Ecclesiastes

Hope Against Despair:
The Lessons of Wisdom

Have you ever read the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes – also known as Qoheleth, the Hebrew title named after the book’s speaker? Warning: Don’t read it if you’re depressed. It will sink you for sure! One poem embedded in it was actually made famous by the folk singer Pete Seeger and sung by The Byrds. Remember “Turn! Turn! Turn!?”

To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven

A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep

... and so on. (See lead photo.)

In the Jan. 13, 2021 issue of The Christian Century, I read an article titled “Qoheleth meets COVID-19" by Brent Strawn. (See second photo below.) One Old Testament scholar writes that ultimately, Qoheleth, the speaker of this long book, is basically “crabby” because, if you read the whole thing, you’ll see that this speaker is really railing against finitude ... the fact that all living things die, that life is short, that all is “vanity,” that all things end and what’s the point of living. That the whole situation of living is pointless: a great evil. “The whole shebang leads him to hate his life and his work. He turns and gives his heart up to despair. ... Crabby to the bitter end.” Strawn writes:

When we reread Ecclesiastes in our present moment, we are reminded that the human project is, at the end of the day, decidedly small. Our lives come to an end. We all know that, even though we tend to live in denial. But it’s not just human lives, Qoheleth insists; it’s the human project broadly conceived. [Institutions fail; forests die ...] Economies, governments, nations, and states – do these end? Sure, of course, and as a matter of course ... I imagine Qoheleth asking us, “Well, what did you expect?”

Yes, dealing with today’s reality, we are sorely tested to remain hopeful, to see God’s purpose, God’s “hand” (to anthropomorphize) in all our life’s doings; all the endings, all the sadness, the evil that has befallen so many across the globe. My friend, the South African poet Isobel deGruchy, recently sent me her poem titled, “To God Who is in Everything – a Prayer” that raises these very questions. (Please note: The Julian she references here refers to Julian of Norwich, a medieval English mystic – a visionary who also struggled with faith.) Isobel writes:

Are you still present in everything you have made?
Still care about it?
Still direct it towards your purpose?
Julian saw that you do indeed,
but felt greatly tested by this insight,
and so do I,
for her world showed a different reality.
It was god-forsaken, like ours.

In a leap of faith, she believed
and so do I, but ...
Help me Lord!
Help me not to be sucked into darkness and despair.
Help me to see that you are indeed in everything –
that you will triumph in the end.

(From Julian of Norwich: Showings – Expressed in Poetic Form. Unpublished as of this date. Email the author for further information.)

About halfway through The Christian Century article, Strawn also backs off despair and digs deeper into Ecclesiastes to see if Qoheleth has anything else to say, anything that might suggest something like hope against despair. Since Ecclesiastes is part of the Bible that’s referred to as “wisdom literature,” is there any wisdom for living expressed amid all the darkness of the speaker’s words? Strawn suggests that there is. He says “the finality of finitude can ... cast into sharp relief – the highest definition possible – the exquisite nature of life in all its limitedness. He says, here’s the deal: “Happiness can have sharp edges because it ends; knowing it ends makes happiness that much sweeter.” Someone has said “the glory of the ordinary.”

Strawn ends his article by suggesting that maybe a way out of our finitude is not “by denying or escaping it. It’s by accepting it, and by doing and enjoying – don’t forget the enjoying! – what we can, while we can, within our profoundly inescapable and frustrating limitations. He also reminds us that actually, once in a while, good things happen. That the “arc of the moral universe” does bend, albeit “slowly, toward justice.”

In my book Flourishing Life, I also express similar sentiments:

Maybe the wise ones who dare to hope in the face of limits are not blind to those limits of finitude and darkness, but still cling to small goods and ultimately to what is hoped for in the future ... some good, some light to appear in the midst of the dark, some golden glimmer at the end of the tunnel. In fact, it has been said that you cannot hope without knowing the truth of pain or sorrow – that you cannot fully appreciate the good without knowing the bad. (p. 84)

So let’s let wisdom have the last word here. Whether you rush to your bookshelf and thumb through the Bible until you locate Ecclesiastes and see for yourself why this book is considered part of the Wisdom literature, or whether you possibly have found instead some word of hope in this blog, perhaps the “glory of the ordinary” is enough to carry us through the limits of our lives – and give us gratitude for the glimmers of wisdom that shine through along the way.

That’s Wisdom!

Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
I am a clinical psychologist, Episcopal priest and author, and I currently serve as Priest Associate at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.