Preaching ‘the whole counsel of God’ has its challenges. In various ways the ‘wisdom’ books of Job, Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes provide test cases. This summer at Kings we tackled Ecclesiastes over five Sundays.
The first challenge in Ecclesiastes is a translation issue: what are we to make of the frequent and repeated use of the key Hebrew word hebel (pronounced with a ‘v’ in Hebrew, so ‘hevel’ like ‘level’)? It’s there over 25 times in the text. The phrase ‘hebel of hebels’ (1.2; 12.8) tops and tails the whole book. This phrase works a bit like the biblical phrases ‘Song of Songs’ (greatest song) and ‘King of kings’ (King over all other kings) – it intensifies the basic idea.
English versions mostly translate hebel either ‘vanity’ or ‘meaningless’. Vanity, not in the modern sense of ‘concerned with how we look to others’ but in the older sense ‘pointless’ – without overall purpose. ‘Meaningless’ has overtones of lacking coherence, impossible to understand. But the Hebrew word hebel means ‘breath’, in the sense of ‘passing breath’ and this is how it is often used in other Bible texts. This is not an idea but an image – the everyday, every moment image of drawing breath. Breath is short, breath is repeated and, as we know from breathing out steam on a cold winter’s morning, it simply dissipates into the atmosphere. It is brief, repetitive and passing. Anyone can understand the point just by stopping and thinking about the simple action of breathing in and breathing out every minute, day in day out, all our lives. The main point is about time – life is short. We are living out the same experience of the world as previous generations. At the end we don’t have anything to show for it.
The Preacher (‘the Philosopher’/’the Convener of a discussion’ if you like) describes and analyses everyday life. He is rich, privileged, wise, observant and honest. He has already had and achieved many things that others spend their whole lives aspiring to and longing for – wealth, status, learning. The Preacher says: ‘been there, done that – it is mere breath’ – it doesn’t add up to a hill of beans. Even wisdom, thinking deeply about life, will not help him escape the reality that life is hebel.
Of course from a New Covenant perspective – in the light of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth – we can see that Ecclesiastes has a (self-declaredly) limited perspective. His spatial boundary is ‘life under the sun’. He knows heaven exists and that God is there, that there is another important dimension to reality. But this merely reinforces the contrasting conviction that life under the sun is ‘mere breath’. His time boundary is cradle to grave; he has no thought of everlasting life, resurrection or eternal hope. He knows that ‘God has put eternity in our hearts’ (3.11) – that we long for more, but the point is not developed. It will not come to full focus until Jesus appears. A whole-Scripture perspective offers us, or rather demands of us, a wider and deep perspective that the Preacher only hints at.
Ecclesiastes is there to rob us of our illusions about life. We may be particularly prone to these in the modern world, as if knowledge of the cosmos and technological advances make us immune from the passing existence of all generations before us. So, we say, the Preacher inherited a world that continued unchanged for further centuries until the ‘modern era’. Until then, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, life was ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.’ Now we can converse face to face with someone on the far side of the world if we have access to their personal twelve digit phone number. We have been into space, walked on the moon, seen the depths of the cosmos, split the atom, improved health care, eliminated smallpox. Add here your own triumph of modern technology.
The poor starve; silent children never see the light of day; pandemics are not remotely under control; antibiotic resistance may soon be upon us; we use technology to slaughter one another in industrial quantities. We buy into the ‘myth of progress’ and aim vaguely ‘to leave the world a better place’.
Ecclesiastes says simply: ‘we’re kidding ourselves’. Human life is short as a breath, the same as it is for every generation and we have nothing to show for it that time will not erode. We enter the world in an old-fashioned way and we leave it in an old-fashioned way. Still. This is not new under the sun. Ecclesiastes invites us to stop, rest a while, and look around us before pressing on to Scripture’s greener pastures and more hopeful answers.
This does not make Ecclesiastes a negative, depressing, or restrictive book. Sure, our lives, our reputations, our achievements and our legacies pass away. But the Preacher sees many good things under the sun. Given that it is as short as a breath, life offers a canvas on which to sketch lives that value and celebrate what we have, see the real value of life, love, family, friends, and blessing others. Above all things, life from cradle to grave is an opportunity to please and honour our creator. We had a wide variety of responses to studying Ecclesiastes. These ranged from a melancholic ‘this is my favourite book in the Bible’ (which made me want to think twice before spending too much time with this person) to the downright angry ‘what Ecclesiastes says is just not true’. It would not be fair to call Ecclesiastes the whole truth. Or even half the truth. But it rubs our noses in the honest reality of human existence: then and now, our lives, our efforts and our achievements are mere breath. Except for one remarkable, unique and divine thing: Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. Ecclesiastes invites us to immerse ourselves in the limitations of the human condition. So that we can better hope in Jesus.