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The Book of Ecclesiastes is a weird fit. If the books of the Bible were puzzle pieces, you would have a hard time figuring out where to put Ecclesiastes—it's the kind of piece that needs to be jammed into place, or one that you might be tempted to adjust with a pair of scissors. And when you finally get it in, a bunch of the pieces next to it might pop out, and then your puzzle-picture of two kittens playing with a ball of twine is ruined. Just ruined.
So Ecclesiastes is definitely odd—it seems like the flamingo at a penguin party, or maybe more like the proverbial "ghost at the feast." Plenty of scholars and theologians agree that Ecclesiastes just feels like it's coming from another planet, one different from almost all the other books of the Bible (except maybe for Job). In fact, many of the rabbis who were putting the Hebrew Bible together didn't want to put Ecclesiastes in—but they were out-voted.
Unless his book is just a compilation of folk sayings, a kind of philosophy version of NOW! That's What I Call Music for 400-250 BCE Judea, Ecclesiastes was a definite original. Some people suggest that Ecclesiastes is so different from everybody else because he was influenced by Greek philosophers—like Epicurus, who was also into talking about heavy subjects like death in a big way. But there isn't any Greek influence on Ecclesiastes's language, which remains Hebrew, so this all seems sort of unlikely.
So, Ecclesiastes, or—wait. For now, let's call him by his Hebrew name, Koheleth, since it sounds more like the name of one of Godzilla's enemies or a monster truck. Ecclesiastes is just the Greek version of Koheleth, which means "Gatherer" or "Assembler"—either because he gathered all the sayings and observations that make up this book, or he used to gather together people and teach them these sayings and observations, which led to his English nickname of "Teacher" or "Preacher." His teachings were like the original TEDTalks. (Also, by the way, Koheleth is apparently the name of a modern-day heavy metal band, highlighting what we just said about monster trucks a second ago.)
For a long time, Ecclesiastes was said to be the same as King Solomon, the wisest of Israel's kings. But in reality, he lived about half-a-millennium after Solomon. The rep for wisdom is what links them.
And speaking of wisdom, Koheleth challenges some of the basic points and assumptions made by nearly all the other books in the Bible. Those other books don't ever question the idea that life has a purpose, and that God is guiding that purpose towards something that's ultimately good (again, with the possible exception of Job).
Yeah, human beings keep messing up, provoking God's wrath and giving him the occasional panic attack—but the long arc of the Bible seems to bend towards a final time of peace, when the Israelites and the rest of humanity will be living righteously and without endless war. Not so for Koheleth. He doesn't mean to be a bummer, but you'd be excused for thinking he is one.
Yet, despite how radically different the Book of Ecclesiastes is, it's had a huge impact on world literature. The American writer Thomas Wolfe said that it was "the greatest single piece of writing I have ever known, and the wisdom expressed in it the most lasting and profound." And the rock band The Byrds used an entire passage from Ecclesiastes as the lyrics to their hippie-anthem, "Turn! Turn! Turn!" But to understand the hype, you really need to dig into this often-disturbing masterpiece.
The word "wise" is often thrown around like so many foam peanuts. For instance, "wise guy" isn't usually a term for someone who's wise, at all—we apply it to a cocky kid or a Goodfellas-style mobster much more regularly. People even say "wise man" more sarcastically than seriously. But wisdom literature was a popular style of writing in the ancient Middle East. You needed wisdom because life was hard. Assyria could invade you. Babylon could invade you. They could murder you, murder your family, pillage, plunder, and all that other awful stuff.
But even now, in the present day, when you're a lot less likely to get stampeded to death by a horde of Babylonian charioteers, you still stand the risk of dying at some point. In fact, recent studies show that 100% of all human beings will, eventually… die. It's science. So, death is inevitable—sorry. But hey—why hear it from us when you can hear it from Clint Eastwood?
So, we're all going to die. (Prepare your frown-face emoticons.) But this is also why Ecclesiastes still has a lot to say. The author has done some hard livin'—we're not saying he's Keith Richards, but he implies he's been through it all. And after these experiences—from living an intense life as a 24 Hour Party Person to slowing down and being a bit more reasonable—Ecclesiastes has something to say. He has wisdom to impart. He's driven his Harley from New York to San Fran and back, and now he wants to give you the news.
But is it good news? A fair amount of Ecclesiastes focuses on death and the meaninglessness of life. It begins with the famous refrain, "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!" and repeats it throughout the book. Now, "vanity" here doesn't mean staring at your reflection and hoping everyone thinks you're winsome and attractive. He's not saying the whole world is just one giant Barbie Vanity Dream Playset by Mattel (although that might be cool—for a little while, anyway).
