Saturday, April 29, 2006

The Challenge of Ecclesiastes

Harmen Steenwijck, c.1640

Smoke, nothing but smoke. [That’s what the Quester says.]
There’s nothing to anything - it’s all smoke.
What’s there to show for a lifetime of work,
a lifetime of working your fingers to the bone?
One generation goes its way, the next one arrives,
but nothing changes - it’s business as usual for old planet earth.
The sun comes up and the sun goes down,
then does it again, and again - the same old round.
The wind blows south, the wind blows north.
Around and around and around it blows,
blowing this way, then that - the whirling erratic wind.
All the rivers flow into the sea,
but the sea never fills up.
The rivers keep flowing to the same old place, and then start all over and do it again.
Everything’s boring, utterly boring -
no one can find any meaning in it.
Boring to the eye,
boring to the ear.
What was will be again,
what happened will happen again.
There’s nothing new on this earth.
Year after year it’s the same old thing.
Does someone call out, “Hey this is new”?
Don’t get excited - it’s the same old story.
Nobody remembers what happened yesterday.
And the things that will happen tomorrow?
Nobody’ll remember them either.
Don’t count on being remembered.

Solomon, 1308-11

The theologian James Crenshaw called Ecclesiastes “the Bible’s strangest book”. It is odd. The Old Testament is a story of the family of Abraham, whom God has decided to cherish as his own children. And in the New, the invitation to be adopted into God’s family is thrown open to the entire world. The Bible is a family saga which bestows more eternal significance on a tramp on the high street than the Milky Way.

But halfway through the Bible we find the cry of Koheleth - sometimes translated as the Teacher, the Preacher, or even the Quester. In this work of art, Koheleth is cast as the king of Jerusalem. The leader of God’s chosen people in the city where their creator dwells.

He cries: “Meaningless! Meaningless! ...Everything is meaningless.”

These are not the words we expect to find coming from the mouth of a king. The people of Israel have endured slavery, wandered in the desert, fought their way through Canaan... for this?

It is the equivalent of a Hollywood ending where the hero is about to passionately embrace the heroine he has rescued from certain peril. She falls into his grasp, the music swells, he leans forward, and then turns to the camera and says: “This is all pretty pointless, isn’t it?”

In the poetry which opens Ecclesiastes we see a universe constantly in flux. But rather than the cosmos being a joyous dance, it is a rusty machine which creaks endlessly: A machine so big and old that nobody can remember what it produces.

Some have suggested that Koheleth represents man without God. That it is written to demonstrate the futility of a godless life. It’s not quite that simple. Much as we might like him to be - because that would make this troublesome book less troubling - Koheleth is not an atheist.

In Chapter One he declares: “I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven. What a heavy burden God has laid on men! I have seen all things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”

Koheleth is not the voice of the militant non-believer. Instead, it is the voice we often hear when we are putting our trousers on in the morning. “What is the purpose of putting one foot in front of the other and walking to work? What difference does my life make to the world? Is the hard work of a marriage worthwhile? We’re going to vanish one day - what difference would it make if I just disappeared today?”

Edward Hopper

The shadow of his own mortality looms over Koheleth’s world. He looks at work and love and all the things with which we fill our lives, and - scratching his head - decides that life is absurd. And it’s this diagnosis of absurdity that gives Ecclesiastes its genius and why it is so brilliantly located halfway through the Bible.

In the opening poem we see that humans seem programmed for eternity. They have an insatiable appetite for grand projects, for reproduction, and a longing to be remembered. Three score years and ten is far too short a time to be on the planet.

The church father Jerome asked: “What is more vain than this vanity: that the earth, which was made for humans, stays - but humans themselves, the lords of the earth, suddenly dissolve into dust?”

St Jerome

There are so many reasons why the universe doesn’t seem to be running the way it should. Whether you look through a microscope or a telescope, you will find beauty of heavenly complexity declaring the glory of a creator. In the everyday miracle of conception life is born and develops into a human being capable of taking part in such otherworldly activities as music and love. But we are also perfectly capable of acting in self-destructive and cruel ways that no species concerned for its own survival would ever contemplate. The wonderful and the idiotic collide when we open our mouths.

