This morning we journey into the heart of some of the most remarkable books in the Hebrew Bible: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. They are books of wisdom, books about how to be truly happy in life and why bad things happen to good people.
Two of the most controversial and important topics ever.
Which are by no means just the concern of the ancient Hebrews. Consider a story that comes from far beyond the Middle East: from Japan and the tradition of Zen Buddhism.
A Zen Master, goes the story, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening, while he was away, a thief sneaked into the hut only to find there was nothing in it to steal. The Zen Master returned and found him. “You have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you should not return empty handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.” The thief was bewildered, but he took the clothes and ran away. The Master sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused, ” I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”
That’s the story, and I begin with it simply to emphasize the fact—which we Unitarian Universalists love—that the Bible is but part of a larger conversation that has happened in all nations and all ages and it continues on, today, whether a person happens to identify with a religious tradition, or not.
Spiritual beings having a human experience simply can’t help it. They just can’t.
Now, Japan was too far away to influence how the ancient Israelites framed its wisdom, but not the cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia and Asia Minor, which were close by. These nearby cultures—what their wisdom traditions said and how they said it—echo within the Bible books we read today. For example, consider these proverbs from one of Israel’s nearby neighbors in Sumer, from four thousand years ago:
Whoever has walked with truth generates life.
Or this one:
Wealth is hard to come by, but poverty is always at hand.
The poor are the silent ones of the land
From the lips of people who lived 4000 years ago, to our ears today.
The more things change, the more they stay the same….
But now consider how Israel’s neighbors influenced the Bible writers, not only in how they composed their book entitled Proverbs but also the other two books we are looking at today: Job and Ecclesiastes. Scholars tell us that Job was written around 500 BCE, and Ecclesiastes was written several hundred years later, around 300 BCE. Both of them are quite different from the book of Proverbs. Whereas Proverbs compiles short wisdom statement after short wisdom statement, Job tells a remarkable story about one man’s suffering and eventual meeting with God, and Ecclesiastes is the record of one man’s dialogue with himself about the nature of life and how to be happy. In ways very different from Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes face down issues of personal fulfillment and the problem of evil—each of them gives voice to despair as well as to making peace with life—but hidden in their voices are older voices from other lands and other times.
One of these voices comes from more than a thousand years earlier (around 1700BCE), from a man named Zugagib, who was a king:
I advanced in life, I attained to the allotted span
Wherever I turned there was evil, evil—
Oppression is increased, uprightness I see not.
I cried unto god, but he showed not his face.
What in one’s heart is contemptible, to one’s god is good!
Who can understand the thoughts of the gods in heaven?
The counsel of god is full of destruction; who can understand?
Where may human beings learn the ways of God?
He who lives at evening is dead in the morning.
My limbs are destroyed, loathing covers me;
on my couch I welter like an ox
I am covered, like a sheep, with my excrement.
My sickness baffles the conjurers
And the seer left dark my omens.
Listen to that! Zugagib’s theological confusion, his pain and despair. 3700 years ago, Zugagib gave voice to it; and you can find his voice deep within the voice of Job, written 2500 years ago; you can find his voice deep within the voice of Ecclesiastes, written 2300 years ago. And what about us today? If we are feeling pain and confusion and despair today, for whatever reason—and the reasons can be so many—what’s hidden deep within our voice?
The thirst for wisdom—the discontent and dis-ease that motivates it—transcends time. It’s what it means to be a spiritual being having a human experience.
Let’s now return to the story I began this sermon with. The one about the Zen Master and the thief. I’ve already shared one reason why I began with it, and here’s another. Just this: to help us connect our lives with the wisdom in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. To help us to bring it all together…
So we remember that, in the story, we meet the Zen Master there in his little hut at the foot of a mountain. He’s living the simplest kind of life, a happy and healthy kind of life. It’s a great symbol of what the book of Proverbs wants for its readers. Life is a way, life is a path; and we can walk smoothly or we can stumble, we can run or we can fall. Proverbs seeks to prevent stumbling and falling by presenting us with the accumulated wisdom of generations. Follow the advice, and our way will be well. And so says Proverbs:
Righteousness delivers from death.
