August 2, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
As we continue in our series on wisdom, we move now to the book of Ecclesiastes. The original name for this book is “Qoholeth,” the preacher. Though the book is attributed to King Solomon, it is uncertain who authored it. In the Jewish tradition, Ecclesiastes is the scroll that is read during the fall harvest festival of Sukkot, the feast of booths. The Jewish website chabad.org says that “Kohelet shakes our contentment with the reminder that mundane accomplishments are fleeting and empty. Even at the close of the harvest, we must seek real achievement and fulfillment. Sukkot itself demonstrates this theme by the commandment to live in temporary dwellings. We move outside our home, which provides a sense of permanence and comfort, and instead dwell in a flimsy hut. This recalls the transience of physicality, as does the book of Kohelet.”1
Starting out in the first chapter and the first verse of Ecclesiastes, we may have the impression that the central message in this book is that we might as well abandon hope, because all is vanity. And indeed, that is how the preacher begins!
But there is another possibility. There is the possibility that we might take something else from this text – something that simultaneously reminds us of our smallness and draws our gaze toward God’s bigness. Maybe what is vanity is what is about us, and what is not vanity or futility is what is not about us, but about God.
Let’s listen for God’s word to us today from Ecclesiastes 1:1-18
1 The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
2 Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
3 What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?
4 A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.
5 The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises.
6 The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north;
round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.
7 All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow.
8 All things are wearisome; more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing.
9 What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there a thing of which it is said, "See, this is new"?
It has already been, in the ages before us.
11 The people of long ago are not remembered,
nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come
by those who come after them.
12 I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem,
13 applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom
all that is done under heaven;
it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with.
14 I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun;
and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.
15 What is crooked cannot be made straight,
and what is lacking cannot be counted.
16 I said to myself, "I have acquired great wisdom,
surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me;
and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge."
17 And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly.
I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind.
18 For in much wisdom is much vexation,
and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.
This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
Every week when I prepare the handouts for the Wednesday morning Bible study,
I look for images that will help convey the message of the scripture we are studying.
Sometimes those images are maps, sometimes they are beautiful works of art, and other times they are just funny.
This week I found a cartoon – a line drawing of an odd-looking fellow who is wearing a t-shirt and drinking a cup of coffee. On the fellow’s shirt it says:
“You’ve spent an infinity years not being born yet
and you will spend another infinity years being dead.
Finish your cereal and go outside.”
To me, it seemed that was a perfect summary of this scripture – life is fleeting; you are not even a blip on the screen of the world; no matter what you do, you will not be remembered; nothing anyone does makes any real difference in the grand scheme of things.
Finish your cereal and go outside.
When you go outside,
you will see what Qoholet sees :
the world turns round and round,
the wind blows and blows,
the sun makes its circuit,
the rivers flow to the sea.
Round and round and round it all goes, day after day,
and what does it all mean?
All is vanity.
We are born and we die, and the world continues to turn on its axis. Generations rise and fall, and the rivers continue to run to the sea. We toil and build, and time erodes it all until it is only memories. Even the memories will be blown away on the wind. Your life has no more significance than the tiny seed of a dandelion blown away in a tiny puff of breath.
It is all more wearisome than one can express.
Chasing after wind.
Vanity of vanities.
Is that it?
Life is difficult, then you die?
Not only do your works not matter, after a few years they won’t even be remembered. It’s a human dilemma, and it is not new. If there is anything new under the sun, our recognition of our smallness is not new.
About four thousand years ago, long before any of the Biblical story was written down, in Mesopotamia, an ancient near East culture preserved the story of Gilgamesh. It is a great story, full of adventure and insights into the human condition. In the Gilgamesh epic, the story of a great flood is told, predating Noah by hundreds of years. But the central tale of the epic is that of Gilgamesh, a demi-god and king, who goes out from his life of privilege and hedonism to seek greater meaning.
I will leave it to you to read all of that tale, but I want to lift up to you another image from the Gilgamesh epic– something a little more than “finish your cereal and go outside.” The story begins with King Gilgamesh inside his great city, Uruk. The narrator describes the great wall around the city, built by the forced labor of Gilgamesh’s people. The walls gleam like copper. On them are inscribed the mighty deeds of Gilgamesh. They are a monument to him and to his power. But Gilgamesh is not happy, and so he goes on a quest.
We don’t have time for details, but suffice it to say that he goes outside the walls, and discovers what is truly important and powerful in the world –friendship, love, wisdom, and the reality of death. It is in his realization of his own mortality that Gilgamesh recognizes the central wisdom echoed by Qoholeth- there is nothing new under the sun.
We humans are not that powerful.
We build walls to keep out that which we regard as the enemy:
sorrow, strangers, grief, loss, uncertainty, weakness,
but it is only when we go outside of those walls that we learn life’s meaning:
We learn that Nature is oblivious to us,
and the cycles of the earth go on without our help.
Our presence outside can damage the world,
but it cannot stop the daily rebirth of the new dawn,
nor the winds which blow where they will.
The only lasting monuments we can build are intangible:
love for another human being,
faithfulness to God and one another,
the endless gift of generosity,
the delight of living a life of gratitude.
Death is inevitable, but it is not the end of everything,
and even though humans die, humanity lives on.
Above all of this, the preacher says, God is sovereign, laying before us these beautiful cycles of the natural world. In spite of our wars and conflicts, in spite of our violence and our destructive nature, in spite of our endless toil, God’s creation continues in its daily rhythms.
The morning sun rises, and in the evening it sets.
The tides roll in and then out.
The planets spin out in space,
and among all the silent stars and moons and asteroids,
among all the heavenly bodies,
we live on this third planet from the sun!
We are alive!
The city of Uruk, kingdom of Gilgamesh, is long gone, but the wall where Gilgamesh inscribed his mighty deeds, may still be seen, in excavated remnants. The story it tells echoes through the centuries to the preacher, Qoholeth, who repeats the wisdom learned so many years before: There is nothing new under the sun. You are very small, and God is very big.You are not in charge, and you do not control the world.
But this is not cause for despair!
Rather, this is the basis for delight –for all around us the world offers up joy; and for each one of us who will take it, God gives wisdom, and peace, and grace. Beyond the walls of our small selves, beyond the walls of our pride and will, there is a world of delight. Beyond the walls of our finitude, beyond the walls we build to protect ourselves from hurt or conflict or powerlessness, there is the glorious humility of being vulnerable.
The poet Rumi said,
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase "each other" doesn't make any sense.”
The preacher says, in chapter 2 of Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from God who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy…”
Finish your cereal and go outside –
glimmers of God await you there.