Sunday, 22 April 2012

The once irredeemable dark - Ecclesiastes

It has to be one of the all-time great passages of the Bible.

Ecclesiastes 3.

It’s one I grew up with at school.  It’s one rolled out for the big occasion.  Founders  Day.  Remembrance Sunday.

It’s one of the few pop records I actually got round to buying.  The flip side of Mary Hopkin singing ‘those were the days’ was that wonderful to everything there is a season, turn, turn turn.  And a time for every purpose under heaven.  I could almost sing it.  But I won’t.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: 
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; 
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up; 
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance; 
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; 
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away; 
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; 
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

What do you make of that great passage?

Is it an indication of how things ought to be?

Or is it a description of the way things are?

How you answer that question will shape the way you read Ecclesiastes.  And it will go a long way towards shaping the way you look at life.

Take it as an indication of how things ought to be and you can see it as a statement of what God wants for his world, a statement of what God wants for our lives.

If that is what this passage is saying then there are some major difficulties for us as Christian readers.  Is there really a time for us to hate as well as a time for us to love.  Jesus sees things very differently in those memorable words from the Sermon on the Mount that seem to have an echo of Ecclesiastes in them, almost as if Jesus, the Teacher  is in conversation with Ecclesiastes, Qohelet the preacher.

43 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

Read it very differently, however, and this passage takes on a very different feel.

One of the things that appeals to me about my Christian faith and indeed about the bible is that it is down to earth.  It is realistic.  Sometimes brutally so.

Let’s see these words not as an indication of what God wants for his world, but a description of the way things are.  Whether we like it or not, this is what the world is like, this is life as we know it.

There’s no value judgement here.  There is nothing to say that this is how things SHOULD be.  This is simply a description of the way things are.

A great deal of the Bible is to do with what God wants for his world.  The books of the law set a framework for living in the world, that’s taken up and brought to fulfilment by Jesus, not least in the Sermon on the Mount.

The prophets tell the story of the kings and rulers of the people Israel and the way they are continually challenged to turn away from injustices and to seek justice for all the people in the name of God.

It’s powerful stuff.  It’s about setting things right.  It’s about putting an end to wrong.  But on more than one occasion, people have come out of church on a Sunday evening saying but the real world isn’t like that.

Ecclesiastes is the book for those moments.  It is a book that speaks into those times when things are not going well.  When things are not as they ought to be.

There is a despair about the writing of the Preacher, or as the NRSV has it, the Teacher, Qoheleth

1:2 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? 

Ecclesiastes is associated with Solomon and in our very logically ordered English bibles comes between Proverbs and Song of Solomon.

Whereas Proverbs is a book full of confidence in the wisdom that comes from God, Ecclesiastes has a despair to it.  After devoting a life to the pursuit of wisdom, still the world remains a perturbing place where it is difficult to discern any meaning to life.

I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, 13applied 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. 14I 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.’ 17And 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 bleak stuff!

And yet it is how one can feel.  It’s almost like the Footballer who reaches the pinnacle of their career only to find there is no satisfaction.  Still there is an emptiness.  An unrelenting emptiness.

2I said to myself, ‘Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself.’ But again, this also was vanity. 2I said of laughter, ‘It is mad’, and of pleasure, ‘What use is it?’ 

That leads on to the passage we read … there’s a glimmer of hope.  God is in this.  But only a glimmer of hope.  Maybe this is just the world the way it is.  But it’s a pretty grim place.

Moreover, I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, wickedness was there, and in the place of righteousness, wickedness was there as well. I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for he has appointed a time for every matter, and for every work. I said in my heart with regard to human beings that God is testing them to show that they are but animals. For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upwards and the spirit of animals goes downwards to the earth? So I saw that there is nothing better than that all should enjoy their work, for that is their lot; who can bring them to see what will be after them?

This is bleak indeed.  So what do you do?  Take life as it comes?  Eat, drink and be merry.  9.7.  Maybe.

Yet, yet, yet.  There is something.  A glimmer.  Something to hold on to.

Maybe wisdom is important.  A lovely momentary parable …

And yet even that glimmer of hope seems to be snuffed out …


13 I have also seen this example of wisdom under the sun, and it seemed important to me. 14There was a little city with few people in it. A great king came against it and besieged it, building great siege-works against it. 15Now there was found in it a poor, wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city. Yet no one remembered that poor man. 16So I said, ‘Wisdom is better than might; yet the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are not heeded.’ 

