Ecclesiastes. It’s so little understood. My youth pastor once encouraged a group of us to do a study on it and then apologized a few weeks in because it was just…. Well, what would you expect from a simplistic Bible study curriculum designed for teens? So much angst…
But it’s not the dark, useless hole in the middle of the Bible people tend to think it is. It’s beautiful really. It’s not really about what is meaningless, though it sure seems like it most of the time. It’s trying to show what really is meaningful by contrast. It’s the result of someone’s meditating long and hard about life, about love, about God.
This season of Lent as we await in the symbolic, spiritual darkness of the season leading up to Good Friday and then Easter, I plan to meditate on Ecclesiastes, two chapters at a time. Lent is the season for emptying oneself of distractions from what’s truly important and focus on God and allowing God to transform us to be more like Jesus. Ecclesiastes is the perfect picture of what that process is like.
First I will paraphrase the section I’ve read, and then I will write some reflections and a prayer. I invite you to join me each week. If you’d like to read the text for yourself before moving on to my paraphrase/summary, check out Ecclesiastes 1 and 2 here.
Like vapor in the noonday sun, all the extravagances and the ambitions we search for are worthless and unattainable. How do we think the work of a day or a month or a year means anything when whole generations rise and fall with nothing left to show for them? The world forgets about us. The earth doesn’t even notice us. Nature continues as if we didn’t exist. We work and strive and try and all our effort equals exactly nothing in the grand scheme of things. No experiences satisfy us. We need another and another and another without end. We make things that seem fresh and new, but nothing is really new. Everything is just a version of something that existed long before we even were a thought in our parents’ minds.
These teachings are wisdom, true Wisdom, the wisdom found by deeply knowing God and seeing ourselves through God’s eyes. In contrast with God, everything else we do is worse than meaningless. It is like the steam rising from a pot disappearing just as it is noticed. Trying to grab onto it is a fool’s errand.
You can’t fix something that was flawed from the beginning. You can’t keep track of something that never existed.
Seeking pleasure lasts only so long. Hoarding things is worse. Even expensive luxuries only clutter up a soul; they never really change anything. A purchase is made, a trophy is won, and then desire rises and unhappiness comes back to bed.
Even knowledge can’t fulfill. Making even good decisions only goes so far. Being savvy and doing all the right things gets things done, but for what? None of it lasts.
Working hard is even worse. It seems like your work changes things. Plowing a field makes food grow. Designing and creating produces things. But who gets to use those things and eat that food? What does it matter? In 100 years, it won’t be any of us. We might as well just enjoy ourselves, get drunk and live while we still can.
It seems like nothing we do really makes a difference. Some people get good things in life while others get the shaft. Sometimes we can influence how it goes, and other times everything is completely random. None of it really matters.
The writer of Ecclesiastes starts with exploring all the ways he can think of that people try to make their lives meaningful through their own effort, not knowing meaning is found, not made. Money and possessions, pleasure and work, even the supposedly wise advice of the people we respect eventually proves to be useless in the quest for ultimate significance. We might as well just enjoy ourselves and live in the moment entirely. What does it matter anyway? At least, that’s as far as we’ve gotten by the end of the second chapter.
Where have you found yourself trying to satisfy your basic desires, your most fundamental needs by just trying that much harder to have the right stuff, the right job, the right house? Letting it all go is the only way to move forward.
Lord, Jesus, you emptied yourself of all your power, all your rights, all your self. You gave it all up for what is really the meaningful. You gave it up. You gave yourself. You rejected money and possessions. You rejected the scales people used to claim meaning, even religious prestige.
This Lent, help us, help me to let go of all of it. Help me to disentangle myself from everything I use to make myself more important. May there be nothing left, but only you.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen.