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Reading Ecclesiastes from Lockdown #7

old age
One of our staff members produced some reflections on Ecclesiastes for the Y community during lockdown. We repost them here for your use.

Ecclesiastes 11-12: The End of the Matter

I’m much more familiar than I’d like to be with the song “Live While We’re Young” by One Direction. It’s a song about a guy who’s just met a girl (young enough to still live under her parents’ rules), and who is trying to persuade her to “let me sneak you out” and have fun with him until sunrise. He especially hopes that together they will “get some and live while we’re young”. I’m quite old, but I think “get some” means sex. I know this song well because my kids’ primary school inexplicably used to play it at events for eight-year-olds all the time.

It’s one of those great freedom anthems that sounds so exciting and romantic, but there’s a good reason why this kind of argument is almost never made by the female side of the relationship. The risk-reward equation associated with clumsy teenage sexual encounters is very steeply in the guy’s favour. It should send up some monumental red flags when the argument has to frequently urge the young woman to “go crazy” and “don’t over-think”.

The Preacher of Ecclesiastes directs his final exhortation at the young, and as you might expect his advice is quite different. As he has done throughout his book, and somewhat in continuity with One Direction, he encourages the enjoyment of youth: “You who are young, be happy while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see”. However, as he has also done throughout the book, he immediately complicates this advice: “but know that for all these things God might bring you into judgment” (Ecc 11:9). Follow your dreams, kids, but don’t be surprised if your choices blow back into your own faces.

Similarly in 11:10, he has a word that seems encouraging: “So then, banish anxiety from your heart and cast off the troubles of your body”. It perhaps could read something like “Don’t stress!” However, it is followed immediately not by the “Enjoy your youth while you have it!” message that we might expect, but by the conclusion that “youth and vigor are meaningless”. He might not be encouraging the youth to avoid letting stresses intrude on the enjoyment of youth. He might rather be suggesting that it’s pointless to waste your youth striving against circumstances and fates that you can’t change.

The complicated advice for the young continues into chapter 12. He says, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, ‘I find no pleasure in them’”. According to George Athas, the words, “Remember your Creator” sound almost exactly the same as “Remember your grave” in Hebrew and are most likely calculated to provoke a double-take in their hearer. The author certainly wants the young to consider both. Ecc 12:6-7 will reiterate both creation and the grave: “Remember him—before … the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”

The intervening imagery of Ecc 12:1-7 is also shot through with poetic ambiguity. On the one hand, the images recall the failing features of the elderly (“before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars grow dark,” suggests dimming eyesight, and “when the grinders cease because they are few,” recalls the loss of teeth). On the other hand, the imagery could also be read as apocalyptic (the winding down of all earthly life) or as alluding to the calamities associated with war.

Whether by old age, divine intervention, or human violence, the young should live their youth in the shadow of “their eternal home”, the grave. In direct opposition to the sentiments of One Direction, Ecclesiastes suggests that is it good before one is beset by old age and hardship to align your life according to the one direction in which you are most certainly heading.

While this advice seems bleak, there are two things that I find life-affirming about this ending.

Firstly, the Preacher’s approach to situations for which there are no easy answers is to not provide any easy answers. Ecclesiastes is full of double-meanings and ambiguities, of declarations of the goodness of work and joy directly alongside the cry of their futility. The Preacher is even openly unsure about what happens after death, and where God’s justice and judgement fit in. In contrast to the sorts of people who delight in saying, “Let me tell you how it is,” and, “This is what the Bible says”—those people who know it all and always have the answers—Ecclesiastes wants us to face the complexity of a life that is too often shrouded in darkness. The Preacher is judged to be wise in spite of his cynicism and doubt because sometimes circumstances demand exactly that. It is the fool who thinks he has the abyss and the inferno contained in neat mental boxes.

Secondly, telling the young to live life in the shadow of death is a call to face the fact of consequences of all of life’s actions. Awareness of all of life—its joyful times as well as its end, times of vigour as well as times of weakness, times of adventure as well as times of oppression—enables one to chart a happier, wiser path.

If nothing else, it helps one to avoid being left with the love-child of an acne-riddled, hormone-drunk teenager just because he had a car and made promises of eternal love.

“Live while you’re young” sounds great on paper, but misunderstanding life, yourself, and your creator can send you too far down paths from which it is no longer possible to course-correct.

The editor of the book ends with his conclusion of the matter, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all humankind”. As pietistic as this might sound, in view of the study of futility that he has just undertaken, this is not saying, “Be a good religious person”. It’s saying that you belong to something bigger than yourself, and it’s urging you to commit yourself to the one who stands above all human vantage points and directs all courses.

So, lockdown continues for two more weeks. At least. Circumstances are firmly out of our control. The virus might fizzle out in our country or catch alight. We might have to go back to work and take our chances. We might not have work left for us to go back to. The situation in our country might become darker still. The lesson of Ecclesiastes, in my opinion, is that the doubt and ambiguity won’t easily be resolved, and that’s OK. Certainty and conviction and unflappable optimism give the impression of control, but these are illusory ways to live. Control is not ours to possess. However hidden the Creator and God of justice might seem, he alone is sovereign over it all.

In these strange days, we have an opportunity to observe ourselves and our decisions in a moment of quiet. Ecclesiastes calls us to exercise wisdom and to align our living with the perspective of eternity. Those of you who are students—the young—observe life ahead as a road full of possibilities, and it is. But not all possibilities are good. And each road ends in the same place. Remember your Creator now, in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them”.