The ragged edge. I don’t know of a better way to describe the lives of people living today.
Maybe I should clarify that; not all people. Some have tuned out. For whatever reason, some have decided that it isn’t worth the hassle of being involved, of staying in step with the times, of staring reality in the face and refusing to back down. For them, life becomes an irresponsible shrug of the shoulder, a bland existence somewhere between easy-come-easy-go and who really cares. We all know people who really do want an out-of-touch lifestyle.
But most of us live in the trenches. We’re down there in the dirt of responsibility. We’re shifting through the grit of reality and the grind of accountability. We can’t free ourselves from the demands of competition or escape the pressures of deadlines. Just when we think we have life under control, it breaks loose from us. We frantically pull ourselves together before going over the ragged edge.
There’s a pervasive worldwide malaise brought about the the lengthy wars on terrorism; the civil and political unrest in the Middle East; the global economic woes; the ever-rising number of unemployed; the greediness of banks and Wall Street; the weather.
Many are existing with a quiet sense of desperation. They see a limited and bleak future and a strong feeling of doubt that their lives will change for the better. Many see life as nothing more than futility. Even leisurely vacations, extravagant possessions, sexual escapades, gourmet food, and professional entertainment don’t bring lasting satisfaction.
Is this just the assessment of a disgruntled pessimist? Not at all! It’s the conclusion of an ancient sage. Solomon saw the true vanity of human existence as it is lived out under the sun. Ecclesiastes is the journal he kept of his journey to find meaning and purpose in the current pain of his reality.
Ecclesiastes. Sounds like a strong name for a book, doesn’t it? It means preacher or one who addresses an assembly. And that’s just what Solomon does in his journal. He speaks to all of us about all of life.
I should tell you ahead of time that the journey Solomon took left him feeling deflated, depressed, and disillusioned. His favorite and most often description of how he felt was empty. In fact, his motto appears at the very beginning of his journal.
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity (1:2).
That’s how Solomon described how he felt before he took his journey, while he endured his journey, and after his journey was complete. Nothing satisfied. There was nothing he saw, discovered, attempted, produced, initiated, or concluded as a result of his lengthy search that resulted in lasting significance or personal satisfaction.
But wait. Before we allow ourselves to accept his desperate, sweeping admission, we must ask ourselves why. Why was it a pointless, empty treadmill? Why wouldn’t the man who was king, who had an endless supply of financial resources, find something – anything – that would have purpose?
Isn’t that the same question we ask ourselves? We know in our heart of hearts that things and status don’t satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts. It may make things easier to bear, but they don’t fulfill our sense of purpose or even ultimately alter our reality. It may not even bring us back from the ragged edge.
As the old television show Mission: Impossible used to open with: Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to take a peek inside Solomon’s journal. Does it have anything to say to you? Today. In 2011.
The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains for ever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down,
and hurries to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south,
and goes round to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they continue to flow.
All things are wearisome;
more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
‘See, this is new’?
It has already been,
in the ages before us.
The people of long ago are not remembered,
nor will there be any remembrance
of people yet to come
by those who come after them.
I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.
What is crooked cannot be made straight,
and what is lacking cannot be counted.
I said to myself, ‘I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.’ And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind.
For in much wisdom is much vexation,
and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.
We’ll pick up next week on Solomon’s research and see what conclusions he comes to.
Sunday bonus: In 1959 (!) folk musician Pete Seeger put some verses from Ecclesiastes together in a song. We know it as Turn, Turn, Turn and The Byrds made it famous in the 1960s. Enjoy!
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