The most distant known galaxy, 13bn light years' away

Koheleth is right to think something has gone wrong. The train has gone off the tracks. Creation has been in crisis ever since a series of events took place featuring a fruit tree, a man and a woman, and a talking snake. Koheleth’s confusion points back to the tragedy of the Garden of Eden, and forwards to the redemption of the Garden Tomb. Like a ball in a squash court ricocheting from one wall to another, the wonder-filled pages of the New Testament reverberate with the thrashings of Ecclesiastes.

“There is nothing new under the sun,” Koheleth says. Just as children digging up their back garden dream of finding a stone of a colour never seen before, something in the narrator makes him hunger for a new reality to break into his world and transform it.

He is probably too affluent a bohemian to get his hands dirty, but he looks at the workers of Israel and asks, “What does a man gain from all his labour at which he toils under the sun?”

Adam was ejected from Eden with the words: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; from dust you are and to dust you will return.”

Koheleth can hear these words read in the Temple. But several centuries must pass before an Apostle named John, writing on the prison island of Patmos, will hear the voice of God declaring: “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”

John the Baptist

In the work of God which surrounded Jesus’ life, the miraculous and the unprecedented interrupted the hum of the everyday.

Koheleth had lamented, “The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing,” but Paul rejoiced in 1 Corinthians 2: “[We] speak of God’s secret wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory. However, as it is written:
No eye has ever seen,
no ear has hear,
no mind has conceived
what God has prepared for those who love him - but God has revealed it to us by his spirit.”

Koheleth looked at nature and saw streams pouring into a sea that could never be filled, and a sun for whom every day was the same. As with a Christmas toy in February, when the batteries are running down, he could sense the entropy and gradual crumbling of all that surrounded him. His writings echo in Paul’s letter to the Romans, Chapter Five:

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in the hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons the redemption of our bodies.”

So just as Koheleth looked at the world and knew it was far from perfect, so do we. Just as he despairs when he sees people seeking to unlock the gates of fulfillment through sex and money, we also live in a world that is still lost. And just as he hungered to know an ultimate reality, we yearn today.

It is interesting that Koheleth’s words are not uttered by someone in the sorrow of exile or the darkness of ignorance. Rather, he was the king of Jerusalem. He was not a pagan but a son of David - a king anointed as a servant of Yahweh. He and his people had received revelation, and yet the longing for a closer knowledge of God and his plans haunts Ecclesiastes. There is the author’s gnawing fear that he will vanish from this world into a void and be forgotten.

We long to know God because we are designed to be in his presence. Sitting on my desk in work is a struggling bay-tree, which finds a way of telling me every day that life beneath a strip-light is no substitute for sunlight.

We can see Christ’s light in prayer, in communion and in reading the Bible, and in uncanny moments at other times. But when we sin, when we see pollution of every kind, we know we are part of a creation which is still longing for a coming freedom.

The philosopher Blaise Pascal described a God-shaped hole in every human being. Nothing could satisfy unless it was filled by him. Similarly, Augustine wrote a famous meditation: “Our hearts are restless until they find their peace in you.”


All this is true, but are we satisfied?

A golden labrador will leap around a kitchen causing chaos if it thinks it has a chance of being taken outside for a walk. But once on a lead and in the park, trying to stop it breaking free to chase a scent is as difficult as tethering a jumbo jet. Such an experience might have inspired the hymn Just A Closer Walk With Thee! The more we know of God’s gift and glory, the greater our desire to run in the freedom of his presence burns.

In the 1980s in Ireland there was a rock group called U2 who delighted evangelicals by turning up at Christian motorcycle events and selling hundreds of thousands of records which had lyrics bouncing with biblical verve. Foreheads furrowed, however, when they released an album which sold millions and contained the song I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For:

I believe in the Kingdom Come
Then all the colours will bleed into one
Bleed into one.
But yes, I'm still running.

You broke the bonds
And you loosed the chains
Carried the cross of my shame
Oh my shame, you know I believe it.

But I still haven't found
What I'm looking for.

In the same way the ripples of Ecclesiastes became waves that reached New Testament shores, the fingerprints of Paul are on these lyrics.

Read Philippians Chapter Three:

"I want to know Christ and power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus."

