August 24, 2003
Byron C. Bangert
Come the end of the summer, I often find myself in a wistful mood. Especially so right after coming home from vacation. One Sunday morning several years ago I observed to my congregation that it was customary for ministers returned from vacation to comment on how glad they were to be back. However, I was feeling that it would have been nice still to be on vacation. I discovered that was not the most politic thing to say--but it was nonetheless true. Summers always end too soon. The return to work and routines is always sooner that I would choose.
In any case, I can hardly let a season of summer go by without seeking solace in the words of Ecclesiastes, aka Koheleth. There is no other writing in any scripture of which I am aware that has a more jaundiced view of work, a more robust critique of conventional wisdom, a more subversive outlook on human pretensions to significance: "There is nothing new under the sun." "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity." "What gain has the worker from his/her toil?"
Several years ago, on my 47th birthday, I first heard a sermon on the passage that I read just a few moments ago. I was spending a couple weeks of study leave at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, and Old Testament professor Sibley Towner was the morning preacher. Towner had recently been with his 92 year old mother to celebrate her birthday. By his account, she loved to tell jokes, especially of the "bad news, good news" variety.
For example: A letter sent back home from a pioneer on the Oregon Trail: "Bad news: There's nothing here to eat but buffalo chips. Good news: There's plenty of them."
Or this one, concerning a doctor whose patient required an amputation: "Bad news: I'm sorry to say we removed the wrong leg. Good news: It was perfectly healthy."
My text this morning is a kind of "bad news, good news" report, only the order of the news is reversed. The end of chapter 11 is an invitation to enjoyment of life. It is good news of a sort, though like the good news about the buffalo chips and the healthy leg, the message is somewhat compromised by the bad news. For this invitation is given in anticipation of the beginning of chapter 12, the famous "allegory of old age." Chapter 12 contains a moving, poignant statement of what it means to grow old and die, made all the more poignant when heard on one's birthday! Even now, I am hardly an old man, though I may seem that way to some of you, but the message here is one that speaks to me and is intended for us all.
First, the bad news of chapter 12: Koheleth, the Hebrew name for the author of Ecclesiastes, traditionally translated as "Preacher" but now as "Teacher," speaks from experience: "Remember your creator in the days of your youth," he says, "before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, 'I have no pleasure in them.'" A sober warning here! This is what it is like to grow old. It may be some consolation to consider that for Koheleth this period of life would have come 20-30 years earlier than it does for us, with our extended life expectancies. Nonetheless, if we live to our old age, this is what may well await us.
The portrait drawn here begins with the undoing of creation: "the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened, and the clouds return with rain." Instead of light, darkness; instead of the heavens displaying the handiwork of the Creator, clouds obscuring the heavens and inundating the earth.
The following verses have been variously interpreted as a description of the decay of a once wealthy estate or the advance of a storm. They are probably best seen as an allegory of the decline of the human body. The guards of the house that tremble may be the legs, the strong men that are bent the arms. The grinding women who cease because they are too few must be the teeth. Those who see dimly through the windows are the eyes. "When the doors on the street are shut" may refer to loss of hearing, which no longer notices the sounds outside the house. The sounding of grinding that is low may be the digestive system. "One rises up at the sound of a bird"--insomnia, or simply shortening of sleep. "The daughters of song are brought low"--perhaps the weakening or failure of voice. Fear of heights, and terrors in the road--unsteadiness of feet, or vulnerability and defenselessness against physical hazards or assault. "The almond tree blossoms"--the white hair of old age. "The grasshopper drags itself along and desire fails"--probably the decline of sexual vigor and function.
"All must go to their eternal home," says Koheleth. We are all headed for the grave, when "the mourners will go about in the street." The snapping of the silver cord, the breaking of the golden bowl, the pitcher, and the wheel, suggest the destruction and decay of a well, the source of water, the symbol of life. The end of life is this: "dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it." "Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity."
The Teacher does not see life as utterly worthless, but certainly as fleeting, as impermanent, as opaque to meaning. If not absurd or futile, it is certainly beyond our knowing what it's all about. This is a part of the story of our lives. Whatever our lot, it will soon be over. Do you realize that in just three days, public school starts again? Another week and IU will be running full tilt. Summer will be over before you know it. Old age will come upon you, if it has not already, sooner than you think. "It seems like only yesterday" may have actually been years ago. "Time and tide wait for no [one]" [Sir Walter Scott, FORTUNES OF NIGEL]. So much for the bad news.
