Living in Chaos

Living within God’s creation is both frustrating and delightful. Qoheleth, the wise teacher in Ecclesiastes, offers an extended reflection on this conundrum.

Life is absurd. The Hebrew word hebel describes this frustration, and Qoheleth uses it thirty-seven times. Literally, it means “vapor”—like a breath in the cold air. Metaphorically, it means “futility.” As such it communicates the seeming pointlessness of life.

The word, however, has more punch than this. It encompasses the unfathomable nature of life, the deep impenetrable mystery of life and death. Some suggest “enigma,” and life is enigmatic because we simply do not know. We are limited in perspective, and we cannot make sense of life.

Some suggest “absurd.” Life is frustrating. The seemingly ceaseless, circular, and pointless merry-go-round of life has no goal, no meaning, and no worth. Life, because of death, is hauntingly absurd.

What lies behind Ecclesiastes is the story in Genesis 3-11. When Qoheleth probes life, the teacher evokes the narrative world of Abel. The name Abel is the same word as hebel. The seemingly pointless, absurd, and unjust death of Abel at the hands of Cain symbolizes human existence in a world enslaved to death. Our lives are like Abel’s.

This is why it good for us good to sit with Ecclesiastes for a season rather than move on too quickly. Sometimes we are forced to do so when chaos assaults human life. We recoil at the death of children in tornadoes. We are shocked when children are killed in mass shootings. Sometimes all we can do is agree with Qoheleth, “Everything is absolutely absurd!”

Yet, without forgetting life is hebel, Qoheleth also confesses God has invested creation with joy and value. Though disoriented by the absurdity of life, Qoheleth remembers the creator (12:1) and “knows that whatever God does endures forever” (3:14).  Qoheleth holds these two truths in tension:  life is absurd and God is the creator. At the same time, Qoheleth confesses, no one knows “the work of God, who makes everything” (11:5). Life is an enigma.

Though life is filled with futility, we also experience God’s good creation, and somehow and in some way God gives joy in the midst of absurdity. Even in the midst of life’s hurt and pain, Qoheleth commends joy.  “Go, eat your bread with enjoyment,” the wise sage advises, “and drink your wine with a merry heart” and “enjoy life with your” spouse (9:7, 9).

Qoheleth, while observing the absurdity of life, affirms Israel’s confession of the theodrama. As creator, God shares many good gifts with humanity, and God invites humanity to enjoy them. Though labor has become burdensome “toil,” humanity may yet find joy in the work or vocation God gave them in the beginning. Though wealth is often used to oppress others, humanity may yet enjoy it as the gift of God. Though many may abuse both wine and spouses, they are nevertheless God’s good gifts within creation.

Life is both hebel and filled with the gifts of the creator. We lament and recognize the absurdity of human existence, but we also receive God’s good gifts of creation with gratitude and joy. Qoheleth does not reject God’s creation. Instead, the wise teacher cries out for the full realization of God’s reign within it.

There is much to grieve in our world: mass shootings, suicides, racism, sexism, homophobia, deaths, rapes, and abuse of power.  We lament, and we call it hebel.

And, without diminishing the pain of our laments, we affirm the goodness of creation: the joy of food, wine, companionship, vocation, children, and life.

There is hebel, and there is good. Something is wrong with this world, and something is good about it.

For now, we lament the evil, and we enjoy the good.

One Response to “Living in Chaos”

  1.   Stephan B Kell Says:

    Perspectives like this entry do not come from young people with little or no deep disappointments and losses along life’s way. The beautiful blending of your own journey and the insights provided from this journal of long ago are rich and timeless. Thanks!

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