at what we do? I remember doing piece work in a factory one summer. My co-workers and I got into a friendly competition to see who could make the most parts in an hour. For us it was a way to pass the time, but there was also a sense where none of us wanted to be shown up. We wanted the other people to think we were good at what we do.

Qohelet would have liked that. He says here that one of the reasons we work as hard as we do is so we can impress other people—our bosses, our fellow workers, even ourselves.

To what end? While we can take pride in a job well done, life is more than just work.

Qohelet points to a middle way between two extremes. The first is idleness. Idle hands may not be the devil’s workshop, but neither are they the way to success. If we are not willing to work, he says, that is like eating our own flesh, a very graphic way of saying that you cannot sustain yourself without some source of outside nourishment.

On the other hand, why give yourself completely over to your job? I once spent a weekend at a retreat where we were not allowed to talk about work. We were a group of strangers, and I quickly realized that if I could not talk about work I did not have a lot to talk about. That was a wakeup call for me. I needed to have more in my life. I mean, I love my job, but I am more than a job. I realize the day will come when I retire, and if I have invested all I have into my work, what will have when they give me my gold watch and send me on my way? If my whole life consists of work, I will find myself empty-handed on that day.

In Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, prisoners in a Russian labor camp are building a brick wall. Ivan and the other prisoners are getting into the rhythm of the work, and as Solzhenitsyn describes it, they are almost enjoying their activity. They are in a labor camp. They cannot choose whether or not they will work. All they have control of is how well they work. If they work too hard, they will wear themselves out, and not be fit to work the next day. On the other hand, if they slack off, the authorities will come in with severe punishments.

While we do not live in labor camps, Qohelet would say that is a good description of our lives and work. There is no need to go overboard. Life is more than work. On the other hand, not working carries with it its own punishments.

 

Thoughts and Questions

  1. Can you think of times when you have genuinely enjoyed your work? Why was work pleasurable to you? What made you enjoy it?
  2. What about people who are caught in dead-end jobs? Qohelet claims to be a king. (Nice work if you can get it!) What about the people who empty the garbage, or pick pears, or unclog sewer lines? Can they find any meaning their work?
  3. Do you think that Solzhenitsyn was really describing the human condition when he is talking about Ivan Denisovich laying bricks, or is our life so different from that the comparison is not a valid one? Have you ever felt trapped in work, or in your life?

 

 

 

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Ecclesiastes for Everyday: Day 13

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4 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. And I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive; 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.

 

 

Back in the early nineteen eighties there was a TV movie called The Day After, which portrayed how the world would look after a nuclear attack. It was graphic and grisly. I remember thinking, as I watched people trying to navigate the through the collapse of society that it would probably be better to die in the blast than to have to live through the aftermath.

The Day After was a hard movie to watch. Sometimes life can be hard to deal with. Qohelet looks at the world and sees what is there. Not all of it is good. In fact some of it is downright terrible. He sees oppression, and the tears of the oppressed. If he were alive today, he would point to Syrian refugees, and he might carry in his pocket a picture of the little boy who died on the beach. He would see kidnapped teen-aged girls in Nigeria. He would see countless and nameless people dying of hunger, homeless people sleeping on park benches, and indigenous people around the world whose land has been stolen from them.

These are hard things to see, but what do you after you have seen them? Qohelet says it would be better to have never been born. But that is not an option. Around 353,000 babies are born every day, and many are born into horrible circumstances. We might say, with Qohelet, that it would be better if many of those babies had not been born, but they were.

And the fact is, we cannot change the circumstances into which they were born. People are born into oppressive circumstances every day. Wishing they had not been does nothing to change that.

What can we do?

The fact that we cannot change the whole world does not mean that we are absolved from trying to do what we can, where we can.

Thoughts and Questions

  1. Jesus said, “You will always have the poor with you.” Do you think he meant that we should just accept that, or do you think he offered that as a challenge?
  2. It is hard not to see Qohelet observations as a very depressing state of affairs. And it is easy to see why he would wish that some people were never born, for their own good. How do you deal with some of the harder facts of life? How do you deal with things that you cannot change?
  3. When the Psalms talk about oppression, it is assumed that God will rescue the oppressed. In the Prophets there is usually an exhortation for the people to rescue the oppressed. Qohelet looks, neither to the God, nor the people to rescue the oppressed. Yet he is disturbed by the oppression he sees. Do you think he has any kind of solution for oppression?
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Ecclesiastes for Everyday: Day 12

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16 I saw something else under the sun: in the place of justice, there was wickedness; and in the place of what was right, there was wickedness again!  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 mere breath.

 

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, really, is able to see what will happen after their passing?

 

 

I was watching a movie recently, and one of the main characters said to the villain, “You know, nasty little fellows such as yourself always get their comeuppance.”

“They do?” asked the villain?

“Always.”

Except we know that is not true. The good do not always come out ahead.  Sometimes the villain wins. Good does not always triumph over evil, at least not in ways that we can see. Sometimes nasty little fellows end up getting very rich.

