Grace Presbyterian Church
August 2, 2020, Pentecost 9A (livestream)
Unpredictable Fate and Unwelcome Wisdom
In last year’s movie reworking of the 1976 classic Midway, one character asks another, a pilot who has already gained a reputation for unflappability under pressure, how he kept his cool in danger. The pilot in turn tells the story of a relative who worked for years as one of the crew helping complete the Empire State Building, in particular as one of those workers who regularly negotiated his way around and across exposed beams at heights of a thousand feet or more, without incidents or accident. That same relative, walking on a sidewalk, was killed when a cab lost control, jumped the curb, and “squooshed him like a bug.” The pilot wrapped up his story with the observation, “You don’t know what’s going to get you. So why worry about it?”
I doubt the character had today’s reading in mind, but it’s a pretty good summation of the eleventh and twelfth verses of this ninth chapter of Ecclesiastes.
If you were looking for Qohelet’s mood to turn more upbeat in this last half of the book, you’re going to be disappointed. If anything, the general outlook of the chapters turns bleaker at some points, particularly given Qohelet’s reluctance to consider anything beyond earthly life, or life “under the sun” to use a favorite phrase. Given Qohelet’s frequent observation of injustice and oppression from high places with no divine correction in sight, there seems little reason for hope. Corrupt people aren’t just going to stop being corrupt, and oppressors don’t just give up oppressing. Even ordinary folk tend towards wrong deeds (as in 8:11: “Because sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the human heart is fully set to do evil.”) Qohelet would look at today’s headlines and probably do little more than nod knowingly and resignedly.
Another change in this second half of the book is that much more time and space is given over to proverbs – short, contained wisdom sayings such as those characteristic of the preceding book of scripture that bears that name. The themes are frequently the same as those Qohelet has already addressed, but here are given in proverbs rather than discourses. They might make for quickly digestible instruction, but to be frank they’re not great sermon fodder. Hence you are invited to peruse them on your own time, especially sections such as the first half of chapter 7 and 10:1-11:4.
Chapter 9, though, does offer up a more extensive discourse on the futility (or “vanity“) of righteousness and wisdom. Nonetheless, Qohelet still insists that it is good and even needful to enjoy the gifts of God as they are given. In a passage that might be challenging to some folks living in pandemic isolation, Qohelet even seems to recommend dressing up nicely in 9:8 – “let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head.” – and enjoying life with your partner and enjoying the work your hands find to do, and to do that work “with might” in 9:10, a verse I’m pretty sure I had to memorize as a child.
Then comes perhaps one of the more recognizable passages of this book, opening up a brief reflection on life and its unpredictability – the one echoed by that pilot in the movie Midway. I suspect many folks have quoted or remembered some part of verse 11 without realizing where it came from – the elegant and somewhat wistful observation that the fastest and strongest doesn’t always win, and that wisdom, intelligence (notice how Qohelet gets that the two are not the same!), and skill don’t guarantee one any good thing. Our world fails to work that way, and we cannot know how “time and chance” will happen to us, and we still are reminded that “no one can anticipate the time of disaster.” Even with the greatest meteorological expertise in the world trained on this oncoming tropical storm (as it was when this was written), we still can’t know for absolute certain that it will or won’t make landfall in Florida, and we still can’t know for absolute certain that Florida will avert disaster even if it passes by. We’ve known sudden calamity before; we don’t doubt Qohelet’s words here.
What follows is a small parable with an apparent unwise translation choice in the NRSV Bibles found in our sanctuary. Where verse 15 is here rendered “he by his wisdom delivered the city,” the Hebrew is ambiguous enough that the translation might also be “he by his wisdom might have delivered the city,” which among other things would make more sense with the following verse. Times of calamity, when wisdom would be most valuable, in fact turn out to be the times when so many turn to fools and cheats and grifters and loud shrieking haters instead, and the calamity is multiplied. We see this all around us. Wisdom, particularly should it come from anywhere besides the rich and powerful, is disdained, mocked, and suppressed. And things get worse. To note verse 17’s proverb, we shush the quiet words of the wise and put all the microphones in the world in front of the shouting ruler enabled by fools.
You can see why Qohelet is down in so much of this book. Yet continually the counsel returns, as in verses 7-10 – eat your meals and enjoy doing so; drink your wine and enjoy that too (but don’t be stupid with that); get dressed up and do something with your hair even; enjoy your life with your partner; and do and enjoy your work with all the energy you’ve got. This is what we have before us, given of God, and all of the world’s foolishness should not take that away.
This should not, for us modern readers, be taken as an excuse to give up the things that the prophets and the law and the gospels compel us to pursue. We don’t get to ignore Amos’s thundering imperative to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a flowing stream“; we don’t get to forget Micah’s instruction to “do justice, …love kindness, and … walk humbly with your God“; and we certainly don’t get to dismiss Jesus’s parable-embedded warning about how what we do to “the least of these,” we do to Jesus. No. Ecclesiastes is not a one-way ticket to giving up, not as long as the rest of the Bible is still out there too. But it does remind us that to ignore what God does give us, the good provision of daily needs, the very creation in which we live and move and are part, the awareness of our finite place in God’s infinity; to ignore all of these is itself a form of foolishness, or of “vanity, and chasing after wind” – remembering also that letting God’s provision for us be enough also helps God’s provision for all to be enough for all.
Enjoy what God gives now, knowing that we do not know the hour of what calamity might come, and that “time and chance happen to … all.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #436, God of Compassion, In Mercy Befriend Us; #—, When Our Race Is Not the Fastest