|12 So I turned to consider wisdom and revelry and folly; for what can the one do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done. 13 Then I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness.
14 The wise have eyes in their head,
Yet I perceived that the same fate befalls all of them. 15 Then I said to myself, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also; why then have I been so very wise?” And I said to myself that this also is mere breath. 16 For there is no enduring remembrance of the wise or of fools, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How can the wise die just like fools? 17 So I hate life, because what is done under the sun was ugly to me; for all is mere breath and a futile attempt to herd the wind.
Woody Allen once said, “More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”
He was trying to be funny, but Qohelet says basically the same thing, and he is deadly serious. In this section he talks about wisdom and folly, and starts by saying that wisdom is better than folly, just like light is better than darkness. Now he is beginning to sound like a traditional teacher of wisdom. Finally! The wise see clearly, he says, but the fool stumbles around in the dark.
But then Qohelet’s mood changes. He seems to notice that both the fool and the wise man suffer the same fate. They die, and are forgotten. The folly of the fool dies with him, but the wisdom of the wise man also dies with him.
This is just too much for Qohelet. That the wise man and the fool both eventually suffer the same fate is more than he can bear. “I hate life,” he says, “because what is done under the sun was ugly to me.”
One of the perennial questions of faith is why good things happen to bad people, and why bad things happen to good people. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Auschwitz and two other concentration camps association associated with Dachau wrote the in the camps the good people died first. The ones who survived (and he includes himself in this) were the ones who were selfish, conniving, and willing to do anything to live.
We would like to think that only bad people get cancer, are audited by the IRS, or get killed in earthquakes, but the fact is no one is exempt. Qohelet would like to think that the wisdom of the wise lives after them, but a hard look at life tells him otherwise.
If you have been reading this devotional regularly, you may be getting a little depressed by this time. Qohelet does not seem to be the kind of guy you want to invite to do a guest sermon, much less be your regular preacher. Imagine a minister shouted from the pulpit, “I hate life!”
Is there any hope for us? This might be a good time to say that just because Qohelet is writing something that later became a biblical book, that does not mean is he right about everything. Remember, he had a somewhat limited understanding of God, and of life. However we must also remember that there are many Qohelets in our time. His view is not a foreign one to us. And he is irritating because he is so close to the truth.
Qohelet is pushing on this because he knows human nature. He knows our tendencies to grasp hold of things that we have no business hanging on to, and that by holding on to them, we merely make ourselves miserable. He wants to hold on to the notion that wise somehow get a special reward on some eternal plane, and the fact that he does not see that drives him to hate his life. It is possible he is just making a rhetorical point here. Why, you might ask, should he hate his life just because of that insight? Have your children ever shouted at you, “I wish I had never been born!” because you made them clean their room when they wanted to go out and play? Qohelet sounds almost as mature as that, and I think he knows that. He is making a bigger point. Holding on to the wrong things will make you as miserable as he is pretending to be in this passage. (If he really hated life all that much, would he have taken the time to finish the book?)
Thoughts and Questions
- If you could choose three things in your life that would outlive you, what they be? Why these three things?
- Qohelet is not going to give up on wisdom just because he is afraid it will not outlive him. He does have some kind of hope for the future. What is your hope for the future?
- On the other hand, what have you done in your life that best resembles trying to “herd the wind?”