Understanding Ecclesiastes: Life in a Frustratingly Enigmatic World, Part 2

Read Part 1.

In part 1 of this series, I began to develop an alternative to negative renderings of hebel (AV, “vanity”). In part 2, I will explain three reasons why hebel would be better understood as “frustratingly enigmatic.” Then I will conclude by looking at some implications of the use of hebel in Ecclesiastes.

Evidence for understanding hebel as “frusratingly enigmatic”

(1) The phrase “chasing after wind” (r’ut ruah) serves as a qualifying element to hebel. Ecclesiastes1:14 is an example, where “chasing after wind” complements hebel. The phrase also occurs in Ecclesiastes 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 6; 6:9. The expression indicates something that is beyond man’s control. As Carl Shank observed, “A man may determine or make up his mind to accomplish something eternally significant in a creation subjected to vanity, yet no matter how hard he tries Qohelet tells him it will be a fruitless endeavor. A man in his toil ‘under the sun’ grasps after the wind and attains precious little for all his labor” (“Qoheleth’s World and Life View As Seen in His Recurring Phrases,” Westminster Theological Journal 37 [Fall 1974]: 67). Thus, the concept of “chasing after wind” supports our contention that the semantic range of hebel includes a cognitive sense (for other complementary phrases, see Ogden, Qoheleth, pp. 24–25).

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Understanding Ecclesiastes: Life in a Frustratingly Enigmatic World, Part 1

Many interpreters maintain that the overall message of Ecclesiastes is one of cynicism and vanity (e.g. Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, pp. 212–15). According to this perspective, the author of Ecclesiastes, Qohelet (an epithet for Solomon), has written a book unlike any other in the canon—one that focuses on cynicism and complete despair.

Those who take this view derive the message of despair from some “negative” motifs in Ecclesiastes. The most dominant of these begins the book in 1:2: “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (NASB). “Vanity” translates the Hebrew word hebel.

Since hebel occurs multiple times in every chapter of Ecclesiastes, readers must understand it in order to grasp the message of the book. But if this term is exclusively negative, how do we explain its juxtaposition to exhortations to enjoy life (the carpe diem passages)? More specifically, is “vanity” or any other negative term (such as NIV’s “meaningless” or HCSB’s “futility”) the best way to render hebel in Ecclesiastes? The purpose of this article is to suggest an alternative to negative renderings of hebel and to suggest how the resulting message of Ecclesiastes should impact our lives.

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Does Ecclesiastes Teach Epicureanism?

This article originally appeared at SI July 7, ‘06.

Does Ecclesiastes teach Epicureanism? In a word, no. Despite certain passages in Ecclesiastes that “sound” Epicurean, if we take the message of Solomon as a whole and the message of Epicurus as a whole, we discover that the two views of life under the sun are quite at odds with one another. The philosopher known for “vanity of vanities,” in the final analysis, is life-affirming, and the philosopher known for “eat, drink, and be merry” actually sucks the joy out of life.

I would like first to correct what is probably a popular misconception of Epicureanism. Then I would like to lay out four contrasting points between the two views: their views of God (or the gods), of death, of humanity and human desire, and of the summum bonum–that is, the greatest good.

First, a word of clarification. Epicureanism has somehow earned a false reputation for reckless and dissipated hedonism. Actually, it is ascetic hedonism. The original Epicurus pursued maximum pleasure and minimum pain, but his strategy was anything but the “party till you drop” lifestyle that the word Epicurean brings to mind nowadays. Some parties bring pain, Epicurus observed. His strategy was actually one of detaching oneself from the cares and concerns of this world, to keep one’s mind free from turmoil (a state he called, in Greek, ataraxia). Instead of trying to fulfill all one’s fantastic desires, one should instead concentrate on keeping one’s desires simple, thus achieving a higher satisfaction rate. Why desire much and fail, since this is a lot of work and discomfort only to be disappointed?

What kind of worldview supported such a policy? This leads to the points of contrast.

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