Koheleth was obviously not a perennial optimist. No Dr. Pangloss here! But neither was he what we might call clinically depressed. He was hardly soured on human existence. Nor did he despise his fellow human beings. This is not the voice of misanthropy or despair. He says all of this for the sake of life, for the sake of enjoyment, for the sake of fulfilling what he takes to be the divine intention for the human creation. Here is the good news:
"Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun." Consciousness is a gift. The senses are a source of pleasure. "Even those who live many years should rejoice in them all," says Koheleth. Do not let any of them go to waste. As many days of light as one may enjoy, there will be plenty of days of darkness. The bad days, in effect, will take care of themselves. No need to worry about them. Rather, cherish all the good days that you can.
"Rejoice, young [person], while you are young, and let your heart cheer you in all the days of your youth." This is the voice of wisdom, and experience, and old age. But notice, Koheleth does not extol the conventional virtues, or issue the conventional warnings, that parents are given to pass on to their children. He does not say, "Work hard and you will be rewarded." He does not say, "Be careful." He does not say, "When I was your age . . ." Parents typically feel the need to protect their children, to warn them against too much freedom, too little regard for consequences, too little discipline, too much misplaced passion and desire. Koheleth is more like the grandfather, who can share the fun without taking the responsibility, of raising up the child. But for Koheleth, enjoyment is not a luxury to be espoused in old age, it is a virtual obligation to be seized upon throughout all of life.
In the minds of conventional moralists, the heart and the eyes are organs of misplaced desires. To follow them is to go astray [cf. Numbers 15:39]. The Teacher says, "Follow the inclination of your heart and the desire of your eyes." The rest of the sentence reads, in translation, "but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment." The translators apparently could not fathom what the Teacher actually must have meant. The "but" should be translated "and," so that the rest of the sentence reads, "and know that for all these things God will hold you to account." That is, God expects you to find enjoyment. God has created you to find pleasure in the creation. The Teacher is not issuing a license for hedonism and self-indulgence, but he is saying that life is for the living. God has made it so, and let us not squander this gift.
So, "[b]anish anxiety from your mind, and put away pain from your body; for youth and the dawn of life are vanity"--that is, not worthless, but as fleeting breath. There is no time to waste, if we are to fulfill our calling to enjoy what has been given. [What, after all, does the Shorter Catechism say? Is it not the chief end of human beings to glorify God and to enjoy God forever?]
Biblical scholar Robert Gordis imagines the elderly Koheleth, before he has set down in writing all that we know as Ecclesiastes. Gordis writes:
From time to time, his former pupils visit him, for Judaism declares it is a duty to pay
respect to one's former teachers by calling on them. He looks into the faces of these
lads who have since gone forth to positions of prominence and dignity in the practical
world. Some are important government officials, others are Temple dignitaries, while
others have far-flung economic interests as merchant princes or landed gentry. As his
wise, understanding eyes scan their faces, he notes that they have paid a high price for
success. The shining, carefree countenances of youth, the sparkling eyes brimful with
mischief, are gone. In their stead are worn faces, some drawn, others grown puffy
with the years, and tired, unhappy eyes sagging beneath the weight of responsibility.
Time was when his pupils were young and he was old, but now the tables are turned.
True, Koheleth is a few paces before them in the inexorable procession toward the
grave. But in a deeper sense, he is young and they are prematurely old. He knows
what they have forgotten--that [human] schemes and projects, . . . petty jealousies and
labors, . . . struggles and heartaches, all are vanity and that joy in life is the one Divine
Before it is too late, he takes pen in hand to transmit the truth, as he sees it, concerning the incomprehensible and indescribably precious blessing called life. [POETS, PROPHETS, AND SAGES (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1971), 341-42].
The Teacher is a lover of life, who wants his readers to be lovers of life. Indeed, he sees enjoyment of life not merely as opportunity, but as imperative--both because it is so fleeting and because that is God's will. This is the good news: Life is a blessing to be enjoyed. Enjoy it while you can! This, more than death, should be the story of our lives.
A footnote needs to be added here: The Teacher was not a romantic. He does not suppose that one can enjoy life without impediment or constraint or concern for consequence. He takes it as given that certain things are essential to human survival, among them eating and drinking and labor. Some years ago a book came out with the wistful title, WHY CAN'T MY LIFE BE A SUMMER VACATION? The reason it can't is, first of all, because most of us have to put food on the table, and that requires income, and income requires labor. The Teacher takes work for granted, and declares that the secret in life is to find enjoyment even in one's toil, which, for Koheleth, is always "under the sun." Ambiguously, toil under the sun must bear the heat and burden of the day, but also it enjoys the light.
