Here are 33 short entries on Ecclesiastes by AA van Ruler translated from the Dutch to English. There isn’t much (that I know of) out there in English by van Ruler. I have been searching every dusty corner of the internet to see what I might find about that man that supposedly said “Soccer is more important that prayer.” Van Ruler was a man who considered and nuanced what it means to be human: a normal, boring, everyday regular human being. A human who prays, plays soccer, goes to Church, sleeps, eats, laughs, builds, commutes, etc. I have heard that he started as a Barthian but then rejected that program. There is some controversy around van Ruler, but he seems to at least engage with issues that concern most normal non-clergy folk. Therefore, I am pleased share this with you readers. As far as who did this translation – I have no idea. I happened upon this archived page from The Christian Courier and so Im happy to save it (as it were) from just falling away into a dead domain.
#1 Life, though real, is useless
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; vanity of vanities, all is vanity. (NKJV)
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (NIV) – Ecclesiastes 1:2
An expression like “vanity of vanities” is used in Hebrew to indicate the superlative. The “song of songs” is the most beautiful song, the “king of kings” the highest, the true king. So “vanity of vanities” is the height, the sum of all vanities.
The word “vanity” isn’t used in the sense of proud, haughty, or conceited, but just in the sense of void, empty, without content. This emptiness could indicate that things have no substance or being, that they really do not exist. But it can also mean that they have no meaning or purpose and especially no use or result.
The book of Ecclesiastes has in mind not the first, but the second meaning. Not for a moment does it enter the author’s mind that what he sees and does do not really exist, or that they are but a shadow, a semblance, or even a veil of appearance. Such ideas arose frequently in Greece and India. But in this respect the author is thoroughly Israelite in spirit; not for a moment does he question the reality of the existing world.
On the contrary, he stands in the middle of it; he is thoroughly involved in it. He is not seeking another world in order to locate true being there – whether in nothingness, or in the all, or in eternity. He knows only one world – the one that we experience every day. In no way does the vanity (or meaninglessness) of that world signify its unreality.
When the Preacher discusses the vanity of things, he means their futility and fruitlessness. Do they ever yield anything? Do we ever see any results? Again his thought brims with a stark realism. In fact, even this question about the sense and purpose of things is hardly posed. At least, this phraseology is still a little too subtle. He is much more concerned with utility and profit: What does a person gain from all the toil he performs under the sun?
This toil and labor is also something the Preacher or Teacher is involved in. He is not standing to one side looking on as a cool spectator, observing mankind ironically. Nor is he looking down on the rest of mankind as one of the enlightened who knows better than they. He is standing in the middle of life. He is searching for answers to his questions. But, like everyone else, he doesn’t find them.
No matter how hard you work, put yourself out, and run yourself down, you never accomplish anything that has real and lasting value. Actually, it’s all no use.
This, then, is the yardstick by which the Preacher measures things: he presupposes not only that the world really exists, but also that it should be useful to humankind. He expects something for and from the world and life. In this sense, we can say that he is a deeply believing person, in the Hebrew biblical sense of the word. This world is God’s world, and life is given to man by God. If that is true, then the world and life should be worth the trouble. They should yield something.
But the opposite is true. The Preacher admits this openly and honestly. He is the radically disappointed believer. He is the kind of person who expresses his disappointment openly and honestly. We must not pretend this book is unique in the Bible in this respect and that it has little or no affinity with other parts of Scripture. The Psalms, too, often utter the thought that in the reality of life the promises of God simply do not pan out; in fact, they say that we often experience the opposite of what God has promised. And the prophets too felt this very deeply, especially with regard to Israel. In the light of God’s designs we would expect great things from the people of Israel. But are these expectations fulfilled in any way? The whole Old Testament is one continuous complaint about the futility of everything.
This complaint recurs even in the New Testament. Right in the middle of a beautiful, sublime passage like Romans 8, we read several times over that the whole creation sighs, including all mankind, particularly we who have received the Spirit. In fact, it is the Spirit who teaches us to sigh with such unfathomable depth.
So we too may be completely honest and open in our sighing. We may utter these Spirit-taught complaints almost to the point of blasphemy. For it is precisely the Spirit who pushes us back into the world and into temporal life. This world is God’s world. It is redeemed by Christ. All this the Spirit teaches us. And because the world is God’s world and, above all, because it is redeemed, we may expect something for and from the world. This, too, the Spirit teaches us.
And if things do not pan out this way, then they … do not pan out. This is terribly serious, and then we cannot just ignore it. In the face of such disappointment, we cannot simply stuff the corpse back into the closet of our hearts. We must bring it out into the open.
Such honesty and open-heartedness also belong to the boldness taught us by the Spirit. Seen this way, it becomes more understandable how the book of Ecclesiastes became part of the canon and was accepted as Holy Scripture, as the Word of God. When and how this happened is not known precisely. But perhaps from the beginning these rude complaints about the world and life were understood to have been coaxed from the heart of man by the Spirit himself.
But then it is especially important that we do not spiritualize these things. The Spirit does not mean them figuratively, but literally. The Spirit is referring simply to the earth and to earthly life. These come from God the Creator and Redeemer. They must, therefore, be delightful. And if we cannot discover this delight in them, then we should not conceal this fact in pretty wrapping paper, but we should say so openly and emphatically.
The Sad thing is that everything participates in the futility of human labor – all of history and all of nature. The generations come and go; but the earth remains. The sun rises and sets. The winds blow endlessly. The rivers run ceaselessly to the sea. It is all unspeakably tiresome. The eye and the ear are never satisfied by it, nor can they ever comprehend it. Yet nothing new ever happens. Ever and again it is the same. Occasionally it may seem as though something appears. But that’s only because we have forgotten the past. Everything that happens has already happened before.
The Preacher, of course, exaggerates outrageously in these statements. But he is obsessed by that one thought: that we never perceive the essential glory of God unambiguously. In his stubborn open-heartedness he generalizes this thought to include all of history and all of nature. And, honestly, can we ever, with the mere fragments we have, demonstrate that which we utter in faith: namely, that life is a good undertaking because it partakes in God’s glory? Those who are afraid of the complaints of the Preacher do not yet understand what faith is really all about.
#2 Is the real the pleasurable?
I said in my heart. Come now, I will prove thee with mirth; therefore enjoy pleasure; and behold, this also was vanity. (KJV)
I thought in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless. (NIV)
_- Ecclesiastes 2:l
The aim of the whole book of Ecclesiastes is to find out what is the essential and abiding content of human life, and why living it is worth the trouble. To this end, he describes certain experiments (as we might call them).
Life is woven with many threads. It reveals many aspects. We could take each thread separately and explore it and test it persistently and exhaustively. Any of these elements of existence might,
perhaps, contain the truth and meaning of existence. To this experiment the Preacher devotes the rest of his book.
In a more or less systematic manner, he takes each possibility under consideration. He surveys all of life, pausing awhile at every possibility to drop his sounding line. Will it discover ground anywhere? Does human existence have a ground that forms its foundation, that makes it intelligible, meaningful, fruitful?
The first experiment which the author performs has to do with joy. Could it, perhaps, make up the real stuff of life? This is a typically Hebrew question. In the framework of biblical thought this question arises quite naturally. Joy plays a prominent role in the Bible, both in the eyes of God and man.
The way the Bible speaks of God, we can more truly say of God that he is joy than that
he is love. God acts in history and on the earth so that the children of men, even the full_grown and mature, may be joyful before his face. The Bible says this again and again in the Old Testament as well as the New.
So it is easy to see why the Preacher makes the object of his first experiment joy. He thinks: If I drop my sounding line into the waters of joy, perhaps then I will find the firm ground that supports existence.
This, too, he does in a typically Hebrew way. To his mind, joy is not a purely abstract and inner thing. To his mind joy is something that we can experience only in concrete reality. He has in mind here, namely, earthly goods: drinking wine, building houses, planting vineyards, plotting gardens and parks, having slaves, herds and flocks, silver and gold, singers (both
men and women) and everything that the human heart desires — yes, all possible pleasures.
This is, then, joy in the possession and enjoyment of the things that we can possess.
We must not denigrate this joy. I too am sometimes struck by the thought that an enormous part of life’s fulfillment is bound up in such things. To acquire lots of earthly goods demands great effort and to then enjoy them is one of life’s greatest arts. Both the effort and the art of enjoyment can keep a person breathlessly busy all his life. He is then pursuing things. He has no time at all to experience the emptiness and meaninglessness of life.
He is like a child! Children too are endlessly fascinated by the things of the world; they lose themselves in them and are happy. We usually call such a way of life purely materialistic, and we look down our noses at it. But by doing so we may easily overlook a very essential dimension
In any case, the Preacher was not so highly spiritual that he looked down his nose at it. He took this possibility — having and enjoying the things of this world — completely serious. In fact,
he gives it first place. To him it seems to be the most prominent possibility in his search for an answer to the question, Why is life worth the trouble? Is it the joy we find in earthly goods?
Yet, here too he is unable to discover ground with his sounding line. He says: “This also is vanity and a striving after wind. Also in joy there was nothing to be gained under the sun; I said of
laughter, ‘It is mad,’ and of pleasure,
‘What use is it?’” (2:1,2).
The remarkable thing is that he doesn’t give the slightest support for this judgment. Why is there
no substance, no ground or support in joy, that is, in the enjoyment of the goods of life? He does not tell us. Not a word! He considers it so obvious that he doesn’t deem it necessary to enlighten us further.
He has only to assert it; then everyone will immediately see that it is true — on the basis of his or her own awareness and experience of life. A big bash is a lot of fun, but afterward all that
is left is a hangover. And then you are even hung over about joy itself.
Strange, but true: you can become very depressed about your joys. All pleasure carries with it a bitter taste, albeit an aftertaste.
This is also true on a bigger scale. Many have led a life of purely materialistic accumulation of
possessions from which they have derived real pleasure. But when they approach the end of their lives, they sometimes suffer a complete inner collapse. There is nothing left of all their delights except a deep melancholy.
To my mind, we should interpret the Preacher’s explanation to read: “If we take things in themselves, then they are nothing.” This belongs to the deepest nature of creatureliness. Creation is out of nothing. The innermost being of created things is, therefore, in a sense, nothingness. In all our enjoyment we ultimately taste this nothingness. This is what makes life so bitter and melancholy.
However, we must not take things in and by themselves. They are created things. We have to take them in relation to the Creator, in relation to his will. They exist by reason of his free and boundless good pleasure. We must do the will of God, says I John 2:17. And the apostle adds, “He who does the will of God abides forever.”
To do the will of God means, among other things, that we should enjoy the good things of this earth and rejoice in life. But it does not follow that the substance of life resides in these things, or in our delight and joy in them.
The substance, the ground, the support of life resides only in the will of God and in doing the will of God. It is God’s good pleasure that must be mirrored and expressed in the pleasure that we take in everything, also in earthly goods.
Only then will we discover the meaning of our created existence.
I perceived that this also was a striving after wind. For in much wisdom is much grief; and he that increaseth knowledge, increaseth sorrow. (KJV)
But I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief. (NIV)
Ecclesiastes 1 :l 7b,18
Behind this section of Ecclesiastes lurks that unique process of duplication that is so typical to being human. Man [human beings] not only is but knows that he is. He not only acts, but he can
also ask whether his acts produce results and, therefore, whether they have any meaning.
In this section the Preacher deals with the latter question. He inquires after wisdom in all that is done under heaven (vs. 13). He sets up this investigation on as wide and deep a basis as possible: he not only inquires after wisdom and knowledge, but also after madness and folly (vs. 17). He opens himself to the whole of reality in all of its aspects.
He doesn’t inquire into the wisdom and folly by which man acts. That’s another, very different matter. There’s a great deal that could be said on that subject too. But then he’d be placing himself outside of and over against the human community of mankind. Inevitably a satirical and ironic tone would creep in. For there is much that is ridiculous in humans — in the way they present themselves and in the way they behave.
But if he made this his topic, he would be setting himself above his fellow_men. Then he’d act as if he knew better and could do better. In practice, such a person is usually a big disappointment. All those who become known as critics of their time usually don’t do all that much better themselves. This is why we should be wary of critical spirits. Usually they are no more than windy bores, including the so_called progressives among them.
Better to take a positive stance in life than a critical one! It is more human and, in any case, more in accordance with the nature of love as taught by the Gospel.
However, in this section the Preacher is not inquiring into the wisdom and folly of human action. He is launching an investigation into action itself. Is there wisdom in it? That is to say, is action itself meaningful, does it bring anything about, does it yield anything, does it produce any lasting results?
This search is a grievous task, he says, which God has given to the sons of men, with which they are to be burdened or exercised (vs. 13). Not only are man’s acts in themselves a chasing after wind (vs. 14); the same must be said of the search for objective wisdom, the search for the meaning and significance of these acts — this too is a chasing after wind (vs.17), for such a meaning cannot be unambiguously discovered and established, no matter how thorough his search.
The Preacher presents himself as king of Jerusalem. He says: I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge (vs. 16). And yet (he means to say) I have not been able to discover the
meaning of man’s labors. This too is vanity. This too is chasing after wind.
You can try to contain the wind or to grasp it, but the one is as impossible as the other. The wind is too swift, always beyond your grasp, constantly eluding you. So too is the search for objective wisdom in the deeds and destinies of men.
The Preacher doesn’t say, however, that they contain no objective wisdom, no meaning. He merely says that man cannot find it, not even with the utmost exertion of all his capacities for knowledge. To conclude the one from the other is always highly presumptuous. If I, a human being, can discover no meaning in things, does this then mean that we may say with certainty that they therefore contain no meaning?
Couldn’t God perhaps have a deeper knowledge and a deeper insight into things than I? Is he not greater than our hearts? Perhaps the meaning of life is not just hidden from us, but it is too great and too grand for us. That’s a wonderful thought: existence possesses a meaning so sublime that we cannot comprehend it, and that is why it is hidden from us.
However, this is not what the Preacher is saying. He only says that we cannot discover the meaning of our actions, which is very serious; it causes much suffering.
It is strange that the Preacher doesn’t so much discuss the fact that we cannot discover the meaning of existence in terms of its suffering; he limits himself to the idea that existence in terms of action appears meaningless to us. Usually we only begin to complain when suffering in its many horrible forms enters the picture. We cannot discover any meaning in these things. As long as we are healthy, active, engaged, and busy in the world, the question of meaninglessness doesn’t come up. Secretly we think that we ourselves give meaning to things by our own actions. This too is an ego trip from which we must be converted.
The Preacher, however, probes much deeper: he admits that his search for the meaning of human action has been in vain. However, he also admits that this search is a burden which God has given to men (vs. 13). We must not only be engaged in doing but also in inquiring after the concrete meaning of what we do. This is how God has created us. He has created us with a consciousness and a conscience. This duality is both a gift and a task from God.
Animals, apparently, are not troubled by this duality. They just live. They don’t ask about the meaning of life. Moreover, they don’t act in the same way we do.
Although God has given this task to man, it is a heavy burden (sore travail), says the Preacher (vs. 13). Man is afflicted by it. It brings grief and sorrow. This is not meant as a universal and complete condemnation of wisdom itself. On the contrary. Often the Preacher values wisdom above foolishness. But, he says, remember that this blessing from God, the blessing of knowledge also weighs on life as a burden. It goes hand in hand with grief and sorrow — especially when it inquires into the meaning of human action.
To discover and to declare that this meaning is not to be found is an important part of knowledge and wisdom. It is certainly also a very painful part. It brings with it not only disappointment,
but also disquiet, fear, and perplexity. Life is so grand that it is also rugged and raw.
But we must accept this ruggedness and rawness, this fear and perplexity, this sorrow and pain. These are realities. Seen aright, they are also valuable. We must not only accept them, but say
“amen” to them.
To know that we do not know life’s meaning is an affliction, but a noble affliction. Or, at least, it can become noble when it becomes part of a God_fearing manner of being and thinking.
Then I said in my heart. As it happeneth to the fool, so will it happen even to me; and why was I then more wise? (KJV)
Then I thought in my heart, “The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise?” (NIV)
What happens to the fool also happens to the wise. The Preacher means that both share the same fate — death. At a given moment death will come not only to the fool, but also to the
wise, that is, to the those who are good, solid, useful and worthy.
This thought can, quite unintentionally, begin to preoccupy our minds. Isn’t there really an enormous amount of waste in this passage from life to death? How much wisdom and insight, how much valuable experience is lost when a wise person dies! The next generations have to get along without him. In many respects, they have to begin all over from the beginning.
This is, to put it mildly, not very economical. It does, to be sure, engender greater energy and effort. But, still, there is something very strange about it all.
Closely related to this reaction of estrangement is another reaction — paralysis. A person may exert himself to no end in the course of his life. He may achieve a great deal, materially and spiritually. But sooner or later death inevitably puts an end to it.
When we are young, this fact never completely sinks in. We’re aware of it, of course. We see it happening around us every day. It registers in our minds: it’s a universal law — man is a mortal being and therefore everyone, including we ourselves, must someday cease to exist. But this doesn’t really affect us. It really tells us nothing. It doesn’t sink through into our hearts.
But sometime after our fortieth birthday this begins to change. Then we inevitably begin to think about death. Then it also begins to sink into ourselves more deeply, with a greater reality. We begin to experience our selfhood, our existence, and everything we do as finite — as something that will come to an end.
Then we may be threatened by paralysis, at least inwardly. Outwardly we carry on as usual. We do our best; we continue to exert ourselves: we may even get ahead. But inwardly we think, What on earth am I pushing myself for, if it is all just temporary anyway?
This paralysis is also contained in the saying that all is vanity. It is something we must face head_on. Also inwardly. We have to learn to genuinely accept the fact that we are here only for a time. We must genuinely prepare ourselves. This is an important part of the art of living the godly, fruitful life to which the Bible points us: being wholly ready to live even though life is not divine and eternal but creaturely and finite. This is the heart of the matter.
Of course, we should also be ready to die. But that is not the most important thing. More
important is our readiness for life, even though it is finite. We only know the true and full fear of the Lord when we learn to exist for a time with inward happiness because God so wills it.
However, there is another element in the text. First we noticed the estrangement that overwhelms us when we see that so much valuable experience goes to waste when a wise man passes on. Next we noted the paralysis that threatens to overwhelm us when we realize that at some time all our exertions must come to an end.
To this we must now add a third thought. When we become aware of the tremendous equalization that takes place at death, it awakens a certain degree of resentment in us. In death all men become equal. All differences are erased. Not just differences in possessions, power and status, but also differences in wisdom and foolishness, in virtue and wickedness.
