From the third lecture in the audio seminar Abounding Emptiness, Abundant Living
Koheleth, Ecclesiastes asks the question: Mah Yitron? Mah Yitron? Where’s the profit? Where’s the gain in life? What’s the purpose of this existence? Is there anything that remains when all is said and done? Is there some residue? Is there some gain? Is there some advantage, something left over, that makes existence meaningful or is it all sheer vanity, emptiness and futility?
To put it in the vernacular, as we have said before, Ecclesiastes or Koheleth is saying, “Where’s the beef?” Is there any meat in the sandwich of life, or is it all just bread, mayo and tomatoes? Is there any substance? The one asking this, I believe, is Solomon. He is the one who is calling us to attention and to assembly here. He is the one who is applying himself as he says in the first chapter, “I diligently devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom, these issues." What is the meaning in life? Where is the profit? Where’s the gain in life? And he comes to one very quick conclusion, which actually is the result of a lifetime spent in an exploration and investigation of every dimension of life. That conclusion is almost overwhelming. And because it is, in some senses, so negative, it’s a conclusion that the Church hasn’t often studied or addressed. Quite frankly, people like to be encouraged. And Koheleth, as you are going to see, I believe, does encourage us, but before he does so, he greatly discourages us. The one clear conclusion about life under the sun, which is an idiom here for life in the natural world, life apart from God - that one overwhelming conclusion is hevel, hevelim, hachol, havel. It’s empty. It’s meaningless. It’s all meaningless. Every pursuit of man, every endeavor of man finally and fully comes to futility. It’s an empty chasing after the wind. It’s senseless. It’s toilsome. In fact, he says, what a burden God has laid on man. This life is burdensome. “I’ve explored it from one end to the other – the highs and the lows – and I am here to tell you that with all my wisdom, I can say to you quite truthfully that it is all a vapor. It’s all empty." And that is the root meaning here of its word “vanity.” It’s utterly empty. There is no beef, in other words.
But in Chapter 2, as we saw last time, he begins then to turn things around a bit and draws three conclusions, which I will repeat from last time. These are found in verses 24-26: 1) all the good things that we have in this life should be viewed as a gift from God; 2) the very ability that we have to enjoy these goods, is a gift from God; and 3) this gift from God to enjoy the good things of our natural existence is given to those who please God, or said another way, those who have fear before Him, those who have made this total commitment of their whole being to trust and obey Him. There is, he says, no good in man that he could enjoy the natural things of life. There is no inherent ability that we have to truly enjoy life, even though we try as we might. That very ability to enjoy life comes as a gift from God, as well as the good things of this life.
Let's move now to Chapter 3, beginning with the first few verses and see that in this next section of his argument, Koheleth suggests to us that even though we may not perceive it, in some kind of an ultimate, providential way, God is in control and God has a plan. Things do make sense, notwithstanding appearances to the contrary. Here’s this famous passage, a series of 14 pairs of oppositions that if you were to ask someone if they're familiar with Ecclesiastes, this would probably be the passage they've heard, because we all have. There is a time for everything. A season for every activity under heaven, under God, there is a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal. A time to tear down and a time to build.
Let me stop there to make a little side comment. It has never been taught in the Bible or in Judaism that it is wrong to kill under all circumstances. Exodus 20, in which we have the ten words, the Ten Commandments, one of the commandments is what? Thou shalt not kill. It is translated that way, regrettably, even though the word is perfectly clear and the meaning of it has always been known. Lo titsach. It does not mean to “kill,” it means to “murder.” And the NIV, by the way does translate it that way. Thou shall not murder. In the Biblical view of life, there is the right for self-defense. In fact, there is a famous saying in the Talmud, that if someone is coming to take your life, to kill you, then lie in wait, anticipate that and take his life first. There is the view in the Biblical plan for a justifiable war, a war of self-defense. Interestingly enough, I read an article about a lengthy series of rabbinical contemporary discussions responding to the question, was the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki permissible under Jewish tradition -- Jewish law -- because they have a great deal to say about this commandment, when it is permissible, when it is not and under what circumstances. And so they go into an extensive analysis of, was that act in the war morally justified? But the point is, there clearly are times in which self-defense is not only justified but mandated. And so this is part of what Koheleth is speaking here.name. Amen.
* This is an audio transcript, listen to the original message here.