Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Quest for Immortality: EPIC FAIL (Ecclesiastes 1:1-15)

The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
Mummy of Pe-de-ese in cartonnage cover
Mummy of Pe-de-ese in cartonnage cover.
"里面有人" - museum staff
"Pe-de-ese, doorkeeper of the temple of Amun, died when he was 35 to 50 years old. X-rays reveal Harris Lines on the shin bone. These form in bones during the early stages of life - when the bones were still growing - and are caused by stress, disease or poor nutrition. This indicates that as a child, Pe-de-ese must have faced some hardship."
What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
The same sun that beat down on the weathered backs of the Egyptians constructing the pyramids now causes eye-straining glare off our computer screens. No one knows the names of those whose sweat stained the stone blocks any more than anyone will remember the cubicled worker bees who make up an economic edifice.
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.*
Male Statue Head
"This sculpted head is probably of King Am[...] as the features are reminiscent of images of him in the style of the time. The extensive damage to the lower parts of the wig that the head had been subsequently used as a grinding stone for a manual mill."

A man's life is here today and gone tomorrow, a vapour in the wind. All his hopes and dreams, and work and achievements, and his personality and relationships, condensed into the few years of his existence means nothing in the long history of the world. You and I, we are of no significance in the grand scheme of things.

And even the things that greatly outlast human generations seem without direction or purpose. There is only endless repetition. The tedious days and months and seasons and cycles never produce anything new.

In spite of the constant activity, nothing is of lasting significance in and of themselves; there is no purpose in anything. What's the point of living? Let's stop all the dishonesty about making your life count and living well.

"In ancient Egypt, a labour system existed for important communal projects such as maintaining the irrigation systems that controlled the Nile flood. It was imagined that such a system might also exist in the afterlife. This could be avoided by having small mummy-shaped figurines of the deceased known as shabti, which would magically perform work on behalf of their owner. They were made of stone, wood, faience, pottery or bronze, and were a regular feature of tomb equipment from the Middle Kingdom (2123-1650 BCE) to the Ptolemaic period (332-30 BCE)." Fast forward a few centuries and you'll find skea building customised paper houses, pets and servants for Taoists to burn for their dead.
All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
"See, this is new"?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after. (Ecclesiastes 1:1-11)
History teachers tell us that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. But the people who intone such motivational spiel might not, themselves, have really studied human history. All revolutions and "radical!" "original!" ideas and movements have been thought of before and are but part of the cycle of human exertion. Nothing really changes; nothing is new.

Mummy of Nekhet-iset-aru and canopic jars
"里面有人" - same museum staff

The human experience for both Christian and non-Christian is the same. Our existence is prima facie fleeting, absurd, valueless, pointless, meaningless. Nothing lasts. And we are unable to change anything; we are unable to escape from these endless cycles until death releases us from this weariness. The existentialists (in all their dreary variations on the same theme) may have been right. And anyone who says otherwise is selling something.

The Teacher - Preacher has left no stone unturned in searching for significance in life. His research paper is the Book of Ecclesiastes and his conclusion is:
I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. (Ecclesiastes 1:14)
In his great wisdom, the Qoheleth sees that this futility and inscrutability, this unhappy business of searching but not finding and of wanting meaning and purpose but experiencing only endless meaningless repetition and of yearning but never being satisfied by anything done under the sun, has been ordained by God himself (Ecclesiastes 1:12-13).
What is crooked cannot be made straight,
and what is lacking cannot be counted. (Ecclesiastes 1:15)
Who can unravel what God has twisted? How can a finite being understand the infinite? Everything in this present age, in this world, is vapour. Yet there is Someone who stands outside this absurdity who has ordained this emptiness...

Easter Everyday
Quest for Immortality: EPIC FAIL (Ecclesiastes 1:1-15)
Life is Vapour, Therefore Enjoy Life (Ecclesiastes 2:1-3:15)
Life is Far Worse than an iPhone Game, Therefore Harvest the Day! (Ecclesiastes 3:16-5:7)
Rawa Island and Godly Contentment (Ecclesiastes 5:8 - 6:9)
Fallen Frangipani, Really Wise Living (Ecclesiastes 6:10-7:29)


Quest for Immortality Exhibition, National Museum of Singapore

*from Lord Alfred Tennyson's Tithonus. Tithonus, having been granted immortality by a goddess was doomed to live for eternity with the effects of sin, in a fallen degenerating body.
Bust of a goddess
Death to him would have been, in fact, a welcome relief.

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