The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evensong      27th October 2019
Vanity of Vanities
Jeremy Fletcher

Ecclesiastes 11 and 12

The book Ecclesiastes contains some of the most famous and memorable verses of the Bible. 

“For everything there is a season.” “Cast your bread upon the waters”. “Remember your creator in the days of your youth.” “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”. “There is nothing new under the sun”. “Two are better than one…a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” ”Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.” “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh”. 

For all this poetry, Ecclesiastes is a complex and difficult book. There have been arguments for centuries about whether it should be accepted as Scripture, such that its inclusion in the Writings in the Hebrew Bible – the Tanakh – was contested, and that continued when the early Christian Church tried to define the canon of the two testaments. 

Along with Job, Proverbs and the Song of Songs in the Old Testament, and the Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus in the Apocrypha, Ecclesiasticus is a piece of wisdom literature: wise sayings and reflections on life, often given as advice from a wise teacher, father or ruler (or all three) so that people could learn from their experience. Wisdom was much sought, as a quality beyond intelligence or knowledge though including them also. Such wisdom today might be called emotional intelligence, resilience, wellbeing and mindfulness, and you can see all these things in the way Ecclesiastes looks at life. 

The trouble is that Ecclesiastes is deeply depressing too, and it seems to have no overall coherence. It would be tempting to regard the last verses of tonight’s reading as a summing up: “Fear God and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone.” I like that, and I believe it, but it’s not the story of the whole of the book. 

After his death, scholars collected together Abraham Lincoln’s writings. Among them were hundreds of scraps of paper, eventually published as ‘Fragments’. Lincoln sought out time and space where he could think unimpeded by others, and used journeys on horseback and time away from the White House to formulate ideas and speeches. He would write down the thoughts on scraps of paper, often storing them in his stovepipe hat. Some of them became considered speeches and writings. Many remained simply as scraps of thought.

I think of Ecclesiastes like that. The central figure is the Teacher or Preacher: Qoheleth. These are ruminations and reflections which are kept because, at different times and from different perspectives they are true. There is a thread of weariness about the belief that ultimately everything is empty breath, translated by many as ‘vanity’. From a vantage point of the end of a long life many people will wonder whether all that hard work was worth it. The contemporary funny card or fridge magnet version of this would be to say that, on my death bed, what I’ll probably regret is not having been in enough meetings. 

Qoheleth says on occasions that it would simply be best to eat your bread with enjoyment and drink your wine with a merry heart. Just get on with what’s in front of you at the time. “Better a living dog than a dead lion”. And yet there is more. Give away, says Qoheleth, and it will come back to you. Sow seed. You never know what will grow. Look at life as a whole, and receive and give in each season. Above all, when you are young and easily distracted, put your self in the hands of your creator. Much in life is emptier than air. But there is that which lasts. Wisdom remains open to what God has for the world.

Perhaps because Qoheleth is something of an Eeyore, these bright jewels of hope shine out among the scraps all the more brightly. The sayings about futility and vanity are true, in their way. But, like Lincoln’s thoughts in his hat, they are only partially true. Qoheleth also speaks of the need for human beings to be in community, to remember their God, to give and to serve. Those who kept Ecclesiastes in the canon of Scripture knew that such writings revealed the involvement of the God of love in every aspect of human living and dying. 

“God has done this”, says Qoheleth in Chapter 3, “so that all should stand in awe before him”. A wise seeker after truth looks for God in all things, discovers what is vanity and what will last, and places themselves in the hands of the eternal. May we find that in Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life. Amen. 

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