Thoughts and Prayers for the Faithful: A study of the cynical Book of Qoheleth

Also known as Ecclesiastes, the book is among the wisdom books of the Old Testament

By Bob Hunt

I’ve been reading the Book of Qoheleth, also known as Ecclesiastes, attributed to Solomon because of the opening line, “The words of David’s son, Qoheleth, king in Jerusalem” (Ecclesiastes 1:1). It is included among the wisdom books of the Old Testament.

Many think Qoheleth a downer of a book, and it’s clearly a work of cynical philosophy. “Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” (Qoheleth 1:2b) Which is to say, all things amount to nothing in the end. All your labors, all your wealth, all your good living or wanton living—all of it will come to the same end: death. Sometimes the just are punished in this world, while the wicked are raised up. But that reflects the priorities of this world, priorities that will eventually come to nothing.

Yes, it certainly is cynical. But in our culture that puts so much emphasis on wealth, power, and celebrity, perhaps we could afford some cynicism. I was perusing photos from the Met Gala this year, and they are surely a sight: celebrities dressed to the nines in various outfits, some quite elegant, others hideously gaudy, and others simply ridiculous.

More than a celebration of fashion, it was a celebration of privilege, social status, and obscene amounts of disposable wealth, since thousands were spent on each unique outfit, none of which will ever be worn again. It seemed an event made for reflection by our cynical biblical scholar, Qoheleth. In the long run, what will all this excessive glamour and celebrity worship come to, since the great majority of those rich and famous today will be forgotten tomorrow when death snatches them up as surely as he snatches the poor and unknown?

Death is the great equalizer. Regardless of how justly and righteously you live, you will die. Regardless of how unjust and unrighteous you live, you will die. Some might conclude, “Well, what difference does it make? I may as well live it up now, ’cause we’re all gonna die!” Qoheleth, too, considers that conclusion: “Therefore I commend mirth: because there is nothing good for man under the sun except eating and drinking and mirth: for that is the accompaniment of his toil during the limited days of the life which God gives him under the sun” (Qoheleth 8:15). Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you may die! Perhaps the revelers at the Met Gala have it right, after all.

The point of the book, however, is this: don’t invest yourself too much in this world, in either your successes or your failures, in either the rewards you’ve merited or the unjust punishments you’ve suffered; for this world is fleeting, and whatever fame or misfortune, comfort or suffering, good or evil you’ve managed in this temporal world will be judged, not on any temporal scale, but on an eternal scale.

Rather than an attitude of, “I may as well live as if nothing matters because … well … nothing matters!”; instead, the proper attitude is: “I really ought to live righteously, live for others, and live to please God because … well … nothing of the trappings of this world will amount to anything. All the praise, pleasure, fame, wealth, rewards will count for nothing in the grave. At the same time, all the rebukes, dismissals, poverty, and unjust punishments I’ve endured will also count for nothing in the grave. The rich and the poor, the famous and the forgotten, the powerful and the lowly, will lie side by side in the same earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. What matters, then, is what counts for eternity.” This is Qoheleth’s conclusion: “The last word, when all is heard: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is man’s all; because God will bring to judgment every work, with all its hidden qualities, whether good or bad” (Qoheleth 12:13-14).

Frankly, this is a word of comfort and consolation for me. The last few months have been rough. It’s tempting to get so frustrated that I just want to give it all up and run away. But what will all this amount to on the balance of eternity? Nothing. Not a whisper. It is all vanity. When I lie down in this earth, my accusers will lie down in the same earth. Those who possess power over the lives of others will have none left for themselves, and all the power they exerted on earth will be measured against the scale of an eternally just and loving God. So, too, will I stand before the same just and loving God. When I do, my prayer will be that God’s justice is mercy.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

 

Bob Hunt is a husband, father, and parishioner at All Saints Church in Knoxville.

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