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A Primer on Ecclesiastes: Beyond Information to a Philosophy of Wisdom

By Douglas Groothuis


We need information for our everyday lives concerning our health, our finances, our relationships, and much more. We craved accurate information during the pandemic, and were often disappointed. But beyond information—facts that can save lives—we need wisdom. We may even need to consult ancient sources for wisdom. The original meaning of the word philosophy is found in two Greek words: philo (love) and sophos (wisdom). At its best, philosophy is the love of wisdom; it seeks to rationally discover the meaning of life well lived, individually and socially. Loving wisdom is a strong charge. As Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) wrote in Pensées (or thoughts) “Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that, unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.”


So, philosophy may assist us, but we still haven’t defined wisdom—and that is a philosophical question. My best shot is that wisdom is an orientation toward life that inclines us toward human flourishing. Wisdom needs information, since ignoramuses are neither in short supply nor helpful as models or experts. But it presses beyond that to consider how we apply our knowledge to our lives in our attitudes, decisions, hopes, and relationships.


Throughout my forty-six years of being a Christian, the Book of Ecclesiastes has given me wisdom, consolation, and encouragement. It is a book revered by Jews, Christians, and even irreligious souls. As Herman Melville wrote in Moby Dick: The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon’s, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe.”


The Hebrew Bible contains many strands of literature—narrative, legal codes, poetry, prophecy, and more. One of its genres is wisdom literature, of which Ecclesiastes is a specimen. I quote from the opening of the venerable King James Version.


The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity (1:1-2).


This ancient Jewish work has challenged, nourished, and sustained me for over forty years. I have pondered it during the best of times and during the worst of times. In my dark summer of 1999, it was the only book of the Bible I could read with any profit. But Ecclesiastes has puzzled and even flummoxed many who cannot grasp how a book in the Bible would say that “all is vanity.” So much does seem vain or useless or pointless in a pandemic, though. So, perhaps we should read it afresh (or for the first time). It will tell us nothing about the know-how we crave in this crisis—medicine, mitigation, or economic stimulation, since it is an ancient book. Nevertheless, it might impart wisdom.


“Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity,” write the author, who has traditionally been identified as old King Solomon. Or perhaps it was a later sage writing in his spirit. The Hebrew word hebel is translated here as “vanity.” Other translations render it “meaningless.” But you’d be far off the mark if you took hebel to endorse the cosmic pessimist found in nihilists and existentialists. It certainly has little to do with Albert Camus’s idea of the “absurd,” articulated in his essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus” (1942).


Man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.


But back to Ecclesiastes. Hebel means “mist” or “vapor.” The metaphor is over interpreted when rendered “vanity” or especially “meaningless.” When hebel is left as a metaphor and considered in light of the entire book of Ecclesiastes, we find that it means what is insubstantial or ephemeral. The Message paraphrase is closer to the truth.


Smoke, nothing but smoke. [That’s what the Quester says.] There’s nothing to anything—it’s all smoke.


The Jewish Study Bible says that hebel refers to “actions and work that do not last, or appear to lead to no lasting goal, or cannot be explained in any rational, i.e., human way.” It is used thirty-eight times and organizes the writer’s organizes diverse reflections (see 2:15, 17, 19, 21, 23, 26; 3:16, etc.). In some cases, the phrase, “a chasing after wind,” is either added or stands alone. This locution appears nine times and further strengthens the book’s reflections on ephemerality and inexplicability.


Few passages distil the sense of hebel better than these from chapter nine. After much pondering, the Teacher seems to sigh as he says:


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.


For man also knoweth not his time: as the fishes that are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare; so are the sons of men snared in an evil time, when it falleth suddenly upon them (Ecclesiastes 9:11-12, King James Version).


