Living in the Moment
This summer series called the “Forgotten Books” is borrowed from the BibleWorm podcast and the book by the same name from Dr. Robert Williamson. This 10-week series focuses on the five festival scrolls, spending 2 weeks on each scroll or book. Each of the “forgotten books” which are very important to Jewish life, read during Jewish festivals, for Christians, they are mainly forgotten or not preached or taught about. Ecclesiastes is the scroll read for Sukkot or Feast of Booths or Tabernacles, “is an agricultural festival that originally was considered a thanksgiving for the fruit harvest. Sukkot are hut-like structures that the Jews lived in during the 40 years of travel through the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt. As a temporary dwelling, the sukkah also represents the fact that all existence is fragile, and therefore Sukkot is a time to appreciate the shelter of our homes and our bodies”which are temporary, right?
The Hebrew Bible is broken into 3 parts: The Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings. Each of the books we are reading during this series are considered part of “the writings”. The writings contain miscellaneous content. Ecclesiastes is considered Wisdom Writing. Meaning, if we look at the traditions and theology or truths gleaned from the Torah and the prophets and apply them to our current context, do those understandings make sense? Or as is asked in the book of Job:
’Where shall wisdom be found?’ “Humanity does not know the way to it. It is hidden from the eyes of all living things, God understands the way to it” (Job 28:12, 21, 23).
So the wisdom writings often say, “this is what our tradition has said, but this is what I see. So how do we move forward? How do we live? What is our hope? What is the purpose of our life? And I want to say off the bat, we don’t have to agree where the book of Ecclesiastes ends up. Many don’t. As Dr. Williamson says, “I’m grateful the book of Ecclesiastes is in the Bible, but I’m also grateful it’s not the only book in the Bible.”
Ecclesiastes is the Latin translation of the Hebrew word Qohelet. So, you’ll hear those words used interchangeably, but it means “teacher.” Before we read today’s passage, I want to make the argument that Solomon is not in fact Qohelet or the teacher. For 1) we believe Solomon’s reign, who was the last King of Israel before it was divided into the northern and southern kingdoms was around 970-930 BCE, and scholars don’t believe Ecclesiastes was written until between the 5th and 3rd centuries BCE. Therefore, the world looked much different when Ecclesiastes was written from Solomon’s reign. Under Solomon the people lived under Deuteronomic law, Torah Law and now there has been the diaspora and possible destruction of the temple, which introduces living under occupation with international influence and the idea of good behavior being awarded by God and bad behavior being punished by God is challenged. And that makes sense if we locate this text after Solomon. Qohelet is asking do these old ways of knowing and being jive with what we see around us.
Now if your recall last week’s text made clear a couple of things:
4 A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains as it always has.
5 The sun rises, the sun sets;
it returns panting to the place where it dawns.
6 The wind blows to the south,
goes around to the north;
around and around blows the wind;
the wind returns to its rounds again.
7 All streams flow to the sea,
but the sea is never full;
to the place where the rivers flow,
there they continue to flow.
8 All words[a] are tiring;
no one is able to speak.
The eye isn’t satisfied with seeing,
neither is the ear filled up by hearing.
9 Whatever has happened—that’s what will happen again;
whatever has occurred—that’s what will occur again.
There’s nothing new under the sun. 10 People may say about something: “Look at this! It’s new!” But it was already around for ages before us. 11 There’s no remembrance of things in the past, nor of things to come in the future. Neither will there be any remembrance among those who come along in the future.
There’s a season for everything
and a time for every matter under the heavens:
2 a time for giving birth and a time for dying,
a time for planting and a time for uprooting what was planted,
3 a time for killing and a time for healing,
a time for tearing down and a time for building up,
4 a time for crying and a time for laughing,
a time for mourning and a time for dancing,
5 a time for throwing stones and a time for gathering stones,
a time for embracing and a time for avoiding embraces,
6 a time for searching and a time for losing,
a time for keeping and a time for throwing away,
7 a time for tearing and a time for repairing,
a time for keeping silent and a time for speaking,
8 a time for loving and a time for hating,
a time for war and a time for peace.
Hard work9 What do workers gain from all their hard work? 10 I have observed the task that God has given human beings. 11 God has made everything fitting in its time, but has also placed eternity in their hearts, without enabling them to discover what God has done from beginning to end.
Is it really true there is nothing new under the sun? I mean when we listen to the song or study that most famous part of Qohelet is that what we know? Nothing is new?
This idea of hevel is present here as well. This metaphor that the world is vaporous, it’s transient, it doesn’t add up to anything.
Not even generations last forever.
Qohelet looks around and says in chapter verse 5: “The sun rises. The sun sets. IT returns panting to the place where it dawns.” Even the sun, nature, is exhausted. It’s not making progress.
But the question, I think Qohelet points us to, is this: “it’s not pointless that the sun is not profitable.” If we think of life in terms of sustaining what is present, isn’t that good? Nature is exhausted, sometimes we are exhausted. Think of the young mother who is nursing a baby around the clock, or a husband nursing his sick wife through the hours and days until she gets her final rest. It’s not profitable. We haven’t gained anything at the end. But if the sun stops rising, the winds stop blowing, the rains stop falling, the world ceases to exist as it us.
Sometimes we are so eager to get through our list of chores, we just want to be done. The ultimate goal for many of us is being done, so that we can rest, but there is a sense in which we are never done. It’s when we put this goal out in front of us that we get weary.
Are we living exhausted and wedded to this idea of profit and progress or are we living in the midst of life?
In chapter 3, that most famous of part of the book, Qohelet talks about seasons of life. I think mistakenly some read this passage as justifying that we can do whatever we want. There’s a danger in that. Oh, there are seasons of war, so let’s start a war. Instead, there is a sense, here, that all of these experiences are what make us fully and wholly human. It’s observational not justifiable.
This passage of seasons is fourteen examples of living: 7 x 2: That seven, biblicaly, just like the 7 days of creation, usually represents wholeness.
We don’t pick these seasons, but they come to us. That this is the full continuum of experiences that happen in life.
If we locate ourselves with Qohelet as I suggested before, after the falling of the monarchy of living by Torah, of foreignness and unknowing, and no predictability, like there is in our lives, there is something beautiful here.
There is a space for it all. There is space for wailing. There is space for grieving. And anger. Don’t deny yourselves that.
It is the range of human experience, but the sum total of that experience (the adding up), if you add this up, it adds up to zero, to nothing. They cancel each other out. The joy and the tears. They all cancel each other out. Seven minus seven is zero. There is nothing new under the sun.
There is no linear progress, we are not going to make a net effort. But that’s Qohelet’s point. It’s only nothing if we try to add it up. When we ask the question, what does it add up to, what do our lives add up to, what is our legacy, we erase the beauty of the whole thing.
Harvest festival is in the fall, it’s a celebration, where people build hut like structures, and dwell and eat food and are in the hut as much as possible. Inherently in the celebration of Sukkot, you celebrate the moment that you’re in. If you had a great bounty that’s wonderful, but it has a time stamp on it. And even if it is a great harvest, you still have to do it again next year. The work continues. There is an inherit vulnerability about it. You could have a good harvest or bad harvest regardless of your efforts.
Instead of life being this linear goal, Qohelet affirms that we are moving between these poles of joy and grief, living and suffering. We’ll never achieve permanent happiness, but we will also not live in permanent mourning.
The beauty here, is if you are in a time of mourning, mourn. There will be dancing again.
And if you are in a time of dancing, then dance. Don’t worry about when the music stops but hear it and lift your eyes and see it. When it’s time to dance, be present to it. Live it. All of it.
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen.