Ecclesiastes: A Live Dog is Better than a Dead Lion
Ecclesiastes is a difficult book. In the fourth century the preacher John Chrysostom began his commentary on Ecclesiastes by noting that “many people have genuine difficulties with this book” and that some even ridicule it1. Matters today seem to be no clearer.
The difficulty with Ecclesiastes is the number of rather grim statements that appear within it. I am aware of three basic methods of approaching these statements with room to fall in between any of the three. The first is to deny them and insist that Ecclesiastes is not all that unusual. The second is to claim that while Ecclesiastes does contain some harsh statements these are answered by concluding that one should enjoy one’s life now and that life is basically good if you would simply learn to focus on the right things. The third view is that these statements are grim and that Ecclesiastes is a grim book.
These three approaches draw upon different ways of viewing the material in Ecclesiastes. Is it on the same level of advice and inspiration as, say, Isaiah? It turns out that it is no new thing to consider Ecclesiastes (and, to some extent, all the wisdom literature) as being human wisdom presented for our careful consideration and not as advice to be blindly followed. For instance, Chrysostom, himself no fan of the allegorical approaches favored by some of his contemporaries, writes the following comment on Ecclesiastes 4:2-3: “Far from this being his considered opinion , it comes from his confused thinking; in our depressed state we say many things which do not necessarily correspond to our personal convictions.” Chrysostom, like his contemporaries, referred to the writers of the wisdom literature as “sages” not “prophets”, as the writers of other Old Testament books were sometimes called.
In this article I wish to argue first that Ecclesiastes is a bleak book. Second, I wish to argue that when viewed within the whole of the canon, Ecclesiastes has a function as a depressing book.
Ecclesiastes is an odd book because it uses both the first and third person for its narrator, Qoholeth (identified as Solomon but generally referred to by this title which refers to a role in the assembled congregation of Israel). Verses 1:1-11 begin with “the words of Qoholeth” and then says, “Vanity of vanities says Qoholeth”. However, once the short poem ends in verse 12 Qoholeth refers to himself as “I, Qoholeth”. 7:27 includes another third person reference to Qoholeth and the book ends with another one (12:8-14). This section is often seen as being the comments of an editor (as the first section may also be) about the work, but some have suggested that the entire work is supposed to be a dialog of sorts between the editor and Qoholeth’s material.
Either way, the book is framed by two rather depressing passages. Chapter 1 begins with a poem about how everything is futile and all the work and hurry of people, the rivers, the sun, and the wind never amount to anything lasting. Chapter 12 ends with a meditation on dying. This idea, that one cannot leave a permanent mark on the world, seems to be very important to Qoholeth. The oft-repeated judgment that something is vanity uses a word for an impermanent, useless mist. It emphasizes the ephemeral nature of everything humans can do. This is hardly the only deeply gloomy material in the book. In 2:17 the author declares that he hated his life. In 4:2-3 he judges the dead to be better off than the living but those who have never been born as having the best lot of all. In 8:8 he meditates on how no one can stop death or war or wickedness. In 9:3 he says that people are evil and mad and then they die. These gloomy passages hit on two of the central themes of the book: bad things can happen no matter what you do, and everyone dies.
This first theme has important and odd interactions with the theme of wisdom. Wisdom is treated multiple times in the book but not always as something useful. In 1:17-18 Qoholeth decides that wisdom itself is vanity. In 2:12-17 Qoholeth considers wisdom and decides that it doesn’t do one any good. This is the passage that ends with him hating life. 6:8 concludes that wisdom gives no one any advantage, and 8:16-17 suggest that wisdom won’t actually allow one to find things out. In 9:11-18 the tone begins to shift. While we are reminded that the race is not to the swift, the battle to the strong, bread to the wise, or anything else to anyone we might expect to win it, but that, instead, misfortune can upset them all we also see hints that wisdom is better than folly. However, again, wisdom seems incapable of leaving lasting impact, and I understand the final words of verse 18 to indicate that bad people can destroy faster than good people can create. In Chapter 10, specifically verses 2, 10, and 12-15 (see also 8:1) we see the only unambiguously positive musings on wisdom. Does this mean that Qoholeth is changing his mind? Maybe. He’s also changing genre, though, into short aphorisms, so it’s hard to tell. The fact that the positive 8:1 is followed by less positive passages may suggest that the important this is genre, not chronology. He’s certainly been quite a bit harder on wisdom than one might expect from wisdom literature.
Before I conclude the first argument I need to address the happy passages. The first of these is 2:24-26 which advises enjoying life because everything else is vanity. However, it is unclear from the passage whether this is a solution to the problem that everything is vanity or a consolation prize – given that everything is awful and that only death waits for you try and enjoy what you can now. I tend towards the latter since that theme is picked up more explicitly later. 3:12-13 and 3:22 hit a similar theme although 3:13 states that enjoyment of life is God’s gift. Again, the possibility remains that this is a consolation prize. (It is perhaps worth noting that Qoholeth never seems to engage much with God except to make Him a synonym for chance.) In 8:10-13 Qoholeth says that God will judge the wicked and vindicate the righteous. However, immediately thereafter, in 8:14-15 he declares that sometimes this doesn’t happen and suggests that, given this, it’s best just to enjoy what you have now, a definite tilt towards enjoyment as a consolation prize. Similarly, in 9:7-10 Qoholeth advises enjoyment of life’s pleasures now specifically because you won’t like She’ol where you are going. 11:7-10 picks up this theme more strongly, advising several times that one should enjoy life now because what’s coming won’t be pleasant. This segues nicely into the elaborate depiction of aging and death in Chapter 12.
Overall, Ecclesiastes is a grim, gloomy book that is greatly concerned with death (and lacks any New Testament hope for life beyond the grave, and may even think of death as annihilation, given some descriptions) and has little faith that anything one does, including being wise, can make life better.
So what do we do with a book like this? I suggest a canonical approach. Ecclesiastes poses a number of questions but I don’t think it answers them. One notable thing about the author’s famous attempt to try everything in order to see what is good is that he does not try obedience to Torah or a life of devoted service to God. Instead, he sketches the life of someone for whom these things don’t seem to have come up. It is reasonable to suggest that the fact that he can find no hope is directly linked to what he hasn’t tried. Ecclesiastes is effectively describing a life without any hope of God’s redeeming action, but seems to do so in a fairly serious manner that lacks the preachiness of too many Christian attempts at this. The answers Qoholeth asks are found elsewhere in the canon.
However, the reverse is also true. I know a lot more people who like Proverbs than Ecclesiastes. No wonder. Proverbs is constantly sure that good things happen to good people and that wisdom and perseverance always win the day. The unrelenting random doom of Ecclesiastes, attributed to the same author/collector (Proverbs includes what appear to be some staples of the Near East) counterbalances the overly-cheerful can-do attitude of Proverbs. Why not simply write a document that claims some middle position? I don’t believe one can. The effect of Proverbs is to get you to believe in the world of Proverbs and sometimes you do need to believe that you can get up and make things happen. The effect of Ecclesiastes is to get you to believe in the world of Ecclesiastes and sometimes you need to know that what happened couldn’t be stopped and wasn’t your fault. There is more to be gained by integrating these beliefs in your own head than there is to be gained from simply being given a lot of statements with caveats.
The value of Ecclesiastes is found within a wider canon where it is both balanced and balancing. The difficulty of Ecclesiastes is, to some extent, a difficulty created by our tendency to want to read short sections when it is in some sense one long opening question.
 Robert C. Hill translation here and to follow.