This is the message I preached at Range Road Uniting Church (Parawa, South Australia) on Sunday 18th September 2016, and modified to preach at Yankalilla Uniting Church on Sunday 16th October 2016 for Mental Health Week. Much of it is derived from reading I was doing in Ecclesiastes, particularly in the commentary work of Rabbi Rami Shapiro.
Hmm, so, the last chapter of Ecclesiastes eh. I can guess what you’re probably thinking, it’s Mental Health week and so Damien is making a point by having Lyn read from the most depressing book in the Bible, other than Lamentations. Well, I hope you’re not thinking that, and I certainly hope you’ll not be thinking that in an hour’s time when I finish preaching, but I grant that you might be there right now.
Some of you might have known already, and if not well you know now, that I work alongside beyondblue. I work with them as a speaker in a voluntary role which requires me to travel around telling people about beyondblue and the work we do. This involves raising awareness of mental illness and the resources available to people who are experiencing Depression or Anxiety, and those people who are supporting someone who is. The bulk of my little talk is my own lived experience of Depression and Anxiety: the story of how and where I got sick, what it was like to be sick, how and when I first began to recover, and what it is like to live in ongoing recovery. I really enjoy the work that I do in this way and I have come to enjoy hearing the stories of other people’s experience of darkness and survival too. So, coming from the background of a person with blackness in his past, and a current role in testifying to his survival, I find Ecclesiastes really interesting.
Ecclesiastes is the written down story of the lived experience of a sage known as Qoheleth. We find evidence that this is a personal story in verses 2:9, 12. Qoheleth’s story is one of a search for meaning in life, and throughout the book of Ecclesiastes he sets the example for other pilgrims by trying out all sources of pleasure and meaning-making before reporting what he found. And yes, if you have read Ecclesiastes you know what the found, he found that they are each and all unfulfilling. In other words, his search for enlightenment has left him in the dark.
In the preface to his annotated translation of Ecclesiastes a rabbi named Rami Shapiro remarked that for humankind death is not our biggest problem, since the dead don’t have any problems. Our biggest problem is that we are not yet dead: in other words, it’s life in the knowledge of the inevitability of death that is the problem. Immortality is unavailable, and that distresses us. Shapiro wants us to know that it is useless to study Ecclesiastes because study is itself meaningless and tiring according to Ecclesiastes 12:12, (a favoured verse of anyone nearing exams or who has just completed a dissertation). The only way to make use of the wisdom of Qoheleth is to live it out. Don’t read and intellectualise, read and apply.
And this is where we get to the positive bit. Shapiro as a rabbi speaks and reads Hebrew, (duh!), but he has not translated the Hebrew word hevel to mean “meaningless” or “vanity” like many other scholars have done, rather he reads it as “emptying upon emptiness”. In other words, life is transient, nothing is permanent and everything eventually fades away. Isn’t that great news? Well I think it is. I think that is spectacularly great news because it is true. We know it’s true: nobody can deny the truth of it. You and I and everything that exists right now will die and be forgotten at some stage in the future. Yes? Yes.
So, according to Shapiro and others like him there is a positive message in Ecclesiastes and that message is “live your life in such a way as to find the good in the transience”. Do what each moment requires: in other words, eat at eating time, cry at crying time, “in everything…there is a season”, and so forth. Do not worry about your life Jesus says in Luke 12:22-34, just get on with today’s tasks today. Who are humankind asks the Psalmist in 144:3-4, but like a breath whose days pass like a shadow?
So, like Shapiro I want to say that Ecclesiastes is the most honest and hopeful book in the Old Testament, and I want to say as someone who has been through the deepest and blackest of Depressions that there isn’t anything inherently depressing in Ecclesiastes. Yes, Depression is there if you want to find it, but so is joy in the release from mounting expectation.
It is true that Qoheleth speaks about God as an impersonal reality separated from an unfair world, a world in which bad things happen to good people and vice versa and that’s just the way it is. In Qoheleth’s world the rich are self-obsessed, the clergy are inept, the politicians are corrupt, and the whole system is rigged to benefit the haves and to rip off the have-nots. Nothing can save you from death: life’s a pain and then you die. No-one wins in the end. Yet in the four simple truths of eat well, drink in moderation, love what you do, and love whom you can, life is filled with hope and beauty. Ecclesiastes is not concerned with changing the world so much as it is about surviving it: in Christian terms the way ahead is to live life in the world but not to become part of it. Live without a fiercely-held attachment to the world. Qoheleth has learned how to live in the tension between hevel, the understanding that life is temporary and ephemeral, and the universal human desire for eternity. For him the story is not about finding a way out (as religious belief in an afterlife would offer) but a way in to doing life well for as long as life lasts.
Qoheleth offers a way of escaping the “illusion of surety”, and the endless pursuit of a sense of security through institutionally imposed false senses of order. For Qoheleth the nature of existence is chaos and he exhorts us to create a good life amidst a chaotic reality. Shapiro calls Qoheleth “the Jewish Buddha”, but I don’t think this message is at all contradictory to the Christian gospel. Absolutely not, in fact I would say that this message is so true that it is accessible to all people and that even as I believe that Jesus offers the best way of living amidst an insecure world any wise person can see that something must be done.