This is the real point of the text. “What fate of the fool will overtake me too. What then have I gained by being wise?”
The Preacher doesn’t wish to deny the fact that in life there’s a great difference between wisdom and foolishness, nor that wisdom is much to be preferred to foolishness. He observes: “The wise man has eyes in his head, while the fool walks in darkness” (2:14). He means that wisdom enables us to know how things are. We may discover that they are worthless. But to know this with the clarity of full consciousness is always better than to live blindly without any awareness of the value or valuelessness of life.
However, in death even this value — the light of wisdom — is extinguished. There is something about this idea that we instinctively find repugnant. Don’t we feel it to be unfair? Or are we surprised by the possibility that the light of consciousness gets extinguished? Then we have reason to be surprised every evening. For isn’t the fact that we fall asleep every night a miracle? All the machinery of our thinking, feeling and willing existence comes to a halt, at least partly. But in the morning we awake to find that we still exist, and the factory again resumes full operation.
What occurs in sleep, however, is but a faint shadow of what occurs at death. For then not only the light of consciousness but also the light of life is extinguished. This happens to each and every one of us. Death thus appears to be the most perfect democracy — a wholly equal
justice for all. Yet there is something frightening about this democracy of death — as there is, in fact, about all democracy.
This observation by the Preacher also suggests several other notions. After we die, nearly every person has a successor, an heir — either our children or someone else. This successor has done nothing to earn it; his inheritance simply drops in his lap. This is true not only on an individual level in terms of inheritances, but it is also true for entire generations that follow. They receive all sorts of things free of charge from the preceding generation. This too part of the vanity of things.
As if this were not enough, it is by no means certain that succeeding generations will treat these things with the same degree of care and wisdom which the preceding generation devoted to them. The foolishness of the next generation can easily nullify the wisdom of the one before. This too is
There is yet a third thought. In the time to come everything that once was will be forgotten, so that eventually even the wise will no longer be remembered. Doesn’t this show the vanity and therefore the absurdity of wisdom?
So when we contemplate life, we are forced to ponder quite a few difficult and bitter facts. We cannot avoid them. And there is little to gainsay them. Nevertheless, we must go on living and be ready to live.
They may even arouse in us a certain aversion to life (2:17). But this must be overcome. For even in your aversion to life, you will still have to live — unless you commit suicide. But the Preacher doesn’t even raise that possibility. He has far too much respect for God the Creator.
Life is a gift. Therefore, no matter how absurd it may appear, we may not rob ourselves of it.
#5 Sounding the unfathomable ground of our existence
There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God.
For who can eat, or who else can hasten hereunto, more than I?
For God giveth to a man that is good in his sight wisdom, and knowledge, and joy: but to the sinner he giveth travail, to gather and to heap up, that he may give to him that is good before God. This also is vanity and vexation of spirit. (KJV)
A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. (NIV)
In the preceding section the Preacher pondered the fact that the wise die just like the foolish. At death a person has to leave behind to those who come after all that he has accomplished during his life, without any certainty as to whether or not it will end up in trustworthy hands.
While pondering this, he happens upon the trail of a new, more universal viewpoint. This consists in the fact that a man does not really have control of anything, not even of his eating and drinking or his enjoyment of earthly goods.
There are, strange as it may seem, people who cannot enjoy things. They live under constant pressure. All sorts of things press in upon their lives. They are overwhelmed by them. They are constantly preoccupied with them. Although they try to rise above them, they don’t succeed. Ever again they are inundated and overwhelmed by a flood of facts and tasks. In the meantime, life passes them by, and they are never really able to come to point where they can allow themselves to be struck by the goodness and beauty of life and simply to enjoy it.
On the other hand, there are also those who are able to rise above things right from the beginning. They are able to enjoy life to the full. To them it is very simple. Each day comes to them like a ripe peach waiting to be plucked and they pluck it. They are able to do so inwardly. They are able placidly to let things come their way and to enjoy them. Very often they are also able to do so outwardly. They are born with a silver spoon in their mouths; everything goes their way.
That people respond to life so differently is indeed a puzzle. It gives some indication of how extremely and deeply dependent we really are. We owe not only our life and prosperity to someone else but also our ability to enjoy them. It is an ability given to some, but not to others.
Putting it in theological terms
At first glance, we are inclined to say that this is simply the way things are: one person is born with one kind of fate and someone else with another. True, to be sure. But such an observation does not plumb very deeply. It does no more than state a fact; it doesn’t explain anything. In any case, it provides no answer at all to the awesome questions that arise in this connection.
Why is one person born with one kind of fate and someone else with another? Such questions cause most people to choke up. They babble vaguely about chance or fate, about some whimsy of nature, or about the conjunction of the planets at the hour of birth.
The Preacher has the courage to formulate the matter entirely in “theological” terms. Even when reality is bewildering and irrational, he thinks it through until he comes to God. He says that the reason one is born able to enjoy things rests in the fact that he pleases God. This is to say that it pleases God to allow him to exist in this manner. The reason someone else is born with a completely different kind of fate, and that all his life he is oppressed by things — never getting to the point where he can enjoy them even once — resides in the fact that it does not please God, that is to say, it pleases God to let him exist in another manner.
The Preacher drops his sounding line extremely deep. It sinks down through all created reality to reach the good pleasure of the Creator. And even there it finds no ground. As soon as the sounding line of our rational thought reaches the waters of God’s eternal, free and omnipotent good pleasure, it keeps sinking deeper and deeper into eternity. For there is no human, rational ground to be found to God’s good pleasure.
We should, therefore, take care not to oversimplify the problem. We do this when we claim that we know who is pleasing to God and who is not, and that we also know why. Then the Preacher would have said: the man who lives according to God’s will and commandments is pleasing to God and to such a man he gives the ability to enjoy things. But the man who is not pleasing to God — because he does not worry about God or his commandments — God will abandon to lifelong misery. If this is what the Preacher meant, he wouldn’t complain so stridently.
For in that case, even if the world did not have a rational construction, at least it would have a moral construction. Everything would click perfectly. There would be no reason for the Preacher to say, this too is vanity, meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
Reality is neither rational nor moral
We should, however, have the courage to see and admit that the world is not rationally or morally constructed. God’s good pleasure is much too great and wonderful to be encompassed by the rational and moral spirit of human beings like ourselves. On the other hand, we must not immediately conclude that therefore God’s good pleasure is irrational and immoral. Then we are claiming that God’s free omnipotence is arbitrary merely because it transcends our rational and moral capacities.
Sometimes this is combined with a desire to presumptuously throw ourselves into the abyss of God’s arbitrariness. The more thoughtful among us, however, will not be able to help feeling disconcerted at a God who is arbitrary. But isn’t it presumptuous on our part to immediately
stand ready with the label “arbitrary” in this connection?
Just because something transcends our rationality and morality, is it therefore irrational and immoral? Might God not have divine grounds and norms which we cannot grasp?
We do, to be sure, have some small knowledge and realization of them in our rational grounds and moral norms. Through these we participate in God’s rationality and morality. But we merely participate in them. We do not comprehend and fathom them. Therefore, we cannot depend on science and ethics. We also need faith and liturgy.
That is really too bad, says the Preacher. And it is a considerable burden. It would be much easier for us if we depend on science and ethics for help. Then everything would be rational and moral. Then one would not have to step out of his selfhood. Nor would he have to believe and to give
praise to God. There would be no place for ecstasy. Neither would there be existence — the capacity to step out of oneself and out of that which is. If everything is rational and moral, there is no need for us to go on existing. Then we would vegetate. We would be just a higher form of cattle. We would be cogs in a rational and moral cosmos.
Bumping into God
The Preacher declares that none of this is true. God’s good pleasure is more divine, more incomprehensible, more unfathomable than any of these notions allow. The Preacher bumps into God’s sovereign good pleasure.
It is no fun to be compelled to believe and praise God. Actually, of course, it is fun; in fact, in the last analysis it is the only fun that is available to us. But at first glance, it really doesn’t look like fun. We do not believe and praise to close the circle of a closed system of reality. We do so because we notice that it cannot be closed.
Being a creature is vanity — a meaningless chasing after the wind. We don’t know which end is up or what is the ground or the norm. We are extremely and deeply dependent. Without God we can do nothing. As G. Ch. Aalders puts it, “Without him we cannot so much as put a bite of food into our mouths or simply enjoy something good thing.”
We must be made aware of this. We must realize that all things come from the hand of God. We must not be too quick to celebrate this, however, but neither should we be prostrated by it. It is better if we bump into it, for then in the midst of reality we bump bodily into God himself.
#6 Life is full of contradictions
For everything there is a season, and a time for very purpose under heaven. (KJV)
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven. (NIV)
At the end of the last chapter, the Preacher said that things are so ordained that one person is able to enjoy things while another cannot. The Preacher was not content simply to confirm this fact of experience, but he formulated it theologically. He said, “Our ability or inability to enjoy things resides in God’s good pleasure.” Therefore, there is a time and season for enjoyment — but there is also, in stark contrast, a time and season to refrain from enjoying things.
He now puts this into a much broader context.
Actually, everything in life has its own time and season. In a broad, arbitrary gesture, the Preacher gathers up a number of examples. He mentions being born and dying; planting and uprooting; killing and healing; breaking down and building up; weeping and laughing; mourning and dancing; scattering stones and gathering stones; embracing and refraining from embracing; seeking and losing; keeping and throwing away; tearing and mending; keeping silent and speaking; loving and hating; making war and making peace.
This list expresses, first of all, an awareness of the variety of life. We human beings do not keep doing the same thing; we do many different things. This in itself is a bright side of existence. This variety breaks up the monotony and boredom; it introduces surprise and suspense.
However, this isn’t what the Preacher focuses on in this context. In these examples, he has his eye on the contradictory and conflicting elements of life. It is not the case that every time we do something different, it beautifully complements and completes what we did before, and that everything is part of a single grand harmonious, completed existence.
This is not to deny that things may sometimes appear to be like this too. In Romans 8, for example, the apostle Paul says that for those who love God all things work together for good. But here the Preacher is overcome with an awareness of brokenness of existence.
One time we do one thing, and another time we do exactly the opposite. The one doesn’t complement the other; they cancel each other out. One time we bring forth life, another time we die. One time we plant and the next time we uproot what we planted.
When we become aware of this, that is, when we arrange things according to this pattern, there is indeed something about it that perplexes us. Is reality in revolt against itself? Is it destroying itself? Why then does it still exist?
The Preacher, of course, means to say that all these contradictory and conflicting facts, too, rest in God’s good pleasure. Each has its own hour and its own season. God has made everything beautiful in its own time (3:11). That is, each possesses its own beauty and goodness. We may even marvel at the thought that the Lord God is able to allow such contradictory things to occur, and that things, nevertheless, continue to exist and to keep happening. The Creator obviously is a Lord who stands above these contradictions and who has them all in his hands.
But the problem for us human beings is that we are unable to fathom why one thing should happen now and another at a different time. There’s another problem that ought to be pointed out as well: we cannot see how it is possible that the Creator, while standing above these contradictions, can combine them and let them become real. The Preacher does not dwell on this problem to any great extent. Reality is there before his eyes. There he sees that as a matter of fact a great many contradictions do occur.
This present reality strikes him as sufficiently knowable. He doesn’t get very excited about abstract possibilities. That would be a dangerous preoccupation. Chances are that those who get too excited about possibilities will by‑pass reality. Anyone who does become preoccupied with possibility may be thinking, but thinking is not living.
The Preacher addresses himself primarily to the first problem, namely that first one thing happens and then another. That it happens this way and not otherwise rests purely in God’s good pleasure. Therefore, we cannot fathom the underlying reason. If we begin to dwell on this, the variety of life appears as capriciousness.
Reality itself contains something unpredictable. This is a much bigger problem than the fact that we cannot fathom its possibilities. “What does the worker gain from all his toil?”
Man is indeed endlessly busy, energetically doing and striving. He wants to make something of life and of the world. This is also a task God has given to him by. But the results of his efforts no longer rest in his own hands.
Things often end up much different than he had reason to expect on the basis of his efforts. His deeds are incomprehensibly overshadowed by destiny. It could also be said that in some incomprehensible way destiny transcends the deed. In his deeds man intends things one way, but the Lord God in his good pleasure ordains things differently.
So we have a new problem. Man is unable not only to comprehend the why of things as they happen, each in their own time, but he also is unable to control them. Not only does our thinking
fall short, our actions too fail.
When we discover this, there is always the danger that we begin to think that our actions are meaningless. Some go as far as to refuse to do their duty -‑ that is, to act and to do so in accordance with God’s commandments. They are tempted to either do nothing at all, or to act arbitrarily in accordance with their own appetites and whims.
This again is certainly presumptuous. We must act. And we must act well. But we must not suppose that reality is purely and solely our own doing. Our destiny is larger than our deeds.
Reality is still much more the work of God than the work of man. With our actions we are taken up into the much larger actions of God. In all our doings we must, to the end, respect the factors of God’s freedom and good pleasure, of the incomprehensibility and unpredictability of things. These can give life a grimly uncertainty and contradictoriness. But it is precisely these irrational elements in life that show that we are not acting on our own but that we are involved with God, our Creator and Lord.
He hath made everything beautiful in its time: also he hath set eternity in their heart, yet so that man cannot find out the work that God hath done from the beginning even to the end.
Ecclesiastes 3:11 (KJV)
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.
Ecclesiastes 3:11 (NIV)
The Preacher is still wrestling with the fact that in life, whether of the world or of man, first one thing happens and then the opposite. This gives things multiplicity and variety, but it also creates division and contradiction. It all happens at the same time. In summary, he makes three comments on this state of affairs.
First, God has made everything beautiful in its time. This beauty, thus, depends upon the appearance of things in their time, with each having its own point in time. Reality consists of an endless series of such points. All things are spread out over these points in their endless multiplicity and contradictions.
The amazing thing, however, is that they do all appear at their own point in time. Things fit together like a picture puzzle. At first a puzzle, too, consists of a disorganized mass of different pieces. But to everyone’s amazement, it seems that they all fit alongside and into one another. In the end, together they form a beautiful whole.
The Preacher describes this beauty with a word that may be translated as “excellent.” The Lord God himself is the one who puts the puzzle together. And he puts it together in reality. Things do in fact fit together. So reality is, in fact, one large coherent whole. It contains an inconceivable multiplicity, and also an almost unbearable contradictions. But obviously the contradictions are not wholly unbearable and the multiplicity is not wholly inconceivable.
At least, the world is still here. Apparently it is possible for it to exist; it is a unity; it exists and goes its own way.
God assembles the puzzle in reality. He has made everything “excellent” in its time.
This is, in a way, an even more powerful expression than the passage in Genesis 1:31, which says, “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good.” This passage is about the beginning, about things in their primeval state.
If we put our hearts and minds to it, we might perhaps be able to affirm that indeed that was a “good” undertaking. Being is better than non‑being.
The Preacher, however, does not stand at the beginning. He stands in the middle of time. Moreover, he is not just talking strictly about being. He is also talking about everything that happens in history. And about this, too, he says that it is all very good.
There is beauty in reality as it happens. In spite of the multiplicity and divisions, it is still beautiful.
In the second place, the Preacher adds, it is not only true that reality happens and God is still busy, but the Lord God has also planted eternity in man’s heart.
This “eternity” is not eternity in the sense of a non‑temporal or super‑temporal reality. This eternity is rather the fullness of temporal reality — everything that happens between the beginning and the end, the entire historical process, not just of a single human life, but of the history of the generations of men, and the life of nature and of the universe. All this the Lord God has planted in the heart of man.
It is our nature to reflect on it. We focus our attention on it. And we possess the capacity to do so. That is part of our humanity. Animals, plants, and things are just pieces of the picture puzzle. They permit themselves to be placed into the larger whole. They cannot look beyond their own boundaries.
But as human beings we stand in the present. We stand there, in a manner of speaking, above the stream of time. In our memory, we have knowledge of the past. In our expectations, we have an awareness of the future. We oversee the whole, not just over the length of time but also over the
breadth of space. We attempt to tie things together. We form for ourselves an image of the whole.
This is a wonderful faculty that we possess. Not that we are able to assemble the picture puzzle ourselves. But we look over the Lord God’s shoulder in amazement as he is busy putting the pieces together. We attempt to discern something of the large picture that is emerging. We attempt to create a philosophy (or theology) of history.
This endeavor is no arrogance on the part of man. The Preacher maintains that this also is God’s intention. He has placed eternity in man’s heart. Man is a spectator of God in the theatrum gloriae
Dei (theater of God’s glory) in this world as the showplace of God’s immeasurable glory. We must pick out the roles that God presents. It is a huge drama or comedy. We must discern the central plot of the drama in order to understand how each part fits beautifully into the whole.
This is man’s position. As a spectator he automatically becomes an applauder. Man is a praise‑giver and a God‑speaker. This praising and speaking passes over into doing and laboring. Man is also God’s fellow‑laborer, God’s co‑star in his comedy.
Everything depends upon our having a philosophy or theology of history. In this the Communists are, biblically speaking, doubtlessly correct. They claim to know with the help of science the absolute meaning of the historical process. This absolute meaning is determined by the one political party and is then forcibly implemented in society by the state and imposed on the hearts and minds of the people. The Communists, however, forget one thing, says the Preacher. Although God has placed eternity in the heart of man, man is still not able to uncover the work that God does from beginning to end.
This is the third point that the Preacher makes in his summary. One could respond: that is all pretty obvious. The drama, after all, is not finished yet. Reality is not yet completed. The end is not yet here. The puzzle has not yet been put together in its entirety. Therefore, although we can peer attentively over God’s shoulder, we do not yet see the total picture.
But this is, to my mind, a very important consideration. God is still busy. He is not yet finished; how then can we be finished?
However, the Preacher has a still deeper reason. God acts not only with his understanding, his reason, his wisdom. He also acts with his heart, his will, his good pleasure. Things appear as they do, each in its own time, because it so pleases God. And the good pleasure of his will is always unfathomable. It is not entirely fair to respond only with one’s reason and then to wail that things are not rationally transparent. We must respond also with our wills. The Lord God wills things in their time. We should try to come to the point where we, too, will them.
Communism overlooks this factor of will and God’s good pleasure and, therefore, also the element of unfathomableness of things. No matter how much Communism, on the surface, is also oriented to the deed and to the will, in the roots of its experience of the world it is rationalistic. It imagines that it can determine the absolute meaning of the historical process scientifically. According to the Bible, this is impossible in principle. The Bible, therefore, also undermines dictatorship by a single party or by philosophy, and it refuses to admit the notion that the state must or may realize this absolute meaning by force.
