Ecclesiastes 1: 1-11: All the Vanity and Toil of Life
1 The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
2 Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
3 What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?
4 A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.
5 The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises.
6 The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north;
round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.
7 All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow.
8 All things are wearisome; more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing.
9 What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”?
It has already been, in the ages before us.
11 The people of long ago are not remembered,
nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them.
Ecclesiastes is probably one of the latest books written in the Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament as many Christians known the first portion of their scriptures, and was also one of the books that many ancient and modern people have wondered how it fits in the Bible. Ecclesiastes wanders boldly into the absurdity and senselessness of the world of the Teacher, Qohelet (the word that is translated the Teacher or in other translations the preacher and how I will refer to the author throughout these reflections). It is not only in our time where disillusionment can creep in and mocks any sentimental religiosity or easy answers. Perhaps the entirety of this short work is vanity, perhaps it is wisdom or foolishness, for many it will be unsatisfying and for others it will be a voice singing in the choir of those willing to peer honestly into the unresolved questions of a world that often seems devoid of any cosmic wisdom or justice.
Here in this initial section we encounter three of Qohelet’s favorite words: “All,” “Vanity,” and “Toil.” Since these words are so important to the Teacher it is probably worth spending a moment with them at the beginning. As a philosopher looking at the universal perspective of the human experience “All” (Hebrew kōl) becomes one of the tools to reflect on the universality of the experience of toil, death, disappointment and meaninglessness. Qohelet’s perspective in this universal search is not primarily religious but experiential and by taking his or her reflection on a variety of topics and universalizing them to the shared human experience. Perhaps in a postmodern age we may be skeptical of a universalizing perspective even if it is grounded in the universality of “vanity.” “Vanity” (Hebrew hebel) initially appears in the Bible in Genesis as the name of Cain’s younger brother ‘Abel.’ Just as Abel’s life is short and appears to be meaningless so the word hebel can mean ‘vapor, mist, or emptiness.’ It is an evanescent word that refuses to be grasped hold of and the traditional translation of ‘vanity’ reflects the grasping not only at the meaning of the word but also grasping at meaning in the meaninglessness. ‘Toil’ (Hebrew āmāl) has nothing to do with goal oriented work and more to do with pain and struggle. As W. Sibley Towner, who I am indebted to for the above discussion of the meaning of words, can connect:
Like the writer of the story of Genesis 3, he places human beings in a world from which both the presence and the friendship of God are withdrawn and people are left to fend for themselves on an accursed ground in lives of toil that only end in death. (Actemeir, 1997, p. V: 280)
As we enter into the vanity of vanities, the senselessness in the unending rhythms of the world that surrounds the mortal who will inevitably cease to be, we enter into the insatiability of not only the cosmos but apparently the human appetite as well. The repeating patterns of streams that flow to the sea, winds that blow from the south, sunrise and sunset, and the passing of the generations bring on the steady reinvention of that which has come before. Perhaps in the midst of the mundane the eye and ear search for something new and novel, but all that fills them is the things that have come before. Perhaps there is some irony in reflecting upon a person of long ago whose personage is not remembered and yet their words endure and come to us calling us into their questions. Willing to enter into the search for answers in the toil and in the recurring patterns of life, the Teacher invites us to search with him or her for what may satisfy our insatiability.
Miroslav Volf can identify from Ecclesiastes the central themes of insatiability and mortality. In Ecclesiastes there is no transcendent goal, no heaven to escape to and so Qohelt enters into a very earthly discussion of what life is about. As Volf can say, “We are finite, but our desires are infinite. Our insatiability gives the ever-flowing river of our work and play not just an insuppressible dynamism but also an aura of futility.” (Volf, 2015, p. 51) Just as literature can reflect the way repetition, boredom and meaninglessness can squeeze the joy out of modern life, Ecclesiastes can point back to the same experience among those of our ancestors who were willing to engage their experience without resorting to pious sentimentality. As Herman Melville can state in Moby Dick:
That mortal man who hath more joy than sorrow in him, that mortal man cannot be true—not true or underdeveloped. With books, the same. 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. “ALL is vanity.” ALL. This willful world has not got hold of un-christian Solomon’s wisdom yet. But he who dodges hospitals and jails, and walks fast crossing grave-yards, and would rather talk of operas then hell…not that man is fitted to sit down on tomb-stones, and break the green damp mould with unfathomably wondrous Solomon. (Actemeir, 1997, p. V: 291)
If one is willing to enter into the insatiability and mortality and wonder what the toil means, to be at the place where one can honestly engage the brokenness and pain of the human experience then perhaps one can find joy. In foolishness or wisdom the joy may come anyways, but the mind of Qohelet the philosopher and seeker refuses to pull away from his difficult quest for which there are no easy answers. Perhaps in a world where many in the United States have access to more options and luxuries than at any previous point in history and we still are not satisfied we can learn from Ellen Davis’ insight into the one of the issues Ecclesiastes highlights: “the perpetual desire for more does not derive from the enjoyment of what we already have….the fact of the matter is that we are often bored by the good things of this world.” (Davis, 2000, p. 172)
Ecclesiastes 1: 12-18: The Vexation of Wisdom
12 I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem,13 applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with.14 I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.15 What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted.16 I said to myself, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.”17 And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind.
18 For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.
The books of Ecclesiastes and Proverbs present two very different approaches to wisdom. The practical wisdom of Proverbs is to be a guide for one’s thoughts and actions and protects one from being entangled in the ways of evil. For Proverbs, “for wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul.” (Proverbs 2: 10) Yet, for Qohelet, the wisdom becomes a vexation and the increase of knowledge has brought the seeker sorrow and not happiness. Qohelet seeks to take the universal perspective and to know all of the human experience in its toil and trouble, its wisdom and its folly, its crookedness and brokenness. The Teacher takes on the mantle of Solomon (most scholars would say Ecclesiastes due to its language is written many hundreds of years after the time of Solomon) and applies this wisdom and knowledge that they have acquired to know everything. Their thirst for knowledge was insatiable and the more they grasped the more it escaped like the wind they felt they were chasing. Yet, Qohelet for all his universal perspective cannot claim to know the mind of God. The questions that are raised about God are unanswered and probably unanswerable. Perhaps the folly of this quest for wisdom and knowledge rests in the reality that one never masters “all” for the streams of knowledge flow into larger and larger bodies and perhaps at last to the unreachable and uncontainable sea. Yet, it would be too easy to perhaps makes this about harnessing the uncatchable winds in a sail to blow us down to the sea without being honest about the vexation, struggle and toil that often comes in the journey. Perhaps Qohelet is able to see well before the disillusionment of humanity with modernity’s quest for absolute answers that often the increase of knowledge may indeed bring about sorrow and how, for example, sciences that can be used to save lives often become utilized to wage war. Qohelet’s painful wisdom may not be something that is comfortable to most people, but for those who feel intensely in their lives a sense of brokenness or alienation they may find comfort in hearing within their scripture their own toil and questions and doubts. The vexation of wisdom and the sorrow of knowledge may not be alleviated by hearing Qohelet’s impious words but perhaps in there is empathy found in the presence of a fellow questioner whose questions go unanswered.