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Ecclesiastes, the search for meaning

John Frederick Lewis, The Hosh Courtyard of the Coptic Patriarch, Cairo 1864 (Detail)


The Search for Meaning
All is vanity

J UST as life has its unresolved moments, so Ecclesiastes has its enigmas and perplexing puzzles.  Indeed, since the theme of Ecclesiastes focuses on life, we would naturally expect the book to reflect life.  And it does.   In fact, Ecclesiastes not only talks about life; Ecclesiastes looks like life with its mysteries and unsolved moments. Since Ecclesiastes is literature, though, we might come closer to understanding the book (and perhaps life as well) if we know something about its structure.  After all, any literary analysis must be based on the inherent elements and the patterns in which those elements interact.  Just as in a building, the bricks form the basic element; the patterns in which the bricks are laid make up the doors, the windows, the building itself. Let’s look, then, at two key elements in Ecclesiastes: the paradox and recursive induction.  Seemingly, these are the bricks and mortar, the structural pattern around which the book is built.
If we think of paradox as something false or misleading, we have missed the point.  A paradox is not the sleight of hand or ingenious trick.  A paradox is not a magician, making us think that we have seen something that is not there.  The intent of a paradox is not to mislead us, but rather to lead us into a deeper sense of understanding. On the surface, then, a paradox may resemble a contradiction, but what may seem at first like a contradiction turns out to be a mysterious blending of opposites. 

The two conflicting elements would seem to have to cancel each other out.  After all, nothing can be both true and false at the same time and still be true.  However, when we look at a magnetic field, we find in physics a veritable paradox.  Indeed, for a magnetic field to exist, both negative and positive opposites must also exist.  A magnetic field both attracts and repels.

In rhetoric, a similar pattern emerges.  Here, opposites must also be present for a paradox to exist.  Exactly how those opposites blend, though, tends to escapes us.  In one sense, we might say that the paradox itself is a paradox, resulting in deeper insight while eluding explanation.  We understand some of the features, but not everything.

Paradox as literary figure

Consider, for instance, this paradox from our Lord—

He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it. —Matthew 10:39

In this paradox, we have the contrast between two opposites: to find, and to lose.  Clearly, we cannot simultaneously both lose and find any more than we can turn right and left at the same time.  This competing dissonance or conflict, however, lies at the rhetorical core of the paradox as a literary figure.  When we encounter a paradox, our attention is immediately aroused, forcing us to look at contrary elements from a fresh perspective.  In brief, the paradox forces us to look more deeply, and compels us to ponder what is being said. We cannot simply read through the paradox as we might with other words.  We are forced to pause, and to ponder.

In this example from Matthew, the underlying or fundamental structure is decidedly literary or grammatical.  Admittedly, we have two opposing concepts, but we also have two opposing words with each arranged in parallel structure:  “He that findeth his life  . . .  he that loseth his life.”

In this next example, taken from Ecclesiastes, what we find is a very different structure—

All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. —1:7

There are no contrasting pairs here as in the previous example.  Clearly, river is not the opposite of sea as find is the opposite of lose.  Seemingly, what we have instead is more a thematic contrast.  What is being constantly filled should be overflowing, or at least, full.  Yet, that is not what happens.  The rivers may add water to the sea, but the sea remains as it is, with water somehow being returned to the rivers.  The paradox describes constant activity but without progress. To be sure there is something inscrutable about it all, but rivers flowing into the seas is a part of the natural order of things.

Socrates thought of paradox as the unanswerable argument.  We may disagree with someone’s premise or with someone’s conclusion, but a paradox leaves us speechless.  We simply cannot


explain the paradox.  Nor can we deny that the paradox is true.  Nor can we refute the paradox.  Because the paradox has at its core disparate or opposite elements, there can be no contrary viewpoint.  In the paradox opposing viewpoints collapse into a single irrefutable statement.  Socrates was right— the paradox is easily the ultimate argument.  If an argument has no opposite perspective, refutation becomes impossible.  We cannot refute the paradox, any more than we can explain the paradox.

