Ecclesiastes is the only book in the Bible with a warning label! It may be the only book that needs one.
The warning label comes in the last verses of the book: “The end of the matter, all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.”
The message in these last verses is in tension with the rest of the book of Ecclesiastes. At first glance, Ecclesiastes seems filled with gloom and doubt. However, the verses at the end seem to call, “Be sure to read this book with deep faith.”
The book’s first verse is familiar: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” The word vanity (hevel in Hebrew) refers to an empty puff of air. One Hebrew scholar likened it to the visible puff of air you see coming from your mouth on a frosty morning. You can see it momentarily, but then it vanishes. It is nothing really; it only looks like something.
Again and again throughout this book, Ecclesiastes says all of life is nothing more than hevel, a puff of air on a frosty morning. “What good do people gain from working all their lives,” he asks. Is life worth living? Knowledge is meaningless (1:12-18). Pleasure is simply chasing after the wind (2:1-7). And wealth is empty (2:8-11). Wisdom, he grants, has a certain practical value in life, but in the end, death comes to the wise as easily as it comes to the foolish.
The writer of Ecclesiastes says he speaks from personal experience. He explored all these avenues and his conclusion is that “I hated life because what happens on earth is simply hevel and a chasing after wind. What do people get from all the toil and strain of life? Our days are full of pain. Our work is a vexation. And even at night we cannot rest well.”
So the first message of Ecclesiastes is a radical “NO” to every value we prize. Sure, wealth, pleasure, wisdom, and knowledge are nice, but they are not ultimate values. They do not bring ultimate fulfillment. There is nothing in this world that has “saving power.” Ecclesiastes is saying what Paul said in Philippians 3:7-8: “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
More pointed are the words of Jesus in Luke 9:23: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” I understand denying one’s self means to cast away everything that would rival Christ. In the old red hymnal, Brethren sang,
Frankly speaking, Jesus calls us to give away everything in order to hold wholly to God. To one young man who asked for the key to life, Jesus said, “Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me” (Mark 10:21).
For two thousand years these words of Jesus have made us uncomfortable. Surely Jesus was exaggerating.
The most difficult part of faith is to cast away everything. But when we have cast it away, the world lies fresh at our feet. That’s why the radical “NO” to the world in Ecclesiastes is balanced by an equally radical “YES” to the joy of life, work, and relationships.
“I know there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to enjoy themselves as long as they live. Moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in their work” (Ecclesiastes 2:12-13).
Ecclesiastes tells us, “Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do” (9:7). He goes on to encourage people to enjoy happiness with your spouse, dress in bright clothing, use a good lotion, and “Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might.” To enjoy life, he insists, is a gift of God.
Jesus also had this balance. After telling the young rich man to give everything up, he also reminded his disciples, “Mark my words, no one who sacrifices house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children, land—whatever—because of me and the Message will lose out. They’ll get it all back, but multiplied many times” (Mark 10:29-30 The Message).
Here is the balance that the book of Ecclesiastes recommends. But the balance between letting go and receiving is one I find difficult. Is it really possible to enjoy something without wanting to possess it?
When you begin fencing lessons, your instructor will tell you to hold your sword, your foil, neither too tightly nor too lightly. It is like a bird. Grip it too tightly and it will die. Hold it too loosely and it will escape.
Life is like that! The poet William Blake reframed those words of Jesus this way:
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.
An ordained minister, Bob Bowman is professor emeritus of religion at Manchester University, North Manchester, Indiana.