Most people know of the the book of Ecclesiastes through the song made popular by the Byrds: To every thing, turn, turn, turn, There is a season, turn, turn, turn... That lesson doesn't come up in the Revised Common Lectionary, though churches which neglect to observe the Feast of the Holy Name may choose to use it on New Years Day. But we do not observe January 1 for its own sake, and today is this book's only appearance in the readings, placing it with such lectionary losers as Haggai and Habbakuk.
And, well, the biblical scholars aren't too thrilled with this text either. Now Job—there's a worthy book, commented upon by all and sundry. But Ecclesiastes: well, it's so whiny. King Solomon, the supposed author, sounds like a pompous teenager, rambling on about how hopeless it all is and how we're all going to die and how fickle fate is, as if nobody else in the history of creation had ever noticed any of these things. He's only outdone by the prodigal son's older brother, the one who whines to Dad, “how come you never gave me a party?” Thus the preacher tediously belabors this transitory life, and the lectionary grants it this one hearing and turns away, preferring the patriarchs, the Law, and the prophets, in which the divine message is more patently heard.
This preacher is said in the text to be Solomon, the biblical epitome of wisdom, just as his father David signifies poetry and music. And yet, for all his wisdom, his kingdom hardly survives his passing: his son Rehoboam rashly answered those who questioned how he would rule, and Israel was divided from Judah; the kingdom would never again be united. If you are a wise biblical scholar, you are supposed to stroke you chin and say, “well of course this book was not authored by the real Solomon,” and if one looks at the text it seems rather choppy at points, with interjections that seem as if another may have written them long after; there's even a two verse postscript. But this is all quite irrelevant: the point is not history, nor personal testimony, but wise counsel.
So, what of this wisdom? From one angle (the long-suffering parent of teenager angle) it seems trivial, trite, and obvious. Worldly things—position, power, wealth, even life itself are transitory. A man may build, and those that follow sweep it away; a woman creates a thing of beauty, and it is forgotten and lost. People talk of having a meaningful life, as though we lived to compose episodes in some great saga; but the pages of our lives are written, often in the ink of deepest suffering, and they are blown in the wind, burnt or crumbled to dust. Often our stories teach nothing beyond futility, or at best serve as cautionary tales (largely forgotten or ignored) to those who might emulate our sins and foolishness.
We few who are well-off may, for a time, escape acknowledgment of these “truths”; if our projects do not fall quickly to ruination, at least we are fed, and housed, and have some respite from personal disaster. We therefore, paradoxically, have the leisure to contemplate the transitory nature of our fortunes, while those who live in peril of starvation, homelessness, destitution and injury have to not the luxury to take up the quest for meaning. To live on is meaning and story enough, perhaps.
So here we have this wisdom, stupidly obvious yet deeply and troublingly undeniable. Pleasure passes; wealth comes and goes; death erases all, sooner or later. Even to the well-off, the hand of disaster touches us here and there, and people seek meaning and purpose even in such injury. But God does not promise any such thing. Job's suffering has no more meaning than to test his endurance and to prod his friends into fatuous assurances; Solomon has not even that. All his wealth, his power, the glory of his rule: they are vanity. The kingdom is undone within a year of his death, and soon enough Israel is conquered and dispersed, with the Samaritans the sole surviving trace thereof. Judah is captured and taken away, and Solomon's temple is razed and looted; the people, the Jews, weep in Babylon.
And yet, hope is given through grace. God's wrath against his faithless people is not limitless; He remembered his promise to Abraham, and after a time Judaea was restored, and a new temple raised upon the ruins of the old. This too came to an end, and the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and dispersed the Jewish people, and though a third Israel was established, its survival is precarious. But in the fullness of time, the promises revealed through the prophets were made manifest through the birth of the Incarnate Christ, Jesus son of Mary. He lived as one of us, and was put to death as the final sacrifice for all people, and rose again in triumph over death, breaking that meaningless which has beset us since Adam and Eve were first led astray by the serpent. And thus God Himself, through his own incarnation, gave in Jesus' life a new meaning, a story we read in scripture, which means our salvation if we bury ourselves in it through baptism and feed upon it at the altar.
We thus have salvation given to us, yet, worldly vanity nonetheless continues. A man builds storehouses on earth, and death comes and takes it from him, and him from his wealth; and will the ledgers of his banks and estates tell out his value? No! The sheep and goats will not be divided on such a basis, but on what treasure is laid up in heaven, through our faithfulness to what we have been taught; not only in our lips, but in our lives. As Paul says, we must cast off sin, and live in Godly charity; and if we be wealthy, Jesus is rash enough to suggest purchasing a ticket to the new Jerusalem by crassly buying friends through charitable works! And while I suspect that he was being more than a little sarcastic, it is clear that, as he says today, wealth stored up here will avail us not if not brought to bear for God's work, rather than just our own ephemeral ends.
Our God is a mighty fortress, sang Martin Luther, and he prevails amid the flood of mortal ills. But goods and kindred do go, and this mortal life also; except perhaps for those doomed to live in the last days, when the wrath of God is finally spent on the old earth, the body will be killed, by age, disease, or disaster. All that is earthly shall pass away, and all earthly works shall eventually prove vain, unless they lift up the new Kingdom, which is founded in Jesus and which he alone rules. Creation is good; God saw this in the beginning when he made it. But it shall pass away, and though we do not revile it, and we care for it, as God commanded, it is not in things material that we have hope, but in things spiritual: the grace of God, revealed in Christ, in which is the new life of eternal meaning.