Tragedy in Ecclesiastes
Last week Jen and I took Leland to visit his great-grandmother, Audrey MacDonald, for the first time. My grandmother has struggled with alzheimers for the last few years. Due to her illness, she has been confined to a wheelchair and even mundane everyday activities have become a struggle, including simple things like saying hello and goodbye.
Although she may or may not have remembered that Jen and I were expecting, it was clear that she knew and was proud of her first great-grandchild. Unable to ask, and in need of some assistance, she was grateful for the opportunity to hold the little ten pounder. In fact, when asked if Leland was getting heavy, she spoke, informing us, in a rare moment of clarity, that he wasn’t too heavy at all.
In the midst of similar challenges, yet at opposite stages of life, it was beautiful to see grandma and grandson greet one another in their own unique way.
In some ways, the author of Ecclesiastes struggles to describe what I think was perfectly captured in the encounter between Audrey and Leland. The beautiful and chaotic quality of human finitude is in many ways mysterious and indescribable, just like the beauty of our visit with Audrey. By using the Hebrew word hebel to describe this aspect of human life, the author maintains its mystery while avoiding a completely negative label.
The Hebrew word hebel literally means ‘vapour’ or ‘mist.’ In the context of Ecclesiastes it connotes not the meaninglessness of futility nor even the ‘vanity’ of life, as it is often translated; rather, it evokes the short-lived, the insubstantial, the fleeting character of human life, as the whole of the book attests**. Percy Shelley poetically describes life’s vapor like quality in his poem Ozymandias, read by Bryan Cranston in the video above.
One of the primary themes in Ecclesiastes is time and the finitude of life (meaning that life is fundamentally limited by death and birth). The Teacher’s world is one in which the sun and the wind and the water are in perpetual motion—rising and setting, blowing and returning, flowing and never filling—and so they will remain in everlasting existence (1:5-7).** But hebel—vapour and mist—is unlike the natural world of perpetual motion described by the Teacher, rather it comes and goes, forgotten, burned by the sun, blown by the wind.
Hebel is the fate of every human being, whether wise or foolish, powerful or weak, rich or poor, famous or unknown, oppressor or oppressed, righteous or wicked, or just average and unremarkable, all are finite. Every human being is born in time, and in time dies. Whatever one might accomplish or not, for good or evil, is accomplished in the short span between birth and death. The Teacher writes, “I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was [hebel] and a chasing after the wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (2:11).**
In the verses for Sunday we read about our tragic fate:
“I have seen a grievous evil under the sun:
wealth hoarded to the harm of its owner,
or wealth lost through some misfortune,
so that when he has a son there is nothing left for him.
Naked a man comes from his mother’s womb,
And as he comes, so he departs.
He takes nothing from his labour that he can carry in his hand.
This too is a grievous evil:
As a man comes, so he departs,
and what does he gain,
since he toils for the wind?
All his days he eats in darkness,
with great frustration, affliction and anger” (5:13-17).
This fate is tragic. It is this finite or vapor-like quality which the Teacher originally describes as evil and darkness. In a sense, we act in blindness (think of Shakespeare’s tragic play “Romeo and Juliet”) unaware of our motivations nor what consequences might result. This finite perspective results in tragedy. In the verses above, we see the tragic fate of a father. The first father builds wealth with the intention of making a good life for his son. Unfortunately, for reasons such as greed (reasons he either ignored or was blind to) his wealth ruins him. The second father has the same intention, to build up wealth to give to his son, but through some misfortune which he didn’t see coming or to which he was blind, he loses it. As a result of the father’s blindness the son is left with nothing. This is unfair! It is the evil that the Teacher sees under the sun.
Yet, the Teacher’s message is more radical: not only are we sometimes blind, but blindness is our fate. The human existence is a tragic one. We are blind from the beginning: “Naked a man comes from his mother’s womb,/ And as he comes, so he departs.” This blindness can be a frustration, causing the unintended, hiding that which was not anticipated. The Teacher writes, “All his days he eats in darkness, with great frustration, affliction, and anger.”
It’s intriguing that immediately after the Teacher describes our finite fate as evil, he then turns around and describes it as good, writing,
“Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him—for this is his [fate].”
In other words, our temporality, our vapor like existence and its corresponding blindness, is actually a good characteristic of life.
The vapor like character of life enables the teacher to accept his fate for what it is, a gift of life, because:
(1) he acts out of an opaque context he doesn’t fully understand and
(2) to a certain extent, he doesn’t fully understand his decisions (his actions have unintended consequences).
In other words, once he accepts that blindness constitutes his being, he can receive life as a gift, rather than something for which he is in complete control.
The fact that life is not something we ultimately control or create is not to say that we should give up on life or our autonomy. Rather, once we come to terms with our fate, the Teacher tells us to enjoy life, to find satisfaction in work. In other words, we should accept our lot so that we can live and enjoy life as it is, a gift.
Perhaps that does not seem like good news. But consider: is there any part of scripture in which human beings are called to secure and establish and completely control their own existence, such that they are completely self-sufficient, enduring forever and remembered for all time? On the contrary: “give us this day our daily bread” (Matt 6:11). “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life” (Matt 6:27; cf Matt 6:16-34)**.
The good news of the Teacher is this: the meaning of life is that it is given—it is the radical and gracious gift of the good God. The good news we hear in this passage is to live life as the gracious temporal gift it is. Celebrate the vapor. Breathe deeply while you have breath.
Finally what’s even more astonishing is Ecclesiastes’ characterization of God, that God actually seeks out the hebel of our lives. In other words, God seeks out the finite human life.
“I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover, he has put a sense of past and future into their minds… I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil… That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.”
God therefore seeks out the finitude, the vapour that is human accomplishment, human legacy, the church, everything that ultimately comes to ruin, all that is blown by the wind.
We ended the teaching session with the question of suffering. How do we think about suffering in light of life’s blind, tragic, and gift-like quality?
**The main thrust of my argument and some of my phrasing is taken from Douglas Harink’s excellent article on Ecclesiastes 12: 1-7 & 5:2 in Third Way Magazine (Nov, 2002: p25).