#8 Enjoying life’s goods is a gift of God
I know that there is no good in them, but for a man to rejoice, and to do good in his life. And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God. (KJV)
I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil – this is the gift of God. (NIV)
The Preacher always faces life positively. That is to say, he expects something from life and insists that it is meant to be enjoyed. He conceives this in a very concrete sense. He doesn’t just mean by it a mood, but definitely also an activity. What he has in mind is finding satisfaction in food and drink — enjoying good things. But these are only a couple of examples.
The issue isn’t just food and drink. These are symbols of our ability to use all of created reality zestfully to our own well_being. Not that we need look with scorn on eating and drinking. They are basic functions of life that bring us into immediate contact with the “mystery” of the Creator’s works. Eating and drinking sustain life, so they are also holy activities. Being able to enjoy a good meal and have it sustain your health is no small matter.
However, as we have said, eating and drinking are here used as specific examples of our general use and enjoyment of the world.
This is very typical of the positive way the Preacher looks on life: it involves enjoying yourself. And this self-enjoyment not just a mood but a concrete activity. So it also involves taking delight in the world and in created reality. The Preacher stubbornly holds on to this idea: the world and life are only actually good when we can use them and enjoy them.
When we read the Bible and notice how often it speaks of joy, we are invariably tempted to interpret it away. We seem inclined to think that we are not really intended to delight in the world and in life. We prefer to think that a person can (and may) only really take delight in God, eternity and heaven. The earth, then, isn’t the object but only the context of our joy.
This is, I believe, a misconception on our part. The Bible nowhere suggests such a thing. We cannot, from the biblical viewpoint, have God without his world. We cannot, therefore, really delight in God unless we delight in his world. Similarly, we cannot have eternity without time; heaven without the earth.
The Preacher, it seems, takes another step in this same direction. He thinks man should be able to enjoy the good “in all his toil.” By this he apparently means that the good man enjoys should lie in his toil, in his labor, in his occupation with the world.
To his mind, life is only meaningful and happy when the efforts of our labor yield something, bring something into being, when we derive something from the world that we can enjoy. Then the goods of the earth don’t just happen. This makes us co_workers with God. We help to bring it into being ourselves. It is not simply a product of nature; it is also fully a matter of culture. Through this busyness, we attain the things in which we can rest.
At least, according to the Preacher, this is the way things should be. But this is not the way things are. Or in any case, they are by no means this way all the time. There are numerous people who toil all their lives with unflagging industry and diligence, yet never get around to really celebrating the sabbath and enjoying the fruits of their labor. “I have seen,” says the Preacher, “that this is not within man’s power.”
A person has to be busily engaged. This is his calling and task. For most of us it is also an inescapable fate. It is, after all, also part of human nature. But we do not have the power also to enjoy it whenever we so wish.
There is, to the Preacher’s way of thinking, something mysterious and irrational about this. Man is a worker, but he is still nothing more than God’s co_worker. His doings are taken up into and included in the lofty and imposing doings of God. And God does what he pleases with the doings of man. There is, therefore, no rational line that runs from man’s labor straight to the enjoyment of the fruits of that labor. This straight, rational line is interrupted by God’s all-powerful freedom and good pleasure.
As a result, we cannot reason directly in a straight line from our own efforts to our just desserts.
We have to exert ourselves all our lives, but then we have to wait and see what the Lord God gives us.
But he does acknowledge that some people really do enjoy life and take delight in it. They eat and drink. They enjoy the good things. So we cannot say that the Preacher is confronting us with a black pessimism. Life is a mixture. It is uncertain. For some things go one way; for others another. Seen aright, there is neither rhyme nor reason to it. There is really nothing rational about it. But here and there, now and then, we come upon something of the enjoyment of life that harks forward to Paradise.
This keeps the primal dream of happiness alive in the human breast. If we never and nowhere got a glimpse of this joy, we would begin to think that existence is nothing but a horror. No one, however, believes this. At least, not really. Moreover, the Bible agrees– being is good. It is better than non-being. Indeed, life and the world are meant to be enjoyed. A person should want to be happy. It is one of the fruits of a godly life.
But it is also one of the fruits of a godly life, of the fear of the Lord, that in dreaming of happiness we do not whine like children, that we do not try to force things in order to be happy at all costs.
We must respect the God’s sovereign good pleasure. And we must also respect the deep mystery of the world and of life as they are.
When someone is truly joyful and able to enjoy the things of this world, it is a gift of God. And I believe we may insist that this, then, is the original gift that God intended to give to us. He does not always do so. A person may pass through valleys of deep unhappiness. This is somehow related to sin and, hence, to the wrath of God. Our sin and God’s wrath are at the heart of the mystery of the world and of life.
But we can break through this mystery. We break through it when we say: “When a person enjoys the goods of life, then this is a gift of God.”
We are not only allowed to say this; we should say this. For this is to take a stand at the heart of things. In the middle of all the darkness around us, we cling to this: that the light is really
light, and that the light also really exists. Joy is the genuine light of life.
#9 All things exist by God’s good pleasure
I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be forever: nothing can be put to it, nor any thing taken from it: and God doeth it, that men should fear before him. (KJV)
I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him. (NIV)
The first thought that arises from this word of the Preacher is this: we should live and think through reality as it is and as it happens so deeply that we experience it as a series of
God’s acts. Reality is “everything that God does.” In being, we bump into the doings of God.
It is not true that nothing exists. If that were true, there would be no problem. But something does exist. That simple fact poses all the problems with which man has struggled in all ages, both in religion and in philosophy.
We come to ultimate certainty and clear-sightedness only when we begin to realize that in all being and happening it is God the Creator forcing himself upon us.
If we acknowledge and confess this, we bring to its most radical expression the simple fact that something exists and not nothing.
A person, however, does not come to this point overnight. He has to begin to see it gradually, says the Preacher. Usually we avoid this radical way of putting it, even when we are preoccupied
by these questions. In one way or another, we try to skirt them. When push come to shove, we take refuge in apathy. As a rule, we humans seldom arrive at the final seriousness and the ultimate beauty of that one simple fact about reality.
This is because we do not dare to refer our creatureliness wholly to the Creator and to view it as his act. As a result mankind has strayed into numerous religions and philosophies. Only Israel had the courage to accept, on the one hand, the radical separation of the Creator from his creation and, on the other hand, the radical orientation of created reality toward the Creator.
This is reality seen from the final, ultimate perspective. This reality that we stand in and experience is fully real. It is the only reality that is given to us, and it is an act of God.
This insight of Israel was taken over in the Gospel and was infused into the flesh and blood of Christianity through the church.
Along with this comes another awareness: “I know,” says the Preacher, “that whatever God does endures forever.”
The Preacher does not mean to say that created reality as such is eternal and, thus, transcends the boundaries and forms of time. He only means to say that what God has done can in no way be altered. Things are as they are and happen as they happen, that is, as God has done them. This does not mean that they are in themselves necessary. On the contrary, they could have been and happened quite differently.
But that they in fact were as they were and happened as they did rests in God’s freedom: in his free omnipotence it pleased him to do them this way and not another. Therefore, nothing can be changed — not because of necessity, but because of God’s freedom.
Here we broach the subject of God’s unchangeableness, but in a very specific way — in the sense of the unchangeableness of God’s acts, thus, not in terms of an unchangeableness in eternity but in terms of an unchangeableness within time.
With our Greek thought patterns, we have often seen this in terms of an unchangeableness in eternity. However, the biblical truth of predestination and of God’s unchangeableness only acquires a tragic status if we displace the unchangeableness of God from time and push it into eternity. Then predestination easily becomes an inscrutable fate. Then freedom has been eliminated and replaced by necessity.
However, the unchangeableness of God’s acts in time doesn’t sit well with us inwardly. We don’t accept it at a snap of the fingers. What matters is that each of us make his or her peace with it. This is the art of living — to make peace with being as the act of God, to take pleasure in that which pleases the Lord God.
To get to this point, a person first has to overcome a huge barrier. The barrier is this: that a person cannot add to or subtract anything from what God does. This, too, is part of the awareness of reality that the Bible wants us to see, to be converted to.
Man likes to alter things. He is only happy when he is changing things. He can do so in an idealistic way — by longing for the future. In the future things will be different; then we will be happy. He can also do it in a romantic way — by dreaming of the past. In the past things were different and we were happy. Both idealism and romanticism, however, are attempts to add to or subtract from what God does.
A person can get so busy running between romanticism and idealism, between the past and the future, that he has no time to be happy in the present. In fact, he can never become happy this way. For where else can a person be happy than in the present?
The Preacher nails us down in the present and to reality as it is, to its unchangeableness, and to God’s good pleasure, which shines forth with blinding brightness from it all. He also adds that God deliberately arranged things in this way for a purpose. God did it so that we would bow in fear before his face.
This is the heart of all wisdom and of all heartfelt happiness: the fear of the Lord, the fruit of a Godly life, the respect for God in his sovereign good pleasure, the awareness of one’s own creatureliness. As long as we do not realize that God is God the Creator and that we are his creatures, we will never really get to this point.
Also involved in being a creature, without a doubt, are such things as being a co-worker, a friend, a child, and an image-bearer of God. We should never cancel ourselves out or eliminate ourselves. We should never say, we are “only” men and “only” creatures.
But this does not alter the fact that being a creature most certainly contains elements of insignificance, total dependence, and of revolving about God’s sovereign good pleasure.
As human beings, we need not diminish ourselves into nothingness, but neither should we inflate ourselves into gods. We have to walk the line that runs right in between: recognizing ourselves for what we are, namely, creatures, while obeying, respecting and honoring the Creator for what he is, namely our Creator. Only in this will we as creatures find peace and happiness — in giving praise to our Creator.
#10 Repetition – God’s faithfulness not circularity
That which is has been already and that which will be has already been, for God seeks what has passed by. (NASB)
Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before; and God will call the past to account. (NIV)
Note from Holman Bible:
Literally: God seeks [the] pursued; or God calls the past to account, or God seeks what is past, or God seeks the persecuted
Here the Preacher is saying, at least so it seems by the wording, the exact opposite of what we are used to hearing in the aphorism: “The past is the germ of the present, and the present the germ of the future.” By this we mean to say that there is a coherence in what happens. What exists today has emerged from the past, and what we do now determines the future. From this thought we even manage to excavate the grand truths of divine accountability and retribution and so also of human responsibility.
What we do is serious. Our deeds are woven into the tapestry of history.
By pressing these thoughts further, we soon arrive at the idea that what happens involves not only coherence but also progress. One thing issues forth out of another. Things continue in this way until the last judgment.
The thought that at some time all things will be subject to a definitive judgment is not alien to the Preacher. He most certainly does not say, however, that there is, therefore, progress in what happens. On the contrary, he says just the opposite. That which is, already has been. So when compared with the past the present delivers nothing new. And neither should we expect anything new from the future, for also that which is to be, already has been. This two‑pronged saying emphatically rules out all progress in events.
However, it does not on that account rule out the element of coherence. The past, present, and future are related to each other — they are related in terms of repetition. Things repeat themselves. They return again. They appear to be part of a cycle. Reality is, then, a circle. In a circle, too, each point returns again and again.
Yet, we must be careful in developing this thought. The image of the circle does not fit easily into the context of biblical thought. The circle characterizes the life of nature, which
traces the perpetual cycle of day and night and of the seasons. Biblical thought, however, views reality more from the viewpoint of history. For history, the picture of the line or of the road is much more typical than that of the circle or cycles.
Repetitions may occur along the road. But they do not recur with an inner necessity. They are genuine, deliberate repetitions.
Repetition is a very remarkable possibility. A child can listen intently to a beautiful story time and time again and wants it to be retold in exactly the same words every time. According to Kierkegaard, marriage is the permanent repetition of the first love. It depends upon the fact that the marriage proceeds in faithfulness and that this faithfulness does not become boring. Such ideas prepare us to accept the fact that many things keep recurring with great regularity every day of our lives. This repetitiveness may be broken up by a few days of vacation, but then everyday life resumes once again.
That we should view repetition this way — not as a necessary recurrence, but as a deliberate form of faithfulness — follows from what the Preacher adds: God seeks what has been driven away. It had already passed by. It was gone. In other words, it had already been replaced and succeeded by something else. But God seeks it out again. He allows it to recur.
In this way, repetition as a moment in occurring reality is seen as a deliberate act of God. He brings old things to light again and again.
Perhaps this makes it clear why the Preacher makes this observation in the context of his affirmation of purposiveness. In the preceding verses, he discussed the fact that man does not have command over the results of his own toil, in the sense that he is unable to control whether his labor will have results, or in the sense that he is unable to enjoy the results of his labor at his own inclination.
Everything has its own time. And everything is as it is. It depends exclusively on the sovereign good pleasure of God. In is freedom he causes things to appear and to be just as they appear and are.
The Preacher develops this, the basic thought of our text, a little further. He draws our attention to the fact that God in his sovereign good pleasure obviously derives joy from returning again to what once was in order to let it be all over again. This, then, is the reason why man sees so few results in all his labor. Repeatedly he encounters what already existed long ago. It looks as if all his labor has been in vain.
But if this is true, the question involuntarily arises: why does God derive such pleasure from causing the old to return. Why the repetition in occuring reality?
The Preacher does not elaborate this question further. He explicitly confesses it to be an act of God: it is God who again seeks out that which was past. But the Preacher does not allow himself to be trapped pessimistically on the treadmill of circularity. He is merely a bystander observing the acts of God. He takes note of the repetition, but he does not dwell on the question why God repeats himself so often.
We could suggest many biblical answers to this question. For example, we could say that God seeks out the old in order to vindicate it. Everything is subjected to his judgment. There are many accounts which have to be balanced. Here the meaning of repetition becomes retribution.
We could also argue that God inverts the temporal order and returns to the past in order to reconcile it. In fact, this is the luminous center of the Gospel – God can back up; he can reach that which really and actually has been done in order to, really and actually, undo it so that it has, in fact, never been done. This is the mystery of the forgiveness of our debts.
A person could also argue that God repeats things so frequently in order to show them over and over again. He himself is never satiated by created being.
And then there’s the fact that it takes a long time before the reality of God’s creation really begins to sink in to us. Strange as it may seem, it does not quickly dawn on us that there is something and not nothing. This is why God shows it to us so often.
We could also argue that the Lord God repeats things so often in order to try and try again, for a great many things go awry. We are deficient partners of the Creator. This is our fault. But our Lord God does not give up. He tries again and again. The repetition in life is really the faithfulness of God. To us this means that we repeatedly get another chance.
#11 The world as a place of injustice
And moreover I saw under the sun the place of judgment, that wickedness was there; and the place of righteousness, that iniquity was there.
I said in mine heart, God shall judge the righteous and the wicked: for there is a time there for every purpose and for every work. (KJV)
And I saw something else under the sun: In the place of judgment — wickedness was there, in the place of justice — wickedness was there.
I thought in my heart, “God will bring to judgment both the righteous and the wicked, for there will be a time for every activity, a time for every deed.” (NIV)
— Ecclesiastes 3:16, 17
In these verses the Preacher continues to spin out the thread of his thought. The major thesis which he defends boils down to this: all human effort is in vain. By this he means that it
does not really add a single stone to the dam; it eventuates in nothing. The tedious, active earthly existence of man exhibits a colossal futility.
In order to defend and clarify this major thesis, the Preacher enlists a surprisingly large number of arguments.
The same goes for these verses. Here he adds a new consideration to the many that have already passed in review. He derives this argument from the way people relate to each other in society.
There’s a great deal of injustice that happens there — both individually and collectively.
Individually, people frustrate, tease, disappoint, and hurt each other on a personal level, and they treat each other unfairly and unjustly. And what happens on the level of individuals also occurs, in different forms and on a much larger scale between groups of people. I have in mind classes and hierarchies in society, as well as ethnic groups, nations, and races. It would, of course, be ridiculous to look for injustice within a single class, bloc of nations, or race. One group usually has very little with which to reproach the other. Much of the time they are equally guilty.
In the meantime, the situation is critical. Injustice scars a person very deeply. One may endure
lovelessness, in the sense of a lack of love. But if justice, too, is lacking, then a person revolts with his whole being. To have to endure injustice and to have to look on helplessly while others suffer injustice is horrible.
Apparently, we human beings value justice even more highly than love. At least we realize that to society and mankind justice is even more indispensable than love. Justice is the bare minimum: it is the least that we insist should always be present.
But very often it is not. This is not only horrible, it is also perplexing. What kind of world is this where often even the minimum conditions for human life are obviously lacking? Isn’t this world God’s world? And don’t we maintain that being is good, that it is better than non-being? How, then, is it possible that people abuse one another so terribly, and that they deal so unjustly with one another?
The Preacher, in his usual inclination to one-sidedness and exaggeration, immediately draws this
condition of injustice to its extreme. He says that there is not only injustice among people and groups of people, but that injustice prevails even in those places specifically designed to dispense justice. This, of course, is a very far-reaching corruption of society. If even the judges are no longer trustworthy but arbitrarily favor the powerful and their distinguished friends, where do we turn? When the crush of society threatens to repress us, the agents of justice are our last refuge.
We should not, in my opinion, raise too much of a hue and cry about the injustice of judges. To administer justice is an amazingly difficult business. Life can become such a complex tangle; parties and witnesses are often so unreliable and dishonest. Besides, the minds of the judge are sometimes so limited that they honestly cannot discover what is right and just in a given situation.
The task of the judge is perhaps the highest and most difficult one on earth. According to the Bible, the judge, in a manner of speaking, acts in the place of God. His work is of a divine nature. The Bible therefore also admonishes us to pray especially for those who sit in high places.
But judges are not simply limited people. They are also sinful people. Corruption can to a lesser or greater degree also penetrate into the administration of justice. Then injustice also reigns in the place of justice and in the place of righteousness.
Then, the Preacher means to say, life no longer amounts to much of anything. People may still do their best and exert themselves, but all toil runs dead in the barren desert of a corrupt society and a corrupt state. This, too, is one aspect of the futility and meaninglessness of existence. According to the Bible, the social question in the widest sense of the word must be taken with complete seriousness. The meaningfulness of existence also depends on whether social ideals are realized. If they are not, and insofar as they are not, the meaning of existence is also not realized.
But even in the face of this enormous problematic, the Preacher has still another arrow in his bow. Judges and ministers and all those who in one way or another exert authority and possess
power stand in the forefront of God’s judgment. They are first in line, for the Lord God is especially interested in justice, in social ideals, in the manner in which people live together, and in the manner in which society is established in its laws and institutions, and in the administration of justice.
