The book of Ecclesiastes

This week, we have a funeral, and the family of the Deceased requested a rather famous reading from chapter three of that book, the one that declares that there is a time for everything under the sun. The whole book can be summarised in this fashion, and seems to present the same message as the book of Job – that good things and bad things happen, that their occurrence seems arbitrary. But while Ecclesiastes seems to advocate enjoying the good times while they last, Job concludes that we must trust that Holy God has all things in hand, sees the big picture and ends it all well. Since Ecclesiastes doesn’t quite seem to centre itself on God and the Torah, it is a slightly controversial book. The word ecclesia in Greek means ‘assembly’ and the other book called Ecclesiasticus were designed to be read to an assembly. As indeed was most of the New Testament. The Hebrew word Q’hel has a similar meaning, but scholars seem often to treat ‘Qoheleth’ as a proper name and call the sage who wrote this book by this name. My own Bible translation, the Knox version, translates it as Spokesman, which of course is accurate. This ‘spokesman’ identifies himself as son of King David and one-time king of Jerusalem and therefore the book is traditionally given to be the work of King Solomon.

It is a Wisdom book – it glorifies divine Wisdom and finally the commandments of God. I called it controversial because it is quite unlike any other book in the Bible in that it hardly ever refers to God, and the few references are often seen by scholars as later additions to engraft this rather odd book into the canon of Scripture. The Spokesman describes himself as a student of human nature and an observer of all things under the sun, the words ‘under the sun’ repeated multiple times throughout. That makes this a book part of a general study of science, and we know that King Solomon was devoted to the study of the natural world, alongside everything else (III Kings, 4: 32-34). So, let’s jump right in with some general observations about this book.

“I was a king in my day, I, the Spokesman; Israel my realm, Jerusalem my capital. And it was my resolve to search deep and find out the meaning of all that men do, here under the sun; all that curse of busy toil which God has given to the sons of Adam for their task. All that men do beneath the sun I marked, and found it was but frustration and lost labour, all of it; there was no curing men’s cross-grained nature, no reckoning up their follies.”

Ecclesiastes, 1: 12-15

The whole book almost is an expression of frustration, and so in a way discouraging. No matter what you do, says the writer, if you practice virtue or live in sin, you still end your life in the same way, with death and the grave. The book evidently has no understanding of the life beyond, reward beyond this life and any pleasure in virtue aside from the life of virtue itself – there is no apparent gain one may have from any action performed here below that can be carried beyond the grave. Therefore, what’s the point in trying? Hence, the frustration. A scientist studies systems to discover their ends – what they were intended to produce and enable – and when he cannot find this design result, after long investigation, he lapses into frustration. This is the spirit I find in this book.

“Next, I thought to give the rein to my desires, and enjoy pleasure, until I found that this, too, was labour lost. Wouldst thou know how I learned to find laughter an empty thing, and all joy a vain illusion; how I resolved at last to deny myself the comfort of wine, wisdom now all my quest, folly disowned? For I could not rest until I knew where man’s true good lay, what was his life’s true task, here under the sun.”

Ecclesiastes, 2: 1-4

So, the writer has discovered that even bodily pleasures are vain and unfulfilling, so he took up a severe asceticism and made the study of wisdom his primary activity. But even this seemed useless, for it profited nothing to the wise man to transcend the common end of all mortal beings. The writer makes the same observation we’ve seen in books like Job – that evil men thrive and good men suffer – and asks what’s the point of practising virtue at all. We’re all being driven towards the grave anyway, along with every other kind of mortal being.

“I marked, too, how wrong was done instead of right, injustice instead of justice, there under the sun’s eye; and I told myself that God would give judgement one day between the just and the sinners, and all things would reach their appointed end then. I told myself that God’s purpose with the sons of men was to test them …… And that they might see they were only like the beasts … After all, man comes to the same ending as the beasts; there is nothing to choose between his lot and theirs; both alike are doomed to die. They have but one principle of life; what has man that the beasts have not? Frustration everywhere; we are all making for the same goal; of earth we were made, and to earth we must return.

