We’ve been wrestling with Ecclesiastes at La Trobe Uni recently. I especially appreciate the Teacher’s — sometimes brutal — honesty about life. And although I never feel like I’m doing it justice, I find I can just keep talking about it!
I’ve been pondering what allows the Teacher to be so honest about life.
Friedrich Nietzsche famously accused Christianity of nihilistically denying life. In ‘How the Real World at last became a myth’ (in Twilight of the Idols), he cites the way an emphasis on the hereafter can drain the colour out of life, leaving people living for an imagined — and, in Nietzsche’s view, wholly imaginary — future rather than living to the full here and now.
However, the Teacher of Ecclesiastes sees life with profound clarity. You glimpse this when he speaks about power and oppression (Ecclesiastes 5.8-9):
If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and right, do not be amazed at the matter; for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them. But all things considered, this is an advantage for a land: a king for a ploughed field.
It’s like Foucault before Foucault! Injustice is deeply stitched into the structures of society. Even — or especially — those we can’t live without.
Some would call this cynicism, perhaps stemming from the Teacher’s haziness about God and the afterlife. But, in my view, the Teacher joins hands with the prophets in cleaving to God as Creator and Judge — both the giver of life and any power we have to work (and enjoy it) and the one who sets limits to our existence (both positively and negatively).
I think it’s the Teacher’s confidence in this God that enables him to be so brutally honest about life. It’s what frees him. For it means that he doesn’t have to sugar-coat injustice or desperately snatch at every passing experience offering distraction. And, while it can be harder to spot, it also lets him see how to find genuine enjoyment in work, relationships, and all manner of human endeavour.