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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.