Qohelet's opening move is dramatic and startling. Life he says is hevel. The Hebrew word is variously translated as "vanity," "futility," "emptiness," "meaningless," "pointless," and so on. You get the idea. The literal meaning of hevel in Hebrew is air or breath. According to the notes in the Jewish Study Bible "the word has acquired the sense of something fleeting, without substance (cf. its occurrence as the name 'Abel,' Gen. ch 4), or even unreliable." The circle of life is a hamster wheel, spinning endlessly, going nowhere. (Ecclesiastes 1:2-10). People die and are forgotten (Ecclesiastes 1:11).
Qohelet may have been ancient kin to the existentialist philosophers of the twentieth century or to Thomas Hobbes who, in the seventeeth century described human life as
solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
I've long wondered why Hobbes, if he thought life so nasty and brutish complained that is is short. No matter, Qoholet takes a rather dark view of life and, like other philosophers throughout the ages, questions its value. Even the philosophical enterprise, seeking wisdom, is futile.
For with much wisdom comes much sorrow;
the more knowledge, the more grief.
What to do? Qohelet decides to test the pleasure principle.
I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my labor,
and this was the reward for all my toil.
Guess what? Pleasure is fleeting and meaningless.
Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun.
Next Qohelet tries the course of wisdom. It is better, he concludes, than folly. But not much. Fools and sages both die. Death mocks every human endeavor.
Then I said to myself,
“The fate of the fool will overtake me also.
What then do I gain by being wise?”
I said to myself,
“This too is meaningless.”
Work is meaningless (Ecclesiastes 2:16-23). There is nothing better than to enjoy the moderate pleasures God permits.
A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?
I read Qohelet as advocating moderation in all things as an antidote to despair. Don't work too hard. Don't play too much. Don't overindulge in anything. Because there is a time for everything.
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot....
(Ecclesiastes 3:1 ff.)
Turning his attention to God, who sets those times, Qohelet finds God ineffable. God is judge and his judgment, what can be known of it, is not very favorable.
I also said to myself, “As for humans, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?”
I think Qohelet may have had a case of the mysterium temendums. Certainly he recognizes the limits of human wisdom.
In chapter 4 of Ecclesiastes, Qohelet turns his attention to the oppressed. He says they'd be better off dead (Ecclesiastes 4:3) but doesn't really offer a solution. In chapter 1 Qohelet hinted, without actually saying it, that he was Solomon. Solomon was himself an oppressor, taxing his people and pressing them into forced labor. He also had the power to relieve the situation of the oppressed. For many reasons I don't think Qohelet was actually Solomon. This is one of them. One so wise should have had a bit more self-awareness.
There is value, Qohelet says, in companionship (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12). Concluding today's portion, Qohelet compares a poor, wise youth to a foolish, old king. The youth comes out on top (Ecclesiastes 4:13-16).
Qohelet's comparison of humans and animals, both of which die, reminds me of the opening line of Tom Waits' song "Fall of Troy." Enjoy...in moderation:
Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.
Next: Ecclesiastes 5-8