Ecclesiastes 9:11-18

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The passage we are reading today is simpler in structure than the past few days, with two main subsections: firstly about the cruelty of fate (9:11-12), and secondly about the victory of quiet wisdom over foolish strength (9:13-18).

Verse 11 marks a definite shift from the previous section, as indicated by the first few words, yet it also still follows on the idea of 9:1-3 that chance – and death – overtakes everyone, regardless of who they are. Just like fish and birds caught in a snare, so are humans suddenly and without warning trapped by bad events in our lives. It happened to Job, it happens to many people we know, and even to ourselves. As a simple example, so many people have been unwittingly trapped into or out of a country by the coronavirus shut-downs. Qohelet observes that, just as the righteous is not always rewarded with a long life, nor the wicked punished, as human wisdom dictates, so also the fastest person doesn’t always win the race, nor does the strongest person win the fight. More poignantly but perhaps with less visual punch, nor does the wise or discerning person necessarily receive more wealth.

This thought leads Qohelet into his next contemplation, as he imagines a poor wise man in a besieged city. Our natural expectation is that the strong king with his great armory should be able to dominate this small city with few men. But somehow (in keeping with what we just saw in 9:11), he is outwitted by the poor man’s wisdom. Sadly, despite his unlikely victory, the poor man was not remembered (cf 9:5).

Nevertheless, Qohelet reflects that wisdom is better than strength and battle-weapons, even though the poor man’s wisdom was despised and no one listened to him. (I wish we knew more about the story to find out how he won that battle even though no one listened to him.) He goes on to assert, perhaps contrary to his own story, that quiet wise words are more listened to than foolish leaders’ shouting. How I wish that were true! In my personal experience it tends to be those with the loudest voices who are listened to; in our groups and organizations we need to practice listening to and amplifying the quiet words of the wise. In multi-cultural contexts, I would add that we need to be sure to listen to those who do not easily speak English.

The last phrase of 9:18 is also a great warning. The normal translation of this Hebrew word is ‘sinner’, but it could also be ‘one who misses the mark’ (cf Jdg 20:16), which may be a more helpful translation in this context which is not really about sin and evil but more about warfare. The resulting meaning would then be more like, “The one who gets it wrong destroys much good”. Therefore, be wise, and get it right!

To conclude then: Seek to be wise, because wisdom is better than strength and can conquer, contra expectations. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that wisdom is going to win every time; bad things can still happen to wise and knowledgeable people, and you may not be listened to anyway.

Prayer: God, my life is in your hands. Give me wisdom so that I can do good in my community. Help me to listen carefully to the quiet and to the poor.

Ecclesiastes 9:1-10

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In this section things don’t get any rosier than they were in the previous chapter. In fact, I would argue it is even more depressing, especially 9:2-6, probably the darkest section of the book and even perhaps the whole Bible.

Qohelet’s basic argument is that it doesn’t matter whether you are a good or an evil person, a lover or a hater, religious or irreligious: everyone is going to die and there is no reward for how we lived ‘under the sun’. It’s worse than that, because the human heart is full of evil and madness – which explains why the world is so horrible and there is such suffering here.

Still, he states, it’s better to be alive than dead (in contrast to what he said before in 4:2), because at least you can know something when you’re alive, even if what you know is that you’re going to die. But the dead have nothing, no love or hate or anything that exists, for all time; not even the memory of the dead lasts.

In 9:7-10 there is a small shift towards positivity, but it doesn’t last long. Echoing the hint of God’s providential sovereignty in 9:1, Qohelet challenges his readers to go, eat and drink, with joy and in a good heart. The white clothes and oil-anointed head are about living as if life is good, not like you’re in mourning. He also advises considering this life which is given with your spouse (Hebrew has ‘wife’) whom you love, but again reminds the reader that this life is hebel: devoid of purpose or substance. While you are alive you may as well work and think and know, because after you die you will have none of these.

