Ecclesiastes: Fleeting and Timeless

By Ethan Dor-Shav

Solomon’s confrontation with mortality.

The 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.
To be sure, Kohelet was not alone among the ancients to concern himself with the meaning of death and the quest for eternal life. Throughout much of the ancient world, rulers built monumental structures to establish their immortality. The pyramids of ancient Egypt, which aimed to project the “star” of Pharaoh into the eternal sphere of the heavens, are evidence of this.11 Furthermore, it was common to amass material riches—what archaeologists call “grave goods”—in the hope of transferring them to the world beyond.12 This practice was prevalent, for example, among the Egyptians, Sumerians, Mayans, and Chinese; indeed, like King Tutankhamun’s numerous shabti and ushebti companions, the Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang had thousands of life-size clay soldiers buried near his grave in order to ensure victory in his battles in the afterworld.
Thus Kohelet’s bold opening—the assertion that such efforts are futile—constitutes the first step of an intellectual revolution. However, having rejected the notion of achieving immortality through material gains, Kohelet must seek another way. One possibility is the negation of life in favor of the world to come, represented in both the Christian and Islamic approaches to immortality by means of richly described afterworlds. The Koran, for example, emphasizes the similarity of heaven to the temporal world: As for the righteous, they shall surely triumph. Theirs shall be gardens and vineyards, and high-bosomed maidens for companions: a truly overflowing cup.”13 Similarly, Christian scripture includes vivid descriptions of souls in the world to come, much of which were elaborated upon by Dante in his visual descriptions of heaven and hell, and which were captured in the grandiose paintings of Hieronymous Bosch. In all these cases, the afterlife is portrayed as a concrete reality, thus ingrained in its adherents from childhood.
The religions of India and the Far East offer, instead, the idea of reincarnation. They emphasize the immortality of the soul, yet attach little significance to the self-conscious awareness of the reincarnated individual. With the exception of certain rare enlightened beings, immortality is achieved at the expense of identity. Yet one need only look at the elaborate Tibetan Book of the Dead to see that the nature of the afterlife is, once again, considered concrete knowledge, and is described—and illustrated, in numerous mandalas—in lush detail.14
The common denominator of all these doctrines is a detachment from life, a dismissal of material existence in favor of a radically different reality. Judaism, too, shares the idea of the afterlife; however, it is rarely the focus of Jewish practice, and the rabbinic texts avoid engaging in lengthy descriptions of it.15 By contrast, it is a central feature of the thinking found in Tibet, Mecca, and the Vatican, that by means of constant, detailed attention to the world beyond, this life becomes merely a treacherous pass leading to the next. Indeed, detachment from the world is almost the definition of true piety in some religions, many of which wholeheartedly embrace the meaninglessness of mortal existence. In these cultures, the more one seeks immortality, the more one detaches oneself from the physical world.
As a result of the prevalence of this asceticism in history, many people, including Jews, have unconsciously become accustomed to seeing everyday life as separate from spiritual existence. And since most of us embrace involvement in the real world, hoping like Kohelet to make our mark in it, we must naturally wonder whether this makes our life less meaningful. In other words, if we focus on earthly reality and worldly wisdom, are we, therefore, necessarily less close to God?
Conventional readings of Ecclesiastes suggest as much. The description of Ecclesiastes provided in the Encyclopaedia Britannica is a case in point: “The author examines everything—material things, wisdom, toil, wealth—and finds them unable to give meaning to life.”16 And yet, this attitude is at odds not only with numerous passages in the text itself, as cited above, but also with classical Jewish beliefs about the nature of mortality. In fact, visions of the afterlife are discouraged in the biblical narrative, and God is shown to place great value on man’s actions in the material world. As such, it seems unlikely that Ecclesiastes’ intention is to conclude that our involvement in the world is without meaning.

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