We're Screwed, So Relax
I love the Book of Ecclesiastes because it is very weird that a punk rock thinker was not only allowed to speak, but his safety-pinned ideas were preserved for posterity in a pretty prestigious anthology: The Old Testament. Most of the time in church or Sunday school the lesson of Ecclesiastes is a dishonest patchwork of two completely different speakers with a conclusion that depends on absolutely nobody in the audience having read the work. Ecclesiastes was written with a frame speaker that both introduces the speaker in the main body of the text and ends the book with a few remarks on the teacher and teachings in the main body of the work.
The intro is basic; the frame speaker hints that it is King Solomon (though many argue that it was meant as a kind of honorific and not meant to be taken literally—and many believe the Qohelet, or speaker, of the main body really is King Solomon).
After being introduced, the wise speaker jumps right into one of the key themes of his overall argument: All is Vanity. The main gist of his argument is that you will die and be forgotten. There is no heaven or no meeting with God or no overall journey. No, in fact he goes on to say that we are no different or better than animals: “I said in my heart with regard to human beings that God is testing them to show that they are but animals. For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth?” (Ecclesiastes Ch. 3:17-21, NRSV)
The Qohelet also questions the advantage of wisdom (because the smarter you are the more you know what to be miserable about), the point of worldly achievement (it’s totally stupid—you will die and be forgotten—as well as your achievements). The speaker then sort of free-style argues that in no quarter will you ever find happiness, and in the end, you will die. He does offer some coping tips for the horror of being alive (he counts the still born as being super lucky): enjoy your meaningless toil, eat, drink, and be merry with your friends and the wife you love. And really that is it—that is his only and continual admonishment. Life sucks, there is no way you are going to win here, and even if you do, you will die and be forgotten; however, what you can do is enjoy your meaningless work and hang out, eat, drink, and be merry with your friends and spouse.
If that was not punk rock enough, our wise speaker, or Qohelet, goes on and does something wilder: he challenges the idea that God is just. He does agree that one must fear God, but he believes that because he understands that we were more or less made to be at the whims of God and that in no way could we ever divine what those ‘whims of God’ might be. This is a big deal, as really the whole gist of the Old Testament is that things go well when we love and follow God’s instruction and things go terribly wrong if we do the opposite. Our punk rock speaker in Ecclesiastes suggests that we have no way of knowing what on earth God wants and that the good suffer routinely and the evil live long happy lives. So, know that trying to be good in the eyes of God won’t help you either. You are still screwed. However, since you have had the grave misfortune of being born the very best thing you can do is enjoy your toil (that will come to nothing) and eat, drink, and be merry with the ones you love.
Most of the time preachers and Rabbis teach that the lesson of Ecclesiastes is that all worldly pursuits are vain and so one must: “Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone.” (Ecclesiastes Ch. 12:13, NRSV) The problem with that is that they are piecing together two different speakers: the frame speaker and the Qohelett. In the end, the frame speaker implies that while the Qohelet is wise, one should not necessarily totally give into his teachings, as it is clear the speaker puts a totally orthodox and positive spin at the end. “On this depressing note, Qohelet’s speech ends and the unnamed frame narrator speaks up. His voice has not been heard since the prologue in 1:11. In the prologue the frame narrator simply set the mood and introduced Qohelet’s speech. Here he concludes and evaluates what has been heard. He also points the hearer in what he considers to be the proper direction […] and begins by summarizing Qohelet’s conclusion […] ‘Everything is meaningless’ […] However, the frame narrator is unhappy with this ultimate conclusion.” (The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Ecclesiastes, Tremper Longman III, p.283-284)
One could suppose that the tiny rebuttal or re-direction (changing the work from a pessimistic unorthodox piece to an optimistic orthodox piece) could be seen as the second main part of the lesson imparted in Ecclesiastes, which would make the most common preaching to the meaning of the book accurate. However, I disagree. There is obviously something wise and deep in the main body of the book that was deemed worthy enough to preserve over the course of thousands of years. I have a hard time believing that the few verses of the frame speaker at the end would (or should) have the same weight as the entire body of the work.