"Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going."
- Ecclesiastes 9:10
Proof-texting is dangerous, I know. Qohelet's radical eccentricity especially demands to be read in context, which is what I've been doing for the past two months. Want to read the Bible intensively? Take a seminary course with Dr. Brent Strawn and two of your best friends so that the discussion starts out intense and follows you home every day. This skeptic has taken up residence in my head, and he's not going anywhere anytime soon.
This verse, for instance, keeps rumbling forth from my memory, interrupting the daydreams I use to fill boring lectures, cutting short my evening reveries designed to avoid pointless pastoral care readings, and barging in on my freak-out sessions about future plans. Just as soon as I've gotten comfortable in that detached inactivity, Qohelet runs in and asks the question, "Hey, Dana, aren't you supposed to be doing something right now?"
The right now is Qohelet's favorite time frame. Having spent his life searching for wisdom and meaning, his conclusions are a bit underwhelming: "Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity," (1:2). Nothing adds up, nothing guarantees net gain, no wisdom or righteousness or wealth or folly can assure anyone security, for all meet the same fate. Death comes to the wise and the foolish, the king and the pauper. Living life for the future, he says, is pointless. Instead, "there is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil," (2:24).
Carpe Diem! Seize the day! Live your best life now! Qohelet sounds a little like Robin Williams or Joel Osteen, offering sage-like advice on how to squeeze the most out of every day. Except...except I can't picture this skeptic, who goes on for twelve chapters about the finality and futility of life jumping up on a desk with a flourish, or wearing a pasted-on smile of condescension. He's too cynical for one and too authentic for the other.
What, then, does he mean? He keeps telling me that I'm going to die, keeps whispering inside my head about how there's no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, and, by the way, that IS where I'll be soon enough. If he's not like Robin, making impassioned pleas for me to stand up and buck the system, and if he's not like Joel, offering keen platitudes to help me through the shitty parts of life, then what does he mean? WHAT is your POINT, old man?
Qohelet never makes himself clear. In fact, he muddies his own snarky waters with a couple of chapters of explicit ethical advice, mostly about how not to rock the boat. But his repeated refrain of enjoyment hits home: "Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has already approved what you do," (9:7).
"Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to behold the sun," (11:7). "You are alive," Qohelet tells us matter of factly. "You don't know what that means or why you came to be or even how long that will last, but you are alive. Moreover, there are things here for you - right there in front of you. There's food and drink and work, and there are even people close by to enjoy them with. Eat and drink and enjoy your toil. Appreciate the world around you. Attend to these gifts that God had given, even if you don't understand them one bit...Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might."
Apparently, Qohelutian thought is all around.