December 19, 2014

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Old Testament: Ecclesiastes finds ‘all things are vanity’

John F. Fink(Fiftieth in a series of columns)

Of the seven Wisdom Books of the Old Testament, the one that I’ve often questioned is not the Song of Songs, which I’ll discuss in my next column, but Ecclesiastes. I dislike its negative and pessimistic viewpoint.

It’s another book that searches for the ultimate meaning and purpose of human life. Its conclusion is that “all things are vanity” (Eccl 12:8). The author examines the things that humans usually search for—wisdom, pleasure, riches, renown—and finds them all lacking, “a chase after wind” (Eccl 1:14).

Although this book doesn’t have the prestige that Psalms and Job have, most people are familiar with some of the expressions that come from Ecclesiastes: For example, “You can’t take it with you,” or, “There’s nothing new under the sun” (Eccl 1:9).

Most of us are also familiar with this passage: “There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant; a time to kill, and a time to heal; … a time to weep, and a time to laugh; … a time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace” (Eccl 3:1-8).

The title Ecclesiastes is the Greek translation of the Hebrew name Qoheleth. The first verse identifies the speaker as “David’s son, Qoheleth, king in Jerusalem.” Since David didn’t have a son named Qoheleth, the book was attributed to his son Solomon, known for his wisdom.

And what is Qoheleth’s philosophy of life? It’s summarized in the second verse: “Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” (Eccl 1:2). It’s a Hebrew superlative expressing the supreme degree of futility and emptiness. Qoheleth has accomplished everything he set out to do, and yet he says that nothing has any lasting significance. Everything seems futile.

He considered even wisdom as futile: “I said to myself, if the fool’s lot is to befall me also, why then should I be wise? … Neither of the wise man nor of the fool will there be an abiding remembrance” (Eccl 2:15-16).

But there is some positive advice. Qoheleth tells us to live for the moment, enjoy what we are doing because, like everything else in life, our pleasures are gifts from God. For him, the primary goal of life is living. Everything that promotes life is good, while anything that doesn’t promote life is “a chase after wind” (Eccl 2:17).

This philosophy is OK as far as it goes, but for Christians it doesn’t go far enough. It’s good to reject as the purpose or goal of life the pursuit of earthly pleasures and rewards of human accomplishment, but Qoheleth had no notion of everlasting life. There is the barest hint of a future life in Qoheleth’s last word: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is man’s all; because God will bring to judgment every work, with all its hidden qualities, whether good or bad” (Eccl 12:13-14).

Qoheleth, though, didn’t know what will happen after the judgment. †

Local site Links:

Like this story? Then share it!