Ecclesiastes: Fleeting and Timeless

By Ethan Dor-Shav

Solomon’s confrontation with mortality.

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he book of Ecclesiastes is a philosophical account of the attempt to find happiness by a man who has everything. Written in the name of “Kohelet son of David, King in Jerusalem,” the book has traditionally been attributed to Solomon, who reigned during the golden age of Israel’s united kingdom, in the tenth century B.C.E. Twelve chapters long, it is one of literature’s earliest encounters between faith and reason: The author struggles to believe that life is meaningful despite his experience of the world. The book’s inclusion in the Hebrew Bible is therefore remarkable, testifying to Judaism’s interest not only in divine revelation, but also in man’s exploration of the meaning of life and mortality.
The search for meaning is an eternal one, but the use of Solomon’s voice carries special importance for the modern reader.1 Unlike other biblical Jewish leaders, Solomon lived in a time of unparalleled prosperity and freedom. As opposed to the quest of Job, Solomon’s search for wisdom did not arise from a desire to make sense of either personal misfortune or national catastrophe. Indeed, his was a life of unrepentant indulgence: He tempted himself with wine, entertained himself with male and female performers, and amassed untold treasures and hundreds of wives and concubines.
Rather, Kohelet sets out on his inquiry from the perspective of a life replete with fortune and opportunity. He takes as his starting point not revelation, but man’s personal need for meaning. In other words, Ecclesiastes is not about what God wants of us, but about what we want for ourselves. This approach may resonate especially strongly with Western readers of today, since few Westerners appreciate doing things simply because they aretold, regardless of who does the telling. We moderns are thus in a unique position to identify with Kohelet’s quest.
To all appearances, however, it would seem that this search is doomed from the start. Already in the opening passages, Kohelet despairs over what he sees as the futility of life’s labors:
Therefore I hated life, because the deeds that are done under the sun were depressing to me, for all is vanity and grasping for the wind. Then I hated all my work, which I work at under the sun, because I must leave it to the man who will come after me—and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will rule over all my work which I worked at, and contrived, under the sun.… This also is vanity, and a great evil.2
Kohelet is disillusioned with life because he believes it is all in vain; he abhors the idea of leaving his life’s work behind for someone else to enjoy or to squander. Whereas all the great emperors and kings of old strove to achieve eternal life by erecting grand monuments to themselves, Kohelet understands that such attempts are illusory. He is therefore forced to pose the elementary question: If I die anyway, why does anything matter?
Kohelet’s first word, however, is not his last. For there are numerous passages in Ecclesiastes that move in the opposite direction. They affirm, for example, the positive value of a joyful life.3 The same Kohelet who appears to say so often that “all is vanity” also exclaims that “there is nothing better than man rejoicing,”4 and that “nothing is better for man under the sun than to eat, drink, and be joyful.”5 Kohelet also exhorts his fellow man to “Go, eat your bread with joy, drink your wine with a content mind; for God has already graced your deeds.”6 These bold affirmations of life echo almost word for word the maxim of Solomon’s days, that brief flowering of Jewish renaissance: “Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand by the sea in multitude; eating and drinking and rejoicing.”7 Similar verses can also be found that affirm the importance of action in this world, as well as the acquisition of wisdom—verses that do not square well with the belief that allis vanity.8
Conventional interpretations of Ecclesiastes offer little help in resolving these contradictions.9 In taking the frustration expressed by Kohelet to its existential extreme, most commentators conclude that he rejects completely the finite nature of life, either by means of a skeptical nihilism or fatalistic moralism. As M. James Sawyer writes, according to Ecclesiastes “Man is compelled to seek for an answer to the meaning of life. It is a task which wearies him and causes him grief and is doomed to ultimate failure.”10 Yet any reading of the book that does not account for its affirmation of joy and wisdom misunderstands the central message of the text. For in truth, Kohelet is neither a determinist nor a nihilist. Rather, he is a profound humanist, valuing both life and the process of learning that makes it worthy of our sincerest efforts.

Ethan Dor-Shav is an Associate Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. He is currently working on a study of the soul in the Hebrew Bible. His last essay in AZURE was “The Israel Museum and the Loss of Jewish Memory” (AZURE 5, Autumn 1998).

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