The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:
2 “Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
Everything is meaningless.”
(Read the rest of the chapter here.)
Today, shelter-in-place and similar mandates begin rolling back in many states, but even with these relaxations we are no where near “normal” yet, and this virus is not under control. I wanted to share Ecclesiastes with you all now because it is a book that does not ignore the hardships of the world, but it always cycles back to focus upon joy. I think that is a mindset we are all in right now: For many, quarantine has been a welcome break, a chance for us to refocus on family, to rest, to realize all the things we actually can live without. But it is also a time of economic hardship, anxiety, and having to take on roles we never needed to before, such as the role of teacher to our now home-schooled children. Many of the themes mentioned in Ecclesiastes are ones that can be applied broadly to today: the oppressed and grieving not being comforted, the frustration we all face at some point with not being able to find meaning in our work, the unfairness of a wicked man prospering while a righteous one suffers. I’m glad this text doesn’t ignore that suffering. But if you read it with an open heart, more than anything else Ecclesiastes counsels us in the ways of acceptance and joy, and that’s the kind of thing we could all use a little more of in these unusual times.
I honestly was shocked to hear that for much of history Ecclesiastes has been regarded as a pessimistic book (downer opening verses aside). It has been viewed, more often than not, a weird outlier in the Bible that defies classification, something that needs to be explained away or ignored. Having parents that grew up in the ’60s , vv 3:1-8 (a time to be born a time to die….made famous by the Byrds’ song Turn Turn Turn) were some of the first verses I recognized fondly as a kid. Beyond that, it is a book about finding enjoyment and fulfillment within one’s lot in life. Verses 9:7-10, a passage that starts with “Go, eat your food with gladness…” has been one of my favorite passages since I started seriously reading the Bible for myself, and has been dog-eared for over a decade in my go-to NIV text.
I believe part of the confusion and in-read pessimism comes from the word Hebrew word hebel. Per my NIV study notes, “this key term appears 35 times in the book and only once elsewhere (Job 27:12). The Hebrew for it originally meant ‘breath.’ ” Hebel has traditionally been translated as “meaningless,” a word with negative connotations, as seen in the opening verses above. “Breath,” I believe, implies a more positive ephemera. Breath is of the utmost importance – it is what gives us life, yet it is not something we can hold onto. We cannot amass “breath” the way we amass wealth, and, even in our age of scientific understanding, it defies our full knowledge. Yes, CPR works to return breath sometimes, but not always. The full mystery of “breath” yet eludes us, as does the meaning of life.
But to change v. 2 to ” ‘Breath! Breath!’ says the teacher, ‘Utter breath! Everything is breath’ ” makes the passage even weirder. In my supportive readings on Ecclesiastes, I came across the translation of hebel as “beyond mortal grasp” from biblical scholar Choon-Leong Seow. This translation, I believe, most fully captures the author’s meaning of this key term, repeated so often throughout the book. Which brings me to the author himself.
This book is written by “the Teacher,” or Qohelet (sometimes spelled Qoheleth, too). It is a term that means “teacher” but also is related to “assembly.” I like that correlation, because it makes me think of the choir in Greek plays, and how they are often there to impart wisdom or commentary that other, individual characters might not be able to provide.
One of the things that is so charming about Ecclesiastes is the very personal nature of the writing style. Of course, first-person pronouns help a lot towards that feeling, but even beyond that, the reader really gets the sense that Qohelet is a real person writing this book. His original words have had thousands of years to be edited, and there are certainly some passages that sound less Qohelet-y (if I can make up that adjective), but overall there is a character, a voice, an individual behind these words that shines through.
This book is traditionally attributed to Solomon. There is reason to believe he actually wrote it, but there is no way to be sure. Solomon or not, Qohelet was a rich man (almost assuredly Qohelet was male, given how he speaks about women, the limitations of scholarship to rich men at the time, and his own self-designation) who was possibly a king (as he claims in v. 12 and elsewhere). It can be assumed he is older, with a lifetime of experience under his belt, based on all that he has seen. He has spent much of his life in the study of wisdom and folly, the process and findings of which he shares with us in Ecclesiastes. As Dominic Rudman points out in their article “Woman as Divine Agent in Ecclesiastes,” Qohelet uses “real life” examples to illustrate his search for wisdom, pointing to vignettes he has witnessed himself: the great projects he undertook for his own pleasure, the lone man who toils endlessly even though he has no heir, the tears of the oppressed flowing without a comforter. He is a talented, lyrical writer who knows how to work a refrain (meaningless, meaningless…), bring in the finer points of rhetorical argument, and paint a visual picture for his audience.
Eat, drink, and be glad
And I will admit, the picture he paints in the first chapter is a bit pessimistic. With passages like “all things are wearisome more than one can say,” “even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow,” and “for with much wisdom comes much sorrow,” leaves one wondering, so what’s the point? But that point is exactly what Qohelet goes on to illustrate in the remainder of the book. It is perhaps best explained in 8:15, but I won’t leave you in suspense until then: “So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun.” And that, my friends, is the opposite of pessimism. I can’t think of a better term than joy de vivre. I hope you will continue reading with me, to see what else Qohelet has to say about finding happiness in your own life, your own joy de vivre, through all life’s circumstances.