Ecclesiastes 1:1-10, 4:1-3
The Old Testament wisdom book, Ecclesiastes, is like a chaos anthology—a collection of poems, stories, and wisdom sayings for when life feels upside down. The author—who calls himself ‘The Teacher,’ or Qoheleth— detects no discernible order to creation. He observes injustice and oppression, sees the righteous receive the same fate as the wicked, watches countless lives end with death, and declares the entire human enterprise completely meaningless, like chasing after the wind.
So, welcome to church!
This intensely personal—at times, incredibly dark— account has no obvious forward or backward memory; it contains neither “the liberating work of the God of Exodus, nor the messianic visions of Second Isaiah” (Tamez, 4). And while the book provides some internal resolution to Qoheleth’s melancholy musing, this text largely seems to lack any solid thrust of “good news” for the present.
And yet. The Christian tradition maintains that Ecclesiastes is the canonized, God-breathed, truthful speech of an Israelite sage (Deik, 80). The question I have for us to consider is this: what significance do you think it has, that scripture gives voice not only to life’s darkness, but also to the reality of despair? I want to offer, that the despairing words of Qoheleth in Ecclesiastes 1:1-10, 4:1-3, reveal a God who cares about giving voice to the real and immediate experiences of pain, uncertainty, and loss that can often accompany life.
In my own experience, Qoheleth has functioned as a kind of ‘patron saint’ of chronic illness. Folks like me, living with chronic illness— whether it be diabetes, arthritis, depression, anxiety, ulcerative colitis, cancer, asthma, or an autoimmune disease—may find that their story doesn’t map onto neat narratives. In her memoir, the Invisible Kingdom, author Meghan O’Rourke describes it like this.“Rather than stories about a dramatic onset and ultimate cure of illness, many of us may live in a gray area between health and disease for years, amorphously fluctuating between feeling well and being symptomatic” (O’Rourke, Invisible Kingdom, 44). Unfortunately, chronic illness isn’t always a story about overcoming in this lifetime. My own illness story, thus far, has had no conclusion or destination. Rather, echoing O’Rourke, it’s been a “sum of all of the ways it has taxed and surprised me” (O’Rourke, 270). But in my illness, I find voice in Ecclesiastes, which isn’t so much about ‘overcoming’ anything, but twists and turns as the author experiences life, and takes full license to name and feel when the world feels bleak.
It seems that the object of Qoheleth’s quest is neither to ignore nor explain his experience of life’s bleakness, but to acknowledge it in every. possible. facet. For instance, he names the belief that all human labor and achievement in life amounts to nothing tangible or lasting; like a cough, or a puff of cigarette smoke. He names a feeling of cosmic incompletion; that the sun, wind, and streams are circling round and around and around but never reach a stop; like the entire earth is experiencing déjà vu, every day, forever. And he names the sheer brevity of life itself; something we’re reminded of everytime we enter this room, and see the faces of loved one’s and friends immortalized in the fresco, who are no longer with us. Qoheleth’s remarks form a window into his personal experience of despair, that leads him to utter that raw, honest, pain-filled lament in chapter 4: better are those who have never been born, who have not seen the oppression under the sun.
Being in the throes of an intense illness or personal loss, has the capacity to shrink our horizons to little beyond despair. This is why I’ve crowned Qoheleth my patron saint of chronic illness—he models what it looks like to courageously dive into the depths of one’s darkest thoughts and bring them into the light, where they can be seen and acknowledged; attended to, and cared for. This is not an easy thing to do. And in survival mode, this might not even be safe. We hold this in tension, with the reality that it can be a profound act of healing, to privately write about or communally share our experiences, even when hope for a “cure” or solution may be unattainable in this life. Not only because, scientifically speaking—it can literally lower blood pressure and strengthen our immune systems (to vocalize experiences of grief and loss), but also because doing so guides us into the presence of a regenerative God who seeks out and includes the voice of Qoheleth, validating that no feeling or thought is “too much” or off limits. It makes me wonder, church, what that might say, about how God feels about us.
Now, Qoheleth’s portrait of the world at its bleakest, is not a full portrait of his wisdom. It’s just not. Just as this fresco reminds us, both of the reality of illness and loss, and the intrinsic dignity and worth in God’s creation, Qoheleth emphasizes, later in the text, that there’s intrinsic value in life’s simplest moments; in the joy of sharing a meal with loved ones and friends—something we’re well acquainted with here at Haywood St. And the other day, our friend Korah (if you don’t mind the shout out) reminded me of those essential lines in chapter 12, where Qoheleth stresses the importance of keeping God’s commands, the greatest of which is these, to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. And yet, Qoheleth still reckons with an experience of life feeling meaningless with admirable honesty and reckless abandon. His powerful testimony helps us to walk that razor-thin line between seeking meaning in every painful experience, and truly mourning our legitimate losses. Like the structure of the book itself, we need not loose the weight of lament, by rushing to its conclusion.
And while Ecclesiastes— with its emphasis on life’s bleakness— may strike us as a departure from the “good news,” Pastor Seth reminded me of Jesus’ profound words on the cross, where he echoes Psalm 22—my God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Christ in his Godhood and his humanity, expressed despair, verbalized a piece of Qoheleth on the cross, along with a piece of Job, and Lamentations, and Jeremiah, and the Psalms. Christ reveals God’s concern for the present—that even when the resurrection is coming just three days later, if the experience now, feels meaningless, feels bleak? Then, we can sure as hell say it. This God isn’t afraid of the dark. As Jody and Derrick reminded us last week, this God meets us exactly where we’re at. The full story of scripture is far from meaningless! meaningless! But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t get dark sometimes; God knows that, intimately. Perhaps giving ourselves permission to follow in the footsteps of Qoheleth and Christ himself—to name, and more importantly, to feel, when things look bleak—can be a powerful starting point for a constructive response to chronic illness, or the experiences of pain, uncertainty, and loss that can accompany life. And if we’re not ready to do that right now, we can trust that God will meet us there, too, like the fresco, holding tension between holy and chaos, beauty and despair, loss and life.
I invite you to close with me, with a prayer from the book The Pattern of our Days:
Lord Jesus, [true God and true man],
it’s good to know that you lived in the flesh,
walked where we walk, felt what we feel,
got tired, had sore and dirty feet,
needed to eat, and to think about
where that next meal was coming from.
You didn’t mind when people touched you…
You kissed people with diseases.
and laid your head on your friend’s shoulder.
Thank you for understanding our bodily pains and for valuing them.
Deik, A. Justice in Ecclesiastes (3:15-4:3 and 8:10-17): A Missional Reading from and for Palestine. In J.
Havea & P.H.W Lau (Eds.), Reading Ecclesiastes from Asia and Pasifika (pp. 69-84). SBL Press. https://www.sbl-site.org/assets/pdfs/pubs/9781628372809_OA.pdf
Gnanaraj, D. A Time to Judge: Seeking Justice with Qoheleth and Ancient Tamil Wisdom. In J. Havea &
P.H.W Lau (Eds.), Reading Ecclesiastes from Asia and Pasifika (pp. 153-170). SBL Press. https://www.sbl-site.org/assets/pdfs/pubs/9781628372809_OA.pdf
O’Rourke, M. (2022). The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness. Riverhead Books. Kindle.
Tamez, E. (2000). When the Horizons Close: Rereading Ecclesiastes (M. Wilde, Trans.). Orbis Books.