Saturday, January 6, 2001

GET WISDOM: Address 10: Dealing with Death (Eccles 2)

Address 10: Dealing with Death (Ecclesiastes 2)

One of the most striking differences I have found between my country and Uganda is that here, death is a near neighbour. Almost every day here someone loses a family member or is away at a funeral. Here the spectre of AIDS haunts every home. Even those folk who have avoided the disease are living with its consequences by caring for orphans of those who did not avoid it.

If Africans tend to be fatalistic about death, Americans by contrast defy or deny it. It may be significant that a popular American cartoonist like Gary Larson can poke fun at Death in his cartoon where two middle-aged ladies indignantly say to a ghostly visitor: “Now wait a minute here… How are we supposed to know you’re the REAL Angel of Death?” It is quite common for Americans to say, when they find out they have incurable cancer to say, “I am going to fight this thing and beat it.” Scientific medicine has attacked so many diseases that it is natural for people to think maybe science can cure death itself. And there are some mad scientists talking about finding and fixing the “death gene.”

Fatalism and denial, from a biblical point of view, are only partial responses to the reality of Death. There is one book, above all others, that deals with the fullness of death, the Book of Ecclesiastes. The Preacher of Ecclesiastes delivers the sobering news that death is not only built into our genes but into our lives from our first breath to our last. “In the midst of life, we are in death” the burial service says. At the same time, he finds a secret consolation in the universality and inevitability of death, a secret that makes life worth living to the fullest and to the end.

The author of Ecclesiastes calls himself Qohelet (usually translated the Preacher), Son of David and King in Jerusalem. Let’s call him Solomon, since Solomon, like Job, was the wisest and richest and most powerful man of his day. In this role, he was in a position to test the hypothesis whether complete mastery of “life under the sun” brings happiness – an hypothesis most of us only dream about. His answer is stunning. Eight times in our passage today he repeats: Behold this also is vanity, emptiness. Blow by blow he hammers the nails of emptiness into the coffin of human mortality. Let’s look more carefully at his conclusions.

When I was a boy, I used to play a board game called “Careers.” Each player was given a certain number of tokens for his life goal, and he could divide them up between Hearts (Love), Dollars (Wealth), and Stars (Fame). Solomon started out with a hand-full of all these. In the first section of this chapter, he rehearses all his attempts to find fulfillment in life. The first and most obvious attempt is to find happiness in pleasure.


1 I said to myself, "Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself."
But behold, this also was vanity.
2 I said of laughter, "It is mad," and of pleasure, "What use is it?"
3 I searched with my mind how to cheer my body with wine
my mind still guiding me with wisdom –
and how to lay hold on folly,
till I might see what was good for the sons of men to do
under heaven during the few days of their life.

Solomon’s search for pleasure was not by means of some drunken orgy. He was known as a cultivator of the arts. In modern society, many people who have given up belief in God turn to “culture” as a substitute religion. They eat gourmet food and drink fine wine; they attend art exhibits, concerts and operas, and are honoured as “patrons” of the arts. They become world travellers and dabble in all the cultures in the world.

Solomon’s assessment of this lifestyle, having tried it, is that it is empty. Culture, he says, is simply a form of amusement. A life dedicated to the conventional wisdom of culture is crazy because amusements come and go in a moment. The laughter of entertainment, which producers now dub into TV shows, is “canned laughter.” Ask someone two minutes afterward what was funny, and they will have forgotten. So with pleasure itself: it leaks. At the very moment you experience it, you feel it passing away. Trying to keep adding new pleasures to fill the vacuum of pleasures past, is, he says, like pouring water into a rusty bucket.

Having found pleasure wanting, Solomon turns to Money and Fame. Again, Solomon used his enormous wealth to build monuments to his own greatness.

4 I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself;
5 I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees.
6 I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees.
7 I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house;
I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem.
8 I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces;
I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, man's delight.
9 So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem;
also my wisdom remained with me.
10 And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure,
for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil.

11 Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it,
and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind,
and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.

One of the myths about Big Men is that they sit around all day enjoying themselves. This is not so. Most wealthy and powerful people are extremely busy and hard-working. They are busy even when they are giving away their money or building monuments to themselves. And they find satisfaction in this work. So it was with Solomon. He describes all the luxuries he accumulated for himself as “all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent doing it.” But in the end, all this work for fame was also a passing achievement. Today if you go to Jerusalem, you cannot see a single work of Solomon left standing. Even his famous temple was destroyed, and the debris of other regimes has overtopped its foundations. Indeed if it were not for Scripture we would know next to nothing about Solomon except a name in the chronicles of long-past kingdoms.

Because we live a brief span on earth, the supreme test of worth, according to Solomon, has to do with one’s legacy. And the legacy test reveals most clearly the vanity of human striving.

12 So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly;
for what can the man do who comes after the king? Only what he has already done.
13 Then I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness.
14 The wise man has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness;
and yet I perceived that one fate comes to all of them.
15 Then I said to myself, "What befalls the fool will befall me also;
why then have I been so very wise?"
And I said to myself that this also is vanity.
16 For of the wise man as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance,
seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten.
How the wise man dies just like the fool!

