Sunday, July 31, 2016

Could be worse

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23     
Common English Bible (CEB) 

2:1 Perfectly pointless, says the Teacher, perfectly pointless. Everything is pointless. 

12 I am the Teacher. I was king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 I applied my mind to investigate and to explore by wisdom all that happens under heaven. It’s an unhappy obsession that God has given to human beings. 14 When I observed all that happens under the sun, I realized that everything is pointless, a chasing after wind.

2:18 I hated the things I worked so hard for here under the sun, because I will have to leave them to someone who comes after me. 19 And who knows whether that one will be wise or foolish? Either way, that person will have control over the results of all my hard work and wisdom here under the sun. That too is pointless. 20 I then gave myself up to despair, as I thought about all my laborious hard work under the sun, 21 because sometimes those who have worked hard with wisdom, knowledge, and skill must leave the results of their hard work as a possession to those who haven’t worked hard for it. This too is pointless—it’s a terrible wrong. 22 I mean, What do people get for all their hard work and struggles under the sun? 23 All their days are pain, and their work is aggravation; even at night, their hearts don’t find rest. This too is pointless.


King Solomon.  Son of David and Bathsheba.  Considered one of the prophets by both Judaism and Islam.  Both the Bible and the Qur’an describe him as the third king of a united Israel, a just and wise ruler.  The book of Kings tells us that when Solomon first became king, he prayed to God asking only for wisdom, not wealth or power or even the death of his enemies.  God was so pleased by this prayer that Solomon was rewarded not just with wisdom, but with permission to build the Temple, which would stand for 300 years.  We all probably know the story of the two women who came before his court, each claiming the same child as her own.  With no evidence to help him determine which woman was the true mother, Solomon declared the child would be cut in half and each woman would then receive half a child.  The mother who said, “No, give him to her,” was declared to be the true mother, thus proving his wisdom.  He is said to have written several books of the Bible - Proverbs, The Song of Songs (or Solomon), Ecclesiastes, and The Wisdom of Solomon (or Ecclesiasticus.)    According to the Bible he had 700 wives, all princesses whom he married as part of treaties made with their fathers, as well as 300 concubines.  Solomon’s fame as a wise and wealthy ruler spread so far that the Bible tells us the Queen of Sheba came to meet him, bringing gifts of gold, jewels and spices, all the way from that part of Africa we know as Ethiopia and Somolia.   Legend claims that the Lost Mines which were a source of Solomon’s wealth are still waiting to be found by Indiana Jones.  There is, in fact, some archeological evidence of copper mines in the area around what was known as Edom, which was a vassal of Israel in King Solomon’s time, which might indeed be the Mines of Solomon.   I love it when archeology confirms Biblical stories.  

This great man, this wealthy and powerful man, this man who had everything anyone could ever dream of, is the very same person who wrote the words we heard read just a few moments ago.  “It’s pointless!  Perfectly pointless!  Everything is pointless!”  His observation of humanity tells him nothing lasts.  Chasing wisdom and knowledge is chasing after the wind.  Accumulating great wealth means he has to leave it all to someone who may fritter it all away.  All his hard work, for nothing. It’s pointless!  When I read this, all I could think of was Eeyore from the Winnie the Pooh books.  So sad, all the time.  “It could be worse,” Eeyore says. “I’m not sure how, but it could be.”  

Eeyore really can’t help himself.  He is as he was designed to be: a character in a children’s book, a stuffed animal who is loved dearly by all his friends even though he is always so very sad. He’s even blue, a color traditionally associated with sadness.  In the last couple of years he has been sort of adopted as a mascot by some counseling and therapy communities to help friends and family deal with people living with depression, in large part because of a quote that seems to have originated on George Takei’s Facebook page.  “One awesome thing about Eeyore is that even though he is basically clinically depressed, he still gets invited to participate in adventures and shenanigans with all of his friends.  And they never expect him to pretend to feel happy, they just love him anyway, and they never leave him behind or ask him to change.”  And Eeyore does have some legitimate issues.  His tail falls off and gets lost all the time. His house falls down regularly and has to be rebuilt.  A raincloud follows him around most of the time, while he spends his days searching for thistles, which are his favorite food.  Even his birthday party turned into a disaster, which doesn’t mean he didn’t love his gifts - a popped balloon and an empty honey pot.  (And I think we all know why the honey pot was empty, hmmm?)    

