The book of Ecclesiastes, which hardly anyone reads nowadays, if they ever did, is part of the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament, along with Psalms, Proverbs and the Song of Solomon. There are two main reasons why no one or hardly anyone reads it, I think. One is that despite its inclusion in the body of wisdom literature the general tone of the book has appeared to many to be skeptical and cynical, despite its reputed author being Solomon. People remember the phrase “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” the pessimism of the Preacher, and nothing much else. The second reason is that the book appears to have been ignored in the New Testament, for it seems that there is not a single quotation from Ecclesiastes to be found in it. So there seems to be no warrant for us as Christians to read and learn from it.
I don’t take this view. Being part of Wisdom literature, which has the function of applying the Old Testament torah to every day, we should open the book expecting to gain an insight into the sort of wisdom that ought to be practiced by the people of God. The second reason is more personal. It has been said that of all the books of the Old Testament, Ecclesiastes comes the nearest of all to providing a “philosophy,” not in the sense that it offers purely rational arguments for its conclusions, but because it offers general conclusions about what is and is not worthwhile in life, a “philosophy of life.” It draws these general conclusions about life from what the author has observed going on around him. Insofar as this is true, Ecclesiastes has for me, a philosopher, an added interest.
The argument of Ecclesiastes is first to show, as a result of what the writer has observed, that various well-known and obvious ways of living lead only to what the writer calls “vanity.” What does the writer mean? A vanity in this sense is something that does not last, but is insubstantial or fleeting or disappointing or unfulfilling as the key to how we should live. Whatever it might at first promise, it turns out never to fulfil it. A vanity is a goal, but not an abiding goal. We might think of what the writer calls “vanities” as the outcome of our planning and searching; if we place our hopes upon them they will invariably disappoint. However, this fact does not prevent fallen human beings from hankering after and seeking fulfillment in such ends – which are abundantly available in the Vanity Fair of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, another book not much read these days.
The writer considers several of these vanities, pleasure in eating and sex, the search for wisdom, planning, success of various kinds. Each he closely (and in some cases repeatedly) inspects, and comes to the conclusion that they cannot sustain our lives from beginning to end, for none of them provides us with a big idea that invests a life with a satisfying goal. So the writer pronounces “they are vanities!” For they do not deliver what they promise, and this for a variety of reasons: because of the nature of human life, that whatever our plans and ambitions we grow old and die. Nothing lasts. This leads the writer to describe and discuss a cyclical way of understanding life. We don’t appear to be going anywhere. One generation succeeds another without the first getting anywhere. Because of the behavior of others who come after us, we are forgotten. And because of those who presently get in the way of us realizing our dreams. Wisdom and righteousness are not appropriately rewarded
The writer at work
Let us briefly see the writer work at these themes.
Ch. 1. Circularity, no end of all that happens is apparent “under the sun” life, and lives go round. There is change but not progress. As the sun rises and sets, so a generation succeeds an earlier generation, leaving it behind and forgotten. And human satisfaction is short-lived.
Self-indulgence is not the answer, for the author has been in the position of denying himself nothing – Ch.2. And even his technological success (v.4) gives no lasting pleasure. Further, the pursuit of wisdom, the fear of God do not “pay” – all things happen alike to all and to successive generations, so that there is no “progress” nor degeneration (2:12). All life is “a striving after the wind” (2:17).
What about a life in pursuit of justice? Justice is mingled with unrighteousness. And all (the just as well as the unjust) “go to one place.” We are from the dust and we shall return to it, just and unjust alike. People work motivated by envy and not because they gain satisfaction through the worthwhileness of what they are doing (see chapter 3).
So what should we do?
No big, satisfying projects “under the sun.” So, we should seek fulfilment in the here and now, in a certain kind of small ends that are provided for us and which we overlook or undervalue. “Gifts of God” as the writer describes them. Here is what he says –
2.24 There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. His also I saw is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment. For the one who pleases him, God has given wisdom and knowledge….
3.22 So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Who can bring him to see what can be after him?
5.18f Behold what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to rejoice in his lot and rejoice in his toil – this is the gift of God.
8. 15 And I commend joy, for man has no good thing under the sun but to eat and drink and to be joyful, for this will go with him through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.
9.7 Go, eat your bread in joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved of what you do. Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on you head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you live all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because this is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you going.
11. 6-8 In the morning sow your seed, and at the evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good…..So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all, but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity.
12.13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgement, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.
Are these simply further expressions of secular cynicism? Not at all. The writer draws word pictures of a life of present enjoyment of work and of everyday circumstances. Note the emphasis on joy, merriness, and toil. But we don’t know what we do will prosper, or not. Such times are our “lot” and “portion.” They are not permanent, but they are real. Framing such a life is the knowledge that we have a Creator, and that there is a judgment to come, and God is to be feared. So whatever the “message” of the book, it does not celebrate a secular outlook; the themes of Creation, eternity, judgment and the fear of God recur. As in this –
5:1f Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. Be not rash with your mouth, or let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few.
While we are to live in the present, we are not to live for the present. We are to do our best at work, and enjoy the company of those we love. These are God’s gifts to us now. As young people our tendency is to live in the future, investing all our hopes and energies in it; as older people, we tend to live more and more in the past. But both these attitudes should be corrected, by the recognition that God has given us the present. We don’t know what’s around the corner. In a way we should “live each day as if thy last,” and “for the great day thyself prepare” as the old hymns put it.
Paul Helm was appointed J.I. Packer Chair of Philosophical Theology at Regent College, Vancouver, in 2001. He is presently a Teaching Fellow there. Among his many books are Calvin and the Calvinists, Faith and Reason, The Trustworthiness of God, The Providence of God, Eternal God, The Secret Providence of God, The Trustworthiness of God (with Carl Trueman), John Calvin’s Ideas, Calvin at the Centre, and Calvin: A Guide for the Perplexed.