Ecclesiastes is quite possibly the most controversial book in the Bible for all the wrong reasons. Many Christians avoid Ecclesiastes because of its overwhelming bleakness. Others prefer Job to Ecclesiastes’ nihilistic overtones and recurring cynicism. In fact, as some pastors observe, Ecclesiastes “is so denigrated by some Christians, that they have wondered why it is in the Bible at all.”[1] Such apprehension unfortunately isolates many from one of the greatest works ever written.

Ecclesiastes is a spiritually taxing piece of literature in virtue of its purpose, which is to challenge and re-orient the reader’s present cosmological understanding. While the work’s central figure—the Teacher—seems cruel upon first glance, a merited closer look finds a man who is not harsh for its own sake. Rather, he speaks truth from a place of profound wisdom and experience. The Teacher is compared by the author to a caring shepherd who wants what is best for his sheep.[2] And as such, his words are likened to a “goad,” the pointy end on a shepherd’s staff.[3] Although the Teacher’s message is difficult to listen to, like a goad his words prod the reader towards greater wisdom and a better life. The Teacher approaches this end in two discernible parts. He first demonstrates how life as it appears under the sun is beyond human control before directing the reader to certainty, to a position of trust and reliance upon God who is the giver of life and all of its gifts.

Before examining the Teacher’s primary arguments, it is first advantageous to peruse the Teacher’s credentials. Such a study is both prudent and logical. A student of mathematics is less inclined to take lessons from someone unacquainted with mathematics. A farmer will certainly not heed the advice of a city dweller on crop-rotation and irrigation. And an average man will undoubtedly reject the counsel of someone who dismisses wealth, power, fame, and fortune as the keys to happiness if that person never experienced such things.[4] Therefore, given the gravity of his subject, the Teacher immediately begins by establishing his ethos: “I the [Teacher] was king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven. . . . I have seen all the works that are done under the sun.”[5] From this introduction, readers learn two essential points. First, the Teacher is a man of exceptional power, wealth, and influence. Second, the Teacher’s aim is to share what he learned after a lifetime of searching for meaning under the sun. The Teacher, in short, is a man of unparalleled experience. He has done everything and experienced everything. There is nothing he has not seen under the sun.

In light of his ethos, the Teacher’s first words, some of the most famous in history, are remarkable. “Vanity of vanities, saith the [Teacher], vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”[6] Because this conclusion is reiterated numerous times throughout the work, the reader is forced to ask the obvious question: what does it mean for something to be vain? Many early Christians understood the Teacher as describing the futility of life, “the pointlessness of things done earnestly to no purpose, like the sandcastles children build, and shooting arrows at stars, and chasing the winds.”[7] Vanity might also refer to the possession of material bodies or the pursuit of worldly pleasures.[8] Modern scholars, on the other hand, emphasize the Hebraic root of vanity, the word hevel, which suggests smoke or vapor: something that is insubstantial and transient.[9] It is important to understand, however, that hevel does not suggest the absence of meaning. Instead, hevel alludes to a distortion or obstruction of meaning under the sun.[10] Life, therefore, is an enigma.

Human nature compels mankind to demand meaning from life. Yet the instant men think they grasp life and control it, certainty disintegrates like smoke. And it is in those moments that life rejects man’s plea and redirects the question, “What is your meaning?”[11] When this occurs, many are often led to confusion and despair. Others waste their lives trying to solve life’s innumerable existential questions.[12] This is the essence of living in hevel. But there is an alternative way of living, and it is this which the Teacher offers.

The Teacher begins by presenting three observations on life under the sun: time never stops, the rule of life is chance, and the common end of all is death. With regard to time, no man under the sun can escape the totality of time’s parameters.[13] Despite this reality, men from birth seek fulfillment through labor and luxury. There is only one problem: what “profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun?”[14] The Teacher answers his own rhetorical question by drawing upon God’s original curse to all mankind.[15] Generations come and generations go, but the earth existed long before and will continue existing long after a man passes.[16] The sun will continue to rise and set.[17] The winds will still fly about as they wish.[18] And the rivers will continue flowing into the unquenchable sea.[19] Nature does not care about man’s technology or high art. All that man makes eventually drifts away like a sandcastle beneath the blistering sun.[20]

Accompanying time’s restless nature is chance, the law governing everything in the world. Whether it is a foot-race, a battle between nations, the prosperity of the wise, or success to the skilled, outcomes are never consistent: “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.”[21] A man might work an entire lifetime accumulating wealth only to have it all stolen and given to another.[22] A righteous man may experience unrelenting disaster for no apparent reason.[23] A wicked man might be praised in the streets for his supposed virtue and excellence while the righteous are oppressed by the powerful.[24] When a father dies, he leaves the fruits of his labor to his son who may or may not even care about his inheritance![25] The Teacher provides these examples to emphasize a fundamental lesson: the toil of man is vanity because there is nothing man can do, on his own authority and power, to secure anything with certainty.[26]

