TRIGGER WARNING: Suicide themes
Ecclesiastes is my second favourite book of the Old Testament, after Job. I read it something like this: (a) Existence is cyclical and meaningless; (b and throughout) but we can kind of ignore it if we live in moderation and appreciate the simple things; (c) we can handle cyclicity and meaninglessness to an extent but a lot of life exceeds this cyclicity and positively sucks; (d) after all this, there is a lot we do not know so let’s do our best to live in accordance with the one who gave it to us.
You can find nice in Ecclesiastes, especially if you read it in one sitting, as I did before writing this. But there’s also a lot of unnice. So it would be a bit irresponsible to airbrush over these unnicities for the the sake of harmonising with brighter parts of the biblical picture. The doubts Ecclesiastes so willingly endorses are not to be overcome but allowed, like Jesus, to join and suffer with us.
Existence is cyclical and meaningless
Ecclesiastes scores low on eschatology. If there is a sense of judgement (12:14), this is not the Last Judgement where God sets the world to right,¹ but an immanent judgement where God deals justice in the here and now, though this is also problematised throughout (e.g. 7:15; 8:14; 9:1-2, 11)! Contrariwise, time is not heading to a roaring end but it calmly repeats itself:
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down,
and hurries to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south,
and goes around to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they continue to flow…
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.
This theme dominates the first three and a half chapters. As in nature there is nothing new, so also human pursuits suffer from a lack of newness. Thus the Teacher, whom the writer implies is King Solomon (1:1), is presented as one who enjoys all the pleasures and achievements of the world yet is still dissatisfied (2:1-11). The famous poem in 3:1-8, “For everything there is a season…,” suggests that all worldly possibilities, for good or for bad (cf. 7:14), have their season and contribute to the totality which is existence. A later reflection situates the same principle of cyclicity in the individual: In the same way someone enters the world naked (i.e. with nothing), so they leave it (5:15).
Comprehending and transcending the totality
Not everyone experiences existence as meaningless, and I doubt that anyone who does experience it as meaningless would do so consistently. I understand the Teacher’s experience of meaninglessness to be related to cyclicity and totality as mentioned above. Firstly, existence is meaningless because instead of heading towards a telos, a goal, it reproduces itself in a cycle. Secondly, this reproduction is a result of its having limited possibilities. The Teacher experiences existence as a bounded totality outside of which there is nothing. Inside the totality there only has been, is, and will be what is already there. There is nothing new. Those who experience existence as meaningful are those who remain within in it. Conversely, through reflection the Teacher transcends the totality, no longer viewing it as something of which he is a part but stepping out of it and viewing it from the outside. And outside of being their is nothingness. In fact, through reflection he is straddled between the something of which he remains a part and the nothing beyond the totality which he comprehends. This reflection is an inevitable consequence of wisdom:
I said to myself, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind.
For in much wisdom is much vexation,
and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.
This I understand to be the logic behind the continual appeals to everyday distraction: ”There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” (2:24-25; and many similar conclusions throughout!). Outside existence is nothingness; let us then be distracted with an excess of somethingness! This is also the logic of the song posted above, Waitin’ Around to Die. We know death and nothingness are at the door, but for fear of boredom or despair let us grasp at and be distracted by this present moment.
The beyond within the totality
Whereas both the Teacher and the singer see the nothingness and run from it to distraction because at least something is preferable to nothing, others see the nothing and prefer it to their unbearable something. This is definitely the case with Job. Rather than being threatened by the same, the cyclicity, the totality, he is threatened by the different, the new, the particular. The new of perverse suffering ruptures his otherwise contented life. He desires that he was never born. He seeks to retroactively annul the day of his birth because its somethingness disrupts the peace of nothingness:
Let the day perish in which I was born,
and the night that said,
‘A man-child is conceived.’
Let that day be darkness!
May God above not seek it,
or light shine on it.
Let gloom and deep darkness claim it.
