Just Shut Up!

Ecclesiastes 6:10-12

It’s Saturday, which means that tomorrow is Sunday. And Sunday means that I’ll find myself sitting from 9:30 to about 11:00 in a church service. And sitting in a church service means that there will be a sermon. Allow me to summarize the sermon I’m likely to hear tomorrow morning.

Blab, blab, blab.

Whatever else Solomon knew in this book, in today’s passage, roughly halfway through the text, he finally comes up with something that I can really latch onto.

Whatever exists was given its name long ago, and it is known what mankind is. But he is not able to contend with the one stronger than he. For when there are many words, they increase futility. What is the advantage for mankind? For who knows what is good for anyone in life, in the few days of his futile life that he spends like a shadow? Who can tell anyone what will happen after him under the sun?

Ecclesiastes 6:10-12

Bird is the Word

“Many words increase futility.” It’s all just talk. Or, as I suggested above, “Blab, blab, blab.” Tomorrow’s sermon will have it’s share of blab. “Turn in your Bibles to the book of blab. Remember that God wants you to blab. Jesus blab, blab, blab. The church blab, blab, blab.” Sometimes it seems that a sermon is about as coherent as the song “Surfin’ Bird” and not nearly as memorable.

Why would our writer, someone who deals in words, offer this critique of the value of words? In 30-plus years of teaching writing, I have had only a few students notice that when I trumpet the value of writing, I’m plugging my own livelihood. But I assure you that they’d notice right away if I stood up in class and said, “This is completely useless stuff, but we’re going to do it anyway.” There’s irony to the idea of somebody saying “Many words increase futility, and, by the way, I have six more chapters of words to share with you.”

All words, however, are not created equal. We’re reminded in Genesis 1 that God spoke creation into existence. John’s gospel leads off with the proclamation that “In the beginning was the Word,” who we learn is Jesus. That Word is powerful. That Word is essential, but human words are plentiful and generally a path to confusion or division.

Getting in Tune

So what’s a person with a tongue to do? Do we spew out words like a firehose, hoping that some of the drops will help to put out the fire, or do we keep silence while the inferno rages around us?

Just a couple of weeks ago, we read Ecclesiastes 5:2:

Do not be hasty to speak, and do not be impulsive to make a speech before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few

Psalm 46:10 warns us to “Be still and know that I am God.” I’d read that as saying that to hear what God says, we need to shut our own mouths and listen.

Tomorrow’s sermon will have its share of blab, but hopefully, if the preacher was well chosen and well prepared, it will contain some nuggets of God’s message.

I can’t hope to hear those if I’m too busy, either with my mouth or in my mind, blabbing myself.

The Green Grass Grows

Ecclesiastes 6:6-9

I can’t write too much today. There’s a lot to do. I have to mow the grass, especially after that big soaking rain we had a few days ago. Before I do that, I need to air up that leaky tire on the mower. I really should repair the tire, but that would involve getting a jack and a lug wrench and all my tire repair supplies. Frankly, as slow as the leak is, it’s easier just to switch on the air compressor and top off the tire.

To properly groom the yard, I need to use my rider, a push mower, and a weed-eater. The problem I had last week was that the weed-eater wouldn’t run reliably. It started, ran for a few seconds, and then died. I’m guessing I have some sort of fuel problem, but I’m an English teacher rather than a small-engine mechanic.

The sad irony of all these tasks is that they don’t have any sort of permanence. The grass will need to be mowed again next week and every week until probably October, and my equipment can be counted on to require maintenance or replacement. It’s endless, which is what Solomon pointed to:

And if a person lives a thousand years twice, but does not experience happiness, do not both go to the same place?
All of a person’s labor is for his stomach,
yet the appetite is never satisfied.
What advantage then does the wise person have over the fool? What advantage is there for the poor person who knows how to conduct himself before others? Better what the eyes see than wandering desire. This too is futile and a pursuit of the wind.

Ecclesiastes 6:6-9

It’s Just Gonna Grow Again

Why do we work? According to Ecclesiastes, all of our “labor is for the stomach.” Obviously I don’t literally eat all of my labor’s products, but basically I work in order to consume in various ways. And when I give away some of my income, I’m providing for someone else’s stomach.

I eat and eat or consume and consume, and is the appetite ever killed off? Not at all. Wisdom might mean that I can more efficiently or effectively labor and therefore have more to consume. That’s the economic idea behind getting a good education. You go to school so that you can get a better job and then consume more. But whether someone has a little or a lot, they almost universally want more. The appetite is never satisfied.

Getting in Tune

So does all of this mean that we should stop mowing the grass and drop out of school? Should we cease to work and shun wisdom? I don’t think that’s the message to take from this passage. But if we think that we’re going to achieve some sort of permanent bliss by working hard and acquiring knowledge, we’re deceiving ourselves.

Wealth and wisdom are virtues, but they are not ends in themselves. If my work and my learning do not lead me to happiness, then I might as well be poor and stupid. In fact, I might be better off poor and stupid, since I won’t have as much to lose or as much awareness of my unhappiness.

Of course then we get into the nature of happiness, but that’s a matter for another day.

Sometimes Wish I’d Never Been Born at All

Ecclesiastes 6:3-5

Ages ago, when I worked summers at Mt. Washington Cemetery, my brother, the supervisor, came in his Jeep and summoned me to join him. “Where are we going?” I asked as I walked away from Eddy and the work we were doing.

“Just get in the Jeep,” he said before heading to a different part of the property. En route I noticed a box in the back of the Jeep. When we arrived, we found a small party assembled near a new-dug grave. That’s when I realized that the box contained Michael, a two-year-old incomprehensibly stabbed to death by his mother because “the devil was going to get him.”

