Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north;
Round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full;
To the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow.
All things are wearisome; more than one can express;
The eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done;
There is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,“See, this is new”?
It has already been, in the ages before us.
The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance
Of people yet to come by those who come after them.
Ecclesiastes 1: 1-11
Reflection – I love the book of Ecclesiastes – I think it is just about my favorite Old Testament book. The O.T. is just such an intensely human document—this is what often gets missed in the stale debates of atheism vs. fundamentalist faith. It is a book about human beings—messy, messed up, weird, confused, mean, kind, stupid, clever human beings. And running all through this intensely human document and its intense exposure of the human condition in all its glorious sordidness, is God, a God not fully known, not always clearly revealed in His goodness and love, a God filtered through the haze and smoke of millennia of human perfidy, but the God whose holiness and righteousness shines more and more brightly as the story advances.
The O.T. is so deeply human, so much a testimony to the human condition in all its puzzlement and baffled anguish, as well as its little triumphs and sweet joys. And nowhere is this more clearly seen than in Ecclesiastes. This little piece of wisdom literature dares to set down, on tablets of stone so to speak, humanity in one of its darkest moods. That is, it records as Sacred Scripture, as the word of God among men, the question, ‘So what’s the use of anything, anyway?’
Such a human question, such a common cry. Why bother? What good is it? We’re all going to die soon and leave nothing behind, so what is the point of doing anything? This is the question of Ecclesiastes—vanity of vanities, all is vanity. In Hebrew it is hevel havalim—breath of breaths, all is just a puff of air that doesn’t amount to much in the first place and then vanishes forever in the second place.
And Qoheleth goes through all the possible goods of life—wealth, wisdom, pleasure, virtue—and dismisses them each in turn as, basically, a lot of hot air. It is quite the book, really, in its total rejection of the lasting and real value of anything we can accomplish or attain in this life. It keeps coming to the same point: we all die, and all of this is lost, and so what good is it?
And here’s the part that I love most about the book: it never answers the question. Oh, he comes to a sort of resolution by the end—just do the best you can with what you’ve got, and try to be a good person—but that’s hardly an answer. That’s a makeshift sort of thing: we have to do something, and this seems like the best thing to do.
The whole O.T., in a sense, is a question without an answer. I would say that our entire humanity, our human experience in itself, is a question without an answer. We are alternately such wonderful creatures, so filled with immortal longings and intimations of greatness, capable of profundities of virtue and marvels of wisdom and beauty. And then in a flicker of an eye it all changes, and we are vulgar, crass, craven little things, crawling on the face of the earth, doomed to be wiped out in the passing of an hour of cosmic time. Which is it? Both seem real, both seem right.
The human enigma, and nowhere is it confronted more simply and plainly than in Ecclesiastes, and in another way, in Job. A deeply human question that has no human answer. Ecclesiastes will not be answered, in fact, nor will Job, until God Himself comes into the human condition and gives the answer.
The whole O.T. cries out, in an unified voice, ‘What is this thing called ‘man?’ and finds no answer, nothing but vanity and empty wind. The New Testament calls out in a voice that fills the cosmos, ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and to all who receive him, who believe in his name, he gives power to become children of God.’