View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow,
Thomas Cole, 1836, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City (Wikipedia).
Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23
August 4, 2019
We read today from the Book of Ecclesiastes. It is also called the book of Qoheleth after its author. Interestingly, they can both be translated as Assembly or Church. It is somewhat hard to date, but the best estimate would be about 400 BC in Persian-controlled Jerusalem. It is a time of peace and prosperity and allows Qoheleth time to think and reflect; one might expect a sense of satisfaction, yet the first words of his book are “Vanity of Vanity.”
Qoheleth is a public intellectual. He had students and seems to have edited his thoughts at the end of his life, so that they could be published. He wished to influence the wider society and his message was certainly distinctive, but on first reading somewhat shocking and disappointing.
The Bible we use at Mass translates the Hebrew word hebel as vanity. This emphasizes the pride that we often take in our own successes which are ephemeral and fleeting. Another translation would be futile, and I think we need to keep both in mind as we read today’s text: what we do is futile, and we are vain to think otherwise.
Immediately after the opening verse:
Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth,
vanity of vanities! All things are vanity.
He continues in verses we do not read at Mass:
What profit has man from all the labor
which he toils at under the sun?
One generation passes and another comes,
but the world forever stays.
The sun rises and the sun goes down;
then it presses on to the place where it rises.
Blowing now toward the south, then toward the north,
the wind turns again and again, resuming its rounds.
All rivers go to the sea,
yet never does the sea become full.
To the place where they go,
the rivers keep on going.
All speech is labored;
there is nothing man can say.
The eye is not satisfied with seeing
nor is the ear filled with hearing.
He is very concerned with time. Both time as a cycle, days and seasons and the operations of nature, but also the time we place in our own efforts at both work, “profit from labor,” and thought, “labored speech,” and even the most intent observation. Time crushes accomplishments.
Our passage then provides a most specific instance: why be prosperous and/or wise?
And I saw that wisdom has the advantage over folly
as much as light has the advantage over darkness.
The wise man has eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness.
Yet I knew that one lot befalls both of them.
Qoheleth does not believe in an afterlife. He sees death as the end of everything:
So I said to myself, if the fool’s lot is to befall me also,
why then should I be wise? Where is the profit for me?
And I concluded in my heart that this too is vanity.
Neither of the wise man nor of the fool will there be an abiding remembrance,
for in days to come both will have been forgotten.
How is it that the wise man dies as well as the fool!
In the passage that we read today he draws the obvious conclusion:
For here is a man who has labored with wisdom and knowledge and skill,
and to another, who has not labored over it, he must leave his property.
This also is vanity and a great misfortune.
He observes as well that often the most responsible people have the most futile lives:
For what profit comes to a man from all the toil and anxiety of heart
with which he has labored under the sun?
All his days sorrow and grief are his occupation;
even at night his mind is not at rest. This also is vanity.
Qoheleth may be a skeptic but he is not an atheist. He is as much a beneficiary of the Lord’s power and mercy in returning the Jewish people to Jerusalem after the exile as Isaiah, but he is asking a radical question: “What does this mean for me as an individual? Yes, the Jewish people will live forever but what does this mean for me, here and now?”
His answer comes in the next verses:
There is nothing better for man than to eat and drink
and provide himself with good things by his labors.
Even this, I realized, is from the hand of God.
For who can eat or drink apart from him?
For to whatever man he sees fit he gives wisdom and knowledge and joy;
but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering possessions
to be given to whatever man God sees fit.
This also is vanity and a chase after wind.
(Ecc. 2: 24–26)
This is a very profound statement and we need to pause over it. He knows God is powerful and just and sees that he is present in the now. He is not counseling laziness or hedonism by teaching that we need to look for God and the good things he brings in the present moment. He is an acute observer of people and sees how our attempts to outsmart time are pure futility and vanity. The only God we will know we will find in the here and now.
However necessary this lesson, Qoheleth is still the prophet and poet of frustration. But it is a healthy frustration and if we share it, we can see the great insight of the resurrection of the dead. This is great achievement of the Jews immediately before Jesus. They experienced a powerful God of miracles, they had been, as a people, dead and now they had risen. Yet what of God’s justice?
We will read Psalm 90 at Mass this Sunday. Speaking of evildoers, the Psalmist writes:
You make an end of them in their sleep;
the next morning they are like the changing grass,
Which at dawn springs up anew,
but by evening wilts and fades.
And of those who obey God:
Fill us at daybreak with your kindness,
that we may shout for joy and gladness all our days.
And may the gracious care of the LORD our God be ours;
prosper the work of our hands for us!
Prosper the work of our hands!
Is that your experience? Do you see the work of those who are most devout and loving prosper and those who act unjustly wilt and fade? Or do we see at best a mixed bag?
A powerful spiritual exercise is to stand with Qoheleth and the Psalmist and ask, does this reveal the fullness of the God who has shown himself in their Jewish history, who lead them out of slavery in Egypt, and then again rescued them from Babylon? As important, does this reveal the God who sent them the prophets who exhorted them to act justly as a religious act?
We have inherited the belief in an afterlife and, without understanding how it emerged in Jewish history, it may seem like a quid-pro-quo: we avoid mortal sin and God will give us eternal life. By looking at the world with Qoheleth and the Psalmist, we can literally feel the conflict and then understand the gift of knowing the justice of God demands that we live beyond this life. As is always the case, putting God first, clears our minds, opens our hearts, and gives us joy.