14 There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity. 15 And I commend joy, for man has no good thing under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.
16 When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one's eyes see sleep, 17 then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out
9:1 But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God. Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him. 2 It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath. 3 This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead.4 But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion.
The Invasion of Life into a Dying World
Ecclesiastes is an odd, confusing, and very troubling book. Upon reading it, one is tempted to ask, “Why on Earth is this in the Bible?!” Its tone is very pessimistic, with its litany of “vanities.” It reads more like the writing of a modern existentialist philosopher than a religious text. I would like to suggest that it is precisely its quality of robust investigation of human experience and thoughtful questioning that makes Ecclesiastes such a vital contribution to God’s Word. The author of Ecclesiastes subverts conventional wisdom and challenges us to face the vanity of life and its pursuits. The word translated as “vanity” evokes the image of breath, something fleeting, and ephemeral or even futile or absurd. Despite his insistence on the vanity of this life, the author of Ecclesiastes also repeatedly enjoins us to enjoy the good things of life while we can.
This summer I was reminded—rather dramatically—of both the goodness and joy of life and also its fragility. In July I experienced the joy of being joined in marriage to my wife April and the blessings of beginning a life together. Pronouncing my vow to love and cherish April until we are parted by death was particularly sobering to me that day, because as joyful and exuberant as our wedding was, the shadow of death also loomed ominously in my heart. My oldest brother Tom, who was to be one of my groomsmen, could not attend because he was lying in a hospital bed ravished by AIDS. It was only a little more than a month before the wedding that our family learned Tom had AIDS, and it was only about a month after the wedding that we stood around his bedside holding his hand, praying, and reading him scripture as the flickering flame of his life was finally extinguished. Although my brother was much older than me, we were very close, and I loved him dearly. I had experienced death before, but never face to face, never someone so close to me and so young. The result was not only grief, but a powerful reminder of mortality and the urgency of knowing God and his son Jesus Christ.
Christopher Wright in his book The Mission of God, describes AIDS as a paradigm of evil. He writes, “death awaits every human being since the Fall, but HIV/AIDS brings the sentence forward into the midst of life and destroys life’s blessing, abundance and fulfillment—the very things that God created us for”(Wright, 435.) Encountering AIDS close up, was like looking into the face of sin and its horrible curse. In saying that, however, I want to make a qualification. We can not, and should not, make a direct correlation between a person’s sinful behavior and the misfortune that befalls them. Our text directly challenges that notion. It says, “There are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous” (Ecclesiastes 8:14b.) People who carry HIV/AIDS are often stigmatized as degenerate, unclean, or cursed. This is sadly the case even among Christians. The truth is that many people contract the virus through no fault of their own. It is true that the Bible teaches us that a sinful life has dire consequences, but I believe these texts are cautionary rather than prescribing our attitudes toward those who are afflicted. They teach us the folly of sin but they do not teach us to blame or condemn, nor do they guarantee that godly people’s lives will always be free from suffering. The question of why the godly suffer is one for the ages and not within the scope of this lesson, but we should take note of our text’s admonition, human beings cannot completely fathom the works of God. When faced with suffering like the kind caused by AIDS, our task is not to blame or simply to ponder why, but to be present to those who suffer with compassion.
In The Great Litany found in The Book of Common Prayer, among the many supplications is the plea, “from dying suddenly and unprepared, Good Lord, deliver us.” If you ask most people how they would like to die, my guess is that most people will tell you that they want to go peacefully in their sleep. The prospect of facing our death and coming to terms with it terrifies us. We would much rather avoid the hard work by dying suddenly in our sleep, but it is precisely this kind of avoidance that our tradition teaches us to pray to be delivered from. I don’t know how my brother contracted HIV, and even he was unaware of his infection until it was too late. I feel pretty certain that, had he known earlier that he was carrying a deadly virus, he would have lived his life much differently. Our text reminds us that the same event happens to everyone who comes into the world, whether we are righteous or wicked, Christian or non-Christian – all of us die. All our accomplishments, all our possessions, all our enjoyment of life’s blessings, come to an end with death. Death is a great leveler. Anything we seek to stand on in this life will be taken away. We should keep this before our mind always. What am I ultimately living for? Am I investing myself in things eternal or in things that are passing away? AIDS, the invasion of death into the midst of life, forces us to ask these big questions. There are those that the text says have hearts full of evil and madness and waste their life (9:3b), let that not be you.
