The Cutting Room Floor – Ecclesiastes at the Halfway Point

As we come to the halfway point of Ecclesiastes, I want to share some thoughts before looking at chapters 6 and 7:

1. I’m not really surprised that Ecclesiastes is quoted only once in the New Testament.  And that single instance in Romans 3:10 has nothing to do with the actual content of Ecclesiastes itself.  Some of the teachings in Ecclesiastes are in direct opposition to the teachings of Jesus (and Paul, for that matter).  The more I read and study this odd little book, the more I’m understanding the consistent questions about its inclusion in the canon across the centuries, from Jews and Christians alike.

2. However, even with my difficulties and reservations, there are some things that I’m learning to appreciate about Ecclesiastes.  For my family and my home church, these past few months have been a season of death and illness, with a number of people that I know well (or knew well at some point) dying or being diagnosed with a terminal illness.  The beginning of this “season” corresponded with the start of my preparations to teach Ecclesiastes.  At first, I was frustrated by this as evidenced by my first posts in this “series”.  However, the Teacher’s meditation at the start of chapter 3 is what is remaining with me.  “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die…”  This is an important voice in Scripture and in the life of discipleship.

3. As I’m making my way through the back half of Ecclesiastes, I’m wrestling with the repetitive nature of the book.  Ok, I get it, it’s all hebel.  Looking at it though, there’s a kind of a ‘looping’ thing happening.  There are meditations on any number of issues in human life: work, love, power, oppression, friendship, mystery – and it all keeps looping back to the refrain: all of this will pass.  The Teacher fluctuates between being ok with this (“enjoy your life!”) and angst (“It would have been better if I hadn’t been born at all!”)  I think that most of us can relate to both of those responses.

4. It’s interesting to me to see connections (even if they are tenuous) between Ecclesiastes and philosophical speculations and movements that occurred many centuries after this book was written.  There are big doses of skepticism, a few verses that lean toward deism, a number of places where the Teacher sounds an awful lot like a “modern” philosopher (like Albert Camus: “seeking what is true is not seeking what is desirable”; or Bertrand Russell: “All the labor of all the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius are destined to extinction. So now, my friends, if that is true, and it is true, what is the point?”; or Jean-Paul Sartre: “Every existing thing is born without reason, goes on living out of weakness, and dies by accident.”)

I said this at the beginning of this study (as a Facebook post): whenever I hear/read someone talking about the Bible being full of fairy tales or convenient myths, I assume that they have not really read or grappled with Ecclesiastes.  I assume the same about Christians who claim that all of the Bible is uplifting and “inspirational”.  This is hard stuff, and deep.  Sitting with the Teacher might very well be an education in what Christian mystics call a “theology of descent” – not being built up or encouraged, but being torn down.  You might think about Jesus’ teaching about pruning in John 15 in this way.  St. John of the Cross spoke of the “dark night of the soul” – the Teacher seemingly knew how that felt.  There is a pronounced absence of God in most of Ecclesiastes – I wonder if this reflects the experience of the Teacher, the state of Hebrew faithfulness at the time when this book was written, or if it’s a function of the nature of Hebrew “wisdom” literature.  Either way, this book continues to challenge and frustrate me.  I have not really let go of the question “why is this in the Bible?” and I go back and forth about how I feel about it’s inclusion in Scripture.

I get the distinct impression that the Teacher would say: “Doesn’t matter.  It’s all hebel anyway…”

I’ll post an entry on chapters 6 and 7 by the end of the week…grace and peace to you!


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