Whether through television or real life experience, we’re all familiar with those social gatherings with all of the extended family invited to gorge themselves on fine cooking and indulge in a general atmosphere of conviviality. At these gatherings, many overused archetypes of various family members are destined to show up—the fat, obnoxious uncle with his snappy one-liners; the old, consternated grandmother who has a soft spot for the grandkids; the dilapidated granddad who we really ought not allow near the liquor cabinet lest we want to relive the offensive diatribes of yesteryear. Then, over in the corner, slouched against a wall dressed In solid grayscale, the T shirt beneath his cardigan sporting a few skulls and cross bones, is the dissonant outlier of the family gathering, the darkly-minded, slightly emo older cousin, who is talked about in passing as being “really a very talented painter,” and “always up in his room thinking.” Deep down, everyone there knows that this misunderstood not-quite-a-teenager-any-more young man doesn’t belong. And yet, he is a part of the big happy family all the same.
This is the way that I thought about the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes when I first encountered its terse collection of 12 chapters nestled between Proverbs and the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament. If Ecclesiastes is the strange, morbid second cousin (once removed on his mother’s side) of the biblical family, then Proverbs and the Song of Solomon are two beloved brothers. Ecclesiastes just doesn’t fit.
Now, let me explain. The reason the book seems out of place is because of its content and tone, not because of its familial relation to other books in the Bible per se. After all, it arose from the same scribal communities as other books ascribed to King Solomon. Still, something seemed off with this one, as my initial response to reading its somber passages was this: “What is this? Am I even reading the Bible?”
Perhaps to offer a flavor of this Old Testament outlier we can examine a passage from the 9th chapter, which in my biblical edition receives the subtitle “Take Life as It Comes.” I think we’ll see how Ecclesiastes handles issues of wisdom, death, mystery, and the pivotal Hebrew word חבל hevel (literally translated to “breath” but often taken to mean “vanity” or “meaninglessness”) in a rather strange manner compared to the transcendent theology common to the Bible.
“Everything that confronts them is vanity, since the same fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to those who sacrifice and those who do not sacrifice As are the good, so are the sinners; those who swear are like those who shun an oath. This is an evil in all that happens under the sun, that the same fate comes to everyone.” (Eccl 9:1-3)
And what is that common fate that seems to disregard morality and conduct? “The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no more reward, and even the memory of them is lost. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished; never again will they have any share in all that happens under the sun.” (Eccl 9:5-6) This obsession with the passing away of things, the notion of ephemerality, haunts the entire book of Ecclesiastes. The pattern is essentially this: the Qohelet (the Teacher and speaker of Ecclesiastes) describes something considered meaningful—the pursuit of wisdom (Eccl 1:12), obtaining wealth (Eccl 2:9), human friendship, (Eccl 4:9)—but then, like the pessimistic, black-garbed second cousin, realizes that these things won’t be remembered and will pass away like the breeze, leaving the Teacher to conclude “Surely this is also vanity and a chasing after wind” (Eccl 4:16).
This dismissal of the meaning of things that are impermanent and will pass from memory—this is a very modern existential struggle, which is discussed in a similar way in a 2012 novel that I read recently, The Pale King by David Foster Wallace:
I’m talking about the individual US citizen’s deep fear, the same basic fear that you and I have and that everybody has except nobody ever talks about it except existentialists in convoluted French prose. Or Pascal. Our smallness, our insignificance and mortality, yours and mine, the thing that we all spend all out time not thinking about directly, that we are tiny and at the mercy of large forces and that time is always passing and that every day we’ve lost one more day that will never come back and our childhoods are over and our adolescence and the vigor of youth and soon our adulthood, that everything we see around us all the time is decaying and passing, it’s all passing away, and so are we, so am I, and given how fast the first forty-two years have shot by it’s not going to be long before I too pass away, whoever imagined that there was a more truthful way to put “die,” “pass away,” the very sound of it makes me feel the way I feel at dusk on a wintry Sunday—“ (143)
Given the shared language of passing away, the fleetingness and ephemerality embodied so well in hevel or vanity, Ecclesiastes is rendered very modern in its message. However, neither Ecclesiastes as a whole nor the above passage denies that life has meaning; they’re just worried about ephemerality. “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Eccl 1:2) describes not the purposelessness of life but that “everything we see around us all the time is decaying and passing, it’s all passing away,” as Wallace writes.
