Ecclesiastes is for many Christians the strangest book in the Bible.
It seems especially strange in comparison with Proverbs. Proverbs is encouraging and comforting. It tells us that those who pursue wisdom will attain it, and that with wisdom will come wealth and power and all sorts of other blessings. It tells us that wealth obtained by fraud will not last, but that one who pursues wealth carefully and righteously will prosper.
Those who fear Yahweh and keep His commandments will find life will yield to them, apparently with ease. There is a moral order to the world, a recognizable connection between cause and effect. God oversees everything to ensure that things turn out justly. On nearly every page, Proverbs tells us that those who do good succeed and prosper, and those who do evil fail. These regularities are pervasive in Proverbs.
Turn the page, and we're in a different world. Ecclesiastes seems to teach that there is no moral order, and that wisdom is nothing.
The world that Solomon describes in Ecclesiastes seems to be a world without God, without apparent justice, without comfort, without stability. God is mentioned throughout the book, but this seems so incompatible with the apparent cynicism of the rest of the book that some commentators have concluded there are two “voices” in Ecclesiastes, and that someone went through and inserted sections to make sure that the book conformed to the “orthodoxy” of Proverbs.
On the other hand, there are periodic statements throughout the book that encourage us to “eat, drink, and be merry.” We have one at the end of chapter 2: “There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and tell himself that his labor is good.” These periodic exhortations to feasting have led some to conclude that the book is not cynical: it is hedonistic. It commends the pursuit of pleasure as the supreme goal of life. Life is pointless anyway, and it is short, so grab for all the gusto you can while you have the time.
Which is it? Is Ecclesiastes cynical? Or does it promote a Hebraic form of Epicureanism? Or is it a hedonistic nihilism?
There is in fact no contradiction between Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, or between Ecclesiastes and any of the rest of Scripture. Proverbs is far more complex than we often realize; it does not say that there is a simply one-to-one relation between wisdom and prosperity, between righteousness and success. Proverbs was not written by Job’s comforters. And Ecclesiastes, for all its edginess, is perfectly consistent with the rest of the Bible.
Unfortunately, this last point has sometimes been obscured by poor translations of certain key words and phrases in Ecclesiastes. To get the point of Ecclesiastes, we have to ignore the usual translations of several key words or phrases. The Hebrew hebel has been translated as “vanity” (NASB, KJV, ESV, ASV) or “meaningless” (NIV, New Living Translation). These are very bad translations, and keep us from seeing the consistency between Ecclesiastes and the rest of the Bible. The Message gets much closer by translating the word as “smoke.”
The word means “vapor” (Proverbs 21:6) or “breath” (Job 7:16; Psalm 39:5, 11; 62:9, 94:11; 144:4; Isaiah 57:13). And the idea that life in this world is vapor runs throughout the Scriptures:
Solomon explores the vaporous character of the world in several areas. Recapitulating Yahweh’s creation of the garden, he makes a pleasure park (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11; cf. Genesis 2:8-25). But when he reflects on what he accomplishes, he realizes it is “vapor” (2:11).
He pursues wisdom, but since both the wise and the foolish die there is no advantage to wisdom (2:12-17). He works with all the skill and wisdom that he has, but realizes that he has no control over the fruit of his labor. He realizes that a fool might inherit what he worked for and ruin it all (2:18-23). As a result, life is “painful and grievous” (2:23).
When Solomon says that everything is “vapor,” he is not saying that everything is meaningless or pointless. He’s saying that everything is temporary; it evaporates; it slips away. All human abilities and achievements decay over time; are subjected to the decay of time; all human thoughts are fleeting; our lives are brief.
Death is one of the key things that makes life vaporous. What makes wisdom a vaporous pursuit is the fact that both fools and wise men die. There is an advantage for wisdom, but wisdom does not help anyone escape this ultimate end. Death is what makes accumulation of wealth vaporous.
Are you strong and athletic? Well, you won’t be forever. You may jog and lift weights until you are 85. You might be the healthiest 90-year-old in history, but eventually you will be a corpse. Are you proud of your beauty? It won’t last. You can delay the inevitable with skin creams and makeup; you can keep fit by dieting and exercise; you can have plastic surgery. But eventually your beauty will fade, and if it doesn’t fade while you’re alive, it will fade when you die. And you will die. Are you at the top of your profession, enjoying the praise and perhaps a bit of fame for your achievements? That won’t last either. Your achievements may continue on: But what good does that do you when you die?
Herman Melville had enjoyed a bit of fame in his youth, but was so completely forgotten in his later years that when his obituary appeared everyone was surprised that he was still alive. Decades later, Moby Dick was recognized for the masterpiece it is, but what good did that do Melville? He was dead, and never enjoyed a bit of the acclaim that he now receives. Vapor of vapor, all is vapor.
Think of how rapidly things change in our day. There is a style industry that exists to keep producing new styles, and to keep everyone thinking that they have to change styles to keep up, and to make you feel ashamed if you are wearing LAST SEASON’S COLORS! Think of celebrity. A celebrity, Daniel Boorstin once said, is a person well known for being well known. But the half-life of fame is extremely short, and to keep yourself in the public eye you have to be willing to change yourself, make yourself over, keep Tweeting and posting, in order to keep ahead of the game. A style lives, but it soon dies; a celebrity sits on top of the world for a week, but then is forgotten, and shows up, pathetically attempting to regain a bit of lost notoriety by going a few rounds on Celebrity Boxing programs.
