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Ecclesiastes: What is the Meaning of a Book about Meaning?

Recently a friend asked me a question about Ecclesiastes—one of my favorite books of the Bible.

Perhaps the word “vanity” owes its currency in modern English partly to the frequency with which it occurs in the book of Ecclesiastes. This short volume is replete with the word “vanity,” which also appears in many translations of the Bible as “meaninglessness.” In either case, the English is intended to translate the Hebrew word hevel, which literally means “vapor,” and as with any metaphor or idiomatic expression, something is lost in translation.

My friend asked a thoughtful question about Ecclesiastes 11:8 which in many translations ends with “All that comes is vanity.”

But in the Good News Translation my friend was reading, Ecclesiastes 11:8 says, “Be grateful for every year you live. No matter how long you live, remember that you will be dead much longer. There is nothing at all to look forward to.” Ecclesiastes is a book about the meaning of life, and the translation here hones the results of that search to an especially sharp edge.

Although it sounds terrible, as it turns out, the despair implied by Ecclesiastes 11:8 is intentional. Let me explain.

Ecclesiastes is part of the wisdom literature of the Bible—Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, and Song of Songs. Of these, Ecclesiastes is the book giving the most attention to the human search for meaning. This book addresses head-on the apparent meaninglessness (Hebrew: hevel) of life on earth. Most of this short book is devoted to various ways that people try to find meaning in life apart from God. And for most of the book, the answer is yes—if we only consider the brief few decades that we live on earth, then yes, life is meaningless. People struggle their whole lives to make something for themselves, and then they die. “What happens to fools is going to happen to me, too. So what have I gained from being so wise?” (2:15). Ecclesiastes seems to ask, “What’s the point?” After all, the verse in question (11:8) is hardly the only place where Ecclesiastes asks a difficult question and gives a depressing answer.

How does the book of Ecclesiastes, including the verse 11:8 that my friend asked about, fit into the whole Bible and its message? At first glance, Ecclesiastes seems to be an oddball, but I think we can discern its meaning and how it fits in the Bible.

First, some explanation of the structure of the book helps us to understand its meaning. Ecclesiastes has the literary structure of inclusio—the idea that there are bookends around a message in the middle. One of the purposes of inclusio is to create a framework which explains the message contained in the middle. In Ecclesiastes, the first “bookend” is 1:1-2. These verses form a prologue which introduces the Philosopher/Teacher (the Hebrew word is “Qoheleth”). Then from 1:3 to 12:7, Qoheleth remarks about the meaning of life. Finally, in 12:8-14, the other “bookend” concludes the whole book and tells the “moral of the story”. So we can think of Ecclesiastes as a book compiled by a general editor who publishes the contribution of another author. While most of the book is written from the perspective of the Philosopher/Teacher, the general editor has the final say in how the material should be interpreted. In the epilogue, the general editor summarizes the message of Ecclesiastes (12:13-14). Unlike most of the book, the summary message at the end is not all doom and gloom: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (12:13). This conclusion implies that God will indeed make things right in the end. Our brief lives on earth are not the end of the story, and there will be a reckoning: “God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil" (12:14). These conclusions are consistent with messages we get through the whole Bible. For example, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:25), the separation of the sheep from the goats (Matthew 25:31-46), or the great white throne judgment (Revelation 20:11-15).

Second, the message of Ecclesiastes is in balance with the other wisdom books. In Proverbs, we get a picture of how things normally work. People who follow the wise principles found in Proverbs will generally prosper, and those who ignore or reject its principles will suffer. But unlike Proverbs, Ecclesiastes deals with exceptions to these general principles. Old Testament scholars Edward Curtis and John Brugaletta observe that we must acknowledge the harsh realities found in Ecclesiastes to live wisely yet realistically in the world. They remark,

“The Lord brings us into conformity with the image of Christ [cf. Romans 8:29] in a world that includes precisely the evils and uncertainties that Ecclesiastes describes, and it is doubtful that spiritual development can occur if we do not recognize those realities.”[1]

Life is not a bed of roses and the question of life’s meaning doesn’t admit to any easy, pat answers. “Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all” (9:11). So in contrast to Proverbs, which describes the way that things normally work, Ecclesiastes “gets real” about life. Each book expresses the truth from a different perspective.

Third, the phrase “under the sun” (Hebrew tachath shemesh) is repeated often (the phrase is mentioned 29 times in all) to indicate that for most of the book, its perspective is limited to what happens here on earth. But what happens here on earth is not all there is. We are only human: our knowledge is limited. We cannot see the big picture to know how all the pieces fit together. In this life, we observe injustices of all kinds. Often, good goes unrewarded and evils escape punishment—in this life here and now. But after this life, there will be a judgment to make things right.

Returning to the question asked by my friend, the phrase “there is nothing at all to look forward to” (11:8) reflects the earthly, this-life-is-all-there-is perspective of Qoheleth. It does not consider what happens after we die until the epilogue in chapter 12. But in 12:14 we are reminded, “God is going to judge everything we do,” (12:14) “even things done in secret.” Here the voice of the general editor implies that the conclusion is looking forward to the time after this life is over. Right now, what is done in secret remains secret. But when this life is over, it will be revealed.

Finally, here are some helpful links – please check them out!

  1. Never read a Bible verse: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4yUL9TDD4_g

  2. Bible Project videos on Ecclesiastes:

[1] Edward M. Curtis and John J. Brugaletta, Discovering the Way of Wisdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2004), 197.

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