The sum of what Koheleth has to say is that we have a lot of living to do. While it is still light, while we are still young--or at least able--before the silver cord is snapped and the golden bowl is broken and the well of life has fallen to decay, let us invest our days with all the energy we can, and find in them all the joy they have to offer.
Being on vacation can be a reminder of these things. Hayden and I drove 5600 miles to and through California and back. The first leg of our trip was to deliver a minivan loaded with our son, Nate's, personal possessions to his new home in southern California. After 3 & 1/2 days on the road we spent a few hours together and then said our goodbyes, knowing it will be months, at least, before we see each other again. Over the next few days we made our first visits to Sequoia, King's Canyon, and Yosemite National Parks. Yosemite, in particular, was magnificent. Serendipitously, we took a couple hours to climb Sentinel Dome, and discovered what must be the most spectacular view in the park. A few days later we were staying with old friends in Salt Lake City, and hearing what it's like to dwell in the land of the Mormons. The valley, the lake, and the mountains were beautiful from their deck, but the stories they told left another impression. Over the years I have come to puzzle the fact that the settings where I might most like to live and the people with whom I might most like to live are seldom in the same place. One observation made by our friends stands out. They have noted how often the obituaries in the newspaper mention that so-and-so enjoyed her trips to Wendover. Wendover? Well, it's about two hours straight west of Salt Lake City, just over the Nevada state line. You see, there is a casino there. Not to disparage casinos, but God forbid that any of our obituaries should have nothing better to record!
From Salt Lake City we went on to Rapid City, SD, my home town, to spend a few days with family. My parents, now in their 80s, still live in their own home. My sister and her husband live out from town a short distance. A cousin I hadn't seen for over 30 years has recently moved back with her family. One of my high school friends, his wife, Hayden, and I always spend an evening together. This time we went to Deadwood for dinner and actually spent some time in a couple of the casinos there. Another classmate has been talking about selling his sandwich shop for years, every time that we have stopped in for a quick lunch. These now-almost-annual visits back home have become a kind of ritual, increasingly predictable--yet how better to renew the ties that bind?
Koheleth, the Teacher, would perhaps regard such stories, and particularly the memories that they invoke, with a skeptical eye. He would point out that--so far as concerns me--these things will all soon come to nothing. Vanity of vanities under the sun! But then he would probably ask, "But did you enjoy what you were doing? Have you labored well? Did you give yourself fully to the tasks and opportunities before you? If so, then you have your reward. Then you are blessed."
We all have a lot of living to do. None of us has made the most of all our chances. One reason it can be good to renew contacts with people we have known before is to pursue possibilities we did not pursue before. It is also good to meet new people, to have new experiences, to accept new challenges and labors. There is pleasure to be found in all our labors under the sun. The days will come soon enough when we will be unable to do so.
Some of you may remember Dona Biddle, who lived to be 100. Her husband, Ward, was once
Herman Wells' right-hand man. I'll never forget sitting under an umbrella with Dona at an
I.U.-Michigan football game when she was about 95 years old. It was cold, it was rainy, and
we won! I would have enjoyed it even if we had lost. But not if we hadn't gone at all. If
Sibley Towner's 92 year old mother can enjoy telling corny "bad news, good news" jokes,
then there may also be hope for the rest of us. Koheleth, the Teacher, urges us to find that joy
in living that will not leave us feeling cheated when the darker days come:
--that joy for which we have been created and given the capacity to desire
--that joy that does not seek to resolve the troubles of tomorrow, because it cannot solve them
--that joy that--despite the opacities and ambiguities of life--does not deny the divine presence, providence, and care.
The most important part of the story of our lives is not that all our days finally come to an end, or that--apart from some eternal Presence--all our accomplishments and all our acquisitions will come to nothing. The most important part of the story is the journey. Like the leisure of wise old age, summer vacations sometimes afford us opportunity to reflect upon, to recognize and to cherish, the enjoyments we have known in the course of our labors. In such moments of reflection, the Teacher would have us ask not, "are we there yet?" but, "are we having a good time?" AMEN.
Copyright 2003 by Byron C. Bangert