Image: Andy Warhol, ‘Skull’ (detail), hand numbered vintage lithograph, c. 1986.

‘With sighs too deep for words’

Bible study prepared by Andrew
May 2023.

Thursday May 11, 7-8.30pm.
All welcome. At the manse or via Zoom.

Join Zoom Meeting
Meeting ID: 858 1336 0721
Passcode: 032351

Reading: Ecclesiastes

Key texts: Ecclesiastes 1:14; 2:24; 5:6-7; John 14:1-14; Romans 8:26 …

Themes: Pessimism, moralism, hedonism. Wisdom and folly, life and death. Jesus the Wisdom of God …

‘Three distinct and ultimately incompatible positions stalk the pages of this enigmatic book …’

Liz Obert, ‘Modern Vanitas’, 2022: “In my series Modern Vanitas, I draw upon the paintings of 16th- and 17th-century artists in the Netherlands who created still lifes often referred to as Vanitas.

“These compositions contained what appeared to be random objects of their time, such as candles, silver platters, and exotic foods. However, the items were a symbolic representation of the futility of life’s pleasures, creating moral lessons for the soul. Many contain representations of death or specifically, the human skull, making them memento mori, illustrating that all of us are mortal.

“I am inspired by these paintings because their message of consumerism is even more relevant today. Mass consumption is no longer just about morality, it also has concrete consequences. Globalisation of trade, industrial farming, and the mass production of cheap plastic has all contributed to global warming.

“I see my photographs as memento mori for the planet, I draw inspiration from their baroque lighting and use of chiaroscuro. In my images, I often recreate their use of diagonal lines, cluttered compositions, and dramatic light, but I populate the photos with meticulously chosen items, such as fast food representing our mass consumption, fruit illustrating our reliance on transporting food, and candles and dying flowers showing that time is running out. 

“Although these images have an element of humour by elevating the mundane, such as hot dogs and Popeye’s fried chicken, the message is serious. I intend for both the humour and the rich lighting and textures to draw in the viewer and hope that they will understand the deeper meaning.”


Dr Miriam Pepper, Christianity and sustainable consumption: a social psychological investigation, Doctoral Thesis, University of Surrey, 2007. 

“Christianity is rich in values, beliefs, narratives, symbols and practices that emphasise simple living, social justice, and care of the earth. These resources are to some extent being (re)discovered, (re)claimed and (re)applied in the context of the consumer society, with the development of a variety of sustainability programmes, from local through to global scales …

“[P]otentially radical implications of Christian beliefs, concerning social justice, environmental stewardship, and wealth and possessions, for everyday life become somewhat defused, [however] through prioritisation, fatalism, individualism and spiritualisation.

“As churchgoing becomes an increasingly marginal activity, and Christianity continues to lose its earlier privileged status in society, research on the changing narratives, beliefs, values, symbols, practices and identities of Christians and Christian institutions should continue, particularly as these relate to the pressing social and ecological issues of our times.”

CHRIS: The phrase “under the sun” recurs many times in Ecclesiastes. It makes me think about global warming. Toiling under the sun now means working to meet the challenges of a warming planet.

Qoheleth (feminine noun) is the title or name in Hebrew of the author of the book of Ecclesiastes. It means something like “public teacher” or “speaker”. Three distinct and ultimately incompatible positions stalk the pages of this enigmatic book. As a result, Qoheleth questions virtually every major religious claim found elsewhere in the Bible. The author asks whether wisdom is better than folly, life better than death. Everything turns joyless in the face of its inevitable end. Ecclesiastes has some of the most depressing and seditious sentiments found anywhere in the Hebrew Scripture (David Penchansky, Understanding Wisdom Literature: Conflict and Dissonance in the Hebrew Text, William B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids MI, 2012).

Three voices (after Penchansky):

  1. Pessimism (hebel/vanity/illusion/sigh/breath/vapour/absurdity)
    1:14; 2:1; 2:17; 4:8; 6:2; also chapters 7, 8, 11 and 12 (38 references).
  2. Moralism (fear God/judgement)
    5:6-7; 7:18; 8:12-13; 11:9; 12:13.
  3. Hedonism (enjoy life)
    2:24; 3:12; 5:18; 8:15; 9:7,9; 11:7.

Three dispositions:

  1. Humility
  2. Responsibility
  3. Felicity

Three fundamental/existential affirmations (after Stanislas Breton):

  1. I believe in nothing (no-thing)
  2. I believe in justice
  3. I believe in creation as gift

Three dogmatic predicates (after Stanislas Breton):

  1. God is beyond being/imagining
  2. God is just
  3. God is providential

Meaning/Wisdom as fecund tension between complementary differences.

Jesus embodies the sigh of despair, the sigh of the weary, the sigh of relief, the lover’s sigh, the sigh of contentment, a sigh in the presence of beauty.

“So don’t fear if you hear/ A foreign sound to your ear/ It’s alright, Ma, I’m only sighing …” (Bob Dylan, 1965).

In various texts from the Hebrew Scriptures, Sophia symbolises cosmic and healing power. And in their efforts to describe this creativity in Jesus the Messiah (Christ in Greek), several New Testament writers draw on the tradition. 

The apostle Paul refers to Christ as “the power of God and the Sophia of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24), and states that Christ “became for us Sophia from God” (1 Corinthians 1:30). 

Matthew and Luke refer to Wisdom vindicated by Jesus and John the Baptist, by every child of God and all good works (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:35).

The portrait of Jesus in John’s philosophical gospel draws heavily on the same tradition. We might hear: “In the beginning was Sophia, and Sophia was with God, and God was Sophia … Sophia became flesh and lived among us.” 

The theme is worked out distinctively in the seven “I am” sayings in John, which echo sayings of Sophia imaged as provider of sustenance, bread, wine and water (Proverbs 9:5; Sirach 24:21), vine (Sirach 24), door/access to life (Proverbs 3:16-18; 8:34-35; Sirach 4:12), way to salvation (Sirach 24:16-19), everlasting light (Ecclesiastes 2:13; Wisdom 7:26-30), and giver of life (Proverbs 3:16-17; 8:25,32-35; 9:11; Sirach 6:26; Wisdom 8:13).

Icons of Holy Wisdom, with reference to Jewish and Christian, Indigenous and Hindu teachings (Sophia and Shiva in a fiery dance), show a cross-gender or “gender-full” quality (Rebecca Kiser).


‘Under the Sun’ 

I went out one morning, I stood on the shoreline again
Maybe I was dreaming as the light came streaming in
Memory and rhyme bringing back the time
Everything under the sun

Leaving South Fremantle in a Falcon panel van
We were smoking Marlboro, always singing Barbara Ann
Spinning out our dreams, making up our schemes
All day long under the sun

I can see them all so clearly now they’re gone
They’re flying, they’re dying one by one

We were microscopic, swarming in the honey sun
We thought we were endless, couldn’t see our friendship undone
Colourful and strange, a kind of life endangered
On the turn under the sun

Paul Kelly, 1987.