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In the past, I’ve tried to read Ecclesiastes, but I’ve not gotten beyond a few select portions of the text. And I have the Mamas and the Papas (hear: “Turn, Turn, Turn”) to thank for even that much. I just couldn’t get past the second verse of the opening chapter—“Vanity of vanities, says Qoholeth, vanity of vanities. All is vanity!”—without viscerally retracting. How could Qoholeth begin and end like this?! Where were hope, meaning, and the promises of God?! Mostly absent.
In recent weeks though, I’ve found my heart put at ease by Qoholeth. Instead of retracting (for the most part), I’ve sighed with relief while reading portions of his soliloquy as well as those who have immersed themselves in it (actually in reverse order). In fact, I’ve found his messages grace-filled.
Transient, transient! All is transient! The impermanence of human work and accomplishment is a persistent thread throughout Ecclesiastes. It’s not that our work doesn’t matter—it may matter profoundly—but it may not last. And even if our work lasts beyond us and gives us perhaps some sense of “legacy,” it’s not ultimately ours. It doesn’t stand on its own. It may not even stand at all anymore but instead may crumble before our very eyes. For those who have experienced anything like this, or worse, the simple acknowledgement of this reality is a relief.
Enjoy life, fear God. If our accomplishments may not last, because indeed we do not even last but rather return to dust, then enjoy the life and the work you’ve been given to do. See the beauty in the moment. Live in the present. While some may interpret this as a despairing “eat, drink, and be merry,” others (myself included) hear liberation in this theme. Life is a gift; stop brooding over it. Learn contentment. For those of us steeped in the Protestant work ethic, laughter, play, and rest are qualities of the kingdom. Also fear God, which for Qoholeth means recognize and live in light of the qualitative distinction between God and humanity. God’s ways are inscrutable; we cannot penetrate them (8:16-17).
Wisdom has its limits. Qoholeth is a bit of a skeptic (and that’s a bit of an understatement) when it comes to human wisdom. Our perceptions of the world are limited and shortsighted . . . always. We do not know the future (10:14). We do not perceive the whole of God’s work. We do not understand divine action. The providence of God may scarcely be discernible in our own lives. Not only can we not answer that pernicious question, “Why?” but also we ought not waste our life energy doing so. Futile, futile, that is futile. For those who cannot make sense of their circumstances—a child born with a genetic defect, a disaster that destroys one’s home and livelihood, or some other sort of upheaval—letting go (perhaps again and again and again) of the desperate attempt to understand is a kind of freedom.
So here’s to Qoholeth: Chalk it up to life circumstances and perhaps age (though, thanks to Robert Wuthnow, I’m still considered a young adult), but you finally make sense to me. You’re not quite my biblical BFF (I still prefer John), but you’ve fed me, as wisdom does, with crisp water in a dry land. And for that, Qoheleth, I’m grateful.
Since you are so young, you may not recall that Turn, Turn, Turn was a big hit for the Byrds. If the Mamas and Papas did it, I never heard it. I'm sure all the other references are exactly correct!
Diana, thanks for informing me about the Byrds–yes, they are before my time! I was quite certain (for a brief period of time) that the Mamas and Papas sang a version of this, because the internet says so in a couple of places. Anyway, in trying to discover my error, I found out that Wilson Phillips also sang a version of this, and they are much closer to my time. 😉
Wilson Phillips’ Chynna Phillips is the daughter of John and Michelle Phillips, who were in. . . the Mamas & the Papas. Synchronicity!
Enjoyed your article, and am preaching on Solomon Sunday so wisdom has been on my mind.
Diana is correct and to add to the fun, Jim McGuinn of the Byrds is Brad's dad's cousin. Small world eh? Moi Moi
The song was written by Pete Seeger.