Ecclesiastes - Strange But True
A sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden
Sunday, If you want to encapsulate today’s gospel reading in one soundbite, it’s this: “Eat, drink and be merry… for tomorrow we die”. It’s one of the world’s great sayings. But where did Jesus quote it from? Basically, it’s from the book of Ecclesiastes, which is full of those kinds of sayings. It’s not all that often that we get to read from Ecclesiastes in our services, but our first reading today came from it, and I have decided to concentrate on that.
So, first I’d like to take a bit of an overview of Ecclesiastes.
Frankly, it’s a really strange book. It is cynical, overly pessimistic and certainly fatalistic. It would appear to be the work of an older man who has seen much of life. It would appear to be a single entity, although it is relatively unstructured and often veers into being collected musings. It would appear that it has a single author, and the first person is used throughout. The author is known variously as ‘Preacher’ or ‘Koheleth’. The latter is thought to be derived from a Hebrew etymology which means ‘gathering’ or ‘assembling’ and the collected musings may therefore be not simply his own but a compendium of the cynical and pessimistic conclusions of a gathered assembly of some kind, and of which Koheleth may have been a spokesman. It is, some say, just possible that the author is in fact King Solomon.
To sum up Ecclesiastes: the author wearily pours scorn onto all notions of security, certainty and assurance. Every condition of humanity is placed under his fatalistic magnifying glass: action, politics, love, pleasure, work, wisdom. All of this is, in his favorite word, ‘vanity’. ‘Vanity’ is his generic, catch-all description, variously meaning: futile, transient, fleeting, fruitless, unprofitable, enigmatic, un-beneficial, and so on. To Koheleth life is a vale of tears. We are born, we live, and we die. There is a more fitting phrase that I could use to describe his general outlook on the human condition, though I probably won’t.
It would be easy to dismiss Ecclesiastes as the reactionary ramblings of a grumpy old man, but it is well-thought through, and follows a very logical pattern of thought. Simply, the author is searching for the key to life.
But everywhere he looks he finds no key, just futility. He looks at the natural world, but it just goes endlessly around and around. To paraphrase chapter 1, verse 5: ‘the sun goes up and the sun goes down, round and round goes the wind; all the rivers run into the sea, but the sea is never filled’.
He looks for the key in the progress of human history and inventiveness. No key there, because, as he puts it, there is ‘nothing new under the sun’. It’s just the same old stuff, day in, day out. His words are sharp and tart: ‘Is there a thing of which it is said “See, this is new”? It has been already, in the ages before us’. Any apparent progress is just an illusion.
He looks for the key in knowledge but concludes that ‘what is crooked cannot be made straight’. Or to put it another way, ‘we know such and such, well, big deal. Knowing something isn’t going to change it, so it is pointless knowing it’. He also concludes that ‘what is lacking cannot be numbered’: in other words, that ‘if we don’t know something, then we don’t know that we don’t know it, so it’s futile to try and acquire it’.
He looks for the key in pleasure, but concludes that it is all ephemeral, not lasting, but purely transitory. Whilst it is nice at the time, it confers no real profit. He finds it all utterly meaningless.
He looks for the key in work and wealth. These, you will not be surprised to learn, he finds futile. In the case of work, not only is the physical toil painful and unpleasant, but work is motivated by greed and the desire to compete with and get ahead of others. It brings on sleepless nights and often the rewards of toil are enjoyed by someone else, anyway. Wealth is futile, because the more it is amassed the less it is clear why it is being amassed. And if one does have wealth, it brings its own subset of troubles: worry about how to invest it, and worry that that might be a bad investment; worry about being extra-vigilant with security. Far better, he says, to do the absolute minimum to get by on a day-to-day basis.
He looks for the key in fame, but does not find it there. Rather he finds a topsy-turvy world where the span of life is the same whether one is good or wicked, that the famous and the infamous die in the same way and, anyway, why waste good time on gaining fame because it won’t get you anywhere when you die.
Koheleth has searched for the key, but has not found it. Everything he has examined has proved futile, with one exception. The only thing that really matters is to eat well. If everything else is futile, one might as well enjoy one’s food. And so we get the famous ‘Eat, drink and be merry’. He doesn’t actually say ‘for tomorrow we die’- that part is taken from Isaiah 22 – but it is very much in the same sentiment.
And what of wisdom? What does he consider to be wisdom? Is it the same as knowledge? He considers wisdom to be the judicious application of knowledge the better to live life.
Or to quote one of my favorite definitions of the difference between knowledge and wisdom: ‘that a tomato is a fruit is knowledge; that it would not be good in a fruit salad is wisdom’.
So Koheleth writes, ‘All this I have tested by wisdom; I said, “I will be wise”; but it was very far from me. That which is, is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out?’
His relationship with the assessment of wisdom is qualitatively different from his other assessments. He earnestly desires wisdom; he considers it to be good. He considers it will confer advantage to him among all the futility of life with which he seems to be battling. Wisdom is elusive and capricious. One may strive to be wise and largely succeed, but then one little act of folly may undo all the wisdom. He paints a vivid picture of this process: he tells us about the ‘fly in the ointment’. One dead fly in a perfumer’s ointment gives off a ‘foul odor’.
Yet in a funny sort of way, the writer had found wisdom almost without realizing it. It reminds me of the two followers of Jesus sharing supper with him at Emmaus and not realizing it. They knew that they had found Jesus without knowing that they had found him: such a paradox.
Many argue that there is no good news in Ecclesiastes. Indeed, I must admit that implied at the start that this is my point of view. But Ecclesiastes is not a charter for being miserable. It is, actually, intensely realistic. It’s one of the reasons why I like it very much. Although we might not like what he has to say, the fact is that many of the facets of life which he identifies as ephemeral are ephemeral. I can’t admit to agreeing with all of his world-view, but there is much we can learn from it. And central to his message – if indeed a core message was intended – is that although this life is transitory and perplexing, it comes from God, for whom the writer has the very highest regard. And as a God-given gift, life needs to be stripped of its fripperies and we need to get on with enjoying it for what it is. Perhaps that is fatalistic. Perhaps I wouldn’t subscribe to it all, but to be told occasionally to not take everything too seriously, to shed some of my illusions, and to take a few more risks is something which, if I am wise, I will listen to and hear, and perhaps that is true for many of us, too.