Ecclesiastes: Adding "Life" to Your Years

by Paul Zilonka, C.P.

People who lived several thousand years ago when the Bible was being written did not have the same expectations of longevity so many of us can reasonably have. Life was harsh from the first breath. Many died in infancy, most died in their 30s and 40s.

In ancient societies, those who survived into their elder years had a certain prominence because they had outlasted most of the people of their own generation. They had a living memory of persons and events known to few of their neighbors and only by hearsay to the younger generations.

The Bible's Attitude Versus Today's

The Bible esteemed elderly people for their wisdom because of what they could do to inform and shape a new generation in faith and love. People of mature years who have seen the world for many decades know what has worked and what has not. They can offer a slant on things that younger people might not deduce at first.

Today, however, many give the impression that older people should move out of the public forum and devote their whole time to leisure. Television commercials boldly promise that "our product may not add years to your life, but it will certainly add life to your years." The Bible suggests that the real gift of elder years is wisdom rather than more self-centered focus on the pursuit of pleasure.

The Wisdom Books

Elders are most suited to give youngsters basic instruction on how to grow up because they have some experience with this humpty-dumpty world. But where do "oldsters" get some instruction on how to live their "mature" years, since it is not part of their past experience?

In the Old Testament, along with the books associated with Moses and the many books called by the names of the great prophets, there was another collection of books which preserved the accumulated wisdom of thousands of years of human experience in many different cultures. The Hebrew people recognized the tremendous value of these writings and made them part of their own wisdom heritage.

"Vanity of Vanities . . ."

One book entitled Ecclesiastes (or Qoheleth) occupies only twelve short chapters in our Bibles, but most people recognize its proverbial complaint. "Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity." (1:2) That sentence alone has scared a lot of people away from Ecclesiastes, but this book is a gem of provocative thoughts that any serious person, young or old, should address.

The term, vanity, is used 30 times in this short book to suggest that most of life has no more substance than the puff of breath we see coming out of our mouths on a cold winter morning. The poetic quality of that somber evaluation of life catches our attention as the anonymous author discusses all the aspects of human life which we cling to in the hope of happiness.

"Vanity of vanities" practically shouts: "Wake up, friends, we are on the verge of absurdity here. Do not put all your eggs in the basket of pleasure, physical security and human knowledge alone."

The biblical author has the knack of finding the agony hidden even in the ecstasy of human experience. Distressing as Ecclesiastes is at first glance, it is worth some of our quality time.

"Telling It Like It Is"

Though this book was written almost 25 centuries ago, its sober remarks have a contemporaneous quality of "telling it like it is." Too many people live in denial as long as they can, not wanting to face the hard questions of life. But if we face these difficult questions, we will discover the rich potential for spiritual growth that comes in distinctly new ways as we grow older.

The book of Ecclesiastes is a powerful antidote to the attitude which states that "pleasure is the meaning of life." We breathe in this mentality day and night, especially from the media. Ecclesiastes is a reality medicine to counteract this insidious gospel of easy living which can lead us far from the vision of the Gospel of Christ.

The author has chosen for his spokesman the most powerful image imaginable in the ancient world of the Hebrews -- a wealthy king in Jerusalem.Though Solomon's name is not mentioned, he was the inspiration for this fictional portrait of someone who had the wealth, wisdom and power to fulfill any dream he wished.

"All Things . . . Under the Sun"

This king typifies so many people today who yearn to be in his shoes. Curiosity led him to "search and investigate in wisdom all things that are done under the sun." (1:12) He turned his energy to pleasure and the enjoyment of good things. This king had it all! He followed the path many have used in an effort to achieve earthly immortality by investing in buildings, vineyards, gardens and parks filled with fruit trees. "I amassed silver and gold . . . Nothing that my eyes desired did I deny them, nor did I deprive myself of any joy, but my heart rejoiced in the fruit of my toil." (2:4-10)

But after pursuing all his whims, the king laments again and again that everything amounts to a passing breath that has little substance. "All was vanity and a chase after wind, with nothing gained under the sun." (2:11) He knows that it makes more sense to be wise than a fool, but because there is no belief in the afterlife in this book of the Old Testament, he is under the impression that the same lot befalls both the wise person and the fool. "If the fool's lot is to befall me, why then should I be wise? Where is the profit for me? And I concluded in my heart that this too is vanity." (2:15)

The Tears of Victims

In the midst of this grand experiment in total experience of the world, the author cannot avoid mentioning the harsh reality of human cruelty which was ever-present in his lifetime as it is in ours.

In what I consider to be one of the most poignant sections of the book, he writes,

"Again I considered all the oppressions that take place under the sun: the tears of victims with none to comfort them." (4:1)

He goes on to say that the dead are more fortunate than those who live in such circumstances, and the unborn are the most fortunate of all. Anyone who has lived through the greater part of this 20th century might well echo these sentiments. Many of our seniors have known such trials up close and personal.