As a literary figure, the paradox, is equally fascinating.  In literature when the theme of the work can be reduced to a paradox, the literature has force, merit, insight, elegance.  Cervantes’ Don Quixote can be reduced to the conflict between idealism (as seen in Don Quixote) and pragmatism (as seen in Sancho Panza).   The one is the opposite reflection of the other.  In one sense, the two characters form a paradox. At the death of Don Quixote, Sancho Panza stands crying near his bed, “Do not die, do not die.”

Understandably, Sancho Panza is grieving at the passing of his friend, but from the larger literary perspective, there is more.  If Don Quixote dies, so must Sancho Panza, for he and Quixote are the contrary elements of the literary paradox.  Neither character can live  without the other even in fiction.

As nothing that is man’s can last for ever, but all tends ever downwards from its beginning to its end, and above all man’s life, and as Don Quixote’s enjoyed no special dispensation from heaven to stay its course, its end and close came when he least looked for it. For— whether it was of the dejection the thought of his defeat produced, or of heaven’s will that so ordered it— a fever settled upon him and kept him in his bed for six days, during which he was often visited by his friends the curate, the bachelor, and the barber, while his good squire Sancho Panza never quitted his bedside.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Ah!” said Sancho weeping, “don’t die, your Grace; my Lord, take my advice and live many years; for the foolishest thing a man can do in this life is to let himself die without rhyme or reason, without anybody killing him, or any hands but melancholy’s making an end of him.

—Capítulo LXXIV:
De cómo don Quijote cayó malo, y del testamento que hizo, y su muerte

Recursive Induction

In addition to the paradox, another literary feature in Ecclesiastes is its recursive development.   The theme of Ecclesiastes (how life should be lived) does not progress logically or in a linear manner with one point necessarily leading to a subsequent point.  To be sure, the book has a logical base for its argument, but the logic is inductive rather than deductive.  We are given facts, and then, led to a conclusion.

Accordingly, Qoheleth (the pen name the author uses) experimented with life and its meaning, first following one course and then another, looking at wisdom, pleasure, achievement, honor, wealth.  All his pursuits led him to the same conclusion: “All is vanity and vexation of the spirit.”  Nothing ultimately satisfies.  No endeavor, however extensive or meticulous, offers any lasting solution to understanding life. Qoheleth ended where he began with his scheme to analyze life and its meaning ending in futility.  Like a dog chasing its tail, whatever Qoheleth pursued left him without answers or solutions.  However, Qoheleth was able to reach some conclusions based on what he had seen and experienced. These conclusions, based on inductive reasoning, make up much of the book.  Suffering, avoiding extremes, the problem of evil — such inscrutable notions Qoheleth analyzes, with insight, pragmatic advice, and caution.

Such notions are discussed seemingly in random order, but if we think about it, there is really is no other way to discuss the major topics of life.  Life, after all, refuses to be segmented into easily defined categories with one category excluding the next category.  Life cannot be lived in segments; neither can life be analyzed in segments.  We look at life as a whole, not as a part.  We live life as a whole, not as an entity with distinguishable parts.

Take something as simple as aging.  All of us know we are growing older.  Even the small child relishes his birthday as an achievement of vast importance.  Also, the old man easily acknowledges his advanced age and can look back on his life.  So, we are very much aware how time and life somehow intertwine.  Yet, none of us can tell exactly how life and time intertwine.  The old man cannot say when exactly his youth left him, or when he became old.  As the child, we can look forward.  As the old man, we can look backwards.  But we can never really tell you what we see, tell you at what point the changes took place.  Did we stop being a child at our seventh birthday, or was it our ninth birthday?  Did we become old at forty, or was it at eighty that we became old?  We know that we were young once, and we know that we are old now.  And that is all that we know.  We can see life as a spectrum or continuum, but we cannot say with any precision that it was here that I became an old man.


The same is true with the other areas of our life.  We cannot separate our sorrows from our joys.  A woman gives birth at the moment of her greatest sorrow, but that sorrow immediately is transformed into joy when she hears the sound of her newborn infant crying for life.  The sorrow and the joy blend.  Clearly, we know when we are in pain, and when we are not, but the transition from one to the other is something we do not know.

