By Roman A. Madrigal
“Vanity of vanities, All is vanity!” This pessimistic generalization of the human condition provides the keynote to the interpretation of the book of Ecclesiastes and characterizes its author Qoheleth(1) as a despondent man of despair and depression. Indeed, the book as a whole is quite negative and evokes a forceful sense of gloom. It is this feature of distinct pessimism that has led most students and exegetes of Ecclesiastes to overlook the positive message of the work. And there is an affirmative side to this fascinating book. While the author is not the total pessimist that his opening sentence might suggest, I think that his uncompromising insistence that all is vanity is the necessary framework within which his positive message must be understood.
While the positive value of Qoheleth has been greatly neglected by biblical scholars who continue to interpret the spirit of the book to be one of “overarching resignation and despair,”(2) it is my belief that the negative thinking of Qoheleth yields positive goals and results. His negative stance is prerequisite to his positive admonition to enjoy life. He is demolishing to build. This type of negative thinking can be quite powerful and productive. Qoheleth’s advice to enjoy created life as a gift from God is a steady counterpoint to his central argument: man’s desperate search for order in a chaotic world is simply fruitless. This proposition does not necessarily conflict with “the end of the matter” in 12:13. It simply means that there is nothing better for man to do than to eat, drink, and to rejoice – for this is his portion! It is the purpose of our study to discover Qoheleth’s total world view by surveying these positive and negative motifs throughout the book. Our investigation will not attempt to be exhaustive, but rather suggestive an introductory. I believe a detailed examination of these themes would prove most fruitful, but such is not our purpose at this present time.
Point And Counterpoint
The Hebrew word for “vanity” in Ecclesiastes can be interpreted as “vapor.” This is, perhaps, even more depressing than the traditional translation of “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” The characteristic of vapor is that it vanishes, disappears. Qoheleth observes that the same is true for human life. Nothing endures. Nothing lasts forever. Nothing remains. While other biblical texts note the transitory nature of human affairs (see Isaiah 40:6-7 and Proverbs 27), Qoheleth sets forth this common insight with an emphasis and consistency that is without parallel in the Old Testament Scriptures. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? What profit is there? What can be accumulated and stored up? Nothing! Qoheleth moves on to exclaim, “Therefore I hated life. . .” (2:17). Although this is the main point of the book, the author offers a secondary intent, or counterpoint. In spite of his inability to discover the key to life’s meaning, man is to enjoy life, for “this is his portion.” It is this uniform counterpoint that gives Ecclesiastes its overall equilibrium and sense of balance (2:24-26; 3:12-13; 3:22; 5:18-19; 7:14; 8:15; 9:7-9; 11:9-12:1).
Many scholars who have seriously studied Ecclesiastes maintain that the essential theme to the book is not resignation, but joy (simha), the enjoyment of life. Robert Gordis, for example, explains that “for Qoheleth, joy is God’s categorical imperative for man, not in any anemic or spiritualized sense, but rather as a full-blooded and tangible experience, expressing itself in the play of the body and the activity of the mind, the contemplation of nature and the pleasures of love.”(3) We shall notice both the negative motif of vanity and the positive motif of enjoyment throughout the remainder of our discussion.
Qoheleth reminds us through his various topics and themes that all religious affirmations which do not measure up to experience and the facts of life are naive and cannot be trusted. What he affirms in his blunt realism is the following three theses: (1) There are limits to human existence, especially death; (2) Man is thus disillusioned and begins to hate life; therefore (3) Man should recognize the reality of the present moment as a gift from God to be enjoyed.(4)
Death cancels everything. This is the common lot of all men. This is the fundamental limitation placed upon the human race. This realization brings Qoheleth to despair as he cries “all is vanity!” Another limit placed on man is the thinking can be quite power created life as a gift from God is a steady unpleasant fact that he lives in an indiscernible moral advice to enjoy order (cf. 7:15 and 8:14). Any casual observer can see that the world is crooked, where the sons of men do only what is right in their own eyes. These human limitations reveal ultimately that there is no new thing under the sun. Even wisdom, however beneficial and bountiful, has definite restrictions. Qoheleth demolishes the myth of progress with a single blow.
Any attempt by man to master his life is presented as folly and a striving after wind. Wisdom cannot be pursued as an end in itself because it too, has certain limitations (l:l8). Pleasure, wealth, honor, and fame(5) all are as the vapor which vanishes into thin air. There is no gain or profit from man’s labor in which he labors under the sun. Given all this, the arrogant effort of autonomous (modern?) man to control his fate is laughable.
“So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind (2:17).
Having noted a range of limits imposed on man’s existence and experience and the resultant folly of man’s attempt to master his life, Qoheleth reasserts the sage advice that man’s lot is to enjoy the life that God gives to him, fog this is his portion. Indeed, it is humanity’s only divided fog earthly existence; life under the sun. It is my belief that this theme of enjoyment provides a steady counter point to the main point of vanity, pessimism, and negativity in Ecclesiastes. “Enjoyment” can also be understood as the fruit of negative thinking in the book. That is, enjoyment and the transient pleasures of this life are highlighted in the context of Qoheleth’s desperate and dismal declarations. There is a certain power of negative thinking which gives Ecclesiastes its forcefulness, and this negative reflection yields the very positive product of pleasure. Of course the pursuit of life’s pleasures must always be realized in light of God’s Covenant (11:9; 12:13-14). Yet Ecclesiastes is concerned ultimately with the enjoyment of the present, not in any hedonistic sense, but in the context of life with all its toil and enigma. This is the life available to man. This is the life that God gives!
1. The purpose of this essay is not to discuss questions of authorship and date, but rather, to pursue the meaning of the book. For convenience, we shall refer to the author (probably Solomon) with the Hebrew “Qoheleth.”
Guardian of Truth XXVII: 12, pp. 362-363
June 16, 1983