“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says Koholeth, the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”
Existential angst is not a new thing, and it is eloquently expressed by the writer of Ecclesiastes. Rabbinic tradition attributes Ecclesiastes to Solomon, which is probably why such an unorthodox if not outright agnostic book made its way into the canon. Many Biblical scholars believe it was actually written much later, perhaps sometime in the second or third centuries BC, after the fall of both Israel and Judah. Regardless of when it was written and by whom, Ecclesiastes describes the efforts of someone who had enough leisure time and resources to study and think deeply about the state of the world, only to conclude that it doesn’t make much sense.
Like the author of Job, the writer of Ecclesiastes notes that reality doesn’t corroborate the prevailing theology of an active and involved God who rewards good people and punishes bad people. He wants to believe that “God will bring into judgment both the righteous and the wicked, for there will be a time for every activity, a time to judge every deed.” but he doesn’t see that happening in real life. He’s not sure what, if anything, happens in the afterlife. “All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?” and “All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not.”
Koholeth apparently enjoys a long enough life and sufficient financial resources to attempt many different ways of finding meaning in life: a hedonistic lifestyle involving alcohol and sex, wealth acquisition, creative expression, scholarly pursuits, public service. He concludes that none of his efforts are especially meaningful, lasting, or worthwhile (“meaningless as chasing the wind”) Trying to make sense out of a senseless world is depressing in itself. “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” He advocates for a moderate lifestyle “Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise— why destroy yourself? Do not be overwicked, and do not be a fool— why die before your time? It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes.” He thinks that people should try to enjoy their work, even if it is exhausting and has no lasting value, and their relationships while they can.“Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom. “
So why is Ecclesiastes included in our sacred scripture, and what can we learn from Koholeth? I’ve heard many suggestions over the years. One traditional explanation is that Solomon wrote it toward the end of his life, after he had been led astray from God by his many wives and alliances with pagan kingdoms. However, that theory has never been particularly satisfying to me, especially since I agree with the evidence placing the book’s origins in the post-exilic period. Rather, I think it is exactly what it appears to be: a cry of existential angst by someone who wants to believe, but can’t.
I’m glad that there is a place for Ecclesiastes in the Bible, because it says to me that there is a place for the doubters, the questioners, and the dreamers who want the world to make sense, yet believe that it doesn’t. I know plenty of people like that today, which confirms Koholeth’s observation that “There is nothing new under the sun.” People like that remind me of the story in the gospel of Mark where a father seeking a cure for his epileptic son, grasping at what is probably his last straw, goes to Jesus. Jesus asks the father if he believes Jesus can help, and in complete and unadorned truthfulness, the father cries out “I believe: help my unbelief!”
Ecclesiastes shows that the traditional theology of the people of God as expressed in Mosaic law has reached its limits. It doesn’t work the way it was thought to work, and Koholeth knows that. And if we’re honest, so do we. Ecclesiastes, like John the Baptist, prepares the way for the One who is to come. And that’s really good news to me.