Here, the word translated as "vanity" is closely related to the Hebrew word for "fog" or "mist"—the great Hebrew Bible scholar, Robert Alter, translates it as "mere breath." It means the world is a place where everything is always disappearing, dissolving, changing from one day to the next. Things vanish just like the cold breath you breathe out on a winter day. There's a sense of futility, absurdity, confusion, and meaninglessness all mixed up in it too. Basically, he's saying that life is pretty insubstantial. (Source)
So is Ecclesiastes just a Debbie Downer? Is that all he has to say? Thankfully, the answer is "Not really." Some people think Ecclesiastes is totally pessimistic, but a good number also think he's got a lot more going on. He's not just looking at life and saying, "This is total lame-sauce." He's admitting that life seems meaningless—or, at least, that the plot of life isn't immediately clear.
Books like the Bible or the Teachings of the Buddha or Plato's Dialogues try to show people what the plot is or might be—and if you're looking at life without a guidebook, it might easily seem like "vanity." Ecclesiastes is trying to give you the antidote to all this vanity. Or, if you prefer, he's giving you an Easy Bake recipe for wisdom muffins… covered with sanity sprinkles… and the icing of joyfulness… (okay, okay—we'll stop).
Ecclesiastes—Best Book in the Bible
David Plotz (the writer of the Slate article below) comments on Ecclesiastes being his favorite book of the Bible.
Buechner on Koheleth (Say that Three Times Fast)
The famous liberal Protestant minister, Frederick Buechner, offers an easy-going and funny take on Ecclesiastes.
Godless, Weird, and Beautiful
Slate magazine writer David Plotz offers his own perspective on Ecclesiastes. (It doesn't necessarily gel with what we've said about Ecclesiastes: Plotz's title describes it as "Godless," even though Ecclesiastes mentions God quite a bit. But it's still an interesting read.)
Rabbi Louis's Take
One of the main leaders of Conservative (Masorti) Judaism in the United Kingdom discusses the book's meaning from a religious Jewish viewpoint.
Gregory of Nyssa on Ecclesiastes
Gregory of Nyssa was one of the founding fathers of the Orthodox Christian Church. He's not mentioned so much in Roman Catholicism or Protestantism, but he's still really important to Eastern Orthodoxy. Here, he gives a very transcendent depiction of Ecclesiastes. Nice-ah.
Here are a few selections from the Jewish Talmud and Midrash, commenting on Ecclesiastes. They're pretty dense and difficult reading—so this is more just to give you a taste of what Talmudic debate looks like on paper.
Under the Sun
An evangelical Christian professor, John Hutchison, gives an optimistic take on Ecclesiastes (vanity is "under the sun," but God is "above the sun") in this lecture (clocking in at around 90 minutes).
Route 66: Ecclesiastes
King Solomon has tried everything under the sun and found that it was vanity—except for one thing… (a short comedy bit).
Folk Style, Ya'll
Yee Haw! Get ready for that old-time jug-band music… about how everything is futile and empty. This is actually a work of European classical music, inspired by the idea that "all is vanity."
Brahms is On It
These operatic ditties were inspired by the saddest and most super-serious parts of the Bible. The first two are from Ecclesiastes. (Note: they're in German.)
Out on a date? Throwing a party? Liven things up with a little classical mood music inspired by Ecclesiastes. Nothing reminds you to live it up and have a good time like some chamber music about how life is nothing but a big ol' bowl of vanity.
"Woody Allen, Ecclesiastes, and the Search for Meaning"
Here's a sermon from a Unitarian Universalist Church minister on what Woody Allen and Ecclesiastes can both teach people about searching for meaning in life.
"Composition of Flowers"
This is a style of painting called a "Vanitas" (which is Latin for, um, "vanity"). It's meant to show the vanity of the world—but in Mignon's version, he does this in a unique way. He shows the world as a swamp, full of decay, with a bird's skeleton lying in the water, and a threatening snake popping out. Yikes.
"For the Love of God"
Damien Hirst is this eccentric British artist who's done tons of weird exhibits (one of his best-known art-works is just a dead shark suspended in a tank). This is another one: a skull decked with tons of diamonds. It's pretty cool—it's definitely inspired by the Vanitas paintings, but it's supposedly meant to be more uplifting… or something.
"King Solomon in Old Age," Gustave Dore
The great illustrator Gustave Dore drew this picture of King Solomon—seated in writer mode.
The traditional Vanitas was a popular kind of painting during the Renaissance, inspired by Ecclesiastes. It was a still-life, except instead of painting a picture of peaches and pears, you painted a picture of skulls and things that reminded you of death and of how vain and fleeting life is. Admittedly, this is way more metal than peaches and pairs, and kind of like an Iron Maiden album cover.