King Solomon

Qoheleth, the patriot

I’ve never heard anyone suggest to new converts that they begin their reading of the Bible with Ecclesiastes.  The last I heard, it’s not very popular in Sunday school.  I guess I can understand why.  It is a strange little book.  Some rabbis of old fought hard to keep it from being called scripture.

If you’ve read the book, you can probably figure out why.  Starting right off in chapter 1 we get some pretty good clues.  Ecclesiastes says things the rest of the Bible does not say!  Already, in the second verse of the book, we hear this: “Vanity of vanities…  All is vanity.”  That sets the theme for all that follows.  All is vanity![1]  Everything is meaningless!  It’s no use!  What in the world is that doing in the Bible?  Is that something one of God’s people would say?

Hold on to that thought.  We’ll see more examples as we go on as to why folks throughout the centuries have been puzzled about the book.

In the original Hebrew, our narrator is anonymous.  He’s simply referred to as קֹהֶלֶת (qoheleth).  “Ecclesiastes” comes from the Greek translation of that word.  “Qoheleth” comes from the word קׇהַל (qahal), which means “assembly” or “congregation.”  So, “Qoheleth” would be the “convener of the assembly.”  One might say he’s the person who “ca-halls” the people together!

Even though the author calls himself “the son of David, king in Jerusalem,” it’s clear from the vocabulary used he lives hundreds of years after Solomon.  But like others who wrote what’s known as wisdom literature, he pays his respects to the king noted for his great wisdom.  Claiming to be Solomon is high praise.

All is vanity!  To those who believe faith is like the nice little graphics you click on Facebook, this might come like a bucket of ice water thrown in the face—and then followed with the empty bucket!  This is some stern, bitter language.  The translations “vanity,” “futility,” “meaningless”: none of them quite capture the sense of deep disappointment Qoheleth expresses.  Those words don’t have enough bite.  What might be necessary is something like: “Everything is b. s.”

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In fact, Methodist professor Elsa Tamez has said of Ecclesiastes it is for “times of profound disillusionment.”[2]  It seems she goes along with the saying, “Misery loves company,” because she adds, “a disappointed soul can find solace in reading this work of a frustrated narrator.”  I really like the footnote she puts at the bottom of the page.  “This has happened to me various times after giving a sermon, teaching a Bible study, or conducting a course on Ecclesiastes”!

Just look at our scripture reading.  Look at the list of frustration that Qoheleth goes through.  Generations come and go, the sun rises and sets, the winds blow, the streams flow—but nothing really changes.  “All things are wearisome,” he proclaims, “more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing” (v. 8).

Don’t forget; this is just the opening chapter!  There’s a lot more where that came from!  Maybe we can be excused for dismissing this as the ranting of Qoheleth the curmudgeon.  But then, my sermon title isn’t “Qoheleth, the Curmudgeon.”  It’s “Qoheleth, the Patriot.”

To understand how Qoheleth could be a patriot, we need to look at the world in his day.  It was after the Babylonian exile, possibly after when the Persians came to power in the mid-500s B. C., and before the Greeks took over in the late 300s.  But no one really knows.

In any case, the Jews are but a small part of a big empire, be it Persian or Greek.  And in either case, Qoheleth has witnessed the arrogance of a superpower.  Each in their own way, the Persians, then the Greeks, have dominated the Jews.  They’ve imposed their own cultural values on them.

So when Qoheleth observes, as he does in verse 9, that “there is nothing new under the sun,” in part, it flies in the face of political propaganda—the party line of the government.  The nations who have invaded the Jews have promised them all kinds of innovations, what they see as modernization, so to speak.  To the leaders who say that “everything has changed” and that “we live in a brand new world,” Qoheleth says, “I don’t think so; we’ve seen all this before!  We’ve heard these grand promises before.”

Elsa
Elsa Tamez

Our author wants to rouse his fellow Jews from their slumber.  In verse 11, he warns, “The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them.”  In The Message, Eugene Peterson turns that last line into, “Don’t count on being remembered.”

Dr. Tamez reflects on how “generations come and go without remembering their own history.  Such collective amnesia means the death of a people.”[3]  If we have the attention span of a gnat, we become very easy to manipulate.  We are easy to manipulate if our life’s focus is on bread and circuses.

Being a good citizen, especially the citizen of a democracy, requires effort.  It takes discipline.  On the other hand, to live under an authoritarian requires very little effort.  We need only ignore our responsibility to others—especially to the poorest and weakest—and to the planet.  Without discipline, especially spiritual discipline, freedom slips through our fingers like sand.

