As we start a new study series in small group, I am resuming (hopefully) the habit of posting online more often. We’ll see how that goes.
Today, we started a study of Ecclesiastes. It is an interesting book written in a much different manner than the rest of the Old Testament that surrounds it. Attributed to Kohelet—which is alternately translated as preacher, teacher or the assembler— the book is commonly credited to Solomon.
I named this post after one of the closing comments in the lesson. We are not naturally inclined to optimism. Our hope comes from our faith but until we have that, and often after we have it, we are gloomy people. We are all Eeyore.
Here’s the lesson for this week (commentary included, indented, where I can). Bold parts were discussion questions to the group. Please comment and join the discussion. I did a short lesson on Ecclesiastes before in our music series where I used a popular song by Coldplay as a comparison. Read it here.
“Vanity of vanities.” These are the first words of the poem that begins the book of Ecclesiastes. Some translations render it “futility” or “meaningless.” In scripture, we are familiar with double terms like “King of Kings” or “Lord of Lords.” These phrases mean the highest form of the term—King above all Kings, for example. So, “vanity of vanities” implies that this particular vanity is the highest form of vanity. Koheleth (Kohelet) is the Hebrew name of the book.
The Hebrew word used here, translated vanity, is Hevel. In the orthodox Jewish translation, the opening line is “Hevel havalim, saith Kohelet, hevel havalim; all is hevel.” Read that and insert vanity, futility in place. Hevel can be translated as vanity, futility, meaningless but literally means vapor or breathe. It is used more than 40 times in Ecclesiastes. In other books of the Bible, the word has been taken to indicate anything that is unworthy of pursuit including idols and false gods. So, what does that mean? Why is it important?
The class believed the book started this way to set a tone. As we work our way through the study, we’ll see a lot about that tone, the mood of the book, and the conclusions implied in the wisdom.
Life is a vapor, a breath. In some interpretations, life is a collection of breaths. The attribution designates it as the work of Kohelet, which means the preacher or the assembler. What does your translation say? Traditionally, the book is attributed to Solomon, writing late in his life. This is a matter of debate among scholars but Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) is unlike any other book of the Bible. Ecclesiastes is often viewed as a pessimistic book, but it is not really. It is a human book. The writer, sometimes writing in first person and other times in third person, describes life “under the sun.” What do you think this means?
Under the sun implies from a human perspective. Life here on Earth appears meaningless if you are looking at it without God’s cosmic perspective.
Atheists often quote from Ecclesiastes to illustrate that there is no great spiritual purpose in life. They misunderstand it or deliberately twist the meaning of it. The opening quote for the lesson (above), from Voltaire (a deist, like many of our founding fathers, not an atheist), sums up the book well. He is also known for saying “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.” The writer of Ecclesiastes finds futility in human life but the message here is without God, there is no point to our existence. Atheists will tell you that we are a big cosmic accident, the accidental creation of a series of random events. It would be easy to be a pessimist if you believed that philosophy, wouldn’t it?
Some will argue that Ecclesiastes is about idols. In scripture, we have seen many examples of idols and monuments to false gods. Here, the idol is ourselves. In the next few weeks, we will see how we create idols out of our wealth, our jobs, our titles, our social status and even our relationships. All of these things will pass away. That is not depressing, unless you think this life is all there is. We are seeing a lot of debate in the news over idols and monuments. “There is no remembrance of former things,” as we have just read. Do you think any of the people protesting monuments, or defending them, have any idea who these people were or what they stood for in life?
We often comment on current events in class. Regardless of whether you are for or against the destruction of monuments—confederate or other—scripture tells us that we will not be remembered by future generations. The Teacher in this book is lamenting that he has gained power and wealth and built many great things, but it will all belong to someone else one day and his work will not be remembered.
Solomon built a very large government. Most of you know I am not a fan of big government. He built a large bureaucracy that he could not support through taxes. Even though he was wealthy and prosperous, he borrowed money from others to support government. Solomon was the last king of the one nation. After his death, the promised land was divided into two kingdoms, Israel and Judah, because 10 of the tribes rejected his heir. If, as this book says, there is nothing new “under the sun.” How might this be a lesson for us today?
We live in a divided world of identity politics. Far beyond left or right and far beyond party affiliation, our nation and our society has become very selfish with very little regard for the opinions or well-being of our neighbors. This is a generalization, of course, but just as the Promised Land was divided into two kingdoms, our nation and our world is being torn apart into an almost tribal manner.
Ecclesiastes is not directly quoted in the New Testament, but it is implied many times. We just finished a study of Romans. Here’s a reference for you: “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” Romans 8:20-21. We are not naturally inclined to optimism. Life is hard! But the source of our hope is our faith. Let’s see how this study points us back to that.
We ended here with a discussion on optimism. People do tend to be gloomy. It’s human nature. I made a comment that we are all Eeyore—the gloomy, pessimistic character in the Pooh stories. It reminds me of Proverbs 11:27 which teaches that people who seek good find good. It also says evil will find you if you are seeking evil. You get what you believe in.