Ecclesiastes Cutting Room Floor – Chapter 2 – The Teacher Parties, Gets Mad at Slackers, and Then God Shows Up (Well, Kinda)!

King Solomon, original party animal

King Solomon, original party animal

It is good to finally move beyond chapter 1 – it’s not a fun chapter to have knocking around your head for weeks on end!  As we get into chapter 2, it appears at first glance to be more of the same.  The Teacher is running the “experiment” he talked about in 1:17 (“I applied my lev [the whole self] to know wisdom and to know madness and folly”).  He decides to “make a test of pleasure” – this doesn’t necessarily mean physical or sexual pleasure.  The word here is simchah, which simply means joy or happiness.  The Teacher later talks about enjoying “delights of the flesh”, so that was definitely part of his experience.  And let’s not forget, the writer of Ecclesiastes is claiming to be Solomon, who had (according to Scripture) 700 wives and 300 concubines.  This was not a person averse to sex.  But we should not read his pursuit of pleasure in a limited way – the Teacher pursued happiness and good times!  To put it another way, the Teacher decided to go out and party to see if this provided some kind of meaning.  It didn’t.  This is also hebel.

The Teacher decides to change his focus and actually tries to accomplish some stuff.  Starting in verse 4, he begins to dedicate his efforts to amassing wealth and possessions.  Verse 10 states: “Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil.”  The Teacher, in this instance, seems to at last be satisfied with something – finally, something happy!  This satisfaction turns out to be very short-lived.  Verse 11 repeats the theme: all of this – the pleasure, the toil, the rewards for that toil – everything is hebel.  Of course…

The Teacher then goes into what appears to me to be a bit of a temper tantrum.  He expresses his frustration in verse 21: “…sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it.  This also is hebel and a great evil.”  Many people can relate.  If you’ve ever left a job that you were really good at only to find out that the person who followed you wrecked what you had worked hard to accomplish, you can relate to the Teacher.  United Methodist elders, who move to new appointments every 4-6 years, experience this frustration at varying levels from time to time.  However, we can’t stay in this pessimistic place and the Teacher doesn’t dwell in his pessimism either, as we read on in the book.

As I’ve been thinking about hebel (and ruminating on Richard Beck’s wonderful post), I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that what is important when we read the beginning of Ecclesiastes is to understand that the nature of things as hebel is not a judgment of those things (you might even say that the nature of existence itself is hebel, but 1:4 and 3:14 show that this is not exactly the case).  In other words, the Teacher is not making a judgment about things being hebel – it’s just the way things are.  Which is why I really don’t like the words “vanity” and “meaningless” in the NRSV and NIV (along with other translations).  We have a choice in how we respond to the way things are.  Simply because our lives and everything therein are fleeting does not make our lives insignificant or meaningless.  And because our lives on this earth are fleeting, that does not mean that they are void of meaning.  One great hope of the Christian faith is that our lives do have a great deal of significance and meaning!  Shockingly, we actually matter to God!

At the end of chapter 2, in verses 24-26, the Teacher speaks about God for the first time in the book.  The Teacher states that the good things that we might enjoy, however fleeting they are, are “from the hand of God”.  He’ll make a similar comment in the next chapter.  At this point, the Teacher’s view of God seems to be basically providential.  That’s a good thing, but it’s not distinctive in terms of God’s nature.  The mention of God at the end of chapter 2 almost feels cliched.  How the Teacher talks about God here in chapter 2 doesn’t reflect any kind of personality or specificity that might connect this God to the God of the Hebrew people.  That will change in a couple of chapters.  But I’m not necessarily complaining – I’m just glad that there’s finally something positive!

 

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