Ecclesiastes is a wonderfully difficult text. It is difficult because it is full of odd sayings, contradictive wisdom, and seeming sadness about the world. It is wonderful because ultimately one of its primary messages is that what we have here on earth, the good gifts of food and drink, hard work, and friendship are the ways in which we can truly meet God. However, to get to this message one must read carefully and stick with the teacher’s rambling didactic. The unfortunate reality about this week’s text from Ecclesiastes is that the ones who put the lection together have broken a significant portion of text in a way that robs the teacher of their voice. In chapter one, the teacher calls together the assembly to hear what they want to say, which happens to be the message that everything is “pointless” or, in older parlance, “vanity.” However, the word behind these translations is the Hebrew word hevel, which generally means “breath, mist” or “emptiness.” In this sense, the teacher begins by saying everything is something that we cannot hold. Taken in this light, the teacher’s admonission is not that everything is “pointless” or “vain” but rather something we cannot fully grasp no matter how much we chase it. Even if the thing we chase is righteous, like wisdom, we often find that our pursuit is foiled by numerous obstacles and then, just when we think we’ve discovered what we’re looking for, we realize we still haven’t found it. I imagine that many will read this section and understand it to be eschewing things such as possessions, knowledge, and power. That certainly is possible from the selection we’ve been given. However, the larger message of Ecclesiastes is that those things, like all other tangible acquisitions, are to be held lightly. More than that though, they can be used for good in this world, which is the focus of the teacher. In the end, the teacher knows one thing for sure, we will all die. In light of that, what we do with the gifts we have matters intensely. How we live and love, forgive and heal, stand up for justice and work for shalom, these are the things Ecclesiastes suggests will make important and lasting differences.
top of page