Arguing that only a considerate life leads to peace with one’s impending death, Ecclesiastes- often called the most human and cynical book of the Bible- muses about the precariousness of life. Unlike other biblical books, Ecclesiastes contains no covenants between God and man. Nor does it depict instances of God acting in human history, a reality very much at odds with the dominant expressions of religion throughout the Hebrew Bible. Instead, “the Teacher” shows what it means to be human and to know that death is coming.
“The book of Ecclesiastes, or ‘Qoheleth the Preacher,’ a title by which this book is also known, is far more a philosophical treatise on the meaning of life than it is a testimony to belief,” wrote religion scholar John Shelby Spong in Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World. “Portraying God as the ‘inscrutable’ originator of the world and the ‘determiner’ of fate, Ecclesiastes is skeptical of the human ability to make change.” According to Ecclesiastes 12, all things done under the sun are vain, and nothing broken will be permanently fixed.
“Banish anxiety from your mind, and put away pain from your body; for youth and the dawn of life are vanity,” Ecclesiastes 11:10.
The book largely focuses on the limits to human power and attacks those who would argue clear-cut connections between godliness and success or failure. “In my vain life I have seen everything; there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in evildoing,” Ecclesiastes 7:15.
As all things will eventually come to an end, Qoheleth instructs man to embrace simple pleasures as gifts from God. “Qoheleth urges readers to take joy in what they have and to fear God, despite knowing that ‘for everything there is a season,” Kent Harold Richards, executive director of the Society of Biblical Literature, wrote for HarperOne’s New Revised Standard Version. “So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun,” Ecclesiastes 8:15.
How did such a cynical, almost nihilistic book become venerated text for Jews and Christians? Some scholars argue later attribution of the book to King Solomon, who assisted in gaining canonical status for the text. “A tradition within the first-century B.C. rabbinical debates over which books are worthy resulted in a growing consensus that Ecclesiastes was inspired and deserving of a place in the canon,” wrote Richards.
Spong, who “always liked the honesty of Ecclesiastes,” argues that a later orthodox postscript helped ensure the book’s fate. “God will bring every deed into judgement, including every secret thing, whether good or evil,” Ecclesiastes 12:14.
But maybe the humanness of the book also helped to secure its place. It is organized in a haphazard way- with themes being introduced, dropped, re-visited, changed and repeated, very much like the human experience. As millions of baby boomers begin thinking about death and dying, Ecclesiastes is likely to become more popular during Sunday church services.
As 20th century American novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote: “For of all I have ever seen or learned, that book seems to me the noblest, the wisest, and the most powerful expression of man’s life upon this earth — and also the highest flower of poetry, eloquence, and truth. I am not given to dogmatic judgments in the matter of literary creation, but if I had to make one I could say that Ecclesiastes is the greatest single piece of writing I have ever known, and the wisdom expressed in it the most lasting and profound.”