Most people know something from the book of Eccelsiastes. If nothing else, you probably have heard the 60′s Pete Seeger version of the text, recorded by The Byrds. (To everything, turn, turn, turn, There is a season, turn, turn, turn…) A lot of people will even know the section that is sometimes described as ancient nihilism or depression or clear-headed thinking (depending on your point-of-view) where the writer calls everything “Vanity.” In other words, to borrow Queen’s paraphrase (Bohemian Rhapsody) “nothing really matters.”
I think a lot of people would say that’s the theme of the book. Nothing matters. Why bother. This life is a pointless waste of time. This ancient writer/philosopher is waxing poetic (and really, a lot of it is really good poetry) about the futility of life.
But there’s another theme too. It’s not “there’s nothing new under the sun” (Nope! Not originally Shakespeare but this ancient Hebrew writer) rather it is advice that as long as there’s nothing you or I can do to really fix the situation, we should at least relax and enjoy the ride.
Not in a hedonistic, or excessive way, but just a stop and smell the roses kind of way.
Check out this section from the 9th chapter. I’ll explain a few of the metaphors, similies and poetical language. That’s part of the deal with contemporary poetry. 3000 years later your references have to be explained.
4But whoever is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion.
Dog refers to a vile, messed up person. Maybe a addict. Maybe a failure; a loser. The lion refers to a noble animal. Someone who has “made it.” A success. Got the American Dream!
So a living, messed up person is better off than a noble-person who is dead. Afterall, the living person still has the chance (the hope) to turn things around. Religious types call this repentance…to turn around. Slightly different connotation I think than the common understanding of some sort of publicly witnessed humiliation. (We get that idea, by the way from the 19th century revivalism. But that’s another conversation.) It’s practical and pragmatic and real. Not just a muttered “I’m sorry” but something that actually makes a visible difference in how my life is lived. (And for the record, sometimes that repentence means facing the consequences of the actions for which I’m repenting.)
5The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no more reward, and even the memory of them is lost. 6Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished; never again will they have any share in all that happens under the sun.
Hmm. Seems like a biblical character isn’t completely in consensus about the existence of an after-life. I’ll let you make of that what you will. You can’t take it with you and make amends today in case you get hit by a bus on the way to work all rolled into one.
7Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do.
Enjoy the gifts life has offered you! Not an instruction to drink to excess, but more an instruction to not avoid enjoyment and merriment. You can be a faithful person and have a good time? No Way! (sarcasm intended.)
I like to point this out to people who think that just because I work in the church I can’t have a beer with my friends. Oh, and just because you have a beer with friends doesn’t mean you can’t be part of the congregation (I hope to make a broader than Christian point here…although I know Islam has a different take on alcohol specifically.) My point is not about alcohol but that this American Puritanical notion that people of faith are dour stick-in-the-mud party-poopers is just so bloody misguided! And let’s face it, that sort of attitude is pervasive in public thinking not only about religious leaders but also political leaders. We’re all too ready to question someone’s “calling” if they seem to be having too good a life. (NOT defending unscrupulous preachers who prey on people. Just commenting on the wagging tongues when the Pastor can’t be having a glass of wine with dinner at a nice restaurant.)
8Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head.
OK. White garments back then were hard to come by. They were “fancy clothes” (think ancient civilizations… without the help of aliens.) And oil on your head: that’s how they dressed their hair. Think Brill Creme if you will. Basically, you don’t have to go around in raggedy clothes to prove what a great person you are.
9Enjoy life with those you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun.
I love this “…all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun…” Say it with AT.TI.TUDE. It just sounds so pragmatic. Yes, life is hopeless and mundane and nothing is ever going to change because it just isn’t. But look! You have your family and friends (chosen family.) Quit worrying for awhile about how hopeless it all is and enjoy your life. There will always be injustice and poverty no matter how hard you work against it but it’s OK to have a birthday party or celebrate the joyous occasions. It’s all about balance, hm?
10Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.
Throw yourself into your work. Don’t live your life half-assed. Get dirty. Take risks. Try it! Make mistakes. Speak up! You won’t have a chance to do any of that when you’re dead (in Sheol…the place of the dead…whether that was a place or a condition doesn’t matter.)
Seize the Day!
So, are you?