Later in Ecclesiastes, Koheleth says: “I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. he has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”

The songwriter Nick Cave, who is on one of the most interesting journeys of faith, said in a lecture in Vienna: “Though the love song comes in many guises - songs of exultation and praise, songs of rage and of despair, erotic songs, songs of abandonment and loss - they all address God, for it is the haunted premises of longing that the true love song inhabits. It is a howl in the void, for Love and for comfort and it lives on the lips of the child crying for his mother. It is the song of the lover in need of her loved one, the raving of the lunatic supplicant petitioning his God. It is the cry of one chained to the earth, to the ordinary and to the mundane, craving flight; a flight into inspiration and imagination and divinity. The love song is the sound of our endeavours to become God-like, to rise up and above the earthbound and the mediocre.”

Nick Cave

Cave is probably a distant descendent of the author of Psalm 76:

With a loud voice, I cry to God,
with a loud voice to God, he will hear.

In the day of my distress, I seek the Lord,
all night long, I stretch out my hands;
my soul will not be consoled,
I remember my God, and I groan,
I ponder, my heart grows faint.

You keep my eyelids from sleep,
I am so troubled that I cannot speak;
I think of the days of old,
and remember the years long ago;
I muse in my heart through the night,
I ponder and my spirit broods.

Will the Lord always reject?
Will his favour return no more?
Has God's kindness utterly ceased,
does his promise no longer hold true?
Has he forgotten his pity and love,
has anger hardened his heart?

Periodically, humans respond to the longing for God by longing to be God. The most vigourous and sustained attempt at this took place in the 20th century through Soviet Communism. Many reformers had critiqued organized religion, but this was an attempt to stamp out the very idea of God. Utopians claimed they would then control their destinies. Man did not become divine, but in the form of Stalin became a monster and a destroyer of millions.


As the casualties from the Soviet experiment mounted, atheists such as Albert Camus in their utterances echoed Koheleth.

Alister McGrath writes: “[Camus] argued that human life is rendered meaningless by death, preventing the individual from making sense of existence. Any philosophy that believes it is possible to make sense of things is deluded, whether this takes the form of a ‘vertical’ religion such as Christianity or a horizontal religion such as Marxism. In his first major work, The Stranger (1942), Camus argues that the only option is to rebel against the ‘ultimate negation’ of death by throwing ourselves into life and making deliberate choices that challenge this futility.”


Koheleth went on precisely such a journey with all his royal resources. Like the kid with a £20 note who buys as many ice creams as he can carry, only to have them melt in his arms, the Preacher-Teacher-Quester declares: “[With] much wisdom comes much sorrow, the more knowledge, the more grief.”

We have the opportunity to make choices and throw ourselves into the very life of God, filled with his own Spirit.

Paul proclaims in 2 Corinthians 5: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he committed to us the message of reconciliation, We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.”

Outbreaks of atheism have often come when society is dominated by a church which is corrupt and has turned its gaze away from the poor, the very people to whom Christ first proclaimed his good news. The Christianity that Paul preached is not a faith which hides away from an aching world, but one which dares whisper, “He is making everything new.”

The agony of injustice still burns, and so does the fear of either us or our loved ones being forgotten. We put up tombstones, build memorials, wear poppies, write songs, plant shrubs - anything to prevent Koheleth’s lament coming true: “There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.”

In the final moments of the life of Christ - as he died on the cross - we see both this cry to be remembered, and the mystery of a God who does not flinch from the face of evil because the people who caused his death (ultimately, us) are the same he came to save.

Luke records in Chapter 23: “One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ But the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus answered him, ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.’”

Stanley Hauerwas writes: “Our salvation is no more or no less than being made part of God’s body, God’s enfleshed memory, so that the world may know that we are redeemed from our fevered and desperate desire to ensure we will not be forgotten. Here, in this crucified Messiah, we see the love that moves the sun and stars. To be ‘with Jesus’ means we are not ‘lost in the cosmos,’ but rather we can confidently live in the recognition, with faith, that God is not other than the one found in Jesus of Nazareth. How could we ever think we need to know more than this thief? Like the thief we can live with the hope and confidence that the only remembering that matters is to be remembered by Jesus.”

When the church proclaims the Gospel, it is presenting a message which speaks to the deepest cravings of humankind. We do not promise to be able to satisfy the longing for good days, but we can say, “Yes, I have the same hunger.” Only God can give us that which we thirst for, but we may follow the command the master gives the servant in the parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14): “Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in, so that my house may be full.”

Pieter Brueghel, The Wedding Banquet