Study Guide

Ecclesiastes Allusions

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Literary and Philosophical References

  • A Time to Kill by John Grisham 
    John Grisham's first legal thriller is the tale of the trial of a man who (understandably and perhaps rightfully) murders the men who sexually assaulted his daughter. Its title is taken from Ecclesiastes, implying that there really is a "time to kill."
  • The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway 
    Hemingway took the title for his first novel from Ecclesiastes, and also used a quote from it (1:3-5) as the epigraph:

    What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.

    He meant to imply that although his characters were battered and defeated, the sun would still rise on them—the world had not totally fallen off its axis after World War I, and the possibility to experience goodness was still present.
  • Herman Melville (author of Moby-Dick and Billy Budd)
    Melville said that Ecclesiastes was "the truest of all books." It makes sense that the writer of Moby-Dick would've felt that way. Melville loved the same ambiguities and contradictions that Ecclesiastes deals in. He called the book of Ecclesiastes "fine hammered steel of woe". They both approach existence as tough, messy problems without easy solutions.
  • "No Possum, No Sop, No Taters" by Wallace Stevens 
    Ecclesiastes said that the wise man went to the "house of mourning" to gain in wisdom, learning about happiness by learning about sorrow. Stevens's poem is about how, in a cold and desolate month of the year, you learn more about the real enjoyments life has to offer and what they really mean—precisely because you don't have those enjoyments. But there's a weird kind of enjoyment in that, Stevens says.
  • The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton 
    Edith Wharton took the title of her book from Ecclesiastes 7:4: "The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of the fool is in the house of mirth." Her main character, Lily Barton, goes on a foolish but sympathetic quest for a luxurious and romantic existence. Whether it destroys her or not, we'll leave you to find out—though, um, based on the title's allusion, it seems like anyone would probably place their bet somewhere in the region of… "totally destroyed."
  • Thomas Wolfe (author of Look Homeward, Angel, and Of Time and the River)
    Thomas Wolfe was a massive Ecclesiastes fan-boy. Not only did he say it was the most splendid piece of writing he'd ever encountered, but the most sublime and eloquent poetry in the world as well. So, of course, we're left to assume it had a pretty big impact on his famous, semi-autobiographical novels.

Pop Culture References

  • Gattaca
    People love to open movies with Ecclesiastes quotes. It's just a great book for that. Gattaca begins with a quote from verse 7:13: "Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what he has made crooked?" The movie tells the tale of a young man (Ethan Hawke) struggling to travel into space in a world that has scientifically determined that he's too genetically inferior ever to succeed. You can see the movie as saying either that society is trying to make human nature less "crooked" by genetically engineering it, or you can see Ethan Hawke as trying to disprove the quote by making himself less "crooked," despite how he was born.
  • Groundhog Day
    Religions from Christianity to Buddhism all find messages related to their beliefs hidden in this classic Bill Murray movie, and you can really see Ecclesiastes's themes reflected in it, too. "There is nothing new under the sun" for Bill Murray's character, because he's forced to live the same exact day over and over again. Yet he gradually comes to take joy in life by embracing it, making the most of it, and appreciating goodness.
  • Platoon 
    Oliver Stone's Vietnam War classic (based partly on his own experiences) starts off with an Ecclesiastes quote: "Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth" (11:9). Considering that the movie's about horrifying war experiences, we're meant to assume that this quote is a little ironic.
  • Achtung Baby by U2
    In an interview, U2's lead-singer, Bono—he of the cowboy hat and shades (and, you know, saving the world from starvation)—said that Ecclesiastes provides the key to understanding U2's classic album, Achtung Baby. You can kind of see how this makes sense. Bono sings, "she moves in mysterious ways"—just like God does! If that doesn't convince you (and it probably shouldn't) consider the hit song, "One." It does have a very Ecclesiastes-style message: we've all got one spirit, we're all living this one life, so let's help each other and appreciate it. (Source.)
  • "Turn! Turn! Turn!" by The Byrds (written by Pete Seeger)
    Folk-singer Pete Seeger's lyrics added six words to the famous "a time to live, a time to die" passage and made into a massive hit for The Byrds.
  • "The Wanderer" by U2 (with Johnny Cash)
    Here's another Ecclesiastes-inspired hit from the Irish rockers. Johnny Cash sings Bono's lyrics, "I went out there / In search of experience / To taste and to touch / And to feel as much / As a man can / Before he repents"—which is exactly what Ecclesiastes said he did.
  • "Tripping Billies" by The Dave Matthews Band
    "Eat, drink, and be merry—for tomorrow we'll die" is the chorus of this DMB anthem. There's probably a definite Ecclesiastes influence there. Dave Matthews: bringing the Bible (or at least the parts about partying) into fraternity houses since 1991.
  • "Ecclesiastes" by Stevie Wonder
    This is actually an instrumental. There's an organ that seems to have a little of that somber wisdom hidden inside it. It hovers between sounding like a funeral tune and a tribute to life.

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