Life is unfair and uncertain, for a noble and faithful old Israelite and for us in our modern, modern world. Just a few weeks ago, few were concerned about a global pandemic unlike any since the global flu catastrophe of 1918, which felled my first wife’s grandfather Louis Merrill. “Time and chance,” as we see it, may uproot everything—our buying and selling, our teaching and learning, our governing and being governed, our eating and drinking, our marrying and being given in marriage. Even our shared sacred ceremonies—such as Passover and Holy Week—have been put on hold because we cannot dare to be in proximity in a pandemic. People are afflicted and are dying at an unprecedented rate. Who’s next?

So death is certain, but it is uncertain when the bell will toll for us or for anyone else. Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. Medical professionals on the front lines of this pandemic are more likely to die than we who shelter in place (and complain about our boredom of restlessness). Is there any sense to it? Need this drive us to despair? It can make a soul cynical, even a writer of Scripture.


Again I looked, and I considered all the oppression taking place under the sun. I saw the tears of the oppressed, and they had no comforter; the power lay in the hands of their oppressors, and there was no comforter. So I admired the dead, who had already died, above the living, who are still alive. But better than both is he who has not yet existed, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun (4:1-3).


Those dying of COVID-19 are not oppressed by any person, but by a heartless and rapacious virus. It seems random. Because they are contagious with a deadly malady, many are dying alone, without the comfort of family, friends, and clergy.

But the Teacher of Ecclesiastes never despairs, no matter how wizened his remarks may be. He prizes wisdom, though all else fail him.


Wisdom, like an inheritance, is a good thing and benefits those who see the sun. Wisdom is a shelter as money is a shelter, but the advantage of knowledge is this: Wisdom preserves those who have it (7:11-12)


The Teacher knows that our disappointment in this world “under the sun” stems from an awareness in us of something better, even if it is out of reach. After lyrically describing that there is “a time for every purpose under heaven,” “a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot…,” he writes that God “has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end” (3:11).

We have a sense of eternity, of a comprehensive meaning of everything, but we cannot spell it all out—or we misspell it. But that doesn’t mean that everything is meaningless. As C.S. Lewis noted in Mere Christianity:


If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.


A truly and totally meaningless world would allow no sad reflections on why the world isn’t better than it is. There would be no idea of better or worse at all of life was neither better nor worse, but simply there (what it was) without any predicates of value attached anywhere. But that is not our world, weary with woe as it is. We have a vague and inchoate sense of eternity, of a transcendent and objective meaning, that there is a sense to things—but it easily eludes us.


Ecclesiastes reports that all the perplexity and instability of this world of mist cannot take way simple pleasures, which the Teacher receives a gifts.


I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him (3:12-14; see also 8:15).


Even in a misty and vaporous world, wine tastes good and makes the heart glad. A good day’s work satisfies the soul and good deed does the same, even as the teach toll increases. Somehow, God’s will is done one earth and the fog lift someday. At times, it is better to give up making much sense of it all and to appreciate what is before you. The Teacher vouchsafes this to us.


This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot. Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God. They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart (5:18-20).


Upon reflection, the Teacher realizes that it may be a gift to not constantly try to scrutinize what is inscrutable and instead enjoy the gifts at hand. Several years ago, after pondering this verse in the midst of some distress, I decided to buy a Pat Metheny music video, take it to a friend’s house, and watch it with him while drinking some of his fine wine. The Teacher would have approved, I’m sure. I hope God did as well.


This inimitable ancient text has much to over many in times of crisis. I hope you will read the entire book in a sitting and consider what it says about the disappointments of wealth (chapter 2), the value of silence (5:1-7), learning wisdom through woe (7:1-6), the logic of risk taking (11:1-6), the vicissitudes of youth and aging (11:7-12:8), and more. I leave you where the book leaves you and hope I have planted a seed of literary longing for this book, my longtime companion through woe and weal, and now through a modern plague.


The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one shepherd. Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them.


Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.


Now all has been heard;

here is the conclusion of the matter:

Fear God and keep his commandments,

for this is the duty of all mankind.

For God will bring every deed into judgment,

including every hidden thing,

whether it is good or evil (12:11-14).

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