In describing human life as vapor or breath, Solomon emphasizes that life is brief and beyond our control. This is also the point of the phrase “striving after wind” (1:14, 17; 2:11, 17, 26), which is better translated as “shepherding wind.” The image does not express vain pursuit, but the effort to control or corral an elusive world. After Solomon has constructed his pleasure garden (2:4-10), he realizes that however solid his works appear they are as evanescent as wind.
This image has a particular application to the king, who is the shepherd of Israel’s flock. Solomon expresses his inability to shepherd wind, that is, to control his kingdom, to shepherd people. Solomon shepherded a whole nation, and specifically shepherded the workmen on the temple. Anyone who has tried to organize a group of people for anything – a family getting to church, employees to get on with a project, faculty to coordinate their teaching in a school, members of a church for some kind of evangelistic program – knows what Solomon means by “shepherding wind.” We cannot control the world, and we cannot control each other. Wisdom is a royal virtue, the skill to live well and to rule well, but Solomon knows that part of the wisdom a king needs is the wisdom to know the limitations of his power, the wisdom to know that shepherding a people is like trying to control the wind.
We can give this a specifically new covenant spin: Christians have all received the Spirit, and those who are born of the Spirit are like the wind, blowing where they will. Christians are, it would seem, even more uncontrollable by human shepherds than fleshly Israel would have been. There is only one Shepherd who can corral those who have been born of the Spirit, the Firstborn of the Spirit, who is the Good Shepherd. Pastors - or parents or leaders of any sort - who fail to recognize this are doomed either to continual frustration ("these people will not do what I tell them") or to tyranny ("I'll get this wind under control, I will! I WILL!").
We sometimes have the illusion of being in control of our lives. We might be managing a business or overseeing a budget; we make plans to rise in our chosen profession, and we’re able to carry out those plans deftly, and see our stock rising; we manage our money wisely, and think that we are in control of the future. And we often forget that the slightest thing can throw our world into chaos: A child or a spouse diagnosed with a serious illness; a hurricane or earthquake destroys the work of years; a sudden downturn in the stock market leaves us with a fraction of our savings. We think that we have suddenly lost control, but that’s not true. We were never in control to begin with. All of it was shepherding wind. Every last bit of it.
Depressing, no? Well, No.
For Solomon, these insights do not end in despair. We cannot see any results in our labors; we cannot control the future; all is vapor. And yet, Ecclesiastes 2 ends with an exhortation to eat and drink and tell ourselves that our labor is good. Recognizing that the world is vapor, and that all our efforts are no more than shepherding wind, we are supposed to rejoice. How can this lead to joy?
Saying that our lives are vapor, and that we cannot shepherd wind, is not the last word. Man cannot shepherd the wind, but Yahweh, who rides on the wings of the wind (Psalm 18:10; 104:3), is the Shepherd of the windy world (Ecclesiastes 12:11).
There may be a hint of this in 2:26: God gives knowledge and joy to those who are good in His sight, but leaves the sinner to collect and gather for the good. The last line is “This too is vapor and shepherding wind.” Is Solomon saying that the good man’s enjoyment of knowledge and joy is also vapor and shepherding wind? That seems odd. Or is he saying that only the sinner’s experience is vapor and shepherding wind? Or is he saying that the whole process of rewards for the good and frustration for the sinner is shepherding wind? If the latter, this seems to point to the Lord overseeing a process of distributing rewards and frustrations, and this is an example of how the Lord is able to control the wind and vapor that is human life.
In sum, the message of Ecclesiastes doesn’t contradict the message of Proverbs. Proverbs tells us Yahweh orchestrates the world, there are patterns of cause and effect in human life. The lazy person will not get rich, the dishonest person will have his comeuppance, the violent person will fall victim to his own violent schemes.
Ecclesiastes reminds us that this moral order is in the hands of a sovereign, free, incomprehensible God, and we cannot know God’s ways exhaustively any more than we can know God. Ecclesiastes does not deny the sovereignty and transcendence of God, but affirms it in the most radical way. If God is transcendent ruler of all things, then we should expect we won’t be able to understand all He does. If we are creatures, created literally from nothing, then we shouldn’t expect our own lives to be anything but mist. The realization that we are not in control is no offense, no cause for anxiety, unless we believe that we should be in control.
Vapor or mist is also a veil, a screen. Think of the difficulty of trying to drive along a road in a thick fog. Everything disappears; there’s a world out there, but the vapor screens it off from you. To say that life is vapor is to say that it’s hiding something.
And Solomon appears to be suggesting that the vapor of the world screens us from God Himself, who for the time being, "under the sun," remains behind the veil of the vaporous world. As James Jordan points out, the world is so constructed as to require us to live by faith. But that’s just what we should expect if we realize we are creatures. The world isn't built in a such a way that we can reason to the bottom. It's built so that faith is more fundamental than reason. It's built to encourage the life of faith, which is the life of joy (2:24-25).
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