Friday, September 2, 2016

Examining 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 Ecclesiastes 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:

 3 What do people gain from all their labors
   at which they toil under the sun?
4 Generations come and generations go,
   but the earth remains forever.
5 The sun rises and the sun sets,
   and hurries back to where it rises.
6 The wind blows to the south
   and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
   ever returning on its course.
7 All streams flow into the sea,
   yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
   there they return again.
8 All things are wearisome,
   more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
   nor the ear its fill of hearing.
9 What has been will be again,
   what has been done will be done again;
   there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there anything of which one can say,
   “Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
   it was here before our time.
11 No one remembers the former generations,
   and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
   by those who follow them.
 12 I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind! 14 I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
 15 What is crooked cannot be straightened;
   what is lacking cannot be counted.
 16 I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” 17 Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind.
 18 For with much wisdom comes much sorrow;
   the more knowledge, the more grief.
Woe is me! And doesn’t Solomon write 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.