Scripture: Ecclesiastes 1:1-2, 12-18
I’m pretty sure Ecclesiastes is one of the most underappreciated books of the Bible. If we were to follow the lectionary, the three-year cycle of scripture readings that many churches use, we would only come across Ecclesiastes once. We do actually get some well-known sayings from it – “There’s nothing new under the sun,” for example, though probably not that many of us could have actually said that that came from Ecclesiastes; as well as at least one pop song, “Turn, Turn, Turn” by the Byrds. Still, it’s not a book from which we get the kind of memorable stories we might have learned in Sunday School, and while it does contain some Proverbs-style nuggets of wisdom, they are not the kind you’d be likely to find cross-stitched on a pillow. “A good name is better than precious ointment,” begins chapter 7, optimistically, and then the verse continues, “and the day of death than the day of birth.” Womp womp.
But I love Ecclesiastes. I really believe that it is one of the most modern, relevant books in the Bible, and that’s because this is a book about a person on a search for meaning and purpose in his life, who happens to find that meaning somewhat elusive and scoffs at easy answers.
We’ve all been there, right? We graduate and move out only to realize we’re not really sure who we are or what direction we’re going. We get entrenched in a career or place or relationship and wonder if the path we’re on is really the right path for us, whether it’s too late to try something different and whether it would be a mistake if we did. We reach middle age and wonder if this is all there is. Our kids move out and we wonder who we are when we’re no longer a parent first. We retire and wonder how to fill our days if not with work. We face the end of our lives and we wonder if we’ve gotten it right, if it’s all been enough.
You may not experience a crisis of meaning at all these levels, but at some point, we’ve all been there, right? And maybe some of us are there now. If that’s the case, Ecclesiastes is your book.
One thing you may know or think you know about Ecclesiastes is that it was written by King Solomon. It is attributed to “the son of David, the king in Jerusalem,” though the Hebrew is too late for Solomon to actually have written it. He does make a useful persona for the writer, though, as the quintessential man who has everything.
So who is this writer on a search for the meaning of life? He’s called the “Teacher,” or sometimes “Preacher,” which in Hebrew is Qoheleth and in Latin, Ecclesiastes. Though I refer to the book as Ecclesiastes, I like to refer to the author and main character as Qoheleth, which kind of helps separate them, even though they mean the same thing.
As Qoheleth embarks on his search for meaning, he first decides that he is going to set out to become the wisest person in the world. And you might think the problem is he fails at it, but he doesn’t fail at it. He succeeds. “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me,” he says. It’s just that…in the end, as it turns out, what good is wisdom, really?
It’s just vanity, he says, and chasing after wind. We’ll come back to this word, vanity.
So he decides to try something completely different, and instead live for pure pleasure. So he drinks only the best wine, and surrounds himself with beautiful women, and he amasses great wealth, more than anyone ever before him. But it’s not just about himself, it’s also about the legacy he leaves behind, and so he builds gardens and parks and pools and vineyards, things he’s sure to be remembered for.
Again – he doesn’t fail at what he tries to do; he “surpasse[s] all who were before [him] in Jerusalem.” Then he he looks around and he said, “So what?”
“I considered all that my hands had done, Qoheleth writes, “and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”
Let’s come back to this word, vanity. It doesn’t mean the “you’re so vain” kind of vanity. Instead it’s more like doing something in vain. There’s no one perfect translation for the Hebrew word, hebel, but it means something like pointless, meaningless; a puff of air; that thing that we keep chasing after that always just eludes us; it’s trying to hold water in our hands; it’s a cat chasing a laser, it’s trying to grasp something un-graspable. It’s vanity, hebel.
Do you know the feeling?
Do you ever find yourself getting up when it’s dark, working until it’s dark, going home, maybe going out, getting paid, feeling like you’re chasing something you never quite seem to catch up to?
Do you ever wonder what it’s really all about?
We might say that Qoheleth’s problem is that he was looking for meaning in the wrong places. It’s not hard for those of us who are inclined to come to church to say that ultimate meaning probably isn’t found in alcohol and concubines or wealth. We are familiar enough with stories of people who got everything they wanted – fame, money, success –only to discover they wanted the wrong things.
But what about wisdom? That sounds like a pretty good pursuit.
Then again, I remember a morning a few years ago when Divine and I walked into the church and found that a pipe had burst and part of the church had flooded. Maybe you remember that too. I spent that morning rescuing books from my office and taking them upstairs, all those books that I had collected, that contained and symbolized the knowledge I had acquired over the course of two degrees, all those books that were almost lost in an instant. But mostly what I thought as I walked up and down those stairs, was – how many of those books would I really have missed, anyway? Hebel, all of it.
But what if Qoheleth devoted himself to something else, something like service to others? A cause greater than himself? What if he devoted himself to working for justice? Maybe then he would have found what he was looking for.
I do happen to believe there’s a lot of meaning to be found in a life that is lived for others, in seeking the Kingdom of God here on earth, and I happen to think that Jesus would agree with me. That, after all, is why we open the doors of the church to our homeless neighbors during the week, and why we make sandwiches for the Homeless Services Center, and why we’re talking about what our just and faithful response should be to the conflict in Israel-Palestine.
