Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

BIBLE: Ecclesiastes (Mirror to the World)

Ecclesiastes is the kind of book that can be used as a lens to see the world through the eyes of the Preacher, son of David, King of Israel. Of course this isn’t the only book we can use as a lens to see the world. If we use St. Augustine’s City of God as a lens we’ll constantly see a contrast between those living in the City of Man and those living in the City of God. If we use Karl Marx as a lens we’ll see a constant struggle between workers and business owners. But Ecclesiastes is more than just a book to read and see how the world looks through a lens; it’s also the kind of book that reflects back our own biases and preconceptions about living in a specific society at a specific time in history. Here are three timeless questions (and answers too!) taken from the book of Ecclesiastes: 1. What kind of world is this? 2. What’s worth doing? 3. What can I know? These questions affect every generation in every society. Let’s examine them further.
What kind of world is this? Ecclesiastes answers: it’s a world filled with chaos. “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh… The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full…” This is the kind of world we live in. It’s chaos. Nothing ever settles down. On the other hand, Ecclesiastes also says this is an orderly world: “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…” and so forth. The world is an orderly place. Things go like clockwork. People, like weather, come and go, “but the earth abideth forever.”
What’s worth doing in this kind of world? Ecclesiastes answers, nothing. The Preacher looked around him and said, “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.” We can work hard and maybe even become wise but as the Preacher points out, “And how dieth the wise man? as the fool. Therefore I hated life…” On the other hand, life may not be so bad: “every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God…there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion.” What’s worth doing? Whatever we think needs doing. Just remember that whatever is worth doing is worth doing well. This is our lot in life. Be happy.
Well, what can I know? Ecclesiastes says there are lots of things we can know. He says, “I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly…” Chasing wisdom and madness and folly can take a whole lifetime. In fact, people have devoted whole lifetimes to studying science or art or taken up politics or devoutly followed a religion. The Preacher tells us “I said in my heart, Go to now…” and then he turned his whole mind and body and spirit over to chasing wisdom and madness and folly. What did he find? It all amounted to this: “In much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” These were two bitter lessons he learned: (1) there are limits to how much the human mind can comprehend and how much the human body can experience and (2) we may find out things we wished we didn’t know.
So Ecclesiastes seems to straddle both sides of the fence on life’s most basic issues. For many readers this just won’t do. The book does give answers to life’s primary questions but these answers aren’t fully satisfactory to most people, especially people looking for either-or/black-and-white answers. That’s how Ecclesiastes serves as a mirror. If the reader asks: what kind of book is this? Ecclesiastes answers: what kind of reader are you? This is the mirror’s job.


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