Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Book of Ecclesiastes, part 1




We don’t know who wrote Ecclesiastes, but tradition assigns authorship to Solomon. The word Ecclesiastes comes from the Greek word Ekklesiastes which means “speaker of a called out assembly”. The Hebrew Bible calls this book Qoheleth from the word in verse 1, chapter 1, that many translations have as “preacher”:
1 The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:
or as you see here “teacher”, but the original means “assembler” or “collector” of wisdom. Who was a collector of wisdom and son of David? Solomon seems to be the obvious answer. After his scandalous backsliding he made public what he learned from his experiences. Whereas in Proverbs he reveals God’s wisdom, in Ecclesiastes he despairs over the complexity of life, the failure of natural wisdom and the futility of looking for truth and happiness apart from God. The major theme of the book is that without God’s blessing nothing satisfies, not wisdom, power, pleasure or riches. In fact, without God those things bring disillusionment and disappointment.
Solomon says it right away. Read verse 2:
2 “Meaningless! Meaningless!”
   says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
   Everything is meaningless.”
Many translations use the word “vanity” instead of “meaningless”. Other interpretations are “worthlessness” or “emptiness”. The Hebrew Bible translates this word with the word “futility”. To me that really adds a feeling of helplessness. Read on and feel the futility. Woe is me! Solomon writes eloquently. “A chasing after the wind” is such a supreme metaphor. Some translations have “a chase after wind” and old KJV bibles have “vexation of spirit”. The Hebrew Bible translates it as “pursuit of wind” and footnotes that the word comes from the verb “to shepherd”. Can you imagine trying to shepherd the wind? Pretty futile. The phrase is used 9 times in Ecclesiastes. Chapters 1 and 2 examine the vanity, or meaninglessness, of human pleasure and wisdom. Solomon tries to apply his wisdom to the problem of finding happiness. If you read chapter 2 you find that he tries laughter, wine, building projects, and enjoying his wealth through slaves and singers and a harem. He sums it all up in verses 10 and 11:
 10 I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
   I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my labor,
   and this was the reward for all my toil.
11 Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
   and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
   nothing was gained under the sun.

Everything was meaningless, he says. The result of his quest was great disappointment. Next he examines wisdom and then work and still comes to the same conclusion – it’s all meaningless – again: a chasing after the wind.