Qohelet, in his unflinching view of life has seen that happen time and time again. We like to think that life is like the movies; the good guy always wins in the end, and gets to ride off in the sunset with the girl. The bad guy always suffers a humiliating defeat. But life is not a movie. It is much more complicated. (In fact, sometimes we cannot even tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys!)

But for Qohelet this is not a reason to despair. He has just told us that everything happens in its time. Justice will happen, and God will see to it, but in God’s time, not our time! The problem is that we often want things to happen in our time, according to our schedules. We don’t like waiting. Things are resolved on TV in less than an hour (not counting commercials). It takes slightly longer in movies—two hours. But it is always resolved.

That is not the way things happen “under the sun.”

Then Qohelet raises an interesting question. He has just talked about wickedness and injustice, in short saying we live like animals sometimes. Justice does not always prevail in ways we can see. But he takes that even further. A man lives, a man dies. An animal lives, an animal dies. What is the difference between us?

For Qohelet there is one major difference—we can take pleasure in our work. An animal does what it has to do to survive. Humans have more leeway. We are not just creatures of need. For Qohelet, even though he is not sure about an afterlife[i], the fact that we can be cognizant of our own existence sets us apart from the animals.

He ends this section by asking, “Who really knows what happens in the future?” and is most likely referring to what happens after we die.

Thoughts and Questions

  1. How does it make you feel knowing that you will not always see justice and what is right and good prevail? Does it make want to fight for justice even more, or sit back and just let things happen? Do you think that we are ever instruments of God’s justice?
  2. In a few weeks we will celebrate Easter, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which, according to Paul, is prove of our resurrection. Qohelet lived in a time long before Christ. How different is it to live our lives in the light of the Resurrection? How might your life be different if you did not know of the Resurrection?

 

 

[i] At the time that Qohelet was writing this the idea of a personal afterlife was new to the Jewish tradition. Qohelet is not sure he agrees with these newfangled ideas.

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Ecclesiastes for Everyday: Day Eleven

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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 beautiful for its time; moreover he has put a sense of eternity 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 merry and partake of good things in this life; 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.

 

 

 

I’m not really big on computer games, but I found one I liked many years ago.  It was called Myst. The goal of the game was to explore a semi-deserted island, but in order to do so you had to solve a series. Each new move brought a new puzzle that had to be solved.

Of course, the more puzzles you can solve, the more interesting the game was. If you could not solve them you ended up wandered aimlessly around the island.

I had a very hard time with the game at first. The directions were not clear at all. The first puzzle you had to solve was to figure out that the game was a series of puzzles.  The puzzles were hard, I was very frustrated when I first started playing. I knew there was more to the game than just meandering around the island, but I could not figure out what it was.

Qohelet says our life is like that. We know that there is more to this game called life, but we have a hard time figuring out what it is. Do we have an ultimate purpose? What is the meaning to our life? We know that there is more to life than just meandering around. Qohelet says that God “has put a sense of eternity into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.”

If it all stopped there, we would say that life was pretty miserable. It would be like God put in a Myst-like game, with puzzles to solve, but puzzles that had no answer. (It reminds me of the old joke, “How do you confuse a Presbyterian Minister? Put him in a round room and tell he there is potential new member in the corner.”)

But Qohelet says more. He says we can three things that help us deal with our troubled relationship to eternity. First, enjoy the moment, or as Qohelet says, “Make merry.” If we can live in the moment, then we have eternity at our grasp. In the present moment there is no past or future. Time is our enemy when we worry about the past, which we cannot change, or the future, which has not yet happened.

The second is to enjoy food, drink, and the work of our hands. This is related to the first, but here Qohelet encourages us to make the most of the life we have been given, and points us to two anchors of life—food and work. The majority of our lives are taken with these two endeavors. If we can embrace them, we can embrace life itself.

The third is the basis for understanding the first two—to understand that God is eternal, and stand in awe of God’s eternal nature. To contemplate the nature of God is to contemplate eternity itself. We are formed by what we give our minds to, and when we give our minds to God, in devotion and service as well as contemplation, we are changed, and the spark of eternity that lies within us grows.

 

Thoughts and Questions

 

  1. Qohelet says that not only has God put eternity in our minds, God has also given us a beautiful world to enjoy. In what ways can we enjoy the beauty of the world around us, and how do you think that draws us closer to God?
  2. Take a moment and recount all the good things in your life. When we focus on what is wrong, we tend to see more of what is wrong. When we focus on what is right and good, we tend to see more of that. This is a rhetorical question of course, but which would you rather have running through your mind—the things that are right and good, or all the things that need to fixed?
  3. What are some ways we can contemplate the nature of God? Can you do by looking at nature? In worship? In prayer? Try to spend at least five minutes a day, for the rest of Lent, thinking about the nature of God. (Hint: The Psalms can be a great help in this!)

 

 

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Ecclesiastes for Everyday: Day Ten

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3 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

 

 

 

This is the most well-known passage in Ecclesiastes. It was turned into a song by Pete Seeger, which was later recorded by the Byrds. (The lyrics from the song are taken directly from the King James version of this passage, which makes this the oldest number one Billboard song.) It is highly possible that you got suckered into doing this devotional series because you wanted to read the book that had this passage. You might not have realized that you had to work your way through one of the most cynical works of literature in the Bible.