In this context, can we really enjoy life? Is Qohelet being sarcastic? Or is it a genuine charge to enjoy what we have while we have it, because it is not going to last? How should we respond to such depression? First of all, I would suggest, just sit with it. Sit with Qohelet. Sit with your friend who is also struggling in the darkness of despair. Sit with the sense that life has no purpose or meaning and is not going anywhere. See that the righteous and the good and the religious suffers and dies just the same as the wicked and the sinner and the atheist; God does not protect one more than the other from coronavirus or tsunami or cyclone. And in this context, be thankful for and enjoy the good things you have: food, drink, a spouse or friend, life itself.

And now, think of the areas where you disagree with Qohelet. Is the memory of the perished forgotten? No, we remember them and others will remember us. Are there no wages for the dead? Other passages of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, argue otherwise (eg Ps 49:10-15; Dan 12:2; Matt 5-6; Rom 6:23; 1 Cor 3:14). Is my enjoyment in this present life all I live for? No, not only is there reward in the afterlife, but I live for the enjoyment and service of others, particularly the Lord Jesus (cf Col 3:17, which I am strongly reminded of when I read Ecc 9:10). Jesus himself did not look with despair at his short life, which began and ended with suffering, but rather ran his race for the joy set before him (Heb 12:2). He felt anguish, sure, to the point of sweating blood, but he was faithful to the task to which he was called. He, not Qohelet, is the author and perfecter of our faith.

Prayer: Lord God, sometimes when I look on this life, full of my and others’ suffering, I am tempted to despair. And yet, I am alive, and I can rejoice and be thankful in this. Help me to live not for myself, but for others and especially for you. You are the one who gives my life meaning.

Ecclesiastes 8

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The main new theme in today’s section is authority, or lack thereof. Qohelet then returns to the theme we looked at yesterday, comparing the wicked with the righteous. There are many ideas in this chapter which are repetitions of motifs already sounded earlier in the book: wisdom, futility, allocated times, and enjoyment of the simple things of life.

8:2-5 deal with the king and how to relate to him. It does not feel in these verses like Qohelet is still identifying as the king, but rather he is now standing alongside us ‘commoners’. Essentially the message is to be obedient and respectful, both because of prior commitments and also future results. There is no point in arguing anyway, because the king will do what he wants. This, Qohelet argues, is wisdom. There is general agreement with this sentiment in scripture (eg 1 Sam 24; Rom 13:1-5), but also occasions on which dispute with the king is acceptable (eg Ex 1:15-22; Acts 4:18-20) or even expected (eg 1 Sam 22). In today’s world, Qohelet’s wisdom still stands, but also with the caveat that sometimes, in some circumstances (cf 8:5), challenging the king or other authorities is the right thing to do.

In 8:6, which flows on directly from the previous verse, we return to the thinking of 3:1ff. Wisdom enables a person to know the right time for every action; wisdom also brightens a person’s perspective on life (8:1), which can otherwise seem so tragic. The problem is, the wisdom which enables us to understand the present and know the future is painfully elusive (8:7-8,17).

Even the king has no authority over his day of death, just as no one can contain the wind or release herself from warfare (8:8). Nor will the wicked person escape from their deeds – or will they? In 8:10, Qohelet notes with apparent sadness – it is hebel also – that wicked people are able to go to the holy place and be praised in the city. There is a great tension in these verses (8:10-14): Qohelet seems undecided whether the wicked will escape judgment (8:11-12,14) or will suffer punishment (8:13). Likewise, he says both that those who fear God, the righteous, will have good lives (8:12), but also that they sometimes get what the wicked deserve (8:14). He cannot grasp these sad realities, they are hebel. This whole discussion harks back to the previous chapter (7:15).

Qohelet cannot unravel this mystery, and so simply resigns himself to it, commending enjoyment of the tangible aspects of life: eating, drinking, joy. The sad reality is that the wisdom needed to understand why life happens the way it does is unattainable. Even though she sees every work of God, and searches out what is happening, even the wisest person is not able to grasp what is really going on ‘under the sun’. There is no human answer to the biblical and all-too-human questions ‘Why?’ and ‘How long?’

This chapter does not hold out any particular hope. Submit to authority, even if you don’t agree with it, and enjoy what you can see, touch, and taste. No one understands why there is so much suffering and injustice. That’s it. I don’t like it, and I am looking for an escape, some solid conclusion, but there is none to be had here, only the repeated announcement that it is all hebel. We can sit with that, sit with Qohelet and our own souls and the souls of others, as we contemplate this darkness.

