The book of Ecclesiastes, named for its author
the Preacher, is a collection of proverbs,
short statements describing how human life works.
In Ecclesiastes, these proverbs have been arranged
(and lightly annotated)
in order to make a larger philosophical point.
The Preacher's point may be caricatured as saying,
You can't accomplish anything lasting in life,
so you might as well give up and enjoy the ride.
But the Preacher is a more subtle observer of life
than this parody of his thought would allow.
We likely miss a great deal of the impact of the book by not already knowing the proverbs the Preacher quotes. Perhaps we miss a lot of intelligent humor as well. I sense him juxtaposing commonsense sayings which flat-out contradict each other so as to teach the limitations of wisdom.
In our ignorance, we have to analyze each epigram before we can understand its internal meaning, and only then do we really begin to unfold how the Preacher's arrangement of these sayings convey the larger message. This extra burden on us, outsiders to the tradition, also opens for us the possibility of discovering deeper understandings of the work each time we return to study it again.
In much wisdom there is much vexation;
the more you know, the more you suffer. [1:18]
The sun keeps on rising, the rivers keep on flowing,
people are born but then they get old.
It is a sorry business that God has given us
to be busy with, and everything we think we know
amounts to a puff of mist drifting away on the wind.
Unless God allows it, who can enjoy his food
or who can be anxious? [2:25]
If you choose to pursue pleasure, however much pleasure you feel is all the benefit you'll get. If you pursue intellectual studies, you'll have your eyes opened — but you'll still end up dead. If you strive for wealth all your life, you'll leave your gains to somebody else.
There is nothing better than to enjoy your work
for you can never know what will be coming next. [3:22]
Sometimes there's war, and sometimes peace. Sometimes recession, and other times prosperity. Sometimes a good word is needed, and sometimes silence is the best. It seems that good and bad are doled out by chance. We like to think that God will punish the wicked, but all we know for sure is that someday the wicked people will die — and so will the righteous.
(It would be wrong to read the opening of this chapter
as if it were saying,
There's a right time for war
and – since this is obviously the time –
we ought to go to war now.
The tone is set in verse 15,
Whatever will happen has happened before
and what has been will be again.
As far as war, the meaning would be closer to:
If you're a pacifist, be prepared;
another war is on its way.
If you're a defense contractor, make your profit now;
peace may break out at any time.)
Somewhere among the people of the world
is a young man who will take the king's place. [4:15]
The oppressed are not comforted. The victims are not given justice. Life in this world is a sorry sight. We never get satisfaction from life, even though we are gluttons for it, but neither the best nor the worst of life will go on forever.
It is right and proper for you to eat and drink
and to enjoy the fruit of your labor —
and not to dwell too much on the passing years. [5:18-20]
Action is better than talk, especially when dealing with God. If you make a promise, keep it. Don't be surprised when the government connives with injustice; bureaucrats protect each other. Better what you need today than to give up what you have now for an uncertain future.
(This chapter seems choppy. The first section, on relations with God, stands on its own and is not developed further. The remarks in the middle about the government might fit better with the preceding chapter. Although one can imagine that the original intent might have been to consider various relationships with power, this no longer is clear in the text. The end of the chapter articulates well with the beginning of chapter 6, thus resuming the flow of the composition.)
Who can know what is good in this life,
this brief, empty existence through which we pass like shadows? [6:12]
Amassing wealth and honor does nothing if you can't enjoy them. If you prosper, you may die young; if you live long, you may never achieve much; if you attain everything you desire, all of it may be enjoyed by a stranger. In the end, all you really have is the satisfaction of the present moment.
God made us straightforward,
but we invent complications for ourselves. [7:29]
A realistic view of life gives perspective. God made the world the way it is and the way God made it is the way it will be. Be happy when things go well for you, but remember that it may all change tomorrow. Avoid extremism in living your life. Hold onto whatever is good but don't lose your grasp of other things — what's pointless now might be important later. You'll never be so good that you do nothing wrong.
(The remarks on women in verses 26-28 seem out of place
or perhaps mistranslated. For example,
it would not be unreasonable here to say,
All your good intentions can be wiped out
by a moment of lust.)
You will never understand what God is doing.
However hard you try, you won't find out. [8:17]
Who really understands anything? No one controls chance and no one knows when death will come. Justice is not assured in this life. So enjoy what you have while you have it.
Wisdom is better than weapons of war
but one mistake can unravel it all. [9:18]
Everything is ruled by God — but is it love or hate? No one knows what is coming, except that our own love and hate and passion will all die with us in the end. Enjoy your food and your marriage. Whatever work you find, do it while you can. Time and chance govern everything.
(Verse 10:1 may belong at the end of chapter 9.)
When the clouds are full, it rains;
whichever way the tree falls, it lies where it fell. [11:3]
The foolish person demonstrates foolishness, but that may not prevent an appointment to high office. Every endeavor has its own risks. It is foolish to work yourself to death, but if you don't work at all you'll lose your house. Diversify your investments and spread your risks; no one knows which ones will succeed.
Our bodies will return to the earth
and our breath will return to God.
Enjoy the sun and the strength of youth for as long as you have them. The time will come when your eyes grow dim, your teeth fall out, your hair turns white, your ears will be shut up, your balance will be gone, your joints will stiffen, and all desire will depart. At last the thread of life will break and everything we did in life will drift away like a puff of mist on the wind.
(This beautiful picture of old age carries no bitterness but, like the rest of Ecclesiastes, simply points out what life is like.)
The writing of books never stops
and too much study brings only weariness. [12:12]
(This afterword was likely added by a later editor.)
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