The book of Ecclesiastes appears only once in the entire three-year cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary, and it is an alternate text, so there’s no guarantee that anyone will actually get to listen to it in church, much less hear it preached on. Yet everyone knows chapter three of Ecclesiastes; The Byrds’ cover of Pete Seeger’s song, “Turn, Turn, Turn,” is considered the #1 hit in America with the oldest lyrics ever written. “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted . . .”
The book of Ecclesiastes is traditionally thought of as being written by King Solomon, the monarch of Israel famed for his wisdom. Yet most scholars date the core of the book to about 2500 years ago, much later than Solomon, and call the book’s speaker “Qohelet,” which is Ecclesiastes in Hebrew; it literally means “the one who convenes or gathers the people.”
Qohelet’s opening speech reminds me of nothing as much as the words of a dark and philosophically-inclined teenager: “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless!” Or, in older translations, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity!” The word translated vanity is hebel, which literally means breath or vapor; vanity and meaninglessness both get at the root of Qohelet’s complaint: that most of the things we think give life meaning can disappear in a heartbeat.
I’ve heard the book of Ecclesiastes described as the friend of depressed people. When you suffer from depression, often the last thing you want is a cheerful voice telling you everything’s going to be all right. As one of Tim’s favorite authors repeats, again and again, depression lies: even if things truly will be okay, even if your life looks pretty good to those on the outside, you still have that lying voice telling you everything sucks. It sounds so real, so convincing, and in Ecclesiastes we find someone who also knows the strength of that lying voice. Don’t get me wrong: depressed people don’t need the lying voice validated by their friends; what they need is other people who know what that voice sounds like, and the power it holds.
So what is it that led one scholar to speak of Qohelet’s “imperative of joy”? On the face of it, it’s odd to connect the pessimistic Qohelet with joy at all: he seems unduly focused on death, on the uselessness of hard work and study, on the inability of humans to control their lives, and on how little changes in the world from one generation to another. Yet several times, Qohelet emphasizes that the only thing one can do is simply enjoy what one has been given. And in chapter 9, Qohelet advises: “Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do with all your might.”
Then he tacks on the phrase: “for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.” Just to keep it real.
This passage, which charges the reader to eat and drink with enjoyment, wear party clothes and good perfume, enjoy marital pleasures, and work with gusto, is remarkably achievable, especially as biblical commands go. If the overall tone of Ecclesiastes is on the dark side, at least its imperative of joy is human-sized, understandable, not super-human.
It’s that human size that’s remarkable, especially in the context of one of the source texts of Ecclesiastes, the Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh is a decidedly larger-than-life figure, a hero and a king, known for his building projects and his prowess with the ladies. When he loses his best friend and partner-in-crime, Enkidu, and comes face-to-face with mortality for the first time, he is stricken, and diminished. This superman, who killed one god and spurned the love of a goddess, suddenly realizes, in terms much like those of Qohelet, that he and his works are limited, and will end some day. As a superman-type, of course he goes on a quest for a special herb that will make him immortal, which he eventually has to dive to the ocean floor to pick, but is so exhausted when he emerges that he falls asleep on the shore, and the herb is eaten by a snake. When he awakens, he realizes he has failed.
It is then that the reader remembers the words of Siduri, a wise woman-slash-goddess, who had dissuaded Gilgamesh earlier in his quest, trying to get him to see that he could enjoy life on mortal terms, like everyone else. “Gilgamesh, where are you wandering?” she asks. “You cannot find the life that you seek. When gods created humankind, for humankind they established death. Immortality they reserved for themselves.
“As for you, Gilgamesh, let your belly be full. Keep enjoying yourself day and night! Every day make merry, dance and play every night! Let your clothes be clean. Let your head be washed, may you be bathed in water. Gaze on the little one who holds your hand. Let your wife enjoy your repeated embrace! Such is the destiny of mortals.”
