What has been is What will be…

I’ve really fallen in love with the book of Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes is a part of the literary genre known as “Wisdom Literature.” It is characterized by a practical orientation to daily life without reference to the historical acts of God or the nation of Israel.

I feel the following passages are some of the most well-known of Ecclesiastes:

“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done. There is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new?’ It has already been, in the ages before us. I saw everything done under the sun; all is vanity and chasing after wind. I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive. But better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil done under the sun. The same fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil. As are the good, so are the sinners. There is an evil in everything under the sun, that the same fate comes to everyone.” (Eccles. 1:9-10,14; 4:2-3; 9:2-3a)

The book of Ecclesiastes made me ask a lot of questions while studying it this semester.  Like Job, it presents a challenge to traditional theology. The book of Ecclesiastes questions the very purpose of human existence. It asks, if everyone dies in the end, what is the meaningful difference between righteousness and wickedness? Like Proverbs, Ecclesiastes approaches the world experience looking for order in mortal law. Using the powers of observation and reason, the writer attempts to put things together in a meaningful way. But unlike the wisdom of Proverbs, the writer of Ecclesiastes fails to see an overall coherent direction.

The author of Ecclesiastes says there is a time for everything (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2), also implying reason for everything, yet makes statements such as Ecclesiastes 2:11 where they claim that everything is futile and there is nothing to be gained in life.  It would seem that the conclusion to draw from Ecclesiastes is that the world is “just the way it is.” Bad things happen and you can either keep living or not. According to Ecclesiastes’ writer, it doesn’t matter either way

In my reading and writing I tried to find a resolution to this pessimism much as the writer of Ecclesiastes tried to without putting everything in a Christian context. I used to feel the message of Ecclesiastes was that not everything is absurd, truly, only everything sought apart from God. If we try to find meaning in wisdom, wealth, or work ‘under the sun’ apart from God then our search will be futile. Many people, however, do find meaning apart from God, so I will attempt to put the wisdom of Ecclesiastes in terms to which non-deists can relate. Life is indeed hopeless and absurd, and we chase after wind all the time. We certainly don’t progress as much as we think we do. History is a long defeat, and humanity will most likely eventually lose altogether. But in the meantime we do the best we can, and we try to do good for goodness sake alone, perhaps on grounds that life under the sun can be good no matter how bad because that’s all there is.

Ecclesiastes’ main purpose was to show the futility of human existence apart from God. It is a tract to convert self-sufficient materialists or intellectuals. B. H. Carroll said that in the days of his infidelity, Ecclesiastes and Job exercised an unearthly power on him, expressing the emptiness of life and pointing toward God. The dictionary section of the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, vol. 4, pp. 552-554, lists a similar option as one of several: “if the vanity of all reality is truly Qoheleth’s (author of Ecclesiastes) own conclusion, it is only because he limits his observations initially to a reality without the God of the OT; then when he does introduce God, this pessimistic view of life dissipates and is supplanted by a more orthodox attitude expressed in the epilogue (12:13-14).”

While reading through Ecclesiastes in my research, I asked myself what value this book holds. Then I thought about who wrote the book. Supposedly King Solomon wrote it, and King Solomon was heralded to be pretty much the wisest man to live in the Old Testament. When you understand this book was written by a man of unlimited wealth, who sought to test the limits of the happiness it could buy, always coming up empty, then you see the wisdom of Ecclesiastes. There is no “other world,” where material wealth brings forth a joyous existence of unbounded peace and contentment. Test if you can, but it sounds to me like Solomon, or whoever, knew what he was talking about.

This book is agnostic about God and the afterlife. It does not answer the questions of ultimate reality, but it does ask the questions of current reality. For Jews, it showed the error of simplistic overstatements made by traditional theologians.  For nonbelievers, it shows the bankruptcy of earthly life without God. Easy answers to life’s questions are usually wrong. There is mystery even in people’s faith.

A good summary of the message of Ecclesiastes is that there is mystery in life, in nature, in humanity, and in God. The key is found in faith, not knowledge; in family, not possessions; and in God, not human wisdom or actions. The simple pleasures of life: family, work, friends, food provide happiness in this life. For the nonreligious a lot can be drawn from this wisdom as well. Whether you believe in God and the afterlife or not, you might as well be “good for goodness’ sake” because in the end our alternatives are limited. We either live, and make the best of the world we live in, or we don’t. It’s that simple.

I’ve really enjoyed this class, it has put me in a position where I was able to find and solidify my opinions on many topics. I hope everyone got a similar result and I hope everyone enjoys their summer.

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