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.