Dennis and I carried the box to that grave. Michael’s mother stood there, handcuffed to a detective. His father and the remainder of the family clustered across the grave, weeping.

Looking back on that as a father and a husband, I cannot imagine the grief that father must have experienced. He must have felt, like the character in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” that he’d “sometimes wish I’d never been born at all.” That’s perhaps the sort of despair we encounter in today’s text:

A man may father a hundred children and live many years. No matter how long he lives, if he is not satisfied by good things and does not even have a proper burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. For he comes in futility and he goes in darkness, and his name is shrouded in darkness. Though a stillborn child does not see the sun and is not conscious, it has more rest than he.

Ecclesiastes 6:3-5

Careful Reading

That day in the cemetery affected me. In fact, it continues to affect me. Just a few weeks ago, I visited Michael’s grave, reflecting. Surely the boy’s father, probably around 60 now, also thinks about what might have been, perhaps every day. But I hope he has managed to get on with a life despite that grim memory. I hope he’s able to be satisfied by good things.

As we read those verses attentively, we’ll see that Solomon is not telling us that having lots of kids and living a long life are prescriptions for despair. Instead, he inserts an “if.” “If he is not satisfied by good things,” the passage says. In other words, merely having a quiver full of sons and a long life will not solve the problems of life under the sun without that “if.”

The longer we live, the more opportunities we have for bad things to afflict us. The more children one has, the greater chance there is that one of them will go completely off the rails and create a full measure of heartache. That’s why we need to be able to take joy in the good things. Only by focusing on the good things can Michael’s father get past the horrible tragedy of losing wife and son in one awful moment.

Getting in Tune

Freddy Mercury closed his song with “Nothing really matters to me,” which is clearly not even something that he could take seriously. The problem with this world is that many things do matter. If we’re going to live in this world, if we’re going to complicate our lives with family, then we are going to have pain and tragedy. Probably our tragedy will not rise to the level of the murder of a two-year-old, but we will have something that, at the time, seems that great.

Our only hope, under the sun, is that we take joy in the good things. Perhaps that’s what Jesus meant in John 10:10 when He indicated that He had come to give us life and to give it abundantly. By focusing ourselves on Jesus as the ultimate good thing, we can get through the worst days of our lives.

Wink TV

Words around the Collar

Ecclesiastes 6:1-2

How many times has this happened to you? You start reading the Bible, doing your best to understand the ideas that God has laid onto the pages for just such a time as this, but then you’re hit with a ring around the Bible!

You try your best to get past it, but again it confronts you again: a ring around the Bible. You’ve tried skimming, you’ve tried squinting, but over and over it’s ring around the Bible!

Solomon knew all about it. He knew about ring around the Bible, because he helped to create it.

Here is a tragedy I have observed under the sun, and it weighs heavily on humanity: God gives a person riches, wealth, and honor so that he lacks nothing of all he desires for himself, but God does not allow him to enjoy them. Instead, a stranger will enjoy them. This is futile and a sickening tragedy.

Ecclesiastes 6:1-2

What a Sickening Tragedy

Sometimes we read a passage in the Bible and we have that strange deja vu feeling. “I’ve read this before.” In the case of the verses for today, it was just a few days ago, back in Ecclesiastes 5. Koheleth tells us about the “sickening tragedy” that can come with wealth, and then he just keeps telling us about it. We turn the page, hoping to get to a new topic, some other whole field of futility, but we still find ourselves faced with ring around the Bible.

I have to admit that I have nothing new to say about this passage, so I want to look at the closing words for a moment. In the CSB, we read of a “sickening tragedy.” That’s a strange phrase, so I decided to look the words up in other versions to see just how else it has been translated. Here’s what I got:

  • a sickening tragedy–CSB, HCSB, NLT
  • a grievous evil–NIV, ESV, ISV, and others
  • a grave misfortune–NET
  • a great misery–Douay-Rheims
  • a severe affliction–NASB and others
  • an evil disease–KJV, JPS, and one other
  • terribly unfair–CEV

These translations all come from a couple of Hebrew words that essentially mean “evil” and “illness.” But you can see that they differ in a couple of ways. First, the literal level of it is interpreted in two ways:

  • A sickening tragedy=it’s a bad thing that makes you sick.
  • A severe affliction=it’s an illness that is really bad.

Those are very different things, like seeing something disgusting vs. having the flu. But then there’s the second level, which goes on to interpret the words beyond this idea of bad and illness. Probably the greatest liberty is “terribly unfair,” which is about the same as the Good News Translation’s “and it just isn’t right.” I’d have to argue that these versions take too much liberty with the original as there’s no clear indication of injustice in the Hebrew. Interestingly, both of these versions are publications of the American Bible Society. Take that for what it’s worth. Still, even these version do not significantly change the meaning of the text.

Getting in Tune

Am I getting lost in the weeds here? It’s possible. I’m not sure whether the situation described in these verses is a bad thing that makes you sick or a sickness that is really bad, and maybe I don’t need to care. Maybe it’s enough to boil all of these things–misery, evil, misfortune, and so forth–down to something significantly bad.

As Christians we’ve been given an immense treasure in the pages of the Bible. Unlike the rich man lamented in today’s verses, most Christians opt not to make use of this treasure because they simply let it languish on the shelf. Like the pesky stains from those old Wisk advertisements, our sin-stained selves are not likely to move toward being sanctified until we use God’s Word as it was intended. Otherwise, we’re left with ring around the Bible.

That, friend, is a sickening tragedy, especially if it applies to you.