This is notion that should please us. God watches over justice. All injustice shall be avenged. In this way, one day the earth will be swept clean of all injustice and violence.
But in this connection we must also remember that there is an appointed time for every concern and for every task. Injustice is not avenged immediately. There is an appointed time for it. This
means that injustice, too, must have its time.
The New Testament enters into this matter much more deeply than the Old. The Old Testament agrees, to a remarkable extent, with Schiller’s saying that the history of the world is the judgment of the world (Die Weltgeschichte ist das Welgericht), and that therefore all injustice will be undone within history.
The New Testament is no longer quite so confident in this respect. It shifts judgment to the end of time: it speaks of the last judgment, the final judgment.
In the meantime, we march to a different tune: we must live and endure much injustice not in anger, but in love — in the same way that Christ endured and bore all injustice.
However, because everything has its appointed time, including judgment, in the meantime we must in many ways live in the mire of injustice. There, a great deal of life bogs down. The resulting frustration can only be endured by love.
I also thought, “As for men, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?”
With these words, the Preacher does not, by all indications, wish to raise the question of the relationship between humans and animals for its own sake. Nor does he want to reflect on the problem posed by the fact of death. Both death and the common fate of humans and animals in death are raised in the context of much broader questions.
The writer is still occupied with the problem of injustice. The shocking amount of injustice between individuals and between groups of people is an undeniable fact. In the face of such injustice we may cling to the promise that all injustice shall at some time be punished and eliminated, for there is an appointed time for every concern and every task, for injustice and for justice. But this also means that whole periods of time pass by in which injustice goes unpunished. A great deal of human life runs aground on that fact. Then it looks as if all human toil and effort run dead in the desert of futility.
The Preacher goes a little deeper into this question. He asks himself why the Lord God has arranged things so unsatisfactorily. He answers: in this way God sifts and tests us. Will we succumb to injustice? Will we give up the hope that some day justice will be served? Will we despair of the meaningfulness and goodness of the world? Yes, will we perhaps even participate in its injustice?
Or in the middle of all the injustice that he suffers and observes will we keep trying to do what is just – because it is just? If so, this will give encouragement to the world, and in spite of everything we will be able to keep living in hope. But his also means that we must continue to believe and not fall into unbelief – right to the very end.
The tremendous amount of injustice in the world is a radical test for mankind, especially the fact that it goes on unpunished for so long. But the Preacher brings yet another consideration into play. The Lord God does not just want to test us; he also wants us to begin to see our own insignificance. We must begin to honor God in all his greatness and majesty. To this end, we must begin to realize that the existence of justice in this world is not something to be taken for granted. It is what gives existence meaning and what makes being good.
Where do we get the nerve to suppose that we may take all this for granted and that we have a right to it? Created reality has no meaning in and of itself, does it? For it is neither rational nor necessary. It endures entirely by the sovereign freedom and the good pleasure of our Creator. It could also have not existed.
If it does all have meaning and purpose, this is because God was so kind as to not only call things into being but also to endow them with a goal. We creatures need to be reminded of that. We must begin to respect God, and we must also begin to recognize our own insignificance.
The Preacher puts it into these words: man must begin to see that, taken in himself, he is really nothing more than an animal. In the last century, Christians become tremendously agitated about Darwin’s idea that man is descended from the ape. I honestly have never been able to understand that agitation. We should have known better from the Bible. There man is presented entirely within the boundaries of creatureliness right alongside all other creatures.
We should not distance ourselves so completely from the animals or exalt ourselves to high above them. In fact, the Scriptures are even more radical than Darwin. They not only say that man is a fine looking ape but also that he is a lump of clay dug from the earth. He is dust from dust and to dust he will return.
This is the point the Preacher wants to make in identifying man with the animals: “Man’s fate is like that of the animals: the same fate awaits them both.” The Dutch theologian Isaac van Dijk called this the logic of the graveyard. We may well believe that the spirit of man rises upward and that the spirit of animals goes down into the earth, but this never becomes visible in human experience. In terms of what we see, man is exactly like the animals.
This is, of course, not the only thought that comes to the Preacher as he refelcts on the problem of death. In Ecc. 12:7 he goes out from the premise that “the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” But as we have said the Preacher is not dealing here with the problem of death as such. He only brings it into his purview incidentally to make his point about the sameness of man and animals. And he brings up this sameness only to incidentally to make a point about the insignificance of man. It is this that should come to our minds when we consider all the injustice that exists in the world.
Yet, it is precisely in the context of injustice that the problem of death becomes urgent. A great deal of injustice goes unpunished for a long time. It continues, while we pass on. And we never see it punished. We leave this world tempted by the thought that the world is purposeless, existence meaningless and being no good.
Here, however, comes the proof of the pudding. Are we ready so to respect the Lord God, and therefore accept, bear and cover with love existing injustices that we keep on loving until the end – until death?
This is the culminating wisdom that the entire Bible drives at: we must go through the world with such a radical faith and hope that love is foremost; so that we accept and bear in love everything that is real, even that which is dreadful to us. In the process, we are being prepared for the discovery that the consummation of love is the surrender in death to God.
Ecclesiastes does not come that far. That comes in the Gospel of the cross. What Jesus did on the cross gets its perspective from the pain and suffering that accompanies the love for life and for creation that we see in the book of Ecclesiastes.
#13 Happiness is in the present and in doing
So I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot. For who can bring him to see what will happen after him?Ecclesiastes 3:22
On the one hand, says the Preacher in the preceding verses there is the problem of the many injustices that happen in this world and which go unpunished for a long time. On the other, there is also the problem of death, in which man becomes like the animals – unable to see that eventually many injustices and finally all injustice will be avenged.
This doesn’t do him much good, however, “For who can bring him to see what will happen after him?” For this aperson would need a very strongly developed social and religious sensibility. Then one might be able to rejoice at the fact that no matter what else happens at least the community will be purged of injustice at some in the future, even if he will never see it himself.
In this case, the individual bypasses himself for the sake of the larger whole, for human society.
A person might also take delight in what happens after he’s gone, not just out of social but also out of religious concerns. If the injustices which we are suffering now will be redressed and made right at some future time, at least this would mean that the Lord God is righteous in his doing on earth and that the historical process does not run dead in the desert of meaninglessness.
Nevertheless, there is something abstract about both notions for the individual. So what if the community is ultimately purged and the Lord God justified, if you never get to experience it for yourself? It is a satisfaction that rests, not on experience, but on a mere thought; and thought is never as immediate and vivid as experience.
This is why the Preacher says that a person does not come to this point of view easily. Only the present and what we do with that is really ours. The future isn’t here yet and the past is no longer here. Only the present is.
For God, of course, things are very different. Not just that he has experienced the past and will also experience the future. But he also sees it all in a single glance and he sees it all with the same good pleasure. The Lord God totals together into a single unity the entire historical process from beginning to end, just as we total up our lives from birth to death. This totalling up into a unity is an essential element in human personhood. We might also say that totalling up the historical process into a unity belongs to the personhood of God.
But we do not share in this over-all totalling up. We do try. In our philosophical and theological reflection on history, we do try to get an overview of the whole. In fact, this is an occupation that God has given for us to do: God has placed eternity in the human heart. However, we don’t get very far in this task. We never gain an overview of all things from beginning to end.
We stand in the middle. In the present. Solely in contemporary reality. That is our lot.
This experience of the present tense, this realization that we are geared to the present and limited to it is an important part of our self-understanding as a created being.
We do try to escape this situation. We pine for the past in nostalgia and yearn for the future. But the remarkable thing is that neither makes us happy. On the contrary, it makes us unhappy. For in the meantime, the present, the only genuine reality given to us, slips through our fingers.
One characteristic of human happiness is this: we can be happy only in the present. If we are not happy in the present, we are not happy at all.
The Preacher expresses this in the words: “So I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot.” Elsewhere (2:24f; 3:12f), he comments on the fact that this too – rejoicing in his own works – does not lie within his own power. This too must be given us. But here the Preacher explains that this is the only, the only genuine thing, that is given to us – if, indeed, it is given to us.
From this, three things follow. In the first place, that we must concentrate radically on the present. We must not desert our posts. We must not wander about in the broad fields of time and eternity surrounding the now. Those who go wandering this way get lost; they lose themselves in distances so endless they exhaust the eye. That may be alright for God, but it is not alright for the creature. We are not up to it. We cannot encompass it all. A certain modesty, and above all a certain limitation to himself, a concentration on the “I” and on the present are the condition for human happiness.
But, secondly, we must then put our backs into it: we should do something. We must be engaged in something. We must lay hold of ourselves, of life and of the world. If we concentrate only on ourselves and on the present, we will fall into a strange stupor. Eventually we will dissipate ourselves in this preoccupation.
Man’s being is realized in being busy with something. This is a matter of boldness. There isn’t a lot of reasoning involved in it. It is not a matter of necessity, but engages our freedom. The deed.
Each and every moment we have to hack through a whole series of knots, wipe away a mass of petty worries, overcome hesitations and incapacity, and we must simply seize hold of life and do something. He who does not dare, does not triumph. He who does not dare the deed of life, will not win the happiness of life.
From this the third thing follows: to take pleasure in the deed. There is truly nothing better than that we should take joy in our work. This joy repeatedly threatens to sour. We are assaulted by the question why we are really so busy, whether it isn’t all really absurd, meaningless, whether meaning isn’t an illusion. But these are temptations from the devil. He is always trying to throw a monkey wrench into the works.
If we wish to live piously – reverently, obediently and trustingly – then we must learn to sidestep these temptations. This is possible only if we put our backs into it; if we just go on with our jobs. Above all, we must take pleasure in it. There is something childlike about this. A lot of adults are somewhat ashamed to do so. Nowadays millions are unhappy because they don’t take joy in their occupations. But we can only be saved if we become childlike. The lot that we have been given is to do things in the present.
#14 The very heart of our being is spoiled by envy
And I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man’s envy
of his neighbor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
The fool folds his hands and ruins himself.
Better one handful with tranquillity
than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind.
Here another ingredient is added to the cocktail of the Preacher’s reflections. His ongoing purpose is to demonstrate that human existence doesn’t have very much content nor does it produce very many fruits.
In our reading thus far he has especially been elaborating this basic thought by pointing to the many injustices that happen on this earth and which often go unpunished for long periods of time. Here he adds into this bitter mix of injustice the potion of envy.
It is true, he says, people do many things. They exert themselves tremendously and even accomplish a great deal. This is also the best thing they can do. But in it all they are driven by envy.
One person keeps a close watch on the other. We do so involuntarily. We have been put here side by side; we live in a community.
This is a good thing. Imagine what it would be like to be here all by yourself. We probably couldn’t take that, neither bodily nor psychologically. From this perspective, we can only affirm the goodness of human togetherness.
But one by-product of that togetherness is that we see each other and watch each other. If this were just a watching out for each other in order to stand by and help each other, that would of course be a good thing.
But it often seems as if the devil tinkers with our watching. An element of comparison enters into it. We begin to compare ourselves with others.
But that isn’t the worst of it. Even worse is our tendency to think that the other person is somehow being favored over ourselves and therefore that he is more fortunate than we are.
That is a strange reaction. Often there is little basis for this notion. Appearances deceive. Ultimately, all we see of the other is his outside. Ourselves we see primarily from the inside. As a result, the other often appears to be happier, more fortunate than we feel.
That we see ourselves this way is simply a fact of life. We begin to feel sorry for ourselves, it makes us dissatisfied and we whine about life.
But it can also have the completely opposite effect. A person may begin to exert himself to get to the same level he believes the other person has reached. He competes. He wants to outdo the other person, and to do so he exerts great effort.
A great many of life’s achievements, thus, depend on envy.
But the Preacher makes this observation not just about our labors. He discovers this to be the origin of all human achievements, all of our accomplishments. The whole of culture, the entire historical process depends on the envy of men, one by another. Much of our upbringing and education, our sports and economy, our arts and science is rooted in envy. Life is a noble competition among men.
The Preacher wouldn’t deny that we could call it a noble competition. At any rate, it is hard to imagine how we’d overcome our innate lethargy, melancholy and despair without the stimulus of envy. This sort of competition keeps us all on our toes as a society.
The Preacher, however, puts all the emphasis on the other side of the coin. No matter how you look at it, envy is still envy. It has an unpleasant aura about it. Also something of the absurd.
If it is the root of our action, it is an infected and rotten root.
A person could also exert himself simply because he enjoys his work or because he wants to help his neighbor and build up the community or because he wants to serve his Creator.
The Preacher does not, I think, mean to say that all these good impulses are completely lacking in man. He just says: Take a good look at man as he really is: then it’s quite obvious that he exerts himself so tremendously and excels in order to outdo others – and in this way to keep the other at arms length. This is a fact of experience: “I saw,” he says.
Hereby he displays a certain sensitivity for a purer kind of human existence, for he feels this to be a spoiled form of man’s true being. There is something degrading about comparing yourself to an other, feeling yourself fall short, and then striving to surpass the other. Is it perhaps true that life is a war of all against all?
Is God, perhaps, even jealous of his creatures? Perhaps he can’t tolerate their existence and the fact that they are creatures?
We know better, of course. God has willed us to be and he rejoices in the fact that we are – even in our otherness, our distinction from him.
As human beings ought we not to be imitators of God? We, too, ought to delight not only in the fact that God exists and that he is God (and we are not), and also in the fact that others – our neighbors and our fellow men – exist and that they are different from us.
In fact, this joy is the very essence of being. When this joy in the other and in his otherness is displaced by envy, what results is an ontological decay; being itself is spoiled.
This ontological spoilation permeates everything – al of society and culture, the whole of our being and inwardness. Everything is spoiled by it. And a war of all against all does indeed ensue. Envy leads to strife, and strife leads to injustice and repression.
So his observations about envy fit in with his reasoned reflections on injustice. It is a profound examination of the terrible fact that one man does so much injustice to an other. Thought through rightly, it becomes apparent that injustice issues from the fact that one person is jealous of an other. The one who commits injustice thinks that his victim has more and is more than he himself. The victim, of course, does not see it that way. From his perspective injustice looks like a kind of madness.
The situation does sadden the Preacher deeply. Life is painful because of this jealousy. Should we therefore stop all our labors, since they spring forth from the root of jealousy? That is impossible, says the Preacher: “The fool folds his hands and ruins himself.” (Vs. 5) But, then, he is a fool, consuming his own flesh.
No, the actions of man do not issue from sin; they issue from the act of creation. They are given him as part of his existence as a human being.
Therefore, no matter how spoiled the root of our actions have become, we must go on. Still, it is hard to stifle the complaint, “Better one handful with tranquillity than two handfuls with toil and chasing after wind.” (Vs. 6)
Sin yearns for rest because its actions are so thoroughly sinful. Yet, it cannot find that rest because all genuine rest is not a rest from works but a rest in works.
True rest lies in the joy we find in our works. And the sinner cannot find this. This is why our condition as sinner is so deeply unsatisfying – yes, so utterly impossible.
#15 My neighbor as gracious mystery
Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their work:
If one falls down,
his friend can help him up.
But pity the man who falls
and has no one to help him up!
The fact that we are not alone in the world but have neighbors or fellow men is very remarkable and important. Especially if we remember that we are not just surrounded by a mass of our fellow men in general, as exemplars of a single type, but that we are related to some of them in a special way.
These can be quite different kinds of relationships. People can be married to each other. They can be friends. They can be neigbors, or colleagues, or members of the same church. A person can be a father or mother to several children, or he can be a child to his parents.
It is in these relationships that the role of fellow man first receives a fully human face. We are not a pile of rocks. Nor a patch of flowers. Not even a herd of animals. We are part of the human race.
In this context, the Preacher says two are better than one. He is thinking here of two persons who have some special relationship with each other. He adds: two are better than one because they have a good return for their work. This means, in contemporary terms: the specialized role of fellow man first gives content, form, sense and meaning to being human.
As long as I’m occupied all by myself, I am busy with things, and that busyness can fill my whole existence, but in being alone I am again and again seized by the question, “Why do I really bother? Isn’t my existence – isn’t the whole of being really meaningless?”
Then, suddenly in some special relationship I discover my neighbor – another person who also has a heart, who also experiences the same things, who is a self and who also labors under the burden of existing.
To so discover one’s neighbor is a wonderful experience. Usually we live superficially, merely passing by one another. This is mainly due to circumstances. We are much too busy. We are totally absorbed in our work. We have to scramble just to stay even. As a result, we overlook the other.
But these are really only symptoms. The real reason we overlook others is not due to circumstances but is located in ourselves – in our pagan hearts. We simply do not see the unfathomable mystery of our neighbor. We become aware of it only now and then.
And then it overcomes us as a tremendous manifestation of grace. Thank God, we sigh, that we are not alone! We are bound in love with one another.
Being with one another and for one another then suddenly infuses life with a wholly different content. Instead of the preoccupation with things, there is also love. Suddenly everything seems worthwhile; suddenly everything has real content. Love sheds light on the meaning of life.
Modern society is very much aware of this. Even those depressing novels and plays that never tire of analysing and describing the horror and loathsomeness of the human condition cannot avoid the miracle of the neighbor as an unfathomable source of comfort.
In this respect, the book of Ecclesiastes is in tune with contemporary awareness. The Preacher sees things in very similar terms. In essence, everything that we do in life he sees as stricken with meaninglessness, futility and vanity. But bind two or three together in a genuine relationship and suddenly everything looks very different.
Why? Well, says the Preacher, then you can help each other. If one person falls into a deep hole along the way, the other is there to pull him out. And then if you go on and have to stay over on a cold winter’s night, you can keep each other warm. If the journey continues through even more inhospitable places and you are ambushed by bandits, two of you could possibly resist, while all by yourself you’d be helpless.
These are simple examples drawn from daily life. Yet, they contain immense comfort. We can spring to the aid of one another not just in material ways but in all sorts of ways, small and large, to help pull one another through. This is especially true in the emotional awareness that often overcomes us that we exist for one another. We experience this in marriage and in friendship, but also in the team spirit of the workplace, in a social club or in a choral group.
I think the Preacher has in mind some other kinds of awareness as well. In the first place, there comes the awareness that together we really can eventually accomplish something in all our toil and trouble. Our efforts are not wholly in vain – as long as we do them together.
We can’t hope to achieve it all by a magical wave of the hand. That will never work. But together and after awhile – then perhaps something will really be accomplished.
