Sunday, August 25, 2013

Ecclesiastes: Eat, Drink, and be Merry? Is this "Bible?"

He was the wisest, richest, most admired and most powerful king Israel ever knew. His reign represented the high point of the Hebrew empire. Unlike his legendary father, the teen-aged giant killer who came from nothing to become Israel's first great king, Solomon started at the top, and went up from there. Entire books of scripture are attributed to him, and they range in subject matter from war and politics to child rearing and sex. Structures he built in Jerusalem are still standing today. His reputation for wisdom is of mythic proportions. It's hard to believe such a man ever really existed.

Until you open the "Book of the Preacher": Ecclesiastes. This is not the frightened young Solomon, newly crowned, asking God for the judgment to be a good king. Nor is it the handsome devil who won the Queen of Sheba's heart with a glance. This is a man who has done it all, seen it all, has it all, and finds it all to be meaningless. "Vanity of vanities," he mourns again and again, "all is vanity."

What do we accomplish with all our work? People are born and die. Seasons come and go. The sun rises and sets and nothing ever happens that hasn't happened a thousand times before. Nothing we do changes anything, and we will all be forgotten when we die. In the first of many chilling passages, Solomon grieves,
What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be numbered.
 All the wise king's pursuit of knowledge has taught him is that wisdom brings grief and knowledge increases sorrow. It changes nothing. It is meaningless. He calls it "grasping for the wind."

Adding to the vanity of life is the absence of justice. Good people suffer while evil ones thrive. Some live for pleasure, others for wisdom, but all end up in the same cold grave.

Next comes the strange hymn that many of my generation probably think was written by these guys.

In the jingle-jangle of 'Sixties Pop-Folk, the words seem sanguine as if to say, "it's a big world. There's room for everything, man. Things may have been bad, but they're going to get better." But in Solomon's mouth, the words lack the sweet smell of Patchouli and leather jackets. The preacher seems to hold up the absurdity of a life where everything is equal. We are born and we die. We plant and we pull up. We gain and lose, tear and sew, love and hate and there is a time for all of them. There is no virtue strong enough to eliminate the vice it mirrors. No peace lasting enough to prevent the next war. We work and strive and none of it makes a damn bit of difference.

And here the Preacher repeats a theme that will echo throughout the book.
Nothing is better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and that his soul should enjoy good in his labor. This also, I saw, was from the hand of God.
A modern reader can't help but trip over the passage. Is this really "Bible" I'm reading? Do the scriptures really tell us to quit worrying and be happy? Enjoy life and stop banging your head against walls that you can't break? How many sermons have you heard preached on Ecclesiastes? Not many, I'll wager. There are some pretty radical ideas in here.
I said in my heart, "concerning the condition of the sons of men, God tests them that they may see that they themselves are like animals... Surely, they all have one breath; man has no advantage over animals, for all is vanity.
We want to know we are important. We want to be the center of the universe. We want to mean something. But here is Solomon telling us that our lives have no more meaning than an ox or a mosquito. He also savages what we contemporary folk might call our "Puritan work ethic."
Again, I saw that for all toil and every skillful work a man is envied by his neighbor. This also is vanity and grasping for the wind... There is one alone without companion: He has neither son nor brother. Yet there is no end to all his labors, Nor is his eye satisfied with riches. But he never asks, "For whom do I toil and deprive myself of good?" This also is vanity and a grave misfortune.
 Then comes a strange little passage about something that is not meaningless at all: companionship.
Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor. for if they fall, one will lift up his companion. But woe to him who is alone when he falls. for he has no one to help him up. Again, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one be warm alone? Though one may be overpowered by another, two can withstand him. And a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
Where can we find our treasure, then? In wages stored up after labor? In books we have written or the people who work for us or the "legacy" we build in a futile attempt to live on after we are dead? Vanity! Our one true pleasure comes from enjoying the company of the people we love, and who love us. There is no "meaning." There is only delight in the world God has made. Everything that exists is going to perish one day. There is no tomorrow. There is only today. At last, Solomon comes to a phrase that I have to confess I did not know came from the Bible.
So I commended enjoyment, because a man has nothing better under the sun than to eat, drink, and be merry; for this will remain with him in his labor for all the days of his life which God gives him under the sun.
The first question and answer from the old Westminster Catechism was, "What is the chief end of man? The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever." Solomon is much more terrestrial in his conclusion. He seems to be saying that our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Creation for as long as we are allowed to be a part of it.

The meaning of life, it's purpose, our reason for being is Joy.

I could go on and on, but even in this, the wise old king has a warning.
Of making many books, there is no end, and much study is wearisome to the flesh.
It's just not that complicated...
Fear God, and keep His commandments, For this is man's all. For God will bring every work in to judgment, Including every secret thing, Whether Good or evil.
And how should we live?
It is good and fitting for one to eat and drink, and to enjoy the good of all his labor in which he toils under the sun all the days of his life which God gives him; for it is his heritage.
Joyful obedience. Grateful delight. A life dedicated to the pleasures that come from sharing God's creation with one another. That's why we're here. The rest? Riches? Glory? Status? Meaning?

... All is Vanity.

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