How Shall We Then Live?
Qohelet had grown old with time when he delivered his Ecclesiastes and it has since become part of the wisdom literature of the Bible. And it is because of his many years of experience that he adopted the doctrine that all is meaningless, utterly meaningless.
If you were to read Ecclesiastes for the first time, you would probably consider it a rather anomalous account of a man's thoughts to be found in the Bible. We are disturbed by its lack of literary unity as well as Qohelet's strange sayings. It does not contain the kind of upbeat, positive message that we want to hear. He dares to suggest that we should cry at birth and rejoice in death. After all, the things of this world are full of weariness and vexation of heart.
Ecclesiastes reads as a kind of penitential sermon in which the preacher sadly laments his own foolishness in promising himself satisfaction in the things of this world which he found to be more bitter than death. He questions the purpose of human existence and asks, What gives lasting meaning to life? If everyone only dies in the end, what is the meaningful difference between the righteousness and unrighteousness, between right and wrong? The seriousness in which Qohelet probes this basic human issue makes it one of the most compelling pieces of Biblical literature.
Qohelet had taken in too many of the hard, relentless facts of human existence and he had too little faith with which to digest them. He tests pleasure and the amassing of wealth. He reappraises wisdom. He discovers that wisdom increases pain, pleasure is ephemeral and passing, and that hard earned wealth inevitably is left to someone else, who has not labored for it.
The preacher then turns from the personal to the collective experience. He looks for justice among men and finds none. The powerful and the officials oppress the weak and the poor. He sees the just suffer and the unjust prosper. The end of man is death. It seems that the wise, the foolish, and even the animals all meet a common end. Permeating the entire book of Ecclesiastes is a sober realism of life "under the sun." It is not a pretty picture.
And so we may as well realize that as Christians, we are both secular and sacred and they are constantly fighting against one another. It is not so much a conflict between men as it is a conflict within all men. We need to be careful not to boast too fanatically about being religious because we are also irreligious. We do not need to become big-headed about our piety, because in the midst of our so-called saintliness, we are also impious and ungodly. We like to think we are "in the world but not of it." That is fine. But the fact remains that we are in it. As a consequence of being in it we absorb a little from it. Therefore, it is worth acknowledging that, like Qohelet, we too are partially secular and partially sacred and there is no peaceful co- existence.
If there is any book in the Bible that stands close to 21st century man, it is Ecclesiastes. It is a book for all times because it depicts man's honest search for meaning and purpose in life. Ecclesiastes, both pragmatically as well as analytically, approaches the real issues of life; its doubts and its questions and its absurdities. It expresses skepticism, pessimism, and determination as well as a profound faith. It is one of the relatively rare books in which stubborn human honesty, often quenched by respectable pretensions, speaks its mind. It says in so many words what all of us at some stage or crisis in our lives have clandestinely debated. What is the meaning of it all? Ecclesiastes meets us in our honest confusion between faith and doubt. Our doubts haunts us as much as our faith inspires us.
I see this ancient realist not as the "melancholy man" but as a man of the world. Qohelet is a man who has studied the human condition. A man who has observed what happens to human beings while they are alive and witnessed the common fate that comes to all: "all go unto one place; all are of the dust and all turn to dust again." His conclusion therefore is not a prescription for despair. Rather, it is a strong encouragement for our asking ourselves that all important, but often suppressed question: How shall we then live?
Rev. Saundra L. Washington, D.D., is an ordained clergywoman, veteran social worker, and Founder of AMEN Ministries. She is also the author of two coffee table books: Room Beneath the Snow: Poems that Preach and Negative Disturbances: Homilies that Teach which can be reviewed on her site. Her new book, Out of Deep Waters: My Grief Management Workbook, is expected to be available soon.
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