By Frank Pagliaro
What makes our lives valuable? Why do we think life is worth living? A reading of the Book of Ecclesiastes reveals a surprising school of thought in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Ecclesiastes 1:2 cries, “Utter futility! All is futile!” The author of Ecclesiastes outlines a world governed by principles that seem to contradict conventional faith. The retributive justice system characteristic of the Old Testament has fallen by the wayside. According to Koheleth (identified as a “son of David,” and traditionally understood to be Solomon), whose words make up the twelve-chapter book, human life has no purpose. We strive for nothing.
Ecclesiastes frames existence as a cycle. The image of the circle, with no beginning and no end, carries special significance to Christians. God has no opening and no closing, but declares simply “I am that I am” in Exodus 3:14. He has and will always exist infinitely. However, Ecclesiastes 1:4 presents a more cynical circle. “One generation goes, another comes,” says Koheleth. He appears to see humanity as only a perpetual cycle of death. Because of this, Koheleth concludes that we need not bother pursuing anything – not riches, not wisdom, and not righteousness.
Indeed, Ecclesiastes has a low opinion of wisdom. “For as wisdom grows, vexation grows,” says Koheleth in Ecclesiastes 1:18. The book presents knowledge as something that leads to pain. It seems to affirm that old maxim, “Ignorance is bliss.” The more we know, the sadder we become. Ultimately, for all of our time spent learning, we face the same fate as the fool. Ecclesiastes 2:15 reads, “The fate of the fool is also destined for me; to what advantage, then, have I been wise?” Indeed, we all die. Even if we have all the wisdom in the world, tragedy may still befall us. Calamity does not discriminate. We do not even have a better lot than the common animals that crawl unknowing across the earth, according to Ecclesiastes 3:20. Our deeds matter no more than theirs.
Not only do we go unrewarded for good works, but we may even receive punishment for them. “Sometimes an upright man is requited according to the conduct of the scoundrel; and sometimes the scoundrel is requited according to the conduct of the upright,” moans Ecclesiastes 8:14. If we do all the good we can, we may still face unhappiness. God has determined that our lives mean nothing, according to this cursory reading of the book. Opportunities for success, then, remain elusive to our human grasp. We can build up our stores of wealth and wisdom as much as we please. In the end, we all fail. Even a pious reading of Ecclesiastes can yield this conclusion. However, the Talmud has something much different to say.
The book of Ecclesiastes uses the phrases “under the sun” or “beneath the sun” a combined 27 times. This might seem like nothing more than a poetic flourish. However, when the book slips the words “life under heaven” into Ecclesiastes 2:3, we get a clear understanding of the author’s intention. Indeed, Koheleth speaks the truth when he proclaims that we have no real and lasting success in any of our worldly ends. Yet when we turn our eyes from the earthly and focus them on God, the entire cosmos shifts in a favorable direction.
The Talmud argues that Ecclesiastes can act as a manual for a meaningful life. When we acknowledge that all the things we know will eventually pass from being, then we can fully surrender ourselves to the will of God and find our meaning as His children. The Almighty has destined us for a supernatural end. This physical world that we know does not contain our final objective. As Christians, we know that God has already given us the greatest gift: “God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life,” in the famous words of John 3:16. We have succeeded when we have achieved eternal life. To believe in Christ, and thus to believe in God, remains the only success that we can have. Though it may seem like a let-down that heaven only allows for one kind of success, we find comfort in the knowledge that we only need this one thing. Only Christ, who rules from heaven, can give eternal joy.
Jesus, one and the same with God the Father, became man and experienced man’s suffering so that He could give us that joy. Even the One who “made man’s mouth … made him dumb or deaf or seeing or blind” (Exodus 4:10-12) experienced pain, loss, and death. Therefore, He sanctified man’s suffering. If we offer all of our pain to the Lord, then we take a small part in Christ’s Passion. Jesus’ horrible death led to the greatest success of human history – our redemption, our salvation from sin, our newfound capability to enjoy the beatific vision in the next life. Because God so loves us, we can succeed even in our suffering.
Ecclesiastes reminds us that everything we may achieve in this world affords only fleeting pleasure. We cannot find true wisdom or true wealth “under the sun.” Rather, we must look above the sun, to the heavenly court. Every piece of the universe derives its meaning from God. Even suffering has its place in the divine order. The successes we achieve in this world leave no lasting mark on our souls or on the souls of others. However, the successes of God – faith, hope, and charity – last eternally.
Written by Frank Pagliaro. Frank is from Cape Cod, Mass. He lives in Dennett 2.