There are a few books of the Bible that I really find amusing. My students know that one of them is the Book of Tobit. In fact I apparently made one too many jokes about that book and was pointedly told by one of my students (thank you, Sr. Mahilia) that I needed to rein it in!
The Book of Ecclesiastes is another book that amuses me. That is, when it isn’t making me totally depressed! Let’s put it this way – Ecclesiastes may not be the book to read when you’re already having a bad day.
The best-known verse in the Book of Ecclesiastes is probably: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (1:2). “Vanity” is the typical English translation of the Hebrew word hebel, which literally means “vapor” or “breath.” The word is used 38 times in the Book of Ecclesiastes to describe the fleeting and even futile nature of life. The Good News Bible (not known for its technical accuracy, but pretty good at capturing the "gist" of things) even goes so far as to translate the verse this way: "It is useless, useless. Life is useless, all useless."
The author goes on to write other things we might find surprising. He writes that seeking wisdom is an “unhappy business” (1:13); there is nothing better for human beings than to eat and drink (2:24); we aren’t really any better off than animals – not in life or death (3:18-21); and the dead (all of them) “know nothing” and “have no reward” (9:5).
Sure, there are a few uplifting verses in Ecclesiastes (a lovely passage on the value of friendship, for example; 4:9-12), and the author does retain and encourage a stalwart faith in the midst of his observations of life’s futilities (3:12-14; 4:18-20). But those who try to paint over this book with an overly optimistic gloss are ignoring its brooding tone and many of its messages.
Some have even questioned whether this unusual book belongs in the canon of Scripture. After all, doesn’t the maxim “life is vanity” contradict the basic biblical belief that life is a sacred gift from God? But there is a stark realism here, written down and poured out on the sacred page. That is why I don’t find it strange that the Book of Ecclesiastes found its way into the canon. I don’t think the ideas we read here mean that life really is hebel, or futile. I don’t think the author’s own uncertainty about the after-life means that we need to be uncertain. But this book allows us to express our frustrations and fears, and it comforts us. It allows us to have dark moments and say, “I don’t get it” and “It isn’t fair.” It allows us to read and say “I’m not sure either” and “What is death, really?”
If nothing else, this special book reminds us that opening the Bible always begins a conversation with God. We can express every emotion, ask every question, and enter into every mystery. And when we enter into the very honest and very human ideas we find in the Book of Ecclesiastes, we can be assured that our God understands and responds: “I hear you, my people. Keep talking to me.”