Ecclesiastes for Everyday: Day 18

The One where Qohelet says that satisfaction is hard to come by.  

Screenshot from Satisfaction (I Can't Get No)

If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and right, do not be amazed at the matter; for the high official is watched by a higher one, and there are yet higher ones over them. But all things considered, the gain of land is everything: a king is subject to a plowed field.

 

10 The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This also is mere breath.

11 When goods increase, those who eat them increase; and what gain has their owner but to see them with his eyes?

12 Sweet is the sleep of laborers, whether they eat little or much; but the surfeit of the rich will not let them sleep.

 

Every day when I walk to work I go through the park across the church where a lot of our town’s homeless people hang out. I wonder if this is the best we can do for them. But I wonder what we can do for them. I’m afraid that one day I will get so used to seeing them that I will no longer really see them. They will just fade into an inevitable part of the landscape.

We may be so used to seeing the oppression of the poor that we don’t even notice it anymore. But in the Old Testament the treatment of the poor (in those days that meant orphans, widows and foreigners) was the hallmark of how successful and righteous the king was.[i]

Perhaps that was because people took care of one another in ancient Israel. (Many small towns in America used to be like that. When there was a need, people just pitched in to help.) And the king would set the example. But here Qohelet talks about seeing a place where the poor are not taken care of, and where there is little in the way of justice, and assumes that people would be astonished at that sad state of affairs.

“You shouldn’t be so surprised,” he says, and then gives a universal political rule. For every person in power, there is someone, or something, that has more power than they do.

In the song Badlands, Bruce Springsteen sings:

Poor man wanna be rich

rich man wanna be king

and a king ain’t satisfied ‘til he rules everything.”

 

But there are things that even a king cannot rule.

It may look like a king has ultimate authority, but even a king is subject to the law of the harvest. If the crops don’t grow, the king’s wealth and power diminishes. From there Qohelet tells us that the chasing after wealth is like chasing the wind. You things, and it is not long before you have more things than you can use. Either you are so busy working that you have no time to enjoy your things, or you have so many that you never get around to using them all.  Of what use are the things that you cannot use?

I look around my library as I write this. I have more books than I will ever be able to read, and yet I buy more. What good are they? They are good to look at, but that is about all. On my computer I have 112 days’ worth of music. I could listen to music, night and day, for 112 straight days! Who needs that much music? I don’t have time to go through a 112 day playlist. All I can do is look at the status bar that tells me I have 112 days worth of music, and then play the same 30 or 40 songs I usually listen to.

Mick Jagger was right. Getting satisfaction, true satisfaction, is hard.

The only good of many things is that we can see them with our eyes. They are like exercise equipment we never use. And of course, as Qohelet says, this is all like trying to herd the wind. It does not bring us any real fulfillment.

Thoughts and Questions

  1. It’s almost a tired cliché that riches do not bring us ultimate happiness, and yet we stubbornly cling to that notion. In Fiddler on the Roof, Perchek says, “money is the world’s curse,” and Tevye replied, “Then may God strike me down with it! And may I never recover!” What does money do for us? What does it not do?
  2. Qohelet says that if you look closely at a powerful person, you see someone even more powerful behind them. Who are the more powerful people (or things) that are behind you?
  3. Rabbi Shapiro writes, “The powerful protect their own, and there is no point getting worked up over this. Time spent trying to change the system is time wasted. Better to let the system consume itself through its own madness and folly while you focus on living well and wisely.” Do you disagree with this? If so, why?

 

[i] See Psalm 72. The king will know he has God’s favor because he treats the poor with justice, and the king will be acclaimed by the nations for the same reason. If you want guidance on how to pray for our political leaders, this is a good start. I pray this every day.

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Ecclesiastes for Everyday: Day 17

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1Step carefully when you go to the house of God; to draw near to listen is better than the sacrifice offered by fools; for they don’t even know how to do evil, much less any good. 2 Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few.

For dreams come with much business, and a fool’s voice with much talk.

When you make a vow to God, do not delay fulfilling it; for he has no pleasure in fools. Fulfill what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not fulfill it. Do not let your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake; why should God be angry at your words, and destroy the work of your hands?

Remember:
When dreams multiply,
so do pointless thoughts and excessive speech.
Therefore, fear God.

 

 

In the Lord of the Rings, Bilbo Baggins says, ““It’s a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

Qohelet tells us it is a dangerous business going to church. “Step carefully when you go to the house of God.” He suggests we go to worship to listen rather than to speak, because rash statements made in the house of God will be taken very seriously. (That is why I write out all my sermons! I may not always be wise, but at least I am not rash!)

Jesus was even sharper in his words:

“Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. (Matthew 5:34, 35)

When I was a kid, if we really wanted someone to believe us, we would say, “I swear to God.” That did not always mean that we were telling the truth. In fact, if you have to say that, there is a good chance it is because people have a good reason to NOT believe what you say.

