Ecclesiastes 1-5

Good morning! Today we start the book of Ecclesiastes, chapters 1-5. This wisdom book offers a more skeptical, maybe even cynical, appraisal of human life and activities. Tradition suggests that King Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes much later in life, after he’d written Song of Songs as a lovestruck adolescent and Proverbs as a practical, wise ruler. I rather like the image of Solomon in his final years reflecting on the activities of his life, and the presence of God in them. This book gets to the heart of the matter. It concerns the “meaning of life” in a most explicit way.

Nevertheless (and to the chagrin of philosophers), Solomon suggests that human pursuits are actually meaningless, good for nothing, and qualify as “vanity”. Given this, Solomon’s sense is that everything is in its place, but nothing is of such importance that it reorders the cosmos. Nature is the most durable part of creation, but even so “there is nothing new under the sun.” Novelty is meaningless, no matter how hard one tries. This is a critique—in the tradition of wisdom—of even the pursuit of wisdom itself.

Ecclesiastes 2 makes clear that pleasure and self-indulgence also lead nowhere. Solomon has done everything he could imagine doing, and still he is left unsettled. Nothing was withheld from his eye, heart or mind, and yet nothing satisfied. Not even legacy can comfort the ruler: even though one is great and another terrible, the same fate befalls them both. (This particular sentiment is ironic, because Solomon’s wisdom is still remembered and lauded.) For these reasons, Solomon “hated life”. He comes to a bare-bones, simple conclusion: “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil” (2:24).

The remaining three chapters of this passage help to reiterate these points. In chapter 3 we find the legendary passage (good for both weddings and funerals) about everything having its season. Even that which is entirely opposite—one state from another—has its season. God will decide in due time what is wickedness and what is righteousness. People can and should resist oppression, but also acknowledge that the future belongs to God. Ecclesiastes 4 places a special emphasis on the importance of friendship, of having actual peers with whom to go through life. Chapter 5 considers dimensions of prayer, and suggests to be brief in them, especially before God in the temple. Essentially, Solomon writes to “be careful what you wish for”. The fifth chapter closes with praise for the poor and laborers of the land, because they at least are able to sleep while the problems of the wealthy keep them awake. To which those who are poor might reply, “I’d like to have a problem like that!” Happy reading!

Read Ecclesiastes 1-5.

Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is Ecclesiastes 6-12. Thanks for reading!

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