And so we come to the most depressing book of the bible. If Marvin the paranoid android were a biblical author, Ecclesiastes is the sort of book he’d write.
Ecclesiastes presents itself in a title verse as written by Solomon, a king whose name was synonymous with wisdom and great wealth. It seems a canny choice by the anonymous author, and not only because of the tradition linking Solomon with wisdom. It is the combination of riches and wisdom he wants to use to frame his meditation. Solomon, with his several hundred wives and concubines, and a palace to match the grandeur of the temple complex is a king of conspicuous and excessive wealth. Yet he is also portrayed as the wise philosopher king of Israel’s past.
Because of his reputation for wisdom, the exceedingly well-off king is the perfect character to teach the author’s message: “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Long after the meaning of the word vanity has changed in daily English, this refrain from the older English translation has kept the older sense alive. Modern renditions like “sheer futility”, or “utterly meaningless” lack the resonance.1 There is only one reading used in the Sunday lectionary, and it is the writer introducing this theme song near the beginning of his book.2
The book as a whole, while somewhat disconnected in places, is essentially a meditation on the futility of life. Every achievement, all knowledge, great wealth, political power is like “chasing the wind”. There will always be so much more you don’t have than what you already have. Compared to God’s knowledge, wealth and power, you might as well have none.
At times the writer’s acknowledgement of God seems so much of a theological formality it doesn’t take away the sense of meaninglessness in a world where injustice seems rather more visible than justice. It is only the writer’s skilful and poetic use of language to skewer human pretension that stops the book being a depressing experience. Never has the cliché “money can’t buy you happiness” been more profoundly and freshly meditated on.
There is a bleak beauty to the writer’s style that resonates for all those who sometimes find themselves looking on the dark side of life. Perhaps even more than the message in the book, the book’s presence in scripture is itself a message. Those who have run out of steam, become jaded, struggle with their mental health, can’t quite see the point in life – they too can be the presence and the wisdom of God to others. You can be in the bible without bounce, in church without much cheer. It’s OK not to be OK.
- “Sheer futility” comes from the New Jerusalem Bible, “utterly meaningless” from the New International Version.
- Year C, Proper 13, the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time.