Some Major Themes in Ecclesiastes (I)
We continue our survey of Ecclesiastes by looking at some of the main themes which Qoheleth develops in his book. We shall look at four themes over two chapters: the idea of vanity, for which the book is famous; the way the idea of God is presented in the book; the calls to the enjoyment of life which are scattered throughout the book; and the theme of death.
The meaning of “Meaningless”, or “Vanity of vanities”
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says Qoheleth. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (Eccl. 1:2 NIV, altered)
Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities, all is vanity. (Eccl. 1:2 NRSV, altered)
As we said at the outset, many readers have become so accustomed to the words of the Bible, that they have become over-familiar with them; they tend to forget that there are often live issues of interpretation surrounding them which, when taken properly into consideration, can add significantly to one’s understanding and enjoyment of the texts. The word which is translated in the NIV as “meaningless”, the KJV and NRSV as “vanity”, the GNB as “useless”, and the NEB as “emptiness” is hebel in the original Hebrew, and in the phrase as it appears in the framing motto it is found in an alternative form, hăbēl hăbālīm. The basic meaning of hebel is “smoke”, “vapour”, “air”, often with a connotation of something slight, worthless, ephemeral or unreliable.
Much scholarly ink has been spilled over the interpretation of this word. We can see from the variety of translations on offer in the English versions that hebel, as it is used in Ecclesiastes, calls for interpretation on the part of the translator, because it is a concrete noun which is used to denote an abstract concept. Hebrew is happier defining the world in concrete, tangible or visible terms, even in theological or philosophical contexts, than English, which prefers to use abstract nouns to denote concepts. This means that when they search out an abstract noun to stand for hebel, such as “meaningless”, “vanity”, “emptiness” etc., the translators run the risk of losing the concrete, pictorial quality that the word has in the original. For example, the thing about a hebel, a breath of air, is that although you can discern its presence, you can’t see it, you can’t touch it, and it has gone before you know it’s really there. This is how Qoheleth characterises his relationship to the things that happen in life, and that particularly pictorial quality to Qoheleth’s thought is lost if hebel is translated by a word from the colourless vocabulary of philosophical concepts. What is fairly clear is that one thing it does not mean, pace the NIV translators, is “meaningless” in the modern sense of the word, coloured as it is by existentialist philosophy with its connotation of despair. That there are so many divergent translations available is a reminder that it is often very difficult, if not impossible, to arrive at a flowing, readable English translation of the Hebrew scriptures which successfully captures all the nuances present in the original. With this in mind, then, let us continue to use the NIV and other versions, but also bear in mind that there are many issues of interpretation which mean that the choices of words in these versions are not fixed in stone – we are allowed to question them in the light of biblical scholarship, and bring up points of interpretation and translation that they may raise, even while we continue to use them for convenience’ sake.
According to many scholars, the way the word translated “vanity” is used in Ecclesiastes indicates that it is not things in themselves that are said to be a hebel (a smoke, a mist) but things as they present themselves to the experiencing of the observer. In other words, there is something about the relationship between a person and the world, with what goes on in it, that is in some sense “smoke”, “mist” or “vapour”. Things are ungraspable to us; we cannot control them. This is a phenomenological point, saying something about the way we experience the world around us. We shall see, as we read what the text actually says with care and attention, that Qoheleth is not at all a pessimist as concerns the possibility of life having meaning; he is, rather, expressing a concern to establish that whatever meaning life might have, it is not immediately accessible to the observer, and that the kind of people – the overconfident young, perhaps? – who might be tempted to think that they have life and what goes on in it “sewn up”, are deceiving themselves. This is an entirely different matter altogether from saying that life is without meaning, in the sense that the existentialists of the last century would say it. It is worth remembering in this connection that Qoheleth is a teacher of wisdom, in all probability to the sons of the well-to-do: it would hardly be wise, exactly, to claim that everything is just “meaningless”. This would not be a very positive or helpful message to pass on to young adults about to embark upon the adventure of life in the wider world. Qoheleth has a much more subtle, satisfying and useful teaching than that to offer his students.