The final observation is that all will eventually die. The Teacher first introduces this truth in chapters one and two when he “perceived also that one event happeneth to them all.”[27] And he returns to this truth in chapters eleven and twelve by acknowledging the coming “days of darkness,” the time of silence, the time when “man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets.”[28] Death is the great equalizer. The wise, the fools, the rich, the poor, those who offer sacrifices to God, and those who do not all join the dead in the end. Men cannot avoid this fate.[29] Unsurprisingly, by the end of these observations, the reader’s will and outlook on life is laid low. Yet this is exactly what the Teacher wants. Wisdom cannot be acquired by the proud and vain. Only when the reader accepts his natural condition, as a man living amidst the fog of life, can he look to something greater than himself for truth.[30]

The Teacher’s subtle juxtaposition of perception and truth is masterful. Consider why the phrase “under the sun” is used nearly forty times throughout Ecclesiastes. What does it describe if not a life in the absence of God? Whenever the Teacher establishes one of his premises, whether on the futility of wisdom or that of labor, the argument is always grounded in his observations, his logic, and his conclusions. Chapter one is an excellent example of this method. He begins with a premise: “I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven.”[31] He then gives his conclusion: “All works are vanity and vex the spirit.”[32] At the end of the chapter, the Teacher reevaluates his first premise, given his observations, and concludes that wisdom “is vexation of spirit. For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.”[33] God appears nowhere in this argument, and this absence is not without purpose. The Teacher’s use of “under the sun” parallels the limits of man’s reason. Without God, earthly wisdom is vain given death. Wealth is vain given chance. And life is vain given time, death, and chance. But a life lived in recognition of God’s power is “no unsubstantial shadow under the sun but substantial reality under the sun’s Creator.”[34]

A signature quality of this new life is recognizing God’s hand in all things. In chapter three, the Teacher first explicitly addresses time in relation to God, and this is arguably one of the most misinterpreted chapters in the book. The predominant analysis understands the argument as a step-by-step guide for right and proper action. But this view completely ignores what the Teacher says in the first verse: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.”[35] Thus, the Teacher is not simply giving advice on when something should or should not be done. He is instead directing man’s attention to God as the Creator of time. As the Teacher says in verse eleven, “He hath made everything beautiful in his time,” not man’s.[36] The Teacher is comforting the reader here for while it appears man’s labor is vanity, that everything will pass away in time, in reality “all moments are in the hands of God, who does them in a rhythm that is beyond human calculation.”[37] Everything, therefore, happens for a reason, whether observable or not, whether seemingly good or not. The crux is that God is not absent but in command of the universe.[38] The divine order is beautiful, but it is also invisible to man’s view. Man understands time in one way, and yet God operates outside of that limited understanding. Man must therefore recognize that which he cannot know. He must place his trust in the Maker of time.

Faith, however, seems foolish given the Teacher’s arguments on chance. But in a striking twist, the Teacher reveals that chance is merely a deception of the senses. Life appears disorderly in light of human perception and experience. In fact, the Teacher deduced this exact conclusion early on in his life. The broader picture is far more complicated. By nature, human beings are incapable of seeing, much less understanding, the grand order of things.[39] Thus, what man defines as chance is instead the coming together of causes stemming from prior situations. These are unknown to man but intimately familiar to God.[40]

Even if a skeptic concedes this point, there remains the question of God’s fairness. Why is it that a man might build a monument that takes decades of hard labor to complete, but if God “does not grant success to the effort, both the effort and those who strive for it will be without success”?[41] The answer is simple. No one knows with any certainty why God chooses to raise one man up while laying another low, and this is exactly why bad things seem to happen for no apparent reason.[42] To the Teacher, this uncertainty and unknowing is part of the beauty of life. If man could deduce the order of everything, and provide the answers to hevel, then what use is God? God is separate from man, and while man is flawed and limited, God is not. If man considers God’s work, “who can make that straight, which he hath made crooked?”[43] Who can add to what God has already done? No one, because whatever God does is just, good, beautiful, and perfect. Everything is done in God’s time, even if that does not appear to be the case from man’s vantage point. The Teacher concludes by further consoling the desperate reader. Those who are righteous in God’s eyes will be rewarded in the end because they feared God, “but it shall not be well with the wicked” who attempt to “prolong his days, which are as a shadow; because he feareth not before God.”[44] Therefore, with this certainty of God’s justice established, the Teacher encourages the reader to rejoice. Vain is the man who lives in sorrow and despair while God’s eternal goodness and the finality of His justice reigns over the universe.

