The other week, when I wrote about the danger of anti-Semitism, I set it in the context of remembering and forgetting. Generation to generation, we are forgetful. So, we lose the significance of 6 million Jews killed in the holocaust, we forget our own nation’s sorry history when it comes to Anti-Semitism -the expulsions, the rejection, the scapegoating, the deaths – and we turn a blind eye to how serious this is and how widespread as it crosses the political spectrum.
We are forgetful creatures.
Ecclesiastes 1:11 says:
“There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.”
The challenge of remembering
Ecclesiastes 1:11 is the conclusion to a poem which starts the book off (Ecclesiastes 1:4-11). The poem is structured as a chiasm.
“A Generations come and go but the earth remains fixed (v. 4)
B the repetitive circularity of nature (vv 5-6)
C as the sea is never full, so neither the eye nor ear are ever satisfied, so that everything is wearisome (vv 7-8).
B there is nothing new under the sun (vv 9-10)
A There is no remembrance of people (v11)”
The central point of the poem is that satisfaction and fulfilment in life are not possible. We are both wearied, exhausted by the hard toil of life and at the same time constantly longing for more, we are never full and never fulfilled. Life is cyclical, this is seen in the rising and setting of the sun, the circuit of the winds and the water cycle. This is a daily, annual and seasonal repetition so that there is never progress, “amid this circularity nothing final seems to be achieved.”
This perspective on nature is applied to history. Generations come and go but without progress. Here is Enns:
“I take v 4b to be explanatory rather than contrastive. Rather than translating v.4 ‘A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth remains for ever,’ I prefer, #A generation goes and a generation comes; the earth remains forever.’ He is not saying, ‘Don’t worry. Although people come and go, the earth is here to stay.’ He is saying, ‘People die and others are born to take there place, and this situation does not change. It remains forever.”
This is important because the presentation of history as cyclical contrasts sharply with the wider Biblical presentation. As Bartholomew comments:
“Suffice it here to note that this poem expresses, on the basis of observation, a cyclical view of history, in contrast to the OT’s cyclical and linear view. In the poem observation of the repetitiveness of nature leads to finding an analogical repetitiveness in history.”
It is important to note that this is one poem not just in the context of wider Scripture but in terms of the book of Ecclesiastes. Personally, I think that Qoholet does have a sense of progress, that life is not just a series of repetitive cycles. For example, there is his awareness of himself as a King, observer and teacher (1:12). It is possible to make conclusions on things, an end comes (12:13) and there is a final judgement and assessment on our lives (11:9). God makes everything beautiful in his time (3:11).
However, at this stage, we have his observations on life as it appears from one perspective. This observation is bleak. As Bartholomew observes:
“Observation (v8) is central to Qoholet’s epistemology, and if on the basis of observation one concludes that history is endlessly repetitive, then it is indeed hard to see the value of labor and of life. One might find meaning in the fact that one’s hard work and achievements will be remembered, but as the poem notes, no matter what one’s achievements, people are quickly forgotten, so that meaning cannot be grounded in remembrance.”
This is one of the reasons why life is like an enigma. This world is vapour like, it is fleeting and repeating. We don’t seem to make progress. This picks up on the question in verse 3:
“What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?”
The Hebrew word for gain here is yitron. Bartholomew tells us that:
“The noun ‘benefit’ (yitron) occurs ten times throughout Ecclesiastes and only here in the OT. It is one of several words that are repeated again and again and contribute to the repetitive literary style of the book.”
The question about “gain” and “reward is important.
“Qoholet’s scrutiny of labor and the meaning of life will bring them into question at the deepest level … the question becomes whether labor and life are of any benefit at all.”
This is why the conclusion in verse 11 is so stark. Why does my toil and labour lack purpose? Why is life wearisome. Why does it feel like a drudgery? It is because if I am not remembered them I have no significance. So, when Qoholet says, “There is no remembrance of former things” Enns comments:
“This is no throwaway line, as its sentiment should echo with anyone familiar with the OT, for it is precisely a blessed memory that is the hope and comfort for God’s people. To live in such a way as to live on in the memories of one’s descendants is a mark of a life lived in communion with God and God’s covenant faithfulness to his people (e.g., Prov 10:7).”
What was true for the people of Israel in the Bible is just as true for people today. We hope that our lives will have meaning and purpose. That meaning and purpose is demonstrated in whether or not we are remembered. Few of us are. I remember a few years after I had finished work at BAE Systems that I popped in to visit to see how my old team were doing. They were doing well. In fact, they were still continuing to implement some of the changes I had instigated. They were working to a manual that I had prepared before I left. I must admit to being both proud and miffed to discover that they had finally won an award for their innovative work, proud because it was through implementing my strategy, miffed because it was my strategy and I didn’t get the credit! At that stage, there were still people around who remembered me. However, I know that if I were to return now it would be a different story. Many of the team will have moved on to new jobs. It is likely that the team itself will not exist as new senior managers will have made their mark with a restructuring. Process will have been changed to suit new systems. There will be about as much left of my work as a sand-castle after the tide has come in.
