This week I’ve been reading one of my favorite books (if not my favorite) in the Hebrew Bible: Ecclesiastes. If you’ve never taken the time to read through the prologue (1:1-11) slowly you’re missing a real literary treat. Qohelet says, “Absolutely absurd! Everything is absurd!” (See Peter Enns, Ecclesiastes, 4, 31-32 for the logic behind this translation) Then the narrator goes on to use proofs/examples from creation: the sun rises, descends, and then goes “panting”(שׁואף) back to its place to do it again (v. 5); the winds blow to the north and to the south without end (v. 6); the rivers bring water to the sea, but the sea is never satisfied (v. 7); our eyes can never see enough nor can our ears hear enough (v. 8). Qohelet tells us this to remind us that everything is circular. One generation appears on the scene as another leaves the stage (i.e., dies), and this is all there is to it, always (v. 3).
The narrator summarizes Qohelet’s message before Qohelet is introduced: it is all absurd. There is nothing new (vv. 9-10). One day you will die, you will be forgotten, and your children and grandchildren will go about doing the same cyclical things you did until it is their turn to die, be forgotten, and give way for the next generation (v. 11).
Yes, this is a bit pessimistic. Yes, it presents a worldview void of the resurrection of Jesus. Yet I think it is one of the most real, gritty, earthy, existential sections of Scripture. Much like the psalms of lament, so Qohelet (and his narrator) give us permission to have those days when we wonder if there is any meaning in it all. It seems like we wake up Monday, run until Friday, relax for a weekend (for those of us lucky enough to have a M-F job), then repeat, until we die. Sometimes it seems meaningless. Where is it all going? What is the point?!
The image of the sun “panting” as it runs to move back into position to do it all over again makes me smile. It reminds me that we are part of this creation. We move in rhythm with nature and we share its plight. The earth was spinning around the sun before I was born and it will do the same when I decompose in my grave. In some sense this is freeing. Our insignificance should free us from having “messiah syndrome,” while allowing us to find surprising worth in the words of the psalmist (8:4) who wrote, “What is man (and woman!) that you are mindful of him (and her!)? and the son (and daughter!) of man (and woman!) that you care for him (and her!)? We are born, we live, we die, and this seems quite depressing….well, unless there is a resurrection from the dead, but that’s another topic for another time.