When one is looking for that quick fix of inspiration, they don’t typically turn to the pages of Ecclesiastes, where the first few words lend nothing too encouraging to get out of bed for. Ecclesiastes, however, is fixed in our biblical canon, seated up with the small handful of writing called wisdom literature. Why should we read these words, and how do they show us how to live in light of them?
We first meet the author, a teacher named Qohelet, possibly using the life of Solomon as an example for what has been assembled for us to learn and take heed.
This is what seems to throw most of us off in this book of so-called wisdom, in that it bucks against the system that we have seemingly been taught in many other pages. It’s not as if we haven’t thought about the pessimistic patterns of life ourselves, but that they seem wildly contradictory to what we have been told ourselves. Job’s wailings in his own piece is also called wisdom literature, and we learn what is opposite of many of our favorite Proverbs in the same way Qohelet strings each heavy verse together: things aren’t very neat and tidy here on Earth.
Ecclesiastes walks us through the mind of one who might have experienced exile from their land as a refugee, and now, has returned back home, rebuilding from scratch. Great grief and suffering plague our author; trauma is unexplainable as we, the meaning-making people, grasp to find words that embody an experience such as this one. Philip Browning Hesel describes this book as “broken-spirit” literature, almost lamenting in the process of mid-mourning, which then challenge what they have always known in this new context of the life they have now lived. Pithy Proverbs to be lived as the letter of the law don’t grant much life while your house burns down around you.
As many translators have searched to describe that Hebrew word, hevel, repeated over and over again in these twelve chapters, we catch a glimpse at not only the difficulty of these passages, but the whole of the message communicated singularly in just about one word:
In returning home to a place where they are also now a colonized people group, the entry of different groups brought different things to consider as well, making Tremper Longman’s approach to Ecclesiastes plausible in that the book itself could be a narrative way of warning others of the plethora of wisdoms and opinions that were available to them that swayed and sorrowed; test everything.
With a glimpse of our context, sobering words beset us as we continue on in exploring an inspired text. It’s important to hold these pieces together so that we might best understand what it looks like to apply them to our own lives. Application just might be much easier than it feels at first glance, living in the in-between as injustice reigns, and what is “fair” almost refuses to be the standard. Let us learn.