“What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1:3). That’s a really good question, and you yourself probably ask it or a variation of it now and then.
The question as I just posed it to you is originally from the early verses of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible. “What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?” The answer at which the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes arrives, after much soul searching and active observation, is that those people who can be happy with monotony have it made in this world. If you like endless repetition and recurring cycle after recurring cycle, then this world is to you PARADISE!
It’s how God intended things to be, according to the writer. Those who need some variety and excitement in their lives, well, in this world, he concludes, are very disappointed with the way things are. Even his perspective on monotony will nearly put you to sleep—or, at least, make you yawn!
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 (Ecc 1:8-9 NRSV).
Not to be vague, the writer gets right to the heart of the matter: “Is there a thing of which it is said, `See, this is new’? It has already been in the ages before us” (Ecc 1:10 NRSV). He expects a, “No,” in response to his question.
Hebrew scripture scholar, Dr. Wayne Brown, has called what you’re about to hear “the poetry of polarity.” Every piece of this poem is a part of a juxtaposition.
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. What gain have the workers from their toil? (Ecc 3:1-9 NRSV)
My read on this is not that God wills for any of these events or experiences in particular to take place, but rather that they just happen. Right or wrong, good or bad, they happen. Bringing morality into the subject as I have just done is something our writer did not do. He’s specifically looking at life without saying whether this piece or that piece is either good or bad; all he wants to say is that these aspects of life keep repeating themselves ad infinitum. Other than indicating that God knows how it is for us humans, the writer has nothing more to say in that regard.
I can’t leave it there, though. I’d have to bring a qualifier to bear on interpreting the poem if we are going to use in any way as instructive for modern seekers of meaningful spirituality.
Many of these things listed in the poem, in fact, God would NOT want to happen—hatred and war, for examples. But in human experiences they do, over and over and over again. That much I accept.
I also need to add that just because things are the way they are and have been for a long time or forever doesn’t mean that we should passively accept that they will always be. We can be sure, for example, that hatred is less prevalent today than it was yesterday by dissolving some of our own hatred; and human beings can work to ensure that the frequency of war diminishes.
The Preacher or Teacher or Speaker who wrote the book of Ecclesiastes or at least the part I’ve read this morning specifically set out to find meaning in life, and after years and years of seeking and speculating, he winds up with a couple of less than enthusiastic conclusions beyond what we’ve already noted as his emphasis on how boring and mundane it all is. The first is that the fact of death reverses anything meaningful one might find in life. In his mind, death was senseless, and this undoubtedly had everything to do with the writer’s most famous statement of all: “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity!” It turns out, though, that a much better translation of that claim in English is something like: “Senselessness on top of utter senselessness!"
He is advising his hearers and readers to face the facts that life is futile since they were going to die no matter how good or productive they were and that while they were waiting to die they were apt to be bored out of their minds. So what you do is, if you have the chance for a little happiness, go for it; you surely don’t pass it up! And you, of course, live by God’s standards along the way, he urged.
You are well acquainted with the descendants of this guy aren’t you? They’re the people who may set out to enjoy life or have a good time, but any enjoyment is persistently squashed by pessimism. “Well, yeah, life is a gift, but death will steal it from me someday so I can’t get too excited.” “I can’t get too close to anybody since someday we will be separated.” “What’s the point in trying to make a lasting contribution? I can’t be around to enjoy the benefits!”
Thanks for the good word. Right?
So, earthly life has a beginning point and an ending point. There is a time to be born and a time to die. This isn’t some big news flash and shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. I don’t think it’s morose or macabre to own this reality and to ponder it from to time.
That walk through what one of the psalmists called the “valley of the shadow of death” is not an optional journey, a trip we will take someday if it suits us. No, it’s a required part of being human. What we hope for is a rich and full and productive life before our bodies determine that we can no longer survive physically in this realm.
The announcement of death or even the nearness of death will typically result in grief. One of the most moving scenes in the Hallmark Hall of Fame film version of Homer’s “Odyssey” is when Odysseus’ mother, Anticleia, becomes overpowered by grief when she becomes convinced that her son, Odysseus, has been gone from home too long still to be alive; in other words, if he were alive after all those years word would somehow have gotten back to her.
In a chilling act of profound mourning, Anticleia clothes herself in a burial shroud and walks into the sea specifically to end her life in this realm so that she might find her son in Hades, the abode of the dead. For a dose of double sadness, we find that Odysseus isn’t dead after all, and he will make a tragic temporary visit to the abode of the dead to find his mother living much too soon in that shadowy world in a state that cannot be reversed.
