Focal Passage: Ecc. 12:1-8,
Cartoon characters always
have an interesting way of making decisions. Whenever there is a crisis of
conscience two tiny figures will materialize, one on each shoulder. One will be
a haloed, angelic being who gently prods the character to do right; the other
will be an impish little creature, clad in red spandex and brandishing a
pitchfork, who tempts the character to do wrong. Alas, if it were that simple
for us! Suffice it to say, our “internal dialogues” are a bit more complex.
Qohelet concludes his book
with an impassioned plea for the young to remember God before their lives wind
down. The poetry is beautiful, even if the message remains dismal.
Life devolves in a downward
spiral until Qohelet can no longer resist exclaiming once more, “[A]ll is
vanity!” (v. 8). Not long thereafter, comes the kicker: “Fear God, and keep his
commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone,” (v. 13). The hands that
are thrown up in frustration are now lifted in praise.
The seeming incongruity of
these statements (“All is vanity” on the one hand, and “Fear God” on the other)
have led many to believe that Ecclesiastes 12:9-14 was added by a later editor.
Such editorial work may very well be an attempt to shore up the edges of a book
that has ended on a less than cheery note. Nevertheless, verses 13-14 provide a
provocative juxtaposition that should not be ignored, for it is in these verses
that we recognize our own tension between pessimism and praise.
One of Qohelet’s emphases
has been the limit of human existence and knowledge. While humans can
acknowledge the mystery of the divine, they cannot presume to understand it. In
short, humans know enough to know they don’t know much.
Yet, this ignorance can be
dangerous, especially if humans come to the point that they do all thinking and
no acting. For example, we may not know exactly how prayer “changes” things in
our lives, but that doesn’t mean we stop praying. We may not understand a lot
of the hard sayings of scripture, but that doesn’t mean we stop reading the
Bible. We may be frustrated with bureaucracy and hypocrisy in the church, but
that doesn’t mean we stop attending. Instead, we keep praying, we keep reading,
and we keep going.
In a world saturated with
vanity, we must remember that fully understanding God is not a prerequisite for
fully serving God.
The fear of the Lord comes
before wisdom (Ps. 111:10), and not as a result of it.