Carpe Diem, but Not Quite
What should one do amid the fleetingness of life? The Teacher of Ecclesiastes commands, “Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long approved what you do. . . Enjoy life with your wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given to you under the sun, because that is your portion in life. . . Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might” (Eccl 7-10). This declaration to “enjoy life” through food and drink and “whatever your hand finds to do” seems to condone an almost unbridled hedonism. Drink and be merry, not obey God and His will. At first, this was the real shocking passage for me, since it seems to disregard consequences and morals with the same irresponsible fervor evoked by YOLO (said, almost exclusively, before someone does something stupid). Is Ecclesiastes promoting that kind of life style? Not quite.
It’s important to understand that the whole eat, drink, and be merry in ancient Israel was not so much about excess as just enjoying the everyday—a meal with the whole family, not a Dionysian symposium of wine-chugging.
Moreover, the mention of eating in drinking in Ecclesiastes is accompanied by a note of dependence on God, as the Teacher notes that enjoyment “is from the hand of God; for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” (Eccl 2:24-25). The hedonism, here, is not nihilistic and morally unrestrained, but God-given. The message of carpe diem (seize the day) lives in these passages but is breathed by God into man, such that enjoying the little things, food, drink, & co. becomes part of humankind’s God-given lot.
Ecclesiastes, though, seems to take the fleetingness of life further than any other biblical book, ostracizing itself from the family conversation like the brooding adult-ish teenager. Take this passage, which flies in the face of humankind’s dominion over animals proclaimed in Genesis: “For the fate of animals and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals downward to the earth?” (Eccl 3:19-21).
By reducing human life to nothing more than the animalistic, Ecclesiastes contradicts the very chapter of Genesis (Gen 3) it references with “all are dust” bit. No wonder its canonical status was contested, as Temper Longman describes, “The book was accused of contradictions, secularity, and even outright heresy” . However, Longman resolves the heresy conflict in his exegesis by citing the first and last verse of Ecclesiastes, in which another voice other than that of the Teacher speaks: “Fear God and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone” (Eccl 12:13). (If humans are no more than animals, are we holding animals to those standards, too?) The proclamation to obey God, while seemingly out of place, underlies much of Ecclesiastes, and ultimately, I think that the outcast slightly-emo, older cousin has something pertinent to say about God.
In God’s Time
Probably the most beautiful section in Ecclesiastes is chapter 3, in which the listing oppositional pairs, such as birth/death and weeping /laughing reminds us that “for everything there is a season” (Eccl 3:1). There is well-known hymn based on the passage, actually.
The passage both issues a warning and offers reassurance; where there is happiness, there will someday be sadness, but where there is sadness, there will sometime be happiness. In this way, maybe it’s not so bad that the worldly sensations are fleeting, for we need not bear one feeling for too long.
Directly after this section, the Teacher reminds the reader that all of this happens in God’s time: “He has made everything suitable to its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from beginning to end” (Eccl 3:11). With the assuredness of God’s plan comes the inability to understand it fully, though it may be accessible in part. Indeed, it would be presumptuous to claim knowledge of God’s plan—there is foolishness in presuming. As my former theology professor said fondly, “We plan. God laughs.” Our plans might come to pass, deo volente (God willing).
This, I feel, is what Ecclesiastes’s Teacher is really getting at with the talk of vanity, hevel, fleetingness.
As humans, we cannot contemplate God’s ways. We live on this earth, which isn’t a perfect place, and we experience much suffering and injustice. Yet, there are times of goodness and joy and companionship with great friends. We cannot understand everything, but in obedience to God, we wait for a time of plenty. We cannot know what will become of us, but we must live out our days, and we ought to trust God in that time. Earthly things are “vanities” but God is eternal, and God may yet guide us to a resting place “because all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets” (12:5). This is a view of low-epistemology, of human ignorance, yet also a testimony to God’s greatness and a bleak yet apt theodicy to explain evil: Don’t question why there is evil. Of course there is evil. The world is full of it, for it is not the place of God’s eternal goodness and need not be good; still, there will be “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;” (Eccl 3:4). Though the Qoheleth tells us to enjoy life, this is not license to embrace personal hedonism: it is the proclamation to seize the day—carpe diem—for only God know what comes next.
 Raymond C. Van Leewen, “Ecclesiastes” The Harper Collins Study Bible (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 892.
 Temper Longman III, The Book of Ecclesiastes, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 26.