Despite the reality of loss and the reality of death, though, let us not make mourning the last word like one of Anton Chekov’s characters who always wore black. When asked why, she said, “I am in mourning for my life.” Geez! Even the Pessimistic Preacher who penned Ecclesiastes in his poetry of polarity remembered that in life there is a time to mourn, but also there is a time to dance!
Just back from the hills of Tennessee, I have some country music still ringing in my ears. Not all country music should be scoffed at! Here are some words to one country song I like a lot.
I hope you never lose your sense of wonder
You get your fill to eat
But always keep that hunger
May you never take one single breath for granted
God forbid love ever leaves you empty handed
I hope you still feel small
When you stand by the ocean
Whenever one door closes, I hope one more opens
Promise me you'll give faith a fighting chance
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance
I hope you dance (Lee Ann Womack).
At the Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Halls Crossroads, where I went to church several times a week from the time I was 5 years old until I was 18 and a half, dancing was frowned upon. Sometimes it was out and out castigated from the pulpit.
Our parents prohibited my sister and me from dancing; our little brother came along about a decade after my sis, and he had no rules or restrictions whatsoever, as far as I ever knew. You younger children in the birth order should give thanks for your older siblings on whom your parents practiced! He could dance if he wanted to; but Kim and I before him, we weren’t supposed to. I didn’t say, we didn’t. I said we weren’t supposed to. But if I ever did sneak to a sock hop, and I’m not admitting to it, I didn’t get to dance enough ever to have been accused of dancing well. I wasn’t the worst one on the dance floor by any stretch of the imagination; I mean, had I ever actually been to a school dance I wouldn’t have been the worst dancer on the floor. I was quite confident that if God had something against dancers, there wouldn’t have been enough evidence to convict me--even if I had ever gone to a dance in the gymnasium of Halls High School at 8:00 on a Friday evening.
I don’t know what preacher had gotten to Dad. There is absolutely no indication in the Judeo-Christian scriptures that people should avoid dancing.
From a Baptist home I went to a Baptist college where dance was also forbidden. Even folk dances in physical education classes had to be called “folk games” so as not to get the fundamentalists on and off campus all riled up.
Dancing is all over the place in the Bible. There are between 25 and 30 references depending on who does the counting, and in only two places is dancing frowned upon. In both of those instances, dancing itself is not condemned or questioned, but rather those particular dances.
The first place known to me where dancing is criticized in the Bible is when none other than Israel’s greatest king, King David, gets tipsy on worship wine because he is so excited that the Ark of the Covenant is finally being brought to what he regards as its proper resting place that he wants to celebrate to the fullest. Under the influence, we could say, he begins to dance in front of all these dancing people who are watching the holy vessel being taken to where their king wants it.
There’s nothing wrong with his or their dancing. The problem was that he was wearing a mini-toga that day, an ephod, that came down just a few inches below the wearer’s hips, but no royal fruit of the looms, and the people of Israel saw more of their king than they bargained for! David’s wife, Michal, and he evidently had only one wife at the time, reamed him out for his poor judgment.
The only other biblical place I know about where a dancing is inappropriate is when Salome dances in an intentionally erotic way to cause her stepfather, Herod Antipas, to be drawn to her enough to want to grant her favors. It worked, and the favor for which she asked on behalf of her mother, Herodias, was that he have John the Baptist’s head chopped off and displayed for her on a platter. The lustful king to please the temptress ordered it done, and it was. Again, the dancing itself wasn’t wrong, but rather the seductive style of dancing and the purpose for which it was used.
When the Preacher of Ecclesiastes reminds us that in life there is time for both mourning and dancing, the dancing he has in mind is dancing motivated by happiness. It’s the opposite of mourning; it’s the jumping-for-joy kind of dancing. From Psalm 32: “Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.”
Sometimes, when we have hurt so much and so long, we begin to live as if what hurts us defines us, but it doesn’t. Sometimes, when we lose someone dear to us and go into mourning, we may convince ourselves that to allow ourselves ever to be happy again is disrespectful to the one we’ve lost, but it isn’t. Sometimes, the powerful sadness of the world around us convinces us that joy has no place in such a world, but it does.
Dancing doesn’t make the grief go away any more than joy solves all the problems of tragedy in our world, but dancing, even if your dances can’t be called dances by anyone but you, show you and the world that sadness and mourning--real and legitimate and powerful emotions ignored at anyone’s emotional peril--cannot, must not, will not be all there is to you. “I hope you dance.”