Grace Presbyterian Church
August 16, 2020, Pentecost 11A (livestream)
Period. Full Stop. End of Discussion.
There’s a trope in Hollywood films – maybe not the most common, but frequent enough – that goes something like this: a person finds out they only have so long to live, and decides to throw all caution to the wind and live it up in the time they have remaining, possibly even checking off as many items from some so-called “bucket list” as possible along the way. In fact, one such movie was actually called The Bucket List, and it featured Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson as two cancer patients who…well, as the Internet Movie Database describes: “Two terminally ill men escape from a cancer ward and head off on a road trip with a wish list of to-dos before they die.”
As we come to the end of this little road trip through the book of Ecclesiastes, I have to suspect that Qohelet, our teacher/author on the way, would have two problems with that concept; perhaps the idea of a “bucket list” might be an example of misplaced priorities, but definitely the two men waited too long to enjoy life.
This final section of the book (not counting the epilogue that starts in 12:9) makes clear the most likely target audience for Qohelet’s teaching: like the preceeding book of Proverbs, the writings here are aimed at the young, though only here at the conclusion is that truly made explicit. One might in fact argue that 11:9 is the actual climax of the book and its teaching. All of the talk of “vanity” and “chasing after wind,” all of the words about toil and labor, all of the indignant complaint against the injustice of the world and the way the wicked get off easy, all of the urging to “eat and drink and enjoy your work“; it all comes together in the instruction of this verse:
Rejoice, young man, while you are young, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Follow the inclination of your heart and the desire of your eyes, but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.
Enjoy what God gives now, while you can, and go after what you want – but not to the harm and oppression and exploitation of others. It’s not the worst summary of Qohelet’s teaching, and it’s not the worst advice on living in this finite and fragmentary world, as long as that heart one follows is set on following and serving God.
The first verse of chapter 12 is another of those verses that might provoke the response “oh, I know that one, I didn’t know it was in this book.” Besides reiterating the counsel that has come, it marks a turning point: what follows is perhaps the most eloquently poetic and poignant prose in the book, even if it is incredibly sad and sometimes hard to interpret. The images that follow in verses 2-6 are wildly mixed and not at all uniform, and have provoked much spilling of ink by scholars seeking to pin down exactly what part of human decline is marked by which metaphor. Far be it from me to crack wise about the work of biblical scholars – that’s not my vocational path for good reason – but it seems pretty clear what Qohelet is about here, no matter what this metaphor or another specifically means. This is a poem of human decline and death, that thing that is awaiting us all, and which is never as far away as we are inclined to believe in the days of our youth. You might recognize some of those conditions described here, and some might be more unclear, but the force of this elegy is no mystery. We decline, and we die – or as verse seven puts it, “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it.” Again, with Qohelet not interested in discussing afterlife or eternity in any form, this really is it, as far as his story goes. We live, we decline, we die. And that does seem the end of the matter.
Except of course for one more statement from Qohelet, a terribly familiar one by now: “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.” Scholars who address this book describe this theme by reference to organ music, of all things. While the other themes of Qohelet’s teaching – enjoying what God gives, naming and calling out injustice and oppression, the unpredictability and inequity of life and others – sound out as melodies played by the organist, maybe in different registrations or manuals or with right hand or left, the “vanity” theme sounds as a constant throughout the book in the way a pedal point – a long, sustained note or a constantly repeated note, probably played on the organ’s pedals, played by the organist’s feet – sounds throughout a composition by Bach or some other organ master. The statement that “all is vanity” – all is fleeting, all is like a breath or a wisp or a fog or smoke, here one moment and gone the next – is the constant, against which all the other themes or ideas Qohelet sounds play out.
And for Qohelet, that’s really the last word. Apparently, though, somebody just couldn’t stand that.
Though a few scholars try to insist that the last six verses are really Qohelet’s own, the vast majority of scholarship regards verses 9-14 as an epilogue or afterword added by another, unidentified writer. There are good reasons for this: the writing style is quite different, the tone and use of language is not much like the rest of the book, and frankly this postlude sounds as if it doesn’t really like much of what has come before it. Little passive-aggressive remarks like the one comparing the words of the wise to “goads” or “nails firmly fixed” don’t suggest great comfort with what Qohelet has offered. The crack about the weariness of making many books and much study (to which every academic in the world replies “ya think???”) doesn’t come off as an endorsement; quite the opposite – it has the smack of “see where you end up if you think too much?” And most of verses 13 and 14 frankly sound like a attempt to put a more properly “churchy” spin on a troublesome book.
And on top of that, of all the gall, the anonymous epilogist tries to end all discussion with that phrase “the end of the matter; all has been heard.” Move along, folks, nothing to see here. No. Maybe “all has been heard,” but that’s hardly “the end of the matter.” Remembering that Qohelet doesn’t get to cancel out all the rest of scripture, we are also challenged to remember that all the rest of scripture doesn’t get to cancel out Qohelet and his thorny insistence on seeing things and naming things that don’t conform neatly to the boundaries of wisdom literature like Proverbs. Ecclesiastes isn’t going anywhere, and thank God for that. Having a voice in the wisdom literature that is willing to call out how human existence isn’t a sunny step-by-step guide to everyday perfection is a lifesaver on those days (or in these times) when life looks like a 5000-piece jigsaw puzzle with about 1000 missing pieces.
And for all that, Qohelet is a faithful book – perhaps one of the most faithful in scripture – in its dogged insistence on fearing God and enjoying what God gives in the face of all the “vanity.” In the face of a church that too often tries to force upon its people the idea that life is beautiful and sweet and perfect if you just have a little faith, Ecclesiastes offers only the harder and yet hopeful guidance: yeah, it stinks out there, especially right now. Have faith anyway.
For the hard, good words of Qohelet, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #819, Be Still, My Soul; #836, Abide With Me