Some books of the Bible are far more prominent in our Sunday readings than others are. Today we have a dramatic case in point. For today is the only Sunday in our entire three-year lectionary that we hear from the book known as Ecclesiastes.
This book, an example of Old Testament wisdom literature, is brief, containing only a dozen chapters. Yet its brevity is not the major reason it appears only on this one Sunday. The major reason is that Ecclesiastes stands in sharp contrast to so much of the Bible, both Old Testament and New Testament. People who read this book often wonder why it is in the Bible at all.
Ecclesiastes does not present a God who acts in history, nor does it demonstrate a fervent faith. Instead, this biblical book “adopts an emotionally neutral position of cool ironic detachment.” The author concludes from observation “that God chooses to operate with no coherent moral plan–at least not one that human beings can perceive.”
The book is both speculative and practical. Its readers are cautioned “not to be taken in by the world’s sham innovations. True wisdom lies in observing everything, knowing how little has genuine value, and refusing to become committed to the hopeless pursuits to which most people blindly devote their lives.” [Stephen L. Harris, Understanding the Bible, 6th ed. (McGraw Hill, 2003), p. 283.]
One writer on Ecclesiastes, Frank S. Frick, has noted that three themes run throughout the book.[Frank S. Frick, A Journey through the Hebrew Bible. 2nd ed. (Thomson Wadsworth, 2003), p. 516.]
The first is that wisdom has its limits. Common sense takes us only a short distance. Our attempts to strive for success encounter frustration time and again. “Vanity” is how Ecclesiastes repeatedly dismisses so much of human experience and aspiration.
The second theme results from the first. Because wisdom is neither certain nor accessible, one should accept and enjoy the ordinary, simple pleasures of life. In this sense the author of Ecclesiastes would urge us; “Don’t worry! Be happy!”
The book’s third theme is that death is a certain reality and a great leveler. Death cancels all human achievements. It erases distinctions between rich and poor, wise and foolish. Death casts a long shadow back across life.
Therefore we can understand why another writer, Morris Jastrow, gave his study of this book and its author the title A Gentle Cynic. What runs throughout this unforgettable, poetic book is indeed a mild, gentle cynicism.
Yet the questions still remain. Why is Ecclesiastes in the Bible? What does it have to say to us as Christians? What is its significance in this century?
Ecclesiastes demonstrates the bankruptcy of life without a firm faith in God. The book appears to acknowledge God’s existence, it affirms formal religious practice, but there is precious little if anything in its chapters that recommends faith and trust as the way to a fulfilled human existence. In this sense, and in its reflections on the finality of death, the book seems almost to beg for the arrival of a Redeemer who breaks the grip of death, the one we know as God’s messiah, Jesus our Lord.
But beyond this, vital though it is, I would claim a still further significance for this puzzling book called Ecclesiastes. J. F. Priest, another commentator on the text, reminds us that religious people all too often overlook the painful discrepancies between their faith and the brutal facts of life. Faith must somehow deal with these facts. Thus Ecclesiastes raises the right questions, and does so with great courage, even if it does not discover the right answers, or perhaps any answers at all. The book is precious if for no other reason that for daring to ask the questions that must be raised if religious faith itself is to be anything other than yet one more vanity in a world where vanities are everywhere. [ J. F. Priest, “Ecclesiastes,” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Supplementary Vol. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1976), p. 251.]
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Strong, hot, black coffee and plenty of it helps to sober up a drunk, or so it is said. I’d suggest that Ecclesiastes is the strong, hot, black coffee of the Bible that can sober us up when our religion ignores the countless forms of human folly, when our religion downgrades creation and ordinary pleasure, when our religion refuses to speak in the face of death. I’d suggest that this strong, hot, black coffee of the Bible can sober us up whenever we are so stumbling drunk that we are likely to dishonor God or damage property or people, ourselves included.
The author of Ecclesiastes, the gentle cynic of the Bible, does not give us the last word on anything, he does not offer profound disclosures like those found in Genesis, Isaiah, or John. His task is more humble than that. He sobers us up, so we don’t drink drunk straight into a car crash.
I would encourage each of us to read the book of Ecclesiastes. Read it out loud if you can; the language is beautiful. And recognize that this little book, too often ignored, is the strong, hot, black coffee of the Bible, potent enough, we can pray, to sober us up when we’re stumbling drunk and dangerous.
What makes us dangerous?
When we refuse to recognize that our wisdom–religious, political, or scientific–is far, far exceeded by our ignorance. It is then we are dangerous drunks.
When we advocate lifestyle decisions that do not contribute to holiness, sanity, or health, but are based in fantasy and self-righteousness. It is then we are dangerous drunks.
When we cultivate religion that is safe, legalistic, or sensational, yet unable to confront the common human destiny of death. It is then we are dangerous drunks.
Ecclesiastes and the questions it asks can help us to sober up. It does not tell us where we must go once we can see straight, but it helps us see straight. For that God be thanked! Once we sober up in this way, we can live a life that acknowledges and then exceeds vanity, ignorance, and death because we recognize and welcome the Gospel.
Thanks to the strong, hot, black coffee which is Ecclesiastes, we may even catch a glimpse of the irony of God deep at the heart of human cynicism.
— Copyright 2006, Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.