Secondly, he also has in mind the awareness that you can only really enjoy what you have accomplished when you enjoy it together. This, too, is typical. As long as man busies himself with things all by himself, even though it amounts to something it may just as well be nothing because he cannot enjoy what he has accomplished. Enjoying things is a social activity. In order to really possess things, we must possess them together.
Thirdly, we don’t just accomplish something with each other and enjoy it together, but we also exert ourselves for each other. This adds the final touch to our activity. But we never wholly trust this idea. On the contrary, we think that to find happiness in things we must first and foremost be striving for ourselves and possess things for ourselves.
But this is a terrible error. For we do not ultimately possess the meaning of things and of our own existence in and of ourselves. It is found in our neighbor. Or, at least it is illuminated through him. Not until we do things for the other do we find happiness.
The whole of Scripture, however, suggests the final observation that what the Preacher says here and what finds an echo in modern culture is not yet the whole truth. Not that I wish to deny the importance of being a neighbor or fellow-man to one another. But, as far as I can see, one cannot find the final and only meaning of existence in one’s neighbor.
That can only be found in God and in his unfathomable good pleasure. We are simply because it pleases the Creator that we are. In the final analysis, our neighbor is nothing less than a pointer to our Creator.
But if the ground of all things resides in God’s good pleasure, then the meaning of life cannot really be found in one’s neighbor. There must then also be meaning in things themselves as things. I should begin to love them as well. Then the solitude in which I am busy with things simply as things can also be filled with love and joy.
And further, beyond one’s neighbor and fellow-man, there is the community, society , the state, and history. If I live in faith and hold fast to a trust in God’s goodness, I will also believe that my working existence also has meaning insofar as it is a useful part of these larger wholes.
If we become wholly preoccupied with self and other and community, a certain sappiness creeps into our thinking and doing. Then it becomes all about mutual concern, and that is not really the way things were intended to be, at least not in the Bible.
#16 In the end all our efforts are overturned
But those who followed were not pleased with the successor.
In this section the Preacher seems to be talking about an historical event that he himself experienced.
There was an old king who was a fool. He saw everything pertaining to the life of his people through rose-colored glasses. He simply would not listen to warnings and good advice.
Meanwhile, in prison there was a young man who was poor – but wise. He had insight, and he spoke out. He even managed to get the people to support him. Eventually, he got out of prison and seized the throne. The enthusiasm of the masses was boundless. However, the next generation lost that enthusiasm; they were no longer happy with him. In the end, therefore, his life too came to nothing.
Biblical scholars have worn themselves to the bone trying to discover what historical event the Preacher is alluding to here – all in vain. It is altogether possible that the writer is thinking of several different events at the same time, and that he has abstracted certain elements from all of them and combined them into an hypothetical event.
In any case, it is clear what the Preacher means to say. He again directs his light on the thesis that human existence as it is in actuality is vanity or meaningless.
The first thing he sheds light on is the notion that at first the new seems much better than the old. What is strange, however, is that at one time the old too was new. At that time it also seemed better than what came before. But gradually it too became old.
Not just the powers of the flesh deteriorate. This is also true of the life of the spirit. Over the course of a lifetime, values and ideas too lose their luster, just like things. Once again some new thing appears that looks better than that which has grown old.
It arouses enormous enthusiasm among the masses. This, too, is strange, says the Preacher. And this is the second part of his train of thought. Humanity never stops hoping. Although we experience a thousand bitter disappointments, again and again something or somebody arises to waken new hope in us.
That new hope captures our collective soul and so multiplies the power of our enthusiasm. If one man is captivated by something new, this may bring him profound happiness. But few wheels are set in motion thereby. Only when our collective soul is moved so that great masses of people are captivated by something new, something liberating, only then do things begin to happen.
All of a sudden the wind begins to blow from a different direction, and everything bends or is carried away in that direction. Everyone begins to repeat the same things. They throng after the new leader or the new idea.
I saw that all who lived and walked under the sun followed the youth, the king’s successor. (4:15)
Of course, there are always a few left who keep their heads and raise objections, who do not immediately see the millennium breaking on the horizon. But they are party-poopers. They are elbowed aside or trampled underfoot. They are not up to date; they don’t understand the times. They have no faith; they are reactionaries who prefer to stick with the old.
However, those who came later were not pleased with him. This is the Preacher’s third point. All of a sudden, the masses are fed up. Soon they will again be captivated by something else, and the one they once followed with cheers will have been abandoned.
But why? The Preacher gives no reason. Often we can’t come up with any. We could say that it was because the new generation never experienced some transition that the previous generation had to undergo. It was the energies released by this transition period that motivated the first generation and drove their enthusiasm. The next generation, however, asks itself, puzzled, what in the world the previous generation was so excited about and what in the world they saw in that “new” leader and in that “new” idea. In the meantime, it has all become old hat. The new has become old.
But there’s more. In the meantime, we have experienced the new, and it has proved rather disappointing. It is true that young man in jail had been wise. He said new things. He believed in something. He was daring, and he led the way.
When his words and deeds landed on the hard soil of reality, however, they looked very different from the vision he first conceived. All realization, all making real, involves an element of disillusion.
Incarnation is becoming incarnate in the real, becoming flesh. But when things become flesh, they become part of a corrupt reality. This is the heart of the matter: to persevere within this corrupt reality.
This is the faithfulness of true piety. However, this is the last thing we want. By nature we are not ready to truly accept and carry the cross of this fallen and cursed reality.
In addition, the corruption of reality is not just due to this incarnation. Things are not only corrupted by circumstances. After he gets out of jail and ascends to the throne, the young man appears not just to be wise but also all-knowing. However, he turns out to be just another ordinary, fallible and sinful human being. He is a disappointment. This is one reason the masses suddenly drop him and turn to someone else.
Perhaps, though, the Preacher has in mind something even more drastic. What if the sudden shift in popularity simply means that for the masses the fun has gone out of it?
Those who came later were not pleased with him. They no longer see anything in him. The fuel of their enthusiasm has all been burnt up and the fire dies all by itself.
There’s no deeper reason. It is simply the law of the collective soul, which is very hard to understand. It is something stupid and irrational. One simply accepts it and submits to it. In essential ways, social man is very different from solitary man. As a result, the historical process, the progress of time and all it contains, holds many elements that are very puzzling.
Meanwhile, it seems to me that the Preacher has made an unusually strong argument for his contention that the efforts and toils of man are meaningless, a chasing after wind.
The young man achieved the ultimate: from a jail cell he ascended to the throne. He fired up the masses and carried them away. But then it all came to nothing. Suddenly it is all over. The masses are already marching to a different drummer. And he sits all alone on his throne, growing old.
The deterioration of our powers, the mindless enthusiasms of the masses, the sudden reversal of the people’s favor – all of life’s paths run dead in a desert. History is nothing but a masquerade.
To plumb to the reality of our existence, we must also get a deep sense of the futility of existence and experience with it. This futility is also at the heart of existence, among other things.
The question is: are we prepared for a reality that often strikes us as futile? Can we persevere inwardly surrounded by this futility and continue to love, just as Jesus persevered in Gethsemane and on Golgotha? This is the question we face every day anew.
#17 Authentic and inauthentic in religion
Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong.
Ecclesiastes 5:1 (NIV)
The first thing that strikes me in these words of the Preacher is that he does still go to the temple and participate in the worship service. That may surprise us moderns. Why does someone who complains so deeply about the futility of human striving and about the complete unfathomableness of God and his way with the world still go to church? For most the discovery of the absurdity of human existence is a good reason not to believe in God and to stop going to church. Even if it isn’t a genuine reason, it is often a good excuse: How can you worship a God you don’t understand?
When you really let this question sink in, however, you suddenly become aware of how superficial it really is. Must we really be able to comprehend God and figure him out to be able to worship him and serve him? Is the central thing to comprehend things, to gain insight into the rational coherence of things? Is doing not much more than thinking and comprehending?
Even if it is not transparent, reality is there, isn’t it? A person can pose a thousand unanswerable questions; nevertheless, he is still there and so is reality, and so is the necessity of being and acting.
He is there most truly when he plumbs to the roots of reality and understands himself to be a creature of God and in his doings respects his Creator. In fact, at the heart of the church’s liturgy, worship and faith is the fact that we do not comprehend God but reverently acknowledge him. If we understand everything, then we would no longer need to believe in him and praise him.
So the first thing we see is that the Preacher’s pessimism does not keep him from going to church. The second thing that strikes me is that he insists on the seriousness of going to church. For him to insist on anything is remarkable in and of itself. He still wants to participate with others and in life. His train of thought doesn’t lead him to say: ‘Since everything is in vain anyhow, it doesn’t matter what you do. You may as well do whatever you please.’ No, he insists on life’s seriousness. He doesn’t just reflect on the futility of reality, but he also turns to his fellow human beings to admonish them.
He urges them to vigilance particularly in temple attendance. There are many who go to the temple out of custom, without thinking, to bring their offerings out of habit. Even fools do that. The fools are the godless who do whatever they like in their daily life. They go their own way in profound ignorance. They act as if they know nothing of God and of his commandments. But they still go to the temple regularly to bring their obligatory offerings. They hardly know what they are doing, but they do it because it’s part of their customs. Perhaps they are driven by a vague sense that in this way they are making things right.
It is this that the Preacher condemns. He says: “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God.” He uses an image – the image of walking. We can walk without thinking, carelessly, almost unconsciously. Then we risk stumbling over a rock or root. We can also walk carefully, looking out where we’re going. Then we are guarding our steps. Then we are fully aware of what we are doing. This is how we should go to the temple or to church.
Then we should be fully aware of what it is that we are doing, for worship isn’t just one more thing among others, just another activity. It is to stand before our Creator God. It is to arrive at the most essential thing in being human. When we do that, we must know what we are doing.
We should know what we are doing when we are pounding nails. You have to pay attention; otherwise, you will hit your thumb. But it is especially necessary to pay attention when we arrive at the most fundamental moment of our existence.
The Preacher is, thus, protesting against the emptiness and futility of the way we practice our religion. Participating mechanically out of habit turns religion into an empty, idle, meaningless gesture. It becomes like a painted Easter egg – pretty on the outside, but it is nothing but an empty shell. Reality is often like that. Sometimes, says the Preacher, you get the feeling that the whole world is nothing but an empty eggshell. But you must not reduce your temple-going to such an empty thing by the way you participate.
So he is demanding authenticity in worship. We must live lives of reverence and fruitfulness, humility and thoughtfulness, justice and respect before our Creator. We may not be able to fulfill that in all respects. Habit, mechanicalness, externality and social manners play an important role in our lives, also in religion. To judge everything in terms of authenticity, sincerity of heart, so that everything must issue purely from within, is to make life impossible. It would create inhuman demands on us. It soon becomes obvious that we are not able to be completely authentic from the inside out. There is also the other pole of the outside, of community, of set habits and of lifestyle.
Down through the ages living a life of complete authenticity has been tried many times. It has produced magnificent examples of human life. People tried to live in continuous awareness of walking with God. They tried in everything to be conscious that they were living before the face of God, to be conscious of the ultimate seriousness of all things, to always be aware of the slightest rustlings in the inner life, to be always on guard over oneself, constantly shaping oneself.
When we encounter such selves in literature or in reality, we can hardly stop gazing at them, for their entire lives have become stylized. They remind you of a young girl dressed and made up to go to the ball: everything is just so. Nothing out of place.
But this way can suddenly morph into its opposite. Such a person becomes trapped in an exaggerated sense of life’s seriousness. Then authenticity suddenly becomes inauthentic. One ends up in artificiality, phoniness, affectation – which have given such a bad connotation to the word piety. Then piety becomes sanctimoniousness.
But we must not throw out the baby with the bathwater. On the one hand stand piety as sanctimoniousness; on the other, piety as mechanical habit. An aversion to both may lead to an indifference that has arisen out of a deep need for authenticity.
The Preacher warns us against all three. He says we must not abandon our worship of God. But we must not participate in it mechanically. Nor must we embrace an inflated spirituality. But we must stand before our Creator God down to earth, reverently and aware of what we are doing. The earth is filled with mystery, but we must walk amid these mysteries in reverence and in awe.
#18 Language is being emptied of meaning
Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore stand in awe of God. (NIV) For in the multitude of dreams and many words there are also divers vanities: but fear thou God. (KJV) Ecclesiastes 5:7
Here the Preacher draws attention to human speech. Our capacity for speech is a an unspeakably great gift and also an unspeakably great mystery. The stones cannot speak, and neither can the plants and the animals. But we can.
We express ourselves in our speech. And through it we create community with others. It also enables us to represent reality. Only when we can name things do we really know them. And finally it is speech that creates a relationship with God.
We not only have been created by the Word along with all things; we are also created in the Word. Our relationship to God is a Word-relationship.
In speaking we come to our true existence, for it is to step out of ourselves. True ecstasy is to rise above ones selfhood. Genuine transcendence is to get beyond our selves. A person who speaks, who speaks authentically, makes contact with God.
But we must be careful in this regard, warns the Preacher. The highest good corrupted makes the greatest evil. This unspeakably great gift of language is open to corruption. The emptiness of existence can also creep into our words. We sometimes speak idle, empty, foolish words, words without content. We prattle on. We use our words without thinking, carelessly, just to be talking. We don’t always mean what we say; in fact, at times we hardly know what we are saying. The content of our own words doesn’t even sink into us as we are speaking.
There is so much talk, so many words. We seem to think that we must keep on piling up words — the more the better. We repeat ourselves endlessly. We seem to think that words as such will do the job. By multiplying words we try to conceal from ourselves their emptiness.
In this way, chattering endlessly on, we bypass ourselves and our own existence. We get so caught up in existence, extasis and transcendence, that we lose ourselves in the idle repetition of words. In the process, our existence and transcendence, that is, our stepping outside of ourselves and reaching beyond ourselves is turned into its very opposite.
Reality turns into a dream. The Preacher is here saying that the corruption of what is greatest produces the worst. “Much dreaming and many words are meaningless.”
He introduced this comparison in verse 3, citing a proverb that was probably current at the time: “As a dream comes when there are many cares, so the speech of a fool when there are many words.”(NIV) [For a dream cometh through the multitude of business; and a fool’s voice is known by multitude of words.(KJV)] At the heart of the matter is the quantity of our words.
The day has been busy and bustling, we have been so overloaded by the experiences and activities of the day that they bother us far into the night. It is time to sleep. We should be resting in the arms of our Creator from the busyness of being. But the day’s realities invade our nightly rest. Our restlessness does not go away; we are beset by dreams.
This is how it goes with words, suggests this proverb. Just as dreams are the result of much busyness, so foolish talk is the result of many words. Those who want to be always talking end up using words just to hear themselves talk. Such a person doesn’t think before he speaks, so his words become idle chatter.
Yet, the emptiness of speech is not just located in speaking too much. It is also located in emptiness as such. Eventually our speech becomes as empty as a dream. A dream is fleeting, hard to grasp. It is related to reality, but is not itself real. Similarly, human existence, extasis and transcendence can all turn into a mere dream. Even God himself becomes a figment of our dreams, devoid of any reality.
This is the result of talking too much about God. We can talk God to death. We presume to capture him in the web of our many words. This can also be true of the many words we speak inwardly, our images and reflections. With these, too, we seek to capture God and pin him down. But that is foolish talk. As Emil Brunner puts it: anyone who thinks he can conceptualize God is mad. We must allow God to be himself.
But we must also be ready to be ourselves before God. We must speak to God and with God in our prayers, our praise, our confessions and in our witness. And we must do so soberly and reverently, attentively and seriously. Our traditions and the church provide us with core words. The simple rules of speech are given us in the dogma, the teachings of the church. These are formulas we may use.
But this text isn’t just about the use of words in religion. There we have long heard warnings about the empty use of many words. But I think this is true of all reality and of all of life. In everything we are standing before the face of God. Being is holy in its totality. And therefore all our speaking about everything is of equal importance, and it, too, is threatened by the same dangers.
The sciences, and culture in general, are important in part because they teach us to be precise in our use of words. Our math and science teachers taught us not to speak carelessly, but to be economical in our use of words and to always use the right word.
But this is as true of the arts as of the sciences. The arts introduce style into reality as well as into our inner lives. They induce us – in a thousand different ways – to seek to represent things as they are.
But even aside from the arts and sciences, there is experience, maturity and the inner culture of the heart. They also provide soil in which attentiveness, receptivity, care, reticence, gentleness and precision can grow. These enable us to say precisely what needs to be said in as few words as possible.
The Preacher, however, does not point to the arts and sciences and inward culture. He penetrates to the roots of all of these. He says, “Therefore, stand in awe of [fear] God.” This is what is most necessary: people must respect God. He is our Creator. He does things in his own sovereign way, and we are but creatures.
We may join in the conversation, just as we may also participate in his doing and willing and knowing. But our speaking is a matter of speaking with. We must not think that we have the first and last word. The first word is always God’s. It is the word of creation. His, too, is the last word. It is the word of the last judgment and of the consummation of all things. In between we may also speak some words, but if we talk too much, then everything turns into a mere dream. When we use the right words, however, they turn into a song of praise.
#19 Seeing injustice in society
If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still. Ecclesiastes 5:8
Once again, as in Ecc. 3:16 and 4:1, the Preacher talks about the oppression of the weak and the perversion of justice. Earlier he brought it up in the context of the futility of all effort. Your entire life can run dead in the desert of injustice. Here the same theme is raised in the very different context of wealth. Wealth is an empty thing because, among other things, it has often been acquired through injustice and oppression.
The fact that the Preacher raises the issue in two such different contexts is noteworthy. It obviously sticks in his throat.
In this text he distinguishes two sides. First, the human side. This usually means the side of the poor, not just those who have no money, but also those of small significance in the larger concerns of society. Those who are small and have little are oppressed; they do not get their fair share, and ultimately they become victims of abuse and exploitation.
There is another side to the issue – the side of justice and righteousness. These are of concern mot just to individuals; they are important in and of themselves. They are of concern to society as a whole.
The Lord God is not just interested in how individuals are treated but he is also interested in how the larger whole is organized. We stand before God’s face not just as individuals but also as social beings. So the Preacher does not just talk about the oppression of the poor but also about the fact that justice and righteousness are being perverted.
As he sees it, that is just as bad as the oppression of individuals. All of Scripture, and the book of Ecclesiastes as well, sharpens our awareness of the importance of justice. In our western protestant culture there are many who see it as of secondary concern. It is too outward, too material and too raw a matter. They prefer to concern themselves with inner matters of the heart and the soul. This is more fundamental to them.