What did Jesus think of this book? He does not quote from it, and nor does the rest of the New Testament. But some of Paul’s writings reflect ideas from Ecclesiastes. He agrees that life on earth is futile, if there is no future to be looked forward to, but that Christ’s resurrection has changed that perspective (1 Cor 15, especially vv17,32,58) – Christ, the wisdom of God and the power of God (1 Cor 1:24,30). With Christ as our wisdom we may be able to find meaning in life.

Prayer: Lord God, there is so much about this life that is difficult to understand, especially when evil men rule and prosper. Let me be one who fears you, and help me to enjoy the good things in this life which you have given to me. Give me wisdom to understand the times.

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Ecclesiastes 7:15-29

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The second half of this chapter is similar to the first half: it feels like random disconnected thoughts, but on deeper study, really there is a strong theme of comparing the righteous and the wicked; the wise and the foolish; and the other ideas are about words and women. But the sections are threaded through each other.

Qohelet starts with the age-old question: why is it, contrary to even his own wisdom, that we sometimes see the righteous suffer and die, but the wicked have long lives? He has no answer but to declare it hebel, a frustrating nonsense (7:15). He also hints that fools, too, die early. Qohelet therefore advises moderation for those who fear God, moderation even in righteousness and wisdom (7:16-18). There is no one on earth who is so righteous that they never sin (cf Ps 53:3). Not reaching for that perfection may actually make you a better person in the long run. Do you agree with Qohelet? The rest of scripture advocates striving for perfection (eg Matt 5:48); but on the other hand, not being the obviously most holy person might make friendship seem more attainable for others. Perfectionism, even in morality, is not healthy when stress is created by the failure to live up to the ideal. Likewise, excessive wisdom causes headaches, as Qohelet already warned in 1:18.

Of course, wisdom is more to be sought than folly. It makes a person stronger (7:19). However, there are some things that cannot be discovered, try as hard as we might (7:23-25). 7:23 is connected with 7:24 by the word ‘far’, which is obscured in some translations. Wisdom was too far for Qohelet and could not be found, despite much searching. However, there are a few things he could find (7:27).

First of all, in the verses I skipped (7:21-22), he discovered that it is good not to ‘give your heart’ to every spoken word. We know how often we have spoken negative words about others; therefore we can expect negative words to have been spoken about us, even by those we might consider ‘beneath us’. Don’t pay attention to it, Qohelet warns. Reflecting on my own life, how profound is this simple teaching! I still remember negative words that were spoken over or to me when I was a teenager, and they impact who I am today. Reader, hear the word of the Lord to you today: Let it go.

Finally, there are these difficult verses at the end (7:26,28-29). Was Qohelet a misogynist? Quite possibly, given his historical period, and especially if these words are Solomon’s, who himself was ensnared by women (cf 1 Kgs 11:4). But let me also reassure you about 7:28, which has been translated with an interpretation in many English versions. A wooden, literal translation of 7:27-29 says:

See this I found, says Qohelet, one by one, to find an explanation. While my soul was searching, I did not find; one human among a thousand I found; but a woman among a thousand I did not find. Only see this I found: that God made human(ity) upright, but they sought many inventions.

It is difficult to understand, which is why some versions insert something like ‘upright’ or ‘righteous’ to make it sound like Qohelet found only one righteous man among a thousand, but no righteous women. But that word is not there in the original Hebrew phrase. It is perhaps the translators who are misogynistic, not the Bible’s original text. Qohelet was not seeking a righteous man, according to the context; he was seeking wisdom. If there is any judgment about men versus women, it is that there are more wise men out there. But even that is difficult to assert, as he doesn’t use the gender-specific term for man at all, only the generic word for ‘human’ (and also the specific word for ‘woman’).

How shall we conclude? As women, let’s respond positively to the challenge! Let us be the wise (and/or righteous) woman that Qohelet couldn’t find. In this way we become strong, rather than rejecting the whole text because of some words we don’t like. But let us also recognize that we are not going to reach perfection; wisdom is far, and perfect righteousness is non-existent in humanity. Thank God that Jesus was perfect on our behalf (cf Heb 10:14).