Now this motto hăbēl hăbālīm (literally, “vapour of vapours”, “utterly vaporous”), frames the main part of the book by occurring at the beginning and the end of it (1:2, 12:8). We are told by the book’s presenter that this is what Qoheleth “says”, so it is reasonable to suppose that it is a summing-up of Qoheleth’s findings as they are presented there. The overall result of Qoheleth’s researches into the various experiences of life, then, is that in the final analysis, he has no control over events and cannot bend them to his will. He feels powerless in the face of what happens in the world. As soon as he thinks he has grasped the inner meaning of some phenomenon in life, it disappears, evading him like a wisp of smoke or a breath of wind. Therefore, if by mastery is meant control, he is not able to master life. This, it seems, is an accurate interpretation of the phrase hăbēl hăbālīm. Instead of “meaningless” or “vanity”, the reader might like to think of hebel as meaning something like “a vapour”, “a puff of wind”, in the sense of being “elusive”, “intractable”, “impossible to pin down”.
Qoheleth’s examples of the hebel of things
We shall form a better idea of the meaning of this word hebel if we examine some of the contexts in which it is used. What is elusive, according to Qoheleth? Many things in life: in fact, he says that the character of life is itself obscure (“Everything is elusive!” (1:2); “all the things that are done under the sun, all of them are a vapour” [1:14]). But he goes on to provide various examples of life situation which in their different ways seem to him to be intractable to the understanding. In doing this he uncovers a sense of frustration which to him seems fundamental to his relationship with the world he lives in.
I said to myself, “Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself”. But again, this also was vanity (hebel). (Eccl. 2:1 NRSV)
It is likely that he is referring here to pleasurable diversions sought for their own sake, since elsewhere he speaks with approval of the honest pleasures of eating, drinking, working and love. It is easy to imagine the kind of empty hilarity with which he has tried to fill his leisure hours. It fails to satisfy him – such diversions do not weigh sufficiently heavily to connect him with the depths of himself. Instead, the time he has spent trying to fill with laughter and to cheer with wine, has vanished away like a puff of smoke. He has nothing to show for it – it is empty, fleeting: a hebel.
10Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was the reward for all my toil. 11Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity (hebel) and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. (2:10-11 NRSV)
The “great projects” which he undertook – reminiscent of the account of the lavishness of Solomon’s reign in 1 Kings 10 – serve, as we have said, to prevent the cynic from claiming that Qoheleth’s dissatisfaction with the advantages afforded by wealth is merely the sour grapes of a man who never had the opportunity to enjoy them. And indeed, he finds that his labours yielded “delight”. The ultimate value of them, however, is more questionable, especially when we remember that Qoheleth himself was the measure of all his enjoyment (“my eyes desired”… “my heart took delight”). It is a vapour. Even honest toil fails to satisfy him deeply enough: he toils, achieves, looks at his achievement and says: So what?
In another place he makes a related observation about work which is stunning in its cynicism and pessimism:
And I saw that all labour and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbour. This is another example of the world’s incomprehensibility (hebel), its weary frustration. (Eccl. 4:4, paraphrase)
At the heart of all striving and ambition, all that Qoheleth can see is the petty-mindedness of trying to keep up with the Joneses! He is devastated, because he cannot find any nobler or more enduring foundation upon which the works of men are built, than mere envy.
18I hated all the toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me 19 – and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This, too, is a vanishing vapour (hebel). 20So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labours under the sun, 21because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This is another of life’s mirages (hebel) – a great misery. (2:18-21 NRSV altered)
In the light of Death, the great leveller, even the fruits of honest toil turn out to be a mirage. The fact that he cannot tell whether his legacy will fall into the hands of a wise man or a fool causes him distress. Note that it is not his wealth that he calls a vapour, but the fact that it will end up in the hands of someone who hasn’t worked for it. This causes Qoheleth “great misery”. He is flummoxed by the lack of justice in the world. According to traditional wisdom teaching, the wise man gains wealth by his skill, while the fool ends up ruined by his folly. This would be a satisfactory scenario. But what do we find? We find the exact opposite! The benefit of the wise man’s skill lands in the lap of the fool. Now a little later we have the opposite scenario:
For to the one who pleases him, God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy; but to the bungler he gives the work of gathering and heaping, only to give it to the one who pleases God. This is another incomprehensible situation – it’s frustrating, like trying to catch the wind. (Eccl. 2:26, NRSV, altered).