Tests of Mental Balance

As we age, we all experience, in various degrees, limitations of physical strength. Though regular exercise can greatly enhance our health along the way, the inevitability and progressive nature of these difficulties will test the mental balance of the best of us.

Ecclesiastes is particularly attuned to some of the more challenging aspects of aging. A poem in chapter 12:1-8 realistically touches on the typical burdens that we face in our elder years.We can hear the frustration as the author systematically spells out the progressive weakening so many older people face.

"Remember your creator in your youth before the evil days come,
and the years approach of which you will say, 'I have no pleasure in them;'
before the sun is darkened, and the light, and the moon, and the stars,
while the clouds return after the rain;
(a reference to the cloudy and rainy Palestinian winter to suggest old age)
"When the guardians of the house tremble, (our arms)
and the strong men are bent, (our legs)
and the grinders are idle because they are few, (our teeth)
and they who look through the windows grow blind, (our eyes)
when the doors to the street are shut, (our lips become tight)
and the sound of the mill is low, (we eat softly)
when one waits for the chirp of a bird
but all the daughters of song are suppressed, (our voice fails us)
and one fears heights and perils in the street, (anxiety grips us)
when the almond tree blooms, (our hair turns white)
and the locust grows sluggish, (our gait becomes slow)
and the caper berry is without effect," (we lose our appetite)
(Then, multiple images of death in a crescendo lead us back to the beginning:)

"Because man goes to his lasting home
and mourners go about the street;
Before the silver cord is snapped and the golden bowl is broken,
and the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
and the broken pulley falls into the well,
and the dust returns to the earth as it once was,
and the life breath returns to God who gave it.
Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, all things are vanity!"
"Eat, Drink & Be Merry"?

The king's response to this rather dour evaluation of the human scene was this:

"It is well for a man to eat and drink and enjoy all the fruits of his labor under the sun during the limited days of the life which God gives him; for this is his lot." (5:17)

That certainly sums up the attitude of many people today. But is that really the way that it should be? It is not really very different from the hedonistic philosophical proverb of "Eat, drink and be merry" cited by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:32 as proper for the mentality of people who had no Christian belief in the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. In other words, if what we do in our life now has no relation to anything yet to come after death, then it makes eminent sense to indulge oneself to the hilt.

In our Christian vision of life, we see each new day as full of possibilities, We can ask, "How will I use this new day of possibilities? Will it only be one more chance to ride on the merry-go-round of leisurely distraction, or will I use this day to share myself, my prayer and my wisdom drawn from the school of experience?

"Since one day I must die, what is the quality of 'life' I want to add to the years still ahead of me? Now that there is more free time in my ordinary day, do I make more space for regular prayer? Now that I may have less responsibility for raising a family, do I share my loving concern with that wider group of people whom God places in my path -- perhaps people who have not experienced genuine care or friendship very much in their lives?"

"Life" Quality Test

A very important litmus test of the quality of "life" we are bringing to our elder years is by assessing what we are doing for those who come after us.

Take our Christian faith, for example. Perhaps you were born into a Christian family, where also one or more parents were Roman Catholic. Have you passed that precious gift of our Catholic Christian heritage on to a new generation, or at least to someone else of your own generation?

With each new day, the challenge to evangelize and hand on the faith for those who will grow up in the 21st century becomes ever more critical. Society no longer reflects a strong Christian ethic in public morality. We find ourselves having to educate fellow citizens on the sanctity of human life at every stage of its existence because that is no longer a "given" conviction of massive numbers of people who lead generous and upright lives for the most part, yet they disagree with traditional Judeo-Christian doctrine on this point.

It seems evident that without the strong, persistent witness of our Catholic and Christian senior citizens who can bring their faith and wisdom from experience to bear on these discussions, our society will fashion more of its policies solely in terms of the the Pleasure Principle of Ecclesiastes: 'never to deny what my eyes desire, never to have to live with the tough consequences of my selfish actions.' Whatever limitations you might experience because of the passing years, know that you have an important role to play in society today. It is precisely your age which gives you that responsibility.

Affirming the Gospel of Life

Paul Zilonka, C.P.In his recent encyclical describing the struggle between the Christian "Gospel of life" and the "culture of death," Pope John Paul II reminds us that the Gospel of life which Jesus preached was brought to fulfillment on the tree of the Cross. "He who had come not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many attains on the Cross the heights of love. 'Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.' And he died for us while we were yet sinners. In this way, Jesus proclaims that life finds its center, its meaning and fulfillment when it is given up." (no. 51)

In other words, Solomon's pleasure principle only leads to the absurdity of death in all its forms. But Christian self-sacrifice leads to "life" not only for ourselves, but for everyone we influence, directly and indirectly.

This is the kind of "life" we want to add to our years -- Gospel life -- the virtues which St. Paul the apostle describes as fruits of the Holy Spirit in us, namely, "joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control." (Galatians 5:22)

Fr. Paul Zilonka, C.P., shown above preaching a mission, is a graduate of the Pontifical Biblical Institute and Gregorian University in Rome.

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