24 A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, 25 for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? 26 To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. (Read the rest of the chapter, here.)
The journey begins
I ended last post with a spoiler, and I’m going to spend a lot of time jumping around and ahead in this post, too. Not that I really think there can be any spoilers in the Bible anymore, we’ve all be around the broad strokes of the big stories for too long…but I do want to give you fair warning if you want to go read ahead yourself before anyone puts any preconceived notions in your noggin.
With that disclaimer out of the way, I want to draw your attention to another literary aspect of Ecclesiastes that makes it eminently readable and personable: Qohelet’s journey to wisdom. The journey follows a natural progression of a man’s life from child to youth to wizened sage. While this journey continues throughout the book, much of it takes place in the condensed narrative of chapter two, so it seems appropriate to focus upon it today.
The journey starts briefly in chapter one, but it does start: In 1:13 Qohelet says “I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven.” This one little verse made me think of my girls, and the sheer wonder they experience on a regular basis. They enjoy learning for learning’s sake, and are constantly searching under rocks for new bugs, eager for their new vocabulary games, and always, always showing off their latest finds, whether it be a sticker or a leaf or deer poop (a sighting that causes much excitement in our backyard). Perhaps they haven’t formally declared their “devotion to study” the same way Qohelet has, but in practice, that is what they (like many other curious children) are doing. They delight in learning about their world, steeped in education from morning to night, wondering at all that is done under heaven. There is a joy in 1:13 that speaks to youthful exuberance and childhood wonder, a learning for learning’s sake.
Recklessness and wisdom gained in the teen years
Yet something happens. In this life, something always happens, even if it is just becoming a teenager. The closing words of chapter one carry so much weight in them: “for with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” Do you remember being a teenager? Everything teenagers feel, they feel big. I do not say that to disparage teenagers, their passion and emotions can be frustrating, to be sure, but also can act as a catalyst for the rest of us to examine our own feelings. Are they really acting outrageously, or should I be as outraged as they are at whatever indignity they are pointing to? Sometimes no, they just need to calm down, but oftentimes we do need to pay more attention to what is upsetting them. I sincerely hope that whatever trials teenagers are going through get smaller in hindsight (and my heart goes out to each and every teenager that is living through quarantine right now, because that is causing some big feelings in all of us), but I remember how important everything seemed in my teen years. I didn’t have small feelings, small reactions. The angst in the closing lines of chapter one isn’t just for teenagers, but I do believe it’s an angst we start feeling in those years. Our childhood innocence fades, we become aware of larger problems in the world, and it is unsettling.
And how do teenagers often deal with these big feelings? By acting more recklessly than their parents may like. And that is exactly what the opening lines of chapter two sound like: a teen following hormones and under-developed coping skills to partying and delights of the flesh. “I thought in my heart, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good,'” opens chapter two. Yes, Qohelet goes on to say laughter is foolish, but that doesn’t stop him from “cheering [himself] with wine and embracing folly.” How many times were you asked as a teenager “what were you thinking?” or “don’t you know better?” after embracing some folly? The answers were, at least for me, “I wasn’t thinking” and “I do know better,” but that still didn’t stop me from dating someone my parents didn’t like, sneaking off to parties, trying drugs, getting drunk, or trespassing among other transgressions committed as a teenager. (And I was a “good kid!”) Qohelet sounds much the same here, wouldn’t you agree? While we may wince to think back on all the folly of our teen years, we also did a lot of important learning about boundaries, limitations, and consequences during that time. The teen years, however painful they might be, are an important early stop on the journey to wisdom.
Building empires as a young adult, finding meaning in middle age
Then, starting around 2:4, Qohelet ages into young adulthood, with his first bit of authority, and all his youthful vigor. He undertakes “great projects,” everything from grand parks to a supposed harem (the general consensus translation, the original Hebrew word has an unknown, or at the very least debated, meaning). Qohelet may not have a Gordon Gekko in his life, but I still thought of Wall Street’s Bud Fox here: a young, ambitious character eager to build something and experience all the finer things in life.
Qohelet’s “heart took delight in all [his] work,” and “[He] denied [him]self nothing [his] heart desired,” yet again, something changes. The work, the women, the fine things, they aren’t enough. Qohelet sees that all his achievements, all his possessions, all his wisdom, are not going to grant him immortality. “So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind,” he tells us in 2:17, going on in 2:21 to say “for a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge, and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it.” In other words, you can’t take it with you.
The reflections of a sage, where wisdom becomes a practice
Qohelet wrestles with this on and off the next two chapters, one might argue for the rest of the book, but slowly comes to a place of acceptance. Qohelet makes the realization akin to “it’s not as bad as I thought” as the worries of younger years seem less and less urgent, and he surrenders more and more to the will of God. Again, we’ll get a lot of back and forth on the “meaningless” of life throughout the rest of the book, but you can already see Qohelet’s ultimate lesson revealed in 2:24-25: “A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?”
I think the above lesson is important – why else would Qohelet repeat it, in various iterations, over and over through-out the book? But there is a secondary lesson I want to share with you today. Wisdom is a journey, not a destination. As Qohelet has made clear though his own life narrative, wisdom is a practice. He gained experience from each of his life stages. Life experience is a teacher available to all of us. One hopes to gain wisdom of the years, but how often do we actually cultivate it? I think Qohelet is telling us to become more intentional in our lived experiences. Then we will gain more wisdom, and with that, more balance in all aspects of our life. Much like exercise, the “goal” of wisdom isn’t some finite destination, but rather a cumulative effect that continually improves us. One does not “finish” exercising, and one does not “finish” wisdom. The journey itself is the point.
In closing, I invite you to be observant and intentional this week. We are all on our own wisdom journeys, now more than ever. We are learning what we can live without, we are learning what is important to us, we are hopefully learning patience, respect, and love. Perhaps with quarantines still in effect you have a little more time to make space for more observation and intention, and put it in full practice before we return to “normal.” Perhaps now you need to make more time for that intention, because it will help put the hecticness and anxiety of this time into perspective so you can tackle it head-on if need be, or let it go if possible. This is an ongoing process, so let’s embrace the journey and know that every day we are moving forward towards satisfaction, towards wisdom, towards joy.
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