Sunday, January 03, 2010

Ecclesiastes 1-6: Nothing Matters and What if it Did

We're talking today about Ecclesiastes. That's not to be confused with Ecclesiasticus, which is considered a Book of the Bible by Catholics and Orthodox churches, but not by Protestants. Ecclesiasticus apparently has kind of ambiguous standing in Judaism. But we won't be looking at it here, for the simple reason that it ain't in the copy of the Bible I'm using. OK? Good.


Ecclesiastes is credited to the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem, (1:1), which means it’s ostensibly by either Solomon or one of his brothers. If it’s by Solomon, it’s very unlike everything else we’ve seen or learned about him. If it’s by one of Solomon’s brothers, than there’s some sibling rivalry going on, because Ecclesiastes affirms that wisdom – Solomon’s big stock in trade, you remember – is “meaningless,” nothing more than “chasing after the wind.”

But then, Ecclesiastes describes just about everything as meaningless chasing after the wind. The opening chapter could have been written by an embittered Philosophy sophomore with seasonal affective disorder:

Meaningless! Meaningless! …Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless! (2)

All things are wearisome, more than one can say. (8)

Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago…. (10)

There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow. (11)
This inability to find significance in anything leads the Teacher on a path not unlike that of the Buddha’s when confronted by a similar sort of insight. He tries wallowing in pleasure and drunkenness, but that doesn’t prove very satisfying. He becomes an overachiever, undertaking great feats of architecture and agriculture, but is unable to convince himself that his undertakings have any real cosmic relevance. Then he embraces wisdom and learning, but when he realizes that idiots and scholars share the same ultimate fate – i.e., death – that, too, begins to seem pointless. So, after the long, long list of Psalms – songs of praise and experience – and of Proverbs – detailed lists of how one ought to behave in pretty much every situation – the Bible makes a radical change of tone and seems to declare that nothing much matters at all.

From this near-nihilism, the Teacher derives a single key concept: A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. (2:24) The reasoning seems to be this: if you refuse to apply yourself, you’ll be impoverished and miserable, and obviously you don’t want that. But if you work really hard to accumulate wealth, power, privilege, and prestige, on the other hand, you are devoting your effort into things that are ultimately meaningless – they will fade with time, and you can’t take them with you.
The fool folds his hands and ruins himself.
Better one handful with tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind.

Turn, Turn, Turn

I can’t say that Ecclesiastes is ignored – it’s full of oft-quoted quotes, it’s a go-to Book for weddings and funerals, and the first eight Verses of Chapter 3 comprise a classic rock song by the Byrds. Yet, there is an antimaterialism here that I definitely have never associated with Christianity or Judaism. Certainly the famous Protestant Work Ethic was never informed by Ecclesiastes 6:3:
A man may have a hundred children and live many years; yet no matter how long he lives, if he cannot enjoy his prosperity… I say that a stillborn child is better off than he.
Indeed, Chapter 5 lays into the meaninglessness of wealth with logic that would seem familiar to a Buddhist. People cause themselves no end of grief through their desire to accumulate, and to compete with people on the next rung of the social ladder. Who loves money never has money enough (10), the Teacher observes, and asks what benefits are [goods] to the owner except to feast his eyes on them? (11)
The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether he eats little or much,
But the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep.
I have to say that, as an overeducated and not especially ambitious dude, I’m rather drawn to the live-in-the-moment, enjoy-your-time-‘cause-it’s-all-you’ve got tone of this Book. It is, for lack of a better word, a rather kicked-back philosophy of religion. But again, having said this, Ecclesiastes doesn't quite true up with some basic ideas of modern Christianity. Check this out:
Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth? (19-21)
They read that at Christian funerals, don’t they? At least the bit about dust? Well, there’s the context for you: people are no different than animals – they live, and then they die, and they’re dead, and if there’s any such thing as an afterlife we certainly didn’t get the memo on it. The only thing to do about this state of affairs, says Ecclesiastes, is to live in the moment. This may not be especially comforting at a funeral, and it may or may not be good advice in general. What stands out to me, though, is that it is in radical opposition to everything I learned in Sunday school.

This Bible – it’s a weird book. I’m glad I’m taking the time to read it.

Next Time: The Second Half of Ecclesiastes

Today’s Text: Ecclesiastes 1-6.

1 comment:

Nichim said...

Yippee! Michael Reads the Bible is back! And "one handful in tranquility" is exactly what I needed to hear today.

For the record, Pete Seeger wrote that Byrds song.