It’s an understatement to say that Advent and Christmas were coloured by COVID-19, a colour that’s blending right into Lent. Both Advent and Lent direct us to Immanuel, God with us. During Lent God comes not as a baby but as the stranger, the brokenhearted, the poor, the crucified. Lent aligns us with the Immanuel revealed in cross and resurrection, reorienting us toward hope inside the impossible. But to face into that hope, we do well to allow ourselves to name our discontent, our fear, our anxiety, our personal losses, our grief, our doubts, and even our apathy. For these are dark days.
Pretending that all is well, or that all will be well, isn’t working for many of us. And so, perhaps Leonard Cohen’s song “Anthem” is a song for our time. He sings,
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
Because many of us have experienced disappointment, discouragement, and disillusionment, Ecclesiastes, or Qohelet as he is called in Hebrew, may be a perfect conversation partner. You see, Qohelet is one very disappointed soul. By the time he gets to chapter 2 verse 17, he writes, “So I hated life” (2:17).
Qohelet helps us to learn to walk in the dark. Especially for those of us tempted to indifference, cynicism, or apathy—all of which are valid responses to the darkness—we find ourselves reaching for light as we walk toward cross and resurrection, that most audacious shattering of the darkness imaginable.
Let’s begin with Qohelet’s first and last assertions in his book. In the older translations we read, “Vanity of vanities, says Qohelet, vanity of vanities, all is vanity!” I suggest we replace the word “vanity,” not with the word “meaningless,” which we find in the New International Version, but with the word “vapour,” which is the clearest translation of the Hebrew word hevel. He uses the word thirty-eight times in the book. Everything is vapour. That, I think, is how many of us feel about this past year. Everything is vapour, ephemeral, transient, fleeting. And if everything is vapour, where is that crack where the light gets in?
In the next few minutes, I will explore three questions Qohelet asks: First, is there anything to be gained in life? Second, is there anything we can know for sure? And third, what should we be doing? And after reflecting on each question, I will propose a posture, in one word, that he might suggest to us now.
Qohelet invites us to ask, What does it mean to live in the dark of pain, doubt, disillusionment, despair, loneliness, and at the same time affirm the goodness and beauty that is right in front of us. Can we embrace the dark as we live toward the hope of the upside-down vision of cross and resurrection?
Let’s consider Qohelet’s first question in chapter 1 verse 3, a question that reverberates at least eight times in the book: What do people gain from all the hard work that they do? More than economic benefit, he wonders whether any human activity produces anything of value in the here and now.
Along with COVID-19 we’ve been bombarded with the realities of racism, political polarization, religious nationalism, economic deprivation, and perhaps worst of all, isolation from loved ones. Qohelet might ask, What benefit is there to living this way? Already in chapter 1 verse 13 he says, all our striving is “an unhappy obsession that God has given to human beings.”
He says that he carried out experiments to discern the benefits of pleasure, wealth, prestige, and power. All these accomplishments, he concludes in chapter 2 verse 11, are vapour. He says, “Nothing is to be gained under the sun.”
We might balk at this evaluation, especially since we like to think of our work as substantial, important, and significant.
Yet Qohelet repeats his question in chapter 2 verse 22, What do people get for all their hard work and struggles under the sun? He describes their days as full of pain and their work as an aggravation. Even at night, he says, their hearts don’t rest. He concludes in verses 23 and 26 that all is vapour.
In chapter three verse nine he asks again, What do workers gain from all their hard work? Life is full of injustice. He sees the tears of the oppressed, mutual envy, hoarding wealth, and an insatiable appetite for more.
In deciding that all work is vapour, he isn’t saying that human achievement itself is bad. Rather, he argues against the assumption that human achievement can provide comprehensive satisfaction. We see similar excesses today. Extravagant claims for a gospel of prosperity. And assertions that one political ideology or another will save us.
How, then, does this inform our walking through Lent? Qohelet would say that this is a time to let go of the pretense that the things that hold sway in our lives can actually offer substantial significance: wealth, pleasure, work, achievements, even wisdom.
We hear, You are what you do. Your success defines you. Your value depends on your accomplishments. Qohelet satirically echoes those voices: we are never satisfied, nor do we have enough, nor have we achieved enough. Yet Qohelet would say, let go of all that. All that you already have is enough. All you already are is enough. You cannot create enough. And whatever enough you think you can create will not be substantial enough anyway.
Yes, I think he would quote Leonard Cohen, “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” But all our achievements are not that light. Maybe the light is elsewhere. In a word, Qohelet counsels a posture of cautious contentment as a window into the light. Such a posture doesn’t devolve into “everything is fine” because it acknowledges the paradoxes and complexities of life.
