Starting Ecclesiastes

The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem
’Absolute futility,’ says the Teacher.
’Absolute futility. Everything is futile.’
— Ecclesiastes 1:1-2 (CSB)
The words of Qoholet son of David, king in Jerusalem.
’Merest breath,’ said Qoholet,
’Merest breath. All is mere breath.’
— Qoholet 1:1-2 (Robert Alter)

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.

It is best to think of Qohelet as the literary persona of a radical philosopher articulating, in an evocative rhythmic prose that occasionally scans as poetry, a powerful dissent from the mainline Wisdom outlook that is the background of his thought.
— Robert Alter

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:

The Hebrew hevel probably indicates the flimsy vapor that is exhaled in breathing, invisible except on a cold winter day and in any case immediately dissipating in the air. It is the opposite of ruah, ‘life breath,’ which is the animating force in a living creature, because it is the waste product of breathing. If, then, one wanted to line up the abstractions implied by hevel, it would include not only futility, absurdity, and vanity but at least insubstantiality, ephemerality, and elusiveness as well.
— Robert Alter

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.

‘That place,’ said the Guide, ‘is the same which you called the Valley of Wisdom when you passed it before: but now that you are going East you may call it Limbo, or the twilit porches of the black hole.’

‘Who live there?’ asked John, ‘and what do they suffer?’

‘Very few live there, and they are all men like old Mr. Wisdom—men who have kept alive and pure the deep desire of the soul but through some fatal flaw, of pride or sloth or, may it be, timidity, have refused till the end the only means to its fulfilment; taking huge pains, often, to prove to themselves that the fulfilment is impossible. They are very few because old Wisdom has few sons who are true to him, and the most part of those who come to him either go on and cross the canyon, or else, remaining his sons in name, secretly slip back to feed on worse fare than his. To stay long where he lives requires both a strange strength and a strange weakness. As for their sufferings, it is their doom to live forever in desire without hope.’
— C.S. Lewis, Pilgrim's Regress