Wisdom that Calls Forth a Deeper Wisdom

[Homily.  Assumption Chapel.  Sept 23, 2022.]

Yesterday and today our first readings are taken from the Book of Ecclesiastes, also known as Qoheleth.  Let us reflect on these readings today.

The book opens with the introductory declaration: “The words of David’s son, Qoheleth, king in Jerusalem.”  David’s son, of course, was Solomon, renowned in his time for his wisdom.  Scripture scholars say the true author of Ecclesiastes was not Solomon in the 10th century BC but a wise man who wrote in the period after the Babylonian exile, about 200 years before Christ.  The attribution of the book to the wise King Solomon was usual in wisdom literature.  Qoheleth meant teacher or preacher.  The Greek translation of this was Ecclesiastes. 

Qoheleth gives us an account on his experience of human life.  Then, he shares his reflections on it.  It is not a bright account of life.  Indeed, it is rather somber.  But his reflections lead us to an insight into how man must accept the God who rules in our world.  The wisdom in this reflection affords us a certain liberation, even if for Qoheleth it is necessarily incomplete. 

His experience of life:  “…vanity of vanities!  All things are vanity.
What profit has man from all the labor
when he toils under the son?
One generation passes and another comes,
but the world forever stays.
The sun rises and the sun goes down;
then it presses on to the place where it rises,
All speech is labored;
There is nothing man can say.
The eye is not satisfied with seeing
Nor is the ear filled with hearing.
What has been, that will be;
what has been done, that will be done,
There is nothing new under the sun.  (Qoh. 1:1-9) 

Qoheleth’s experience is of a world that does not change.  No matter the succession of generations the world stays the same.  All that you do, all the work and toil that you undertake, doesn’t change this.  Qoheleth declared, “I applied my mind to search and investigate in wisdom all things that are done under the sun  …  I have seen all things that are done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a chase after wind…” (Qoh 1:12-14).

Qoheleth had the same experience in once pursuing pleasure and enjoyment of good things, of laughter and mirth, even of beguiling his senses through drunkenness.  These brought him to nothing.  Then, he busied himself undertaking “great works”;  he built his houses, planted his vineyards, cultivated fruit trees of all sorts, even constructed reservoirs to water his woodlands.  But he arrived at the same conclusion:  all is vanity, a chase after the wind.  In the end, one toils for naught.  All is meaningless.  Like chasing the wind. 

His frustration extended to what he would do with all that he had built up and achieved when death is near. “I detested all the fruits of my labor under the sun, because I must leave them to a man who is to come after me.  And who know whether he will be wise or a fool?  Yet he will have control over all the fruits of my wise labor under the sun.  This too is vanity.  So my feelings turned to despair of all the fruits of my labor under the sun” (Qoh 2:18).

In this turmoil, Qoheleth arrives at the following conclusion: “There is nothing better for man than [simply] to eat and drink and provide himself with good things by his labors.  Even this, I realized is from the hand of God.  For who can eat and drink apart from him?  For to whatever man he sees fit, he gives wisdom and knowledge and joy…” (Qoh. 2:24-26a).   In this unchanging world, one must not overwork to overcome the world by amassing stunning possessions.  “To the sinner he gives the task of amassing possessions [only[ to be given to whatever man God sees fit.  This is also vanity and a chase after wind” (Qoh 2:26b).

In the context of this same unchanging world of vanities, except for the wise man, as we heard in our first reading for today,.  Qoheleth says

There is an appointed time for everything,
and a time for every affair under the heavens.
A time to be born, and a time to die,
a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant.
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
A time to tear down, and a time to build,
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a tie to dance.
A time to scatter stones and a time to gather them;
a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces.
A time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away.
A time to rend, and a time to sew.
A time to be silent, and a time to speak,
A time to love, and a time to hate;
A time for war, and a time of peace.   (Qoh 3:1-8)

All things in this unchanging world have their appropriate time.  It is God who is the Lord of time, God who is the Lord of fruitful work in time.  “I have considered the task which God has appointed for men to be busied about,” Qoheleth says.  “He has made everything appropriate for its time.”  What man may have in his heart, to build or to tear down, to love or to hate, to wage war or to sue for peace, is “timeless”, that is, are interior aspirations not realized in time.  Such desires of the heart can only be realized in God’s time, if God so wills, over which man has no control.  “He has made everything appropriate to its time, and has put the times into their hearts, without men’s ever discovering, from beginning to end, the work which God has done” (Qoh. 3:11).   

In the end, the wisdom of Qoheleth is in calmly accepting the difficult world that cannot be changed, in living simply from the hand of God, and being content to achieve in time whatever He may allow us to achieve in his time.  It is supposedly a formula of wisdom, knowledge, and joy. 

But the joy is thin if the unchanging world, also corrupted by evil, is not changed.  It is ultimately sad if shaping or re-shaping the world by a human being created in God’s intelligent and creative image is considered “vanity and chasing the wind.”   Perhaps to overcome the impression of vanity, Qoheleth’s analysis of the world, created by a compassionate God, would include not only a consideration of its changelessness, but its having been fundamentally damaged by sin – the sin of Adam and Eve, the sin of Cain against Abel, the sin of David, the unending sin of man worshipping false gods through a succession of faithless kings – as we may know from our own worship of money, power and reputation.  What would be required against sin is not just a simple life sensitive to God’s rule in time as suggested by Qoheleth’s wisdom, but redemption through a Savior, a Messiah.  That of course would come with Jesus Christ whose wisdom was the Cross and Resurrection – “foolishness for those who are perishing, but God’s power to us who are being saved” (1 Cor. 1:18).   Out of compassion, out of Love, the Redeemer challenges all to follow him: ”Whoever wishes to follow me must deny himself, take up his Cross daily, then follow me” (Lk 9:23).  

That is wisdom Qoheleth could not fathom.

About Joel Tabora, S.J.

Jesuit. Educator
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