Friday, April 20, 2018

Discussion of Ecclesiastes 1: Everything is Meaningless/ All is Vanity.

This talk is available on my Vimeo page: https://vimeo.com/266016118 
Sunday April 22 we will meet at my office to discuss the meaning and implications of this powerful passage from Ecclesiastes 1, New International Version (NIV):


Everything Is Meaningless
The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless!  Everything is meaningless.” 


Here is another translation/version of the same passage:

Ecclesiastes 1 English Standard Version (ESV):All Is Vanity 


The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.

The entire book of Ecclesiastes is very challenging to our ordinary assumptions about the meaning and purpose of life. It is an outlier in the Old Testament. From Wikipedia: "The presence of Ecclesiastes in the Bible is something of a puzzle, as the common themes of the Hebrew canon—a God who reveals and redeems, who elects and cares for a chosen people—are absent from it, which suggests that (the author) Kohelet had lost his faith in his old age. Understanding the book was a topic of the earliest recorded discussions (the hypothetical Council of Jamniain the 1st century CE). One argument advanced then was that the name of Solomon carried enough authority to ensure its inclusion, but other works which appeared with Solomon's name were excluded despite being more orthodox than Ecclesiastes." 

We are fortunate that this book somehow slipped into the official canon. Ecclesiastes is one of the most powerful texts in the Bible. Although Biblical scholars have had a hard time making it fit traditional understandings of Judaism or Christianity, the author speaks very directly about the futility of our ordinary ways of living. This book provides an excellent and very clear diagnosis of the nature of our suffering. There's very little offered as a solution, other than to enjoy whatever simple and fleeting pleasures life offers. Even this recommendation is offered in an obligatory and half hearted manner. 

From my perspective, the author deserves enormous credit for his refusal to offer simple minded and pat solutions to the very vexing problems of life. Far better to not know at all then to be certain yet wrong. So much of what is currently offered in the name of religion requires the submission of questioning and not knowing to the certainty offered by fixed belief. There are no simple or easy answers offered here. Nor does the author sugar coat his description of ordinary life, but rather speaks honestly from the heart. Although he has everything, he feels empty inside. It is a perfect and highly accurate description of the human condition. As such, it is worth taking seriously.

What can we learn from this challenging work? The author could not be more clear about the problem. What is the solution? It is recommended but not required that you read it. 
If you are interested in attending, please RSVP as space is limited. 

Here is the remainder of Chapter 1:

"What do people gain from all their labors    at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again.
All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. 10 Is there anything of which one can say,  “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. 11 No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.

12 I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens.What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind! 14 I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
15 What is crooked cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted.16 I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” 17 Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind.18 For with much wisdom comes much sorrow;
 the more knowledge, the more grief."

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