Reflections on Ecclesiastes from a previous study

While most people do not particularly enjoy the book of Ecclesiastes, it has a particular appeal to graduate students. There’s something about all the assignments that need doing, the high stress, and the uncertainty of the job market that allow the words of Ecclesiastes to be words of truth and hope.

So it should not come as any surprise that this is not the first time Campus Edge has done a study on Ecclesiastes. The following is a reflection on that study:

The students of CEF have been toiling their way through this especially difficult message: according to the author of Ecclesiastes, there is no point to any endeavor in this world; whatever he tries, “this too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” That’s not quite the message of hope we at CEF wish to convey, unfortunately. We generally aspire to be more uplifting than that. Reading further through the text doesn’t seem to offer any relief, either. The theme persists. Despite our persistent need for and belief in hope, however, and in God’s unfailing grace and love, the Bible sometimes offers a message that is far grimmer. One of the things that we strive to do in CEF is address the Bible realistically. Meaning, the bad with the good. Or rather, the sad with the good. This leads us to read texts such as Ecclesiastes, in which we are confronted with the author’s ceaselessly mournful anthem that life lived on Earth is meaningless, meaningless, utterly meaningless.

Often, when faced with the more challenging aspects of our Christian faith, it becomes our natural instinct to seek out the redemptive qualities and focus more on those things in which we can find grace easily than those in which not only is it difficult to find grace, but perhaps simply beyond reason to even try. When faced with a ‘graceless’ message for weeks on end, though, this is not an option. For two hours, every Thursday, we force ourselves to grapple with words we don’t like, but which are God’s words, nonetheless. God’s Word. God’s truths are indomitable. We cannot force meanings that do not exist; we cannot pretend comfort where, genuinely, there is discontent. Time to face Ecclesiastes head on.

“Then I thought in my heart, ‘The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise?’ (2:19) …All [man’s] days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. (2:23) …Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun (4:1) …If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things. (5:8)”.

Sitting in a circle in a comfortable living room, with apple cider and Hershey’s kisses, the anger and bitterness that show through the author’s voice serve to disillusion us of our cozy creature comforts. Caramel kisses and all, this world can be a crappy place. We struggled with these words. Our conversation may have sounded like this:

“I don’t get it.”
“But he’s probably going to say that life is meaningless unless you have God.”
“Not really.”
“I don’t get it.”

Through all the chapters, the message of hopelessness is scantly redeemed; dismayingly so. Now, here comes the part where I ought to explain that the whole thing is really about God’s love and grace, etc., etc.; but really, I’m not sure it is. As we discussed, we began to be somewhat burdened with the author’s unflagging resentment about the state of the world. Strangely, God plays a small role in this book of the Bible. Over and over, the writer brings into focus the lives of humans, and the terrible things they do to one another. Coupled with inevitable death and the dogged presence of evil in the world, like the author, we too began to feel bleak. As we read, over and over, it began to dawn on us that Ecclesiastes is not about God and his message of hope so much as it is about people, and their legacy of fallibility. Not one of us can deny that we have felt the weight of the insurmountable quandary that is living with an expectation of grace in a world that so frequently seems bereft of it. Solomon, or whoever writes these pained words: that’s me. I feel that. I ache as he does. I lament, with varying levels of silence, the state of affairs when I look at the world’s stage. If I’m honest, if I’m seeing it right, his cry is my cry. Yes, God offers grace and love. In a world where we just don’t see it enough, however, the relief of raising a fist and clamoring out our indignation at injustice is vast. Sometimes, when you want to be angry with God—and there will be times when you will— Ecclesiastes gets it.

Melody, Campus Edge November 2011 newsletter.

 


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