Some days it’s just hard to get out of bed. Each morning we confront our prosaic disappointments and life regrets again; these mix with global news of raging wildfires, impending hurricanes, and an ugly war on the other side of the world. The anguish of it all smothers us like a heavy blanket. Christina Rossetti, in her poem “The One Certainty,” colors such mornings “cold and twilight grey.” Rossetti describes the human condition as maudlin and arbitrary, like leaves carried randomly in the breeze: “Of wind, or like the grass that withereth, / Is man, tossed to and fro by hope and fear: / So little joy hath he, so little cheer, / Till all things end in the long dust of death.”
Rossetti does little to lift our spirits. In her poem, there is nothing new under the sun. And then there’s death. “Vanity of vanities, the Preacher saith” is the first line of Rossetti’s poem and the opening verse of Ecclesiastes, the source of Rossetti's elegiac meditations. We need something a little lighter to get us out of bed. Can Ecclesiastes help?
Thomas Wolfe called Ecclesiastes the single greatest piece of writing he knew because its wisdom is “the most lasting and profound.” T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” contains a lyrical recast of Ecclesiastes 12:5–6: “A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, / And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief.” Ecclesiastes has been compared to the writings of Albert Camus, who questioned if anything was worthwhile or sacred. In his bleak inner landscape, the search for meaning yields little more than angst and aggravation.
Yet those who think Ecclesiastes the preacher never smiled have not read the book thoroughly enough. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks observed that “the biblical book most focused on joy is precisely the one often thought of as the unhappiest of all.” The Hebrew word for happiness, “simha,” appears seven times in the book in clusters that invite readers to eat, drink, and be merry: “I know that there is nothing better for people than to rejoice” (3:12). God, it seems, sanctions and delights in such ephemeral pleasures: “Go, eat your bread in gladness, and drink your wine in joy; for your action was long ago approved by God” (9:7).
Ecclesiastes actually describes a wide range of human feelings, moving us from the angst of toil to the joy of gathering. This may explain why traditional Jews read the book liturgically in synagogues during the upcoming Jewish harvest holiday of Sukkot, also called the “season of our joy.” If Ecclesiastes were only written in C minor, its reading would not have been ritualized. It would only dampen our holiday happiness. Like Ecclesiastes, Sukkot surfaces two contradictory emotions: the vulnerability of dwelling in temporary housing to recall the forty years the Israelites traveled in the wilderness, and pride in the harvest that represents a partnership between God’s care and human industry. It is customary to begin building a sukkah right after the penitential fast of Yom Kippur. As one rabbi put it, “Now that you’re a new person, you need a new house.” That house, like all houses, has its share of life’s pleasures and pains.
The capacity to hold multitudes, however, does not sufficiently describe the ethos of Ecclesiastes. The preacher who told us there is nothing new under the sun offers something totally novel: a theology of distraction. Its verses of joy typically follow passages on the stabbing assault of mortality or injustice. Take, for example, the articulation of trouble in chapter 5: “Another grave evil is this: He must depart just as he came . . . he can take nothing of his wealth to carry with him. So what is the good of his toiling for the wind?” (5:14–15).
To borrow Leonard Cohen’s question: You want it darker? Ecclesiastes then excavates the torment of living: “Besides, all his days he eats in darkness with much vexation and grief and anger” (5:16). And then the sun suddenly comes out: “Only this, I have found, is a real good: that one should eat and drink and get pleasure with all the gains he makes under the sun, during the numbered days of life that God has given him; for that is his portion” (5:17). Human beings can eat in darkness with a side dish of vexation, grief, and anger—or they can eat, drink, and enjoy. This juxtaposition represents more than a sharp turn. It’s spiritual whiplash.
The sharp contrast of tragedy and the levity of a meal appears again in chapter 8. First, the preacher articulates the problem of theodicy: “Here is a frustration that occurs in the world: sometimes an upright man is requited according to the conduct of the scoundrel; and sometimes the scoundrel is requited according to the conduct of the upright. I say all that is frustration” (8:14). It is followed with the only way to respond to the crushing reality that bad things happen to good people and evil people prosper: “I therefore praised enjoyment. For the only good a man can have under the sun is to eat and drink and enjoy himself” (8:15).
Ecclesiastes is not trivializing our major existential issues by suggesting a good meal, but merely acknowledging that the larger challenges are out of our control. We can either be devastated by uncertainty and unfairness or do what we know how to do well: seek pleasure in what God has given us. Whether or not we want to admit it, distraction works. It’s the interruption that lightens our full attention from utter sadness. It’s the slivers of enjoyment, the fleeting bliss, and the moments of wonder that soften the harshness. They are just as real. They, too, are divinely ordained. They sugar the bitterness and enable us to justify our existence despite it all.
When friends, couples, or siblings cannot square their differences, what usually helps is not deepening the chasm or shouting more loudly but rather doing something wholly different with each other as a reminder of what it is each of them sees, loves, and respects in the other. Is that dishonest? I don’t think so. Distraction may actually be the most authentic approach to all reconciliation.
We cannot make today’s worst news go away nor can we avoid Rossetti’s cold and twilight gray morning. But we can get out of bed, make a hot cup of coffee, breathe in the steam and the smell, say a small prayer of thanks, and get on with the day.
Erica Brown is author of Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning.
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.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?