And yet even that glimmer of hope seems to be snuffed out

Come towards the end and there are more wise words of wisdom.  Seize the day.  Make the most of your youth. 

Then comes an ending.

13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. 14For God will bring every deed into judgement, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.

What do we make of such a bleak book?

I for one am glad it’s in the bible.  It’s how people feel.  It is brutally down to earth in its realistic assessment of what this grim world too often can be like.

And the point is that that feeling of desolation is within the experience of faith.  Faith is not something that eliminates all bleakness, however much we might like it to do just that.

The whole point of our series on the Old Testament is to suggest ways of reading what can be difficult books.  Two things are important to my mind.  First, never take a text or even a book in isolation from the whole of the Bible.  What is fascinating is that the writers of the Old Testament are often in conversation with each other.  The wonderful faith of so many of the Psalms, the confidence of the Book of Proverbs with its recipe for living, the exuberance of the Song of Solomon – they are all in a kind of counterpoint with the bleakness of this book.

You want to say at the very end … yes, but read on.  And in our English bibles we read on into the Song of Solomon with its joyous celebration of humanity.

By Jewish people Ecclesiastes is read as part of the Autumnal festival of Tabernacles which leads up to the last of the harvest festivals before winter.  There is something autumnal in the bleakness of this book.  On each of the seven days of that festival the Jewish people build a make-shift shelter in the garden and spend some time in it.  It is a remembrance of the yearst they spent in the wilderness.

That’s a thought.

Wilderness experiences are part of the Jewish experience.  And not to be forgotten.  It is in remembering them that something can be brought into the future.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on Thought for the Day on Yom Hashoah, marking the Jewish remembrance of The Holocaust commented,  We can’t change the past, but by remembering it, we might just change the future.

Jesus too had wilderness experiences.   Those 40 days and nights in the wilderness.  The wilderness figures large in John the Baptists’ ministry.  Jesus can only reach his baptism by spending those bleak 40 days and nights in the wilderness.  He has to get through Gethsemane, he has to get through that feeling of abandonment by God on the cross to reach resurrection.

Maybe this kind of experience is part of our experience … what some have described as the dark night of the soul.

Jesus takes the spirit of Ecclesiastes seriously … but he does not go with what it sets out.  Eat, drink and be merry is the philosophy of the rich fool who stores up treasures on earth only to meet an untimely end and have everything taken from him.  Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, then all these things shall be added unto you.

All through the Sermon on the Mount you can trace echoes of Ecclesistes – but the bleakness is not accepted.  There is a confidence that through the valley of the shadow is a presence that will not let us go

25 ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” 32For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.   34 ‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
  Take no thought for the morrow, sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

Echoes of this way of thinking …  and yet it is not bleak.  There is hope.  There is warmth.

This was precisely what we explored in our poetry evening on Wednesday.  Out of the Depths.  Judi Marsh and friends from the Poetry Society read some of the great poets in the first half of the evening.  But in a strange way the evening for me really came alive in the second half when they read their own poems.

In conversation after I learned how it was people’s own experience of plumbing the depths in very difficult circumstances had often turned them to poetry.  And through their poetry they found a way out of the depths.

Let me finish with a poem of Judi Marsh’s which I found particularly moving.  It starts where Ecclesiastes is – in a pretty bleak place.   Vanity of vanities!  All is vanity!  Vanity not in the sense of pride.  But in the sense of emptiness.  Emptiness, emptiness all is emptiness.   It is as if then in her poem Judi comes to the place where Jesus is in those words of calm and reassurance in the Sermon on the Mount.  And it is in that place that she finds the presence of God.

Soul  Seeker by Judi Marsh
Down miles of unlit corridors
And through all the sunless rooms
The air – stuffy and dust-speckled –
Swells in the silent emptiness.

I am at home in this emptiness;
This quiet place of quiet shadows
Is my hiding-place.

My friends do not come here;
Their voices have yet to echo
Through this darkness.

But Your voice is different
Although small and still
I hear it clearly.

When You call out my real name
It doesn’t bounce off the bare walls.
It is warm and Your words are arms
That reach out to save, love, protect.

Beyond dare and dream,
You take delight in me.
You sing of Your love for me
And even these silent dusty rooms
Reverberate with sung love.

And now that I know
What my treasure is
And where my heart is,
Sunlight and song sweep through
Strong as an avalanche,  to bury deep
The once irredeemable dark.

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