Prayer: Lord God, I pray for wisdom in order to do and to be good. Help me to ignore words that are unhelpful.

Ecclesiastes 7:1-14

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A quick reading of these verses gives the impression of random thoughts, but apart from the first phrase that doesn’t fit the rest completely well, there are some strong themes which create a unified paragraph: death and sadness vs birth and joy; wisdom vs foolishness; patience vs anger; accepting God’s sovereignty.

It may seem surprising that Qohelet prefers death, mourning, and sorrow, over life, feasting, and laughter. But the reason is clear: it is in these aspects of existence that we are more likely to find wisdom. Sadness is actually better for one’s heart than joy, and we learn a lot more from a rebuke than a foolish song. Have you ever pondered why someone – you, maybe – actually likes watching drama just as much, if not more than, comedy? Why is it that I can lose myself and release my own stress and sadness by entering into the suffering of someone else, even a fictional character? Qohelet compares a fool’s laughter with the sound of thorns being burned up under a pot as it cooks; it just disappears, like smoke, with no purpose and no weight. But a serious matter touches our hearts with much more power and lasting impact. Contemplating death can profoundly affect the way we live our life, and creates a wise approach to it. 

Wisdom is of much benefit in living. It provides benefit, and a protective shade that preserves the life of the one who is master over it. But it must be sought; wisdom does not necessarily come without effort or experience. Think of how much knowledge we gain through the experience of being in a dangerous situation, like a fire or flood. And it can be lost, through bribery and extortion, or through lack of patience. Qohelet compares a ‘long’ spirit with a proud spirit, with the idea that someone who is patient and humble will fall into the camp of the wise.

The last two verses of this section (cf 7:10 also) are about accepting God’s sovereign will, whether it is good and yields prosperity, or whether it is bent through adversity. When things are going well, Qohelet advises, let it be good. But on bad days, recognise that God made these too. It doesn’t mean that we can find out why, however, nor discern what will happen in the future. Knowing that God is the author of both good and bad is not always comforting; in fact, it can be the opposite. But the alternative is even worse; that we are at the mercy of capricious or evil powers, or that there is no meaning to our suffering at all. At least by knowing we are in God’s hands, whether for good or ill, we can be confident that there is a purpose to the day of adversity. This is what kept Jesus going on the road of suffering (cf Heb 12:2).

Prayer: Lord God, I am in your hands whether things are going well or going badly. Help me to trust you even in suffering. Let me learn patience and wisdom for living this difficult life under the sun.

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Ecclesiastes 6

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This short chapter repeats many of the themes which we have already been discussing over the last two weeks. There are some interesting alternative translations which I’d like to offer for your reflection.

The first two verses talk about an evil which is great upon humanity: a man who is given many good things, and yet they are consumed by a foreigner. Most translations mention ‘a stranger’, but this word is usually translated as ‘foreigner’, or ‘alien’, the same word we have been encountering in Deuteronomy (14:21; 15:3). Qohelet is perhaps thinking of the king overrun by another nation, as Judah was in 587 BC.

The other interesting word in 6:2 is nefesh, usually translated as ‘soul’ or ‘being’, which we also encountered in Deuteronomy, particularly important in the shema (6:4 and parallels), which commands us to love God with all our ‘soul’. The idea in this verse is that there is no lack for the man’s soul, his being. The thought continues in the next verse about a man whose nefesh is not satisfied. This same word is repeated in 6:7, where it says literally that the nefesh is not full, interpreted as one’s appetite not being satisfied. Then in 6:9, there is a mysterious saying that the ‘seeing of the eye’ is better than the ‘going of the nefesh‘. Perhaps Qohelet is saying that what you have in front of you is better than the soul wandering around to find further satisfaction; the continual search for meaning is futile because it will never be found. Or could it hark back to 3:21 and the journey of the soul to another unknown place (cf 6:6), instead of being satisfied with what we can see before us in the present?

Qohelet’s constant theme is that a person should enjoy what s/he has, now in the present. A rich man with a long life and many children, whose soul is not satisfied, may as well never have lived. Even if he lives for two thousand years, if he doesn’t see the good in his life, he is worse off than a stillborn child with no name and is of no consequence. All go to the same place, whether rich or poor, long- or short-lived, wise or foolish. So live now, not for the future. No one knows what is going to happen in the future (cf 3:22). Be satisfied with what you have before you instead of panting for what is to come.

