Ecclesiastes is a book of doom. In twelve undramatic chapters, King Solomon seems even more stubbornly disconsolate than Job. Empire, wealth, wisdom, virtue, and still “all is futility and chasing wind.” We will die, suddenly and without notice, and what was ours will decay or pass to others.
By all means, Solomon urges, “all that your hand finds to do, do,” but the undoing impends—“for there is no action or reason or thought or wisdom in the pit, where you go.” The sensual pleasures are tolerable, but only because “man will not remember the days of his life, for the Lord busies him with enjoyment.” Even nuptial love is praised only in resignation: “See life with the woman you love all the fading days of your life that have been granted to you under the sun—all your fading days.”
Things are all at once banal, transient, monotonous, and random. “There is nothing new under the sun.” The world neither much notes nor long remembers the work of any generation, but instead “stands forever.” And each thing anticipates its reversal. “All rivers flow to the sea, but the sea is never full—from whence the rivers flow, thence they’ll flow again.” Life itself announces death. “Better to go to a house of mourning than a house of feasting, for there is man’s end, and the living should take heart.” And every day an imprisoned sun rises and sets, and the seasons subside one to the next. Somehow both finite and endless, adrift yet without a home port, the cosmos mocks us into melancholy.
But a simple hope concludes this book: “The sum of things, when all is heard: fear the Lord and keep His law, for this is the whole of man.” The whole of man—God invites us into a joint venture. Heaven gives its will, the only part of the Infinite that man can know. And man responds with fealty, the only thing heaven cannot produce. Without God’s generous offer, we might as well return to dust on our own initiative.
What does the end of Ecclesiastes say about the rest of the book? There is a manichean reading: Nature is the ugly foil for a purely spiritual destiny. The world’s afflictions remind us that our true home is elsewhere. Matter’s temptations and matter’s disappointments both reflect the same gray misery.
The Talmudic Sages saw things differently. The rabbis were disturbed by Ecclesiastes, but canonized it for its start and for its finish. Its start: “What is the advantage to man of his toil under the sun?” The House of Rav Yanai reads this verse as endorsing labor before the sun rises, when the righteous would study the words of God. Its finish: the above-quoted hope for human beings. What does Solomon mean by “the whole of man”? Several rabbis propose variations on the thought that man’s sacred mission on earth saves all life and nature from a dreary dolor.
Once we’ve finished Ecclesiastes, we’re ready to read it properly. In light of faith, what’s ancient isn’t banal, but tracks God’s constant devotion to his creatures. What’s fleeting or random isn’t futile, but an imitation of God’s free grace. And the seasons form not a circle but a rhythm. Creation images its Creator, and images are not duplicates. God is of course timeless and not just ancient, his grace is more unmerited than any quantum event, and we can safely say his nature is more euphonious than any adagio. Creation discloses God in fragments. God reveals to us, as much as such a thing can be revealed in the language of men, that the fragments aren’t isolated atoms, but point to a single source beyond them all.
King Solomon couldn’t have written a sharper address to our own America if he’d read today’s New York Times. Working-class people now have more comfortable lives than royals did a hundred years ago, never mind three thousand. The cosmos is more and more intelligible. We’ve mastered and commanded much of nature, and look sure to continue. But men have perhaps never been so anxious. We seem unable to rest. What would we rest in? So we move. Toward what?
Sukkot, the holiday on which Jews read Ecclesiastes in synagogues, tempers and reorients prosperous men. The harvest is done. We’re as comfortable and self-assured as we’ll be all year. So for a week we relocate to huts roofed with branches and leaves, and look at the stars, and recall that love that made and moves them.
Cole S. Aronson studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion in the Judean hills.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.