There is no snappy title for this week’s discussion. In fact Qoheleth has gotten downright boring. It’s the same old stuff every time. The sameness, in justice and downright boredom of life. Every where you turn, life is the same. Nothing has any lasting value, nothing is profitable under the sun.
Qoheleth has some major themes in this chapter, the first is oppression. Note how he links the oppressor and the oppressed, neither has a comforter and those who are happiest are those who are dead or, better yet in his estimation, those who have never been born.
Think about oppression you have witnessed, perhaps from afar. Are the oppressors and the oppressed equally unhappy? There has been a recent “regime change” in Lybia. Were those who were formerly in power comfortless? Certainly they were at the end of their lives. As Gaddafi was being pursued by NATO warplanes and rebels was he then the oppressed or oppressor? Is this cycle something Qoheleth would recognize? How should we treat oppression and oppressors?
Let me say for the record that Gaddafi deserved what he got as did many other tyrants throughout time. But in the long view is what is to follow in Lybia or anywhere else necessarily better or just more of the same?
In western civilization we like to think and talk about progress, we have a decidedly linear view of time. In business we talk about Continuous Improvement and management texts talk about “virtuous cycles” where each iteration builds upon improvements from the last. It seems possible if we talk about products. Is it possible in the lives and hearts of men? I think this is the crux of hebel, its not that the world does not change, its that men and women don’t.
His second major theme deals with progress in our personal lives. We look for jobs where we make more money, relationships where we be happier. A bigger house, a nicer car. Each change we make in the belief it will bring us more wealth or more status and, presumably greater happiness.
Qoheleth suggests that all achievement springs from envy. Is that right? He is quick to note that choosing not to work for what we have is also not the answer because “Fools fold their hands and ruin themselves.” But “Better one handful with tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind.”
I don’t think he’s suggesting we try for balance because he believes everything under the sun is useless. Instead he says, I think, work until you’re not happy with the results because that’s all the happiness you’ll get “under the sun”, but don’t think more work will bring happiness and also don’t think less work will bring you happiness.
He does find a kind word for companionship. What kind of companionship is he referring to? The text does not say, it may be marriage or friendship or both, but in any event Ooheleth makes the case that two are better than one. That is certainly the testimony of my marriage, I am better with my wife than without and there is never any doubt.
What about the third person introduced in the discussion of the three strand cord? Some have suggested that this represents God. Certainly it would be true that two people in a relationship who were also in relationship with God would be stronger than the two, even together, without God, I don’t know that Qoheleth intended that interpretation. Still, the more threads of relationship that run through our lives, especially when they include God, the stronger we are.