The perverse get what their ways deserve, and the good, what their deeds deserve.
No harm happens to the righteous, but the wicked are filled with trouble.
The faithful will abound with blessings.
As you hear these words from Proverbs, keep in mind an important piece of historical information. At the time these words were written, there was absolutely no idea of an afterlife in which souls might experience Heaven, or God, or justice, or continued learning and growth. The belief at the time was in Sheol. Sheol was the name given to a place of darkness where the dead go, where they persist as shadowy entities without personality or strength, cut off from God. It would only be hundreds and hundreds of years later that the idea of an afterlife–the idea we are more familiar with today–would actually dawn on people.
This in itself would make an entire sermon: the evolution of the idea of life beyond death….
But back to the topic at hand. When the book of Proverbs says, “The faithful will abound with blessings,” the important piece of historical information I just gave would lead us to conclude that the writer is talking about THIS-world blessings. If there’s going to be any justice, it’s THIS-world justice.
That’s the worldview that the book of Proverbs puts out there. This-world reality is ordered in such a way that the human sense of justice and fairness is fully satisfied. Bad people get what they deserve, and good people get what they deserve. Which implies that if something bad happens to you, well, you must have done something wrong to deserve it.
You have trouble? What did you do!?
Call this worldview the status quo. Heaven knows, there is nothing ancient about it. It’s still around. It still makes sense. Until…. until some kind of thief breaks into your hut, like he broke into the Zen Master’s hut there at the foot of the mountain. What possibly could the Zen Master have done to merit that, living as he does the simplest kind of life, an embodiment of blessing, bothering absolutely no one? And yet the thief comes.
The status quo says that you always get what you deserve in this life, but is that really so?
That’s actually the question Ecclesiastes and Job ask, over and over again: Does the status quo make sense? On this point, they are absolutely opposed to Proverbs. In other words, what we have right here is a wrestling match right in the middle of the Holy Bible! People who say that the Bible speaks with one voice don’t know what in the world they are talking about!
For Proverbs, the world is straight; for Ecclesiastes and Job, the world is crooked.
“In my […] life,” says the writer of Ecclesiastes, “I have seen everything: there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evildoing. There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous. Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all.”
That’s the writer of Ecclesiastes, and he’s just telling it like he sees it. Reality is NOT ordered in a way that satisfies the human sense of justice and fairness. Not at all. Death comes to all, he says. Death comes randomly, and we die just as the animals die. Live righteously all your life, but, still, the manner of your aging and death may be excruciatingly painful for yourself and for all concerned.
It is a crooked, crooked world indeed…..
Job is the poster boy for this. Think of George Bailey from the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but 4000 years earlier. Job’s flocks are stolen or destroyed, most of his servants are murdered, his children are killed as a house collapses on them. His body is broken, with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. He is reduced to sitting among the ashes, scraping his sores with a broken piece of pottery. Why me? he asks. But the book’s narrator tells us: God was testing Job’s character. Job did absolutely nothing to deserve it. Job was such a good person, in fact, that he attracted Satan’s attention—and Satan in this book is not the Satan we imagine today. Satan in the book of Job is more like a prosecuting attorney than anything else. Satan goes to God and says, Hey, about your servant Job: Maybe he wouldn’t be so good if bad things happened to him. And God says, Hmmm. Maybe you’re right. Let’s see.
And this is why Job’s life fell apart.
It’s truly a crooked world…. And in both Ecclesiastes and Job, we discover a response to this crooked, crooked reality that sounds like this:
Let the day perish in which I was born, and the night that said, “A man-child is conceived.”
Let that day be darkness!
That night—let thick darkness seize it!
Let it not rejoice among the days of the year….
Yes, let that night be barren: let no joyful cry be heard in it….
Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?
Why was I not buried like a stillborn child?
For my sighing comes like my bread, and my groanings are poured out like water.
I am blameless: I do not know myself.
I loathe my life.
