Monday, April 5, 2021

Pondering in Back Alleys

My daily walking route takes me through the back alleys of North Kansas City. When I am alone on my 45-minute stroll, I ponder (to weigh in the mind; to consider, quietly, soberly, and deeply). This essay is a result of one of those walks. It may strike you as the original Jerry Seinfeld show—a show about nothing, but at the time it seemed a serious ponder.

The prime directive of all living things is to survive and propagate.1 Just surviving, however, is not enough for a rational human being. We humans are thinkers and we ponder all things even life itself. We are social creatures and require meaning and purpose in our life and in the lives of those near us. To that end, in search of meaning and purpose in life I have pondered my way through life in both clerical and academic careers (and several others) aiming to understand the Bible and to assess what it offers as a guide for finding meaning and purpose in human life. Taken as a whole, however, one will find little in the Bible that addresses the meaning and purpose of the whole of human life. I hasten to add, however, that the Bible does address, in part, religious aspects of life from Israelite and incipient Christian perspectives. Unfortunately, Neither Jesus nor Paul seemed interested in the whole of human life. There is one voice in the Bible, however, to which we may turn for perspectives on the whole of human life, the book of Ecclesiastes. The question is does Koheleth (for so the author dubs the narrator) find anything positive about life? He has the reputation of being pessimistic and begins with this skeptical outburst:

Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything in meaningless! (NIV)2

Here is a sentence clarifying the character of the author that I found in a paragraph introducing the book of Ecclesiastes in the Revised Standard Version of the Protestant Bible.

Ecclesiastes contains the reflections of a philosopher rather than a testimony of belief. The author seeks to understand by the use of reason the meaning of human existence and the good which man can find in life.3

Thus, Koheleth is among the very earliest to ponder life without the safety net of organized religion.

            Koheleth believed in God (3:13, 24-25; 5:18; 8:15) but he did not value organized religion (5:1-7; 7:16). Life appeared meaningless to him because he believed that God had prepared human beings for the ages by putting eternity in the human mind (3:10-11) and yet ended our “threescore and ten” (Ps 90:10) years of living with the grave and Sheol (9:10). Everything that one accomplished with life passes into the hands of others when one dies (2:18-21). Being human is no advantage, for the same fate awaits both man and beast (3:18-21). Living righteously is no advantage to a man for the sinner fares better (7:15), and in the end the same fate awaits both (9:1-3).

            Nevertheless, Koheleth believed that happiness and good could be found in certain simple pleasures of living, such as work (2:24; 3:12-13, 22; 5:18-19), eating and drinking (2:24; 3:13; 5:18; 8:15; 9:7; 10:19), and human companionship (9:9). He counsels that one should enjoy life (8:15; 9:7), for in Sheol to which we are bound there is nothing but shade and shadow (9:10).4

            These are some of Koheleth’s thoughts as he wrestled with the reality of the human predicament and the clash of common human experience with faith in God. He believed that one could come closer to solving the riddle of life “by accepting harsh facts and pondering concrete human experience with its attendant pain than he could by accepting the pallid assertions of complacent orthodoxy.”5 It may seem strange that such a negative outlook is found in the Bible, but some readers are grateful for its refreshing honesty that correlates with the reality of the human situation.

When all is said and done here is what faces each of us: either to accept the practiced institutional assertions of religious orthodoxy or follow the example of Koheleth by pondering the matter for one’s self—a worthy project for the back alleys of any city. What brings meaning and purpose to your life?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1I addressed this question once before; see Wry Thoughts about Religion: “What is the Meaning of Life,” Sunday, August 23, 2020: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/search?q=life

2Eccl 1:2 as translated in the New International Version. It is an attitude expressed numerous times through the book, for example: 1:14, 17; 2:1, 11, 15, 17, 18, 21, 23, etc.

3Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha, p. 805.

4See Hedrick, Wry Thoughts about Religion, “The Land of Forgetfulness” Tuesday, October 22, 2019: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/search?q=sheol

5J. Kenneth Kuntz, The People of Ancient Israel (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 465.