I am holding in my hand an Illinois Lottery All Jackpot Report slip from a couple years ago. On the back of it is handwritten ECC Chap 4:9-11. This ticket was a gift to me, and I’ve kept it as a way of remembering the experience that went along with it.
The handwriting belongs to someone that I knew only as Troy, and he gave me this slip of paper at the gas station where I had taken him to fill up his gas can. I had been driving from Kansas back to Ohio after spending some time with Abbie’s family and Abbie and the girls had stayed back for an extra week. I was in the middle of Illinois and saw a guy on the side of the interstate beside his car, holding up a gas can. It’s not real often that I’m driving by myself, without having to be at the destination at any particular time, so I decided to stop. Troy got in the car, cursed at himself for running out of gas and asked for a ride to the nearest gas station. After I asked him his name he asked me what I do for a living, and I told him I’m a pastor. He laughed at me and replied that there was no way I was a pastor. Unshaken by his doubt, I repeated that actually, I am a pastor. He said I couldn’t be a pastor because I didn’t have a Bible on the dashboard. “Every pastor I’ve known always carries a Bible by their side,” he said. I didn’t know how to come back at that one, so I told him I was on vacation, which he thought was a really lousy excuse. He eventually believed me and confided that he was recently out of jail after ten years, having woman problems, but had been reading the Bible a lot recently. He said he had a Bible verse that he wanted to pass along to me. At the gas station he asked the attendant for a slip of paper, and wrote on the back ECC Chap 4:9-11. Ecclesiastes 4:9-11. He gave it to me and told me to look it up when I got back home and got my Bible.
I did, and it says: “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other, but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie down together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone?”
I’ve kept this note not only to remember meeting Troy, but also as an accompanying text to the book of Ecclesiastes.
If you’ve ever read Ecclesiastes, the question may have crossed your mind of how this book got to be part of the Bible in the first place. The Hebrew Scriptures are an interesting mix. They contain the voices of the prophets, who speak of what can be, the kind life that we long for, visions that feel nearly impossible to be realized. Coming, it seems, from somewhere beyond the scope of human history. Beating swords into plowshares, nations learning war no more, justice being established on the earth, the lion and lamb lying down together, everyone living under their own vine and fig tree and being unafraid. These are the flashes of the prophetic imagination that hold up, out there, God’s dream for the world.
And then there is the book of Ecclesiastes, which dwells, unrelentingly, on the here, and makes observations that drive the other direction. Not necessarily into despair, but into the undeniable reality of our own mortality, the ambiguity of morality, and fleeting nature of all things that happen “under the sun” as the author is fond of saying. There’s some cynicism, some pessimism, but it’s not quite without hope. It’s in the neighborhood of what we would get if George Carlin and Eeyore the Donkey got together to write their treatise on life.
If you struggle with some of the supernatural aspects of the Bible, Ecclesiastes could very well serve as a welcome, natural, entry point into the scriptures. If you get weary of religion that attempts to sugar-coat the hard truths of life, this is also a book for you.
Unfortunately it is only included for one Sunday out of the entire three year lectionary cycle. That’s actually next Sunday, but with our focus on the MC USA Phoenix Convention for next worship time, I thought we could bump it up so we wouldn’t skip over it.
Ecclesiastes uses the ancient practice of fictional autobiography to speak its mind. As we read we are asked to imagine these being the words of Solomon, the aged king of Israel who in his youth asked for wisdom from God and in his elder years is now reflecting on the follies and benefits of wisdom in light of all that he has witnessed in his life. Ecclesiastes was probably written about 500 years after the life of Solomon and in the text, the writer simply refers to himself as Qohelet, the Teacher.
That passage from Troy is one of the more upbeat and positive notes from Ecclesiastes. It appears against a backdrop that has already called into question any single proverb’s ability to contain the secret meaning of life, already challenged any notion that if we just have someone by our side throughout life that we will make it through unscathed, our bodies always warm and our tanks always full.
One thing that seems to be the case about people as they get older, which I love, is that they feel less inclined to beat around the bush in what they have to say – less inhibited, perhaps, with wondering what people may think about them and more free to speak their mind. This is the manner in which Qohelet begins, cutting directly to the chase. Chapter 1, verse 1: “The words of Qohelet, (the Teacher), the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?” Anytime someone gives an opening statement and uses the same word five times right away, it’s a good clue that they might be trying to emphasize that theme. Vanity. All is vanity. It’s a word that keeps showing up throughout the discourse and presents, up front, the central problem with which the text is dealing. So right away we have some work to do in making sure we have a sense of what’s meant by this word.
Vanity is a decent English translation that captures some of the gist of the expression. Vanity suggests futility, even meaninglessness. The Hebrew word behind it, Hevel, is rich with multiple layers of meaning. It is related to breath and can mean a vapor, wind, a mist – something insubstantial and fleeting. All is vapor, barely even here.
One of the first stories of the Bible is about a young man named Hevel, whom we call Abel. Same word. Cain and Hevel. Hevel wholeheartedly gives his offering to God but his life is fleeting, his effort nearly insubstantial to history, as he is murdered by his brother. Faithful Hevel is gone but murderous Cain lives on. Abel, hevel incarnate, never got to be old enough to even realize that all was Hevel. The Teacher will observe in his writing “In my hevel life I have seen everything; there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evildoing” (7:15). We’re all hevel, vapor, gone with the wind.
But this doesn’t necessarily have to be purely a negative thing. Hevel could also be understood as emptiness. All is emptiness. For Buddhists, when one realizes that all is empty, one has reached enlightenment. When one accepts that nothing has any independent life in itself, one enters a new level of consciousness that can lift one beyond suffering. Jesus echoes something similar when he says, “the one who loses their life will find it.” And in Philippians we read that Christ emptied himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross, which then becomes the path toward exultation.
