EthicsJourneys of Faith

Happiness, Death, Anxiety, Resurrection – Part III: Ecclesiastes

In my first and second posts in this brief series, I raised the classical question of ethics and walked through at least part of Plato’s and Aristotle’s answers. While gleaning much from them, I argued that neither help us much in our encounter with death. I need to be clear on this point. I am not critiquing them for not giving a full or adequate account of the afterlife. Although I suppose an argument like that might be constructed (something along a Kantian line, in his Critique of Practical Reason), that was not my intention. Rather, I’m thinking of the existential sorrow that death has now on the living—what the book of Hebrews calls “the power of death,” which constrains its subjects in lifelong slavery. This power, this sorrow, is brought to the fore in few places so poignantly as in the book of Ecclesiastes.

Interpreting Ecclesiastes

It should first be noted that the book of Ecclesiastes presents a specially difficult case of interpretation. This is due both to its subject matter and to the method with which it approaches its subject matter. It has been called the only book of pure philosophy in the canon. That is, some think it is almost entirely devoid of the deliverances of faith. The book is written from an entirely naturalistic perspective. Others think that it is a debate between the Narrator, whose voice is heard at the beginning and end of the work, and the Preacher (Koheleth), whose voice is heard throughout the middle section. Still others think it a collection of various voices, all inconsistent and contradictory—making it into the canon only on account of the contingencies of history. I will not pretend to be able to enter these debates here. My own reflections on Ecclesiastes below have been much aided by the works of Derek Kidner and Bruce Waltke. For this piece, I simply assume that the work is of one piece, consistent with itself, and that it is a part of the canon for good reason.

In my experience, I have found that Christians usually do one of two things with this book. They either ignore or they trivialize it. There are reasons for both responses, but I want to ponder reasons for the second. For those (few?) who venture into the book, it is likely for a quick dip in its icy waters. Most latch onto the early phrase “under the sun” and hang on for dear life. They think with a sigh of relief, “see, the author is taking the perspective of the naturalist, he is not admitting anything supernatural into his pursuit of meaning.” So, for the remainder to the book we take comfort in our inference that all one has to do to find meaning in life is add the phrase “there is a God.”

We therefore suppose that because the author takes an ‘under the sun’ perspective, the book as a whole only enlightens us as to the meaningless plight of the unbeliever. It doesn’t apply to believers. I say that this is to jump out of the book as quickly as one jumps in. I say we need to sit, even squirm, under the words of the Preacher, and to remember that faith comes by hearing. This book asks a very serious question and poses a very serious answer—an answer that applies to believers and unbelievers alike.

Ecclesiastes is structured around two main discourses from the Preacher. There is an opening prologue (1:1-11) in which the narrator introduces the Preacher, then there is the first discourse (1:12-6:9a), a verdict on the first discourse (6:9b), a second discourse (6:10-12:7) and a verdict on the second discourse (12:8). The book closes with an Epilogue in which the narrator gives his verdict on the two discourses of the Preacher (12:9-14).

The Good-ish Life

The serious question that the Preacher poses is the question of the good life. He says in 2:3 that he began to seek and to search out that “I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life” (cf. 6:12). This is, as we have seen, the very question of ethics we encountered in Plato and Aristotle.

In response, the Preacher emphases three themes.[1] The first and primary answer to this question is that life under the sun is vanity (hebel). The term occurs thirty-eight times throughout this small book. Waltke says that this word is used in two different ways in Ecclesiastes: for that which is temporally fleeting, and that which is intellectually futile. These two senses of the word correspond, he says, to the two discourses. The first discourse is concerned with what is good, and the verdict at the end is that everything is fleeting and ephemeral (6:9b). The second discourse concerns what humans can know for certain (6:12), and the verdict is that everything is intellectually futile (12:8). Humans are not in a position to attain to the good life, nor are they even in a position to know for certain what that is. All our work and labor, all our wealth and power, all our pleasure and wisdom cannot guarantee our final and full happiness in this life. As the Preacher begins: “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after the wind” (1:14), so he ends: “Vanity of vanities, says the preacher; all is vanity” (12:8).

