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Happy New Year — Qohelet Style

31st December 2005

As we enter a new year (for those of us following the Gregorian calendar at least!), I would like to wish readers of Codex all the best in the new year.

One of the biblical books that I read at the beginning of every new year is Ecclesiastes (in the Hebrew Bible known as “Qohelet”). I find that this book helps me set my priorities for the upcoming year.

Now those familiar with the book of Ecclesiastes may be asking yourself what does a book that renders everything as hebel or absurd have to say about personal goals and resolutions for the new year? Well, that’s a good question! Especially considering Ecclesiastes 1:9 which says “History merely repeats itself. It has all be done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new.” This verse probably rings true to all of us who have ever made a new year’s resolution year after year only to break it by the time February comes around! If everything is hebel or absurd and if we’re caught in this endless cycle, what’s the point of trying to do things different this coming year? Another good question.

Everything for the Qohelet is summed up by the Hebrew word הבל hebel, absurd: “Vanity of vanities, says Qohelet, vanity of vanity! All is vanity!” This word describes what is visible or recognizable, but unsubstantial, momentary, and profitless (Scott); it connotes that which is absurd in the technical sense, what is not the way it is supposed to be (Fox). It is characterized by chasing after the wind: and no one can catch the wind. It is vanity, meaningless, absurd. One commentator has even translated it as “flatulence!”

The rest of the book elaborates on this pessimistic conclusion. In what seems like an endless cycle of negative verdicts everything is considered hebel: righteous living: absurd!; folly: absurd; pleasure: absurd; wealth: absurd; human toil: absurd!; achievement: absurd; justice and honour: absurd! Everything — absolutely everything — that happens under the sun is absurd, a chasing after the wind.

And it is precisely this pessimistic — or perhaps realistic — conclusion that makes Ecclesiastes especially appropriate at this time of year. Eugene Peterson in his book Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work describes the book of Ecclesiastes as

a John the Baptist kind of book. It functions not as a meal but as a bath. It is not nourishment; it is cleansing. It is repentance. It is purging. [We] read Ecclesiastes to get scrubbed clean from illusion and sentiment, from ideas that are idolatrous and feelings that are cloy. It is an exposé and rejection of every pretentious and presumptuous expectation aimed at God…(pp. 155-156).

At this time of year I believe we need to get scrubbed clean from illusion and sentiment, we need to reject every pretentious and presumptuous expectation that we might have in our lives in regard to God and our faith. We need to refocus and re-orient ourselves as we begin the new year.

But what exactly does Qohelet mean by his absurd verdict? Are all the things he highlights absurd without qualification? Are they in and of themselves bad?

The key to understanding Qohelet’s verdict is found in his perception of reality. For Qohelet, reality is divided into two realms: one the dwelling place of God, the other the dwelling place of humanity (Eaton, 44). “Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before Go. God is in heaven, and you are on earth, so let your words be few” (5:2). “God is in heaven, you are on earth.” This is an underlying assumption throughout the book. And when Ecclesiastes uses the recurring phrases “under the sun,” “under heaven,” or “on the earth” he is talking about the earthly side of reality apart from God. He is talking about life here in this fallen world alienated from God.

It is life “under the sun” that is absurb; Qohelet is saying that wisdom, wealth, work, or anything that leaves God out of the picture is absurd, a chasing after the wind.

So, Qohelet’s verdict of meaningless is pronounced on life “under the sun.” It condemns an autonomous, self-sufficient wisdom that has no place for God. It condemns wealth that is seen as an end unto itself, rather than a blessing from God that has to be used to further his Kingdom. It condemns work that supplants God as the focus and drive of one’s life.

So, not everything is absurd, only everything that is sought apart from God. If we try to find meaning in wisdom, wealth, or work “under the sun,” that is, apart from God, then our search will be futile.

For all my readers it is my prayer that all that we do in the coming year will not be absurd, a chasing after the wind.

For my Christian readers it is my prayer as we begin a new year that we all will use this time to refocus and re-orient ourselves towards the only true source of meaning — the baby whose birth we just celebrated: Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. It is my prayer that no matter what resolutions we may make — that when in a year we look back at 2006 that we will find meaning and significance in what we have done, because we have done it in the shadow of the cross.

“Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of every person” (12:13).

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