I stumbled across Ecclesiastes because of a reference in a novel about a year ago, and I’ve read it from front to back several times since. It reminds me of a TS Eliot poem, whirling around with its repetitive motifs and images, asking questions without answers, providing what seem to be contradictions. The pessimistic tone, the positions it takes which approach a sort of existentialism, these speak to me. Since the book only got a passing reference in Sunday School last week, here’s a few favorite passages for people to comment on:
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. (1:2)
In Hebrew, the word rendered in the KJV as ‘vanity’ is hevel, meaning literally breath, and according to The HarperCollins Study Bible, it is ‘difficult to translate with any single English word’ but refers to ‘the ephemeral, unknowable, mysterious, absurd, and ironic.’In other Bible translations, the image that often accompanies the idea of vanity is ‘chasing after wind,’ (rendered in the KJV as ‘vexation of the spirit’) or the futility to capture that which cannot be captured. For The Preacher, almost everything we experience here ‘under the sun’ is vanity. Humility is the key. Mormons tend to ignore the concept of the mysteries of God implied by hevel, as if Paul wouldn’t have seen through the glass darkly if he had had a copy of Gospel Principles in his hand. Ecclesiastes is a good antidote to occasional restorational arrogance.
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: (3:1)
Thanks to Pete Seeger, this has become a cliché, but the sense that our situation here ‘under the sun’ is more cyclical and less planned gives me some comfort; it conforms nicely with Lehi’s concept of opposition in all things. Another related passage by The Preacher is, ‘I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.’ (9:11)
Though a sinner do evil an hundred times, and his days be prolonged, yet surely I know that it shall be well with them that fear God, which fear before him: But it shall not be well with the wicked, neither shall he prolong his days, which are as a shadow; because he feareth not before God. There is a vanity which is done upon the earth; that there be just men, unto whom it happeneth according to the work of the wicked; again, there be wicked men, to whom it happeneth according to the work of the righteous: I said that this also is vanity. Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry: for that shall abide with him of his labour the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun. (8:12-15)
Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works. Let thy garments be always white; and let thy head lack no ointment. Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun. Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest. (9:7-10)
Good things happen to bad people, and so on. So it goes under the sun. Mirth is good, pleasure is a gift from God, so love and work. Within the constraints of the fear (or respect) of God, enjoy life and benefit from your labors. We know something about life after death, but too little to provide any details. As another wise preacher said, ‘Let us relish life as we live it, find joy in the journey, and share our love with friends and family. One day each of us will run out of tomorrows.’
I’m no Bible scholar; I tend to read the Old Testament as a literary text with the ability to inspire and teach. Ecclesiastes has done both of those for me.
Any more love (or other feelings) for Ecclesiastes?