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Ecclesiastes

Author: Qohelet

Date Written: 970-225 BC

 

Ecclesiastes is a Wisdom book that explores life from a pessimistic perspective.  While Proverbs proposes salient points of wisdom to be followed, Ecclesiastes exposes the utter futility of human life without God.  Qohelet (pronounced KO-HEL-ET), the author of Ecclesiastes, cries "Vanity of vanities!  All is vanity!" (1:2).  Traditionally, Qohelet is identified with King Solomon as "son of David and king in Jerusalem," (1:1) but the book does not mention Solomon by name.  Some scholars posit a much later date for the book because of certain linguistic features.

 

The book examines many issues, but the focus is on where human beings spend their energies.  Qohelet rejects three goals which people regularly pursue: knowledge, money and pleasure.  Each one is "vanity and a striving after wind" (1:14).  While he acknowledges the usefulness of knowledge and wisdom (7:12), Qohelet rejects seeking them as vain (1:17).  The accumulation of wisdom and knowledge is merely a human undertaking when what God really desires from us is obedience (12:13).

 

Work and money also play a central role in the book.  Qohelet observes how people spend their days working and toiling, but never seem to gain from it.  Everyone seems stuck in a useless pattern of striving.  Even those who achieve material success often find that they don't get to enjoy the fruits of their labor (6:2).  Qohelet's observations line up with the curse of toil that Adam received after the Fall (Gen 3:17). 

 

While Qohelet's observations are somewhat despairing in tone, we are not meant to reject working or gaining wisdom (3:22; 10:10).  Rather, through Ecclesiastes we realize the shortness of human life, the smallness of our work, the insignificance of our lives without God.  Qohelet helps us understand that there are many pursuits in human life that are not worth investing our time and energy in.  Rather, we should seek God and keep his commandments.  For money, pleasure and knowledge are merely necessary things along the path of life, but God is the goal of the journey.

 

For Qohelet, it seems at first that money, pleasure and wisdom will produce human happiness.  But he is continually surprised to find out that this is not always the case.  It seems unjust, even evil, that a person could work hard all his life and never enjoy the results (6:2).   Yet throughout Ecclesiastes, we come to realize that happiness is a gift from God, not something we can produce.  Even the enjoyment of our own work is a gift.

 

Ecclesiastes often uses the Hebrew word hebel, which is usually translated as "vanity."  The word has many shades of meaning from "breath, wind, vapor" to "worthlessness, darkness, absurdity."

 

The book discusses the finality of death, which brings all earthly pursuits to a sudden halt.  It is as if all the grand projects of man are simply cut off.  No one can escape from death; it envelops the good and the wicked alike (9:2).

 

Ecclesiastes is hard to stomach because it confronts us so sharply with the contradictions of life.  Yet the hard truths which Ecclesiastes teaches lift our vision higher.  While our daily work is important in a limited sense, Ecclesiastes focuses us on the ultimately important purposes of life: to love God and keep his commandments (12:13).

 

By Mark Giszczak

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September 1, 2014

Monday of the Twenty-Second Week in Ordinary Time

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