February 17, 2012

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Biblical readings: The Book of Ecclesiastes

John F. FinkThe Book of Ecclesiastes is read in the Office of Readings next week until Lent begins on Wednesday. Then the readings are from the Book of Exodus.

Ecclesiastes is arguably the most pessimistic book in the Bible. It was written by someone who didn’t believe in life after death. Since there are many people in our culture who also don’t believe in life after death, we get some idea of how they may feel and think.

We have to wonder how the book became part of the Jewish Scriptures. Indeed, it didn’t until the end of the first century.

“Ecclesiastes” is the English translation for the Hebrew “Qoheleth,” which means something like “one who convokes an assembly.” In this book, though, the writer identifies Qoheleth with Solomon in order to give greater authority to his words.

The book is a search for the meaning of life and of the relationship between God and the individual. The author’s conclusion, given in the second verse, is, “Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” (Eccl 1:2). He admits that God has a plan for what happens in the world, but he says that it is hidden from humans, who seek happiness without ever finding it anywhere.

Qoheleth searches for happiness in many things—the pursuit of pleasure, wisdom and wealth—but concludes that all of them are only “vanity and a chase after wind”—a phrase he repeats often. Even the most successful people, or the wisest, must eventually die.

Since everything ends in death, he says, nothing that humans can accomplish can give meaning to life or result in happiness. In six separate places, he says that only God can give a person happiness. That’s true.

Qoheleth says, “Here is what I recognize as good—it is well for a man to eat and drink and enjoy all the fruits of his labor under the sun during the limited days of the life which God gives him; for this is his lot” (Eccl 5:17).

He also concludes, “Who knows what is good for a man in life, the limited days of his vain life [which God has made like a shadow]? Because—who is there to tell a man what will come after him under the sun?” (Eccl 6:12).

The philosophy in Ecclesiastes is contrary to that of most of the Jewish Scriptures. Even when there was no belief in life after death, people were encouraged to seek wisdom, and their reward would be a large family, wealth, a long life, and an honorable burial.

Ecclesiastes, though, says, “Should a man have a hundred children and live many years, no matter to what great age, still if he has not the full benefit of his goods, or if he is deprived of burial, of this man I proclaim that the child born dead is more fortunate than he” (Eccl 6:3).

Obviously, for us Christians, the Book of Ecclesiastes is incomplete. We believe that happiness is a gift of God, but we believe that it can be bestowed on us both in this life and in its fullness in the life to come. †

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