The great Jewish writer Abraham Heschel published an article in February 1944.[4]  During World War 2, he speaks of that lack of spiritual discipline that permits dictatorship and war to thrive.  Heschel’s words remain relevant for us today, as they have been presented again in recent years.

“Let Fascism not serve as an alibi for our conscience.  [I think we could substitute “terrorism” for “fascism.”  But I think we could also envision fascism once again raising its ugly head.]  We have failed to fight for right, for justice, for goodness; as a result we must fight against wrong, against injustice, against evil.  We have failed to offer sacrifices on the altar of peace; now we must offer sacrifices on the altar of war.”

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Abraham Joshua Heschel

He goes on, “A tale is told of a band of inexperienced mountain climbers.  Without guides, they struck recklessly into the wilderness.  Suddenly a rocky ledge gave way beneath their feet and they tumbled headlong into a dismal pit.  In the darkness of the pit they recovered from their shock, only to find themselves set upon by a swarm of angry snakes.  Every crevice became alive with fanged, hissing things.  For each snake the desperate men slew, ten more seemed to lash out in its place.  Strangely enough, one man seemed to stand aside from the fight.  When the indignant voices of his struggling companions reproached him for not fighting, he called back: If we remain here, we shall be dead before the snakes.  I am searching for a way of escape from the pit for all of us.”

We can become so focused on the agenda that’s been handed us—or that we’ve chosen for ourselves—that we forget to stop, lift up our heads, look around, and explore other possibilities.  We can emphasize what we reject more than what we accept.  We can emphasize what divides us more than what unites us.  We can attract negative energy rather than positive energy.

“Let future generations not loathe us,” Heschel says, “for having failed to preserve what prophets and saints, martyrs and scholars have created in thousands of years.  The Fascists have shown that they are great in evil.  Let us reveal that we can be as great in goodness.”

In a strange way, Ecclesiastes is valuable for those who often have an uncomfortable and questioning faith.  I don’t know; maybe that’s why I like it!

As we approach our nation’s 242nd birthday, sometimes we have an uncomfortable and questioning patriotism.  I believe that’s in the best spirit of America.  We’re still allowed to ask uncomfortable questions, at least, for now.

Our final hymn today is “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies.”  I love that song.  Most of us know the first verse by heart.  As we continue, Katharine Lee Bates deals with the innate complexity that is America.  Each verse begins, “O beautiful,” and celebrates the promise and the dream of America.  It is a promise not yet fulfilled.  Bates thinks this is reason for celebration: “O beautiful for patriot dream / That sees beyond the years. / Thine alabaster cities gleam, / Undimmed by human tears!”  Friends, we’re not quite there!

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Qoheleth asks the uncomfortable questions, and he really doesn’t have the answers.  Vanity of vanity—all is vanity!  It’s all useless!  Fortunately for us, we do have one who asked, and continues to ask, those uncomfortable questions, and he asks them to Caesar.

Jesus the Christ, the son of David, the king, makes the promise to us, even if the dream is not yet fulfilled.  We are freed to ask those uncomfortable questions, and we know at the end of the day, that all is not vanity.  To the contrary, all is bursting with light, something new under the sun.

 

[1] הֶבֶל (hebel)

[2] Elsa Tamez, “Ecclesiastes: A Reading from the Periphery,” Interpretation 55:3 (July 2001): 250.

[3] Tamez, 252.

[4] mlk50.org/writings/king-heschel/the-meaning-of-this-war-by-abraham-joshual-heschel


gospel in the dark

How about Psalm 88 as a way to lift your spirits?  And then there’s John 11:35, “Jesus began to weep.”  Or as it’s more commonly rendered in the King James and other versions: “Jesus wept.”  After the scripture readings, saying, “This is the word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God,” might feel pretty strange!

There’s a song that is not in the blue hymnal which we use (The Presbyterian Hymnal), but it is in the older red hymnal (The Hymnbook).  It’s “Be Still, My Soul.”  It’s set to the wonderful tune, “Finlandia.”  The hymnal includes three verses, but it doesn’t have this one:

“Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart, / And all is darkened in the vale of tears, / Then shalt thou better know His love, His heart, / Who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears. / Be still, my soul: thy Jesus can repay / From His own fullness all He takes away.”[1]

Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart, and all is darkened in the vale of tears.  What a beautiful and haunting image: “the vale of tears,” the valley of tears.  It’s a somber description of our life in this mortal coil.  It’s omission from the hymnbook is a commentary on how we often reshape our singing and liturgy to avoid awkwardly acknowledging certain topics.

