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I feel like it’s time for a break from Deuteronomy, even though we are in the middle of a section. (There won’t be a natural break until the end of Chapter 26.) So, continuing our practice of choosing books alphabetically – which we will surely change soon – we find ourselves today in Ecclesiastes.
The book is thus named from the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew word for the author, ‘Qohelet’. The qohelet is a gatherer, one who gathers either people into an assembly, or words into a collection. As ekklesia (from which we get ‘ecclesiastes’) is the Greek word for the assembly of God’s people in the church, so qehilah (from the same root as qohelet) is the Hebrew word for an assembly of people. It is for this reason that most translations use ‘Preacher’ or ‘Teacher’, thinking of the one who calls the congregation together. I will stick with calling the author ‘Qohelet’, and we will further discuss his identity tomorrow when we come to more seemingly autobiographical information.
The second verse contains the tricky Hebrew word which is a motif throughout the book. How should it be translated? Vanity, meaningless, futility? All these have been used, and are correct, but don’t necessarily capture all the word is about. Hebel is vapor, breath, something intangible or fleeting, which cannot be caught or tied down; it is worthless, fruitless, and has no substance. The rest of the poem is an illustration of the basic premise that nothing lasts and there is no permanence in life.
Humans don’t gain anything from all their hard work, but simply die, and are replaced by the next generation. Everything is cyclical, like the sun’s circuit, the wind, the rivers running into the sea. There is never a solid conclusion, never a satisfying ending, never even a new beginning because everything that comes has been here before, even if we don’t remember it. The philosophy of this book appears to be very Asian, like the samsara of Hinduism and Buddhism. We might perhaps disagree with Qohelet’s facts, but we can’t argue with his feeling.
Doesn’t life feel like that sometimes? The ‘Novel’ Coronavirus is new, but it is not. It’s just a repeat of SARS, the Spanish flu, the plague. And it makes life feel so boring. Nothing ever happens. Another Zoom meeting, another Bible study, another president. New but not new. We keep trying to fill the void. When I read 1:8, I can’t help seeing myself on Facebook, scrolling for another dopamine hit, something new, something interesting, a giggle or a revelation. But I am never satisfied. Facebook wants me to remember, gives me images from last year and x number of years ago, and I remember and am momentarily thrilled, and next year I will see images from this year. So perhaps I might again disagree with Qohelet and say, ‘Yes! I remember! There is remembrance!’ But is it substantial? Do I really change, or is there a satisfaction in remembering? Or do I need to look again tomorrow? There is nothing new.
Ecclesiastes is not a book of facts, it is a book of feelings. Perhaps you don’t have the same feelings as Qohelet, and you can’t relate. But for many of us, it is a relief to know that I am not the only one who has this sense of dissatisfaction with life. I am not unique, this is not new. This is part of the human condition. Qohelet offers us no solution here, but simply allows us to sit with him, as Job’s friends sat with him, and listen to feelings put into words. It is a comfort to know that I am not alone.
Prayer: Thank you, Lord, that you have allowed your Word to contain these words. Sometimes I feel so empty and that life goes nowhere. It is a comfort to know that I am not alone. Help me to lean on you in these moments.