Ecclesiastes 02 – A Journey to Wisdom

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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Ecclesiastes 01 – Breath, Qohelet, and Joy

The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
    says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
    Everything is meaningless.”
(Read the rest of the chapter here.)

 

An Introduction

Today, shelter-in-place and similar mandates begin rolling back in many states, but even with these relaxations we are no where near “normal” yet, and this virus is not under control.  I wanted to share Ecclesiastes with you all now because it is a book that does not ignore the hardships of the world, but it always cycles back to focus upon joy.  I think that is a mindset we are all in right now: For many, quarantine has been a welcome break, a chance for us to refocus on family, to rest, to realize all the things we actually can live without.  But it is also a time of economic hardship, anxiety, and having to take on roles we never needed to before, such as the role of teacher to our now home-schooled children.  Many of the themes mentioned in Ecclesiastes are ones that can be applied broadly to today: the oppressed and grieving not being comforted, the frustration we all face at some point with not being able to find meaning in our work, the unfairness of a wicked man prospering while a righteous one suffers.  I’m glad this text doesn’t ignore that suffering.  But if you read it with an open heart, more than anything else Ecclesiastes counsels us in the ways of acceptance and joy, and that’s the kind of thing we could all use a little more of in these unusual times.

I honestly was shocked to hear that for much of history Ecclesiastes has been regarded as a pessimistic book (downer opening verses aside).  It has been viewed, more often than not, a weird outlier in the Bible that defies classification, something that needs to be explained away or ignored.  Having parents that grew up in the ’60s , vv 3:1-8 (a time to be born a time to die….made famous by the Byrds’ song Turn Turn Turn) were some of the first verses I recognized fondly as a kid.  Beyond that, it is a book about finding enjoyment and fulfillment within one’s lot in life. Verses 9:7-10, a passage that starts with “Go, eat your food with gladness…” has been one of my favorite passages since I started seriously reading the Bible for myself, and has been dog-eared for over a decade in my go-to NIV text.

Hebel

I believe part of the confusion and in-read pessimism comes from the word Hebrew word hebel. Per my NIV study notes, “this key term appears 35 times in the book and only once elsewhere (Job 27:12). The Hebrew for it originally meant ‘breath.’ ” Hebel has traditionally been translated as “meaningless,” a word with negative connotations, as seen in the opening verses above.  “Breath,” I believe, implies a more positive ephemera.  Breath is of the utmost importance – it is what gives us life, yet it is not something we can hold onto.  We cannot amass “breath” the way we amass wealth, and, even in our age of scientific understanding, it defies our full knowledge.  Yes, CPR works to return breath sometimes, but not always.  The full mystery of “breath” yet eludes us, as does the meaning of life.

But to change v. 2 to ” ‘Breath! Breath!’ says the teacher, ‘Utter breath! Everything is breath’ ” makes the passage even weirder.  In my supportive readings on Ecclesiastes, I came across the translation of hebel as “beyond mortal grasp” from biblical scholar Choon-Leong Seow.  This translation, I believe, most fully captures the author’s meaning of this key term, repeated so often throughout the book.  Which brings me to the author himself.

Qohelet

This book is written by “the Teacher,” or Qohelet (sometimes spelled Qoheleth, too). It is a term that means “teacher” but also is related to “assembly.” I like that correlation, because it makes me think of the choir in Greek plays, and how they are often there to impart wisdom or commentary that other, individual characters might not be able to provide.

One of the things that is so charming about Ecclesiastes is the very personal nature of the writing style.  Of course, first-person pronouns help a lot towards that feeling, but even beyond that, the reader really gets the sense that Qohelet is a real person writing this book.  His original words have had thousands of years to be edited, and there are certainly some passages that sound less Qohelet-y (if I can make up that adjective), but overall there is a character, a voice, an individual behind these words that shines through.

This book is traditionally attributed to Solomon.  There is reason to believe he actually wrote it, but there is no way to be sure.  Solomon or not, Qohelet was a rich man (almost assuredly Qohelet was male, given how he speaks about women, the limitations of scholarship to rich men at the time, and his own self-designation) who was possibly a king (as he claims in v. 12 and elsewhere).  It can be assumed he is older, with a lifetime of experience under his belt, based on all that he has seen. He has spent much of his life in the study of wisdom and folly, the process and findings of which he shares with us in Ecclesiastes.  As Dominic Rudman points out in their article “Woman as Divine Agent in Ecclesiastes,” Qohelet uses “real life” examples to illustrate his search for wisdom, pointing to vignettes he has witnessed himself: the great projects he undertook for his own pleasure, the lone man who toils endlessly even though he has no heir, the tears of the oppressed flowing without a comforter.  He is a talented, lyrical writer who knows how to work a refrain (meaningless, meaningless…), bring in the finer points of rhetorical argument, and paint a visual picture for his audience.

Eat, drink, and be glad

And I will admit, the picture he paints in the first chapter is a bit pessimistic.  With passages like “all things are wearisome more than one can say,” “even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow,” and “for with much wisdom comes much sorrow,” leaves one wondering, so what’s the point?  But that point is exactly what Qohelet goes on to illustrate in the remainder of the book.  It is perhaps best explained in 8:15, but I won’t leave you in suspense until then: “So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun.”  And that, my friends, is the opposite of pessimism.  I can’t think of a better term than joy de vivre.   I hope you will continue reading with me, to see what else Qohelet has to say about finding happiness in your own life, your own joy de vivre, through all life’s circumstances.

Another Quarantine Update

Dear friends, due to the ever evolving “normal” that is a mother’s life (regardless of quarantine status), I’m taking a little more time off from posting, in order to really give it my all for two upcoming readings.  Only being able to snatch a little time here and there means I need a lot more overall time to do something correctly.

I will be reading Ecclesiastes for the month of May, a book full of passages that have been on my mind often during quarantine.  I’m hoping with a week-ish of reading and writing under my belt before the month actually starts, I’ll be able to do the book justice and get through all twelve chapters during May.  I highly suggest you read it if you are looking for something pertinent to the times that doesn’t smack of apocalyptic doom.

In June I’m excited to start sharing what I have learned from some brief, self-led studies in Womanism, and will also be publishing some guest-posts by some talented women in my life whose voices I’m eager to share.  This also takes time and planning, so say a little prayer that the girls don’t wake up too early, I’m not overly exhausted in the evenings, and that Chris has some time (like today) that he can spend an hour with them out in the field occasionally.  I look forward to sharing more with you soon!  Stay well, everyone.