This is Job speaking. Note how this language is exactly opposite what you read in the book of Genesis, where God creates the universe and God says “Let there be light!” But Job, in the depths of his despair, calls for something completely opposite. He would in fact go so far as to undo the entire Creation. “Let there be darkness!” he cries out.
Not creation, but destruction. “I loathe my life.”
We find the same sentiment in Ecclesiastes. Its writer says,
I said to myself, “What happens to the fool will happen also to me. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said to myself that this is also vanity. For there is no enduring remembrance of the wise or of fools, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How can the wise die just like fools? So I hated life….”
How many of you have said such things, in the depths of your despair?
People, the Bible is with you. We are witnessing some of the most honest wrestling with the Big Picture meaning of life that there can be. You don’t need to read Sartre or Camus or any other modern Existentialist to get it. The Bible beat them to the punch, thousands of years early.
And the Bible wants us to take it seriously. Again, Job isn’t any old shmoe. He was one who was, says the Bible, “blameless and upright, who feared God and turned away from evil.” As for the writer of Ecclesiastes: the Bible says he was one who had everything that the status quo says is good. He knew what it is like to win a Superbowl (figuratively speaking). He knew what it is like to get the fantasy lover. He knew what is like to win the lottery. He had it all—wealth, health, intelligence, power, wisdom, everything—and yet he still found himself hating life. The Bible won’t allow us to rationalize this away, to say, Oh, they’re just being immature, or Oh, all would be well if they just took some Prozac. No. Life is crooked. The human realm is as much monstrous as it is glorious, and the monstrous aspects can at times feel so monstrous that it swallows everything up, you find you can no longer feel the glorious parts of the world, you can no longer receive any of that into your heart. Just darkness just darkness just darkness….
But is this where the story ends?
Well, we know in the story of the Zen master and the thief, that the Zen master responds in a way that is simply breathtaking: he refused to further trap the thief in a thief identity by interpreting his appearance as a desire to visit, rather than to steal; he demonstrated hospitality and kindness by literally giving the shirt off his back. The thief took the clothes and, totally confused, ran away. Later, the Master sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused, ” I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”
That’s how the Zen story ends, and in a perfectly beautiful way it suggests where Ecclesiastes and Job end up. It’s true: they each go through a phase of hating life. But then they move beyond it. Here’s how.
For the writer of Ecclesiastes, the key realization is tied up with a peculiar word: “vanity.” “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” he says, over and over again, but he’s not talking about excessive pride in one’s looks…. The original Hebrew word that gets interpreted as “vanity” is “havel” which really means “mist” or “vapor” or “breath.” “Havel havaleem, ha-kol havel”: “breath of breath, everything is breath.” The implications of this are powerful, and echo the best of what we find in Buddhism. If everything in life is like breath—if it’s impermanent like this, changing like this, hard to grab a hold of like this, hard to get a clear picture of like this—then, unless we unconditionally acknowledge and accept this fact about life, we will find ourselves miserable. Life is a series of breaths, and the only sane response to this reality is nonattachment: to breathe and breathe and keep on breathing. Don’t ask Why me? Ask What’s next? Stay in the flow of life, stay in the moment, move with it and trust that there, in the moment, is everything we will ever need to be happy.
It’s the non-attached Zen master in the story, whose safety in his little hut at the foot of the mountain is vanity, is breath. The thief comes, and instantly, safety has become danger, but the Zen master, because he does not continue trying to grasp for safety, is capable of poise, is able to stay in the moment, is able to convey the compassion and hospitality that is the essence of his inherent worth and dignity as a person. “You have come a long way to visit me,” he tells the astounded thief, “and you should not return empty handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.” “Poor fellow,” he mused later on, ” I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”
The Zen master’s only safety and ours is moving with each present moment.
The writer of Ecclesiastes puts it this way:
7 Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. […] 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.
Carpe diem, in other words. This side of Sheol, don’t hesitate: seize the day. Get in the zone of each moment given to you, and that will save you from hating life. Don’t grab at the breath that life is; stay non-attached; breathe and breathe and breathe….