I spoke at my brother’s funeral about how the love we share as a family points us beyond itself to God. The love we share here and now is a foretaste of the greater love that we will know in the consummation of God’s kingdom. Now we know in part what later we will know in fullness (1 Corinthians 13:12b.) All of us who live in the shadow of death, especially those who carry deadly viruses like HIV, should take joy in those moments of delight in which we catch a glimpse of eternity. Our text says that those moments will go with us through the toil and the vanity of this life (8:15b.)
There is an interesting tension in our text and indeed in the whole book of Ecclesiastes. Life is described as vanity, full of confusion, injustice, and toil, yet it is an evil when it is taken away. There is a longing in the heart of the author for life in all its goodness, yet no matter how hard he grasps it continually slips through his fingers. Life is experienced as a desirable, but elusive thing, while death is as real and unmovable as a great stone. What the author longs to know is greater and more enduring life, a life that isn’t futile and failing. Life, even if it is merely a shadow, is preferable to death. The Author writes, “He who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion” (9:4.) Going back to our earlier description, AIDS is the invasion of death into life, making even life like death, and finally taking life itself away. A person who is dying from AIDS is made to be completely emaciated; they are rendered immobile, and often cannot even speak. The ties that join them to all the living are severed one by one. We must not sentimentalize death. Death is a horrible thing. Despite much pious rhetoric that proclaims death to be a friend and a mere transition, the Bible insists to the contrary. Death is the enemy, a negation of life and all that God created us for. I do not say that as a counsel of despair. I believe we have hope in the face of death that I wish to share with you.
Jesus Christ came to conquer death and to bring a more abundant life. Christ is the antidote for vanity. If AIDS is the invasion of death into life, than Christ is the invasion of life into a dying world. In his book The Divine Conspiracy Dallas Willard gives a wonderful paraphrase of John 3:16, “God’s care for humanity was so great that he sent his unique Son among us, so that those who count on him might not lead a futile and failing existence, but have the undying life of God Himself” (Willard, 1.) If you are suffering from disease, even AIDS, Jesus can give you life even in the midst of your affliction. He is near to you in a way that no one else could ever be. When Tom was dying I was able to hold his hand, I was able to encourage him and tell him that I loved him, and I was able to pray with him, but it was Christ who suffered with him. It was Christ who bore his sins and even his sickness on the hard wood of the cross. It was Christ who with him was considered cursed and afflicted by God. It was Christ who shared in his sorrows and it was Christ who was able to give him hope and a life that is stronger than dying. Christ defeated death. Those of us in Christ share in his death, which is in fact the death of death. All who are in Christ also share in the power of his resurrection beginning now but being consummated in the last day when our corruption is swallowed up in incorruption.
The last day will see an end to life’s vanity, and of sickness and death. The Bible has a word for the restoration, wholeness, peace and well being that we will know in that day. The word is shalom. People who are afflicted with the AIDS virus know the vanity of this present age. They know what it means to experience the unraveling of God’s good creation and the waxing of life, because they carry it in their own bodies. In fact, we all do, but victims of AIDS and other diseases make that dissolution particularly present to us. May they also carry the restoration—God’s shalom-- within them. May they receive the eternal life that Christ offers us in the midst of this futile and failing existence, and may we see the hope of the gospel played out in them. Dying well is a missional action. It was a great consolation for me to know that Tom faced death knowing Christ and his victory. His life was not lived in vain.