If someone asks me my favorite passage of the Bible, I am never quite sure how to answer. You see, I am not really a person who has favorites; rather, my preferences depend on my circumstances. Perhaps I could tell you what my favorite food to eat on a cold snowy winter’s day is or what my favorite fabric to wear in the middle of a heat wave is, but generalized favorites are not something I have. So if I had to choose one part of our great sacred text as a favorite, I really could not say because it depends on what I am feeling or experiencing or longing for. That being said, I will say that the book of Ecclesiastes is one that I turn to again and again. I find reading this book cathartic and centering. It somehow makes things ok again.
Honestly, it is a strange book to claim as a favorite. When we began our study on this book at Newbury Court, one of the participants told me how depressing it is. And I guess that is true. In the first chapter we read:
I have seen all the deeds that are done under the sun, and, look, all is mere breath, and herding the wind. The crooked cannot turn straight nor can the lack be made good. I spoke to my heart, saying: As for me, look, I increased and added wisdom beyond all who were before me over Jerusalem, and my heart has seen much wisdom and knowledge. And I set my heart to know wisdom and revelry and folly, for this, too, is herding the wind. For in much wisdom is much worry, and he who adds wisdom adds pain.1
This is a pretty bleak opening to a book of the Bible if taken byself, but in the context of Wisdom Literature, the author wrestles with one of the big questions of life: what do we do when nothing makes sense and everything is out of our control?
As humans we like to have things make sense. We like nice, neat stories with a clearly defined narrative arc, interesting character development, and an almost predictable progression. But that is not what life is like. Frequently things seem to happen for no discernable reason. No matter how hard we try, we cannot control our own story and no matter how much we plot, scheme, and plan, sometimes things do not turn out even remotely how we would like them to. And this is uncomfortable. Now years later, we may be able to make some sense out of what we have been through, but in the moment–when the moments keep coming one after another–the possibility of meaning making in the future provides merely a thin hope.
I think this is where I see the beauty in the book of Ecclesiastes. As the book of Job wrestles with the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” and never fully resolves the question, the book of Ecclesiastes explores the moments when we have little control over the course of our lives, when things just do not make sense, and when everything just feels purposeless. It is comforting to walk through our sacred text and find someone asking the similar questions to the ones I do. It soothes my soul that there is not a clear answer. It seems to suggest that perhaps, part of our journey of faith is wrestling with these questions.
If any of this resonates with you, I encourage you to spend some time with this book. Whether it is the process of aging, unemployment or underemployment, the deferment of dreams, the ending of a relationship, or the general uncertainty of living through a pandemic, we can all feel the lack of control profoundly. In our tradition–in this book–we can find accompaniment, realize that we are not alone, as we listen for God speaking through the wind.
1Alter, Robert, “Qohelet,” in The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary (NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2019).
Attribution: Swanson, John August. Ecclesiastes, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56542 [retrieved February 11, 2022]. Original source: www.JohnAugustSwanson.com - copyright 1989 by John August Swanson.