Reading Ecclesiastes in the Time of the Coronavirus

covid 19

by John Ellis

Buying the post-Enlightenment secularist package includes owning the non-refundable subscription of nihilistic despair. A dirge-filled affair where doomed actors strut on the world stage’s perpetually revived production of the Theatre of Cruelty. No matter how honest we believe ourselves to be, though, like Andre Breton we have zero desire to listen to the madly prophetic genius of Antonin Artaud. So, sadly, or mercifully, I have yet to decide which, the inhabitants of our disembodied, disenchanted epoch have invested much time and energy into avoiding tuning into that particular perk of secularism. Choosing instead to gorge on the “you do you” axiom of an increasingly gnostic-shaped individualism, Western society is amusing itself until death. After all, we are all existentialists now, and not of the Kierkegaardian leap of faith kind. Nor of the honest yet absurdly hopeless Camus kind. No, our society clings to the phenomenologically driven Sartrean belief that we define meaning – “viscosity” be damned, we are free because we say so. Granted, it’s much easier to convince oneself that one believes that while living in the modern, privileged West. Death? Don’t have to see it. Disease? There are vaccines for that. Poverty? Telethons are a fun way to pat oneself on the back. That lurking nihilistic despair? Therapists, y’all.

Everyone has the right to be happy. Right? At the least, everyone has the right to pursue happiness. Never minding, and definitely do not bring this up on social media, being allowed to pursue what makes you happy may make your neighbor less happy, not to mention harboring the great potential to make him downright unhappy. Tolerance has a breaking point, one would surmise and our neighbor should hope; we just haven’t arrived there yet. Churning along towards that inevitable breaking point, we are distracted from seeing the dark hollow of our disembodied individualism by the shiny perks that come with living in late capitalism. As the great Gen-X poet snarled, “With the light’s out, it’s less dangerous. Here we are now, entertain us. I feel stupid and contagious. Here we are now, entertain us.”

To paraphrase another poet-philosopher, whatever the eyes and hearts of the children of Western secularism desires has not been kept from them. Moving from meal to meal in gastropubs featuring chef prepared local ingredients has become a natural rhythm for many. Same with those who take advantage of the myriad of activities designed to flood the body with endorphins and adrenaline. Access to stories that tickle our fancy exist at the tip of our fingers on our all-important screens. Possessing an advantage over our poet-philosopher named the Preacher, who is paraphrased above, the multitude who numb themselves through slaking the lust of their flesh have access to Tinder and Ashley Madison, not to mention the “evolving” sexual mores of a libertine society. In fact, not having yet found the breaking point of tolerance, the lust of the flesh’s lusts is continually expanding into new and adventurous ways to pursue happiness. Those, along with the countless other modern amusements, assure us, “Follow your dreams, and all will be well. Happiness is the highest virtue, after all.”

Marx was wrong and Huxley was right. Religion is not the opiate of the modern masses.

But what happens when the “universe” bangs the needle off the record, bringing the party to a screeching halt? What happens when a global pandemic forces our gaze to the decay of our imminence? What happens when Sartre’s despised contingency (viscosity, to use his word) reveals itself to be the real master of our existence?

Nihilistic despair refuses to be ignored, that’s what happens.

Existence before essence has always been about control. Being like God, according to Serpent-Satan. And for a long time, we have had control like no other prior civilizations. We’ve believed that. We’ve banked on that. And before our world was thrown into the chaos of uncertainty, we were cashing the checks of the ultimate control – I am who I say I am for no other reason than I feel like it. Social media influencers wrote our philosophies. Pop culture shaped our life’s liturgies. We became masters of our personal domain, with self-actualization leading to happiness decreed as the highest good. Serpent-Satan’s promise had finally been fulfilled. And standing on the highest steps of our contemporary Tower of Babel, we each got to decide who I am.

Now, though, in the age of social-distancing and mass quarantining, we have lost control. “Vivid ‘pandemic dreams’ and nightmares keep nation awake during coronavirus outbreak” screams a headline. Twitter is overflowing with fear and angst. Facebook? A cesspool of disinformation intended to inoculate the one side from the bilge of despair rising in their throats. Choking together, though, society is sinking in despair. Our self-affirmation philosophies and pop culture liturgies have proven no match for the starkness of mortality and the unwanted realization that our gleaming, enlightened, and tolerant modern civilization is nothing more than a thin veneer covering the High Plague of Plagues. We are all going to die, and none of this means shit.