When men recognize they live under the watch of a perfect, just God, the Teacher argues that men should then live life to the fullest.[45] Based upon a lifetime spent in contemplation, the Teacher recognized that it is good for men to enjoy the simple things in life because such things come “from the hand of God.”[46] In chapter three, the Teacher repeats himself when he says, “Every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour” because “it is the gift of God.”[47] And in chapter five, the Teacher declares that “it is good and comely for one to eat and to drink, and to enjoy the good of all his labor that he taketh under the sun all the days of his life, which God giveth him.”[48] This is indeed the true joy available to anyone who lives in concert with the Creator.

Thus, by accepting hevel, and acknowledging humanity’s relation to God, men are more capable of living happier lives. A recognition of the Teacher’s observations first humbles the soul, which prepares the way for a new perception of existence centered on God. The comfort of friendship, a good meal, the warmth of a sunny day, or the tapestry of the stars in the sky is vain under the sun. But when such things are experienced in recognition of God’s work and agency, they are not. When men adopt a posture of complete faith and trust in God, life may be enjoyed as experienced, as directed by God. Men must therefore seize the day.[44] Life is a gift. Life is beautiful in all of its multitudinous shades and colors, because it ultimately comes from the Maker of everything beautiful in time.

Overall, the Teacher of Ecclesiastes leads the careful reader to a life not centered on vanity but on God.[50] This style of indirect teaching, a “revelation by darkness rather than by light,” is difficult to stomach.[51] Furthermore, the Teacher’s true message is by no means clear given the book’s structure.[52] Yet as some scholars argue, the Teacher’s rhetorical style parallels his message: by intentionally rambling, the Teacher beautifully illustrates how life without God rambles to nowhere.[53] Thus, the Teacher is a wise and experienced instructor, a shepherd who walks with his students through unbelievably challenging arguments. His logic follows from experience, and his conclusions leave men in a state of rumination. Above all, man is to “fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.”[54] But even after walking with the Teacher, and seeing how he wants men to think about life, the careful reader recognizes that even this final piece of advice does not guarantee a pleasant life. And this is precisely the wisdom of Ecclesiastes. By guiding the reader through the hevel of life, the Teacher brings the reader to the peak of understanding, a place of profound patience and humility of spirit before the throne of God.[55] Fearing God is not intuitive, nor easy, but it is the greatest thing a man can do given his limited power within the grandness of the universe.[56]

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[1] Peter May, “The Book of Ecclesiastes – Absurdity Pointing to Meaning,” Bethinking.org, 2008.

[2] Within Ecclesiastes, there are two figures: the author, who introduces and concludes the book, and the Teacher, the central voice throughout the work.

[3] The King James Version, 1611, Ecclesiastes 12:11.

[4] J. Robert Wright, Editor, Ancient Christian Commentary On Scripture: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2005): 213. As Didymus the Blind put it, a “teaching thus only reaches its goal and is successful if he who delivers it is acquainted with what he is rejecting. He thereby shows that he himself is able to handle them [what is being rejected] in an appropriate way.”

[5] Ecclesiastes 1:13-14,17 KJV.

[6] Ecclesiastes 1:2 KJV.

[7] Wright, 193.

[8] Ibid., 195.

[9] Peter Kreeft, Three Philosophies of Life – Ecclesiastes: Life as Vanity – Job: Life as Suffering – Song of Songs: Life as Love, (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1989): 26. Hevel literally means “a chasing after wind, a grasping after shadows, a wild-goose chase.”

[10] Augustine, Confessions, Translated by Henry Chadwick, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1991): 161, emphasis added. Augustine touches on this metaphor when he describes his own experience living amidst the fog of life: “I, so long in ignorance, loved vanity and sought after a lie. . . . For in the fantasies which I had taken for truth, there was vanity and deceit. In the pain felt at my memory of it, I often cried out and strong. I wish I could have been heard by those who even now still love vanity and seek after a lie. Perhaps they would have been disturbed and vomited it up.”

[11] Kreeft, 52, emphasis added.

[12] Ecclesiastes 12:13 KJV.

[13] The reader can trace this argument roughly beginning with Ecclesiastes 1:3 and culminating in chapter 11.

[14] Ecclesiastes 1:3 KJV.

[15] Genesis 3:17 KJV: “cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

[16] Ecclesiastes 1:4 KJV. See also Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, 196: Gregory of Nyssa asks, “What good does the possessor of many acres gain in the end, except that the foolish person thinks his own that which never belongs to him?”

[17] Ecclesiastes 1:5 KJV.

[18] Ibid., 1:6 KJV.

[19] Ibid., 1:7 KJV.

[20] Richard J. Goodrich, Translator, St. Jerome: Commentary on Ecclesiastes, (Mahwah, NJ: Newman Press, 2012): 36: “What is more a vanity of vanities than the fact that the earth endures, although it was made for the benefit of man, while man himself, the master of the earth, suddenly crumbles into dust?”

