Old Testament | Hebrew-Bible | Study Guide

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Old Testament | Hebrew-Bible | Ecclesiastes | Summary

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Summary

The first half of Ecclesiastes (1:1–6:9) elaborates on a theme expressed at the outset and repeated frequently thereafter: "Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity." Supporting this theme is another repeated assertion in this section of the book: "There is nothing new under the sun."

  • An opening poem in 1:2–11 portrays the constant activity of the natural world and humanity as unchanging and ultimately futile.
  • Speaking as "king over Israel in Jerusalem," the Teacher concludes that even great wisdom is of no benefit, for with it comes only sorrow and vexation.
  • Neither his great accomplishments as king, such as building projects and accumulation of wealth, nor his enjoyment of great pleasure as king amount to anything meaningful.
  • There is no difference between the fate of the foolish and the wise, as both ultimately die. And humanity is no better than animals, as all share the same fate.
  • A memorable poem in 3:1–8 reflects on the seasons for all things in the world, noting that there is "a time to be born, and a time to die," and so forth.
  • Because all things seem predetermined by God and unchanging, Ecclesiastes suggests that all humans can do is "be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live," and "enjoy their work."
  • A brief section providing instructions for behavior in Ecclesiastes 5 resembles more traditional didactic wisdom literature.
  • The final section of the first half laments that even those things that ought to provide advantage in human life—wealth, honor, family, long life, wisdom—often do not.

The second half of Ecclesiastes (6:10–12:14) continues themes from the first half but adds new refrains on the limits of possible knowledge. "For who knows what is good for mortals while they live the few days of their vain life ... who can tell them what will be after them under the sun?"

  • Ecclesiastes 7 begins by outlining the theoretical benefits of wisdom but ends by emphasizing the elusiveness of true wisdom.
  • In a similar pattern, Chapter 8 begins with advice on proper behavior before a king but shifts to musings on the limitations and misuses of human power in the world.
  • Vexed by the apparent injustice of all humanity meeting the same fate, Ecclesiastes again suggests that the best one can do is to enjoy life and live it well until death.
  • An anecdote of a poor but wise man who saves a city under siege but is then quickly forgotten illustrates the apparent futility of wisdom in life.
  • After reviewing various possibilities for disaster in life or for the corruption of proper order, Ecclesiastes returns to the notion that enjoyment of life and diligence in work are the best that humanity can do.
  • The final chapter of Ecclesiastes begins with a passage adjuring the reader to "remember your creator in the days of your youth," before old age and despair set in.
  • After the central refrain that all is vanity is repeated one last time, Ecclesiastes 12:9–14 provides an epilogue to the book. The work of the Teacher in gathering and sharing wisdom is described.
  • A final conclusion is offered, partly in tension with much of the rest of Ecclesiastes: "Fear God and keep his commandments, for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil."

Analysis

Ecclesiastes is fascinating for its apparent skepticism and fatalism, and for its implicit critique of more glib expressions of wisdom literature. This skepticism is captured most memorably in the book's central refrain: "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!" Ecclesiastes supports this case by describing the unchanging nature of all life—there is nothing new under the sun—and the ultimate unreliability of virtues that ought to improve life for people but often do not. Ecclesiastes sometimes sounds more like traditional wisdom literature in its few didactic passages. But these are all balanced with sober conclusions that even wise behavior often does not profit as it should. The universality of death for animals and humans, both righteous and wicked, also shapes the book's melancholy attitude.

The problem of how to square the book's conclusion with its central message depends in part on how much weight one gives to the epilogue. Throughout Ecclesiastes, the main advice seems to be that all anyone can do in life is enjoy good things as they come and do good work to the best of one's ability. This advice does endorse conventional wisdom to some extent and it does acknowledge God, but it recognizes that neither ultimately guarantees justice or happiness for the individual. The final word in the epilogue counsels readers to "fear God and keep his commandments." The first half of this statement has precedent earlier in the book, but the latter does not. Moreover, the final verse of Ecclesiastes asserts that God will bring all deeds into judgment. This is also difficult to reconcile with much of the preceding material in Ecclesiastes. The epilogue may have been supplied by an editor who wanted to emphasize that these notions endure in spite of everything one has just read in the book. The reader of Ecclesiastes is left to wrestle with the credibility of this conclusion. This intellectual challenge gives the book much of its timeless appeal.

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