All is Vanity
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Eccl 3:1 NRSV). 
These words start the third chapter of the book of Ecclesiastes. They were written by an anonymous Qoheleth. This Hebrew word is not a name, but a title. It means preacher or teacher or someone who speaks to an assembly of people. And the very first thing we hear from him is, “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (1:2).
Qoheleth repeats this phrase throughout the book and expands upon it, giving many examples to show that life is meaningless. The work we do with our hands, the riches we have collected, the enjoyment of pleasure, even wisdom itself, all come to nothing, for we turn to dust in the end.
It seems a rather nihilistic text for a god-fearing people, and way back in the day, the rabbis argued about whether or not to include it in the Hebrew cannon, but it prevailed. Partly, this was because the last verse turns everything upside down.
Not that Qoheleth changed his mind about the meaninglessness of life. He repeats what he said about our actions, our relationships, our accomplishments. They are vanity. They have no purpose. One day, we will be turned to dust, swept away by the wind. But when all else is gone, we can see what remains, and what remains is God.
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil (12:13-14).
Some commentators believe an editor added this talk of fearing God onto the end of a book that has no interest in such a deity. That’s possible, but Qoheleth speaks of fearing God earlier in the text, as when he writes, “With many dreams come vanities and a multitude of words, but fear God,” (5:7) and “I know it will be well with those who fear God” (8:12). Qoheleth is not afraid to speak of the divine. This is not a secular text, and although it suggests that our purpose on earth is to enjoy our work, to take pleasure where we can, it also encourages righteousness and the honoring of God.
A Season for Everything
It’s not because honoring God will assure us of good things in this life that Qoheleth encourages it, but because, by remembering God, we can better enjoy the gifts he has bestowed, even when those gifts come in painful packages. For all things come from the divine, and they all have an appropriate time. As the poet wrote, there is:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace (3:2-8).
In her analysis of this poem, Ellen F. Davis cautions that the writer didn’t actually mean there was a time for everything, but rather “for every necessary element of life.”  After analyzing that list of opposites, she concludes that only life’s essential pieces are there. Qoheleth doesn’t list everything that could happen. There’s a not a time, for instance, for things like “oppression or wretched suffering,” nor “foolishness or deceit.” 
Do We Need Suffering?
It would be nice if these things were not part of the purpose of life, for then we might one day abolish horror and misery. We might build a Utopian world that lasted.
Yet are hatred and war not oppressive? Are they not accompanied by wretched suffering? Mourning and weeping, giving up, throwing away the best of what we have, turning from one another, and throwing stones, do these things not come from our foolishness and deceitfulness? Of course, other things beget pain, but our idiocy is so much a part of what causes war and hatred and sorrow, how can we imagine God created a season for all those things, yet did not leave room in his creation for what brings them about?
Maybe we don’t want to believe it. We don’t like pandemics, or heart disease, or brain injuries, or racism, or homophobia. We wish unpredictable and corrupt events did not intrude upon our peace and happiness.
But Qoheleth’s poem reminds us that if there were no decay, nothing we planted would ever grow, and if there were no loss, nothing would be special anymore. Talk about meaninglessness. Without death, there would be no life, and without misery, there would be no reason to dance or embrace or love or live. None of us like pain. We don’t want oppression, suffering, foolishness, or deceit, but without them, all freedoms would be equal, all happiness the same, all wisdom just as wise, and all truths as exemplary as every other. Surely this is not what we want, either?
If Some Things Had No Season
Imagine if there were no oppression. Born from a misuse of power, oppression seems to serve no purpose, yet to learn to use power for good, we must experiment. Sometimes we will use it excessively, and sometimes we will get lost in the lure of it. But power allows us to build, to set free, to reclaim, to witness. We need it. Besides, those who never feel the sting of oppression can grow into complacent, privileged fools who oppress others without even realizing it.
Without suffering, everyone’s happiness would feel the same. It would lack nuance, poignancy, richness. It would be less sweet. Would that not become boring? Would we not become unhappy with our simple and predictable lives?
And what of foolishness? Maybe we don’t need it, but how can we avoid it? Every truism is foolish in some settings, every wise person a fool in some ways, yet the wisdom of fools is legendary. In their ignorance and simplicity, fools may be quite content. Perhaps simple lives aren’t so bad, after all.
Yet surely deceit is never okay. Do we really need a season for those who attempt to mislead or cheat others by distorting or concealing the truth? But if we didn’t, then what of the oppressed whose survival depends on their ability to deceive, such as the battered woman who plans in secret so that she can one day leave her abuser? Yes, deceit is a tool of the villain, but it is also a survival tactic for the victim.
There Is No Utopia
Though we wish some things in life had no season, all are necessary, or they would not exist. As much as I dream of eradicating evil with a love more powerful than any hate, evil seems to be inherent in our humanness, so I assume it, too, has its reasons. Just because I can’t see them doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
No matter what we do, we cannot have what we like without that which we dislike. If there is good, there will be bad; if laughing, there will be weeping; if love, there will be hate. That’s why no Utopian vision can ever become a reality. Any that we start will eventually fail. No matter how delightful the world we build, evil influences will insinuate themselves into our days, and life will become difficult and terrible again.