Life, then, can only be looked at as a whole, not as segments or parts. Qoheleth knows this, and as a result, his discussion of life is discursive rather than linear.  But life does have a distinctive line; just as life has a beginning, life also has an ending.   We sometimes call that line a timeline, but what happens on that line tends to happen all throughout that line.  Joy cannot be segmented or restricted to a given point on the timeline in the same way age might.  We are seven years old only once in life, but we laugh and cry all throughout our lifetime.  Qoheleth knows this and in Ecclesiastes discusses life holistically.

As you make your way through Ecclesiastes, think of Don Quixote, think of Sancho Panza, think of contrasting pairs and paradoxes.  Look for the different aspects of life and how such aspects overlap into a single coherent whole.  As you discover some fresh insights, pause and think about what God may be saying to you.

Whatever you do, don’t read through the book in a hurried fashion.  Just as the paradox is intended to slow us down and cause us to think, so are the lessons recorded in Ecclesiastes.  The literary outline below will guide you through Ecclesiastes.  You may want to put the outline on a nearby table as you read through a part of Ecclesiastes.  Make notes to yourself if that will help you.   Write out some questions, even though you may not know the answer.  Be sure to begin with a prayer as you read this book of God.

James Sanders

Questions that touch the heart

1. What is a paradox? What is unusual about this literary figure?

2. How might Don Quixote and Sancho Panza be a literary paradox?

3. Which is more satisfying— the doing, or the final completion of a project?
Do you ever find yourself rushing through life, thinking that one day you will pause and begin to live?
Why are you postponing living?

4. Ecclesiastes repeatedly cites a refrain, “There is nothing better.”  What do the words mean?

5. Why is injustice such a problem?
What is envy and how does envy cancel what we may have achieved?
How does popularity fail us?

6. If I win the lottery, will I be happy? If I win the lawsuit, will I be happy?
What’s wrong with buying lottery tickets anyway?
What’s wrong with seeking fortune through lawsuits?
I mean, if they have the money, why shouldn’t I sue them?

7. Why has my wife turned against me, causing me shame and humiliation in public?
What does Ecclesiastes advise me to do when confronted with such suffering?

8. What does God tell me to do with my own hands?
Should I build furniture or play a guitar? Why are such things important?

9. My boss is completely unreasonable. At times, I almost hate him.
How did someone who is so stupid ever become a boss?
What does Ecclesiastes tell me to do?

10. How quickly will my life pass before my eyes?


Essays on the Meaning of Life

1:1 Title to the work

1:2 Prologue: All is vanity (passing, frail, unsatisfying). Existence is a vicious circle.

Part 1
The Problem and Paradox of Life

1:12 — 2:26 Qoheleth’s search for Meaning in Life

Emptiness of all endeavor (1:16— 2:11)
Failure of wisdom (1:16, 18); failure of pleasure (2:1-5); failure of labor (2:4-6);failure of possessions and of distinction (2:7); failure of wealth (2:8).

Conclusion: “All is vanity and a striving after wind” (2:9-11)

Mortality and the Problem of Life (2:12-26)
Enjoyment of life is a gift from God; life has no real meaning apart from God.

3:1-22 Divine Providence and Life

Reflections on Providence (3:1-9)
A time for everything (3:1-9); the mystery and depth of Providence (3:10, 11)

Conclusion: “Enjoyment of life is a gift from God (3:12, 13). Whatever God does endures. His works are not vanity, fleeting, transitory (3:14). Man’s duty and happiness consist in making the best use of the present and improving the opportunities which God gives him.

Helplessness of man (3:16-21)
The problems of life are bigger than man; injustice, for example, will be judged by God, but in the proper time (3:17). Thre is a moral order in the world, but it is beyond the reach and understanding of man.

Conclusion: “There is nothing better than that a man should enjoy his work” (3:22).

4:1— 5:9 Vanity of Life Illustrated Further

Obstacles to happiness in life (4:1-16)
Injustice or oppresion (4:1-4); envy; success meets with envy, and produces no lasting good to the worker. Yet, however unsatisfactory the result, man must continue to labor, as idleness is ruin (4:4-6); loneliness; avarice causes isolation and a sense of insecurity, and brings no satisfaction (4:9-12); fickle popularity; high position is never permanent; he is supplanted by some clever young aspirant for a time, whose influence in turn, soon evaporates with the subject-people reaping no lasting benefit from the change (4:13-16).