Qohelet says that if you do make a vow, you better fulfill it. There is an important principle going on behind his words. If being on heaven or earth knows us through and through, it is God. Lying to God is just like lying to yourself. Making a heartfelt promise that you really have no intention to keep to God is like making that promise to yourself. And anyone who lies to themselves, certainly cannot be trusted when they speak to others.

They destroy their own credibility from the inside out. The only thing worse than lying intentionally is lying, and believing your own lies. That person has no real knowledge of truth or falsehood. Qohelet says that they are so inept they can’t even do evil things, much less good things.

This one of the few places where he says that there are divine consequences for bad or good behavior. Remember earlier where he lamented that the wise man and the fool suffer the same fate? Here he implies there is a kind of divine justice that occurs when we speak about God, that it changes our fate in this world.

He ends this section with a penetrating observation: “When dreams multiply, so do pointless thoughts and excessive speech.” Sometimes we say of a person, “Ah, he’s just a dreamer!” meaning that the person is not grounded in reality. The antidote, says Qohelet, is to fear God. God is the ultimate reality, for when we encounter God honestly, we also encounter the deep parts of ourselves.

 

Thoughts and Questions

  1. Have you ever made a vow to God? What did you vow? Why did you make that vow to God? What are good reasons to make a vow to God? What are bad reasons?
  2. An East German (back when there was an East Germany) said that Americans do not value as much as they do. Our words, he said, are cheap because they cost us nothing. When an East German told the truth, they often had to suffer severe persecution from their government. So they were very careful with their words, and valued truth as a precious commodity. Do we in America undervalue truth? What are the consequences of that, if we do?
  3. Qohelet is not big on dreamers. Does this apply to people like Martin Luther King, who dreamed of a different world? If not, why not?

 

 

 

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Ecclesiastes for Everyday: Day 16

The one where Qohelet talks about wisdom and politics. 

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13 Better is a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king, who will no longer take advice. 14 One can indeed come out of prison to reign, even though born poor in the kingdom. 15 I saw all the living who, moving about under the sun, follow that youth who replaced the king; 16 there was no end to all those people whom he led. Yet those who come later will not rejoice in him. Surely this also is mere breath and like trying to herd the wind.

 

In King Lear Shakespeare writes of a king who asks his daughters how much they love him. The first two wax eloquent about their love for the king, their father. The third, Cordelia, is not given to excessive speech, and simply says:

You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.

She knows that wise speech means saying what you mean, and meaning what you say. King Lear, however, does not hear the truth in the plain language of Cordelia, but like a fool, falls for the insincere but beautiful words of her sisters. He banishes Cordelia.

As it turns out the two sisters are quite fickle in their love for the king, but Cordelia, true to her word, loves the king with an enviable constancy, even after her banishment. Lear dies, alone and mad, unable to undo the foolish action of trusting his insincere daughters.

Qohelet sounds like he knows people like Lear. Great in stature, but not in wisdom. He says that people will follow the wise youth rather than the foolish king.

Given the political climate in this country, and around the world, these are welcome words. To think that people would follow a wise, but inexperienced youth over a foolish king with many years under his belt is welcome to hear. Experience may be good, but sometimes experience just proves that we don’t really learn anything. When I first moved to Alaska I needed to get a car worked on, and a parishioner recommended a certain auto shop. “I take my car there all the time,” he said. “Four or five times a year!” I knew that this person drove a relatively new car, and wondered, if the mechanic was that good, why was my parishioner constantly having to bring his car in to be fixed by this guy? Beware the automobile mechanic who has a lot of “experience” with your car!

Wisdom can be a rare commodity, and when we find a wise person, we should figuratively set up our tents at their feet.

But Qohelet just cannot leave well enough alone. Yes, the people will do this, however it will not be long before they turn on the youth, looking for someone else to guide them. In other words, the people will not be satisfied with their rulers, no matter who they are, or how popular they once were. Sometimes we find out they have feet of clay, and we cannot live with the disappointment. Sometimes we just want something new. But as Qohelet is fond of saying, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

Politics is, like everything else, mere breath, havel havelim. It is an exercise in herding the wind.

Thoughts and Questions

  1. Qohelet says that the poor, but wise youth is better off than the foolish, rich king. That sounds nice, but is that true? (Kings have a lot of perks!)
  2. Qohelet says that the people will eventually turn on the poor, wise youth as a leader. People do tend to turn on their political leaders with alarming frequency. (It has been said, “if you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog.”) Why do we tend to do this?
  3. The Pirkei Avot (a Jewish text on ethics) says, “Beware the powerful. Their friendship is a matter of convenience.” In the previous section Qohelet is discusses friendship when he talks about how two are better than one. What is the essence of true friendship?
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Ecclesiastes for Everyday: Day 15

 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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