Commentary on Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23
Beyond this text, the treasure that is Ecclesiastes appears for only one day in the Revised Common Lectionary.
Ecclesiastes 3:1-13 is appointed for New Year’s Day in years A, B, and C. Therefore, even the truncated text before us presents a rare opportunity to listen to an ancient sage whose questions about life’s meaning anticipate those of believers in the twenty-first century.
The theme of the entire book is sounded in Ecclesiastes 1:2: “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” The word translated as “vanity” (hebel) is notoriously difficult to render in English, in part because it a tensive symbol that simultaneously signifies multiple meanings. One author proposes “vapor” because vapor is at once insubstantial, transient, and sometimes foul or poisonous.1 Throughout the book, the Teacher asserts that all things in life are ephemeral and vaporous. Consequently, much of human activity is futile and pointless (Ecclesiastes 1:3).
The lection bypasses a poem that asserts the monotonous character of creation (Ecclesiastes 1:4-11). “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9c), and people are destined to disappear unremembered.
The “king of Jerusalem’s” persona (see Ecclesiastes 1:1) reappears at verse 12 with an autobiographical account that continues to 2:26. His conclusion appears at the beginning and near the end of his ruminations. His quest for meaning and understanding led him to conclude that God has given human beings unhappy “business” with which to be busy. “Business” (‘inyan) is a favorite word of the Teacher, appearing in the Hebrew Bible only in 2:23, 26; 3:10; 4:8; 5:2,13, and 8:16. Human business is, in the Teacher’s view, generally irksome. In 2:23 ‘inyan is vexatious while in 2:26 is the tedious reward of the sinner. Most of all, however, our unhappy business is pointless since our strained efforts are unable to effect a change in the way the world goes (1:15) and leads to a joyless, dismal life (2:20-23).
What interests the reader, however, is how the “king” reached this seemingly gloomy conclusion. He reports a series of experiments in which he sought to discover life’s meaning and purpose, all of which failed.
First was the quest for wisdom itself (Ecclesiastes 1:16-18). Although the Teacher was successful in acquiring great wisdom, he concluded that his gain was as futile as chasing the wind. Indeed, the increase of wisdom led to vexation and sorrow.
In Ecclesiastes 2:1-10, the Teacher describes his search for meaning through pleasure, broadly defined. Specifically, he sought for meaning in the pleasures of sensuality (2:1-3), labor (2:4-6), and wealth (2:7-10). He declares all of these activities to be equally vain (2:11) and hackneyed (2:12).
The Teacher returns to wisdom in Ecclesiastes 2:13-14a. He rehearses the traditional virtues of wisdom (see, for example, Proverbs 18:4-8), declaring the benefits of wisdom to exceed the gains of folly and the sight of the wise superior to fools stumbling in the darkness. But then comes the twist: the same fate, death, befalls both the wise person and the fool (2:14c, 16). The Teacher realizes death will overtake him has well (2:15), so what, he wonders, is the point of his great wisdom?
The penultimate conclusion to the Teacher’s search appear in verses 18-23. He hated his life since all that he had done was vaporous and transitory (Ecclesiastes 1:17). He hated his labor because, he knew, he would surely die only to leave the fruit of his work to someone who may or may not be worthy (18-19, 21). As a consequence, the Teacher was overcome with hopeless despair (19), concluding that human toil and strain profited not at all (22). Our days are full of pain, work is vexatious, and sleep is ruined (23).
Verses 24 to 26 soften the dismal tone of what has come before. If God has so ordered the world, there is nothing to be done but to make the best of it, eating, drinking, and enjoying our toil as we can. Those who are pleasing to God fare better than those who do not, for they have a measure of “wisdom and knowledge and joy.”
Considering the Teacher’s position and wisdom, it is a bit surprising that he had hoped to discover in his work, wealth, and pleasure something that would satisfy his longing for purpose and meaning, let alone that his achievements would thwart death. And yet his story is the human story: we weary ourselves with our busyness in an endless, hopeless effort to find lasting satisfaction, security, and happiness. Death, however, has the final say for all of us, as Jesus’ parable appointed for this Sunday illustrates (Luke 12:13-21). Our frantic attempts to ward off death and its companions — meaningless, despair, fear, and more — is doomed to fail from the start.
This is a lesson that we seem constantly in need of relearning. That for which our hearts long can never be satisfied with our ceaseless desperate business or our self-indulgence and consumption. And yet the analysis of President Jimmy Carter confirms that we are still not far removed from Qoheleth:
“Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”2
What then, can we say? Are we to content ourselves with the Teacher’s “get along as best you can” advice?
Today’s Colossians lesson points us to a better way. If our self-serving, frantic striving leads us to emptiness and death, then
2Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. (Colossians 3:2-4).
Our vane lives find their meaning in Christ. Embracing the Teacher’s message is to acknowledge the truth of his claim: our end is, inevitably, death. Our accomplishments will be the legacy of someone who comes after us, be that person worthy or not. Our hope, however, is that our life is hidden with the resurrected one, with Christ in God. Our glory will not be in our works, our treasures, our fame or anything we may do. “When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.”
May we so consider the business (and busyness) of our days.
1 Douglas B. Miller, Ecclesiastes (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2010), 41. For a convenient but thorough discussion of hebel see Choon Leong Seow, Ecclesiastes, AB, vol. 18C (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 101-2. Seow translates hebel as “vanity,” although not without acknowledging that no single English word suffices to convey the nuances of the Hebrew.
2 Jimmy Carter, Crisis of Confidence, a televised speech on July 15, 1979. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/primary-resources/carter-crisis/. Accessed on 03/08/16.