6:10-11 stand out within the chapter as something a bit different, reminding the reader of Chapter 1. There is nothing new under the sun (1:9-10). The more words, the more futility (cf 1:18 cf 5:2-3,7), and there is no profit or gain (1:3). Some scholars have seen a creative way of translating 6:10: “What has been was already called by name; it is known that he is Adam. And he is not able to contend with the one who has power over him.” That is, human beings are finite creatures of God who cannot argue with him. There is a hint of Job here, unable to argue with his infinite creator. We may not understand what happens in this life, but there is one greater who lives beyond the sun.

Prayer: Lord God, sovereign master, you are in heaven and I am on earth. There are so many things I do not understand and that I cannot know. Help me to focus on what is here before me, now, and to be satisfied in all the goodness that you have given to me.

Ecclesiastes 5:8-20

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In today’s passage we return to the well-rehearsed theme of wealth and toil, but before we get there, Qohelet gives a small note about oppression and injustice which ties back into 4:1 (cf 3:16). Basically, he is telling us not to be surprised by it, because every ‘higher-up’ takes advantage of those below him, right up to the king. Some versions of the Bible have ‘official’ in 5:8, and it could be translated that way, but it is more natural to use a broader term, and shows how 5:9 connects with 5:8. The produce of the land in the end belongs to the king, not to the one who works it. This was the state of affairs in ancient Israel, but continues today in many countries, none more obviously than Thailand, where I live. Corruption and wealth-disparity are written into every law and process.

However, the rest of the passage goes on to explain that having more money doesn’t necessarily lead to more happiness for the wealthy. The one who loves money is never satisfied by owning it, nor the one who loves material possessions by having them. You get more, you eat more. Qohelet goes on to list more observations about the downfalls of the rich: the rich person who keeps the money to her own detriment; the rich person who invests the money and loses it so that he has nothing to pass on to his descendants. Haven’t we seen these things play out in our own lives or our own families? I have seen the foolishness of hoarding money instead of using it when it is needed, just for the sake of keeping a healthy bank balance, fearing the future. I have also seen money foolishly spent, crippling families’ futures. Sleep comes sweetly to the laborer who is not disturbed by anxieties about how to use money s/he doesn’t have.

5:15-18 again repeat the thought of previous chapters (eg 2:18-23; 3:20; 4:8), and I again recommend this song by Australia’s unofficial poet laureate, Paul Kelly: You can’t take it with you. What is the good of working so hard for something you can’t hang onto? And those who are focused on generating wealth, working double-time, spend their lives in sorrow, sickness, and anger.

Instead, Qohelet recommends eating and drinking and seeing good in one’s work. This is God’s gift to everyone, whether rich or poor, during the days of their lives: from what he has given them, to eat and to drink and to rejoice in one’s work. This is the portion of humanity. He concludes that there are not many who think about life, for the very peculiar reason that God ‘afflicts’ us with the joy of our heart. That is, it is the very act of being satisfied that stops us from thinking about how unsatisfied we should be. This is the joy of simplicity, just as thinking (philosophizing) increases sorrow (cf 1:18). It is ironic that today’s current self-help mantra – just google ‘stop thinking, start living’ to see how prevalent it is – is as old as the Book of Ecclesiastes.

Again, I’m not sure I fully subscribe to this philosophy. Qohelet certainly didn’t! But there is definitely a sweetness to life focused on the joys of now, rather than anxious about the what-if’s and how-to’s. Jesus also recognized this (Matt 6:19-34) and seems to have lived that way. I see in many poorer Thai people also (though not the poorest, of course), that there is great joy in living simply for the daily pleasures of food, drink, work, and family.

Prayer: Lord God, help me to not get caught up in the rat race. Give me satisfaction in the simple life, the one handful with tranquility. Spare those of us with wealth from anxiety about how to use the money you have given us.

