There’s nothing in Lawrence Sanders’ story to make one suppose he’s joining the world of faith in a search for meaning. While the scene set around a small town Church in his novel The Sixth Commandment may not be intentionally derisory, the effect is irreverent nonetheless.
“Jesus is the answer”, the church signboard screamed.
“What is the question”? Mused Samuel Todd, our window on Coburn, Sanders’ New York’s backwater town.
Look beyond the wisecracks and you would find in The Sixth Commandment a sound take on much of the book of Ecclesiastes.
The novel is plotted around a doctor’s quest for immortality. Were that to be unachievable, then Dr Gordon Thorndecker will settle for slowing down the ageing process.
In arguing for funding for his research, Thorndecker proves seminal in his quest on behalf of humankind. But hidden behind his intellectual posturing is a very personal frustration.
Thorndecker is married to a woman 30 years younger, Julie. Worse, she’s cheating on him with a man much younger than himself. His nightmare is the prospect of not being around long enough to possess his possession. Worse, he suspects she’s taken a younger lover to make up for the short coming age imposed upon him.
All of life is grave-bound. Growth is a process of death. We start dying the day we are born.
He takes his frustration out on the lie the rest of us call life. All of life is grave-bound. Growth is a process of death. We start dying the day we are born. At the root of his philosophical pretensions and seemingly noble scientific quest is a fear of losing out in an inane battle.
All his wealth, inherited from his late wife, his achievements, including a Nobel prize, cannot guarantee him an eternal possession of his most treasured prize, Julie. He doesn’t really care if anyone lives long or dies miserably. Julie is his muse. Julie is his cause, his pursuit and purpose. She is his desire and the spring of his inspiration. He’s in it for the love of Julie.
And as Thorndecker watches his life’s desire grind in the backseat of the younger man’s car in the dead of the night, we see a man under the yoke of a murderous, leanness of soul. The Preacher captured Thorndecker’s feelings thus:
“There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, and it is common among men: A man to whom God hath given riches, wealth, and honour, so that he wanteth nothing for his soul of all that he desireth, yet God giveth him not power to eat thereof, but a stranger eateth it: this is vanity, and it is an evil disease.” Ecclesiastes 6:1-2
Julie is the metaphor for the inspiration for much of our aspirations. She is at the heart of our pursuits. She is the sad reminder of our impotence against the tide of time. She is the reason we fear death. She is our purpose, our goal, the reason we want to live forever.
Our search for Julie draws us to God. We give her varied epithets to cloak vanity in a veneer of respectability. We sow ‘seeds’ in church to obtain her. We immerse ourselves in ecclesia in order to keep her. We contrive the most ludicrous exegesis to justify our obsession with her. We claim we’re doing it all for the love of God, when in fact we have no clue in which direction God is headed most of the time. We are in it for the love of Julie.
Is man of no greater essence than beasts simply because all die?
But Julie is a tease, a cheat, a flirt, a lie – a mirage, the treasure that takes on wings and flies, or as the Preacher would say: Vanity.
In fact, Thorndecker’s scientific quest and philosophical treaty are right up The Preacher’s alley. Like Thorndecker, The Preacher had what most only ever possessed in their imagination: untold riches, wisdom, influence, power and, specific to The Preacher, a large appetite for hedonism. Ecclesiastes 2:24-25 But as the Psalmist said of their kind, they had their hearts’ desire and leanness of souls to boot Psalm 106:15 They had thirsts they couldn’t slake.
As in Gray’s elegy, all their wealth and privilege could not stop the inevitable. “The path of glory leads but to the grave.”
So the crafts his treatise.
“Vanity,” he wrote, “all is vanity.”
Is all life vanity indeed? Is God the author of vanity? Genesis 1:31 Are God’s righteous choices vanity? Ecclesiastes 2:26 Is man of no greater essence than beasts Genesis 1:27-28 simply because all die? Ecclesiastes 3:18-21 Or was he just in a silent rage against God for giving him all he ever desired and a topping he didn’t care for: the certainty of death?
Death is at the heart of the Preacher’s despair. Knowing that all that gave substance to his life would someday slip away as life ebbs out of his being, was tortuous enough. Worse, they might all fall into the hands of a less worthy, less wise, less frugal, and much to the manner of the small town policeman who stole Julie from Thorndecker, less in social standing. Ecclesiastes 2:18-19
Why is the Preacher so melancholic about death? Why the obsession with whatever happened to his earthly possessions at his demise? Why was his treatise so earth-bound? The Preacher was under a yoke similar to Thorndecker’s. They both hankered after such as take on wings. Their passion was libidinous. Their reasoning introverted. Their purposes base.
As the Preacher reeled off his possessions and achievements, Ecclesiastes 2:4-10 one is reminded of Jesus’ words to those who set much store by material possessions:
“…for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.” Luke 12:15
If one were charitable enough to grant that the Preacher lived before Christ and therefore did not have the benefit of Christ’s transcendental wisdom, you couldn’t avoid thinking that much of his interpretation of his place in time lacked the wisdom that comes from God.
For a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.
The reason he considered himself glorious was on account of his wealth and privilege. But God said:
“…Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches: But let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am the LORD which exercise lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness, in the earth: for in these things I delight, saith the LORD.” Jeremiah 9:23-24
Though the Preacher rounds of his treatise with an exhortation to fear God and obey his commandments, he so counsels not because he sees any virtue in obeying God. We are warned to obey not because “The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: (nor that) the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple. (Neither is it because) The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart: (nor that) the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes, Psalm 19:7-8. We are to obey, not for the purpose of soul elevation, but for fear of judgement.
The Preacher’s father and sweet Psalmist of Israel, David had a different take on why he followed the commandment of God. He wrote that hidden in the commandments of God are wonders that might only be discerned. Psalm 119:18 It takes one who knows God to unearth such mysteries. Psalm 25:14
If the Preacher truly knew God he’d have no fear of death, for God has not given us the spirit of fear. 2Timothy 1:7 If he signed up to a partnership with God, he’d be less preoccupied with what happened to his temporal possessions. Matthew 6:19 If he lived for the sake of heaven his treatise would be less earth-bound. Colossians 3:1-2
A life lived in pursuit of divine purpose is not a life exercised in vanity. A life lived in partnership with God is not meaningless nor vexatious to the spirit. Ecclesiastes 2:11 No life illustrates this point better than Jesus’.
A life lived in partnership with God is not meaningless nor vexatious to the spirit.
Born in relative obscurity, in a deprived corner of an impoverished Roman colony, with a following of the dregs of society, without the social standing nor political influence that the Preacher boasted, one had no reason to infuse his destiny with the power, influence and impact he exercises over the world as it is today.
He came into his estate by surrendering himself to divine will in a way that frightens the life out of the Preacher. He took the sting out of death in way that Thorndecker fails to do. As scripture recalls:
“…He (Jesus) humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” Philippians 2:8-11
He joined the pantheon of those who live on after death – much like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – because be it in in life or death, they fulfilled divine purposes. They conducted their lives in partnership with God. They attained unto immortality because the Lord our God is not God of the dead.
St Paul wrote that if we trained our faculties on the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus, we would find that the inanity that preoccupied characters like Thorndecker and the Preacher would be dung to us. Philippians 3:8
In Evil and the Justice of God, the Bishop of Dorham, Professor NT Wright proposes the notion of Inaugurated Eschatology. He exhorts us to apply to the present moment the virtues of the kingdom of God. St Paul reminded us that the Kingdom of God is not about slaking earthly desires, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. Romans 14:17
Little wonder then scholars put Ecclesiastes in the same bracket as the wisdom literature of the ancient near East. It is not Divine.