Commentary on Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23
“What is this doing in the Bible?” my students frequently ask after first encountering Ecclesiastes. It is a probing book that despairs of finding persistent meaning in a world overseen by an inscrutable God.
Today’s lectionary reading consists of three selections from Ecclesiastes 1-2. They make two claims about the nature of human life: everything is ephemeral, and work cannot provide meaning. In our current cultural moment of cynicism and despair, these claims will resonate with many readers. (This would come as no surprise to the author, who said, after all, “There is nothing new under the sun” in Ecclesiastes 1:9). Whether one finally embraces Ecclesiastes or dismisses it in favor of other biblical perspectives, its compelling description of our contemporary malaise is worth taking seriously.
Ephemerality of ephemeralities
Ecclesiastes is the collected wisdom of an ancient sage called the “Teacher.” His first words in 1:2 are perhaps the best known from the book: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”
Most readers understand the verse to describe life as meaningless, but the point isn’t that everything is inherently absurd in a nihilistic sense. Rather, the Hebrew word translated “vanity” is hebel, which means vapor or breath. (It’s the basis for the name “Abel” in Genesis 4, perhaps foreshadowing his brief existence in that story.) The Teacher is saying that everything is transient and impermanent. “Ephemerality of ephemeralities,” one might translate it, or “perfectly pointless” (Common English Bible). Nothing that one does will last. It’ll just be done again—if not by us, then by a future generation, as verses 3–11 make clear.
It’s hardly an encouraging opening for the book! And, unfortunately, the Teacher’s reflections turn even more pessimistic before offering any hope.
The great resignation
From 1:12–2:17, the Teacher recounts his life’s pursuits: wisdom, pleasure, wealth, monuments. All of these turned out to be “vanity and a chasing after the wind,” a delightful phrase describing a pointless endeavor. Nothing one does will be remembered, and everyone dies in the end. When the lectionary picks up again at 2:18, the Teacher deems work itself to be futile. Everything one acquires will ultimately be left to someone else who didn’t earn it. Anyone who suffers from anxiety will appreciate the Teacher’s description of the emotional toll of excessive work: “All their [mortals’] days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest” (2:23).
Following the COVID-19 pandemic, workers quit their jobs in record numbers. Although many reasons lie behind this “great resignation,” for many people it resulted from realizing their jobs did not bring fulfillment, even as they worked longer hours under increasing pressure. In such circumstances, quitting a job is an act of protest and radical self-care. I think the Teacher would approve. There’s no virtue in stressful, exploitative work for its own sake.
Unfortunately, the lectionary reading ends just before the Teacher offers his first words of hope: “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” (Ecclesiastes 2:24–25). He revisits this theme throughout the book. In 9:7–10, he lists a variety of small pleasures that offer some fulfillment: eating bread, drinking wine, wearing nice clothes, having sex with one’s partner. The goal of work should not be wealth, power, or prestige. These are all hebel. Rather, fulfilling work supports a simple life of measured pleasure—something that anyone should be able to aspire to. It’s a modest but meaningful take on the popular slogan YOLO (“you only live once”).
The teacher’s reflections invite us to rethink our priorities. Are we working ourselves to the point of exhaustion and thereby robbing ourselves of the possibility of true pleasure? Do we demand excessive, thankless labor from those who work for us? Do our consumer habits support exploitative work conditions? Or do we allow ourselves and others to balance work with the pleasures allowed us in our fleeting lives?
Leaving a world for our children
The Teacher cautions against worrying about the future. We have precious little power over our own lives, and practically no ability to shape what comes after our deaths. Such acceptance of one’s mortal limitations is healthy and appropriate. It rightly acknowledges God’s control over the world.
Still, the Teacher’s pessimism can be taken too far. His disregard for future generations is especially troubling. We don’t know if those who come after us will be foolish or wise, he argues, so why spend one’s life working only to leave it all to them (2:18–19, 21)?
More than ever, we have good reason to think about the kind of world we’re leaving for our children. In recent years, extreme climate events have become alarmingly frequent. Last week saw record-setting heat waves across the United States and Europe. Experts warn that we’re quickly running out of time to mitigate the worst outcomes of climate change.
The Teacher believed in an unchanging world, which was one of the sources of his pessimism: “All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow. All things are wearisome, more than one can express” (1:7–8). Yet with rapidly rising sea levels—Greenland lost 18 billion tons of its ice sheet in just three days last week—the sea is now in danger of becoming too full! The world is changing in ways that threaten the well-being of all of creation, human and non-human alike.
Averting further disaster will require significant changes in our consumption habits, at the individual and especially the corporate levels. Such changes are consistent with the Teacher’s admonitions to work less and embrace a life of simple pleasures. The stakes are even higher now than when he first penned his advice millennia ago.