*Yes, as I write this the old song "Turn, Turn, Turn" by the Byrds (I think) is playing in my head. Sing along: "For everything, Turn, Turn, Turn...There is a season, Turn, Turn, Turn..." Hmm. I can't even sing good in writing. Oh well, it did make for a good song. (At least I think so). Yes, that old song got its inspiration from the Book of Ecclesiastes. (3:1-8) Today, we will look into this book nestled between Proverbs and Song of Songs. (Wait until we get to that book. Folks will think we are reading a Harlequin Romance Novel. Can you say "Steamy?")
"The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: "Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!" (Ecclesiastes 1:1-2)
Umm...O.K., Teacher tell us how you really feel. This reminds me of a time when I was in college. (Everything seems to remind me of something, therefore a story) I was in an education class (preparing to be a teacher). A teacher from one of the local schools was hired to be our instructor. She started out by basically saying, "Trust me, you don't want to be a teacher." I kid you not. It was the most depressing class ever. This lady clearly did not like her job. Now, what a way to begin a book of the Bible! The KJV and the NRSV both use the word "vanity" instead of "meaningless." The Hebrew word for vanity, emptiness, or meaningless is hebel.
The literal meaning of hebel is "vapor" or "breath." This word appears thirty-eight times in Ecclesiastes.
O.K., let's back up a bit. Who is the speaker? Well, the KJV reads: "The words of the Preacher," while the NRSV and the NIV both translate the word Teacher. The Hebrew word in question is Qohelet. (spell check loves these Hebrew and Greek words) Of course this book has been attributed to Solomon, who was the son of David. However, there is no solid proof of Solomon's authorship.
What is this book about? Why does the author begin as he does? I would suggest that, like Job, this is a challenge to traditional theology. The book actually, at times, even questions the purpose of human existence. It asks the questions: "What is it that gives life meaning?" and "If everyone only dies in the end, what is the meaningful difference between righteousness and wickedness?" So, in essence the writer is attempting to "figure it all out." Oh, by the way! The phrase "under the sun" appears twenty-nine times in this book.
Imagine me giving you a handout (like in school) with two columns on it. On one side (let's say the left, because that's how it is before me) is the heading: "What is Good?" On the right side is the heading that reads: "Who Knows?" So, the Teacher is trying to figure out what is good, or meaningful, in life. Imagine the Teacher at a white board (remember chalkboards? My grandfather used to have me sneak chalk home from school so he could use it for his turkey calls), anyhow...sorry...I had a moment there...the teacher is at the board looking at these two headings trying to answer these questions. So, what is good? Is work good? He asks: "What does man gain from all his labor at which he tolls under the sun?" (Ecc. 1:3) He asks this question multiple times. Tennessee Ernie Ford (I hope you remember him) would reply: "Sixteen tons and what do I get? Another day older and deeper in dept." But, what was the Teacher's conclusion on work? Example: "A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work." (2:24) He also says, "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again." (Ecc. 1:9) Isn't that the truth? It amazes me that I can clean the kitchen and then five minutes later turn around and it's messier than before I cleaned it. Years ago when I worked at the feed mill in Thornfield, Missouri I would often stay after work and bag feed for the next day. I would leave with two ton of this feed and two ton of that kind and feel confident that I would not have to work hard the next morning when people were lined up to get their feed. (Yes, I did bag that much and more by myself) Imagine coming in the next morning to discover that the boss came in after you finished and cleaned everything out for his own herd. Yep, its the same old routine day in and day out. That's what the Teacher is saying.
Well, if work isn't all that its cracked up to be, what about wisdom? "Then I turned my thoughts to consider wisdom..." (Ecc. 2:12) Surely, wisdom is a good thing? How did that fare for Solomon? Yes, the Teacher concluded that wisdom is a good thing: "The wise man has eyes in his head, while the fool walks in darkness..." (Ecc. 2:14) (Umm...Do we really believe this is Solomon? Remember what he did?) So his answer is, Yes...But...hold on...He's not finished yet: "but I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both. Then I thought in my heart, the fate of the fool will overtake me also. What do I gain by being wise?" (Ecc. 2:14b-15a) Yep, I guess that's true. Poor Teacher!
Then he asks over and over the question: "Who Knows?" (second column) "For who knows what is good for a man in life, during the few and meaningless days he passes through like a shadow?" (Ecc. 6:12) There are times when the Teacher answers (picture a little child in the classroom with his/her hand raised) "Me, Me, Me, Pick Me!" In others words, he would answer, "I know!" "I know that everything God does will endure forever..." (Ecc. 3:14) He says "I know" or some form numerous times. But, then he turns around and determines that we can't know.
Well, we will continue with this "investigation" of life on Monday. But, for now I want to turn to that passage from where the inspiration for that beautiful song originated. "There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven." (Ecc. 3:1, NIV) As you can see the song was written based on the KJV of this passage and not the NIV. Again, you can not beat the KJV for its poetic wording. The Teacher goes on and declares that there is a time to be born and a time to die...a time for everything, weep/laugh, mourn/dance, etc. What the Teacher is concluding here is that life is predictable. Notice the repeated use of the word "time." It's interesting that this word is used. The items listed, "time to be born, time to die, time to plant, time to..." each seem good or bad in themselves, but each can change over time. Give anything enough time, and it can change, for better or worse.
On Monday we will continue our look at this book. I want to spend some time on the phrase: "There is nothing new under the sun." (Ecc. 1:9b) I look forward to being with you daily next week as we continue our Journey Through The Bible. -Take care! God Bless! -Pastor Rick