“Havel havaleem, ha-kol havel”: “breath of breath, everything is breath.”
As for Job: his way of going beyond hatred towards life—it’s very different. Maybe you’ve heard that common saying: “He has the patience of Job”? Whoever came up with that one must never have read the Bible either. Because when you read the book of Job, what you see is a man who is fundamentally impatient.He is obnoxious in all his complaining about the injustice and unfairness of life. He just goes on and on and doesn’t give up. Broken record.
You know I am not guilty (he says to God)
and there is no one to deliver me out of your hand.
Your hands fashioned and made me
and now you turn and destroy me.
On and on and on. Job also takes an oath affirming his integrity and righteousness, invoking God to curse him if his oath is false. Biblical scholars tell us that the pattern of this discourse is that of a formal lawsuit. Ancient readers would easily have recognized this as such. Job is actually challenging the eternal, almighty God to physically appear in a human court of law, and if God doesn’t appear in a form that the physical senses can comprehend, Job’s oath of innocence will stand, he would be cleared of all charges, and God would be proved to be the one at fault.
Talk about chutzpah!
No wonder God appears, and he’s not happy. Out of the whirlwind, God appears and says:
WHO IS THIS THAT DARKENS COUNSEL
BY WORDS WITHOUT KNOWLEDGE?
GIRD UP YOUR LOINS LIKE A MAN,
I WILL QUESTION YOU, AND YOU SHALL DECLARE UNTO ME.
Nothing that God goes on to say or show Job speaks to Job’s specific predicament. God at no time confesses, says, OK, I’m sorry, it was a stupid little bet, Satan was getting too big for his britches once again and I couldn’t resist taking him down a notch… No. All God does is overwhelm Job with an abundance vision of the grandeur and majesty of creation. The foundations of the earth, the doors that shut up the seas, the dwelling place of light, the storehouses of snow and hail, the constellations, clouds and rain and lightning, and on and on….
God doesn’t give an answer like the writer of Ecclesiastes does. Ecclesiastes gives words, but God goes beyond words, God gives an experience of utter transcendence, of the interdependent web of all existence.
God goes all 7th Principle on Job!
And it is more than enough. Job comes away transformed. The book ends with his restoration, with his wealth and health and family restored—and every Bible scholar I’ve ever read sees this as a cheap ending, completely unsatisfying, a shame. But I see it very differently: as a culmination of the entire book. Think about it. Job knows first-hand how breath-like life is—how pleasure can turn to suffering on a dime. How relationship and ownership are completely fragile things. Once you’ve suffered from such loss, who wants to gain anything new, which only means the possibility of further loss? Who wants more family and friends–who will inevitably die? Who wants more stuff–which will inevitably break or disintegrate or get lost or get stolen? More children, more wealth, more health are just invitations to more pain. Yet–yet!: Job comes away from his encounter with God able to invest in life anew. He can begin again. He is able to receive the joy of restoration even though he knows all too well that life is crooked and he serves a God who is crooked who might test him again unfairly at any moment, take away all that he has yet again. But he accepts his new life unconditionally.
He can live in the moment like a Zen Master.
Or like George Bailey, after being visited by Clarence Oddbody, Angel Second Class.
The path there is chutzpah, to begin with. If you are feeling the injustice and unfairness of life so deeply that you hate your world, good. But don’t stop there. Flow with the intensity of your feeling until it corners you into an encounter with the glory of the Sacred, the glory of the abundant Spirit of Life. Ride your discontent all the way to God.
God will come to you.
Because the God of the Bible understands.
The God of the Bible knows what it is like to hate life.
This is the same God, remember, who destroyed the entire world with a flood, and ever since has been tempted again and again to destroy.
But the God of the Bible grows over time.
The God of the Bible changes over time.
Perhaps this God will share with you what He shared with Job.
That despite all,
despite life’s crookedness,
despite the crookedness that runs through God’s very own heart,
life is still worth loving,
life is still worth caring for.
The majesty of creation.
The crooked God.
The precious fragile lives that are yours and mine.
In sacred mystery, all are lifted up.