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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Ecclesiastes for Everyday: Day Eight

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18 I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me 19 —and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and grew wise under the sun. This also is mere breath. 20 So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21 because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is mere breath and a great evil. 22 What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? 23 For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a worry; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is mere breath.

 

My uncle Pete made the best red cole slaw you ever ate in your life. I always looked forward to going to his house for dinners, because of his cole slaw. But he kept the recipe a strict secret. He would not tell anyone what his secret ingredients were, not even his wife, children and grandchildren.

He got lung cancer, and was in hospice. My step father was visiting him, and said one day, “Pete, why don’t you leave us that cole slaw recipe before you die? That can be your legacy to the world.”

Uncle Pete nodded, and asked for some paper and a pen. He scribbled down, “two heads of cabbage,” looked at the paper for a while, then crumpled it up and said, “Nah, you’d just mess it up.”

And those were his last words.

Like Qohelet, it galled him that someone would take his work, mess it up, and then take credit for it.

There is a saying that a good person is someone who plants a tree they will never enjoy the shade of themselves, who plant a long term crop they will never be able to harvest. This seems to go against the claim he just made however that all the good a person does will be forgotten. Perhaps this is a clue that Qohelet is overstating his case to make a point. And the point is this; don’t cling too tightly to what you have, or what you have done. It is not really yours.

In 1968 Dr. Spencer Silver, a scientist at 3M was trying to invent a super strong adhesive. Instead he ended up with a very low strength adhesive, whose only positive property was that you put it on several different surfaces without it losing its adhesive power. The invention floated around 3M for a while, until in 1974 Art Fry saw Silver’s invention, and turned it into the Post-it note we know today. One man invented it, but it took another man to see the practical use for it. That is often the way of life. Everything we do is incomplete. Had Silver clung to the notion that his invention was supposed to be a superstrong adhesive, we would not have Post-it notes today.

Qohelet does not want to let go of the fruit of his wisdom however, because he is afraid that people who don’t deserve it will get a hold of it, and use it for their purposes. But holding on to his wisdom only makes him miserable.

 

 

 

Thoughts and Questions

  1. What do you hold on to? Family? Friends? God? Work? Does holding on to it make it more precious to you, or more worrisome? What would it mean to let go of it?
  2. Qohelet asks, “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun?” What is the natural reward of all our work? What do you want it to be? What is it really?
  3. Qohelet seems to be like a petulant child here. “I don’t want you to have this because it is mine!” he is saying. This does not look like the sentiments of a wise man, and yet these are common sentiments. He is showing us, perhaps, how foolish we look sometimes. Do you see other people in the picture of life he paints? Do you see yourself?

 

 

 

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Ecclesiastes for Everyday: Day Seven

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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,
but fools walk in darkness.

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

  1. If you could choose three things in your life that would outlive you, what they be? Why these three things?
  2. 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?
  3. On the other hand, what have you done in your life that best resembles trying to “herd the wind?”

 

 

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