The Bible in a Year – 24 August

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

The last third of the book continues in much the same vein as the rest. It is chapter 9 of Ecclesiastes, paraphrased, that gives us the English idiom “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die”, in other words there is no point denying ourselves life’s pleasures, since whether we enjoy them or not, we will all suffer the same fate of death, with our bodies returning to the earth  (12:7) and no sensations or thoughts beyond that (9:10). Yet we should not neglect to work as well as rest and play (11:6), and throughout the book there are reminders that there is still a judgement (9:1, 11:9, 12:14).

What have I learnt from reading this most unusual book of the Bible – unusual in that it appears at first sight to negate all the other ones that instruct us to live in simplicity, chastity and humility, and work hard? Maybe what matters is not that we live like that, but that doing so makes us more aware of mortality. Denying oneself the “good things” in life may make it easier to be aware of our inner being and contemplate death, but if we can manage to enjoy life’s pleasures and find satisfaction in hard work while still being aware of the death that awaits our bodies and the judgement that awaits the soul, so much the better.  Therein is wisdom, for Solomon obviously managed it.


So did Jesus, who seems to have had a whale of a time for the three years of his ministry in Galilee and Judea, knowing all along that a cruel death awaited him.  Beyond that, he knew, he alone would not be judged, for he himself is the judge.  But Jesus has experienced earthly life in all its pleasure and pain in order that he might judge us for our lives – not by how much we have suffered, but rather how much we have enjoyed it, while loving God and our neighbour as well.


The motto of the Anglican Diocese of Leeds for which I work is “Loving, Living, Learning”.  I thinks Solomon would have adopted that – he knew how to love, he enjoyed life (despite its “vanity”) and he had learnt true wisdom.


The Bible in a Year – 23 August

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

23 August. Ecclesiastes chapters 5-8

Chapter 5 starts with a warning that we should be careful in the words we use in prayer, for it is quite possible to speak foolishly to God or to make a promise (vow) to him that we cannot keep. After that the text returns to the theme of the opening chapters – that both the life of the rich and that of the poor is in vain.


Chapter 7 is a series of short proverbs of practical wisdom. Its conclusion is “I said, ‘I will be wise’, but it was far from me. That which is, is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out?” (7:23) In other words, as Pontius Pilate famously asked, “what is truth?” – even the wisest person by human standards cannot comprehend ultimate reality.


It is not until near the end of chapter 8 that we begin to see an answer to the “problem of vanity” that has occupied the writer since the start of the work – why is it that even being healthy, wealthy, wise and happy is pointless since we all die?  There can only an answer to that if death is not, in fact, the end of life.  What does make sense is an understanding that the righteous life and wise behaviour will be rewarded by God in the life to come: “Though sinners do evil a hundred times and prolong their lives, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they stand in fear before him, but it will not be well with the wicked, neither will they prolong their days like a shadow, because they do not stand in fear before God.” (4:12-13)

The Bible in a Year – 22 August

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

22 August. Ecclesiastes chapters 1-4

If the book of Lamentations (the readings for the last two days) was the story of unalleviated suffering in Jerusalem at a time of disaster, Ecclesiastes is a story – or rather a reflection – on unalleviated boredom in Jerusalem in a time of peace. Traditionally identified with Solomon (like much of the other wisdom literature), it was clearly written later by someone else who either had received Solomon’s words passed down orally, or wrote what he thought Solomon might have taught.

The text is written so negatively – everything is vain, nothing brings satisfaction, everyone’s achievements will be forgotten – that it is hard to find anything positive in it.  Even when the writer sets up what seems like a way of achieving satisfaction (becoming wise in human terms in chapter 1, riches and pleasure in chapter 2, living the simple life of working and eating as any ‘ordinary’ person would in chapter 3), he then goes on to regret it as ‘vanity’.  For whatever you or I achieve in this life will be forgotten by future generations as we forget nearly all of those who went before us, and humans, like animals, will all die and be recycled by nature as the wind and water go round in their natural cycles.

Vanity, of course, is not the same as sin or error. The ‘preacher’ Ecclesiastes does not suggest that it is wrong to work hard, or to enjoy the innocent pleasures of life such as food and drink, indeed it is God’s will that we should do so (3:13). Nor is it wrong to possess wealth, or to have friends. Indeed friendship is one of the few things that are noted as being of lasting value in these chapters (4:9-10).  The most positive statement is reserved for those who “please God” (by keeping his commandments and loving their neighbours) and thereby receive “wisdom, knowledge and joy” (2:26) – yet even those God-given gifts are ultimately futile for they are earthly virtues that only last as long as we live.

What, then, can we do?  The answer must be to regard this life as but a preparation for the next, and live according to your station in life.  If you have riches, spend them wisely; if you are poor, be content with what you have; if you are intelligent, use it to enhance your appreciation of the world; if you have friends, enjoy their company.

All this sounds to us very pre-modern. Advice that might be useful to barons and serfs, monks and troubadors in a feudal society, but is it really applicable to the 21st century world of commerce, Wikipedia and social media?  It is, because these things are but new versions of the old.  What Ecclesiastes wrote is still true: that what happens now happened before, and will happen again.   So enjoy life as much as you can, please God by the way you do it, but don’t think too deeply about the future, for that is in God’s hands.