Here we have the situation where the “bungler” does all the hard work, but the one God favours is given the benefits of life, as it were gratis. The word translated “bungler”, hôtē’, literally “one who misses the mark”, has a specific meaning in the wisdom tradition: “loser”, “one who keeps getting it wrong”. One is reminded of the type who tries hard socially but never quite manages to achieve popularity, or the school “geek”. Qoheleth is saying that these cases are intolerable, perplexing and unfair. Indeed, one might even see his railing at this hebel as a prayer, a cry to God on behalf of those unfortunates who seem destined to fail at the game of life, no matter how hard they try to get it right.
Qoheleth finds this same incomprehensibility in other areas of life as well – indeed, “all the things that are done under the sun … are incomprehensible, a chasing after the wind.” (1:14 NIV altered) He considers the kind of foolish speech which promises God that it will do something and then neglects to do it – this is an example of the emptiness to which people are prone (5:7). Another is the phenomenon of the lover of money who is never satisfied with how much he has (5:10) – such a person is a black hole of hunger and need. Considering this person leads Qoheleth to experience the frustration of emptiness. Or what about this:
God gives a man wealth, possessions and honour, so that he lacks nothing his heart desires, but God does not enable him to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them instead. This is incomprehensible (hebel), a grievous evil. (6:2 NIV altered)
Here the enigma is directly ascribed to the behaviour of God who gives blessings but withholds the ability to enjoy them. When faced with situations such as these, Qoheleth cannot, or will not, let God off with easy theologising. Job-like, he looks the apparent injustice and arbitrariness of God squarely in the eye. Why do these things happen? He does not know – there are things in the world which the sage’s wisdom is powerless to help him come to terms with. There is no answer: all he can do is state the ethical vertigo he feels when considering the way the world throws up such enigmatic and incomprehensible states of affairs.
The picture in all these instances of the hebel of things is one of a man utterly alienated from his world. Nothing he does – and it’s not for want of trying – seems to connect him with the deepest ground of his being. He does not see the cross in these scenarios of vertiginous incomprehensibility, so he cannot see the glory of the resurrection that follows. He sees the infinity of the world, with its endless cycles of nature, but is blind to the eternal kingdom of the one who made it. Instead of glory, Qoheleth sees at the bottom of things merely an elusive vapour. He also tells us in 3:11 that there is “an enigma” (‘elem) at the bottom of his own heart, as well. This is the way the concrete, Hebraic mind of Qoheleth conveys his phenomenology – his theory of how we experience the world. It is a vapour answering to an enigma. Yet he continues to believe in God – believing in the dark. The presenter of the book has told us that the “whole duty of man” is to “fear God and keep his commandments” (12:13). Clearly Qoheleth is no atheistic existentialist. It is as a believer in God that he reports the painful experiences he undergoes as he observes what goes on in the world.
Given that his book appears in the canon of the Bible, a collection of books concerned with the ways of God, it seems we must consider the possibility of understanding Qoheleth’s words of bewilderment in a confessional way – that is, we might see his bewilderment as something generated by God’s dealings with him. And sure enough, the pages of the lives of the saints are liberally strewn with similar accounts of bewilderment in the face of God’s will. St. John of the Cross has given us the notion of the “dark night of the soul” – an experience of futility and barrenness which bears a striking resemblance to the hebel of Qoheleth. Hudson Taylor, one of the great men of faith of the 19th century, a pioneer who took the Gospel to China, said of the life of faith that the further he progressed in it, the foggier his vision became. Part of learning to rely on the unseen God was, for Hudson Taylor, learning to do without the supernatural “helps” which God had liberally bestowed on him when he was still a novice disciple. In his later years the great missionary had less and less vision, but more and more faith upon which to draw. It seems possible that Qoheleth – who, despite his avowed lack of the “vision of God”, nevertheless retains a belief in God, master of the world and what goes on in it – may after all be trying to tell us something about the reality of learning to rely on him who is unseen, when all around is fog and frustration. He may, indeed, be attempting to communicate something about the difference between faith and sight. We shall explore this idea in greater depth in a later chapter.
