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WISDOM BOOKS: Ecclesiastes

There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find
enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God;
for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?
Ecclesiastes 2: 24-25

Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. At first glance this Epicurean motto seems to be the central message of Ecclesiastes. Certainly, Qoheleth, the writer of the text, finds little certainty in life and recommends enjoyment of present pleasures. However, the book is much more complex than that.

Anyone who thinks that religion is the numbing opiate of the masses has not really read Ecclesiastes. Here God is seen as having a plan, but it is not a plan that anyone can predict or understand. “He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into people’s minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Eccl. 3: 11). The eternal yearning for God in our souls is matched by our inability to comprehend God. This is not a book that guarantees answers: all is emptiness and a chase after wind.

But sometimes that chase after wind and emptiness of structured meaning is at the heart of faith. Qoheleth is struggling with concepts that many people have encountered on their faith journey. In the beginning of the book he speaks as a king who has enjoyed it all and has gathered up wisdom (Qoheleth means “gatherer”), but who still cannot make sense of life. Due to the kingly references, the book is traditionally attributed to King Solomon, as most of the wisdom books are, but the language of the book places its composition at a later date, probably no earlier than 450 B.C.

The world of the text is filled with contradictions. But if the book is a soul-searching struggle with the incomprehensibility of the universe, such conflicts and contradictions are to be expected. Very few of us can say that our own such struggles have been clear and orderly.

Ironically, the most famous section of Ecclesiastes, the quote made more famous by the Byrds’ song “Turn! Turn! Turn!” is the most calming passage in the whole book, giving everything its proper time and place: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted” (Eccl. 3:1-2). This is, of course, true. We just do not always know what and when those times will come.

Therefore, as Qoheleth points out, we must enjoy the time we have. It is a gift from God, and it is what makes life meaningful and joyful despite the anxiety and confusion that surround us.

 
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