Good Lord. What a passage. And how very misrepresentative of the wider passage from
which it’s been drawn! They’ve taken a glorious, humble, dark/light, reverent piece of
poetic writing, spanning two chapters, (Ecclesiastes 1:1 – 2:24) and condensed it into a
negative, depressing “poem”.
I won’t talk much about the lectionary today. I think the people who put it together are
highly creative in their inter-textual connections – I just wish they wouldn’t skip bits and I
wish they wouldn’t muck about with the over-arching “feel”. This is a passage from which
they have omitted the timeless phrase “there is nothing new under the sun”, and some
really ideas: “What is crooked cannot be made straight, what is lacking cannot be counted”!
So, they’ve not exactly changed anything, just omitted shed-loads and thus altered the
meaning; a bit like what I’ve unkindly done here to Wordsworth’s Daffodils*:
I saw daffodils
beside the lake
in the breeze.
They stretched in line,
When I lie
my heart fills.
Not so rich, eh? The ideas and rhythms of Chapters 1 and 2 kick off the whole book of
Ecclesiastes. They set the scene for what the author wants to say in the rest of his writings.
Yet the synthetic “poem” which the Lectionary offers us reflects none of that richness. But
enough moaning already. Let’s look at what it does do; it’s interesting.
Before we start, let’s define terms. “Vanity” the central word for the whole “poem”, has
changed its meaning over time. To us now it often means personal vanity, a wish to look, in
all facets, at one’s best; I think of it as a preoccupation with one’s own surfaces.
Oxford Dictionaries define it as: Excessive pride in or admiration of one’s own appearance or
achievements. This is part of what we can certainly bear in mind while reading. But the
older, still current, meaning is pivotal: The quality of being worthless or futile. The “vanity”
in our Lectionary “poem” also means pointlessness. Even that doesn’t cover it. Our word
“vanity” comes from the Latin word Vanus, (meaning empty) and doesn’t really reflect
Hebel, the Hebrew word which means breath or vapor; an un-lasting, un-graspable
The voice of Chapters 1 and 2 is Solomon’s. We are therefore supposed to hear it as a
message of authority, wealth, achievement, wisdom. It has been rendered devoid by the
Lectionary, of most of its original imagery, and I experience it as defeatist. In the Lectionary
“poem” Solomon proclaims that our terrible preoccupation with our own actions and their
impact on the future is not worth the effort. The full text does not read this way; it still talks
vanity, but it is sharingly conversational, it wishes to convey, to convince, to console with
The Lectionary piece contains, (as do the chapters from which has been wrenched), many of
the conventions of Hebrew Scriptural poetry. It uses repetition. In this instance, it bludgeons
us with a rapidity and regularity artificially derived from being hackingly edited. It uses
similarity of image. My questions revolve around what are the original author’s
accomplished intentions – and what are the Lectionary’s intentions?
Let’s ask ourselves:
– Why does Solomon ascribe to God a gift of preoccupation with futility?
– Why are we moved between images of breath and wind?
– Why use both “under heaven” and “under the sun” as ways
to describe the human condition?
– As it stands (ignoring the poetic chapters from which this reading was excised) what
purpose would this piece have? What function has it to believers?
– Could you use this reading for Bible study?
– What do you suspect is the writer’s purpose in chapters 1 and 2?
– Which is more “poetic?”
– Does it matter?
Lastly: what do you feel about this type of editing of scripture? Do we trust our judgement?
Shall we go “off piste” and find (and read) a chunk from Chapters 1 and 2 which more
honestly represents the writer? Or shall we do what we’re told? When a reading does not
accurately reflect the fuller text, what is our responsibility? And in that event, is the