Is it all mere sound and fury, then? Is he a strict nihilist? No. The second theme that the Preacher emphasizes is living presently. All throughout, the author keeps coming back to the theme of enjoying what you can enjoy when you can. He summarizes this in chapter nine:

Go, eat your bread in joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy your life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun.

Enjoy the pleasures of life while you can, he says repeatedly (2:24-26; 3:12-13, 22; 5:17-19; 7:14-15; 8:15; 9:7-10; 11:7-10). And again, both discourses conclude with such sentiments (5:18-20; 11:8).

But neither is he a hedonist. In the final analysis, the hedonist is a pessimist: “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die,” they say. There is no meaning beyond this life; meaning is measurable in terms of pleasure accrued over the duration of this life. Since we are not guaranteed the future, we must “live it up” and make the present as pleasurable as possible. The Preacher, in contrast, says that even these pleasures for which we live are not under our control, they are gifts of God (2:24-26; 3:13; 5:18-19; 6:2; 8:15). Thus, as Waltke sums it up, “To enjoy life is not merely a mortal’s choice, but a gift of God… True enjoyment is the sovereign gift of God’s grace; he decides who should have it and who should not” (Old Testament Theology, 962). Thus, if you are able to enjoy life here, in the now, do so with thanksgiving to God. It is his gift, not the working of your own hands.

This leads the author to the final emphasis of the book: fear God. It is particularly this emphasis that contravenes the reading of Ecclesiastes as simply assuming a naturalistic worldview. The Preacher’s notion of ‘under the sun’ is not purely naturalistic. He trusts that God as Creator is sovereign over his creation, and though we as humans cannot figure out all his doings, he rules and ordains (3:14) with wisdom, making beauty out of life’s absurdities (3:1-11; 7:14; 8:17). God rules with justice, making right (or will make right) life’s evils (Eccl. 3:16–17; 8:11-13; 11:9-11). Because of this, we ought to fear God (5:1-7; 8:12-13).

Like in Proverbs, fear in Ecclesiastes is the beginning of wisdom. Everywhere the Preacher says that wisdom is better than folly. As he iterates in 2:13-14, “then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness. The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness.” Yet, wisdom (like pleasure) is no guarantee of attaining the good life. “Then I said in my heart, ‘what happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?’ And I said in my heart that this also is vanity” (2:15). So, fear God, gain wisdom, live presently enjoying the good gifts of God all the days of your vain life. This is not the good life, but it seems to be the best of what we can hope for.

The Power of Death

0These three emphases that Waltke points out are helpful, I think, for getting at the main themes of the book. But as I read Ecclesiastes, I think that there is another main theme: death. Death is given as the reason wisdom, honor, wealth, pleasure, and the like cannot reliably give us the good life. Death in Ecclesiastes is the great leveler. Wisdom is overcome (2:15-17; 4:13-16), and all our labor is overcome (2:20-21). Death snatches wealth and honor from us (5:13-16). Even living righteously is overcome (7:15). As he says in 9:3, “this is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all.” And in 11:8, “so if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes to vanity.” Death levels out all pursuits, all advantages, all attainments.

I think we all instinctively know this power. It produces in us such anxiety and despair. It sings its requiem over all our living moments. It has a certain sting to it that we feel even from very early on. Sometimes the music is louder than at other times, sometimes the sting is felt more keenly. But it is always there, stealing life, not just fully and finally at the end, but bit by bit, piece by piece, pleasure by pleasure. It is the torturer who likes to see one suffer.

The answer to the serious question of Ecclesiastes is profound. What is needed, then, is that death itself would die. This Plato and Aristotle could hardly have hoped for. Even in Ecclesiastes it is merely glimpsed. But in Paul, we see that the resurrection provides just such a victory that looses believers from the tyranny of death. And this liberates us, I think, to ask, honestly and fully, the question of the good life. We shall take it up in our next post.

[1] I take these from Walke’s exposition, cited above.

Joshua Schendel

Joshua Schendel

Joshua is professor of theology at Yellowstone Theological Institute in Bozeman, MT, where he lives with his wife, Bethanne, and their three kids.

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Infinite Human Desire: The Afterlife of The Good Place as Affirmation of Christian Hope