[21] Ecclesiastes 9:11 KJV.

[22] Ibid., 6:2 KJV.

[23] See the book of Job.

[24] Ibid., 4:1 KJV.

[25] Ibid., 2:18-19 KJV. See also Luke 15 KJV.

[26] Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, Edited by Scott Goins and Barbara H. Wyman, (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2012): 20. The Teacher’s argument flies in the face of “Karma,” or the belief that what goes around comes around. The Teacher acknowledges that in the past, he too thought that the righteous were always rewarded, and the wicked punished. But over time, the Teacher saw that life simply does not operate according to man’s fancies. In The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius, a prisoner, grapples with this reality in a moving way: “In this situation [prison] I am not made so dull by grief that I complain about wicked men contriving evil against virtue. What astounds me is that they have carried out their wishes . . . it is almost monstrous that every wicked man accomplishes his plots against the innocent, while God looks on.”

[27] Ecclesiastes 2:13 KJV.

[28] Ibid., 12:4-5 KJV.

[29] Ibid., 9:2-3 KJV.

[30] Goodrich, 81.

[31] Ecclesiastes 1:13 KJV.

[32] Ibid., 1:14 KJV.

[33] Ibid., 1:17-18 KJV.

[34] Goodrich, 261.

[35] Ecclesiastes 3:1 KJV.

[36] Ibid., 3:11 KJV, emphasis added.

[37] Richard J. Clifford, The Wisdom Literature, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998): 105.

[38] Goodrich, 230: “When you see a ship which is piloted and holds its course, you perceive the idea of a helmsman even if he is not visible. And if you see a chariot which travels orderly, you get the idea of a charioteer. Likewise the Creator is known by his works and the order of his providence.”

[39] Boethius, 130: In consoling Boethius about this problem, Lady Philosophy essentially invokes the Teacher’s understanding of life: “It isn’t strange for a person to consider something random and confused if he doesn’t know the order behind it. But just because you don’t know the reasons for such arrangements, you shouldn’t doubt that everything is done rightly, since a good ruler governs the world.”

[40] Ibid., 148.

[41] Goodrich, 265.

[42] Job 42:2-6 KJV: “I know that thou canst do every thing, and that no thought can be withholden from thee. Who is he that hideth counsel without knowledge? therefore have I uttered that I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not. Hear, I beseech thee, and I will speak: I will demand of thee, and declare though unto me. I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

[43] Ecclesiastes 7:13 KJV.

[44] Ibid., 8:12-13 KJV, emphasis added: It is striking that the Teacher is describing the lives of the wicked in terms reflecting the hevel of life.

[45] Boethius, 173: “And God still remains a watchman on high, foreknowing all things, and the ever-present eternity of His vision moves together with the future nature of our actions and dispenses rewards to the good and punishments to the bad. And not in vain are hopes and prayers placed before God, since when they are just, they cannot be without effect. So let us shun vices and cultivate virtues, lifting our minds to proper hopes and offering humble prayers on high. For, if you wish to speak the truth, a great necessity has been placed upon you men to do good, since you live in front of a judge who sees all things.”

[46] Ecclesiastes 2:24 KJV.

[47] Ibid., 3:13 KJV.

[48] Ibid., 5:18-19 KJV, emphasis added.

[49] Goodrich, 265: “Since the hours and their moments are running away, see to it, dearly beloved, that they are filled with what will earn the wages of a good work. . . . Since we do not know the time of our coming death and we cannot work after death, it remains for us to seize the time granted us before death.”

[50] Ecclesiastes 12:14 KJV.

[51] Kreeft, 23.

[52] Ibid., 23.

[53] Ibid., 25. See also Philippines 3:7 KJV. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul describes his former life, Saul’s life as skubala or “garbage,” “dung.” While a persecutor of Christians, Saul quite literally had everything. He was circumcised, a pure-blooded citizen of Israel, and a Benjamite. A teacher of the Scriptures, he occupied a prominent, blessed place in Jewish society. Practically nothing was lacking from his material life. And yet in his letter, Paul summarized his entire life before conversion in one word: skubala. Compared to the highest good, the source of true happiness and salvation, Saul’s greatest, earthly treasures were worthless and pointless—vain as the Teacher of Ecclesiastes described it.

[54] Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 KJV. See also Plato, Phaedo, In Plato: Complete Works, Compiled by John M. Cooper, (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997): 67e: “those who practice philosophy in the right way are in the right way training for dying and they fear death least of all men.”

[50] Goodrich, 251.

[51] For an excellent summary and overview of Ecclesiastes, see The Bible Project. “The Book of Ecclesiastes.” Filmed August 2016. YouTube video, 6:41. Posted [August 17, 2016].

The featured image is “Allegory of the Vanity of Earthly Things” (c. 1630) by an unknown French master, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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