Qohelet’s second main question is, “Who knows?,” a question he repeats a number of times (e.g. 2:19; 3:21; 6:12). In chapter 6 verse 12 he says, “Who knows what’s good for human beings during life, during their brief and vaporous life?”
In his famous poem about time in chapter 3, he says that every action has its proper time and place. But then in verse 11 he says, “God has made everything fitting in its time, yet [human beings] cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.”
In chapter 7 verses 13 and 14, he asks, “Consider God’s work! Who can straighten what God has made crooked?” After all, he says, God has made both prosperity and adversity. Whether Qohelet is right or wrong about that, he suggests in verse 14 that God’s ordering of the world is such that human beings “can’t find out anything that will come to be after them.”
Then he offers a twist on that thought, in chapter 8 verse 6, saying “the wise person will know the time and way,” for everything has its time and way.” Yet in the very next sentence, “they do not know what is to be, for who can tell them how it will be?”
Later in chapter 8, in verse 17 he says that he has seen “all the work of God, that no one can find out what is happening under the sun. Those who strive to know can’t grasp it. Even the wise who are set on knowing are unable to grasp it.”
Finally, in chapter 11 verse 5, Qohelet is devastatingly honest. “Just as you do not know how the breath comes to the bones in the mother’s womb, you do not know the work of God, who makes everything.”
Qohelet’s negative assessments about knowledge are shockingly relevant. In the past year we’ve been bombarded by assertions about fake news, conspiracy theories, and ideological agenda right and left. Some claim we’re living in a post-truth world. Others make extravagant claims for how God is involved in the political processes.
Qohelet challenges such claims to certainty. But he does not say that we can’t know anything, it’s just that we can’t know everything. He says no to knowledge as control of our own destiny. And no to comprehensive knowledge of God’s ways.
The good news here is Qohelet’s invitation to a circumspect knowing. We are limited in our capacity to know. He would say, with Paul, We know only in part (1 Cor 13:12). In a word, he counsels a posture of humility, which doesn’t claim too much.
Following from his question of 6:12, I think Qohelet’s third question is this: So what should we be doing? Perhaps his assertion that “All is vapour” intends to wake us up to our illusions? Perhaps he wants to show us that it’s possible to become comfortable with complexity, paradox, even contradictions even when we long for certainty. And he shows us that everything that we think is weighty and important, is in fact transient, fleeting, ephemeral, and temporary.
I think he answers his own question about what is good for human beings to do. He thinks that despite the most difficult questions we might face, or the most challenging life circumstances, there is light right in front of us, not at the end of the tunnel. He doesn’t paint bright colours over the bleakness of life. But he helps us to pay attention to the light in the goodness of ordinary things.
Eight times he punctuates his book with calls to enjoyment. Yet he’s not naïve. After the lovely poem (made famous by Simon and Garfunkel) at the beginning of chapter 3, he says that human beings cannot find out the ways of God. Yet right after that, in verses 12 and 13, he writes, “I know that there’s nothing better for them but to enjoy themselves and do what’s good while they live. 13 Moreover, this is the gift of God: that all people should eat, drink, and enjoy the results of their hard work.”
Here Qohelet homes in on the gifts of the present moment. Yes, life’s achievements are ephemeral and fleeting and insubstantial. One can’t make much sense of the past, and one certainly knows nothing of the future. So, what’s to be gained? What can we know? And what’s to be done?
Perhaps we best hear Qohelet’s affirmations to enjoy life by cultivating the posture of gratitude, which fosters delight even in the smallest of pleasures. Enjoying the community of one or two others; the patterns of the frost on the porch window, the chickadee at the feeder; the book we’re reading; the movie that moves us; the puzzle that cofounds; the game that engages; the recipe that teases our sense of taste; the hobby that nurtures beauty.
Qohelet is aware of how difficult life is, and he doesn’t flinch; he looks that difficulty right in the eye. But he also affirms a life-giving truth. There is beauty and joy to be found in the ordinary, even when our thoughts and actions are fraught with danger, riddled with anxiety, or motivated by fear. The darkness cannot stop the light, as the first chapter of John’s gospel states.
Perhaps Leonard Cohen’s lyrics can be modified slightly by incorporating Qohelet’s answers to his three questions: there is a crack in everything; when equanimity, humility, and gratitude characterize our days, that’s where the light gets in.
Walking through Lent with Qohelet (Ecclesiastes) was penned by Gordon Matties, Professor Emeritus, Canadian Mennonite University and published with the author’s permission.