It is often said that Ecclesiastes is about how meaningless the world is without God. Yet God is mentioned forty times in the book – even if Qoheleth’s idea of God is not quite the same as that of the prophets and the psalmists, nonetheless it is not true to say that he lives in a world which is devoid of God’s activity and presence. It has been said that Qoheleth’s God is utterly transcendental, remote and inscrutable. In the wider context of the Bible, a book that presents a personal God who is otherwise intimately concerned with the affairs of men, indeed, a God who rewards faith in him, that might seem surprising. Yet for someone who, according to popular misconception of the message of Ecclesiastes, is supposed to be showing how meaningless things are without God, he seems to have a surprising amount to say about God – things which show a familiarity with the scriptural traditions about God, even though he puts his own somewhat slanted interpretation on them. If we read Ecclesiastes not in isolation, but as a part of the wider context of the Bible in which it is found, we might begin to discern possible meaning in the way Qoheleth portrays God. It is true that Qoheleth’s God seems to be remote and personally unconcerned. Yet as we shall see, it simply isn’t the case, as some people think, that Qoheleth doesn’t know the God of the Bible, and has some Greek or otherwise pagan idea of the deity. When we come to look at some passages from Ecclesiastes, we shall see that Qoheleth is, in fact, familiar with the God of the Old Testament. Yet he chooses to portray this God as distant and enigmatic. What I am suggesting here is that he portrays God the way he does for a purpose: it is for the benefit and comfort of those people who are undergoing seasons of hardness in the way of discipleship. There are times in the walk with God when he does indeed seem to be remote and inscrutable: at times of suffering, loss and perplexity, for example. It is said that God is closest to us when he seems the farthest away; one is reminded of the well-known “Footprints” cards that are sold in many Christian bookshops (see Appendix). It is for people going through the perplexing “absence” of God, for whom the traditional pieties about his presence, nearness and blessing are simply inadequate and irrelevant, that Qoheleth is writing. His book is about how to retain faith in God during the difficult times when he seems to be so far away.
The first thing to notice about Qoheleth’s God is that he only uses the word ’elōhīm, the generic Hebrew word for “God”, and never yhvh, “the LORD”, the Israelite covenant name for God. There is no mention of the great themes of the promises to the ancestors, the exodus, the giving of the Law on Sinai, and so on. Yet there are enough echoes of other Old Testament traditions in Ecclesiastes to satisfy the reader that the God he refers to is without doubt the same God as the one depicted in the Jewish monotheistic tradition: it is indeed Yahweh of Israel of whom Qoheleth is speaking. Let us examine some passages from Ecclesiastes and see where their conception of God shows similarity to other Old Testament books.
Scholars have long noted certain similarities between Qoheleth’s words and parts of Genesis 1-11. The order of the natural world is portrayed as something reassuring in Genesis, whereas Qoheleth thinks it is dreary and wearisome:
“As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest, cold and heat,
summer and winter, day and night
shall not cease.” (Gen. 8:22 NRSV)
The sun rises and the sun goes down,
and hurries to the place where it rises.
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.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they continue to flow.
All things are wearisome;
more than one can express;
…there is nothing new under the sun. (Eccl. 1:5-8a, 9b NRSV)
It is worth noting that in the original Hebrew, this passage is assonant, rhythmical, even incantatory in style. It is as if the cyclical nature of things hypnotises the observer into a state of wearisome inertia. Here as elsewhere, Qoheleth puts his own interpretation on the scriptural tradition.
As to humankind, Qoheleth agrees with the account in Genesis: in Genesis, man is made from “the dust of the ground” (Gen. 2:7); Qoheleth says “all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.” (Eccl. 3:20 NRSV) In Genesis, Adam and Eve are created good, only later to come to ruin through the serpent’s temptation; Qoheleth mirrors this when he says, “See, this alone I found, that God made human beings straightforward, but they have devised many schemes” (Eccl. 7:29 NRSV), and “Surely there is no one on earth so righteous as to do good without ever sinning” (Eccl. 7:20 NRSV). There is agreement also on the essential goodness of creation; Genesis 1 is clear that the created order is “very good”, and Qoheleth echoes this with the seven instructions, which are scattered throughout his book, to enjoy the simple pleasures of life. The goodness of finding a partner is affirmed in both books:
Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone.” (Gen. 2:18 NIV)
Two are better than one. (Eccl. 4:9 NRSV)
Also, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? (Eccl. 4:11 NRSV)
Enjoy life with the wife whom you love. (Eccl. 9:9 NRSV)
In both Genesis and Ecclesiastes, God is pictured as very much in control of his universe. In Genesis, he is the one who lives for ever (Gen. 3:22), who commands Adam and Eve to tend the garden (Gen. 1:28) and who alone decides the fate of humankind (Gen. 6:6-7). In Ecclesiastes, he is the one who creates and conditions human capability:
10I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. 11He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has also put an enigma in their minds, so that they cannot fathom what God has done from the beginning to the end… 14I know that whatever God does endures for ever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him (Eccl. 3:10-11, 14 NRSV altered).