But still – what if the work we do never really seems to make a difference? What if nothing seems to change the world? What if the hours we spend volunteering start to just seem like one more part of the daily grind? What if sometimes, all of that starts to seem like hebel too?
And besides, it’s not just his own life that Qoheleth sees as hebel: it’s the whole world around him. The sun rises, and the sun sets, and nothing really changes. Around him people work too hard and stress themselves out about the future and hoard their wealth and then they die. People with power treat those without unfairly, and nothing seems to make sense, and again the sun rises and the sun sets, and all is hebel. Even if you don’t quite believe that that is true, surely you at least know the feeling.
So. Now that I’ve thoroughly depressed you…
(This is why we don’t cross-stitch verses from Ecclesiastes, because at this point, while it may resonate with a certain aspect of the human experience, it also sounds pretty bleak. This is what you come to church for, right – some good old nihilism to start your week?)
The question becomes, how do we find meaning in a world full of hebel?
As Christians I’m sure we suspect the answer has something to do with Jesus, but Qoheleth is several hundred years too early to explicitly find the meaning of life in Jesus.
So what do you think, after all this, his conclusion is?
What if I asked you to fill in the last part of another famous saying from the book of Ecclesiastes: Eat, drink, and…
It’s not quite “Be merry.” Instead, what Qoheleth concludes, after failing to find meaning in all these other things, is this: “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil.”
One the one hand, there’s nothing especially holy sounding about that, and I think it’s important to say that there are many other possible answers to this question of meaning that we might find in our Bibles. We don’t read Ecclesiastes alone! In Acts, Luke writes about apostles who felt the fire of the Holy Spirit driving them forward in mission; when you know what God has created you to do, there’s no time to stop and worry about the meaning of life. Paul might remind us that even if we have everything in the world, all wealth and all wisdom, or even if we pursue holy poverty, but don’t have love, we really have nothing. And Jesus himself tells us that “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” and he reminds us that the sum of everything he is teaching is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” “Blessed are the peacemakers,” he says, “for they will be called the children of God.”
If we’re looking for meaning in our lives, these are all good places to start. Love. Service. Peacemaking. Sharing the Gospel. Living the abundant life that Jesus both embodies and invites us into.
But the truth is I do find something beautiful and holy in Qoheleth’s answer too, especially when we read it in conversation with the rest of the Bible: that if life is hebel, or even if it just feels that way sometimes, then what you should do is eat, drink, and find enjoyment in your work. It’s thanking God for our daily bread – which is not too much, and not too little. It’s gratitude for the people we eat and drink with, the people we have and love today, even if we don’t know what tomorrow might bring. It’s finding something to appreciate in whatever work we do, which for most of us is not work that will ultimately change the world. Still, we can do what God has given us to do – whether it’s the work we get paid for or the work we do as volunteers or the work we do as part of a church community or simply the work we do as we go about our daily lives – and we can do those things as if unto God and not unto people, and maybe we can at least make the world a little better for those around us – and that is a good, faithful, meaningful life.
There’s a freedom in that, I think – freedom from the burden of thinking that my life has to be outwardly significant for it to have meaning; freedom from the treadmill of trying to figure out how significant is significant enough: how much money, how much wisdom, how much service, how much fame, how much do I have to accomplish for it all to mean something?
Nothing. None of it.
And that’s why, as much as his words sometimes seem to be full of gloom and doom, some have also called Qoheleth the Preacher of Joy. There is something joyful about this idea of leaving ultimate meaning to God, and simply faithfully doing our work for God’s Kingdom and giving thanks to God while we’re here.
I’ve told you all before that one of my favorite movies ever is As Good As It Gets, which if you don’t remember from the 90s is about a man named Melvin Udall who struggles with OCD and other mental illness as well as general crotchetiness, and there’s a scene where he marches into his psychiatrist’s office unannounced and demands to be seen after a rough week and some drama with his dubious love interest Carol. The psychiatrist refuses to see him without an appointment, and as Melvin leaves, infuriated, he turns to the crowd of people sitting in the waiting room and says, “What if this is as good as it gets?”
There’s an audible gasp and then silence, because of course every single person in that waiting room is there with the hope that life can be more than it is right now.
But this is also kind of a turning point for Melvin, because from here on he seems to gradually realize that if this is as good as it gets, maybe he can work with that. No more hiding from other people behind a shield of rudeness and bigotry. Instead he will take his medicine, and he’ll take a chance on a real relationship with Carol, and he will help his newly homeless neighbor with a place to stay, and nothing is perfect or ideal or different all at once, but some joy begins to emerge in both accepting what life is not, and appreciating what it can be.
And just maybe, there is something in accepting the ultimate vanity of this life that opens us up to that which is eternal. Maybe there’s something in dying to ourselves and our never-ending striving for something more – that allows us to rise again into life lived in the abundant grace of God.
Have you ever felt like Qoheleth? Have you ever wondered what the meaning of it all is? Maybe it’s only to be found in giving up our constant search for it – and, instead, in eating and drinking and sharing our abundance together, and faithfully doing our work for God’s Kingdom, and trusting God with the rest.
There may we find grace, and freedom, and beauty, and joy – all those things we didn’t know we were looking for all along.