Some like to contrast justice and mercy. Before God’s face we live purely by grace. Justice has nothing to do with it. Others like to contrast justice and love. These are all notions that arose from different sources during the 16th century but that still reign supreme in some Christian and humanist circles. Justice is felt to be at odds with love and grace.
The Bible teaches the opposite: justice is the heart and soul of grace, the very framework of the house of love, the backbone of God’s covenant with mankind. This is why the Bible writers are so sharp when it comes to the question of justice in human society.
They are not then just addressing the matter of justice as if this were their sole concern. Socially and politically justice must be kept in relation to love and grace. We must not see the state as concerned with nothing but the externals of justice. But it is in the sphere of society and the state that the element of justice in God’s purposes comes to the fore.
But, laments the Preacher, the poor are suffering oppression and justice and righteousness are being denied. Just look around in your district. It is happening right around you. Not just those higher ups who are far away are cruel and wicked but also those living around us. Injustice is a fact of daily life.
And if you were one of those high officials, would you do any better? To bring it closer to home: somewhere on a miniature scale you too are one of the higher ups, you too have authority of some sort. Can you say that in all that you do you are embodying justice and righteousness? That you never in any way oppress one of your fellow human beings?
Let’s not act too shocked about injustice and oppression, says the Preacher. To be a human being is a tremendous thing – also a tremendously difficult thing. Especially if you possess power. And we cannot do without officials. Even in a communist society or in a labor union there are higher ups. They carry most of the responsibility or possess most of the know-how. There’s no denying it: they have power. They have say-so, authority. They decide what will happen. But they are people like us.
Moreover, they are part of a group of people who are with each other. They watch each other. The one spies on the other. Wherever people come together there is envy, even among the higer-ups. They compete with one another as in a contest. Whether it’s about promotion, about defending their own territory or about who carries the most weight – these are all things that are not evil in themselves. But as they work themselves out in society, they produce all sorts of evils. Competition among those who have power in society easily leads to corruption.
We must not in this day and age, I believe, think first of all of bureaucrats and politicians in this connection. They are pilloried enough. Nor must we first of all think of labor unions and CEOs. All of them, I’m sure, will recognize themselves in the mirror that the Preacher holds up to us.
But it’s a mirror that we must all look into. Each and every one of us have some power, and we all keep a jealous eye on others. We may mean well, but when we get a chance to elbow someone else aside, we find it hard to pass up the opportunity. This is true even of the most religious and most idealistic persons. Hiding inside each and every one of us is a predator.
Hierarchy does little to offset this situation. We put one person over another to supervise their actions. Usually that works well, but even hierarchies are prone to corruption, even especially so. And over them a higher one eyes them in turn, says the Preacher. They keep an eye on the others to supervise them, but they also compete with them. And then corruption soon follows.
If this is true of the higher-ups, what hope is there for justice and for the individual? They are abused and oppressed. Don’t you see the connection? Therefore, don’t be surprised about that oppression and injustice.
The Preacher doesn’t go on to insist that we must do more, such as combat injustice. Here he is playing the role of observer. He is simply looking at things. This brings a certain wisdom with it: seeing how things are interrelated, he is no longer so startled and shocked by them.
This is helpful. We must begin by seeing things realistically, soberly, as they are. Then we see what it means that we are part of a fallen humanity and society. Evil has wormed itself deeply into our existence. If we underestimate its power, we will stumble and fall. To see reality as it is is the beginning of liberation.
The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether he eats little or much, but the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep. Ecclesiastes 5:12
One remarkable trait of most human beings is that they spend much of their lives trying to accumulate as much wealth as they can. This is due to several different factors. Generally speaking, this human tendency probably ought to be examined in the context of our overpowering desire to take ownership of the world.
We are born and awaken as part of the world. But in coming to self consciousness, we set ourselves over against the world. We turn it into a passive object, and in this way we seek to subject it to ourselves.
We also feel the world as a threat; it seems hostile toward us. And in a thousand different ways, we react to it with a certain fear and anger. One way is to gather up for ourselves treasures on earth.
There is another factor at work here as well – the drive to satisfy our needs and desires. We think we can buy anything. In fact, we think that if we could buy everything we desire we would be happy.
Moreover, wealth gives us respect and power among our fellows. A person doesn’t really count until he is rich. Others value the insights and opinions of the rich much more than those of the poor.
For these and many more reasons, the lust for wealth is probably an ineradicable need in human beings. It’s hard to argue with it, but the Preacher makes an attempt. In the second half of chapter 5, he makes a series of observations that point out that wealth, too, is among the vanity of vanities, and that the quest for wealth is also a chasing after wind.
The observation made in our text is quite remarkable. The Preacher says: Take a look at how people sleep. On the one hand you have a person who doesn’t own very much. He has to work hard for his daily bread. In doing so, he spends all the day’s energies, so that at the end of the day he is tired. He eats a little – and then he sleeps like a log. On the other hand, there is the rich man. He doesn’t need to work, so there are no demands on his energy. He eats plenty, more than he needs. In fact, he has more than he needs of everything; he is more than satisfied. But these things haunt him in his sleep and wake him up.
The point of comparison is sleep. Those who have to work hard enjoy a good night’s sleep, while those who are rich have their sleep disturbed. That’s quite remarkable, isn’t it — human happiness measured in terms of sleep.
Sleep is an important part of life, of course. We waste about one-third of our lives sleeping. But is it a waste? Is sleeping an inferior part of life? When we’re asleep, we’re no longer active. We are no longer conscious. Theodore a Brakel, the 17th century Reformed theologian who wrote The Steps of the Spiritual Life, lamented having to spend so much time sleeping, because when he was asleep he could no longer experience the sweetness and goodness of the Divine Being and he could no longer perform the purpose of human existence, namely to praise God. That must be the most radical critique ever made of sleep – that it is unworthy of us as theo-logians, that is, as God-sayers.
But we must be cautious on this score. At the very least, sleep is necessary. It’s the only way for us to replenish our strength. We cannot exist without sleep, to exist we must be able to get to sleep on time.
Sleep, therefore, involves a deep element of faith. I must trust that being is good and that the existence of the world does not depend on me. I must trust that someone is looking out for me. I go to sleep in the arms of the Creator. All these things come into play when I go to bed at night and I am not afraid to close my eyes and go to sleep.
Sleep resembles the Sabbath in some ways. On the Sabbath we stop working and worrying, and we celebrate the goodness of being as the work of the Creator. Viewed in this way, sleep is an even more pious activity than waking and it is also in praise of God.
When we reflect on all these things, the fact that the Preacher takes sleep as the point of comparison between the rich and the poor no longer seems so strange.
But perhaps the Preacher has the very opposite in mind. Why do the poor sleep well and the rich do not? Because the poor have to work, tiring themselves out, while the rich wallow in their wealth and never have to work very hard. Seen from this angle, the difference is not in terms of sleep but, on the contrary, between working and whiling away the time.
Man has not been put here to do nothing. But neither has he been put here to do everything. So the meaning of existence is not in work. The meaning of human existence is found in joy and praise.
But we are here to do something. We must be busy with God’s world. We have received energy from God, who is the sun, the source of all energy. We have been given a position in which there is work to be done within limits revealed to us. The rich, however, stroll among the things of this world as if they were sovereign.
But this, too, can turn into its opposite. It’s wrong to say that the rich aren’t doing enough: they are doing too much. Their wealth entangles them in a thousand different things. These don’t permit them any rest. These entanglements keep the rich awake at night.
The phrase “the abundance of the rich” may not just refer to an over-consumption of food that spoils their sleep. It may also refer to the abundance of material good and the many duties and cares that accompany much wealth.
The rich are, thus, possessed by their wealth – so much so that they can no longer let go and surrender themselves to rest in God.
This is borne out by the fact that wealth leaves us unsatisfied. The Preacher points this out in verse 9: “Whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income.”
This is further borne out by the fact that the rich are actually never alone. The Preacher points this out in verse 10: “The increase from the land is taken by all.” [KJV: “The profit of the earth is for all.”] Here he seems to be thinking of all the servants, merchants, friends, beggars, thieves — all those who are dependent on the wealth of the rich. Riches destroy the solitude of life. One becomes ensnared in the world.
And our solitude before God is a precious thing. Perhaps this too is part of the value of sleep – when we are asleep we are all alone and entirely in the hands of God
#21 The futility of all wealth
This too is a grievous evil: As a man comes, so he departs, and what does he gain, since he toils for the wind?
In these verses (12-16) the writer of Ecclesiastes adds a new observation to his series of reflections highlighting the futility of wealth. At first glance it sounds as if he is associating wealth with death – that he is pointing out that when you die you can’t take anything you’ve gained in this life with you. “Naked a man comes from his mother’s womb, and as he comes, so he departs” (14).
The Preacher certainly wouldn’t deny that this is a big part of the futility of wealth. He would agree with Paul in I Timothy 6:7: “For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.”
We are not as quick to say this of other aspects of our earthly life. Death doesn’t render all of life meaningless. We may, for example, accumulate much wisdom or develop a great measure of virtue or strength of character. Unconsciously, we tend to assume that these are things we can take with us into eternity. When it comes to love, Paul says very emphatically that love endures. It comes along, for love is a foretaste of eternity in the present. All material things, however, we must leave behind.
This is, however, not exactly the point that the Preacher is making here. Here he is talking about a man who has accumulated great wealth during his lifetime but who also lost it during his life, so when he dies there is nothing left of all his labors that he can pass on to his children. The question he focuses on is not whether he can take his wealth with him at death, but whether he can give his children and his descendants a headstart into the future with his goods.
Our offspring also give us a form of immortality or eternal life. In some mysterious way, we live on in our descendants. Our earthly labors derive a certain meaning or purpose if they produce something that helps our descendants gain a certain status in this world.
We must not belittle this notion, even if it does seem a bit primitive and Old Testamentish to us. But we could put it in more contemporary terms: we could say that the individual isn’t an atom in a closed world, but he is a moment in the historical process and part of the worth of his existence consists in what he contributes to the future, toward the unity and totality of the human race.
Communism was strongly in favor of evaluating the life of the individual in these terms. It went much too far, but it did capture a certain truth. We must not overinflate our importance as separate individuals. We must keep in view the larger whole, not only society as a whole but also the historical process. For we are part of it all. That larger whole must have some meaning, so when we’re searching for the meaning of individual existence, let’s not forget the meaning of the whole.
For most of us this larger connection takes on flesh and blood in our own children. Blood ties between parents and children represent a love that, as it were, illuminates the meaning of the historical process in its totality. When I look at my children, I see in a flash what it is that I have lived for.
But there’s still another facet in the Preacher’s observation that occupies us here. As he sees it, it is a lamentable thing if at his death a person can leave nothing to his children of the wealth that he has worked so hard for all his life. It is in turn associated with what the Preacher twice calls “a grievous evil.” It is deeply disturbing to him.
But what is this “grievous evil”? First he calls it, “wealth hoarded to the harm of its owner” (13), and later he further describes it as “wealth lost through some misfortune” (14).
We could call this the element of fortune in human life. By this I mean the element of chance, fate, unpredictability and uncertainty. Sometimes things turn out one way and at another time the very opposite. This happens in many areas of life, in the area of health for example. But it is most striking in the area of income, possessions and wealth.
To accumulate wealth takes a lot of dedication. But once you have it, the struggle is far from over. Then you have to work just as hard to keep it. And it often happens that all those efforts are in vain. An unforeseen combination of circumstances, a series of necessary interventions, or a crisis in the global economy – any of these can erase in one day all that you’ve worked for all your life.
This is what the Preacher is really talking about – the fickleness and unpredictability of wealth. It is here that the fleetingness and changeableness of human existence becomes tangible and deeply felt. Everything is always in flux.
We all struggle with this reality at some time. For example, it is no small thing to have to admit to ourselves that we are getting old. But his happens gradually. It is much more dramatic when someone who is very wealthy suddenly loses everything and is flat broke. And this happens, says the Preacher: you can suddenly be struck by misfortune and lose all your wealth.
This is a grievous evil – “wealth hoarded to the harm of its owner.” This is phrased in a somewhat sinister way, but it hits the mark. For this evil is not limited to the misfortune that causes the loss; it also anticipates verse 17: “All his days he eats in darkness, with great frustration, affliction and anger.”
The point is the evil consequences of losing ones wealth. What happens in the heart of someone who loses such a fortune? Think, too, of the complaints, the recriminations between man and wife and the tensions in the family. When you think of everything associated with such loss, the sinister phrase – that wealth can be hoarded to the harm of its owner — doesn’t look too far off the mark
At any rate, these observations I think go a long way to making the Preacher’s point. He wished to show that wealth, too, does not provide the foundation, content and meaning of human life. It is far too fickle.
Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him — for this is his lot.
In the midst of all his troubled reflections on the futility of human life and especially of the vanity of wealth, the Preacher does discover at least one thing that he can declare to be good without reservations of any kind: at least we can enjoy what is here in the present and what we possess here and now.
It is also possible that he means that we should not pursue a multiplicity of goods but be satisfied with the few things we already have. Let’s enjoy these.
But this is not the only way to understand his words.
The central stress is not on the matter of much or little but on whether we are letting the days slip through our finger or whether we are seizing each and every day to enjoy it. This is the way to live, he suggests. We should live in the present and limit ourselves to the present and enjoy it as much as we are able. Every single day, every single moment in time is a ripe peach to be picked, peeled and enjoyed. “Seize the day!” is the advice he gives us.
There is a lot of disagreement, of course, about the nature of enjoyment. Many are quick to point out that there is quite a difference between different kinds of enjoyment. Some forms of enjoyment are much higher than others. There is the physical enjoyment of eating and drinking. There is the bodily and emotional enjoyment of sex. There is the enjoyment of the arts, of ideas and of wisdom. There is the enjoyment of being and working together and of virtue and doing good, which have their own reward. And there is also, according to believers and mystics, the highest kind of enjoyment of all, the most authentic, the only true form of enjoyment — the enjoyment of eternity, of salvation, of God.
The Preacher likely would not have denied that our enjoyment does indeed take many forms. But whether he would rank them in terms of higher and lower, I don’t know. At any rate, he begins with the simplest – eating and drinking. In fact, this is actually the only one he mentions by name. For the rest he speaks in general terms about our enjoyment of “goods”.
It is not that he doesn’t know about the joys of sex or of wisdom, virtue and godlinesss. But he seems to suggest: let’s not puff ourselves up too much and let’s not take ourselves too seriously. Let’s not turn it into a stairway with a large number of steps by which we must ascend to ever higher levels. Eating and drinking is something we must do all our lives, and we ought also to be able to enjoy it.
All of them were created by God. They are a gift from God and we must not demean them. At the last judgment one of the most important questions that God will pose is, “What did you do with my world? Did you fully appreciate it?”
The Preacher considers this idea of the enjoyment of the present in relation to two different things: first in relation to the brevity of life, and secondly in relation to the meaninglessness of life.
We ought to enjoy the good things of life in the few days that God gives us. Life passes very quickly. Before we realize it, the end is near. Just as sand slips through the fingers of a child playing in the sand, so our lives slip through our fingers. Suddenly we are old, and we’re saying, Where has the time gone?
That makes us unhappy. And that’s not good, for God has not put us here to be unhappy. We can be happy only when we ignore the swiftly passage of time and the fleetingness of life and instead become absorbed in the present. Then we no longer dwell on the brevity of our lives, because “God keeps [us] occupied with gladness of heart” (vs 19). When we are enjoying things, we are inwardly happy. All happiness involves a certain timelessness, a sort of undisturbed everlastingness.
Of course, the Bible does have others things to say as well. For example in Psalm 90 it says, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” We must not block death out of our experience of life but include it — but this must be done in the right way.
Death puts a period at the end of our lifespan, but in so doing it also puts an accent on it. Death and eternity cast us back into the present. Reality is the here and now, for it is created reality, which remains important to God for all eternity. This is why we should be focused on it and enjoy it with all our senses.
But the brevity of life brings us before something else, something very strange. Although life is surprisingly short, we cannot grasp it as a unified whole. Just try it, says the Preacher. What does it add up to? Does it produce anything permanent? Does it have any substance or meaning?
No matter how hard a person labors, in all sorts of ways it culminates in the desert of futility. All his labor under the sun is a chasing after wind. This is the big theme that the Preacher keeps returning to — of life’s vanity or futility.
And in this connection he gives the advice: carpe diem! Seize the day. There is not nothing. There is something – reality. We ourselves are here too. Just let that fact sink in all the way. It’s enough to make your head spin. Isn’t it an amazing thing that we are here – even if only for a short time? Nevertheless, we are! The great ocean of eternity will not wash away the fact that we have been here for a time in time.
And isn’t that an incredibly good thing? Isn’t being good? Isn’t it much better than not-being? The goodness of being and the goodness of all those other goods, including eating and drinking – all this we may and must enjoy.
But this does not come as the result of all our labors. As the product of our own work and as our own project, life again and again issues in failure and disaster.
But life is more than a human work or project. It is also being. It is also a gift. As such beneath and over and through all of life’s futility and meaninglessness, there is something deeper, something more fundamental – the good. By definition, there is only one thing we can do with it. We cannot pursue it. We cannot achieve it. We can only enjoy it. The heart of all things simply falls into our laps.
Usually we live our lives unawares. That’s what sin is. And sinners are miserable. But the Preacher call us back out of our alienation from what is real. He says, Stay in the present! Remember that you are here! Enjoy being! What more can we want than to enjoy the good, for this is our lot (vs 18), this is why we were created.
I have seen another evil under the sun, and it weighs heavily on men: God gives a man wealth, possessions and honor, so that he lacks nothing his heart desires, but God does not enable him to enjoy them, and a stranger enjoys them instead. This is meaningless, a grievous evil.
Another thought is added to the series of reflections demonstrating the futility of wealth. Here the Preacher sounds a deep, powerful note. He mentions not only the futility of the matter but also points out that it causes suffering and that it is a grievous evil. It weighs heavily on men and it is surprisingly common.
The matter is very simply stated. Here we have someone who is blessed with wealth, possessions and honor. He has achieved a great deal in his life. He is rolling in the dough. There is nothing in this world that he cannot have. Except, he is unable to enjoy them.
The writer does not explain why not. But we can think of many reasons. He might be suffering from some chronic illness, or perhaps he suffers from depression. Or perhaps he is one of those who is always after more so that he is unable to enjoy what he has. Maybe he is forced to leave all his possessions behind because he is about to die.
