Ecclesiastes Cutting Room Floor – Get Ye Some Perspective (Chapter 3)

The Teacher is becoming a bit of a splinter in my toe (or a toothache or a thorn in flesh – point being, he’s been getting on my nerves).  He’s been back there in my mind whispering: “It’s all fleeting…it’s all hebel…”  Though slowly and kinda surprisingly, that voice is changing from a negative, pessimistic voice to a more positive one.  Part of that change has to do with the fact that I’m by nature an optimist.  Typically my response to any crisis or challenge is: “It’s going to be alright.”  Even if I don’t say it out loud, it’s most likely the thought going through my head.  My wife will tell you that this can really be annoying at times.

I’ve thought a lot about this fairly constant optimism since becoming a parent and I think that it ultimately comes from my firm hope in the ultimate victory of God.  Seriously.  Often, I’ll tell myself in the midst of some crisis that it will be alright, and I’ll continue by thinking: even if this particular situation is not alright, eventually everything will be alright.  This is the result of being raised in a church and by Christian parents who taught me that God’s got the whole world in his hands.  In terms of being taught about and believing in God’s victory, I’m definitely not alone in that.  I know a great number of people who believe in the victory of God – no matter where they happen to fall along the “optimist-pessimist scale”.  For me, it just happens to show up at times as occasionally annoying optimism.

As I’ve been turning over the first few chapters in my mind/heart/soul, what I’m learning from Ecclesiastes is perspective.  The perspective that the Teacher is offering (everything is hebel) is vital not only for maturing in faith, but also maturing in life in general.  In other words, the lesson of the Teacher is not only for ‘religious’ folks – it’s helpful for everyone.  As overblown controversies and scandals and political/theological fury finds its way onto my Facebook feed, the words of the Teacher are extremely helpful.  Whether it’s Miley Cyrus, healthcare, or Elevation Church – whatever is stirring people up this week (and, trust me, I sometimes get stirred up about stuff, too) – the Teacher reminds us: this is fleeting.  One day, this will be a memory.  So when that Facebook post makes you want to scream and your fingers move to start their angry dance across the keyboard, remember it’s all hebel.  Wait a few minutes, hit ‘refresh’, and it will be a memory.  When political issues, theological controversies, pop culture nonsense, and ball games get your blood pressure up and you are tempted to think/say/type hurtful, mean-spirited things, remember the perspective of the Teacher (and remember James’ advice in chapter 3 of his letter regarding the tongue.  Now, apply that to texting, Facebook, and comments sections on the internet).

In 3:12-13, the Teacher gives us a least a little positivity: “I know that there is nothing better for them (those who toil) than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.”  Tucked in there (blink and you’ll miss it) is God’s grace.  It’s subtle and beautifully refreshing.  In the midst of everything that troubles people, whatever it is, there are these moments of pure gift: a good meal shared with family and friends, hearing a song that you loved when you were younger, dancing with your children, a date night with your spouse, a particularly beautiful sunset.  The Teacher tells us that these things are gifts from God.  These things are evidence of God’s grace.

The beginning of chapter 3 is probably the most famous passage from Ecclesiastes.  The Teacher is teaching us about the rhythm of life.  He’s not necessarily telling us to engage in these things, but rather he’s saying that these things make up life in our world – this is what happens.  Also note what’s not in the list: foolishness, oppression, injustice – there are no times for these things.  And I’ll admit that I struggle with the inclusion of hate, war, and killing.  But that’s neither here nor there.  I think that what’s important is that we choose how to respond to this rhythm.  As Ellen Davis helpfully puts it in her commentary, we can either live in denial or we can dance.  All that we do and experience, this entirety of this earthy life is hebel.  It is fleeting.  As Paul says in I Corinthians 7:31, “…the present form of this world is passing away.”

If we choose to not live in denial, but to accept the nature of things as they are (fleeting, temporary) and if we find can find enjoyment in our lives, the Teacher tells us to do just that.  I’m at the very beginning of putting my understanding of the Teacher in conversation with how I understand the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels.  Is there more to life than simply enjoying the fruits of your labor and enjoying good food and drink and company?  Surely there is.  But it helps to remember that the Teacher is not attempting to write a treatise on doctrine and we should allow the Teacher some room to move around here.  The movement of the first few chapters of Ecclesiastes is interesting – it’s very kinetic, moving rapidly from one thought to the next.  The more I read and reflect, the more I appreciate this.  Isn’t this often how we think?  This almost feels like an argument that the Teacher is having with himself.  It’s very human.  Again, I’m glad that this book is in the Bible…

Next week I’ll post reflections on chapters 4 and 5…until then, grace and peace to you!

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