Sunday, July 31, 2011
Scripture Sunday: The Book of Ecclesiastes
Poor Solomon. King of Israel, son of another legendary king, gifted with supernatural wisdom, blessed with insane amounts of riches, and then he turns around and writes Ecclesiastes, an ode to ennui and sameness. All that Solomon had didn't satisfy him, and that seems to be related to the way he fell away from loving and serving God in his later years.
Solomon starts off his book by saying that everything in life is "vanity" or futility. Nothing is worthwhile. What good is it to work hard at your job when you're just going to die and be replaced by a generation of people doing the exact same thing you used to do? The earth is unchanged by humankind's constant efforts--the sun, wind, storms, and rivers keep on going without end. So far, this could be the subject of some 19th century French poetry (Charles Baudelaire had some choice things to say about the misery of boredom), but Solomon goes on: "the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing" (1:8).
This makes me think of how, even though we always try to please our senses, it can never be done properly. We even talk about this unfulfilled state when we compliment the things we enjoy--we'll mention an excellent meal or book or movie and say "it left me wanting more". All the enjoyable experiences we can possible give ourselves can only sate us temporarily, and even after the best dinner we'll want breakfast the day after, and after hearing the most beautiful song we'll soon be browsing iTunes for the next big find. And I don't think that this is a bad thing, this built-in design flaw we have of being unable to permanently satisfy ourselves. It demonstrates that we're creatures that can't be filled up with anything we find in our own world.
Solomon is so frustrated over the futility of life, he goes back and forth a few times with his positions. In 1:18 he says "For in much wisdom is much grief: he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow" and in 2:13 he says, "Then I saw that wisdom excelleth folly, as far as light excelleth darkness". Well, which is it? Is wisdom a burden or a blessing? Both, I suppose. Wisdom comes from God, but it's also very uncomfortable to have a lot of wisdom if you don't also have joy from the Lord, too. Solomon concludes in Chapter 2 that "There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labor." Enjoy whatever you obtain, and work hard at your assigned tasks. Sound good enough to me.
Chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes begins to list a famous litany of things that happen in their own particular time and season. Most people know this passage of Scripture through the lyrics of a 1960's song famously covered by The Byrds: "To everything (turn, turn, turn), there is a season (turn, turn, turn) and a time to every purpose under heaven." Except for the "turns", the song is a word for word transcription of some verses in Ecclesiastes. I find it interesting that just when Solomon seems to have established his main argument--"what's good for a person to do in life", he continues talking for 9 more chapters after that, most of them very gloomy.
Solomon's book may be a tremendous exercise in frustration for some readers, but at least it points out one thing--whatever it is that your heart needs, you're not likely to find it here on Earth.