In some ways, the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes comes across as more Buddhist than traditionally Christian in its outlook. Its emphasis is clearly on the here and now, and the world of Ecclesiastes is one in which there is no life after death; whether you’re good or evil, you’re suffering the same fate. In fact, there’s more emphasis here on suffering than on reasons to be optimistic, and just about anything enjoyable that happens should be enjoyed right away because its existence is fleeting.
Yes, there is a God in Ecclesiastes, but He’s a God who has created a miserable existence for humankind. Protestant theologian Pete Enns correctly summarizes Ecclesiastes in seven words: “Life sucks and God is to blame.” This isn’t a God who has anything to tell us about how to find salvation, if such a thing even exists.
Many of us are familiar with a few snippets of Ecclesiastes and may find hope in them, but they’re usually quoted out of context. Take the well-known opening of the third chapter, which begins:
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted. A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance …
You may hear these words at a funeral, where they are used to find purpose in mourning. But in context, the writer of Ecclesiastes is arguing that there is no purpose in any of the listed activities. Whoever you are, whatever you do, you will end up killing and healing, weeping and laughing. The events of life, it seems to the writer, are nothing if not random. As in some strands of Buddhism, the most that can be said when something happens is that it happens.
We discover the theme of Ecclesiastes from very first verse after the author introduces himself:
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
The Hebrew word, hebel, translated as “vanity” here has the literal meaning of breath, mist or vapor. Think of the breath you can see as you exhale on a cold day and how it quickly dissipates. That’s what vanity is in this context. That’s what life is.
Along with the King James Version, most modern Bible translations come up with a figurative interpretation of hebel:
- “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (New International Version)
- “Futile! Futile!” laments the Teacher. “Absolutely futile! Everything is futile!” (New English Translation)
- Smoke, nothing but smoke. [That’s what the Quester says.] There’s nothing to anything — it’s all smoke. (The Message)
- It is useless, useless, said the Philosopher. Life is useless, all useless. (Good News Translation)
- Nothing makes sense! Everything is nonsense. I have seen it all — nothing makes sense! (Contemporary English Version)
That’s not exactly the reading material for your morning devotional. And the book doesn’t get better from there. The well-known saying “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die” is derived from Ecclesiastes 8:15. There simply isn’t much meaning to be found.
So what are we supposed to do with such a depressing book, and how in the world did it end up in the Bible?
One way of understanding the book is suggested by the first verse, in which the writer refers to himself as “the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.” In other words, this book is written in the name of King Solomon, who was once given the gift of wisdom but ended up living a life of indulgence with hundreds of wives and seemingly unlimited wealth. The book most likely was written hundreds of years after Solomon’s death, and it may be that one way of understanding the book is as a way of highlighting Solomon’s turning away from the wisdom he had been given. In other words, it can be argued that the book is intended to tell the reader how not to live.
But the book seems too developed in its nihilistic philosophy to be seen as simply a commentary on Solomon, who doesn’t match well with later descriptions of the author, one portrayed as an editor of proverbs rather than a king. Scholars can’t tell us exactly where the book came from, or even how it ended up in the collection of writings we call the Old Testament.
But I’m glad the book is part of the canon. It tells me that even when life is the pits and that I feel down about it — well, that’s OK, that’s just the way it is, and the God in whose name the Bible was compiled understands that. It’s perfectly legitimate to feel discouraged and to find little meaning in life; that’s part of the human condition. Sometimes the best I can do is put one foot in front of the other — scratch that, sometimes the best I can do is less than that. But that’s OK. As Ecclesiastes tells me, there’s a time for everything.
Photo: The disappearing jet trails symbolize the mist of the opening verse of Ecclesiastes. Image by Takahiro Sakamoto via Unsplash. Biblical quotations are from the King James Version unless otherwise indicated.