21 September 2015

hearing Qohelet

It starts with a man who is clearly frustrated. He is disillusioned and nearing the end of his rope. He has grown tired of the daily routines. He is over it – done. He would like to find comfort in some sort of deeper meaning to life, but he has come to think that perhaps there isn't one.

This man has given consideration to all that has been commended to him, and he finds it lacking. What others think of as superlative, he finds hallow and empty. He had once believed in the brighter and better world of tomorrow, but seems trapped in an endless cycle of promises unkept. New leaders and new technology and new directions did not produce their promised peace and prosperity, so he is disenchanted with the guarantees.

He held a rather unique vantage point on the world, sitting in the royal court and speaking regularly with the wisest king of all. Even from that place his search for insight comes up empty, which only drives his consideration of the whole of life that much harder. Among the council of the wise he was known for assembling together those who would listen and ponder. There he would offer his thoughts and vented his frustrations, searching and having great difficulty in finding.

And so it should come as no surprise to us that his collected thoughts begins with a rather harsh (and perhaps disparaging) statement: "Everything is meaningless!" This idea alone has pushed the limits of language, as this Teacher regards it all as worthless ... rubbish ... enigma ... emptiness. We do not have to be perfect in our translation to hear his breaking point being reached. His world has fallen into a comatose state, even though there was plenty of noise being made.

Elsa Tamez says of this Teacher that his future has become bleak; the horizons have closed*.

The Teacher is not afraid to push back against life, and sometimes his readers are taken back by what they see. He declares that everything is meaningless, but he continues to struggle with the meaninglessness of it all. And that is why we ought to hear him again. He doesn't abandon wisdom's quest, and he doesn't give up on life. But everything "under the sun" needs to be called to account, for that is the only way we can make it through the mess.

The big issue the Teacher has with the world is that it has become twisted. Oppression, wickedness, and injustice have taken over his world. Even in his unique perspective over the nation, he can not see that things are getting better. Yes, the horizons have closed because it all has become darker and increasingly corrupt. It is the twisted morality that allows evil to go on unanswered – passed over by the powers put in place to watch over the people.

The Teacher wants more than what he is getting out of this life. Casual readers of Ecclesiastes will think of him as nothing more than a dour pessimist sharing his rants about the world. But this reading can not account for about half of the message. The Teacher believes that God is in control of this world, and that He has created a life that is to be enjoyed to the fullest. But the Teacher remains unsatisfied with that which so often gets passed off as delight. In short, he refuses to accept cheap joy** in this life – desiring much more than worldly pleasure. His utopia is the kingdom which God alone can establish on this earth, where peace and justice and righteousness are established.

In a culture where morality is twisted to the point of the willing dismemberment of unborn children for financial gain can be too-easily dismissed by many consciences, and where the weak and elderly are increasingly ignored for their so-called burden to society, there is no genuine opportunity for genuine joy in this life. The reason, says the Teacher, is that we have become desensitized to life itself, and therefore are unable to go any further than the cheap thrills of momentary and self-centered pleasures.

In such a world, how can eternal life ever be opened to us?

The Teacher, who is deeply dissatisfied with this life, desires much more. He looks for an eternal life, which must originate beyond this present world. He will remind us that God is God and humans are human. As such, we are unable to save ourselves from the peril of lifelessness. The answer must come from outside of the system – outside of our humanity. The Teacher will not witness this in his own lifetime, as the true life from heaven invades the brokenness of earth. Without this assured hope, all is truly meaningless.

*Elsa Tamez, When the Horizons Close (Wipf & Stock, 2006)
**Craig Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes (Baker, 2014)

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