A preacher in need of Prozac – Thursday, 25th Week in ordinary time – Ecclesiastes 1:2-11
The Book of Ecclesiastes is one of the most unusual and perhaps one of the most difficult book in the Bible to understand. It is usually called “skeptical” Wisdom or “dissenting” Wisdom. As one commentator put it, “It almost appears that the author is suffering from a bout of clinical depression and is in need of Prozac.”
A quick summary of the book would read like this. “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (1:2). While there is a time for everything (3:1), those times are beyond our understanding. Instead of trying to ascertain the meaning of life, we will do better just to seek happiness and to experience the joys of food, drink, and pleasure, which are gifts from God (3:10-15; 9:7-10). Furthermore, life has a chaotic quality, so that “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all” (9:11). Death is the inevitable end—and the great equalizer. The day of death is better than the day of birth (7:1) and no one has “power over the day of death” (8:8). “Neither do (the dead) have any more a reward; for their memory is forgotten” (9:5).
See, the book seems to have a spirit of hopeless despair! It has no praise or peace; it seems to promote questionable conduct. And yet, the Teacher is not a nihilist. He shows us the futility and foolishness of a life lived without an eternal perspective. Like the author of Proverbs, the Teacher recognises a certain reliable order that God has put in creation, a time and a season for everything (3:1-8). And the Teacher advocates humility, which is closely related to the fear of the LORD.
In the search for this answer, the Preacher searches the depths of human experience, including despair. He thoroughly examines the emptiness and futility of life lived without eternity before coming to the conclusion of the necessity of eternity. The question in Ecclesiastes isn’t about the existence of God; the author is no atheist, and God is always there. The question is, whether or not God matters!
Ecclesiastes, like Proverbs, is classified as a Wisdom book. It is known in the Hebrew Scriptures as Qoheleth. The word Ecclesiastes is derived from the Greek word, ekklesia. The Hebrew word, Qoheleth, means a person who is qualified to address a public assembly, and the Greek word, ekklesia, means a public assembly. The early church adopted the word ekklesia to speak of the church, the assembly of believers.
The first verse ascribes authorship to Qoheleth, “the son of David” leading many to presume that he is Solomon, to whom the preceding book, Proverbs is attributed. Although the book is traditionally ascribed to Solomon, it appears to have been written later than Solomon’s time, after Aramaic became the common language, sometime after the sixth century. The author of Ecclesiastes is ‘the Teacher’, a sage who has lived long and had grown weary of life’s vicissitudes.
The book begins with the word “Vanity (hebel) of vanities, all is vanity” This verse sets the tone for the book of Ecclesiastes. The word hebel suggests something ephemeral; something fleeting, a wisp of vapour, a puff of wind, a mere breath. The words breath and vapour capture something of the sense of it, because they are short-lived and have so little substance. Qoheleth uses hebel 35 times in this book (five times in this verse) to speak of the meaninglessness and the absurdity of life. If there is one word that summarises the message of this book, hebel is it.