I am excited about beginning our discussion of Ecclesiastes this Tuesday. We will start with Ecclesiastes 1 this week. I anticipate our study of Ecclesiastes to take two Lents (2019 and 2020) to finish.
The Speaker in Ecclesiastes does not present a consistent argument for his understanding of the world, and the book shows the struggle he goes through. Therefore, it is important that you read through the entire book (or at least the first several chapters) to have a sense of this struggle before we begin our chapter-by-chapter study.
I have attached the relevant excerpts from the Jewish Publication Society’s Commentary on Ecclesiastes. The commentary gives a brief overview of the book, reviews the historical disputes as to its canonicity, talks about issues related to its translation, and gives a brief overview of major interpretations of the book from the middle ages to the present. One of the major points this commentary raises is that the Speaker does not have a grand theology or worldview of which he wants to convince us. This is unlike most other books we encounter in Scripture. Rather, the Speaker exhibits a frustration with his inability to do so. Therefore, as we work through Ecclesiastes, feel free to challenge or disagree with the Speaker’s thoughts, since he does as well.
The Speaker begins his speech with a word he will use throughout his work: “havel havalim.” Eccl. 1:2. This phrase has a rich depth in meaning that isn’t easily translated. Literally, havel means “vapor.” The suffix -im in Hebrew either means a plurality or a superlative. There is one cherub but two cherubim. And, as we looked in last year’s study on the Names of God, “el” simply means a god, where as “Eloim” means the God, creator of the universe. In different translations, this phrase is rendered as “vanity of vanities,” “emptiness,” “absolute futility,” “perfectly pointlessness,” or “meaningless.” The JBS commentary says that havel means vanity (trite and worthless), futile, ephemeral (life is brief), incomprehensible (our reason is very limited), or absurd (the world is not subject to reason).
In beginning with this phrase, the Speaker is not expressing a skepticism or nihilism about our existence, but simply the incomprehensibility of an existence that is counter-rational. The Speaker cries out “Why?!” – why do bad things happen to good people, why does the same fate of death befall the wise and the foolish, why are we unable to enjoy ourselves – and the only answer he can muster is havel. Everything under the sun is havel because nothing really changes and all of our attempts to impose an order on the world eventually come to naught.
The Speaker is not intending, nor should we understand, havel havalim as a point of despair or depression. Rather, havel havalim makes us come face-to-face with the reality of our own shortcomings and allows us to begin to truly walk towards the Cross. Havel havalim tells us that we are not in control. Nothing we do can control God or Fortune or the Fates. For the sun rises on the evil and on the good, and rain is sent on the just and on the unjust. (Matt 5:45). Sh** happens and you can’t control it.
Second, we will never be able to figure it out, or even if there is an “it” to figure out. As James tells us “you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” James 4:14. We simply do not know. Our lives are too short, too ephemeral, and too limited to ever comprehend why or to comprehend the eternal. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are God’s ways higher than our ways, and his thoughts higher than our thoughts.” Isa. 55:9. As Origen of Alexandria recognized, God isn’t merely ineffable but beyond ineffable. The only thing that we must necessarily understand is that our understandings of the world or of God are wholly and completely inadequate and vain.
However, once we realize that our sense of control and knowledge of God is havel havalim, we can finally begin to walk towards the Cross. We have no basis to judge others if all of our judgments and the basis of all of our judgments are havel havelim. (Matt 7:1, Rom 14:1-12). We have no reason not to love one another if all of those reasons are havel havelim. (Matt 5:44). We have no excuses for our divisions if all of those excuses are havel havelim. (1 Cor. 12). Havel havelim brings us to the point of imitating Christ’s own perfect humility. (Phil 2:1-11). And only once we realize that all of our thoughts, all of our theologies, all of our world view, and even our very existence is vanity and futile and pointless and meaningless can we begin to walk with Jesus.
Dinner is at 6. The menu is grilled chicken sandwiches. Discussion about 6:45. Hope to see you here, and please bring a friend. * If you need a ride, please let me know. *
One day some old men came to see Abba Anthony. In the midst of them was Abba Joseph. Wanting to test them, the old man suggested a text from the Scriptures, and, beginning with the youngest, he asked them what it meant. Each gave his opinion as he was able. But to each one the old man said, “You have not understood it.” Last of all he said to Abba Joseph, “How would you explain this saying?” and he replied, “I do not know.” Then Abba Anthony said, “Indeed, Abba Joseph has found the way, for he has said: ‘I do not know.’” Sayings of the Desert Fathers.