Importance of religion in life (5:1-7)
A warning against formalism. Religion is not vanity — fleeting. Worship of God must not be viewed as some superstitious formality.

Comfort in the face of oppression (5:8, 9)
In the midst of political oppression, one must not surrender a belief in a superintending Providence, for above all kings, there is a God.

5:10 — 6:12 Vanity of Life Illustrated a Third Time

Emptiness of wealth (5: 10—17)
Unable satisfy (5:10-12); a harm to man (5:13-17).

Conclusion: Man should enjoy all the good which God give him (5:18-20).

Wealth without God (6:1-7)
Wealth and the enjoyment of wealth are like like the gift of God; men may have fortunes and not be able to enjoy their wealth; wealth alone cannot secure happiness (6:1-6); insatiability of desire (6:7-9).

Meaning of life hidden from man (6:10-12)
As the future is beyond our knowledge and control, it is wise to make the best of the present.


Part 2
Practical Advice
Deductions from the above named experiences
with warnings and rules of life

7: 1-14 Value of Suffering
A good name; character is not superfluous, vanity; it has worth. Is the writer teaching that character is developed by suffering? (7:1); on sorrow and correction (7:2-7); on patience; resignation under the ordering of God’s Providence is the best course (7:8-14).

7:15-22 Caution against Extremes
Warnings against excesses with praise of the golden mean (happy medium between extremes), which is practical wisdom and the art of living happily.

7:23-29 The Problem of Evil in Life
Though further insight into essential wisdom was found unobtainable, Qoheleth had learned some practical lessons: 1) that wickedness is sheer madness on the part of man (7:25); 2) that woman could become the most evil thing in the world (7:26-28); 3) that man had perverted his nature, which was made originally good.

8: 1 — 9:12 Perplexities of Life

Injustice (8:1-15)
Oppressive governments; there is no use in repining or rebellion; obey the powers that be and submit to the orderings of Providence. However oppressive a tyrant may prove, sure retribution awaits him (8:1-9); propserity of the godless and the misery of the righteous; such may seem that Providence cannot be relied upon, but God is just in reward and punishment, as the end will prove (8:10-15).

Mystery of God’s moral rule (8:16 — 9:10)
God’s ways cannot be fathomed; outward circumstances of life tell nothing (8:16 — 9:1); certainty of death (9:4-6).
Conclusion: Enjoy life’s blessings; be cheerful; rejoice with your wife and work hard.

Uncertainty of Life (9:11, 12)
The issues and duration of life cannot be calculated upon.

9:13 — 10:20 Excellence of Wisdom

Limitations of wisdom (9:13 -10:9)
Even though wisdome is one of the greatest resources, it cannot solve every problem; its effects are often handicapped or hindered: wisdome is not always properly rewarded (9:13-18); a little folly mars the effects of wisdome (10:1-3); wisdom is not always applied or exalted; fools may be exalted but the wise debased (10:4-9).

Advantages of wisdom (10:10 -15)
Enables a man to overcome the difficulties of life (10:10, 11); wisdom and folly compared: the contrast is between the words of the wise and the worthless prating and useless labors of the foll (10: 12 -15).

Wise conduct under unreasonable tyrants (10: 16 20)
Ruin: its forms and its courses, especially those of the foolish ruler (10:16 -19); duty of loyalty on the part of the subjects (10:20).



Part 3
A Religious Solution to Life


11:1 — 12:7 Remedies for the Perplexities of Life

Exhortation to benevolence (11:1-6)
Benevolence cannot be ignored because the times are bad; the need fo doing good is not vanity: transitory or fleeing.

Exhortation for a cheerful and contented spirit (11:7-9a)
Rejoice in life; life is good and is among the greatest of God’s gifts

Exhortation to piety in youth (11:9 — 12:7)
Piety should be practiced from our earliest days; virtue should not be postponed until the failure of faculties make pleasure unattainable (11:9 — 12:2); life passes quickly (12:3-7).

12:8 – 14 Epilogue: All is Vanity

Qoheleth’s concluding remarks (12:8-11)
The words of the wise give stability and strength to life; they are like goads and nails; a warning against intellectualism (12:12).

The Final Conclusion (12:13)
“Fear God and keep his commandments for this is the whole of man.”


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