I had recently studied the Old Testament Wisdom Literature, and wrote three reflections for the class. The following is a modified reflection that I wrote for an assignment, that I am sharing with you today. The reflection of this text is from Qoheleht (Ecclesiastes) 5:7-17, which can be read here.
Sometimes we say “First world problems,” because we know people in the first world complain over trivial things, while people in the third world are striving for basic needs, like feeding their family. It is a fact, that people in a place of privilege and comfort will ask the question if there is any value in acquiring things. It is important to point this out, because Qoheleth obviously comes from a place of comfort where he would not be worrying about basic needs, but merely worrying about accumulating trivial items. Qoheleth insists that the accumulation of goods is a hollow aspiration, and will only consume one with additional trivial worries.
Qoheleth is a more precise title for the book commonly referred to as Ecclesiastes. The titles come from the association with the Hebrew and Greek words for Assembly, or for teacher. Qoheleth was a term indicating that this was a teacher. In tradition, he was often identified with Solomon.
The tradition of Israel presumed that acquiring wisdom was a greater good. This is reasonable, but wisdom can never prevent one from unforeseen disasters, which is probably why Qoheleth attempted to test this idea. The tradition also presumed the right to property, whereas to covet a neighbors goods was against the Commandments. So Qoheleth does not challenge the unjust, and why their property could have been acquired unjustly. Finally, the idea that we anticipate an afterlife paradise, has not solidified doctrinally in Israel, so this life, Law, Wisdom, and the like were major concerns.
Yet Qoheleth asks provocatively, if acquiring goods is meaningful in anyway. He then goes on to assert that we must actually enjoy them. We must take pleasure in the goods that we have. Presuming that there may have not been an afterlife, it seems that Qoheleth encourages us to enjoy the short fragile life we get.
Discussion of the afterlife has almost been entirely banned from the public discourse. It is either seen as impractical, fantastic, superstitious, or even insane. Yet, young people are touched by death, and therefore keep asking questions. While the urge is suppressed, we are trained by commercials, websites, and even our families to just buy the latest gadget, fashion, or hot single, blindly gliding across the surface of a lake, without ever penetrating to discover the treasures deep within.
I believe, as a result, people are overly concerned with acquiring a perfect life here and now, convinced there is no future perfect life to live for. But acquiring that life is based on the idea that it must be acquired by accumulating the right things, the right new iphone to simplify our life, the right new jeans to help make us popular, the right shoes to make us faster, the right organic free range chicken salad to make us sexier. Perhaps none of this actually makes us happier as the commercials insist. We have a lot in common with Qoheleth.
What I also find fascinating in this passage is the mood behind the text. Qoheleth acquires one thing, and presumably acquires another when he becomes bored with the previous one. I think that is the motto of young people, and perhaps my generation. People are obsessed with constant stimulation. We want more people to entertain us, and cure us of our boredom. We refuse to use our imagination, and flip on another video. I mean, hey, we build portable devices like phones and tablets, that we can watch movies on. We are also experts at multitasking, meaning, watching one movie is not quite enough, and we can do more with our hands and our minds to simultaneously stimulate ourselves.
What Qoheleth asserts, is that we fill ourselves with things, and we remain empty. The emptiness, the reality of death, our infinite uncertainty of ourselves remains. Maybe it is not so bad, maybe it is not something we need to run from. Sure, because we are ultimately empty, it is a bold challenge from Qoheleth to not run in the opposite extreme.
Further, when we hover over our new possession with absurd infatuation, only quick to throw it away for the next new thing, we cannot actually enjoy anything. I think the deepest challenge of Qoheleth, even greater then growing beyond our own petty shallowness, is to actually have something and enjoy it. I believe the most profound piece of wisdom in this passage, is that we ought to learn to actually experience a rich joy in what is actually in front of us.