How to read Ecclesiastes
OVERVIEW OF ECCLESIASTES
Ecclesiastes comes to us from an editor ( 12:9-14) who has compiled the teachings and proverbs of an Israelite king who calls himself Qohelet ("assembler"), a title that alludes to his role as a teacher of wisdom in an assembly-presumably of God's people (12:9). A prologue (1:1 -11) sets forth the basic concern that drives Qohelet's whole enterprise, namely, the hebel (="breath,"vapor"; NIV "meaningless") nature of human life in a world that continues as it was before and after anyone's own life span. The book concludes with the words of the editor-compiler, who encourages contemplation of Qohelet's words as goads for the young, but also warns that there is a proper limit to such speculation (12:12)-and in the end he makes sure that all is placed within the ultimate setting of biblical wisdom: Fearing God by keeping his commandments gives meaning to human life.
The words of Qohelet himself are enclosed (1:2; 12:8) by the melancholy refrain: Hebel, hebel! says Qohelet; Hebel of hebel! Everything is hebel. The rest is an inquiry into how one should live in such a world, since reality isn't as neat as some expressions of traditional wisdom might lead one to think. And the structure of the book mirrors its content, for there is no immediately apparent order to it. What the author does is to play and replay certain themes, all the while moving toward his concluding advice to the young (11:9- 12:7): to enjoy life while they are young, but to do so remembering their Creator. If Qohelet's material can be divided into coherent subdivisions at all, they would seem to be 1:12-6:12 and 7:1- 12:7, the first playing and replaying Qohelet's primary concerns, the second, while keeping these themes alive, sounding much more like proverbial wisdom.
SPECIFIC ADVICE FOR READING ECCLESIASTES
Traditionally, no other book in the Bible has been such a difficult read. This is because of (1) the somewhat rambling nature of many of Qohelet's observations-at least to the Western mind -(2) some strikingly antithetical statements existing together in the same book, and (3) the negative side of some of these statements, which seem so contradictory to the rest of the Bible. But if you try to read the book from the editor-compiler's perspective-that of a teacher of wisdom who, living before the full revelation of resurrection, recognized the value of Qohelet's assertion that life in the present world doesn't always add up-then you will be able to see that the final message of the book is not at all the hedonist or fatalist tract that some have made it out to be. Crucial to understanding this is to appreciate Qohelet's own context(s).
First, whatever else, Qohelet was written within Israel's Wisdom tradition, a tradition that was not trying to speak for God in the same way the prophets did, but one that was musing carefully on life in order to teach the young how to live well before God. And somewhat like the author of Job, but in contrast to the way some might mechanistically apply the book of Proverbs, Qohelet is convinced that the ways of the Creator are past finding out. Although he maintains a sturdy trust in God throughout (2:24;3:11-14; 5:7b, 19; 9:7) and believes God to be just (3:17; 8:12-13), he nonetheless finds the real world not nearly as predictable as, for example, Job,s ..comforters" do, who see a sure cause and effect to everything and thus represent a kind of "wisdom" that Qohelet is likewise reacting strongly against.
Four realities dominate Qohelet's overall perspective: (1) God is tho single indisputable reality, the Creator of all and the one from whom all life comes as gift (e.g. ,3:12-14), including its-for Qohelet-usually burdensome nature . (2) God's ways are not always, if ever, understandable (3:11; 8:17). (3) On the human side, what is "done under the sun" (2:17) simply is not tidy; indeed, much of it doesn't add up right at all, The way things should be (the righteous get the good the wicked got the bad) is not in fact the way things arc-at least not consistently in this present life. (4) The great equalizer is death, which happens to rich and poor, wise and foolish alike. Given Qohelet's lack of hope in a resurrection, then once you're dead that's it-without memory, forgotten, no matter what your life may once have meant (9:5-6). And it is this i reality that makes life seem hebel (a word that occurs thirty-seven times, just over half of its seventy-three OT occurrences).
At issue is what this word means for Qohelet, since it literally means "wisp of air" or "vapor." Most of the time he uses it as a metaphor for, the nature of human existence. But what metaphorical freight does it carry? A tradition that goes back to the Septuagint translates it
"emptiness" (cf. the KJV "vanity," that is, "in vain"), pointing to the "vaporous" nature of our human lives (along with its companion, "chasing after the wind"). Another tradition, followed by the NIV, goes for "meaningless." While either of these work fine in some instances, they do not help in others. In most cases the sense seems to be the passing/transitory or unsubstantial nature of things, like vapor itself. This seems especially to be its sense in the prologue, where human life, in contrast to the constancy and "oldness" of the world, evaporates very quickly. Moreover, the "vapor" that is our life is also elusive, lying outside our own control; it is like "chasing after the wind" (an ironic play on hebel = "wisp of air").
So what should one make of such a "vapor," these "few and hebel days" we pass through like a shadow (6:12; cf . 2:3; 5:18), especially in light of life's inequalities and for the one who lives apart from God ("the fool"), its utter meaninglessness? Qohelet's answer is not, as some have
accused him, "milk it for all you can, because you only go around once" (a misunderstanding of his repetition of the "eat and drink" theme, 2:24; 3:13; 5:18; 8:15; 9:7). Rather, his point seems to be that, even if one knows so little except the certainty of the grave, one should live life,
hebel as it usually is, as a gift from God. This is because, in the end joy and pleasure come not in "getting" (securing "profit" from what one does)-because that will evaporate-but in the journey itself, the life God has given. Death comes to all alike, but not all live alike; in such a world joy and satisfaction are to be found in living the rhythms of life without trying to be in control or to "make gain" of what is itself merely transitory.
Even read from this perspective, Qohelet's wisdom is not altogether comforting. But overall it is an orthodox book. If one misses any mention of the great events of Jewish history, that is quite in keeping with the Wisdom tradition, and if one feels squeamish about great but contradictory
realities being set side by side, that is probably because we too, like Job's "comforters," prefer things to be tidier than they are. But in the end even Qohelet does not leave the young dangling. One way is clearly to be preferred to the other, and the so-called contradictions serve to highlight that fact. The Christian believer, who now reads from the perspective of joyous hope in the resurrection and the certainty of divine judgment, should all the more be prepared to appreciate Qohelet's embracing of life in the present, despite its hebel nature.
A WALK THROUGH ECCLESIASTES
Introduction to the Theme
Various Ways of Trying to Gain from Labor
A Time for Everything
Success, Oppression, and Solitariness
On Approaching God
Wealth and Oppression
The Advantage of Wisdom
Dealing with a Unjust World
Living in the Face of Death
The Way of Wisdom
On Not Understanding the Ways of God
A final Word to the Young
Epilogue: Qohelet As a Wise Man
The book of Ecclesiastes fits into the biblical story as a constant reminder of the brevity of human life in light of eternity, emphasizing our need to fear God white also paving the way for the greater revelation of our certain resurrection through Jesus Christ.