Whatever the case, he has much, but it does him no good whatsoever. Instead, others benefit from his wealth. Nothing is said about how those others have acquired his wealth. But once again it’s easy to come up with possibilities. The others might, for example, be employees, servants, merchants, investors, friends, freeloaders, blackmailers, or heirs.
The Preachers describes the situation in surprisingly strong language. As he puts it, this makes life meaningless; it is a grievous evil.
But why? Wouldn’t it be better if he were altruistic and told himself that at least someone else is able to enjoy it all? Perhaps he cannot enjoy it himself, but couldn’t the fact that others are able enjoy his great wealth give meaning to his existence?
The Preacher doesn’t even for a moment consider this source of comfort. It is not that he would deny that our neighbor, our fellow human beings, are a deep mystery and possess great worth. Our relationship to our neighbor does undoubtedly hold a great deal of life’s meaning.
In fact, he might go a step further. For not only our neighbor is important to being authentic human beings but so is society. Each of us must also see ourselves as but a small part of a larger whole. And I’m not just thinking of society in the spatial sense but also in the temporal sense. We are children of those who preceded us and the parents of the next generation. And we must be responsible to both. We must wish to be nothing more than a part of the whole.
So as human beings we participate in three relationships – to our neighbor, to society and to the historical process. The Preacher would not deny this, but then he would add: there is also the indissoluble fact of your selfhood. The human self in its individuality and solitude is no less real. The self cannot be passed over for the sake of the neighbor, society or history.
The world only becomes meaningful when each and every human being can enjoy what he has. This is why the inability to enjoy what one has is such a grievous evil. There are so many whose lives are never complete, who never come full circle. They remain stuck halfway. It’s not that they want to have or to be the same as everyone else. Nor do they want to have it all or to be at the top. All they want is to achieve a certain completion and satisfaction in what they actually are and do have! But that is precisely what eludes them.
There are simply an awful lot of people whose lives are broken in half. God gives them a great deal, but he does not allow them to enjoy it.
Putting it this radical way enables us to see what a deeply puzzling and perplexing matter this is. Sometimes God gives people a great deal but does not allow them to enjoy it. Is this arbitrary of God? Is it maliciousness on his part? Is God tormenting us or playing with us?
We must ask such bitter and perhaps sacrilegious questions to get to the bottom of the matter. We must think through the questions posed by human existence to their ground in God and relate them to him. Only then do we begin to see how truly puzzling they are. If we do not think these questions through to God, we have not yet thought them completely through. Then we’re just toying with them. Not until we have given them a theological depth are we getting down to the foundations.
God isn’t simply the answer to our questions; he is the actual question in our questions. Not until things begin to clash in our minds with the nature of God do they become fully problematic, contradictory, puzzling.
To live and think out of faith is therefore not an easy way to resolve all questions, but it is the only way to pose them seriously. No one suffers as deeply as the person who believes in God.
Perhaps by following this course it will become clear why the Preacher uses such strong language. He speaks of a grievous evil that weighs heavily on us because, on the one hand, we cling to the goodness of God, and, on the other, because we cling to the identity of the human self. The situation he describes offends against both.
Is God good if he gives us much but does not allow us to enjoy it? Whatever the answer, it breaks those who suffer from it in half.
The Preacher does not give a solution. He leaves us with the problem. All he does is to say this is what I see happening again and again in human life; this is what I see under the sun, and it is an evil that weighs heavily on men. It causes much suffering.
Let’s not try to rise above this problem in a glib and pious way. We must acknowledge and bear this suffering, this evil.
The only thing that we can do in the spirit of the Preacher is to hope and to believe that one day it will be different. The only thing that can keep us going when we see reality in relation to God is eschatological expectation – to look ahead to the total redemption of the whole world in the Kingdom of everlasting glory.
#24 Why are we never satisfied?
A man may have a hundred children and live many years; yet no matter how long he lives, if he cannot enjoy his prosperity and does not receive proper burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. It comes without meaning, it departs in darkness, and in darkness its name is shrouded. Though it never saw the sun or knew anything, it has more rest than does that man — even if he lives a thousand years twice over but fails to enjoy his prosperity. Do not all go to the same place?
Ecclesiastes 6: 3-6 (NIV)
To enjoy the good and to be satisfied by it – this is what life is all about. In this passage the Preacher returns to his theme once again with a new emphasis.
He poses an imaginary and extreme case. Suppose someone has a hundred children, he says. Having numerous children is a great benefit in the entire Old Testament. Children are a blessing from the Lord, and many children a great blessing. Life is good, better than death, and having many children is to have life in abundance.
So let’s push that to the extreme, says the Preacher, and imagine someone who has a hundred children. That’s no small achievement, not even at a time when a man could have many wives. But the Preacher is just speaking hypothetically.
He expands his hypothetic example even further. Suppose the man lives to a ripe old age. Once again, he resorts to hyperbole: suppose he lives a thousand years twice over. That’s impossible, of course. Even the patriarchs before the flood did not live to see one thousand years. But the Preacher is pushing his case to the limits and asks us to imagine a case in which someone lives to be a thousand twice over.
Yet, no matter how much the man enjoys of the good, he is never satisfied. He always wants more. His life is an endless pursuit of the good things of this earth. He is out to try everything. He casts his net far and wide. But at the end of his life he is all alone. He has alienated all his children and his friends so that he doesn’t even get a proper burial.
Or it could also be that in spite of all that he has enjoyed, his heart remains a huge, gaping hole. This is hardly out of the realm of possibility. We are not easily satisfied. There is an eternal hunger and restlessness in the human heart. The good things of life and of this world cannot satisfy that hunger, no matter how many we may accrue. They do not fill that emptiness. Strange but true.
It’s as if we are not actually destined and suited for this life and for this world. Are we perhaps destined for another life, another world? Can we be satisfied only by God and eternity?
Many philosophers and many religions have claimed as much, and even many Christians have said so.
Yet, I don’t think that this is what the Preacher means to say. Or at any rate there is nothing in his words here that points in that direction. On the contrary, he is content to point out that the man in his imaginary example enjoys everything – lots of children and an incredibly long life – and even this is not enough to satisfy him.
He adds that a stillborn child is better off than such a man, for at least the child is nothing from the beginning and quickly disappears. It doesn’t even have a name and has never lived, so at least it has rest. But the unsatisfied man of our example cannot find rest. So it is better to be stillborn than to be such a person. It is better not to be born than to be born and to be forever unsatisfied and empty.
So there is no suggestion here that life and this world are lacking, that they don’t measure up to our humanity, and that we are destined for something else. On the contrary, human beings are emphatically destined for this life and this world. We should be able to enjoy them. In fact, they should be able to satisfy us. This is precisely what is so tragic – that often we are not able to do so. It is this that makes life empty and meaningless. This is why the Preacher says a stillborn is better of than such a person.
So the Preacher’s lament issues from a deep love for life and this world. They are good things that we should be able to enjoy. The Preacher never abandons this conviction. He is infused with an incredibly strong appreciation for reality. For him it does amount to something. It is real, substantive. It is not nothing. It is not a veil for something else that is more real. It is not an illusion. It is true and it is good. And that is why we ought to be able to enjoy it and it ought to satisfy us.
The Preacher stubbornly sticks to this presupposition, and so should we. If we do not, we will understand little or nothing of the Preacher’s complaints. In fact, the entire biblical viewpoint would become incomprehensible to us. When we begin to denigrate reality as such, to denounce this life and this world, we are lost. Then we fall back into the bottomless abyss of paganism, which has never dared to see this life and this world as God’s work and as therefore good and holy, resting in his unfathomable goodness. Paganism lacks this biblical appreciation of reality – the appreciation of being as wholly good.
It is only in the context of this fundamental outlook that the fact that we often cannot attain the full enjoyment of being – in the sense that we are fully satisfied by it – is so devastating. It is contrary to how things should be. Aren’t this life and this world gifts of God? Aren’t they made to be sufficient for us? We too are, after all, creatures of God, aren’t we? Why, then, are they not able to satisfy us and make us happy?
This is the question that aggravates the Preacher so deeply. It won’t leave him alone. It incites him to profound lament. But he does not provide a solution.
Christian teachings since Paul and Augustine have shed further light on the matter. The fact that we cannot enjoy this world and this life as God’s creation, they have said, is due to sin. It is due to our corrupt will. This is a profound answer of great value spiritually, but the Preacher does not come to that insight. All he does is to stare into the darkness of our lot; he does not yet detect in it the light of human fault.
#25 Man cannot stand up to his Creator
Whatever exists has already been named, and what man is has been known;
no man can contend with one who is stronger than he.
Man may inflate his own importance and imagine himself center of the universe, but that does not alter the fact that he is and remains a human being. This fact is not only protection against all our grand illusions but also against genuine change. Humanity displays a thousand different faces, and he may do many things. He may become very powerful, but that does not alter the fact that he is human.
In the word for man – adam – the Preacher hears the echo of the word from which adam derives – clay, dirt. That is where we come from. We are not made up out of the same substance as God. We don’t derive from eternity or from heaven. We come from the dust of the earth and that is what we are. This implies a certain powerlessness and insignificance. We participate in the frailty of the dust of the earth.
We’ve always known that, says the Preacher. What we are has long been known; our nature has been named – adam. Let’s take a close look at what this means. The Preacher pauses at this observation with a smile. No matter how we may inflate ourselves and no matter the greatness of our achievements, we can’t hide what we really are. Our name is a dead giveaway: we are man, formed from the dust of the earth.
This is a striking thought. The human race has journeyed through the earth without illusions, always knowing what it really is. There have always been those, of course, who forgot, and who think very highly of themselves. Some even delude themselves into thinking that they are gods. But these are scattered individuals or short periods.
History keeps producing periods of great optimism in which humans think they are capable of anything. But we are not now living in such a time. Perhaps the nineteenth century was that optimistic.
Generally speaking, however, the human race has always been aware that we are nothing more than human beings. Israel has always been very aware of the earthly, fragile content of the word for mankind. But other peoples were also aware of it.
The most characteristic thing about our humanity – our frailty and finitude – the Preacher describes in this way: man cannot contend with one who is stronger than he. By this he means God: it is God who is stronger than man.
That is a strange thing to say. We could make many other kinds of observations about God. We could, for example, say that he is very different from man, that he is holy or more just or more gracious.
But the Preacher has something else in mind. He wants to focus on the fact that God is stronger than man. The Creator is capable of much greater things than the creature. Our Creator can do anything he wishes, while the creature is able to do almost nothing, or at least very little. He cannot stand up against God.
This observation is very uncharacteristic; it almost puts him outside Israel’s heritage. It is much more characteristic of the biblical way of thinking to give to man a very prominent position, even over toward God. Man is called to become Israel — a contender for and a contender with God; even a contender against God, like Jacob, who wrestled all night with an angel. It is to such nobility that man is called: to stand proudly before God. He is expected to show some backbone.
He is supposed to be a worthy contender with God. The Preacher is here in danger of betraying that Hebrew insight by saying, “Man is actually unable to do anything over against God, for God is much stronger than he is.”
There is also a trace of this in the story of Jacob. The wrestling match between man and God lasts the entire night, as if God is having a hard time pinning him down. This is where man becomes Israel. He behaves with nobility. But in the end God only needs to touch man’s hip and man is crippled, sentenced to limp for the rest of his life. This scene does also clearly hint that in it all God is nevertheless the stronger.
This is what the Preacher emphasizes very one-sidedly in our text. He does not quite abandon his Hebrew roots here. Part of man’s nobility before God is this tenacity: he collides radically with the unshakeable reality of God to experimentally discover this truth – that God is after all stronger than he is and that he himself is merely human.
Surprisingly, in this connection the Preacher immediately moves from the issue of power to the issue of justice. On the one hand, he speaks of a God who is stronger than man, and on the other hand he concludes that man has no appeal beyond God. He cannot take God to court to level all sorts of charges against him there, and to receive a judgment about the justice of God’s dealing with him.
Why can’t we do that? We might answer, “Because God is much wiser than we are. If it came to a legal argument, God can easily refute our objections with a series of arguments that we would have to admit are beyond us, because they anticipate.” We might also answer: “Because God is much more righteous than man. He takes everything into account, and this is why he acts as he does. So we can raise no objections, for in God there is no trace of injustice.”
But when he argues that man cannot and may not take God to court, the Preacher does not appeal to God’s wisdom and righteousness. He simply says that this is not proper for man to do because God is stronger than man.
This touches on a deep level of human experience and sounds a sonorous note. Here the ultimate questions of life are entirely resolved in terms of power. God takes matters into his own hands and simply does what he pleases in his all-powerful freedom. How can man resist? He can criticize. He can murmur. He can rebel. He can complain and lament. He can even curse the whole business. But what does that gain him? God goes his own sovereign way in this world. He is stronger than man.
This too is something we must absorb into our attitude toward life and this world. It is part of godly piety and it is a fruit of faith. We must respect the fact that God is stronger than we are.
True, we must be on our guard that this is not the only way we relate to God. We must not see this in terms of God simply overpowering us. Although he is stronger than us, he is also wise and just – and above all good. Even when we do not experience this and it is not immediately obvious, we must cling to God’s goodness. Otherwise our pious respect for God’s power devolves into a servile respect for a tyrant.
But God is not a tyrant. Not according to the Preacher. God is wise and just and good; he is not a tyrant.
For who knows what is good for a man in life, during the few and meaningless days he passes through like a shadow? Who can tell him what will happen under the sun after he is gone?
In the preceding verses, the Preacher has observed that man cannot take God to court, for God is much stronger than he, and that therefore all complaints and charges brought against God’s royal majesty are meaningless and futile (vs 11).
In this verse he provides a basis for these observations: he says that a person is not even able to judge what is truly good for him. The Preacher proceeds from the supposition that only those bold enough to judge God’s actions can do so. For the standard by which one judges God’s actions can only be one’s own judgment about what is good for him. Usually the two don’t jibe. What we want and what we get are two very different things. So we rebel, murmur, complain and accuse.
The Preacher poses an extremely critical question here: he asks whether our presuppositions about our judgments concerning God’s actions are right. Do we really know what is good for us?
We naturally do try to envision what is good for us. There’s nothing wrong with that. We are even permitted to make such desires known to God. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God,” writes Paul (Phil 4:6). So this does not cancel us out. Prayer engrafts us in God’s government of the world.
But this is no warrant for man to puff himself up and put on airs. Our notions about what may be good for us are simply wishes. When we pray we may submit them to God as such, but we must not imagine that we have the first and last word on what is actually good for us. God has some ideas about that too, and these are often very different and much higher than our own ideas.
In this way, the ability of judging what is good is taken out of our hands. Not mainly because the world is shrouded in darkness and we are small and fallible, but first of all because God is so much greater, higher and deeper than we are. He alone truly knows what is good. This is true in terms what is good for us on the natural as well as on the moral level. What is good for us on the natural level God makes known to us in the course of our lives, and what is good for us morally he makes known in his commandments.
So we should not argue with God too much. We do, however, argue with God about what happens to us as well as about his commandments. For we reflect on both. We even judge what God does and what he says. We are driven by a strong desire to gain insight into their goodness. And this gives rise to a thousand ruminations and thousands of words.
Nevertheless, there is an end and a limit to them all. We finally bump into height and goodness of God’s words and deeds as if into a wall. Then it is better to be still. At that point the words that we still insist on speaking quickly become pretentious and futile. They only increase the meaninglessness of our existence (6:11).
The Preacher adds another accent, which is hard to see how it relates to his train of thought. He strongly emphasizes the brevity of human life: “Who knows what is good for a man in life, during the few and meaningless days he passes through like a shadow?” We only discover that in retrospect, at the end of our lives. But by that time our lives have passed away like a sigh.
Why does the Preacher put so much emphasis on life’s brevity in this context? Perhaps he means to suggest that knowing what is good is therefore not of such fundamental importance. It is so short anyhow. But that would be a dark and bitter observation. It would even undermine the seriousness and significance of human life.
So the interpretation is probably to be found elsewhere. For example, the Preacher might be saying: Isn’t it strange that although life is so short we still cannot get an overview of it and get a grasp on it so that we can judge what is good for us. If this is what he means, the verse is an expression of surprise.
This hints at still another consideration. The brevity of life does not only mean that it is short but also that it passes swiftly. It slips by before we know it. We are unable to grasp a hold of it. There simply isn’t enough time to let its meaning penetrate into us. So we don’t know what is good.
This is, at any rate, something each and every one of us feel deeply at some time in our lives. Life slips through our fingers like the grains of sand that sift through the fingers of children playing in the sand on a summer beach. It is past before we realize what it was all about.
The Preacher also emphasizes one other thing about the brevity of life. It is not just the present that escapes us; it is also the future. We know nothing whatsoever about the future, much less than about the present. “Who can tell him what will happen under the sun after he is gone?”
We’d love to know that, wouldn’t we? We are all possessed of a gargantuan curiosity, a curiosity not just about the secrets of our neighbors, but also about the secrets of the future. We try to penetrate the future with all manner of means of foretelling the future or making predictions.
There is no doubt that human beings possess occult powers to glimpse something of the future. But the Bible has stern warnings against it, saying that we must not avail ourselves of those powers. We stand in the present, where we have the destiny that has been given us and the fullness of God’s revelation, including his commandments. To this we must limit ourselves.
The future therefore remains a closed book to us, deliberately and in principle. But this also implies that we do not have the ability to judge what is good for mankind in this life.
The present is incomplete without the future; the individual is incomplete without the rest of the human race; and a lifetime is incomplete apart from world history. The one is part of the other. To grasp the meaning of a single human life, it is necessary to be able to oversee the entire world history of which he is part. Only then would we be able to judge what was good for him in his life. What an individual experiences and does has repercussions for his ancestors and for the future of the entire human race.
How on earth can man grasp all this in its entirety? Can we, like Atlas, bear the whole world on our shoulders? Do we have any other choice than to radically leave this up to God? Must we not as human beings entrust the world to God? And doesn’t this include entrusting ourselves and our lives to God as well, since we are part of this world?
The Preacher does not come to this conclusion in so many words. He merely observes negatively that a person cannot know the future and the good and that therefore he cannot judge the high deeds of God. He brings forward the startling side of it – the blind side contained in this trust. He does not add the positive side: that we can with all assurance entrust all these things to God.
But we may draw that conclusion, for the whole Bible is a call for such trust. So I assume that the Preacher wants to say the same thing: we must and we can trust God.
#27 There is no wisdom without suffering
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.