So here we are, living through a time of difficulty and fear, a season of chaos. There is chaos in our streets, our schools, our government, and our hearts. Things might get worse before they get better. Time and seasons, the stuff of pandemics and economic depressions, of protests and deaths, come upon us all, whether we will them to or not. We are stuck in a tide of history we cannot control.
Sitting with Our Discomfort
We don’t like it. As one of our Universalist Recovery Church members said, during a time of suffering and uncertainty, “want to get out of it quickly, not sit with it, not endure it.” This is similar to how Parker Palmer, in his book A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life explained our reactive bombing of Afghanistan after 9/11. Unable to sit with our shock, our sadness, our powerlessness, our rage, unable to endure the tension, we sought a way out, and the way we found was a violent one. It led to more suffering, for others and for us. But that is part of the seasons of our life. It is part of our foolishness and our deceit, even if the only ones we are deceiving are ourselves.
To all people and to all nations, there come times of upheaval and threat. We may fear for our life, for our security. It may seem the system itself will collapse and take us with it. We get swept away in the swirl of events, and there is little we can do to change the course of history.
At times like this, we long for strength, predictability, order. It’s why we rallied to fight the chosen enemy after 9/11 and why so many revere our current president. If we, as individuals and as a nation, could tolerate our pain, look at it, recognize the source of it, the seasons of our life would not be so difficult. We might choose life rather than death.
Finding the Gift
But that is not the way of things. Of course, we will choose life sometimes. That is why we can dance and love and embrace. On the other hand, sometimes we will choose death, because hurt breeds more hurt, and hate seeks hate, and chaos seeds fear, and fear leads to suffering, and in our suffering we make foolish choices. Yet this, also, is why we can dance and love and embrace.
Another of our members pointed out, during our sharing circle some weeks ago, that the chaos, uncertainty, and fear of this time in our nation “holds elements of a gift.”
Really? Where do we find that gift?
Sometimes we don’t know what the gift is until years later. At other times, it seems the gift has passed us by, and all we have is ugliness and despair. If there is a gift, we will find it in the beauty around us, in the heroism of individuals, and in the companionship of friends. We can find a gift, too, in the reminder that “all is vanity.”
Everything Is Beautiful
Right after the poem with its list of opposites, Qoheleth writes, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he put eternity into man’s heart” (Eccl 3:11 ESV).
When it comes in its time, everything is beautiful. Yet is it possible for things to come when it is not their time? If, like God, we could take the long view, the view of eternity or even of many generations, we might see the gift in a pandemic or a hurricane or even a genocide. All things contain some beauty.
To see that is hard. I struggle with it. Yet, according to the book of Ecclesiastes, what we go through today is of little moment. It is vanity. What makes up the cosmos, what infuses and sustains our existence is grander and finer and more beautiful than anything we can understand. Looked at that way, our season in history is simply that, a season. It will pass.
Yet we humans are part of the flow of life, so we can influence that flow. Although we cannot guarantee the river will keep moving in the direction we intend, we can place rocks in its way or add soil to the banks. We can choose to guide that flow in the direction of love, healing, and peace, or we can choose the opposite.
If all is vanity, though, why bother diverting the water in one direction or another?
When All Else Is Gone
Consider what Qoheleth writes. Yes, all is vanity. Nothing we do has any meaning, for we will all die. So we might as well give up our pretenses, stop lusting after wealth, purpose, wisdom, power. Let it all be stripped away. Then we will see that what matters is that we fear God and keep God’s commandments, the greatest of which is to love. When all else is gone, there is still love.
Of course, that means there is still hate. So there is a time for everything, including hate, and war, and chaos. Yes, we need chaos, too, for without chaos, we would cease questioning. The order of things would ossify until we couldn’t breathe.
During this time of uncertainty, all sides are seeking an answer, looking for the gift that will bring order back to our world and make life safe for the good and the righteous. Yet different factions in our country imagine this Utopian place very differently.
Lest we think that we are the good ones who can create a society without pain or hate or mourning or war, remember that history ebbs and flows. When the rulers oppress the people too hard, the people rise up. When the people gain power, they frequently become the new oppressors. We need power to live, yet power corrupts. There is no way around that.
Perhaps during tribal days, when we lived in small bands, life was better. But if you listen to the myths and folk tales of indigenous peoples, you will see that their lives, too, were full of fighting, judgment, unfairness, and evil. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have put such problems in their stories.
Communities of humans have always had their share of hate, of war, of throwing stones, of pulling plants up by their roots. Everything we wish we could eradicate has been with us as long as we’ve existed. We never walked in an Eden, and we never will.
All is vanity. May we nonetheless learn to enjoy the seasons of our life. May we find the gifts in our sorrows. And however we think of God, whatever we imagine is sacred, may we learn to respect that.
Have faith. Move forward. Embrace when it is time, and cease from embracing when it is time for that. Choose death when the moment is right, and choose life when it is possible. If there is no meaning or purpose to anything, that is not a reason to despair, but a reason to know joy. After all, here we are, in human bodies, part of this amazing and beautiful thing we call life. In the end, nothing else matters.
In faith and fondness,
- All translations are from the NRSV unless otherwise noted.
- Davis, Ellen F., Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, 183.
- Ibid 184.
Copyright © 2020 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved