To elicit from Ecclesiastes (2)

[Find part 1 here.]

Can we who live now really connect with, and gain from, ancient-yet-timeless wisdom?  Ecclesiastes says it’s “not from wisdom” that we long for the former days.  In further contemplation of this ancient “wisdom literature,” another “contemporary” song comes to mind.  The song “That’s What Matters” on Rebecca St. James’s 1996 album “God” is of particular note since it originated with one so young.  Wisdom must not be entirely gained with age:  I think RSJ was barely 20 when she co-wrote and belted the words, “Don’t wait for a better day.  Be glad, and use the one you’re in.”  That is not only musically punchy but also spiritually and emotionally wise, and I ought to heed it.  Peter, Paul, & Mary asked, “Where have all the flowers gone?” and I presume they were commenting on the ubiquity of war more than yearning for generally halcyon days.  Regardless, when we recognize that things are not looking good right now, it probably doesn’t serve to spend much time either in the future or in the past.

The conclusion of Ecclesiastes, basically filling chapter 12, exhorts us to “remember the Creator”—to Whom the spirit returns when all is said and done in this life.  “Fear God and keep His commandments,” and that is about the size of it all, says the Teacher.

Here are some (non-copyrighted, I might mention) quotations from Jon Collins’s article in the periodical from The Bible Project, mentioned in part 1):

“Ecclesiastes can feel like nihilism—like nothing really matters—but, surprisingly, it doesn’t end there. Throughout the book, the teacher pauses to draw the conclusion that even though life is smoke, we still need to live it in a way where we can find joy…. Just because we do the right thing, it doesn’t mean that life will work out…

“… The hope at the end of all this is that one day God will clear away all the smoke and life will be as it is meant to be….

” Ecclesiastes is a reminder that even the best life comes with bangs and bruises, disappointments and depression.  Life can be well lived, but it can’t be controlled.”

I cannot control life in general; neither can I control others’ behavior—or its consequences in this life or the next.  What happens to others ultimately must not be my concern.  Here I recall the old³ Stamps-Baxter song “Tempted and Tried.”  I learned a regurgitatory distaste for the song as a child, but in recent years, more of it has begun to resonate for me.  “We’re oft made to wonder why . . . while there are others living about us, never molested tho’ in the wrong.”  I may not understand it “all by and by,” and that will be okay ultimately, but it doesn’t seem so okay now.  If anyone says, “Cheer up, my brother” to me, all twangy-like, I might just issue a tangy rejoinder, but there are two major truths for me here, stemming from the song and from Ecclesiastes:

  1. Things happen that don’t seem fair or make sense in this life.
  2. I can’t control that.

Collins spotlights the paradox between Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, noting that the axioms of Proverbs can seem to be contradicted by the philosophy of Ecclesiastes.  In sum, Proverbs seems to give wisdom maxims, asserting that if one does X, then Y will result.  “All hard work brings a profit,” for instance (14:23).  Ecclesiastes then presents another side of the coin, more or less acknowledging that things don’t always work out like the Proverbs suggest.  “Time and chance happen to them all” (Eccl 9:11).  Subordinate to God’s eternal purpose, some arbitrariness seems to be part of the cosmos.  Here I feel like getting the attention of all those who feel wise or helpful when they remark, “I believe everything happens for a reason.”  (Would my objection be “happening for a reason” in their minds?)  Nope.  Not everything.  In this life, some things just happen.

Leaving Proverbs in the dust again, it seems to me that more similarities exist between Ecclesiastes and Job, in terms of the ultimate import.  We are left, in both these cases, with this resounding message:  what’s left, when all is said and done, is God.  We are not Him, and we should fear/revere Him in awe.  Philosopher Slavoj Žižek offered, “The only thing we have to fear is fear of the dialectical misappropriation of counterrevolutionary bourgeois socio-antidisestablishmentarianism itself.”  Perhaps—in this life, at least.  But I’ll opt to pay more attention to the Teacher of Ecclesiastes.  Collins’s conclusion will serve as mine here:

“The answer to fear is to know what to truly fear.  There is only one thing in the universe worth fearing, and that is the creator of the universe.  And surprisingly, when you let that be your chief fear, you will find a life where fear loses its power.  A life without chaos is impossible, but a life connected to divine wisdom is a good life and a life that can be lived without fear.”


³ The song is less than a century old, which is not very old, all considering!

2 thoughts on “To elicit from Ecclesiastes (2)

  1. Steve Kell 07/25/2018 / 5:18 pm

    Truly, if Proverbs is “the rule,” Ecclesiastes (and Job) serves as “the exception.” Together they present a healthy tension, balancing a kind of assurance concerning our life choices with a desperately needed trust in a God too big to understand, a God of mystery–if not at times a God of absurdity. It is a book with the exceptions to all the rules.

    Of all the literary genres of the Bible, this is my favorite–or perhaps a better word might be the most meaningful to me. As I ride the elevator of emotions through life and try to forage in a consistent direction, I keep coming back to these books collected from the multi-layered experiences of life. It is to me (outside of the conversations of Jesus) the most unpretentious and helpful guidance for living “successfully” — meaning, living in “the fear of the Lord.”

    Your insights shared on Ecclesiastes are a blessing to me.

    [On a much lighter note, my initial engagement with Ecclesiastes was on a certain past Sunday–both morning and evening. My 6th grade cohort and partner in crime told me during a sermon one Sunday morning that he knew how to spell Ecclesiastes–and I responded back to him promptly that nobody knew how to spell that word without looking it up. He then proceeded to spell that word without looking it up — as I spell-checked him by looking it up. I was aghast and humiliated, that my buddy could do this–and I could not. So–that afternoon I spent uncharacteristically “reading the Bible”–i.e., working on learning how to spell the most difficult word in the entire Bible, and I then spelled it for him that evening. Little would I know at that tender age how much I would come to need so much more from that paradoxical journal than how to correctly spell its title.]

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    • Brian Casey 07/25/2018 / 6:06 pm

      I couldn’t have said it better. And so I didn’t. I waited for Steve K to reply and put it succinctly and perfectly. Among the many things I appreciate is that you put the word “successfully” in quotes and then defined it. Success truly has more than one face, and you have put the best one on it.

      Also enjoyed your anecdote. Pretty sure my fourth grader could spell it, so now I’ll probably have to teach him to spell the Hebrew title. 😉

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