1 lamentStill, I think that song would be loved by those who are into Goth music!

There’s a prayer website called Sacred Space.  Among the things they post are thoughts for the week, things to help guide prayer.  I made a note of something that appeared some time ago.  It dealt with a topic that is one of those uncomfortable subjects: death.  (At least, in my experience, when I’ve gone to parties, it’s not often a topic of conversation!)

According to the prayer guide, “Of the many ways to die alone, the most comfortless and solitary is when family and friends conspire to deny the approach of death.  They may feel, ‘I couldn’t take away her hope.’  But without acceptance of the truth, they remove the possibility of spiritual companionship at the end.”[2]

We’re told that in his book, How We Die, Sherwin Nuland “remembers with regret how the family conspired to avoid the truth when his beloved Aunt Rose was dying.  ‘We knew—she knew—we knew she knew—she knew we knew—and none of us would talk about it when we were all together.  We kept up the charade to the end.  Aunt Rose was deprived, and so were we, of the coming together that should have been, when we might finally tell her what her life had given us.  In this sense, my Aunt Rose died alone.’”

I think there’s a parallel between how we often speak of death, and in a broader sense, of lamentation, expression of grief, in general.

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[The above image is from diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54142, “Angel of Grief.”]

That’s also seen in the worship of the church.  I just mentioned how we try to avoid those unpleasant realities in our hymns and liturgies.  The folks who put the lectionary together tended to leave out the problematic, uncomfortable verses.  Maybe you know what I’m talking about.  Stuff like, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters,” and “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man” (Ep 6:5, 1 Tm 2:12).  Admittedly, those need some big time work done to them!

Another good case is the story in 1 Kings 3, where it talks about Solomon’s dream, in which he asks God for wisdom (vv. 3-14).  God congratulates him for not asking that his enemies be killed or that he be made a wealthy man.

What conveniently gets skipped over is Solomon’s marriage to the Pharaoh’s daughter to form an alliance with Egypt.  My guess is that’s one of those awkward subjects!

In the same way, there are certain psalms that appear nowhere in our lectionary.  Hint: Psalm 88 is one of them.  After listening to that litany of doom and gloom, maybe we can see why it got left out.

Still, one of the most treasured psalms, Psalm 22, is filled with anguish.  Jesus on the cross screams out its beginning: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  But it does have notes of hope, and by the time we get to the end, the psalmist announces, “Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it” (vv. 30-31).

3 lamentSurely Psalm 88 follows the same path.  It’s in the Bible; shouldn’t it also wind up as praise?  Verse 1 says, “Lord God, my savior, I cry out all day, and at night I come before you” (GNB).  Surely by the time we’re finished, we’ve worked out some kind of resolution.

Here’s how it ends in the NRSV: “You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness” (v. 18).  That doesn’t sound very much like praise.

I think some of the other translations sound even less like praise.  Here’s the NIV: “You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend.”  I think the New Jerusalem Bible is even gloomier: “You have deprived me of friends and companions, and all that I know is the dark.”

“All that I know is the dark.”  Friends, this is some serious lamentation!  We are looking at the only psalm without a single note of blessing.  It’s the only psalm in the Bible without one word of hope.

There’s something we need to realize about this ancient poet.  When we read these words from so long ago, we have to keep something in mind.  This is a person of faith.  This is not the work of someone engaged in ridiculing or mocking.  Psalm 88’s first three words in Hebrew are translated into English as “Yahweh [Lord], God of my salvation.”[3]

Even though our psalm has no breath of blessing, it is still praise.  It is dark praise, and that makes us uncomfortable.

4 lamentDominique Gilliard is a minister in the Evangelical Covenant Church; he’s the executive pastor of New Hope Covenant Church in Oakland.  He wrote an article called “Reclaiming the Power of Lament.”[4]  It is a revelation.  It is a challenge.  And I think it’s a perfect meditation for the Lenten season.

“Somewhere along the way,” he says, “we modern Christians got lament wrong: we began thinking of it as optional instead of a required practice of the faith.”  That goes along with our reluctance to even mention it.  Still, scripture is filled to the brim with lamentation.  Here’s just a taste: the book of Lamentations (of course), the book of Job, a huge number of the Psalms, Paul’s grief about his thorn in the flesh, and again, Jesus’ weeping.