It turns out that Gilgamesh could have written the book of Ecclesiastes. Maybe it takes a superman to write about the pleasures of being just an ordinary man. Maybe it takes trying to break all the limits to realize that you can enjoy life within those limits. Maybe there is freedom to be found in ceasing from striving to be more than you are, in taking joy from the little things in life.
The author Eric Weiner tells a story of his travels in Bhutan, a country known for its high level of happiness, and found himself spilling his guts to a man he’s interviewing, a man named Karma Ura. Mr. Ura is director of the Centre for Bhutan Studies and Gross National Happiness—if you haven’t heard about the Gross National Happiness project, it’s an alternative to thinking about national well-being in economic terms, as Gross Domestic Product, and Bhutan happens to be the happiest country in the world, by this metric. Anyway, Weiner tells Ura that he started having panic attacks, and he couldn’t figure out why he was afflicted with anxiety now, when his life was going so well? Mr. Ura gave Weiner some surprising advice: “You need to think about death for five minutes every day.” Linda Leaming, who wrote a book called A Field Guide to Happiness: What I Learned in Bhutan About Living, Loving and Waking Up, says, “My best advice [about anxiety-producing thoughts is]: go there. Think the unthinkable, the thing that scares you to think about several times a day.”
Counter-intuitive. Qohelet would love this advice. And that’s the thing: what seems at first to be nonsense—thinking about death and loss as a means to combat anxiety, focusing on the futility of human life as a way to encourage joy—is actually very profound. Because it’s that awareness of our human limitations that gives our lives so much meaning. It’s when we try to bury our sense of death or loss that anxiety begins to plague us, like Gilgamesh responding to Enkidu’s death by running away and seeking immortality. Such gambits really are meaningless, futility, vanity, and striving after the wind, as Qohelet would say. But allowing ourselves to name our fears—that opens us up to the joy of the present moment.
I can personally testify to the power of Mr. Ura’s and Ms. Leaming’s advice. Back in the late nineties, when I was a junior in college studying church history in Oxford, England, I found St. Benedict’s admonition to his monks to “keep death daily before [their] eyes” to be disturbing. How morbid! How very unlike the culture of positive thinking that was so pervasive in my college years—you didn’t think about bad things! But, I noticed soon after, things were getting rockier with my boyfriend, despite my trying not to think about it. And one night, as I was lying on my bed, I “went there” and really faced it: things were probably not going to work out with the guy I was dating. I imagined myself as a little boat, trying vainly to anchor myself to another little boat, and we were both going to be swept away to sea. So I imagined myself unhitching from my boyfriend’s boat, and latching on to the pier, which was how I thought about God. I realized that no human being is ever going to be the safe harbor I so desperately need—boats come and go, storms rise and pass away—but that pier was standing firm.
My boyfriend and I broke up. It was awful. And yet I had a sense of ultimate safety, lashed onto the pier in that safe harbor. Once I stopped fretting and fearing what I knew, deep down, was going to happen, I got to a place where I could again feel joy, and a sense of safety that was not illusory. And when I applied this way of thinking to the rest of my life, I discovered that, as scared as I am of loss, I have a deep and abiding sense of being held by God, by something much bigger than any human being.
I think this is Qohelet’s underlying message: that nothing in human life is certain, aside from its end, and that if we embrace that fact, if we understand that only God is everlasting, we will have the perspective and the freedom from fear to truly enjoy life.
If God is holding us, we are free of having to try to hold ourselves. Like Gilgamesh, none of us is designed to be a god, and the sooner we realize that, the sooner we are free to enjoy life as a gift: fleeting and yet precious. And that is why we read Mary Oliver’s poem today: as a reminder that to live fully is to recognize life’s limitations, and then abandon ourselves to the small gifts of life, knowing that the joy that comes from them is bigger and fiercer than we could possibly have reason to expect. The feel of a trusting child’s hand in ours, the laughter of a meal shared with friends, the taste of a juicy peach. When we stop trying to control all we fear, that, it seems, is when joy comes and takes our breath away.