Let clouds settle upon it;
let the blackness of the day terrify it.
That night—let thick darkness seize it!
let it not rejoice among the days of the year;
let it not come into the number of the months.
Yes, let that night be barren;
let no joyful cry be heard in it.
Let those curse it who curse the Sea,
those who are skilled to rouse up Leviathan.
Let the stars of its dawn be dark;
let it hope for light, but have none;
may it not see the eyelids of the morning—
because it did not shut the doors of my mother’s womb,
and hide trouble from my eyes.
(Job 3:3-10, though see whole chapter).²
On seeing the oppressed living, the Teacher echoes Job’s desires (4:1-3). Yet elsewhere he claims that life is to be preferred to death (6:3-5; 9:4-6). Those who desire to remain living either have not experienced great suffering or prefer the something over the nothing, perhaps just a result of blissful ignorance: ”They will scarcely brood over the days of their lives, because God keeps them occupied with the joys of their hearts” (5:20).
The new of suffering arises within the totality yet the individual experiences it outside of the totality. This is because the suffering is so excessive that the individual cannot arrive at it by way of all the possibilities within the totality. Great suffering is something new, that which subverts the totality from the inside and in so doing transcends it. Though I have little to say about it, love may also arise within existence as a newness, but with the opposite effect. Instead of directing the individual to nothingness, their whole existence is overwhelmed with colour, so much so that all mundanities, hitherto the exhausted possibilities of the totality, also take on a new existence, open toward the future for whatever good will come. The individual can now faithfully say that something is better than nothing.³
The beyond within and beyond the totality
Though the transcendent may arise within the totality, there is yet an even greater transcendence both within and beyond the totality. The Teacher notes God’s relation to the totality: “I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him” (3:15). Existence is complete and subject to God. Beyond it there is not nothingness but the God who birthed it, leading to worship. He later revisits the same distinction of creation and Creator: “Never be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few” (5:2). If we attempt to include God in our system, our comprehension of the totality, he disappears. It is not God we include. God is not subject to anything outside of God. Finally, with reference to God, the whole idea of a totality breaks down because there is no totality which can include God; rather, God includes the totality. Beyond the totality is not something comprehensible but mystery:
When I applied my mind to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how one’s eyes see sleep neither day nor night, then I saw all the work of God, that no one can find out what is happening under the sun. However much they may toil in seeking, they will not find it out; even though those who are wise claim to know, they cannot find it out.
Perhaps, too, the Teacher would have understood life differently if he studied eschatology. Though now it appears that existence reproduces itself, through the coming of Jesus and the Spirit the infinite has entered into the finite. No longer is the finite many-things possible but only the immeasurable all-things. And these are good things. “[T]he blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matt 11:5). Ahead of the resurrection of all people, Jesus has been raised and the Kingdom is here. God is at work through the Spirit to reconcile the world to him. The cyclicity of history has been punctured thus with something itself could not produce and now it heads to its fulfillment when all things will be made new.
These are no doubt beautiful events which I am routinely reinspired by. To what extent does the beyond and mystery of God add meaning where there is none? If we are exposed to this excess of meaning can we still experience meaninglessness? Will there be occasion for experiencing meaninglessness in the new heavens and new earth? So the Teacher persists in his questions. This book is in our canon. Take and read!
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¹This is evident in the lack of eschatological reflection on death (e.g. 3:19-21; 9:1-2). However, if the voice in 12:14 is different from the Teacher introduced in 1:1 (see 12:8-9) then it may refer to the Last Judgement. Regardless, a sense of eschatological judgement would still be missing from the words of the Teacher (1:1-12:8).
²Obviously because Job was a righteous man his prayers were answered. He was born February 30.
³This is not to say that love is an easily attainable answer to life’s lack of meaning. Nor would love not be difficult when the individuals arrived at it. Rather, it is capable of providing bursts of meaning to the otherwise mundane.