During the mid-20th century, the French existentialists faced their own unicorn event. Their beloved France collapsed around them; the blue and white vertical bars eaten by the ravenous red of fascism. With their ideals guillotined on the scaffold of WWII, they offered compromise as a sacrifice to their god of self-determinative control. Even after escaping a Nazi prison and self-righteously excoriating his lover Simon De Beauvoir because she gave inches to the Nazis for the sake of fresh eggs, Sartre himself swore fealty to compromise in order to continue to live his anti-viscosity dream life. All was well. Western civilization made it through, continuing to construct a tower reaching the heavens in an effort to prove, once and for all, that we are our own gods. We decide our fate. Morality is the construct of our desires, and pluralism determines if and when there are parameters. Modern civilization would’ve done better to heed Camus, though, and not Sartre.

For Sartre, who loved too much a phenomenology he really didn’t understand, life is meaningful; although, he preached, that meaning is self-determined and varied based on who I decide I am. You do you, y’all!

Camus, on the other hand, recognized that life is absurd and there isn’t anything anyone can do about it. A philosophical divide that helped render asunder the relationship between the once friends (not to mention Sartre’s willingness to sacrifice humans on the alter of Marxist ideology – compromise helps keep the illusion of control, after all).

In his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus asks the reader to contemplate what’s the point? All our striving – our work, our entertainment, even our mundanities like eating and sleeping – can only mask the fact that life has no meaning. There are moments, though, that open our eyes to life’s absurdity. In those moments – for example, moments when marking days in solitude while watching death rates rise and economies collapsing – Camus urges us to decide to be happy, even in the face of meaninglessness. Just decide it because there is nothing else to be done. Be happy pushing that boulder up the hill because the alternative is despair leading to the “escape” of suicide. Embracing that paradox is what set him apart from Sartre and company, he claimed. They, he believed, those famed existentialists and their phenomenologist forebears, sold themselves a myth and, hence, lived inauthentically. While accurately diagnosing the problem, they, unlike Camus, attempted to escape the absurd.

Close to the truth ain’t the truth, though. And Camus deceives as he was deceived.

Thankfully, there’s another Way. An ancient Way. Leading to the Ancient of Days, as one prophet living smack dab in his own societal upheaval named the Author of this Way. That prophet, refusing the offerings of either the absurd or the escape, saw the Ancient of Day’s throne room that contained the books of judgment. He then saw the One sent by the Ancient of Days whose “dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed (Daniel 7:14b).”

Nothing absurd nor escapist about that. A Way that sees the end from the beginning.

The Author of that Way inspired his own existential poet. A king given wisdom beyond all men, who tasted all this world’s embodied delights, and then concluded true Truth. A king who composed a long-form poem under the nom de plume the Preacher.

Unfortunately, yet not surprisingly, many confessed followers of the Way read Ecclesiastes incorrectly. Tripped up by the word translated “vanity,” readers have allowed varying degrees of Neoplatonism to shape their walk through this world in disembodied ways. Ironically, they unwittingly borrow from both aspects of Serpent-Satan’s contemporary lies. Operating with a synonymous view of the word “vanity,” this life and the things in it are condemned as meaningless and the reason for our existence is to hang on until that final Escape. The absurd combined with a Jesus-juked escape. Again, close to the truth ain’t truth.

What Ecclesiastes actually holds out is the antidote to both the chaos (the absurd) and the escape (the idolization of pleasure).

Like Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus, the Preacher asks what’s the point? Unlike Camus, he had knowledge. The kind of knowledge that can only be revealed; the only kind of knowledge that there is, for that matter. Granted, he opens his divinely inspired poem with the seemingly languished cry, “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:2-3).”

What does man gain? What’s the point? Well, if you are in the habit of reading the Bible piecemeal, as in just a few chapters at a time (if that much), it would be easy to conclude that the Preacher concluded, “that this is all striving after the wind (Eccl. 1:17b).”

What follows the apparently pre-absurdist absurdist poem of chapter 1 is the Preacher’s listing of all the “escapes” he’s tried. And the dude was rich. And powerful. His point? If it’s possible, be it rich food, beautiful women, great deeds, acquiring wisdom, whatever, he’s done it. Again, though, the constant refrain is “all is vanity.”

