Topic: Ecclesiastes

Br. Chris Brannan, O.P.'s picture

Vanity of Vanities!

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King Solomon by Gustave Doré [courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]The Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes is one of my favorites. Now it may seem strange, at first, that this book would be a "favorite"—or even included in the biblical canon and revered as divinely inspired by Jews and Christians at all—when  perhaps more than any other, this book appears so permeated by pessimism about life and its meaning. How can a writing which repeats, thirty-seven times, the exclamation, "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!" be a "word of God" to us, not only showing forth the mind of an ancient Semitic sage, but also be a "God-breathed" work which is both true, and useful for attaining wisdom (cf. 2 Tim 3:16)?

A partial answer to the question is captured in the witty claim of Dr. Peter Kreeft, who says that Ecclesiastes "is divine revelation precisely by being the absence of divine revelation"1; it shows us the results of the quest for knowledge and wisdom by a human mind to which God has not revealed himself. We see, in the narrator of this book—who calls himself "Qohelet," which might mean "Leader of the assembly," or, even the "Teacher" —the limits and apparent absurdity of life in the absence of God's revelation. Thus, it is as if God is saying to us through Qohelet, "Behold and consider what life would be like were I not to reveal myself to you! All is vanity without me!"

But, I think, this book also shows us a common human encounter with the complexities and injustices of life, even for those who have faith in the God who has revealed Himself. It shows, in its own way, that faith does not always give neat and easy answers to life's deepest problems, and that faith often does not give us exactly the answer we thought we were hoping for.

For instance, Qohelet tells us, speaking across the centuries in a rather melancholy tone, "It is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting, for that is the end of every human being, and the living should take it to heart" (Eccl. 7:3). "Sorrow," he then tells us, "is better than laughter, because when the face is sad the heart grows wiser." These are not the words we may want to hear; but what wisdom, what profound life lessons are hidden in this short proverb, born of a lifetime of experience, forged on the anvil of decades of trial and error! And not only one lifetime, but that of generations, of centuries, of Jewish and then Christian men and women who have read and lived these words, and who testify, from the very grave, to their validity. A wise heart is born of sorrow! How hard this lesson can be to those of us now who suffer or mourn, and how unbelievable to those who have not yet tasted the bitter cup of grief! Why must our hearts taste sorrow in order to grow wiser? Why must we suffer such painful loss in order to grow up? While Qohelet sees wisdom in a willingness to face the harshness of life, he does not seem to have good answers to these underlying questions. Sometimes, even when we have faith in God, we do not—at the moment at least—have good answers in the midst of our confusion.

And yet, to get back to Dr. Kreeft's remark, for the Christian, even though our lived experience can indeed resonate with Qohelet's confusion—and almost anyone who has experienced suffering or loss knows the  "feeling" which can express itself in the phrase, "All is Vanity!"—this book of Ecclesiastes is not the final word. It is incomplete. He did lack something that we now have, and which can illuminate the darkness of meaninglessness which threatens to overwhelm us at times, and with which the contemporary world is all too familiar. We have a greater Word which fulfills and encompasses all that was said before, and all that will be said: the Word, the "Logos,"—the Reason and Meaning of Being—which precedes all things and gives them their existence, and which offers to them their restoration, healing, and elevation: Jesus Christ, the Word of God who become Man for our sake.

We, as Christians, can then appreciate a book like Ecclesiastes in a two-fold way. On the one hand, we can value the realism with which it describes the harshness and injustices of life, even for those who have faith in God. On the other, we can see it as a limited perspective—though still true within its own context—which God Himself has filled out, enlightened, and completed by his Incarnate Word. This Word is Wisdom-in-Person Who experienced the bitter cup of suffering, and yet Who by His own passion has opened up new meaning to our otherwise "vain" and apparently meaningless existence; a Word Who puts an end to sin, death, and vanity, by enduring them with humility, faithfulness, and love.

Thus, even in those moments when it seems as though "All is Vanity!", we can resonate with this ancient, divinely inspired sage, and we can also hold out hope that God will not—that God has not—left these cries of desperation unanswered. His answer—His Word—may not always be nice and tidy; it may not always make us "feel good" at first; we may not even like it—we may not even directly hear or see it—but we can know and believe that Christ, the eternal Word of the Father, has spoken and still speaks. It may be true that "all is vanity," empty and void, if we were to be without Him, if God were not to speak. But we need not be without Him, since He has spoken into our emptiness and darkness: "Let there be light." And there was Light. And that Light has shown in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.2


1. Peter Kreeft, Three Philosophies of Life (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1989), 23.

2. Gen 1:2-3; John 1:5.
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