Why Read Ecclesiastes? Isn't It Depressing? (The Meaning Of Ecclesiastes)
Welcome! I'm Harma-Mae Smit and this is my monthly newsletter diving into topics of faith. The book of Ecclesiastes can sometimes get us down, but here's why you should read Ecclesiastes anyway! Dive in to understand what Ecclesiastes is all about. You can subscribe for more newsletters by clicking this link.
Why You Should Read Ecclesiastes
During the summer, I toyed with the idea of making one of these newsletters a list of summer reads. In the end I didn’t, because who wants assigned reading over the summer? It’s far more fun if you choose your own. However, September often feels like the start of something “new,” and so I have something to recommend to you this month. If you’re looking for a place to pick up regular Bible reading, my recommendation for this month is Ecclesiastes.
Ecclesiastes? You might sigh—that depressing book?
Why should you read Ecclesiastes? Especially nowadays, especially when everything is uncertain and you really don't want to hear why everything you're doing is meaningless. You might feel like you need something positive and peppy. Maybe Ecclesiastes always got you down a little, and it's the last thing you think you'd enjoy right now.
After all, just listen to this!
It just oozes weariness, doesn't it? We might even wonder how a perspective like this can mesh with a Christian perspective on living.
Well, I want to tell you why I enjoy this book so much. I’ve read it over and over this past year, a year that has sometimes felt full of futility. Even when writing about other topics, I find myself being drawn back in to think about this wisdom book again. And it hasn’t depressed me further—rather, it has helped me dare to hope.
Ecclesiastes: The Call to Joy
First, it is unapologetic about enjoying the good things in life. For a supposedly “depressing” book, it discusses joy far more often than you might guess from a short description of the book. And it is a joy linked very closely with the real, physical world—it's not an inner, secret joy you have in spite of the circumstances—it’s not a heavenly joy far away from our day-to-day experience. It's grounded in the mundane, in the dirt and grime of life.
It first comes up in Chapter 2:
“There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil” (2:24).
It sounds like something very close to what modern advice on life might be: take time to enjoy the small things in life, (such as food and drink), and pursue work that you love to do. The teacher of Ecclesiastes finds this idea so important he repeats it again and again throughout the book. Take Chapter 3: “I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God's gift to man ... I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot.” (3:12-13,22).
When we give advice to others about the “good life,” we tend to give advice that points away from earthly realities, reminding others that life is about more than our stomachs, our work, or our short-lived pleasures. And while we are right to recognize the meaning of life is not found in a piece of bread (and that if we focus our lives on bread we will find ourselves unsatisfied), we have no reason not to feel joy from the good things in life, such as good food or accomplishing work. God is the one who gives life meaning, but God is also the creator who created good things and gave them to us for us to enjoy, and so accepting the goodness of these physical things is part of finding meaning in our lives.
The urge to enjoy is a repeated refrain: in Ecclesiastes 5, in Ecclesiastes 8, and finally in its most expanded form, in Ecclesiastes 9:
“Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going." (9:7-10)
And it chapter 10, it is stated so directly it is almost shocking:
Here, money is included in the good things of life. It feels risky to feed into the potential for greed in that way, and yet even the benefit of this very earthly reality is acknowledged by the teacher in Ecclesiastes.
Ecclesiastes: The Confrontation with Our Reality
Second, Ecclesiastes deals with life honestly. It's not a positive-thinking course that teaches you to push away the dark parts of reality that bother you, helping you to act as if those things aren't there.
The theme of Ecclesiastes that comes through even more strongly than the theme of joy is the vanity or meaninglessness of so many things: our toil, our riches, our wisdom, our strength. So many things that look like an advantage, that look like “progress,” just drift away with time. Sometimes other people actively tear progress down. It can scare us, when we put our hand to our work, to think we might have nothing to show for our work, or that our existence might be forgotten once we die. But the solution of Ecclesiastes is not, “don't think about reality and do it anyway.” This often works for humans, to a point—but many of us hit a day where the thoughts we are pushing away can't be pushed away anymore. We wonder, what is the point of our lives? Especially after a year that seemed to be a constant stop-and-start, where progress on anything seemed to disappear the minute it was made, it feels pointless to even try.
Does it matter what we do, whether we try to build, whether we strive to help, whether we have ambition? All this just fades with in the long arc of time, and we all come to an end no matter what we did in our lives. No wonder so many of us find Ecclesiastes depressing! It paints a good picture of the futility we often feel.
And worse than just futility of our own lives, there's evil and injustice all around us. “Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them. And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive.” (4:1-2)
How can a book that directly confronts and acknowledges the misery of being alive speak so often of joy? How do these two messages fit together?
Maybe it’s something like this. Even though it looks like everything is futile, everything is broken, everyone is evil—we do not have to go around with gloomy faces. Our lives do not have to be a testament to how much we know the world is wrong. We should acknowledge the problems and help with the ones we can help, yes—while also not feeling guilty about the laughter, the bread, the good wine, the clean clothes, and the loving relationships—not even about the money if you have been blessed with any.
What is the message? Even though the world appears full of futility, we are urged to live, live, live.
What follows the passage about bread being made for laughter? It’s this well-known set of verses:
We can look at our bread and horde it, or bury it like the man with the single talent. We can let futility get us down, and cause us to crawl into holes and give up on living. Or we can see the meaninglessness in our perspective as freeing—we can hold what we can loosely and take risks with it. We can be generous, or invest in something we're not perfectly sure about, or try a new venture.
“In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.” (11:6)
How does Ecclesiastes end? Well, then is how it ends: "For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil." (12:14). This comes across as a terrifying ending, at first glance. But ultimately it is the response to “meaningless, meaningless.” Everything does matter. Go and enjoy life and live freely—and know that even when what you do seems to end in futility, and no one seems to see or care about whether you live well or not, that it all does matter. Suffering matters. Injustice matters.
What is left in the end is just the goodness—God’s goodness—of which we already sometimes get a taste when we enjoy good food, good wine, good company and fulfilling work.
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