Solomon is no relativist saying that wisdom and folly, virtue and vice, are the same thing. No, the wise man walks in the light and the fool in darkness, but neither one can leave a sure memorial behind. Death not only wipes out our personal memory but the corporate memory as well. I understand that in traditional African religion, the spirits of the ancestors are considered to remain around the family for a generation or two before fading away. But what good does it do to hover around as a ghost for a few more years. This also is vanity, says the Preacher.

In the second part of the chapter, he describes his reaction to his empty quests in terms of hating his life and work.

17 So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me;
for all is vanity and a striving after wind.
18 I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun,
seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me;
19 and who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool?
Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun.
This also is vanity.

To hate does not necessarily mean to dislike or to be angry with. Rather it means something like to renounce. Jesus uses the same expression when he says: “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). The only way to find life and love, ironically, is to give it up.

Similarly, when Solomon speaks of “giving up his heart to despair,” he is not describing psychological depression but psychological detachment.

20 So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun,
21 because sometimes a man who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill
must leave all to be enjoyed by a man who did not toil for it.
This also is vanity and a great evil.
22 What has a man from all the toil and strain with which he toils beneath the sun?
23 For all his days are full of pain, and his work is a vexation;
even in the night his mind does not rest.
This also is vanity.

Coming to terms with Death, the Preacher says, is learning how to number our days. I can well remember when I was twenty years old, saying to myself: “You now have used up only one quarter of your lifespan, and most of that was as a child. Think of the possibilities that lie ahead.” I can now look back at sixty years under the sun and realize that many of the things I invested great time and energy in are falling apart, and even where projects have succeeded, people have forgotten that I started them. If I were to stake my self-worth on those things, then I fear I would have wasted my time.

There is a curious flip-side to hating one’s life. The flip side is enjoying it. How strange it is that the Preacher moves immediately from the mood of despair to the mood of enjoyment. This theme is sometimes called carpe diem or “Seize the Moment.”

24 There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink,
and find enjoyment in his toil.
This also, I saw, is from the hand of God;
25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?
26 For to the man who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy;
but to the sinner he gives the work of gathering and heaping,
only to give to one who pleases God.
This also is vanity and a striving after wind.

Atheists and existentialists approve the advice “Eat, drink, and be merry, because tomorrow you die.” However, Solomon roots his advice in the conviction that God is in control. He even speaks of the person to whom it pleases God to give wisdom. The problem, Ecclesiastes says, is not that God does not exist, but we are not God. We do not know his thoughts. Adam and Eve plucked the fruit, thinking to become God-like, knowing good and evil. But they were deceived. Indeed by their sin they guaranteed that the pit of death would be found in every good fruit. But we must nevertheless eat the fruit and even enjoy it.

Africans, so far as I can see, have a greater appreciation of the present than of the past or future. Solomon would approve of this attitude – not of poverty, not of disease, not of corruption – but of the enjoyment of every breath, of every moment, that God gives us on this green earth. As this nation becomes more modern, it would be foolish to forget this simple advice to find enjoyment in one’s toil, for this is from the hand of God.

There is no dealing with death, there is no turning away his angel – except to greet life and its passing as it is given by the Father, in whose bosom is all life and light.



Ecclesiastes 2

1 I said to myself, "Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself."
But behold, this also was vanity.
2 I said of laughter, "It is mad," and of pleasure, "What use is it?"
3 I searched with my mind how to cheer my body with wine
my mind still guiding me with wisdom –
and how to lay hold on folly,
till I might see what was good for the sons of men to do
under heaven during the few days of their life.

4 I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself;
5 I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees.
6 I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees.
7 I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house;
I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem.
8 I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces;
I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, man's delight.
9 So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem;
also my wisdom remained with me.
10 And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure,
for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil.

11 Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it,
and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind,
and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.

12 So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly;
for what can the man do who comes after the king? Only what he has already done.
13 Then I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness.
14 The wise man has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness;
and yet I perceived that one fate comes to all of them.
15 Then I said to myself, "What befalls the fool will befall me also;
why then have I been so very wise?"
And I said to myself that this also is vanity.
16 For of the wise man as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance,
seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten.
How the wise man dies just like the fool!

17 So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me;
for all is vanity and a striving after wind.
18 I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun,
seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me;
19 and who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool?
Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun.
This also is vanity.

20 So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun,
21 because sometimes a man who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill
must leave all to be enjoyed by a man who did not toil for it.
This also is vanity and a great evil.

22 What has a man from all the toil and strain with which he toils beneath the sun?
23 For all his days are full of pain, and his work is a vexation;
even in the night his mind does not rest.
This also is vanity.

24 There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink,
and find enjoyment in his toil.
This also, I saw, is from the hand of God;
25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?
26 For to the man who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy;
but to the sinner he gives the work of gathering and heaping,
only to give to one who pleases God.

This also is vanity and a striving after wind.

Have a comment? Please send it via email.

Follow-ups from Stephen

There are no follow-ups to this post at this time.