An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Ecclesiastes and the Role of Suffering  1/15/10

Catastrophes like the recent earthquake in Haiti raise the question: Why does God allow such suffering to occur? The Pat Robertson answer of divine retribution for wickedness or even a pact with the devil doesn’t work for thinking people. Disasters generally hit poor people hardest and available evidence fails to confirm the superior virtue of the rich.

I find the OT book of Ecclesiastes the most helpful scripture in dealing with this question. Ecclesiastes speaks to anyone who looks at the world realistically and fails to find God’s hand always in evidence. Interestingly enough, in Christian Bibles Ecclesiastes is placed right after the Book of Proverbs. The placement is curious because Ecclesiastes functions as a rebuttal to much of Proverbs. While Proverbs describes the world as it should be with just rewards for the righteous and retribution for the wicked, Ecclesiastes describes the world as it really is.

 The King James Version (KJV) of Ecclesiastes begins with the phrase “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” (1:2) The New Jewish Publication Society (NJPS) translates the Hebrew word “hevel” as “futility” rather  than vanity. Even with an eternal perspective, realizing how temporary our earthly existence is and how little impact we leave on the world sometimes strikes our souls with the dread that “all is futility.”

 I love the concept that a kind Heavenly Father watches over us all, hears and answers our prayers, and gives us what is good for us provided we have the requisite faith (Moro 7:26). Unfortunately, the longer I live, the more evidence I see that it is the author of Ecclesiastes rather than Moroni who accurately describes the world and God’s dealings with it.

Can anyone watch the daily news and not relate to the stark honesty of Eccl. 4:1 which speculates that not being born might be a happier situation than witnessing, “…all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their comforter there was power: but they had no comforter.” (KJV)

Life’s unfairness is noted in Eccl.9:11: “I have further observed under the sun that/The race is not won by the swift,/Nor the battle by the valiant/ Nor is bread won by the wise/ Nor wealth by the intelligent/ Nor favor by the learned/ For the time of mischance (death) comes to all.” (NJPS)

On a positive note, Ecclesiastes recommends acting with faith although we can’t know what the future holds.  “Sow your seed in the morning, and don’t hold back your hand in the evening, since you don’t know which is going to succeed (11:6 NJPS).  The author tells us to exercise charity, not because we can expect a reward in heaven, but because it is right and because we may need charity in the future. “Send your bread forth upon the waters; for after many days you will find it. . . . for you cannot know what misfortune may occur on earth.” (11:1-2 NJPS)

The message of Ecclesiastes is common sense rather than pie in the sky. Life is not fair. Bad things do happen to good people, and the wicked are not punished immediately for their acts. Expecting to ward off pain and suffering by an accumulation of good works is as rational as a gambler’s belief that the odds are building up in his favor with each unlucky roll of the dice. We can’t know for certain that an eternal reward awaits us. But we can enjoy the good things of this life, express gratitude for them, help others, and deal with unjust misfortunes to the best of our ability.

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Comments on: "Ecclesiastes and the Role of Suffering" (5)

  1. Your last sentence is the best summary. I like bumping along, trusting, hopeful, aware of making right choices (not the same as choosing the right), yet aware too of not-so-welcome outcomes.

  2. I am reading God’s Problem : How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer by Bart D. Ehrman and was searching for Eccliastes (realistic thinking) when I came across your site. I think your comments are appropriate and agree with Ehrman. I am 72 years, retired Air Force, retired industrial Quality, married 44 years (2nd time) and STILL trying to be the person I want to be. Go figure.

    • I am also a fan of Bart Ehrman.

      I doubt any of us will ever become the person we really want to be. The sad thing about gaining wisdom as we age is that nobody’s interested in hearing what we’ve learned.

  3. I am just finishing Ecclesiastes today as part of my daily readings. I find it interesting to note the point you make of Ecclesiastes position next to Proverbs. Proverbs is very idealist, short and in some ways formulaic. While as Ecclesiastes is almost like reading someones journal as they wrestle with the tough questions of life. I guess that is why the life of Jesus is so important. He lived amidst all the Ecclesiastical difficulties of human life and yet was also able to fulfill God’s law and live a perfect life that Proverbs speaks of. I think in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul sort of addresses in a much more abridged way what Ecclesiastes addresses at length. It all is hinged upon the true identity of Jesus and what He was able to conquer. Paul says “Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; 14 and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. 15 Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; 17 and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied. 20 But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep.”

    Since Jesus actually defeated death He was able work not just in our bodies and so His impact on us is to the depth of soul and spirit. Without Jesus people end up doing all sorts of things with their bodies that do not satisfy where the hunger of their soul actually is: the soul. Jesus is the lover of our soul. When a person receives Jesus through faith they are accepting Him not only into their earthly life but into the eternal parts of them as well. We are eternal beings with a soul and at salvation Jesus gives anyone the ability to live according to the spirit and not the flesh.

    In Romans 8 Paul talks a little bit about this too “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.”

    So Jesus took all the judgment, condemnation, punishment, and price of sins anyone has, are and will do in their bodies and souls on Himself. Then He dove head first into the depths of death. He rose again victorious over sin and death and now through faith in Him anyone can step into a relationship with God and be acceptable and then even begin to be sanctified all because of Jesus. Still life on earth will not necessarily become easier but this is because we were designed to need God. In Jesus we are able to receive from God all that we need. Love that reaches down into the depth of us in such a way that we desire to be close to God above all else.

  4. Such a pleasant article! I’m so pleased you thought to talk about it.

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