Vanity. All is absurd. All is pointless. What does it all mean? It means none of this has any meaning. Right? Again, what’s the point? Do we follow Camus or Sartre? Or, like many professing Christians, do we mash them together to create a Christian existentialism of disembodied escape from the meaningless as we huddle pietistically in the corner waiting for the rapture? Or, rather, how about none of that, the Preacher sings.

Pastor and theologian David Gibson gently mocks the standard understanding of the word vanity in Ecclesiastes. In his book Living Life Backwards: How Ecclesiastes Teaches Us to Live In Light of the End,” Gibson chides, “I want to propose that many well-intended Bible translations have actually led us astray by translating the Hebrew word hebel as ‘meaningless’ in this context. We tend to read this word [vanity] as if it’s spoken by an undergraduate philosophy student who comes home after his first year of studies and confidently announces that the universe as we know it is pointless and life has no meaning. But that is not the Preacher’s perspective.”[1]

Reading the Preacher’s words and claims within the entire context of Ecclesiastes (not to mention the entire context of the Bible) combined with a better understanding of what the Hebrew word hebel conveys allows us to see “the Preacher’s perspective.” According to Gibson, the word is better translated, “a ‘breath’ or ‘breeze.’”[2] Expounding further, the Scottish pastor explains that the Preacher is pointing out that life is short, not meaningless.

Reading Ecclesiastes any other way not only ignores the conclusion of the book, it also damages the Creation account and God’s unwavering care for His creation rolled throughout the entire Bible. The Bible begins in a Garden filled with delightful, good things to be enjoyed for God’s glory and ends in a City built around a Garden filled with delightful, good things to be enjoyed for God’s glory. And that’s the key – for God’s glory. But that doesn’t take away from our enjoyment; it adds to it, in fact.

To be clear, the Preacher paints a bleak picture for those building things, eating things, loving things, and learning things apart from a right relationship with their Creator. For those, he warns, their coming judgment swamps the meaning they attempt to glean from their day to day lives. It’s those who submit to the will of their Creator who can take each moment as a gift from God to be enjoyed for His glory, even those seemingly dull moments of quarantine. Amen!

True, our hope is not of this world nor the things of this world. Gloriously true! And because of that glorious truth, because our hope is in God’s love revealed to us in and through Jesus, the world and our lives contain much meaning because they are a never-ending reminder of God’s love and concern for His people. Furthermore, since the food I eat or the books I read or the movies I watch or the wife I share a bed with aren’t where I find salvation or ultimate meaning, I can enjoy those things honestly, and, in so doing, rejoice that no matter what, my hope is secure through faith in the work of Jesus. Those things, the so-called vanities of the Preacher are not thin veneers attempting to hide the Plague of plagues underneath. They’re finite joys pointing to the infinite Joy.

While true in all times and in all places, those of us living through the coronavirus pandemic may have a deeper felt need for the eternal cure that the Ancient of Days revealed to the Preacher. However, even before this gaping view of purported chaos began roiling the world, that eternal cure was just as needed and just as true. And it will remain true long after the coronavirus pandemic is giving kids fits during pop-quizzes in future history classes. Now, though, fighting nightmares and anxiety without our usual dulling escapes at hand, the Way is illumined even brighter. Turning from our frantic pursuits of meaning and happiness into the light of Truth becomes the trick. Do we compromise like Sartre in order to continue clinging to the idol of self-actualization in the pursuit of self-defined happiness? That compromise requires a refusal to submit to the reality that God is Sovereign over all, including our lives. Whether it makes us feel good or not, all of us owe God obedience. He defines who we are.

Or, like Camus, will we embrace the chaotic absurd, doing our best to white-knuckle happiness as we careen along, our boulder requiring constant pushing? That happiness, if obtained at all, comes with an eternal price, though. Avoiding that bill requires acknowledging that there is no chaos because God is in control; that requires recognizing that He is working all things out for His glory. We are not the main character. We’re not even the foil nor the antagonist. Humility is required when bowing before God’s control, after all. And it also demands that we let go of defining what happiness is for us and to recognize that living ethically separated from God terminates in an eternity of misery. True joy comes from resting in God’s promise that He will be your God and you will be His through repentance of sins and faith in Jesus.

Whether we want it to accept it or not, the Preacher’s conclusion is in effect for all of us – “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).”

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] David Gibson, Living Life Backwards: How Ecclesiastes Teaches Us to Live in Light of the End (Wheaton, Il: Crossway, 2017), 19.

[2] Gibson, Living Life Backwards, 19.

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