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Vanity of vanities, all is vanity: Ecclesiastes

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 17, 2018

The Book of Ecclesiastes offers fascinating insights into what the Jewish intellect had grasped of the purpose of life two or three hundred years before Christ. The voice of the book is that of Ecclesiastes, or “the Preacher”, who was King over Jerusalem, and who may be construed in some sense as a representation of Solomon. The Preacher recounts how he has devoted himself to acquiring every form of knowledge and wisdom, and to pursuing the good things of the world, only to find again and again that everything is “vanity and a striving after wind” (e.g., 2:11).

The Book consists of twelve brief chapters, and In the end the Preacher concludes that wisdom consists in accepting life as it comes while continuing to do the work God has given one to do, enjoying the fruits of that sober labor, all in the context of the deep ties of family and community. Thus:

Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life which he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going. [9:9-10]

In this sense, the Book is somewhat discouraging. It is pervaded with the acceptance of God’s will but betrays almost no sense of God’s plan extending beyond fidelity to the daily work and the family commitments given by God. The introductory note in the Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition compares the spiritual context to that of the Book of Job, making the following point:

Ecclesiastes has to insist on God’s goodness and power and providence even though experience seems at times to show the contrary. He has no solution to offer other than faith in God and trust that he will, in his own way and time, punish evil and reward good; cf. 3:17; 8:12-13. He constantly emphasizes the vanity of created things, which can never satisfy the heart of man.

But I chose my words carefully in the opening paragraph, when I referred to what the Jewish intellect had grasped. There is far more in Sacred Scripture than what we can grasp through reason, and it seems to me that the most important interpretive point to make about Ecclesiastes is that the sacred author deliberately chooses to restrict the horizon to what we can know through human reason. The writer could, after all, have drawn on the Jewish mystical tradition, and there are intimations of eternal life with God in other Biblical books which are even older—flashes of what trust in God will lead to in the end.

We saw this in Job (“For I know that my redeemer lives”) and we see it repeatedly in the Psalms. Even in Ecclesiastes, the Preacher may say more than he realizes when he admits (in apparent frustration): “I have seen the business that God has given to the sons of men to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time; also he has put eternity into man’s mind, yet so he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (3:10-11) (emphasis added).

The Frustration of Desires

Granted, it is a big step from this to “eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9), and yet St. Paul essentially quotes this passage from the prophet Isaiah (64:4 and 65:17), who was active half a millennium before the Book of Ecclesiastes was composed, though the verses Paul uses may have been composed somewhat later than the earlier portions of the prophet’s work. Nonetheless, even in the somewhat disappointing chapters of Job and Eccleiastes, foreshadowings of redemption are visible. But the author of Ecclesiastes deliberately restricts the kind of knowledge he will use to make his point.

The subtitle in the RSV-CE for Ecclesiastes chapter 5 is “Reverence, Humility, Enjoyment” while the subtitle for chapter 6 is “Frustration of Desires”. These are certainly apt in capturing the Preacher’s wisdom (reverence, humility, enjoyment) rather than preoccupying ourselves with vanities, an ultimately unsatisfying striving after wind. The following text expresses his theme perfectly:

There is a grievous evil which I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owner to his hurt, and those riches were lost in a bad venture; and he is father of a son, but he has nothing in his hand. As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil, which he may carry away in his hand. This also is a grievous evil: just as he came, so shall he go; and what gain has he that he toiled for the wind, and spent all his days in darkness and grief, in much vexation and sickness and resentment? Behold, what I have seen to be good and to be fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life which God has given him, for this is his lot. [5:13-18]

But again, this must be a deliberately restricted vision—most likely restricted to what can be ascertained through human reason alone, through the wise man’s unaided rational analysis. In this deliberately-chosen context, we are privy to the sacred author’s determination to stay within what he knows for sure: Namely, that we must be content with the life God has given us, not striving after false goals that cannot satisfy, but rather trusting in God in all things. Even today, with the benefit of Christ, the spiritual life consists largely in this trust, even when the way is dark for us—“because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen” (2 Cor 4:18).

When we think of the Book of Ecclesiastes in this way, we see a striking parallel with certain forceful lessons taught by Our Lord. Consider, for example, the parable of the rich man who enlarged his barns and storehouses: “ ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (Lk 12:20-21). Or:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. [6:19-21]

Prelude to the Gospel

The most significant difference between the book of Ecclesiastes and the Gospel is that Jesus Christ could speak authoritatively of a future life with our Father in Heaven while the authors of the Old Testament books could not. But they had plenty to say non-authoritatively, as it were: They had hopes and even glimpses of a future life with God—the God who, the Preacher assures us, “has put eternity into man’s mind”.

And sometimes the Preacher’s carefully-constructed mask slips just a bit, suggesting again that he knows through trust in God far more than he can prove through even the greatest human wisdom. “I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out; even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find out” (8:17). Here is the voice of even the greatest human wisdeom, and yet just a few verses earlier, the Preacher had declared:

Because sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the sons of men is fully set to do evil. 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. [9:11-13]

The lesson of Ecclesiastes is not nearly as bleak as it may seem at first glance. Succinctly stated, it is simply this: Vanity of vanities. All is vanity. Except to “fear god and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of man” (12:13). Man may not know the outcome of fidelity to this duty, but the last verse of the Book of Ecclesiastes says this: “For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (12:14). Without seeing the future, that already tells us quite a lot.


Scripture Series
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Next: The Song of Songs: Yearning for fulfillment

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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