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Ecclesiastes 5:1-7

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Today’s short passage is about a person’s dealings with God, rather than herself, relationships, or the world at large. There is a heavy emphasis on words, or lack thereof. Qohelet begins by warning the reader to ‘watch your feet’, which has been interpreted as watching one’s steps, but is rather more delightful to translate simply as ‘feet’ in the Asian cultural context where we remove our shoes to enter a house of worship.

The first message about words is that the worshipper should go to listen. This is stated initially in contrast with offering sacrifices like ignorant fools, but is quickly followed up with a warning about speech. Words should come slowly and few in number. Any vow that is made must be fulfilled – or better still, don’t vow at all. The mouth opens up vistas of sin for the flesh by vowing and then not fulfilling vows. I am reminded of poor Jephthah and his daughter, who lost everything they held dear because of the foolishness of Jephthah’s vow (Jdg 11:29-40). Qohelet also warns not to try escaping from verbal sin by saying, ‘It was an accident’.

Just as being busy and anxious creates a lot of dreams, so does foolishness create a lot of words. And as dreams amount to nothing, so do words. As an extraverted verbal processor, these warnings are appropriate to me. James 3:1-8 is also highly relevant here. I have learnt over the years to talk less and listen more, at least to people. As the saying goes: we have two ears and only one mouth. I need to bring that lesson into the throne room of God also. Talk less, listen more.

Because God is the one in authority. He has the answers, and he already knows my questions. God takes no pleasure in fools, so don’t be one! Fear and respect him, and don’t let him become angry by your foolishness. Harsh words, but helpful.

Again, as in all the previous passages in this book, we need to balance them with the other words in Scripture. God listens to our prayers as we pour out our souls before him (1 Sam 1:13-16 cf Ps 42:4), and continual prayer is honored as a value (Acts 10:2; Col 4:2). There are a lot more passages that tell us to pray, using words, than to be silent before God (but cf Hab 2:20; Zech 2:13; Zeph 1:7). Nevertheless, it is good to be reminded that listening is more important than speaking.

Prayer: Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.

Leading Forward: Be Silent Before God

Ecclesiastes 4

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Reading the first verses of this section (4:1-3), I just feel like stopping there and weeping intercessory tears. Under the sun, in this hateful world, there is so much oppression and so much pain. My mind goes instantly to the Chibok girls kidnapped in Nigeria back in 2014, over a hundred of them still missing, presumably either dead or still in captivity under Boko Haram. There is no one to comfort them. Closer to home in South East Asia there are stories of women and children in slavery also. There are too many stories like this in the world. There is too much pain. No wonder Qohelet thinks it’s better to be dead than alive in such a context, or even better, to have not been born at all.

The second subsection (4:4-6) returns to the theme of work. In Qohelet’s view, people work hard only because they want to be better off than their neighbors. On the other hand, if someone doesn’t want to work – the fool who folds his hands – then they will have nothing to eat apart from their own body fat. His conclusion is the middle ground: work to get enough and then be able to rest, but don’t overwork to gain more than is needed. I like this philosophy.

The next subsection (4:7-12) is probably one of my favorites from the book. It is essentially an argument for community. We see a man who works hard and is never content, yet he is alone, and therefore has no one to inherit his wealth after he dies. What is the point of working so hard if there is no enjoyment in it or after it? Qohelet seems to be arguing further a point he first brought up in 2:18-22. Again we may refer to Jesus’ parable in Luke 12:16-21 or this song by Casting Crowns. Qohelet moves on from this idea to talk about the benefits of working together more generally: better returns, help in times of trouble, companionship, strength in numbers, and even keeping warm. The cord of three strands is often thought to refer to the two working together plus God – which is nice and spiritual – but Qohelet may simply be thinking of the benefits of three people working together. I know it is certainly true when it comes to small prayer/accountability groups that it’s always better to have three; if one can’t make it for some reason, the other two are still able to meet and pray.

The last subsection (4:13-16) is notoriously difficult to translate and understand, mostly because it is difficult to discern from the original Hebrew text who the pronouns (he, him) refer to – the wise youth, the foolish king, or another successor. (Most English versions give their own interpretations to make it easier to follow.) It seems to be an example story, possibly based in historical fact, of successive rulers who fall out of favor with the people who follow them, regardless of foolishness or wisdom, or birthright. Qohelet deems this whole parade of national leaders as hebel also; there is no lasting remembrance, nothing tangible in the leadership of one man over another.

