1 All this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God; whether it is love or hate one does not know. Everything that confronts them 2 is vanity, since the same fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to those who sacrifice and those who do not sacrifice. As are the good, so are the sinners; those who swear are like those who shun an oath. 3 This is an evil in all that happens under the sun, that the same fate comes to everyone. Moreover, the hearts of all are full of evil; madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. 4 But whoever is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. 5 The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no more reward, and even the memory of them is lost. 6 Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished; never again will they have any share in all that happens under the sun.
7 Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. 8 Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. 9 Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.
11 Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all. 12 For no one can anticipate the time of disaster. Like fish taken in a cruel net, and like birds caught in a snare, so mortals are snared at a time of calamity, when it suddenly falls upon them.
13 I have also seen this example of wisdom under the sun, and it seemed great to me. 14 There was a little city with few people in it. A great king came against it and besieged it, building great siegeworks against it. 15 Now there was found in it a poor wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city. Yet no one remembered that poor man. 16 So I said, “Wisdom is better than might; yet the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are not heeded.”
17 The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouting of a ruler among fools.
18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one bungler destroys much good.
There are those both inside and outside the Christian community who see faith as a house of cards that if one thing is removed then the whole house crumbles. I see this from many of my friends who are agnostic or atheist who read the bible in a way that is as fundamentalist as the most fundamentalist Christian in order to discredit it and I see it in people who I are so afraid of the modern world challenging their faith that they are fearful of science or culture. Often the latter never move beyond trying to defend the timeline of creation in Genesis 1 (and may miss even the beauty of the way that passage poetically talks about the creation) and the former would never realize that within the scriptures there is one who asks their questions and takes them deeper. Ecclesiastes takes us to the edge of the abyss of meaninglessness, willing to rest his observations in the experience of the vanity of the present moment and his own experience. Ecclesiastes, knowing that in this present life being wise, righteous, faithful, religious or good do not guarantee one a blessed life nor does being foolish, wicked, unfaithful, irreligious or evil do not guarantee that one will be cursed, is willing wonder are the righteous loved or hated by God. There is no way to ensure one’s security in this life or beyond this life in Ecclesiastes view. Ecclesiastes stands at the edge of the abyss, where death is the only certainty and finds peace. It may take us a little longer standing in this place before we can find peace, but it can be found. It is a wisdom that may take us a bit of a journey to get to because it undercuts many of the narratives we are used to living with, but once we do we can find joy even in the midst of the often inscrutable nature of God or the perversity of life.
One of the narratives that Ecclesiastes undercuts is an orientation towards the future that is unable to see the gifts of the present. In its most extreme form it is a focus on the afterlife, awaiting joy in heaven, at the expense of enjoying the gifts of this day. Sometimes the apostle Paul is used to support this argument when he says to the Corinthians, discussing the resurrection, that, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15: 19) yet Paul would learn to “be content with whatever I have.” (see Philippians 4: 11). While there has been a predominance in much Christian preaching on heaven (and also hell) over the generations much of the Bible is concerned with how to enjoy the present life. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing from his cell in Tegel Prison, wrote:
I believe we are so to love God in our life and in the good things God gives us and to lay hold of such trust in God that, when the time comes and is here—but truly only then!—we also go to God with love, trust, and joy. But—to say it clearly—that a person in the arms of his wife should long for the hereafter is, to put it mildly, tasteless and in any case is not God’s will. One should find and love God in what God directly gives us; if it pleases God to allow us to enjoy an overwhelming earthly happiness, then one shouldn’t be more pious than God than God and allow this happiness to be gnawed away through arrogant thoughts and challenges and wild religious fantasy that is never satisfied with what God gives. (Bonhoeffer, 2010, p. 228)
Wisdom is not deferring life until the next life or living with a contempt for the world. Wisdom that is really willing to come to the edge of the abyss and ask difficult questions of one’s experience if it isn’t going to fall into cynicism one will learn to embrace the good in the present in the midst of its impermanence.
A second narrative that Ecclesiastes refuses to let stand is the myth of living for one’s legacy. If one’s legacy is as transient as one’s life then a focus on one’s curricula vitae to the exclusion of one’s life with a partner one loves the enjoyment of food and drink and labor is truly vanity. There is no enjoyment of life and accomplishment beyond the boundary of death. The memory of the person we are and the life we lived is rarely preserved beyond a couple generations and even the wise among us are forgotten.
Another narrative that is potent in the American context is the narrative of security. Security may be the great American idol and we invest a lot of our resources into attempting to guarantee ourselves against financial, medical, or any other disaster. Yet, even with our security complex we often suffer from foreboding joy, a sense that even in moments of joy we are unwilling to trust them because they may be temporary. Yet, Ecclesiastes is willing to be honest about the elements of our lives that we cannot control and that when disaster strikes it pulls us out of what we know like fish in a net or a bird in a snare. Worrying about the possibility of disaster doesn’t prepare us for disaster but it can steal the joy out of the moments of joy in our life that we are gifted to enjoy.
Ecclesiastes keeps circling back to the gift of enjoyment of the things that are a part of our life now. Eating and drinking, dressing in festive garments (as white garments were in an ancient culture where people rarely washed their clothes and water was a precious resource), enjoying one’s relationships and enjoying one’s labor. They are not permanent, you cannot guarantee them, and yet they are precious and enjoying them is a gift from God. Better to be the dog, a scavenger and a dishonorable animal in Jewish thought, who is alive than the proud lion who is dead. Whatever one’s lot the best one can do is to find enjoyment in it. One can worry that life is not fair or that it is too short or one can embrace what one has. One may be a king or a poor but wise person whose wisdom is not heard and yet be quickly forgotten in the turning of the seasons.
Yet, even wisdom is often overcome by shouting and foolishness. It seems that perhaps the life of wisdom is at least partially tragic. The story told in verse eleven of the poor man who delivered (or as C.L Seow translates it might have delivered had anyone listened to the poor man whose wisdom was despised) (Pauw, 2015, p. 196)but is quickly forgotten seems to lead to the final brief proverbs about the struggle for wisdom in Ecclesiastes and our own time. People may overlook wisdom for the shouting of the ruler among fools or in favor of the weapons of war and one bungling individual can undo much of the wisdom of generations. Wisdom may continually struggle and often be overcome in the public arena by the louder or more powerful voice but ultimately the wise and the foolish voices are all forgotten by a new generation and their legacies forgotten. Yet, the wise person can learn to enjoy the gifts and the impact they can make in their brief span of life.