Ecclesiastes is a beautiful and has compelled me to challenge my own views of meaning and purpose.
Here are its opening words:
The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down,
and hurries to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south,
and goes around to the north;
round and round 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 continue to flow.
All things are wearisome;
more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has already been,
in the ages before us.
The people of long ago are not remembered,
nor will there be any remembrance
of people yet to come
by those who come after them.
I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind. (1.2–14)
Ecclesiastes has perplexed Christians and Jews for centuries because its message appears inconsistent with the other books of the Hebrew Bible.
In verse 1 the author of the book introduces the Teacher, whose dour speech fills most of the remainder of the book. In his speech, the speaker expands on the main idea, “All is vanity” and attempts to answer the question “What do people gain from all their toil?”
When the Teacher’s speech is over, the author provides a brief epilogue:
Besides being wise, the Teacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs. The Teacher sought to find pleasing words, and he wrote words of truth plainly.
The sayings of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings that are given by one shepherd. Of anything beyond these, my child, beware. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil. (12.9–14)
Various approaches may be used to resolve the mismatch between Ecclesiastes and the rest of the Hebrew Bible:
- Remove Ecclesiastes from the canon—claim it was not inspired.
- Dismiss the need for consistency between the books of the Hebrew Bible; perhaps they are a collection of inspired voices, all of which are appropriate and useful in certain situations, but collectively are not consistent. (E.g., similar to how many verses in Proverbs contradict one another.)
- Assert that the author’s final statements in the epilogue supersede and to some sense reprimand the ideas of the Teacher in the main speech. Perhaps the author thought the Teacher’s arguments were worth listening to, but that ultimately we must follow god’s commandments anyway.
- Interpret the phrase “under the sun” to mean that the Teacher is knowingly and explicitly contrasting a philosophy based on human wisdom with a full understanding of God’s wisdom.
- Provide interpretations of the problematic verses on an as-needed basis.
Some problematic verses:
Moreover I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, wickedness was there, and in the place of righteousness, wickedness was there as well. I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for he has appointed a time for every matter, and for every work. I said in my heart with regard to human beings that God is testing them to show that they are but animals. For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth? So I saw that there is nothing better than that all should enjoy their work, for that is their lot; who can bring them to see what will be after them? (3.16–22)
It is clear that the Teacher does not believe in a pleasant afterlife. As a consolation, enjoy your work while you are alive, for that is as good as it gets.
In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider; God has made the one as well as the other, so that mortals may not find out anything that will come after them. In my vain life I have seen everything; there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evildoing. Do not be too righteous, and do not act too wise; why should you destroy yourself? Do not be too wicked, and do not be a fool; why should you die before your time? It is good that you should take hold of the one, without letting go of the other; for the one who fears God shall succeed with both. (7.14–18)
Wait, one should not be too righteous? And one fears God shall succeed with both righteousness and wickedness?
Everything that confronts them is vanity, since the same fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to those who sacrifice and those who do not sacrifice. As are the good, so are the sinners; those who swear are like those who shun an oath. This is an evil in all that happens under the sun, that the same fate comes to everyone. Moreover, the hearts of all are full of evil; madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. But whoever is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no more reward, and even the memory of them is lost. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished; never again will they have any share in all that happens under the sun.
Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going. (9.1b–10)
In these verses, as in those quoted from chapter 3 above, it is clear that the author does not believe in a pleasant afterlife. The dead are no longer “under the sun,” since they are in Sheol.
Apparent internal contradictions:
Then I saw the wicked buried; they used to go in and out of the holy place, and were praised in the city where they had done such things. This also is vanity. Because sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the human heart is fully set to do evil. Though sinners do evil a hundred times and prolong their lives, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they stand in fear before him, but it will not be well with the wicked, neither will they prolong their days like a shadow, because they do not stand in fear before God.
There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity. (8.10–14)
I do not find the interpretation that “under the sun” should mean that the Teacher is speaking as-if he did not have knowledge of God, or that he is restricting his discussion to the human world. Throughout Ecclesiastes the Teacher discusses God. He tells his audience to enjoy life, usually in a conciliatory tone, implying that this is the best we can expect to get out of life.
In the most direct sense, the Teacher is wrong!
Our understanding of they physical world is more correct than that of ancient peoples. The Teacher, as most others in his time, believed that the water from the sea flowed back to the rivers through tunnels in the ground. The Earth itself will someday be destroyed when our sun explodes.
Ecclesiastes is thought to be written between 600 and 200 BCE. The Greeks invented many new ideas during these centuries—ideas that are still affecting the world today.
Since the invention of writing, we remember some famous people from long ago, for example, the king Hammurabi.
In a deeper sense, the Teacher is correct.
Most of us will not be remembered a few hundred years from now and perhaps 10,000 years from now Hammurabi will be less well known.
Perhaps humanity will continue to have new ideas and invent new technologies, but this “progress” will halt eventually. (It seems reasonable that there is a finite number of genuinely new ideas and phenomena for us to discover).
While the Teacher’s understanding of physical reality was incomplete, it seems unlikely that an understanding of modern physics would alter his thinking.
Yet, in the deepest sense, I think the Teacher is wrong.
If our existence is meaningless because it is transient, or because it is not unique, then one must wonder where could meaning possibly come from? I think the only possible answers are that there must be meaning found even within our transient lives or that there is some mystical meta-physical source of meaning which is not found in our finite universe.
Thus, while our existence is but a breath, to be blown away and forgotten, we can find meaning in it or hope that there is a hidden meaning beyond the metaphysical veil.