The Book of Ecclesiastes can cause no end of head scratching, with some comments that seem excessively fatalistic and depressing. Does it really mean it when it says everything is meaningless?
We’ve probably found that context is everything when we read our Bibles (or anything else!) So we’ll read a few verses before and after the passage in question. It doesn’t help at all. It’s still all gloom and glum. What’s going on?
The first hint comes when we read the last two verses of the book, and find there’s one thing (or two — depending on how we read) that’s definitely not meaningless. It turns out that Ecclesiastes is one of two books in the Bible that sort of ends in a “punch line.” I won’t spoil the ending; take a moment and check it out. I’ll wait…
As an aside, I did mention that *two* books end in a punch line. Can anyone out there point out the other one?
It’s not a “joke” punch line. We read the whole book to suddenly have an important point jump out at the final moment. This may be unexpected to modern readers, who may read a chapter here or there, browsing contentedly.
Now, if browsing is how you can best absorb the scriptures, then go for it, full speed ahead. Just be aware of the occasional hazard, ‘cuz, as modern readers, we’ve invented a brand new way to confuse ourselves. (Wait a minute… doesn’t Ecclesiastes say that there’s nothing new under the sun? Wait for it…)
Back when scriptures were copied by hand, almost no one could afford to own a book, and many, many people couldn’t read, anyway. One absorbed the scriptures by hearing, and some individual books could easily be read aloud in their entirety. The idea of browsing scripture and flipping around was probably unknown when books of scripture were individual scrolls. Pulling one out and unrolling to a particular passage was enough work that one would be likely to just keep reading what was there. Let’s follow their lead, just this once…
If we read Ecclesiastes all the way through, the problems all vanish. What we’re reading is essentially a sermon. The author was almost certainly Solomon, who was given vast wisdom by God, though Solomon found lots of opportunities to not use it.
The book details his lifetime search for happiness and meaning, and his frustration and disappointment with it. As one strategy after another fails, he starts seeing it all as meaningless. He even reaches one point of despair where he considers life as worse than one rotten thing after another; instead it’s the same rotten things over and over. This is where he says there’s nothing new under the sun.
This is not a case of the scriptures lying to us; it’s a case of hyperbole, where one uses clear exaggeration to show intense emotion. They used it in ancient Israel, just as we use it today. When someone says “This pie is to die for,” they don’t really mean they’re ready to die for it, and no one thinks they are. They do appreciate the intense emotion that’s there.
As we read Ecclesiastes straight through, we easily get a feel for the despair and frustration the author felt, and we don’t feel any need to read more into it than was intended. Also, when we come to that “punch line” at the end, it drives the point home, with all the greater power.
Consider reading Ecclesiastes straight through, in one sitting. It’s not hard, it’ll make everything clearer, and it just might help us feel a slight connection to people from ancient times, and how they experienced God’s Word.