There are two things we should keep in mind in reading this text. First, that the Preacher does not want us to absolutize this saying. In vs 12 of the previous chapter he explicitly said that man cannot know what is the highest good for himself. In this chapter, however, he seems to presuppose that man can know that one thing is better than another: that the day of death better than the day of birth, and that it is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting.
It is a comparative knowledge. We must not rate death above life in an absolute sense, nor mourning above feasting. An absolute pessimist presumes to know absolutely what is good — nothingness, for example. But the Preacher is aware that as a human being he must be on guard against such absolute positions.
In the second place, we must also remember that the Preacher does not mean to say that death in itself is preferable to life and that therefore we should mourn a birth and celebrate a death. He is not here dealing with life and death, mourning and feasting in and of themselves, but with what living human beings can learn from such experiences. A good name is better than fine perfume, he says. Similarly, although life, birth and feasting are good, death and mourning are better. We learn much more from these experiences.
At least, this is how the wise see and experience things. But most of us are not wise, but fools. We flee death, mourning and suffering. We think they are purely evil. We focus only on life, birth, feasting. These are the things we seek after, going from one party to another.
This is a consuming quest. It is also a flight, a flight from suffering and death. We are driven by enormous fear. Fleeing from death, we desperately pursue life. This, we think, will give us pleasure. In the meantime, however, we are actually consumed by fear and anxiety.
Those who are wise are aware of this: they see the lust for life as a fear of death. This isn’t all, to be sure. He doesn’t just see the negative; he also discovers something positive. He discovers that death is the destiny of each and every person, and that the living – if they are to live a complete and authentic life – should take that to heart (7:2).
We must take the entirety of life into account, including death. We not only have a beginning, but also an end. The end is part of life. It is part of wisdom to realize this and thus to come to greater completeness and in this way to greater perfection as well.
But there is something deeper behind all this. It is not just a matter of taking everything into account. Sorrow is better than laughter, says the Preacher, because a sad face is good for the heart (7:3). Death, mourning and suffering lead us to the actual depth of human life. They make it a serious matter. That’s where life gets refined. We arrive at a right relationships to things, because we penetrate to their essence.
We see that they are all creatures of God. We also see that God’s judgment is woven through them. We acknowledge our creatureliness and thus enter into a relationship with God. This is the heart of the matter – to penetrate through the self and through being and through things until we bump into God, and into his majesty and power. This is serious, but it is more than that – it is also an immeasurable joy.
But the heart of the matter is not on the surface. Fools stay on the surface. They only look at the outer appearance of things. They think that only what is pleasurable brings joy. So they seek the substance of life in making merry.
It is astonishing at the number of people who spend their entire lives pursuing this illusion. They endlessly chase after sensation, power, wealth, amusement. But don’t we all participate in this chase to some extent? However, we must not think that all those people who are so intent on living life to the full are truly happy. We know better, often from our own experience.
Do you think that anyone is actually happy in his foolishness? Doesn’t everyone on some level realize that his foolishness is indeed foolishness? Like the crackling of thorns under the pot,
so is the laughter of fools (7:6): it makes a surprising amount of noise but it produces very little heat, for it is quickly consumed.
No, foolishness is no more than foolishness, but it exerts a tremendous attraction in our lives. So when someone actually gains wisdom, this is a tremendous achievement. His heart is in the house of mourning. He does not go out of his way to avoid it. It no longer fills him with inner dread. He is ready to enter. Perhaps we might even say that he looks forward to it.
The house of mourning, of course, includes a great deal. First, it includes the reality of death and mourning. Those who are wise no longer seek to avoid it, just as Jesus did not seek to avoid death. He accepted death and he did so willingly. He himself laid down his life for us.
But the house of mourning includes sorrow and suffering, pain and sadness. Those who are wise are also ready to enter into this house. In fact, this is where they come to themselves, for they know that this is where they encounter the depth of things, the meaning of existence, this is where they find truth and love, this is where they meet God.
Is it really true that sorrow and suffering make us wise? Or is it the other way around: that we must first be wise to discover a blessing in sorrow and suffering?
I think we must speak of a back and forth relationship here. Without sorrow and suffering it would be hard to become wise. But they don’t automatically make a person wise. Suffering can also stultify and stupify. Some discover nothing in it; they only come to curse God.
To be saved from this outcome, we must find our wisdom elsewhere – in the Gospel. But this Gospel wisdom is further trained, confirmed and deepened by our experience of the depths of life.
In any case, wisdom wherever it is found, enters into the house of mourning. Wisdom even gives it precedence over the house of feasting.
But then we must not forget that it also transforms the house of mourning into the house of joy. It does not remain stuck in mourning and suffering and death. This is where it finds the depth of existence, God’s blessing, eternal life. Wisdom is memento mori — remember your death. But if we do so wisely, then we may go on to another saying: carpe diem – seize the day. According to the Bible, the latter is the biblical blessing of God on our memento mori.
Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?”
For it is not wise to ask such questions.
The Preacher is not denying that the old days may have been better than the present. Here he is probably thinking first of all in terms of the life journey of the individual. It, too, brings dramatic changes. A person’s early years may unfold in sunny prosperity only to be swallowed up by dark forests of tribulation. Unwittingly such a person often becomes a praise-singer for the past. But this praise then hides a lament about the present.
This introduces a powerful doubleness into life, not to speak of ambiguity: the song of praise is essentially a lament.
But this is true not just of the life of the individual. Something similar is true also of world history. There are those who are always talking about the good old days. In the past, in earlier times or ages things were much better. They long for the return of those times.
Pessimism about the present also often conceals such an attitude. Some people are unable to find a single ray of hope in the present: it is all wickedness and perversity. So they glorify the past. Their sunny view of the good old days arises from their sombre view of their present circumstances. The praise-singer of the past is actually the lament-singer of the present.
However, this doubleness is not the central point the Preacher wants to make, namely, that a sunny view may arise out of a sombre one. He doesn’t deny that the old days may have been very different from the present. He is a realist himself, taking life as it is. A realist must admit that, whether on the personal or on the broader level, it has happened — things have indeed gone from good to bad at times. Life does not remain static. It is always moving and changing, and it passes through depths as well as over heights.
What the Preacher is saying here is this: that we must not ask why this is so and what causes these changes. Such questions do not arise out of wisdom, he says.
Isn’t that a strange thing to say – that it is not wise to inquire into the reasons for change, into why things were once good and are now bad? Why isn’t this wise? Why would inquiring into the causes and reasons of things ever be unwise?
The context of our text supplies some answers. Verse 9 points out that when we inquire after the reasons for changes in our lot in life, we are guilty of foolishness. “Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools.” Such questioning quickly devolves into an angry and outraged questioning. We become bitter. We grow angry with life and with God. We are disgruntled and offended.
Taking offense always involves an element of foolishness. Sometimes we are offended by our own selves, but more often we are offended by others. But there is nothing worse than being offended by the lot life has dealt us and by how God has led us.
We must never stop warning one another against the great danger of bitterness and hardness of heart. For if we give in to it, we are shutting ourselves up in our own misery. Then we end up all by ourselves complaining and bewailing our lot in life. Ultimately this reaction to our misfortune leads to a dead end.
But the Preacher also points to something else: in verse 8 he says, “The end of a matter is better than its beginning, and patience is better than pride.” In other words, he’s advising us to wait and see how things turn out. Before something is over, it is not yet completed; so it is not completely there. All kinds of things can still issue from it. The miserable situation in which we find ourselves may take a turn for the better; in fact, it may turn out to benefit us in many ways. Suffering may contain blessings.
However, we must not seek to extort blessing out of suffering by force. We must be patient with God and with life. We must await the end of things and not judge them prematurely. For that is a sign of pride.
We human beings stand in the middle of things and of life. So we must not pretend that we can already here and now utter a definitive judgment. That is pride. Only God can give a definitive judgment on things, for he can see their end. We cannot.
So it is unwise to ask why the old days were better than the present, not just because it conceals a certain anger but also because it conceals a certain pride.
But verse 13 provides a third reason: “Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what he has made crooked?” It is a devastatingly humbling answer.
Above all it contains the thought that God is a God who also bends and twists things, making them crooked. Even when times are bad, we must think: God has made this too – the bad as well as the good (7:14).
Why God sometimes makes things crooked, we often don’t know. We must nurture our trust that God does this out of his wisdom and goodness. If we do not nurture this trust, we will lose our way. If we do not cling to the faith that in all that he does God is wise and good, we commit ourselves and life itself to perdition.
This trust demands a certain degree of blindness. Do we see God’s wisdom and goodness in everything he does? What if he bends my life so badly that it seems crooked? Don’t the lives of some people resemble a wrecked automobile being hauled to the wreckers?
There’s still another reason this text is so devastatingly humbling. Not just because it acknowledges that it is God who sometimes makes things crooked, but also because it goes on to say that no one can make straight what God has made crooked. We are like leaves in the wind of God’s breath. God can make us and break us. We are no match for God.
Consequently, there’s something almost ridiculous about our asking why the old days were better than the present. Who are we, poor creatures to ask such a question? What do we hope to accomplish by asking such questions? Do we think to alter life and reality from how God has made it? There is something laughable about our lack of wisdom. Someone who does not respect the sovereignty of God is foolish.
The Preacher, thus, points us to our limits in several ways. We cannot gain on overview of life. We cannot utter a definitive judgment on things. We cannot alter God’s doings. We can only stand in the present. We can let things happen to us, but we can also accept them – as they are. We have but one calling – to be human beings before the face of God. Only those who find peace with God are saved.
#29 Not too righteous; not too wicked
Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise — why destroy yourself?
Do not be overwicked, and do not be a fool — why die before your time?
It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. The man who fears God will avoid all extremes.
There’s a huge difference of meaning about how this text ought to be interpreted. Particularly controversial is the saying that we must not be overly righteous or wise nor overly wicked or foolish. Verse 18 adds that we must avoid both extremes out of our fear of God.
But why must we avoid being overly righteous or overly wicked? The answer is suggested in verse 15: here the Preacher seems to focus on two basic facts of human life. There are those who perish in spite of their righteousness, and there are those who live long lives in spite of their wickedness.
That is contrary to our expectations. To put it primitively, virtue ought to be rewarded, and vice punished. Or more elegantly: ones deeds ought to harmonize with ones destiny.
On the one hand, the world is a physical, factual, given reality. On the other, it is an ethical reality, a calling, a reality that needs to be realized. It is also both an act of God and of man.
Yet, in the depths of our hearts we sense that despite this doubleness the world is still a unity, so these two aspects ought to harmonize. Virtue and destiny, justice and prosperity, good deed and good reward ought to come together. This is a primal “ought” lodged deep in the human soul. The learned and the high-minded may look down on this notion as an archaic notion of right, but this does not do away with the fact that this doubleness grieves us all.
At any rate, the Preacher tells us that this is how he felt about it when he saw life as meaningless: he saw that the righteous perished and the wicked lived long lives. Not that this is always the way it happens, but it does happen quite often. And it grieves us. It is also a very fundamental thing. It is an earthquake: it causes shifts in the very foundations of our existence that have destructive consequences far beyond what we imagine. It throws the all of ordered reality into chaos. It may even render life impossible. It is with an eye to these facts of existence that the Preacher speaks of life as meaningless.
Nevrtheless, they are undeniable facts. The question is, however, how do we react to them? It is in this context that the Preacher dishes out his first bit of advice: “Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise — why destroy yourself?” What he means to say, I think, is that we should not seek to impose our theories of virtue and destiny on reality with brute force.
We sometimes seek to do so in theory as well as in practice. We do this in theory when we insist that our own theories about the harmony between human deeds and destiny ought to prevail and that they should make the whole of life and the whole of the world as they actually are transparent. That attempt invariably ends up shipwrecked on the facts. Things do not add up this way. They don’t harmonize.
If we nevertheless insist on being righteous and wise with all our might, we will eventually end up frustrated and perplexed. Reality will look insane in the mirror of our theories, and we may go insane ourselves.
So we must not seek to be righteous and wise to the utmost degree. We must leave room to fear God. His ways are righteous and wise, but his wisdom and righteousness far exceed the capacities of our wisdom and our righteousness.
We can also do something similar in practice. Then we seek to determine out own destiny by our own wise and righteous deeds. We seek to seize hold of hard reality and break iron with our own hands. We demand that life and the world yield a happy ending and that they answer to our own righteousness and wisdom.
If we do this, says the Preacher, we are being too righteous and too wise. And this will call down God’s anger and ridicule. This way, too, leads to frustration and perplexity. Paul will one day write that those who seek to save themselves by their own righteousness will be lost.
But one may react in a very different way to these same facts. We may draw the conclusion, “Righteousness doesn’t help anyway, and wickedness is much more fun than righteousness, so I may as well live as I please.”
It is against this reasoning that the Preacher directs his second bit of advice. He says, “Do not be overwicked, and do not be a fool — why die before your time?” In other words, although we cannot understand God’s ways, this doesn’t mean there is no divine judgment in human life. The end of all wickedness is destruction, albeit in ways that are not always visible to us.
So it is good that, on the one hand, we do not seek to impose our righteousness and wisdom on the facts by brute force, while on the other hand, we cling to the warning that we must not draw any false conclusions from these facts.
We must press on through the middle, being neither too righteous nor too wicked. We must fear God, which is to say, we must respect his sovereignty. Then we will not elevate our own righteousness and wisdom beyond God’s ways. Nor will we abandon ourselves to wickedness as if God’s righteousness and wisdom are absent from human life. The one is as bad as the other.
In fact, they come to much the same thing. Those who think that on the basis of these facts they can conclude that we may as well live godless lives also tend to believe that they in their wisdom can comprehend and fathom God’s ways. They draw conclusions and live their lives accordingly. They do not respect God’s sovereign majesty.
So in this text, too, on the basis of the (dis)harmony between virtue and destiny, we are reminded of our human limitations. In this respect, we live in a world that is not transparent. Yet, it is here that we are called to serve God.
Whatever wisdom may be, it is far off and most profound —
who can discover it? [NIV]
[That which is far off, and exceeding deep, who can find it out? KJV]
[That which is, is far off and exceeding deep; who can find it out? ASV]
Here the Preacher sort of sums up everything he has said before. [The Dutch translation reads like the American Standard Version: “That which is, is far off and exceeding deep; who can find it out?”] When the Preacher speaks of “that which is,” he is thinking not first of all of things but of human deeds.
But the same thing could also be said about nature, the earth and the cosmos. They, too, are essentially unfathomable for us and beyond our grasp. Who can fully comprehend them, in the sense of fully discovering the divine wisdom contained in them?
We pass our days in the midst of everything that exists. We use these things in our daily lives, and we may even enjoy and cherish them. Artists represent them in a thousand different ways and scientists create models of them. And with our technology, from nuclear power to space travel, we seize hold of things, dominate and transform them and make them our own.
Yet, in all this we still remain creatures ourselves. We do not become the Creator. All these things simply are, and we find ourselves in their midst. When it comes right down to it, all of created reality seems to be silent, unfathomable.
This silence makes our hearts deeply disconsolate. However, when we are converted, we no longer experience reality as an abyss, but as grounded in the immeasurable goodness of God. And then it is no longer silent but it resounds with praise for our Creator.
Nevertheless, even then it remains beyond us and unfathomable – not now in a negative but in a positive sense. This hinges on the nature of our religion. In biblical religion reality is experienced with appreciation and praise. Apart from the biblical religion, however, reality keeps devolving into silence or into an abyss.
However, as I said, the Preacher is not speaking about things here but about human deeds. He is talking about all the labor under which man toils under the sun – that is, about history. In the preceding verses he has considered this from every possible angle. And here he sums it up by concluding that everything is too far and too deep for man.
This is a strange thing to say, for he is talking about human deeds, human action and labor. We would be inclined to say that this ought to be very near and transparent to us. After all, he’s talking about our own lives and about the things we have made ourselves — in fact, about ourselves.
It makes a certain amount of sense to say that things – nature, the earth and the cosmos – are unfathomable and beyond us. These are around us and outside of us. We can never fully enter into them. All our knowledge of the outside world is a huge mystery.
But here he is speaking of man himself – of our deed and our lives. To enter into these should not pose any problems, should it? We are already in from the start. We are talking about ourselves. Man is, to a certain extent, his own deeds..
Yet, it is precisely about this that the Preacher says that it is beyond us and so profound that we cannot fathom it. Literally he says that it is far off and deep. When he says that it is far off he means that we can never entirely reach it. We may see the doings of man – all his labor under the sun – but we see it all from afar, not clearly. We only see the outlines.
Human life as the sum of our deeds has an obscure quality, at least when we seek to know it and gain insight into it. Yet, it is real. But when we ask what it means that we are human and that we exert ourselves to act, then it is hard to find a satisfactory answer. What is the worth of all this toil? What does it yield? Does it produce anything enduring? These questions get no definitive answer. So they remain obscure. As actors we humans remain at an unbridgeable distance from ourselves.
The Preacher uses another metaphor as well. He doesn’t just say that it is far off but also that it is deep. You may look into it, and you can look deeper and deeper until at last you lose yourself in it and don’t see anything anymore – you are staring into darkness.
This, too, is true of human deeds. We are here. We live. We act. We work. We exert ourselves to achieve something. And we may achieve a great deal, but then we ask ourselves: what is it that we have in hand? Is it something that has ultimate and absolute worth? Will it satisfy me and give me rest? Can any of us answer “yes” to those questions?
There is so much in human existence that is absurd, that in the end all our works slip out of our hands. Death makes this very clear, but mortality eats away at every aspect of reality. And this is true not only of mortality, but also of wickedness, injustice, stupidity and violence. All these make human life as a life of deeds unfathomably deep.
But what do we do about this unfathomable and unreachable fact of existence? We could wax lyrical about it, and declaim about the vastness and rawness of human life. It even embraces death and evil. Let’s heroically hurl ourselves into it and rejoice in it!
But the Preacher doesn’t mean to celebrate the absurdity of life. This is alien to biblical religion. It is far too violent. There is something demonic about such an attitude. Only Satan is happy about sin and death and therefore about absurdity.
Another possible reaction is to turn away from the unfathomableness of life. The most extreme form of this is suicide. But we can also commit an inward form of suicide. We remain in life, but inwardly we turn away from the fact that we exist. We no longer will it because it all seems so unreachable and unfathomable.
But the Preacher does not go in this direction either. This too is alien to biblical religion. Our Creator has put us here in this life. He willed us, and we may not will to undo it.
All that remains for us is therefore humility, modesty, simplicity, readiness, obedience and trust. We cannot attain to the wisdom of God in our existence and we will never fathom it. Only one possibility remains: to be and to live it.