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"Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these." Luke 12:27 (NIV)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

God Talk: Striving After the Wind

(This is first in a series of posts about the book of Ecclesiastes, which is currently part of my Bible reading plan)

During my high school days, I stumbled onto this wonderful classic in the great canon of Chinese literature:

Or maybe it was this one...

Or this...

Pictures helped... A LOT. Hey, there are over 600 names and hundreds of military engagements mentioned in this work. Me with my below average high school Chinese... Well... there was no way at the time or even now, that I could've have read this monumental work of historical fiction in its orignal form. And the tribute poems would have slain me. In terms of its dramatis personae, it's far lengthier than Lord of the Rings but despite the weighy aims of the project it still manages to effectively capture the reader's imagination. I noticed elsewhere that it's been hailed the Illiad of Chinese literature. That's no comparison, the Three Kingdoms is better.

Maybe it was just the pictures that brough it alive to me. Besides, in those dim dark days of my misspent youth I was more interested in American television than I was in Chinese lit. Anything to lure me into reading the good stuff (albeit second hand) was probably worth its weight in gold. It's a bit of a mystery now as to  how I tumbled onto it... through a classmate perhaps... but the engrossing exploits of some of China's greatest military strategists have stayed with me.

Especially this one: Zhuge Liang (I've had a lifelong infatuation with him). 

Apparently half of his exploits in the book were "grossly exaggerated" which was a bit of a let down because they should have happened.

And his various television incarnations:

I've been mulling over the Three Kingdoms mythos of late because I've been following the most recent television adaptation. It's such a slow moving piece of television and yet I find myself drawn to the testosterone charged environment -- the political wheeling and dealing, the battlefield strategms, the power grabs and the oneupmanship. It isn't just about connivance... there's death defying courage, comaraderie, unwavering loyalty and exemplary leadership to admire also.
For about a hundred years, men  battled for hegemony at the end of a waning dynasty, torn apart by corruption at the highest levels and internal power struggles. Consequently, the country was carved into 3 kingdoms by warlords and held tentatively by brilliant and in large measure, capable men. However, as soon as they shuffled off their mortal coil, the powerbases that they had painstakingly built gave way. Their vision for reunification never took hold. Lesser men followed and the last of the great men standing became the ancestor to a new dynastic regime.
In light of history, all the carnage and connivances came to naught. All their efforts were in vain. These characters achieved greatness in their own right but as far as the ultimate goal of reunification was concerned, they had failed. Ironically, because there were so many smart guys around at the time vying for equal honours, the goal for reunification became unattainable.

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

Coincidentally (or perhaps not), I've been reading the book of Ecclesiates this past week and the parallels between the two narratives are compelling. The Three Kingdoms works as a perfect analogy of the that kind of existential crisis which the author of Ecclesiastes bemoans.

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. (Ecclesiastes 1:9 ESV)

One can't help reading Ecclesiastes... on the surface level at least... without feeling a tad depressed. What is the point in anything if everything ends up in dust?

I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. (Ecclesiastes 1:14 ESV)
I read Ecclesiastes in two ways. Firstly, as a philosophical treatise on the futility of life. Secondly, reading it in light of the gospel, I see it as a reminder that the good news of Jesus Christ, the Creator gives eternal meaning to our endeavours. The impulse in men is to build, to conquer and to leave a legacy but given the shortness of our time on earth, can we achieve anything of lasting value?

Qoheleth (title of our disillusioned philosopher), translated Preacher in our Bibles, was not too different to one of those smart guys mentioned earlier:

So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil.  Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.  (Ecclesiastes 2:9-11 ESV)

Despite his public achievements, his wealth and his personal gains, there's a lurking dissatisfaction in the Preacher's soul. It is depressing... to possess everything that is humanly possible to do so and then to realize later that in reality, one has nothing.

So being talented, rich, wise, successful and attractive is transcient? Why bother with anything?

So where to from here?

1 comment:

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