Again, there is much to agree with Qohelet in this chapter, and also some statements that I’d like to argue with. It’s true that this world’s hatred and evil makes me cry. But is it better to be dead or have never lived? I certainly agree that we should work and rest rather than overworking for no benefit, and that community is good. But I’m not sure that national leaders have no hope of leaving a legacy of good for their people, and being remembered for it. My take-away application from this chapter is to pray: to intercede for the oppressed, and for our nations’ leaders to lead wisely and well for the good of their people.

Prayer: Lord God, there is so much pain in this world. Please send your Spirit to comfort those who are oppressed and have no hope. I pray also for all kings and other leaders, so that we may lead peaceful and quiet lives, godly and dignified. Lord, help me to be satisfied with one handful.

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Ecclesiastes 3:14-22

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Today’s passage flows on from the previous one (3:1-13). It would probably be more natural to start at 3:16, but 3:17 is strongly connected to the first half of the passage. (In the last post I stopped where I did so that there wouldn’t be too much text to deal with there and not enough today.) Qohelet is still talking about right times, and what is essentially good for humanity, but in this section he adds the topics of judgment, and the difference – or not – between humans and animals.

We should take a moment to think about the Hebrew word olam, usually translated as something like ‘eternity’ or ‘forever’. Westerners, with our intellectual roots in Greek philosophy, tend to think of eternity as timelessness, whereas the ancient Hebrew olam probably means something more like ‘all time’, or ‘perpetual’. So the contrast between ‘a time for’ and ‘forever’ is not about timeliness versus timelessness. Keep that in mind as we consider the difference between humans and God.

Whatever God does lasts for all times, in comparison with human’s deeds, which have no permanence. This is Qohelet’s frustration with life, and also the basis of his respect for God’s work. He repeats what he already stated in 1:9, that what is has already been, and what will be has already been. In this context, however, God’s perspective is added. God knows all times. God seeks the past that has been forgotten. Although humans do not remember, God does. He can call a past moment back into existence, for judgment or for redemption. God’s eye is on every point in time, not only the now. I love this song‘s reflection on that idea.

In 3:16 we return to a place ‘under the sun’, and it is indeed a bad place. Where there should be justice and righteousness, there is instead wickedness. Sadly, we don’t need to look far for an illustration of this. It happens every day and in every country. What happened in the USA on Capitol Hill recently was only surprising because it is not usually that obvious and bold in western countries. In this context, God’s judgment is actually a comfort. There will indeed be justice for both the righteous and the wicked. Again, we see a contrast, this time between God’s righteous judgment and humanity’s corruption.

The next subsection (3:18-21) is about comparing humans and animals. The ‘testing’ in 3:18 is not the same word as we are used to regarding Abraham and the Israelites, but is linked to purging and purifying, like sharpening the dull edges on a sword. The result is that humanity sees there is no difference between themselves and animals, for both breathe, both die, and both become dust. There is no evidence that the spirits (the same Hebrew word as ‘breath’) of humans go up and the spirits of animals go down, or that there is any difference at all. Qohelet’s point, once again, is to show that anything that humans achieve is hebel, of no consequence, insubstantial, meaningless. He has no concept of afterlife, or even memorials lasting for the knowledge of others to come. So, he argues once more, enjoy what you have in this moment, because there is no memory of what has been done, and nothing to look forward to, either for you or those who come after you.

Do you agree with Qohelet? If not, are we being rebellious against the word of God? Or does God want us to wrestle with these ideas? There is obviously truth in the contrast between God and humanity. But are we really of the same consequence as our pet dogs or working cattle? Here is Bible text to back up what some prominent atheists believe. But it is contradictory to human experience and other Bible texts. What we do matters (cf 1 Cor 15:58). There is memory, there are legacies to build – or destroy. There is judgment, and God sees the past and the future the same as the present.

Prayer: God, you see all my life: my past, my present, my future. You are great and wonderful, I am small and insignificant. And yet you are interested in me and what I do. There is consequence to my thoughts, deeds, and words. Help me live a life that brings honor and glory to you, and that will be remembered for its righteousness.

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