Commentary on Eccl 1:2-11
Today we begin reading from the Book of Ecclesiastes, another Wisdom book which follows immediately in our Bible on Proverbs.
The word “Ecclesiastes” is a Greek translation of the original Hebrew title of the book, Qoheleth, a word which means “Teacher”, one who conducts an assembly or a school. As the Greek word for ‘assembly’ is ekklesia (‘ekklhsia), this explains the title we use.
The book is presented as being written by Solomon, a king famous for his wisdom, and this gave it weight as a “wisdom” book. However, scholars are agreed that the book was not written by Solomon but comes from a much later period when the Jews, back from exile and in Jerusalem, were under the empire of the Persians.
The book teaches wisdom by highlighting the emptiness of most human pursuits. “All is vanity.” The language often sounds negative and cynical. Even so, “in the face of death and ‘vanity’, Qoheleth repeatedly urges humans to embrace life and its goods – food, drink, love, work, and play – as gifts from God”. (Harper Collins Bible).
In the face of the emptiness and vanity of life, the Teacher does make two positive points:
a. Near the very end of the work he tells his reader to “fear God and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone”.
b. As humans have no really effective control over their environment and spend much of their time chasing the illusory, the real good is to enjoy life as a gift of God and it is in the area in which they find themselves that they are to find him.
The theme of the whole book is expressed in the opening words of today’s reading: “All is vanity.” The original meaning of the Hebrew word translated ‘vanity’ was ‘mist’ or ‘breath’. It is one of the traditional group of images (water, shadow, smoke, etc.) used in Hebrew poetry to describe the transitory nature of human life. It is used 35 times altogether in this book but in Qoheleth the word has lost its usual meaning and for him signifies only the illusory nature of things and hence the delusions to which they subject the human family. The basic thrust of Ecclesiastes is that all of life is meaningless, useless, hollow, futile and vain if it is not rightly related to God. Only when based on God and his word is life worthwhile.
“For all his toil under the sun, what does man gain by it?” It reminds one of the words of Jesus to his disciples: “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose his life?” A life without God and the values we identify with God, however much energy is put into it, is meaningless.
The second part of the reading is full of a kind of weariness and pessimism about the experience of life that many, if not most, people have experienced at some time. The world by itself seems to have no inner meaning. It goes on and on repeating the same cycles again and again. There is a terrible determinism and inevitability about everything. Yet, Job, who had his fair share of troubles, looking at the same world is filled with wonder and adoration. To quote a verse: “Two men looked out through prison bars / One saw mud and one saw stars.”
Of course, the author was writing in a world which had far less control over its environment than we have but even in our day there are still situations where we are basically helpless. Freak weather conditions, droughts and floods, earthquakes and volcanoes, deadly viruses, the breakdown of our bodies (often the result of our own indulgences and excesses in work and play), our recklessness with mind-altering substances (nicotine, alcohol, and other drugs), and the unforeseeable breakdown and/or mishandling of our technologies (e.g. car and plane crashes)… all of these can bring the most dazzling of human achievements to nothing, sometimes in a split second.
Meanwhile, as the Teacher says, the world goes on just as before without us. Generations come and generations go; the sun rises and sets; the wind blows from the north today and from the south tomorrow and back again; the rivers keep flowing into the sea but the sea remains the same in volume. The world goes on indefinitely but human life can disappear very quickly.
The cycles of life are repeated again and again. “There is nothing new under the sun.” This is a phrase the Teacher will use 29 times in his book. It could be heard as very cynical but it also has a genuinely positive meaning.
We may feel that in our exciting technological world new things are constantly appearing. ‘New’ is a word constantly shouted at us by products in our supermarkets and TV ads. Yet, the deeper experiences of life repeat themselves again and again. Maybe we understand them a bit better but the experiences themselves and the fragility of life have not changed since the Teacher’s days.
Jesus put this in another way when he reminded us that we did not know the day nor the hour when our life would come to an end. There is not a single person, however rich or however powerful, who knows when that hour will take place.
The purpose of such a reflection, then, is not to fill people with fear and discouragement but with a realistic awareness of the ultimate purpose of living.
What is the quality and purpose of my life at this time? Is my day spent in seeking and finding him or am I in search of something else which I have no guarantee of either finding or keeping? Or, on the other hand, am I so in touch with my Lord that, no matter when it happens, I will be ready to answer his call and run to him full of desire for perfect unity with him?