Solomon was not Eeyore.  He did have 700 wives, 300 concubines and an uncounted number of children. That alone must have been stressful!  He was the ruler over Israel’s 12 contentious tribes plus a number of vassal kingdoms, each of which brought its own issues.  He was called upon to make decisions on everything from who gave birth to a particular child to how trade was to be conducted between Israel and other nations - allies and enemies alike.  And by this point in his life he had displeased God pretty significantly.  Those 700 wives?  They all brought their own gods and their own priests and their own forms of worship into his house.  He built altars and temples for those other gods.  He even, it is said, participated in worshipping them.  He had stopped being faithful to Yahweh, Lord God of Israel, who had given him his throne, his wisdom and all the blessings he had accumulated.  One story claims that when the Queen of Sheba came to Israel, she and Solomon became lovers, and that the son from that relationship was the direct ancestor of Nebuchadnezzar II, who would come along 300 years later, tear down Solomon’s Temple and take the people of Judah into their exile in Babylon.  This was Solomon’s punishment for disobedience, according to the rabbis.    

Sidebar:   When I say “according to the rabbis” what I am usually talking about is something called Midrash, a collection of stories dating back thousands of years and continuing into the present, intended to help explain some of the odd bits in scripture.  Like this story.  The Bible only tells us that the Queen of Sheba visited, but stories abound that fill in some blanks and make connections.  

Solomon was right, in a way.  His son Rehoboam, the heir to his kingdom, was an entitled twit.  Immediately upon coming to the throne, he told the leaders of the tribes that he was going to be even more demanding than his father, that he was raising taxes and drafting all their sons and daughters into servitude.  This did not go over well.  Ten of the tribes seceded, creating the Northern Kingdoms, also known in the Bible as the nation of Israel - a completely separate entity from Judah and Benjamin (and a source of some confusion when we read the prophets).  They would build their own Temple and have their own priests, never again coming to Jerusalem to worship.  Rehoboam lost the kingdom his father left to him without even going to war.   He had not inherited his father’s wisdom.  

Solomon is nearing the end of his life.  His reputation is made, his kingdom is stable, the Temple is built, his lineage is assured through many legitimate heirs.  Looking back over his life and into the future, he wonders what was the use of everything he had done.  What was the use of pursuing knowledge, if no one would listen?  What was the sense of accumulating wealth or power or property, when his heirs would just waste or destroy it?  And life in general.  “What do people get for all their hard work and struggles under the sun?  All their days are pain, and their work is aggravation; even at night, their hearts don’t find rest. This too is pointless.”   I’m pretty sure most people have felt like this at one time or another.  You know those nights when everything just spins around in your head, keeping you from sleep, when you wonder what’s the point?  That’s where Solomon was when he wrote this bit.

What Solomon seems to have forgotten, at this particular moment in his life, is where all those good things he had came from in the first place.   He thought it was about him, his work, his effort.  He thought he had some control over the outcomes of his studies, his labors, his application of wisdom.  He was wrong.  It’s a common failing, something that often accompanies success.  We think that somehow everything we achieve is through our own work.  We think somehow we are in control of, not just our own efforts, but of other people’s response to those efforts.  And when things go wrong, when we don’t get the job or when even with all the rehearsal in the world we cannot seem to get that part just right or when the words just won’t come or when no matter how careful we are about our diet and how dedicated we are to exercise the weight just will not come off or when the diagnosis is not great even though we did everything possible to stay healthy. . . when things don’t go our way we may think that it’s pointless.  That all our hard work has gone for nothing, and there is no point in going forward.  We may sound a great deal like Solomon, or Eeyore.

A very wise man once said, "There is nothing in the world so damaged that it cannot be mended by the hand of almighty God. I encourage you to know this, because without this certainty we should all of us be mad."  OK, the wise man was really a wise woman, because that quote is from Hercule Poirot in Agatha Christie’s 1938 novel,  Appointment with Death. 

And I think it’s not so much that the outcome will change, or mend, if we turn more deliberately to God.  Rather, it is the way we perceive the outcome.  If we are able to express gratitude to God for whatever falls into our lives, whether or not we like it, our outlook will change, our pain will heal, our hearts will be mended.  It’s not pointless.  It’s just that I don’t see the point.  I may never see the point, but I don’t have to.  I survived it - whatever it may be.  I gained strength from it, or  experience, or friends, or something. I’ve been known to be grateful for the flu, because it made me slow down and rest.  I am not saying that God planned for the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad thing to happen.  Because I don’t believe that. But I am saying that the hand of almighty God will give me the strength to get through it. I am saying that, by being grateful to God even for the bad days, by turning everything I do and everything I experience over to the care of God, by keeping my mind fixed on the idea that whatever I do, I do for God’s glory, not my own, by leaving the outcome in God’s hands and not worrying about it, my life ceases to be pointless. 

It could be worse.  I could be walking alone, without God at my side.  And that would pointless.  The good news, my brothers and sisters,  that no thing, no pain, is so terrible that God cannot mend it.  And the even better Good News is that God is with us now and always.     Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment