Trivial Pursuit: Pleasure in Ecclesiastes

This is a paper I wrote on Ecclesiates in 2005. The text is pasted below, but that may produce some untidy formatting errors (and removes page numbers), so here is the original PDF for download if you prefer.

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Trivial Pursuit

FINDING PLEASURE IN ECCLESIASTES

JSM Pickering, 2005

Introduction

Christians perennially struggle with a life lived either completely immersed in the things of this world, or as though enjoyment of this life means diminished desire for the life to come. The former view leads to misplaced trust in the ability of this world to provide fulfilment and meaning, whereas the latter leads to suspicion of pleasure and a tendency towards asceticism. The book of Ecclesiastes suggests a way to walk the balance of life in a corrupted, doomed world.

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Commentators differ sharply over whether Qoheleth – the teacher in the book – should be met with approval by the Jewish or Christian reader, or whether he is a heterodox cynic who acts as a cautionary tale for followers of the truth. RBY Scott’s interpretation of Ecclesiastes demonstrates the side of distrust of the Teacher. He has the following choice comments about the book: ‘It denies… that God has revealed himself and his will to man through his chosen people Israel’ (1965:191); ‘in the place of a religion of faith and hope and obedience, this writer expresses a mood of disillusionment and proffers a philosophy of resignation’ (1965:191); ‘[his ethic arises from] grasping firmly the only satisfaction open to man – the enjoyment of being alive’ (1965:191); and ‘the author is a rationalist, an agnostic, a sceptic, a pessimist, and a fatalist’ (1965:192).

I am sure that if Qoheleth were here to respond to Scott’s assessment of his book, he would say, ‘Vanity of vanities!’ or perhaps something even less complimentary. There are indeed many occasions in which Qoheleth seemingly writes as though there is no knowledge of God. But he is writing to combat approaches to life and meaning that exclude God and live for this life only. If Qoheleth really thought that there is no hope and that man cannot know God, he would be considered a fool and included under the judgement of ‘vanity’ himself. But the opposite is true. Eternity is always in his mind (e.g. 3:11; 3:17; 5:15; 8:13; 11:9; 12:14). And his ultimate conclusion is as removed from secular philosophy as one gets. ‘Fear God and keep his commandments!’ Nothing else can have any value once death has overtaken you. You leave everything else behind. Certain scholars deny that Qoheleth could have said this or that there is a place for such religiosity in the wisdom schools, and so exclude this conclusion as an editorial addition (1965: 194). Thus Qoheleth is regarded as a stoic or an epicurean or a nihilist or an existentialist.

It is startling that ‘scholars’ such as Scott can express amazement that devout Jews, who believe that fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom, would include a book in their canon that ‘denies the possibility of man’s knowing God… [declares that] man’s fate is simply that of an animal… [and that] God is no more than a name for the incomprehensible power that has created the unalterable conditions of man’s existence and determines his fate’ (1965: xxi), and yet never doubts his own conclusions about the book. He seems firmly to believe that a body of writing has been included within Yahweh’s Word that flatly contradicts everything that the other books affirm, and that fails to meet the basic definition of wisdom, and yet he never considers the possibility that he has totally missed the point.

What then is the point of Ecclesiastes? Is it merely calling us to say, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry,’ and thus to enjoy life while we wait for death? Or is there a deeper message to the book? And where does eating, drinking and merriment fit into the wisdom of Qoheleth?

Orientation

Structure

Ecclesiastes is constructed with a prologue (1:1-11) and epilogue (12:8-14) spoken about the teacher, and the wise words spoken by the teacher, whose wisdom forms the long central section in between.

Tremper Longman III sees Ecclesiastes as the work of two authors: a defeated cynic called Qoheleth, and a wise father teaching his son to fear God and keep the commandments, using Qoheleth as a device to instruct the son ‘concerning the dangers of speculative, doubting wisdom in Israel’ (1998:38). It is this latter hand that supposedly supplied the ‘canon-friendly’ bits at the beginning and the end of the book. Longman unsuccessfully tries to convince his reader that the wise father disagrees with Qoheleth’s ‘wisdom’, considering it to be harmful, dangerous and worth avoiding (1998:38, 280). However, his argument is based on the goad and nail similes from 12:11, which he interprets as saying that wisdom is unpleasantness and pain. This argument doesn’t hold much weight, because these ‘negative’ similes are aimed at the wise in general (although this would include Qoheleth), whereas the comments specifically aimed at Qoheleth are all positive. If the writer intended to say that Qoheleth should be avoided as a dangerous man, a goad is a terrible metaphor to use for the purpose. Longman goes this route, because if the wise father and Qoheleth share the same opinion, it destroys the thesis of his commentary, which otherwise allows him to dismiss Qoheleth’s stranger remarks as honest but cynical and basically heretical, but (by virtue of the father’s final corrective) fit for the canon. Therefore, however painful goads and nails may be for one on the receiving end, the more natural sense of the imagery surely must be correct. Wisdom, as exemplified by Qoheleth, is something that keeps one on the right path, and it is something that is secure and reliable. This interpretation, I will argue, is entirely in keeping with the message of Ecclesiastes if one treats its message positively and as a unity.

It is better, then, to consider the book to be the construction of one mind with one primary message. Whether one sees the author of the epilogue as different to the mind behind the words of wisdom, or simply as a literary character, the message of the two ‘voices’ has to be the same.

The Meaning of Hebel

The Hebrew word hebel presents itself as a major concern in Ecclesiastes. ‘There are 25 Hebrew roots (appearing as nouns, verbs etc.) that occur at least 5 times… The primary term, of course, is vanity, which occurs in various combinations 38 times… The superlative expression ‘vanity of vanities’, or complete absurdity, occurs in 1:3 and 12:8 in such a way as to suggest that it is the conclusion for the book; it obviously expresses a main theme.’ (Murphy, 1996:50). Given the prominence of this word, and its centrality to the ultimate conclusion of the book, its meaning is worth considering in more detail.

Murphy hints at a definition of ‘absurdity’ above. However, prominent commentators on Ecclesiastes, especially Michael Fox (1999), view Qoheleth as comparable with the existentialists. Therefore, I am concerned that Murphy may be too quickly importing a favourite word from existentialism into Qoheleth’s concept of hebel. Absurdity is not necessarily implied by hebel. However, Murphy does later give the literal meaning, and a more likely interpretation: ‘Hebel means ‘vapour’, ‘breath’, hence something insubstantial and ephemeral – a vain, futile thing.’ (1996:53)

I think that Seow and Dumbrell make a valuable contribution to the meaning of hebel: ‘[‘Breath’] appears to be the major connotation of [hebel] in Ecclesiastes… Seow suggests a meaning of “what cannot be controlled,” which fits the context of Ecclesiastes well.’ (2002:285). A common theme in Ecclesiastes is chasing and grasping at the wind. While this is usually understood to mean ‘a futile exercise’, Dumbrell’s quote above reveals that the issue is rather that one is left holding nothing. The wind cannot be captured and it cannot be carried with you. In the same way, things of this world are hebel because they cannot be carried with you after death.

The Message of Ecclesiastes

Qoheleth appears to have had much bad press in recent years. He is commonly viewed as cynical, theologically heterodox, Deistic and faithless. Those who take such a view of the teacher have significantly misunderstood his book.

Qoheleth’s Project

Qoheleth’s project is quoted in Ecc. 1:13, ‘And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven.’ He sets out to discover what constitutes a wise use of our time in this life, and what the purpose of existence is. For this reason, the vast proportion of the book is concerned with work in some form or another. This should not surprise us, because the task given to Adam was to work the garden. Man is created to work. Qoheleth examines work to discover its value. He looks at the results of work, i.e. wealth, accomplishment, pleasure, toil and frustration. He also considers the approach of the worker, i.e. wisdom, folly, righteousness, wickedness, striving and contentment.

Dumbrell includes a very helpful word study in his book, which sheds bright light upon Qoheleth’s project: ‘Yitron occurs in the OT only in Ecclesiastes… and is usually translated to mean “profit” or “advantage”. But the verb yatar in Hebrew means “to remain”, in reference to those who survive after battle. Qoheleth is obsessed with discovering what would enable one to live beyond the grave, at least in human memory.’ (2002:285). Therefore, in all his examinations of life and work, Qoheleth seeks to discover whether there is anything that is done in this life that has lasting value, and that is able to provide ultimate meaning. After all of man’s labours and striving, what is left at the end?

Qoheleth considers these things largely in the absence of divine revelation, and thus many have taken his approach to mean that he views God as vengeful, distant and unknowable, unconnected to ‘life under the sun’. This is not the case. Clearly, he has high regard for true religion, and not just outward performance of it (5:1f). But what things in life are worthy of man’s energy and pursuit? His stated project is to assess the wisdom and meaning behind the things that compete for man’s attention. Is there anything in this life that has ultimate meaning? Adam’s life and work was directly connected to God, and the results of his work were fulfilling and eternal. However, since the fall, we are naturally dead to God in relationship, frustration characterises our labour, and our progress is interrupted by death. It is folly to live life as though we exist in Adam’s world, and as a result, Qoheleth seeks to apply wisdom to assess what is important for man in a fallen world, and what remains for man to do. Until we live in a world that is no longer fallen, Qoheleth’s project is of burning relevance to us too.

Qoheleth’s Findings: Hebel

Ecclesiastes is a catalogue of Qoheleth’s findings in this project. The refrain that dominates all of his investigations is ‘hebel’. All of the things that men commonly chase after: wealth, power, wine, women and song are found to have no lasting value. What you build is torn down. What you accumulate is dispersed by another. Even when you have gathered everything that you could possibly desire, all that is left for you is to sit and look at it.

Even growing in wisdom is of limited benefit. True, it is far better than folly, but wisdom itself seems to be of little or no help in unravelling the contradiction and vanity of life (2:3, 14; 4:13; 8:16-17). ‘God, it appears, has set wisdom within very strict limits that prevent us from seeing a large enough picture of the reality into which we must somehow fit’ (Goldsworthy, 2000:453). Furthermore, in this fallen world, the fool often prospers, and eventually fools and wise alike die like animals. Therefore, even the high calling of the wise man is of no value, because he too is left with nothing in his hand after he has grasped at the wind.

The reason that everything is hebel is that man’s work is ultimately interrupted. Even when God sees fit to remove from one the frustration that usually characterises toil, nevertheless, death will separate man from his projects and pleasures. ‘As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand. This also is a grievous evil: just as he came, so shall he go, and what gain is there to him who toils for the wind? (Ecc. 5:15-16)’. So much of life is vain and futile, because at death, everything is left behind, and none of the things of this world, whether good or bad, are taken to the grave. Death is a shadow that is cast backwards over the whole of life, reminding us all that life is like a sigh, and our work is like breath. It is insubstantial, gone and forgotten.

Understandably, Ecclesiastes appears gloomy and pessimistic. Qoheleth finds no ultimate value in the things that humans tend to covet and treasure. This can be extremely unsettling for his reader, especially if life is comfortable and God has granted enjoyment. I’m not sure that regular reminders of our mortality have ever been welcome, but least of all is this so in modern times. For this reason, many have worked hard at dismissing Qoheleth as cynical, heterodox and dangerous. However, when considered from the perspective of the grave, identifying what is ultimately worthless is true wisdom and extremely valuable. For those whose meaning and trust are planted in things that are ephemeral, those engaged in trivial pursuit, Qoheleth’s message is dark and condemnatory. For them, a pessimistic outlook is warranted. There is much to fear for those who dismiss Qoheleth, because death will prove them to be fools. But, for those whose fear and hope is in God, the book is a sweet reminder of the truth that our world is subject to frustration now, but will join us in our destiny that is eternal.

‘The preacher’s thesis, that life is often beyond human control, is not a pessimistic survey of the human condition… Activities motivated purely by human desires are a “striving after the wind”… True wisdom will then recognise the provisional nature of much of our experience, and will accept that our experience of a fallen world and the evil within is soon to pass.’ (Dumbrell, 2002:285)

Qoheleth’s Findings: The Whole Duty of Man

Much is made of Qoheleth’s negativity towards life under the sun, yet the true message of the book is overwhelmingly positive. It’s just difficult. The conclusion of the matter, Ecclesiastes says, is ‘fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgement, with every secret thing, whether good or evil (12:13-14).’ The upside-down, mind-boggling world of ours is beyond our tracing out, and death and frustration have made everything worthless. Therefore, stop placing your stock in things that are passing away, and keep your mind on what is most important: fear of God.

Qoheleth has been hinting at this conclusion all along, for example:

  • ‘I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work. (3:17)’
  • ‘Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. (5:1-2)’
  • ‘Let not 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 voice and destroy the work of your hands? For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear. (5:6-7)’
  • ‘And I find something more bitter than death: the woman whose heart is snares and nets, and whose hands are fetters. He who pleases God escapes her, but the sinner is taken by her. (7:26)’
  • ‘Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him. But it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God. (8:12-13)’

Though there are plenty of passages to suggest that Qoheleth has been building to the final affirmation of the truth and wisdom of faithful religion in Israel, nevertheless, commentators regularly seek to distance Qoheleth from the epilogue in chapter 12.

‘“Fear God and keep his commandments.”… How could Qoheleth have said this? These are not his words. They belong to the epilogist or editor of the entire book… But it is simply not appropriate for the Book of Ecclesiastes, which never mentions “commandments”’ (Murphy, 1996:55-6). Contrary to what Murphy says, Ecclesiastes does mention ‘commandments’. However, it only mentions it once, right at the end. Why it is that using a word only once should be considered evidence of a foreign intrusion into the text is beyond me. After all, ‘the sinner’ is a common character in Ecclesiastes, and in Israel, a sinner is predominantly one who transgresses the commandments. The theology of the epilogist and Qoheleth are not different, and the idea of keeping God’s commandments is not removed from the thinking of the rest of the book, just as it is not foreign to other Hebrew wisdom. It is quite at home in Job and Proverbs (‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’). Murphy suggests that fear of God in Ecclesiastes is not meant in the pious, positive sense, but rather meaning terror of an unknown, dangerous God (1996:56). I do not think that the distinction is right or helpful. Even the ‘pious’ fear of God is recognition of his power and supremacy, and thus is an expression of a right relationship of submission to him. One who does not fear God acts selfishly as though God does not see or cannot act. The command to fear God is a command to arrange yourself wisely in the order that God has created. For Qoheleth, fear of God is the wisest command, because those who live for the things that are vain do not perceive God’s order correctly. Death will put an end to their foolish projects, and judgement is all that remains for them.

It is no wonder that so many commentators view the epilogue of Ecclesiastes to be at variance with Qoheleth’s wisdom. At every point, they divorce Qoheleth from faith and orthodoxy, making his words out to be the ravings of a lost maverick, even though a call to true faith is his ultimate message. Dumbrell has assessed the book correctly when he says, ‘Qoheleth’s work… offers a proper framework for faith (he “taught the people knowledge,” 12:9), and represents careful evaluation of and reflection upon the subject matter that he presents… What has been put forward is meant to stimulate reflection (12:11)’ (2002:285).

The Role of Ecclesiastes in the Canon

Ecclesiastes provides important balance to the other wisdom books in the canon. Goldsworthy says, ‘In Proverbs, we looked at the prevailing optimism of wisdom in its perception of order in reality. Job was a revolt against the assumption that there are no mysteries in life. Now Qoheleth looks at what appears to be a confusion of perceptible order.’ (2000:453-4).

Job also appears to have a strong emphasis on the wisdom of remembering the final judgement. Justice is not uniformly carried out cause-and-effect style upon earth. The great Judgement will reveal the righteous and the wicked, not the presence of blessing and misfortune in this life. Ecclesiastes is something of a bridge between the wisdom of Proverbs and Job. It often shares the style of Proverbs, using short, pithy sayings, and it makes observations about life from experience. However, unlike Proverbs, these observations are tempered in their optimism by the overwhelming reality of death. The shadow that death casts over life sours all human achievement, bringing everything of seeming significance to nought. Ecclesiastes shares with Job the realisation that life on earth is not all that there is, and that it is not within the scope of the human mind to comprehend it all. Ecclesiastes is dominated by the spectre of death, without forgetting the afterlife, whereas Job is firmly fixed on the final judgement of God as the resolution to life’s mysteries.

Ecclesiastes aims to keep us from setting up wisdom as a comprehensive explanation of God and his world, or from taking our observations as timeless, universal laws. God’s action in this world is not wholly predictable. Our wisdom must not lose sight of the need for God’s revelation, and it must acknowledge the element of mystery and tension in life. In our attempts at unearthing order in the universe, we must leave room for experiences that are contradictory. (Goldsworthy, 2000:455-7).

‘It forbids both secularism (living as though the existence of God has no practical usefulness for life in this world) and unrealistic optimism (expecting faith to cancel out life as it really is).’ (Eaton, 1994:CD-ROM)

A Brief Study of Pleasure

A major theme within Ecclesiastes is pleasure. It is particularly interesting, because it is both condemned by Qoheleth as something ultimately vain (‘I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity.’ 2:1), but he also commends it as the best thing in a bad situation (‘There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God.’ 2:24). What then is the place of pleasure, particularly for us as Christians who are so often suspicious of the charms of this world?

There are many instances in which Qoheleth praises pleasure. However, as Murphy says, ‘[These verses] present their conclusions as ‘nothing better than’ (enjoyment, eating and drinking, etc.). That mode of expression is not as enthusiastic as it appears. In every case, the ‘nothing better’ turns out to be a concession to circumstances; it is not an unqualified approval.’ (1996:54).

The reason for the lack of enthusiasm lies in the difference between ‘good’ and ‘ultimate value’. Pleasure is hebel on one hand, because it leaves nothing to ‘take away in one’s hand’. It doesn’t last. It is fleeting. Qoheleth cannot commend hedonism as a valid approach to life. It is a dead end. Yet on the other hand, pleasure is good. Even though it has no eternal significance or value, it is nevertheless a gift of God. In this fallen world, we should expect to find only frustration in our labour, because this is the curse that the world was subjected to because of sin. Therefore, if God enables one to find enjoyment in work, then he has given a great blessing in the place of a curse. Furthermore, if God enables one to be satisfied with what one has, and to enjoy the fruits of one’s labour, then this too is a great blessing, and evidence of the grace of God. If all of our pursuits will ultimately be trivial, then to be able to enjoy them despite that fact is a concession that we should value. ‘Thus, within the mystery and confusion, we can live knowing that life is God’s gift and that there is some gain in being happy in our work.’ (Goldsworthy, 2000:454).

Conclusion

True wisdom considers the place of fallenness and frustration in the world. The created order has been disrupted by sin, and so the end of all things is death. Therefore, the fruitfulness that should have characterised all man’s work has been replaced with futility, because it is finite. All that man builds and grows is ultimately interrupted and left behind.

Even as Christians, we can easily become distracted from what is truly important by the things that men grasp after: the house, the car, respect, the best education for their children. The sobering testimony of death silences the hebel of believer and unbeliever alike, urging all men to seek what is of ultimate significance, something that can be taken beyond the grave. The wisdom of Ecclesiastes seeks to put an end to all of our trivial pursuits. Qoheleth’s study makes an urgent call on us to ‘seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these things will be added to you’.

On the other hand, Christians have the converse problem of despising all of the good gifts that God frequently does lavish upon us. Ecclesiastes cures us of an unwarranted cynicism towards the pleasures that God has created for us even now. The ability to enjoy what one has and does for its own sake is a great good from the hand of God, and perhaps even a guarantee of the goodness of the world to come. Qoheleth’s message to us is, ‘life under the sun is lived under the shadow of death. So, enjoy the temporary if you can, but be guided by the eternal.’

Bibliography

DUMBRELL, W.J.  2002.  The Faith of Israel.  2nd ed.  Leicester: Apollos.

EATON, M.A.  1994.  Ecclesiastes  (In Carson, D.A.; et al., eds.  The New Bible Commentary.  Downers Grove, IL: IVP).  Logos / Libronix CD-ROM.

FOX, M.V.  1999.  A Time to Tear Down & A Time to Build Up: A Rereading of Ecclesiastes.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

GOLDSWORTHY, G.  2000.  The Goldsworthy Trilogy: Gospel and Wisdom.  Glasgow: Paternoster Press.

KIDNER, D.  1976.  The Message of Ecclesiastes.  Leicester: IVP. (Not referenced)

LONGMAN, T.  1998.  The Book of Ecclesiastes.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

MURPHY, R.E.  1996.  The Tree of Life.  2nd ed.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

SCOTT, R.B.Y.  1965.  Proverbs Ecclesiastes: The Anchor Bible.  Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company.

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