Ecclesiastes is probably the most difficult book in the Bible to interpret. Job and Daniel both have their challenges, not to mention Revelation, however they each have a message that can be understood with some work. Ecclesiastes seems to lead us nowhere. Its gritty realism and fatalistic tone are unique in Scripture, and finding hope between the lines seems to be “chasing the wind” in itself. Qoheleth probably wouldn’t get an interview with Oprah, and Dr. Phil would probably throw his hands up in frustration with the guy.
The narrator is assumed to be Solomon, and many things within the text makes sense from his standpoint. This passage in the first chapter is typical:
“I, Qoheleth, was king over Israel in Jerusalem, and I applied my mind to search and investigate in wisdom all things that are done under the sun.
A bad business God has given
to human beings to be busied with.
I have seen all things that are done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a chase after wind.
What is crooked cannot be made straight,
and you cannot count what is not there.
Though I said to myself, “See, I have greatly increased my wisdom beyond all who were before me in Jerusalem, and my mind has broad experience of wisdom and knowledge,” yet when I applied my mind to know wisdom and knowledge, madness and folly, I learned that this also is a chase after wind.
For in much wisdom there is much sorrow;
whoever increases knowledge increases grief. (Ecclesiastes 1:12-18)”
Wonderful, although ignorance isn’t always the bliss it’s always cracked up to be. What we don’t see (or refuse to see) can hurt us.
Some of the sayings have a call, nonjudgmental take on life. The third chapter contains the famous passage which begins: “For everything there is a season…” (which inspired the classic Pete Seeger song, “Turn, Turn,Turn” later covered by the Byrds, among others.) It’s important to remember that ordinary events in human life aren’t personal judgments for or against us. As Matthew 5:45 confirms: “…for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” No matter what, we aren’t God’s lightning rod if we’re bad, nor do flowers automatically blossom under our feet if we’ve been good. God is surely not Santa Claus.
Toward the end of Ecclesiastes we find this verse:
“The last word, when all is heard: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this concerns all humankind; because God will bring to judgment every work, with all its hidden qualities, whether good or bad.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)
This can be seen as context for the whole book. Even though Ecclesiastes seems to deconstruct all human knowledge and effort, it reminds us that our relationship with God is the most important thing, and the way this relationship is expressed is through what we do. In some respects it reminds me of the medieval spiritual teaching of memento mori (“Remember your death” or “Remember you are mortal”) and a current approach toward life that asserts if you something wouldn’t be important to you on your deathbed, it’s not all that important before you reach your deathbed. Which isn’t a bad way to value life, if we consider it, and can bring us a lot of peace of mind, since things that aren’t important to us at the end aren’t worth a lot of worry in general.
I don’t interpret Ecclesiastes as a call to give up on life, to embrace general relativism, or a fatalistic rejection of all striving for wisdom and knowledge. It’s definitely not reading for the squeamish or the insecure. It’s a wisdom one can embrace only after feeling comfortable in one’s own skin and secure in God’s Love and their own personal identity. Ecclesiastes reminds me that even though Justice doesn’t always work out naturally and there is a limit to the search for knowledge, my relationship with God is the most important thing in my life, what I do matters, and how I can help others is the most important justification for any wisdom I seek or relationship I cultivate.
It’s important not to recoil from a book that starts with the charming phrase “Vanity of vanities, all things are vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2) For everything there is a season, even the cold seasons we could live without. Just as the seasons turn, we turn as well; where we turn and who we turn to makes all the difference in our lives.