September 3, 2023

What’s the Point of it All? (The Book of Ecclesiastes)

A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler

Ecclesiastes 12

As part of the congregation at the Parish Eucharist on this occasion, were the family and friends of Bolatito Quadri Makinde, gathering in the UK prior to her funeral in Nigeria later this month.


Our final selection of Bible passages chosen by members of the congregation for this summer’s sermon series is from what the biblical scholars call the Wisdom literature in the Bible. Last week we dipped our toes into the strangest book of the New Testament, the Revelation to St John. This week, we take a peek at, what to me, is the strangest book of the Old Testament, the book we know as Ecclesiastes.

Ecclesiastes is strange because of its general tone of pessimism. It’s as if one of those chain-smoking French philosophers of the mid-twentieth century, say Camus or Sartre, has been parachuted into the middle of the Bible. “Vanity…all is vanity.” “Meaningless…all is meaningless” are the bookend phrases that start and end this book.  Ecclesiastes, is a Greek form of the Hebrew word, Qoheleth, which means ‘teacher’ or ‘preacher’ and is the name by which the author of the book of Ecclesiastes is known. When the rabbis got together to decide which books to put into the Old Testament and which to throw out, it is reported that Qoheleth almost didn’t make it. You can’t help seeing why.

Let me summarise the Book of Ecclesiastes for you, not in my own words, but in the words of the late, great Frederick Buechner. “People are born and people die, Qoheleth says, and the sun goes up and the sun goes down, and first the wind blows from the north and then it blows from the south, and if you think you’re seeing something for the first time, just go and ask your grandmother, and if you think you’re seeing something for the last time, just hang around for a while, and the whole thing is as pointless and endless and dull as a drunk singing all six dozen verses of “Roaming in the Gloaming” and then starting in from the beginning again in case you missed anything. There is nothing new under the sun, Qoheleth says, with the result that everything that there is under the sun both is old and, as you might expect in all that heat, stinks.

“If you decide to knock yourself out getting rich and living it up, he points out, all you have to show for it in the end is the biggest income tax in town and a bad liver; and when you finally kick the bucket, the chances are that your dim-witted heirs will sink the whole thing in a phony Florida real-estate deal or lose it at the track in Saratoga. If you decide to break your back getting a decent education and end up a Columbia Ph.D. and an adviser to presidents, you’ll be just as dead when the time comes as the high-school dropout who went into stuffing sausages, and you’ll be forgotten just about as soon.

“If you decide to be Mr. Nice Guy or Miss Goody Two-Shoes and never do the dirty on a pal, that may win you a gold star somewhere, but it won’t keep you from getting it in the teeth like everybody else, because “there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous,” Qoheleth says, and we’re all in the hands of God, all right, but “whether it is love or hate, one does not know”.

“God has a plan for us, to be sure, but he leaves us in the dark as to what that plan is, and if God’s plan happens to conflict with some plans of our own, guess whose way wins out? That is what the famous “A time to weep and a time to laugh” passage is all about — that is, if you feel like laughing at a time that God has already pegged as a time for weeping, start reaching for the Kleenex. 

“The race is not to the swift,” he says, “nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favour to the skilful”, and that about sums it up. The dead are luckier than the living, he says, but luckiest of all are the ones who had the good sense never to get born in the first place.” End of quote.

The rabbis in their wisdom let Qoheleth into Bible anyway, placing him not far from the Psalms of David on one side and the prophecies of Isaiah on the other. You can’t help being grateful to them for letting it in under the wire. In the chorus of voices that speak in the Bible, it is good to have this one long-drawn sigh of disillusion, scepticism, and world-weariness, if only because we who read Qoheleth’s words sometimes feel that way ourselves, not to mention plenty of others who never would open its pages. This is a book for those who are depressed, those whose love of life has faltered, those – and the first part of chapter 12 which we heard earlier makes this point so clearly – those whose love of life is tempered by the experience of aging and the envy of youth. It’s tone of pessimism and doubt sit well with those who grieve as well, whether for Bolatito Quadri Makinde today, as well as others who grieve the loss of a loved one or the diminishment of their own faculties.  Qoheleth’s words of pessimism tell us that we are not alone, that whether we hope or not, our experience is a shared human experience, and even that sense of solidarity may offer us a different perspective when our depression or grief overwhelm us. Strangely to be told that there’s always someone worse off than you or me is a comfort, and antidote to our tendency to self-absorption.

So the rabbis let Qoheleth’s pessimism be part of the Scriptures, part of the testimony of the Bible to the reality of human experience. As a result the message of the Bible is richer, attuned to the fullness of human experience. We would be poorer without it.

But perhaps we also need to remember that it is but one small book among 66 books in the Bible, and maybe that ought to encourage us to get some perspective as a result, especially if we are drawn to the negative, or have a glass half empty worldview. Buechner again says this, “By placing him not far from the Psalms of David on one side and the prophecies of Isaiah on the other, maybe it was their hope that in that location a little of David and Isaiah might rub off on him, especially one of the insights they more or less shared, which was that often people are closest to God when they need him most and that sometimes they know him best by missing him.”

It’s a given of biblical interpretation that you allow scripture to speak to itself across books. So, from the end of the Psalms a little before Ecclesiastes, “For the Lord takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with victory. Let the faithful exult in glory; let them sing for joy…” says Psalm 149. And from a few verses ahead, from Isaiah 9 to pick one of many similar passages, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.” This is not to tell the depressed to cheer up or pull themselves together, and neither is it to tell the bereaved, to quote the endlessly misinterpreted Henry Scott-Holland, that “Death is nothing at all.” Ecclesiastes will have none of the nonsense of fake optimism or false piety. No, it is to say that, alongside the reality of age, of loss, of meaninglessness and death, lies another narrative, without which the biblical worldview and human experience would not be faithful to the way the world truly is, the world of which God is and remains the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. To take the final words of Ecclesiastes at face value – “Fear God and keep his commandments” – is to remember that God’s perspective is far greater than our own, however apparently settled our negative view of the world might become, and however central we think humanity is in the universe. That perspective, from this side of Easter, means that death and resurrection are part of the nature of the world as God sees it, and that, with trust in God and a little bit more humility, we might come to see the world in such a way as well. Amen.

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