Ecclesiastes, 3: 16-20

Dear me, it’s all dismal. The Spokesman decides that the best we can do with our lives is to enjoy ourselves while we still can. Does this sound familiar? It’s the song of our nihilist society today. How is this position drawn into the conventional Hebrew faith of trust in God and the quest for justice? There must be some reason the Fathers have retained this book in our canon of Sacred Scripture. At this point, we discover some good advice for social living:

“Better to be in partnership with another, than alone; partnership brings advantage to both. If one falls, the other will give support; with the lonely it goes hard; when he falls, there is none to raise him. Sleep two in one bed, each shall warm the other; for the lonely, there is no warmth. Two may withstand assault, where one is no match for it; a triple cord is not lightly broken. There is more hope for a wise servant that is in hard straits, than for a dotard king that foresight has none… Look well what thou art doing when thou goest into God’s house; present thyself there in a spirit of obedience. Obedience is far better than the sacrifice made by fools, that are guilty of unwitting sacrilege.”

Ecclesiastes, 4: 9-13, 17

Ahah! – the first reference to God. The next chapters continues the theme of honouring God, and sounds vaguely similar to Christ warning us not to use many words in prayer, for God knows what we need already. This fifth chapter notes that injustice committed is still watched over by the Eternal One. There is certainly a moral element here, for although the writer again states that man can do no more than take enjoyment from the work of his hands in this life, he speaks of the futility of hoarding one’s money away when one cannot take it beyond the grave. Could he mean that the wealth should be shared? Anyhow, the ongoing theme is the unfulfilling nature of riches and wealth, what chapter six calls ‘a full mouth and an empty belly.’ Frustration, frustration, all around. What is the point of living and working? Chapter seven begins a typical set of instructions for the wise, which we would recognise from the books of Proverbs and of the Wisdom of Solomon. Keep man’s final end always in mind, search for wisdom, control your tongue, accept your station in life as given by God, avoid evil, fear God and cultivate the traditions of the past (piety), etc. It seems that all this must be honoured without looking for a reward, material or otherwise. 

“Whatever lies in thy power, do while do it thou canst; there will be no doing, no scheming, no wisdom or skill left to thee in the grave, that soon shall be thy home. Then my thought took a fresh turn; man’s art does not avail, here beneath the sun, to win the race for the swift, or the battle for the strong, a livelihood for wisdom, riches for great learning, or for the craftsman thanks; chance and the moment rule all. Nor does man see his end coming; hooked fish or snared bird is not overtaken so suddenly as man is, when the day of doom falls on him unawares.”

Ecclesiastes, 9: 10-12

Do what you can, while you have the opportunity. For we cannot plan our opportunities. Above all, we do not know when we ultimately lose all opportunities, when death takes us, as it will inevitably do. Chapter ten is a long ridicule of foolishness and idleness in the face of the above advice to use every opportunity. So, the effect so far is the value of the virtue of diligence without the hope of reward. This type of activity performed during youth will stand one in good stead when the illness and infirmity of old age make such things more difficult and frustration increases (as may have happened to the writer himself). 

“Only be thy years never so many, never so happy, do not forget the dark days that are coming, the long days, when frustration will be the end of it all. While thou art young, take thy fill of manhood’s pride, let thy heart beat high with youth, follow where thought leads and inclination beckons, but remember that for all this God will call thee to account. Rid thy heart, then, of resentment, thy nature of ill humours; youth and pleasures, they are so quickly gone!”

Ecclesiastes, 11: 8-10

The final chapter speaks of the increasing physical and mental dissipation of old age, and the flight from this life on earth. How would I sum up this book? It is a call to duty to God and to society, working while there is still time to work and hoping for no reward for it. If reward does come, take enjoyment of it but do not hoard away, for nobody can take wealth beyond the grave. And all will finally fall before the judgement of God. This is the summary of the book, given by the book itself:

Fear God, and keep his commandments; this is the whole meaning of man. No act of thine but God will bring it under His scrutiny, deep beyond all thy knowing, and pronounce it good or evil.

Ecclesiastes, 12: 13-14
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