Summary: Year C NINTH SUNDAY AFTER PENECOST (PROPER 13) AUGUST 5, 2001 Ecclesiastes 1:2; 12-14; 2:18-23 Title: “Why bother?”
Year C NINTH SUNDAY AFTER PENECOST (PROPER 13) AUGUST 5, 2001
Ecclesiastes 1:2; 12-14; 2:18-23
Title: “Why bother?”
Written probably about three centuries before Christ, the Book of Ecclesiastes marks an advance over the doctrine of divine retribution. Simplistically put, that doctrine stated that God rewarded good behavior and punished wrongdoing. Because that doctrine did not square with the facts of life, wrongdoers prospered as much as do-gooders and vice versa, the doctrine forced thinking people to amend it or extend it. Tracing the doctrine’s development, particularly through the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament: Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes and certain Psalms, leads to the doctrine of eternal life in the New Testament. The teaching found in this work is just about the last step along the way. It is devastating critique of the doctrine of divine retribution in this life, namely, that it does not square with the facts, that evil prospers as well as good, and that the good are punished as well as the bad, forced a change in thinking. Even though many of the author’s contemporary thinkers believed in some notion of an afterlife, where justice is finally done and the good rewarded and the evil punished, the author steadfastly holds to his “this is the only life or form of life there is” philosophy. Despite his admission that neither he nor any other human could solve life’s conundrums, there is still meaning to be found amidst so much meaninglessness translated in this work as “vanity,” Hebrew hebel. If Job asked the question, “What is the meaning of suffering and why do the innocent suffer if God is just?” this author asks, “What is the meaning of life and what sense does any of it make for either the just or the unjust?”
“Ecclesiastes” is the Greek translation of the Hebrew “Qoheleth.” It is a word difficult to translate. It seems to be not a personal name but a title or epithet for the author. It means something like “One who calls the assembly” or “gathers the assembly,” coming from the Hebrew root q-h-l, for “assemble, gather.” Jerome and Luther translate it as “Preacher,” a good term because the work is a sort of homily, although a very structured one, more like a written treatise than an oratorical composition. The author sees good behavior as certainly preferable to bad behavior, but as ending up no different. Both good and bad die and that is the end of it. So, what is the point of it? His answer, in a nutshell, is enjoyment. Enjoy the present moment, one’s “lot” in life, and gather all the gusto you can. God’s wants you to enjoy your time on earth to the fullest extent possible. He does not want you to figure out the mysteries of the universe or life. You cannot anyway. But he does want you to enjoy life in the context of doing good, not bad. In this sense the author stands with those who, even today, advocate doing what you feel like and only that, and “if it feels good it is good, so do it” philosophy. He stands in that camp, but he has a different message. By “good” he means “God’s good” as God revealed it, not “human good” as humans feel it. If humans cannot figure out the meaning of life, how could they possibly be the determiners and deciders of what is good? Thus his point is that all else but God’s good is “vanity,” the meaning of which he shall elucidate throughout his work.
In verses Chapter one verse two, all things are vanity, this is the motto of the whole book, stated here and at the end 12:8. The word in Hebrew, hebel, “vanity,” has the numerical value of thirty-seven and is used thirty-seven times. The whole book is a numerical composition, divided into two parts 2:1-6:9 and 6: 10- 11:6, each consisting of 93 verses, flanked by a prologue of 18 verses and an 18 verse epilogue, yielding 111 verses per part. In the strange world of numerology the numbers, 18, 93, 111, 186, and 222, are all related to the number 37. The Hebrew word hebel means “breath” or “vapor.” We would say “steam” or “hot air.” It refers to anything transient, ephemeral, unsubstantial, pointless, meaningless, without worth, merit, or value, not to be believed in, anything that is a sham. In a word, “guilty on all counts of being empty” even when its gauge reads “full” or “half-full.” The author has pondered life and all its activities and found it all to come up short of any ultimate or even long-lasting satisfying meaning. It matters not whether an activity be good or bad, both are ultimately meaningless in so far as neither makes a substantial difference in the great scheme of things. One has only to look at the monotonous repetition of nature to grasp the truth that there is “nothing new under the sun 1:9,” Everything has been done before and will be done again. Only the characters change; the script stays the same. “If the fool’s lot is to befall me, that is, death, why should I be wise? Where is the profit for me? For neither will there be an abiding remembrance, for in the days to come both the good and the bad, the wise and the foolish, will have been forgotten. How is it that the wise man dies as well as the fool! 2:15-16.”