Ecclesiastes is a very dark book whose message can easily be taken to be that everything is meaningless, so what’s the point of anything, including living? We read in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbath 30b) that the Rabbis tried to keep the Book of Ecclesiastes out of the Hebrew Bible, what Christians call the Old Testament. I can see why.
The popular parts are taken out of context. As a child of the 1960’s, who is now in his sixties, I remember when “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)” by the Byrds was a big hit. Written by Pete Seeger, the song is a musical recitation of Ecclesiastes 3.1-8. Sung at too many weddings by young men and women with daisies in their hair, it might just as well have been sung at funerals, but as far as I know it wasn’t. But I didn’t go to many funerals in those days.
Grand mimetic incoherence
Ecclesiastes has been called a work of “grand mimetic incoherence.” The incoherence of the style mimics (mimetic) a fundamentally incoherent reality (Berger, p. 163). One moment the author, conventionally called the Teacher (Kohelet), tells us that
Meaningless, says the Teacher. Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless. (1.2)
Nice way to begin a book that says that everything is wearisome, whatever has been done will be done again, there is nothing new under the sun, and in the end, a man’s wisdom and acts count for nothing. Soon he will be dead and forgotten, his achievements momentarily eclipsed by another who will soon go the same way.
A few verses later we find the author, who purports to teach the wisdom of Solomon, arguing that God will bring the righteous and the wicked to proper judgment (3.17). And back and forth it goes for twelve chapters: all is meaningless, but God has everything in hand, we just don’t know his plan.
Some people, me included, think that a lot depends on how the Hebrew term hevel (Strong’s, 1892), is translated. Its original meaning is air, vapor, or breath. If so, then the best translation would be transience (Dor-Shav). All is transience. It is with this that Ecclesiastes begins and ends (1.2, 12.8). The word appears thirty-eight times in the text.
It makes a difference. If life is vain or meaningless, then it is hard to make sense of how to live. But if life is transient, then Ecclesiastes is not just a reflection of grand mimetic incoherence. Ecclesiastes is about how to appreciate what God has given us in creating a world in which there is a possibility for meaningful work, wine, friends, and love (3.11.13, 9.7-10). Wisdom is all in all a good thing (7.11-12), but it too will not save us from extinction.
In some ways, Ecclesiastes is like the Book of Job, only this time it is written not by a man afflicted, but by a man of abundant wealth, everything his heart could desire: Solomon in his old age, or so the story goes. But he faces the same problem as Job, the meaning of it all. Only unlike Job he must find the answer for himself. God is no longer there to tell him.
Solomon does not rely on his nation, its traditions and rituals. On the contrary, Solomon is remarkably unsituated in time and space, the history of his people irrelevant. He looks at life under the sun for himself, and what he sees is this incredible opportunity that he and others like him have been given to be fulfilled in work, friends, wine and love, coupled with the realization that it really doesn’t mean anything. It just is. He has lived well, but it doesn’t add up.
Sometimes this leads to despair. It would have been better never to have been born (4.3). At other times the Teacher is grateful to have been given the life that he has lived, a life that is a gift from God he has no doubt. Life’s worth is what the Teacher questions, almost always within the framework of Eugene Ionesco’s question, “Why was I born if it wasn’t forever?” Because forever would be as meaningless as transience. The Teacher is already troubled about the presence of “nothing new under the sun.” (1.9) Would he not despair even more deeply facing an infinity of years?
Once one gives up the ideal of a reward in the hereafter, but still believes in the presence of a God who has created an ordered (but far from ideal) universe, the Teacher’s question is inevitable to any thinking person: what does it all mean, what is the purpose of life? The answer is to enjoy life as much as possible, for life is all there is.
I would add “and care for the welfare of others, for it will give your life a sense of meaning by involving you in a world larger than yourself.” Solomon is remarkably self-absorbed. This does not make him admirable. It does make the question he poses starker, for he cannot enmesh himself in the fabric and fate of humanity.
It’s scary that so much can depend upon the translation of a word. And while I can manage a little Greek, I know no Hebrew. Olam is the word for eternity in 3.11. “He has set eternity in the human heart.”
Trouble is, the NIV has a footnote saying that this passage can also be read as “God has placed ignorance in the human heart.” Well, it makes a difference doesn’t it? If God has placed eternity in the human heart, then we long for transcendence, a glimmer of hope that we might glimpse the beginning from the end. If God has placed ignorance in the human heart, then there is no hope. The argument about finding pleasure in the midst of transience still stands, but we shall never long for more. Man is the anxious animal.
In circumstances like these context is everything, but that’s the problem: the context is itself contradictory. So I turn to Strong’s Concordance (5769), and find that the term olam and its variants is used hundreds of times in the Hebrew Bible to refer to everlasting, forever, eternity, and similar terms. Olam is used to refer to ignorance and its cognates hardly at all.
I prefer to read 3.11 as meaning that there exists a forever unfulfillable longing for transcendence in the human heart. A longing that gives our lives depth and dimensionality, a sense of somehow participating in eternity. Even so, transience remains the order of the day, and night falls swiftly.
Benjamin Lyle Berger, Qohelet and the exigencies of the absurd. In Biblical Interpretation, 2001 (vol. 9, issue 2), 141-179.
Ethan Dor-Shav, Ecclesiastes: fleeting and timeless. In Azure, 2004 (no. 18). At: http://azure.org.il/include/print.php?id=214