This is one of the most profound pieces of literature in the world. Its simplicity is only exceeded by its depth.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro wrote, “There is no thing without its opposite, and to live clinging to the one without in time welcoming the other is a fool.”

This sounds like a nice sentiment, the kind you might write a song about, if you were a songwriter. Some of it is obvious. Anyone who has ever had a garden knows that there is a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted. Nothing grows from last year’s tomato plants. We know there is a time to speak, and a time to keep quiet (and most of wish more people knew about the latter).

But we prefer to have a time of laughing without the requisite time for weeping. We prefer dancing over mourning. We prefer peace over war. And we certainly prefer birth over death.

When I worked as a chaplain in the hospital, I was called to attend a death at least once a week, often more. But I rarely was there after a birth. That was a happy occasion, and no one felt the need to call the chaplain. They could handle that on their own. But for a death, they needed all the help they could get. You can say that everything has a season, but we do all we can to avoid the season of death, the season of mourning, the season when we refrain from embracing, the season when we scatter stones, the season of war and of hate.

As we should. We are not called to embrace hate, or war, or death in this passage. But we are just told these are inevitabilities. We are not told that we are to give ourselves over to tearing apart, to losing things dear to us, or to scattering stones. But we are warned that such a time will come. We are not told that we must “go gentle into that good night” of death, and I believe it is acceptable to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” But we should know that our raging may not change the inevitable.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”

Thoughts and Questions

  1. Qohelet is writing poetry here, not philosophy as he is the rest of the book. This passage certainly works as a poem, but he leaves a lot out. How can we know which is the time for embracing, for example, and which is the time to refrain from embracing? How do we know when it is time to love and when it is time to hate? What guides you through these decisions?
  2. If you have heard the song, “Turn, Turn, Turn,” based on this text, you know it has a hopeful note to it, especially in the words Pete Seeger added at the end—“A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late.” As you read it, in the context of what you have read so far in Ecclesiastes, does it still strike you as a hopeful song? Why or why not?
  3. Are there any other events you might add to this list? For example, a time to eat, and a time to go hungry; A time to be entertained and a time to work. Write three of your own.
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Ecclesiastes for Everyday: Day Nine

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 24 There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; 25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 26 For to the one who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy; but to the sinner he gives the work of gathering and heaping, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is mere breath and an attempt to try to herd the wind.

 

 

So far Qohelet seems to be a pretty gloomy guy. Is there anything in life that pleases him?

As it turns out, there is—eating, drinking and hard, satisfying work. If you can be satisfied with what you have to eat and drink, and with the labor you perform to earn your daily bread, you are indeed a happy person, he says.

There is a story of a Buddhist monk who was walking along a mountain path. Down the path came a hungry tiger, and when he saw the monk, he came running toward him. The monk slipped over the edge of the path, and started to climb down a vine that was hanging there. As he descended, he saw a bear at the bottom, waiting for him. Above him the tiger was looking down, and below him the bear was looking up. He looked over and saw that ants were beginning to chew on the vine. To his left he saw a strawberry, and reached over to pluck it. He ate it.

It was delicious.

This is an extreme example of what Qohelet teaches, but it underscores his point. We cannot control the many factors that make up our lives, but if we can be satisfied with the food and drink we have, as well as the way we have to earn it, then we are blessed.

Previously, Qohelet has said that making pleasure (including food and drink) one of our main goals in life is pointless (mere breath), but here he is affirming that we have to eat, drink, and work, so we might has well find some kind of satisfaction in that.

Qohelet has a warning here. For the first time he affirms that people who please God receive “wisdom and knowledge and joy,” but those who sin end up “gathering and heaping” only to have the righteous enjoy the fruits of their labor. This is one of the few times where Qohelet says that God rewards the just and punishes the unjust. In most other places he frets because it seems that too often the just and the unjust receive the same from God.

However he seems to be making a different point. If you attempt to hoard things, if you think you can find pleasure from gathering about you a wealth of material resources, one day you will die, and all that is valuable to you will parsed out to others. All your hard work is for nothing in the end. But if you are satisfied with what you have in this life, and do not attempt to hoard, you will die happy and satisfied, and if anybody gets what you did manage to accumulate, that will not bother you in the least, because your possessions did not own you.

Thoughts and Questions

  1. Qohelet ends this passage with his usual, “This also is mere breath and an attempt to try to herd the wind.” Perhaps he is saying that after all is said and done, and you are in your grave, it does not matter what you did in this life. Richard Pryor said, “You never saw a Brink’s truck following a hearse.” What good is our accumulated wealth?
  2. What do you feel is the measure of a Good Life? Looking back on your own life, what were your happiest days? What were the most frustrating days? How can you maximize the reminder of your days?
  3. Qohelet says that taking pleasure in eating and drinking comes “from the hand of God.” Perhaps that is why we should give thanks at every meal we eat. How well do you appreciate or enjoy the food you eat on a regular basis? The next meal you have, take time to enjoy it. Eat slowly. Thank God for every bite. Enjoy the drink you have. These are gifts from God.
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