Gilliard speaks about tragedies in our nation.  Among others, he mentions Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charleston.  The hits just keep on coming—and that’s not counting disasters all over the world.  They just wash over us until we can’t keep track.  In response to that, he says, “Lamentation, however, forces us to slow down…  Lamentation prevents us from becoming numb and apathetic to the pain of our world…  Lamentation begets revelation…  It opens our ears to the sounds of torture, anguish and weeping that are the white noise of our world.”

Here’s something I find fascinating and challenging.  “To live without lament is to live an unexamined life.”  We lose touch with what makes us human.

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[A man in Ferguson, Missouri, holds on to a fence on August 15, 2014, at the site of a convenience store destroyed during rioting after the shooting death of Michael Brown by police.  Bigstock/Gino Santa Maria]

We don’t have to look very far for something to lament.  There is much in our lives to provide reason for mourning.  But we need not yield to despair.

Our friend Dominique hits on something.  “When faithfully engaged and authentically enacted, lamentation keeps us accountable to our baptismal vows.  It reminds us of our need for God, one another, and the Holy Spirit’s guidance.”

Our baptismal vows!  When the sacrament is celebrated, we “as members of the church of Jesus Christ,” are asked to “promise to guide and nurture…by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging [those being baptized] to know and follow Christ and to be faithful members of his church.”  We vow to be accountable to each other, to watch out for each other, as we walk the journey of faith.

Blest be the tie that binds.  “We share our mutual woes, / Our mutual burdens bear, / And often for each other flows / The sympathizing tear.”

And what about Jesus when he weeps?  Is he putting on a show?  Surely his understanding that he can raise Lazarus from the dead would prevent the need for tears.  Does he weep with empathy for Mary and Martha, because they are weeping?  Here’s my guess.  Even though he knows he will raise Lazarus, he still feels the pain himself.  After all, he is human!

If we also acknowledge that Jesus is the image, the icon, of God, that also says something.  Do we think of lamenting, of grieving, as weakness?  If so, so be it.  God laments.  At the end of the day, maybe that’s enough.  God’s weakness is greater than all the strength we can muster.  The weakness of God serves as a model for us.

Lent reminds us that we must pass through the valley of tears before we arrive at the resurrection.  We do not honor each other by ignoring the reality of lament.

In the book, Uncommon Gratitude, Joan Chittister says, “Darkness deserves gratitude.  It is the alleluia point at which we learn to understand that all growth does not take place in the sunlight.”[5]

Think of the hymn, “Abide with Me.”  It’s listed in the section of our [Presbyterian] hymnal called “Evening Hymns.”  I imagine that’s due to the first lines.  “Abide with me: fast falls the eventide.  The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide!”  The hymn speaks of things in our lives which pass away.  But unlike our psalm, it ends on a strong note of praise and affirmation.

“Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes; / Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies: / Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; / In life, in death, O Lord, / abide with me.”

As incredible as it is, deep in the depths of that darkness, there is gospel.  At the bottom of the bottomless pit, there is good news.  Even there (perhaps especially there), Christ reigns in victory.  There is gospel in the dark.

 

[1] library.timelesstruths.org/music/Be_Still_My_Soul

[2] sacredspace.ie (26 Sep-2 Oct 2010)

[3] יהוה אלהי ישועתי (salvation-of-me, God-of, Yahweh)

[4] www.faithandleadership.com/dominique-d-gilliard-reclaiming-power-lament

[5] www.friendsofsilence.net/quote/2012/10/darkness-deserves-gratitude


I became great

PeacockFor our final Lenten Bible study, we’re looking at 1 Kings 11.  There we’re introduced to the less-flattering side of Solomon, the king renowned for his wisdom.  In chapter 10, we’ve just been told that “King Solomon excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom” (v. 23).  (No hint of exaggeration there!)  We’re also told of his vast commerce in horses and chariots.

 
But what is this less-flattering side?  What should we expect from a man with untold wealth and power?  Apparently, he loves “many foreign women along with the daughter of Pharaoh” (v. 1).  His multitude of wives and lovers have “turned away his heart after other gods” (v. 4).  Deuteronomy, which was compiled at roughly the same time as our current book, issues a warning about the king.  Beware, “he must not acquire many horses for himself,” nor must he “acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away” (17:16, 17).
 
It seems some things never change.  We have men with power today who could echo the words put in Solomon’s mouth as the book of Ecclesiastes.  (Though they likely have less wisdom.) 
 
What about the rest of us?  We need not be captains of industry or have a litany of lovers for our hearts to be turned away after other gods.  What does dwell in our hearts?