So, life is not hopeless just because it isn’t permanent. As I said before Qoheleth offers a prescription for living well, specifically in verses 2:24 and 5:17 where he says to eat well, drink in moderation, and find meaningful employment. In verse 9:9 the adds to these the need love and be loved generously. Ecclesiastes comes under the broad heading of “Wisdom” in the Bible, and if you’ve read any of the Proverbs you’ll know that wisdom is often used as an alternative to folly. The wise are those who are not foolish: and vice versa. But Biblical Wisdom is not an alternative to the intransigence of life: you can’t clever your way out of impermanence, but according to Qoheleth you can clever your way through it. Like the sciences, Biblical wisdom is not a fixed body of knowledge; rather it is a method of investigating and reading reality. What you know will change is you are willing to continue learning.
And this is where we get to the next exciting bit, and the next occasional mistranslation. What reads in Hebrew as “a troubled spirit” or “vexatious breath” is often rendered in English as a “chasing of the wind.” You’ll see that in the NRSV. Well if you think life is “vanity” or “futility” then you might think that; but if you think life is “temporary but with the possibility of enjoyment” then you have a much more positive understanding. Qoheleth is not whinging here, he’s counselling. “Don’t try to grab the air,” he says, “there’s nothing to grab. Live with tranquillity and not with all this panicked snatching at what is impermanent.”
And taking a slightly different tack, think about that phrase “a chasing of the wind”. Who is doing the chasing? Maybe the wind is chasing you, maybe it’s the spirit of God who is doing the pursuing, and your job is to allow yourself to be caught.
So there is no profit in things because all things are temporary. Jesus said this when he spoke of bigger barns in Luke 12:16-21. The profit in activity is found within the activity itself, not in its results, since results are also impermanent. If you light a candle for a perpetual light you will be disappointed since the candle will be used up and the light will go out. But if you light a candle for light in the moment, with no expectation of an eternal light emanating from it afterwards, then good for you in your present challenge to the darkness, and may you truly enjoy your light now.
So, let’s quickly skip through the book before I conclude with specific words about today’s reading. In Ecclesiastes:
- 1:18 we are counselled to find joy in finite life because wisdom is measured in joy, not in tranquillity.
- 2:26 we read of ha’Elohim, “the God.” Some scholars suggest that rather than simply referring to “God” this language refers to the fullest understanding of the nature of reality. Qoheleth is speaking of a life lived in recognition of emptying emptiness, a life of simplicity and joy, within the context of an understanding of the source of life. Qoheleth says that working in tune with impermanence brings enjoyment, but toil out of tune with impermanence is wasted effort and brings frustration and despair.
- 3:9, 11-12 we are told to live according to nature’s time and not our own agenda: don’t be in such a rush, rather actively attend to and fully engage with the seasons. Harvest at the optimum time. Live within the unknowing of the rise and fall of everything while looking to bring about the fullest good in every season. Remember that in a life of seasons everything will be experienced but no single condition is permanent: not even the negative ones.
- 5:6 we read that the Fear of the Lord is awe-struck wonder at the nature of reality. Jump into the world and embrace the God-colours and God-flavours. Ride the currents rather than struggling against them.
- 6:6, 9 it says that life is about manifesting joy, so if you’ve not done that it doesn’t really matter how long you live, your life is as wasted as that of a stillborn child. Again, live well through the simple pleasures of eating, drinking, working, and loving constructively and generously. Don’t sweat the small stuff or be in “FOMO”, the Fear of Missing Out.
- 7:17 we are reminded that even though we want a world where the good are blessed and the evil are damned, that’s not actually the world we live in and it never has been. The real world is an inevitable drive of emptying emptiness: don’t sulk about it, deal with it and move on.
- 9:1-12 we are taught that wisdom is not found in the ability to avoid suffering but in the ability to manage it well (9:2). Do not wallow in grief (9:3), but live within the tension of joy and suffering so that you can be generous and compassionate (9:4). Live by doing life well (9:4-5), live simply and sensibly (9:8) with a friend (9:9) by doing what needs to be done (9:10). Ecclesiastes 10:11 says that applied wisdom is all that matters; if you are wise but you don’t employ your wisdom you may as well be an idiot. Unused wisdom is useless wisdom.
And so we get, at last, to Ecclesiastes 11 and 12. Stop sulking young man, because one day you’ll be so old that your rapidly failing, decrepit body will really give you something to really be unhappy about. Isn’t that a brilliant message? Again, brilliant because it’s true, straight to the point and as blunt as blunt can be. But, say we, if you know that ageing is inevitable why worry about it? “Oh no, what if I get old?” asks the young woman or man. Well, what if you don’t? It means you will have died young, is that preferable? Live for today, says Qoheleth, do not be anxious about tomorrow because one day soon there won’t even be a tomorrow. (If you don’t like that message then try this one, do not be anxious about tomorrow because God has it in hand: consider the lilies.) So rest, indeed rest, rest in the assurance that God has everything else in hand and your job right now is to keep breathing and to use that breath for joy, love, and worship in the form of the testimony of your divinely-assisted victory over the tumult.
 Ecclesiastes Annotated & Explained translated and annotated by Rabbi Rami Shapiro (Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths, 2010).