Physics has discovered that in regards to physical matter, emptiness is a pretty good description. In going inside the atom, the building block of everything we can see, it is a stunning arena of empty space, with the nucleus and the electrons occupying a tiny portion of what is otherwise vast emptiness. Even the very substance of the world itself, that which appears to us as most real, most solid, is, to the best of our knowledge, hevel. Hevel isn’t quite nothingness. It’s not pure emptiness, it’s just close. It’s mist. It’s nothing plus a little bit, as close as one can get to nothing while still having something.
This is what the aged Qohelet is facing head on. All is hevel. And he’s not particularly ready to just let it slide at that. He has a few things he’d like to get off his chest about this state of affairs. As long as his vocal chords are still swinging in the wind he would like to voice some thoughts.
“What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is hevel.” (2:22-23)
“Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed – with no one to comfort them. On the side of their oppressors there was power – with no one to comfort them…Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from one person’s envy of another. This also is a hevel and a chasing after the wind.” (4:1,4)
“The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth with gain. This also is hevel.” (5:10)
“All this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God; whether it is love or hate one does not know. Everything that confronts them is hevel, since the same fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to those who sacrifice and those who do not sacrifice…this is an evil in all that happens under the sun, that the same fate comes to everyone.” (9:1-3)
Those four readings span from the beginning to the end of Ecclesiastes. The vapor/breath/mist/emptiness/insubstantiality is not something that The Teacher feels can be moved beyond or argued against or say, well, it seems like all is hevel, but really, it’s something else. The book ends the same way it started. In 12:8, “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, all is vanity.” All is hevel. Hevel just is, and the old Teacher who has known wisdom has no illusions that it might be otherwise.
Well, what’s an old, weathered ancient near eastern king to do with this? Or, better yet, what’s a bunch of youthful and young at heart 21st century Columbus Mennonites to do with this?
The Teacher has some constructive words to offer, although it’s hard to tell how convinced he is by his own attempts to speak with wisdom. He has essentially let go of the need to make sense of what he has seen under the sun, let go of his need to make sense of God, about which he says, “Just as you do not know how the breath comes to the bones in the mother’s womb, so you do not know the work of God, who makes everything.” (11:5). There is a tone of surrender, of yieldedness that breaks through.
And what The Teacher suggests, here and there, throughout his wonderings, holding it out tentatively as if it were the only humble offering he has to bring before the alter of life is – the possibility of enjoyment. Enjoyment. And one of the words translated enjoyment is simkha, which completes the puzzler sermon title. Would you like some simkha with your hevel? Would you like some enjoyment with your futility? It’s fleeting, it may be a small consolation in the game of life where nobody makes it out alive, but it’s one of the gifts that The Teacher has seen in all the things that happen under the sun. Joy is something that the Apostle Paul names as a fruit of the Spirit. And for the Teacher, this is more than just a spiritual state of mind. It involves eating good food, enjoying some well-made wine, making love to your partner, wearing nice clothes, finding pleasure in your work, and enjoying the wealth that your work brings you.
Here is some of what The Teacher has to say about enjoyment, again spanning from the beginning to the end of the book, and, not presented as a solution, problem solved, and initially, not even as something that really works all that well. But, perhaps, at the end, seen as a gift present within the Hevel that still gets the first and last word.
“I said to myself, ‘Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself.’ But again, this also was vanity. I said of laughter, ‘It is mad,’ and of pleasure, ‘What use is it?’ I searched with my mind how to cheer my body with wine – my mind still guiding me with wisdom – and how to lay hold on folly, until I might see what was good for mortals to do under heaven during the few days of their life.” (2:1-3)
“This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot. Likewise all to whom God gives wealth and possessions and whom he enables to enjoy them, and to accept their lot and find enjoyment in their toil – this is the gift of God.” (5:18-20)
“Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your heard. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might.” (9:7-10a)
“Even those who live many years should rejoice in them all; yet let them remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity. Rejoice, young person, while you are young, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Follow the inclination of your heart and the desire of your eyes, but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment. Banish anxiety from your mind, and put away pain from your body.” (11:8-10)
Commentators are all over the map on just what to make of The Teacher – evaluations range from Enlightened One to Cynical Depressed Old Man. I like to think of him as a brutal realist who, now in an age of quick fix religion and seven easy steps to a happy life is a breath of fresh air – a breath of fresh hevel.
It’s a strange kind of comfort to let go in the way that The Teacher is trying to let go and surrender to whatever it is that holds us up and keeps us from falling into the Abyss. Grace, Serendipity, Mystery, God. Somehow when we stop fighting and flailing about, rather than sinking to the bottom as we should, we find ourselves buoyed up by a Presence that we have no ability to claim any full knowledge of other than its effect of not only keeping us afloat, if barely, but also helping us find something that resembles – surprise – enjoyment of the water and the waves, the wind blowing mist in whatever direction it happens to be traveling that day.
My encounter with Troy was a few minutes of a long trip home and a tiny blip on whatever timeline of history it is we’re all on together. It was basically a vapor. Neither heroic nor completely void of meaning. It is what it is, like so many other encounters and relationships we have that span a few minutes or days or a little longer. Hevel, Abel, is uncertain of what his offering even means, knows that in giving it he receives no guarantees or promises of a long, happy, and prosperous life, but still he lifts it up to heaven. All might be hevel, and hevel might be the closest thing you can get to nothing while still having something, but there is that miraculous spark of something.