A purpose under Heaven

One of the benefits of being asked to write book reviews (aside from getting a free copy, of course) is that I get to read ones I wouldn’t naturally pick up off the shelf – or, given the demise of so many Christian bookshops in recent years, off Amazon, Eden or Mccrimmons (other book suppliers are available).

Currently, I have two reviews on the go. One for BRF: an Advent book by the excellent Jo Swinney who I have quoted elsewhere and, in a quite different vein, a new IVP Tyndale Commentary on the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes by the theologian Knut Martin Heim for Preach magazine.

The former comprises daily readings so it’s always a bit tricky for the reviewer having to read each ‘chapter’ straight after the other – but nonetheless rewarding and one I may well return to ‘read properly’ in December.

The latter… well, I have to admit I have never deliberately sat down and read anything from this  piece of ancient writing by someone who uses the pseudonym Qoheleth, a Hebrew word meaning preacher which translated into Greek is ekklēsiastēs. It was written as a speech and Heim argues that the speaker was a kind of 3rd-5th Century BC stand-up comedian and satirist. (So, who says you don’t learn anything from WorkRestPray blog posts… no, I didn’t know any of that either…)

Now there is, of course, a very well-known passage from this ancient writing – Chapter 3. It gave rise to Pete Seeger’s song ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ made famous in mid-1960s by The Byrds and recorded and performed by many since:

To everything turn, turn, turn
There is a season turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose
Under heaven
*

But it was another verse from Ecclesiastes which struck me as being particularly relevant to current times.

As we, arguably, emerge from the pandemic or at least the intensity of it, we find ourselves going back to normal. Early into the pandemic many, myself included, speculated that we might learn some better, more healthier ways of coping with the stresses and strains of modern life. But, even if we didn’t have the current issues around supply problems and staff shortages, one senses that many workplace normalities still possess less than healthy traits (the same is true in churches and other places, of course).

Heim’s own translation of Ecclesiastes 4 verse 6 reads:

‘Better one hand full with rest than two full hands with hard work but chasing after the wind.’

It reminds me of the first verse of Psalm 127:

‘Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labour in vain.’

So, do we find ourselves ‘working‘ (however, we wish to define that: paid, unpaid, formal, informal) and taking no time for rest? Are we, in fact, simply chasing after the wind?

Who is building the house – ourselves for personal aggrandisement or the Lord? Are we building in vain or for a purpose under heaven?

 

 

 

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*Pete Seeger/adapted from Ecclesiastes © Melody Trails Inc 1959