If we look for significance in being remembered then we are looking in the wrong place for two reasons. First of all, as I said, it is rare to be remembered. Now remember that this is wisdom literature, we are dealing in generalisations. Some people achieve fame and their works and ideas are recorded, their achievements are recognised with statues and monuments. Even ordinary people are remembered by children and grandchildren.
However, even those memories are limited. We are now seeing statues removed because despite the achievements of some men, their legacies are marred by their politically incorrect views. We only tend to remember those who suit our ideology and purpose. We did not know them and so whilst we may remember achievements and words, we don’t remember the person.
Memories fade. I knew my grandfather and can tell some stories about him. I remember other stories about him from my parents. I know a few facts about my great grandfather but nothing about his dad.
We are not remembered.
The second reason why this is the wrong place to look is that it does us no good. We are not around to enjoy the significance of being remembered. What good did it do Winston Churchill when he was voted the greatest Briton? What pleasure does Nelson gain from having a monument to him at Trafalgar Square?
Implications for life
I want to suggest a couple of immediate applications here. First of all, there is actually something quite liberating about this. If I put all of my effort into trying to achieve things that will last in this life, then I am committing to futility. Life is hebel, a vapour or a breath. It passes quickly. Several commentators have noted that hebel is the name of Adam’s second son. This is another reminder that life is fleeting.
This should help me to think about how I invest my time. Here are a few things to think about:
First, I am reminded of Rob Parson’s famous assessment that no-one ever says with their last breath I wish I had spent more time in the office.” Work does have value and meaning, we know that from our doctrine of Creation but we should not over-invest meaning in it so that it becomes idolatry.
Secondly, it means that we should obsess less about our legacies. How many politicians have become obsessed with their legacy and how they will be remembered to the point where they prioritised making a name for themselves over what was actually needed? This can be equally true of pastors too.
Thirdly, it means I can have a go at things. I don’t need to worry about failure. So what if my efforts end in glorious defeat. So, people may laugh at the time but the event will soon be forgotten. A wise friend of mine once said that the way to survive being a pastor was to “not take yourself too seriously but to take God seriously” that’s true in other walks of life too.
Fourthly, it means that I can relax and rest. Another wise friend, the preacher at our wedding commented that there are some vocations, medicine, teaching, pastoring where we can easily convince ourselves that the world depends on us and because we are doing good work that there are no boundaries to what we do. Vocational work will always grow to fill the space allocated to it. It will take over. So, even when there’s more to be done, even when there’s still a great need, it’s okay to call time, switch off the lights, lock the door and go home to your family.
Fifthly, there is a right sense in which we live in the here and now. Focus on the present. What are our immediate priorities? We can’t base them on what will last in time. So, we focus on what will matter for eternity. The opportunity to share the Gospel must always come first.
This takes me to the second point. As we keep reminding ourselves, Ecclesiastes is wisdom literature. This means we are not to read one poem in isolation but to allow other parts of the book to inform our perspective.
Remembering from the other side
I love the song “Build this House” by Lou Fellingham and especially the words “I want something that will last when your holy fire comes.”
Ecclesiastes warns us not to look for purpose and meaning in being remembered but whilst it points out our forgetfulness, it does not write off memory and lasting significance.
This last week we have been remembering. On Good Friday, we took time to break bread and drink wine to remember Christ’s death on our behalf. We have talked a bit about “remembrance” already on faithroots and seen that Communion Remembrance is not simply about recollecting facts but about signs and symbols that make that great event fresh and real and significant for us again.
Ecclesiastes 12:1 says
“Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”
We are called to remember God and his covenant faithfulness to us.
Secondly, Ecclesiastes tells us that whilst future generations may forget us, we have got significance that lasts because we will last.
“he has put eternity into man’s heart”
Thirdly, there is one who does not forget. In Ecclesiastes this is particularly brought out in relationship to judgement. Believers know that our judgement is in Christ so that we are justified.
God remembers you and knows your name.
 Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes, 110.
 Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes, 110.
 Enns, Ecclesiastes, (Kindle location 461).
 Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes, 116.
 Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes, 116.
 Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes, 107.
 Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes, 107.
 Enns, Ecclesiastes, (Kindle location 487).
 As we have seen, this is the word in Ecclesiastes sometimes translated as empty, vain, meaningless or absurd. It literally means breath or vapour and we have preferred enigma as our default translation.
 Ecclesiastes 3:11.