We see also that God has placed limitations on the extent to which humans can acquire knowledge; no-one knows the future (Eccl. 8:7) or can plumb the depths of existence to arrive at a final account of it:
No-one can find out what is happening under the sun. However much they may toil in seeking, they will not find it out; even though those who are wise claim to know, they cannot find it out. (Eccl. 8:17 NRSV)
Similarly, in Genesis we see God forbidding Adam to gain understanding, forbidding him to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:17). God also imposes limitation on human knowledge by confusing their language in the Tower of Babel story (Gen. 11:6f.). There is a clear link between the accounts in Genesis of God’s frustrating man’s desire for knowledge, and Qoheleth’s reworking of the theme. We shall return to the notion that God wants to curb man’s desire for knowledge and understanding in a later chapter.
Scholars have identified other links between Qoheleth’s portrayal of God and the traditions of the Old Testament. There are verbal similarities to passages in Deuteronomy, for instance:
You must diligently observe everything that I command you; do not add to it or take anything from it. (Deut 12:32 NRSV)
I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. (Eccl. 3:14 NRSV)
There are almost parallel passages about vows in Deuteromony and Ecclesiastes, although it is also plain that Qoheleth has rethought the material thoroughly, and expresses it in his own style and tone:
21If you make a vow to the LORD your God, do not postpone fulfilling it; for the LORD your God will surely require it of you, and you would incur guilt. 22But if you refrain from making a vow, you will not be guilty. 23Whatever your lips utter you must diligently perform, just as you have freely vowed to the LORD your God with your own mouth. (Deut. 23:21-23 NRSV)
4When you make a vow to God, do not delay fulfilling it; for he has no pleasure in fools. Fulfil what you vow. 5It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not fulfil it. 6Do not let your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake; why should God be angry at your words, and destroy the work of your hands? 7With many dreams come vanities and a multitude of words; but fear God. (Eccl. 5:4-7 NRSV)
Other instances of phrases reminiscent of other Old Testament traditions are “… there is no one who does not sin …” (1 Kings 8:46) which is parallel to “There is no one on earth so righteous as to do good without ever sinning” (Eccl. 7:20 NRSV), and: “To obey (šemō‘a) is better than sacrifice” (1 Sam. 15:22), which is parallel to “To draw near to listen (lišemō‘a) is better than the sacrifice offered by fools” (Eccl. 5:1 NRSV). This is an example of a parallel because the same Hebrew word means both “obey” and “listen”.
We have seen, then, that Qoheleth’s God is not mysterious and obscure in himself. Ecclesiastes shares some of the same traditions concerning God, and the right way to approach him, with the rest of the Bible. We are dealing with the same God. It is important to make this point absolutely clear, because people sometimes say that Qoheleth has an inferior conception of God, perhaps akin to an idea of Fate, or some blind, dangerous Force that has to be appeased. The difference between Ecclesiastes and the rest of the Bible is not that we are dealing with a different God, but it consists in how this God chooses to make himself known. Whereas he graciously bends down to kings, prophets, and ordinary people alike in the Bible stories we are so familiar with, in Ecclesiastes he remains aloof. Qoheleth is interested in exploring the difficulty of life in a world in which God, whom one knows from the traditions to be graciously concerned with his people, nevertheless seems to be absent. The experience of this is indeed difficult – a hebel, in fact! But Qoheleth makes no attempt to sugar the pill for his readers. In his unremitting way he insists on making us face up honestly and completely to the frustration of a life where God is known more by his shadow than his brightness. Cold comfort, some might say. Yet it is important to Qoheleth that the difficulties and frustrations of life are not papered over or whitewashed in any way by an easy piety.
 “It is important to note, therefore, that hebel in Ecclesiastes is used specifically of human existence and human experiences of earthly realities, and not of God or the cosmos in general… The view that ‘everything’ is hebel, then, reflects not so much Qoheleth’s cosmology as it does his anthropology. What is hebel cannot be grasped – neither physically nor intellectually. It cannot be controlled.” (Seow, Ecclesiastes, p. 102)
 NRSV “sinner”, although the word as used here is devoid of the moral connotations of that word.
 This section relies heavily in its details on the research of the Old Testament scholar Robert Gordis (see Bibliography).