Ecclesiastes’ Theology of Distraction

October 4, 2023 | Erica Brown
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Thanks to the Internet, it has become commonplace to say that we now live in an age of distraction. But, Erica Brown writes, distraction might not always be a bad thing. She finds evidence for her case in the book of Ecclesiastes—which will be read in many synagogues this Saturday—and its titular preacher’s investigation of the human condition in all its varied forms:

The preacher who told us there is nothing new under the sun offers something totally novel: a theology of distraction. Its verses of joy typically follow passages on the stabbing assault of mortality or injustice. Take, for example, the articulation of trouble in chapter 5: “Another grave evil is this: He must depart just as he came . . . he can take nothing of his wealth to carry with him. So what is the good of his toiling for the wind?” (5:14–15)

Ecclesiastes then excavates the torment of living: “Besides, all his days he eats in darkness with much vexation and grief and anger” (5:16). And then the sun suddenly comes out: “Only this, I have found, is a real good: that one should eat and drink and get pleasure with all the gains he makes under the sun, during the numbered days of life that God has given him; for that is his portion” (5:17). Human beings can eat in darkness with a side dish of vexation, grief, and anger—or they can eat, drink, and enjoy. This juxtaposition represents more than a sharp turn. It’s spiritual whiplash.

Ecclesiastes is not trivializing our major existential issues by suggesting a good meal, but merely acknowledging that the larger challenges are out of our control. We can either be devastated by uncertainty and unfairness or do what we know how to do well: seek pleasure in what God has given us. Whether or not we want to admit it, distraction works. It’s the interruption that lightens our full attention from utter sadness. It’s the slivers of enjoyment, the fleeting bliss, and the moments of wonder that soften the harshness. They are just as real. They, too, are divinely ordained. They sugar the bitterness and enable us to justify our existence despite it all.

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