Reflections on Qoheleth

I’ve been reading the Book of Qoheleth, also known as Ecclesiastes, attributed to Solomon because of the opening line, “The words of David’s son, Qoheleth, king in Jerusalem” (Eccl 1:1). Biblical scholars conclude, however, that based on the style of Hebrew in which it was written, Qoheleth is from a later period, possibly as late as three centuries before Christ.

Many think Qoheleth a downer of a book. It’s clearly a work of cynical philosophy. “Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” (Qoh 1:2b) Which is to say, all things amount to nothing in the end. All your labors, all your wealth, all your good living or wanton living – all of it will come to the same end: death. Sometimes the just are punished, while the wicked are raised up. But, that reflects the priorities of this world, priorities that will eventually come to nothing.

It’s easy to see why so many regard this thinking as depressing. It certainly is cynical. But, in our culture that puts so much emphasis on wealth, power, and celebrity, perhaps we could afford some cynicism. I’ve read a couple of articles about the recent Met Gala that adopted the theme of celebrating the Catholic imagination in fashion. Some thought it complimentary of Catholicism, while others saw it as sacrilegious and insulting. The photos from the event are surely a sight: celebrities dressed to the nines in various outfits, some quite elegant, others hideously gaudy, and others simply ridiculous. More than a celebration of the Catholic imagination in fashion, it was a celebration of privilege, social status, and obscene amounts of disposable wealth (doubtless thousands were spent on each unique outfit, none of which, being designed for this particular event, will ever be worn again). It seemed an event made for reflection by our cynical biblical scholar, Qoheleth.

The point of Qoheleth, I think, is precisely that: death is the great equalizer! Regardless of how justly and righteously you live, you will die. Regardless of how unjust and unrighteous your life, you will die. Some might conclude, “Well, what difference does it make? I may as well live it up now, ‘cause we’re all gonna die!” Qoheleth, too, comes to that exact conclusion: “Therefore I commend mirth: because there is nothing good for man under the sun except eating and drinking and mirth: for that is the accompaniment of his toil during the limited days of the life which God give him under the sun” (Qoh 8:15). Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you may die!

The point of the book, I think, is this: don’t invest yourself too much in this world, in either your successes or your failures, in either the rewards you’ve merited or the unjust punishments you’ve suffered; for this world is fleeting, and whatever fame, fortune, comfort or suffering, good or evil you managed in this temporal world will be judged, not on any temporal scale, but on an eternal scale. Rather than an attitude of, “I may as well live it up, or live for myself, or cheat, or take advantage of others as if nothing matters because … well … nothing matters!” Instead, the proper attitude is: “I really ought to live righteously, live for others, and live to please God because … well … nothing of the trappings of this world will amount to anything. All the praise, pleasure, fame, wealth, rewards will count for nothing in the grave. At the same time, all of the rebukes, dismissals, poverty, and unjust punishments or sufferings I’ve endured will also count for nothing in the grave. The rich and the poor, the famous and the forgotten, the powerful and the lowly, the terrorist and the victim of terror will lie side by side in the same earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. What matters, then, is what counts for eternity!” This is Qoheleth’s conclusion: “The last word, when all is heard: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is man’s all; because God will bring to judgment every work, with all its hidden qualities, whether good or bad” (Qoh 12:13-14).

Frankly, this is a word of comfort and consolation for me. The last few months have been rough. It’s tempting to get so frustrated that I just want to give it all up and run away. But, what will all this amount to on the balance of eternity? Nothing. Not a whisper. It is all vanity! When I lie down in this earth, my accusers will lie down in the same earth. Those who possess power over the lives of others will have none left for themselves, and all the power they exerted on earth will be measured against the scale of an eternally just and loving God. So, too, will I stand before the same just and loving God. When I do, my prayer will be that God’s justice is mercy.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

 

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