Literature

A Summary and Analysis of the Book of Ecclesiastes

‘To every thing there is a season’, ‘nothing new under the sun’, ‘vanity of vanities’, ‘evil under the sun’, ‘the sun also rises’: perhaps there is no Old Testament book more chock-full of memorable phrases than the Book of Ecclesiastes.

In essence, the author of Ecclesiastes tells us that everything we do is ‘vanity’: empty, futile, and short-lived. It doesn’t matter if you’re wise or a fool, ultimately, because everyone ends up dying. The author encourages wisdom as something to strive for in order to ensure a well-lived earthly life, but he is sceptical of whether it carries any long-term benefits beyond this life.

Book of Ecclesiastes: summary

The preacher who ‘writes’ the Book of Ecclesiastes begins by pointing out that everything is vanity: everything man does is ultimately futile, for the world continues to turn and the sun rises and sets as before, and man cannot alter things in any meaningful way. The preacher tells us that he set out to learn great wisdom and knowledge, but this has come at a great cost: the more you know, the sadder you become.

In light of the meaninglessness and futility of all human endeavour, he tells us that we should strive to enjoy the simple pleasures found in life: eating and drinking, and taking enjoyment in our work.

The rest of Ecclesiastes is something of a miscellany, containing a number of reflections on both politics and money (in chapter 5) and love (the end of chapter 7). Throughout, the focus is on this central idea that all human endeavour is ultimately for futile and worthless, but that it falls to us to make the best of our lives nevertheless and to seek out simple pleasures (such as eating and drinking) where we can.

Although 3:19 aligns man with other ‘beasts’ or animals, and implies that there is no afterlife for man to look forward to, there are numerous references to God throughout Ecclesiastes. However, he seems to have little deep-rooted faith in a personal God, even while he acknowledges the presence of God as maker of the world.

Book of Ecclesiastes: analysis

Thought to have been written between 300 and 200 BC, the Book of Ecclesiastes is an example of biblical ‘wisdom literature’, which is usually attributed to Solomon. And although the author of Ecclesiastes announces himself as ‘son of David’, suggesting Solomon, scholars believe that this was merely a conventional ascription and that a later author wrote the book. (Besides, 2:12 makes it clear that the author is coming ‘after the king’, so probably in the wake of wise Solomon.)

The title by which the book is known to us, Ecclesiastes, is from St Jerome’s Latin translation, and is ultimately from the Greek meaning ‘assembly’, following the Hebrew title of the original, Kōheleth, which is thought to mean the same thing. Whoever its author was (a wealthy Israelite who lived close enough to Jerusalem to have witnessed several events first-hand, as the Dictionary of the Bible notes), it’s thought that the whole Book of Ecclesiastes was written by this one author, with the exception of the last six verses, which a follower or pupil probably added.

Although the author of Ecclesiastes makes reference to God and the importance of belief, it’s unusual for the tone of scepticism which pervades it: everything is ‘vanity’, pointless and ultimately meaningless, and happiness, whilst worth striving for, is evanescent and difficult to attain.

There is ‘no new thing under the sun’, the author tells us (often this is given as ‘there is nothing new under the sun’). This is at once pessimistic (everything worth doing seems already to have been achieved before by someone else) but also, oddly, reassuring, for once this truth is accepted, it becomes more difficult to be surprised or appalled by anything the world throws at us.

Many of the author’s wise insights are standalone and can be aligned with the Book of Proverbs. For instance, 5:8 contains the following piece of advice:

If thou seest the oppression of the poor, and violent perverting of judgment and justice in a province, marvel not at the matter: for he that is higher than the highest regardeth; and there be higher than they.

This remains as true now as it did over two millennia ago when its author wrote it: we must accept that there are political institutions and governmental systems which lead upwards to tyranny, keeping the poor needy and making a mockery of justice. One of the most valuable qualities of Ecclesiastes, along with its remarkable poetry, is this honesty about the way the world works: it might be regarded as a precursor to that great work of Stoicism, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (Penguin Classics), which also urges us to accept what we cannot alter, even though this often means having to swallow some rather unpalatable truths about the way power works.

Throughout Ecclesiastes, the author’s advice might be aligned (tentatively) with Stoicism and Epicureanism: try to accept what you cannot change and control your response to things which should make you angry or unhappy, and strive to attain a moderate amount of pleasure from the simple things life affords you in the present moment. This is not to claim that the author of Ecclesiastes was a Stoic or an Epicurean, or even that he had come into contact with those ideas directly; but Greek thought was well-known across that part of the Middle East when he was writing, so it’s likely that he had encountered similar ideas at second or third hand.

Although the Dictionary of the Bible locates the value of the Book of Ecclesiastes chiefly in the light it sheds on Jewish thinking of the time, this overlooks the quality of its poetry, such as in the rightly famous passage from 3:1-8:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

The almost mesmerising sway of such syntax, the rhythms of the author’s words following the patterns of his thought, can be felt in everything from Dickens’s ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ to T. S. Eliot’s ‘There will be time, there will be time’ section from ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. But as well as the rhythms of such passages, the appeal lies in their quiet resignation, and the author’s willingness to confront his own world-weariness while rejecting complete despair over the futility of all human ambition.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons.

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