Lesson 6 of 6
In Progress

Bible in the World – Ecclesiastes

Ecclesiastes and Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor who was executed under the Nazis, made extensive use of Ecclesiastes. For example, in interpreting Ecclesiastes 3, he writes: “But, to put it plainly, for a man in his wife’s arms to be hankering after the other world is, in mild terms, a piece of bad taste, and not God’s will. We ought to find and love God in what he actually gives us; if it pleases him to allow us to enjoy some overwhelming earthly happiness, we mustn’t try to be more pious than God himself….’For everything there is a season’” (Letters and Papers from Prison [New York: Macmillan, 1971], 168-169). Similarly, in his Ethics, Bonhoeffer uses Ecclesiastes to emphasize that God has given people bodies and their bodily joys as a gift, and that the body is not a “means to an end” or relegated only to a “higher purpose” (qtd. in J. Limburg, Encountering Ecclesiastes: A Book for Our Time [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006], 48-49).  

The Festival of Sukkoth

In Judaism, Ecclesiastes is the text for the celebration of the fall festival of Sukkoth, or Booths. Deuteronomy 16:1-17 lists the three ancient festivals (Passover, Weeks, Booths), and vv. 13-15 tell how to celebrate Booths. Jews today continue to celebrate the festival in the fall by building a small structure where they will eat and drink and visit with friends. The keynote of this festival, which has its roots in harvest or ingathering (Exodus 23:16), is joy. This calls to attention the themes of eating, drinking, and rejoicing that run through the book of Ecclesiastes.

The Inevitability of Death and a Call to Joy

In Christian tradition, perhaps no worship service confronts the reality of death more directly than the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, the opening of the season of Lent. An officiant marks the sign of the cross with ashes on the head of a worshiper, saying to them, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The language of returning to dust also appears in graveside committal services: “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” This phrase refers most directly to Genesis 3:19, when God curses the ground in response to the first humans’ eating of the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Yet Ecclesiastes also echoes this sentiment at 3:20 as it observes that humans and animals alike share the same fate: the return of their bodies to the earth at death. 

For Qoheleth death is an inevitability, but also a mystery, as is the future in general. The Wisdom tradition operates primarily on observed realities, and what he can see is that human and animal bodies both decompose. “Who knows,” he writes, “whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth?” (3:21) Qoheleth’s response is to operate on what he can know, which is lived, bodily reality: “all should enjoy their work, for that is their lot” (3:22). Christian faith contains a similar sense of both inevitability and puzzlement: death contains many mysteries, even as we hold fast to the promise of resurrection. The forty days of Lent, the season of fasting that begins with Ash Wednesday, is punctuated by feast days every Sunday, because each Sunday—even in the midst of Lent—is a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection.

In its embrace of the cyclical nature of life on earth, Ecclesiastes offers a challenge to the Western world’s unrelenting search for “progress.” The biblical book’s appeal to a “season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (3:1) allows for a regular ebb and flow of life, rather than a frenetic push toward the next big thing. “Gain” is a fleeting, even impossible idea in the face of death, the great leveler. 

The book does not refrain from confronting the inevitability of loss, calamity, and death, but neither does it end in despair. Its response to the tragic side of life is to let go of measuring one’s time on earth in hours worked or honors gained or products produced. Instead, the Teacher admonishes his ancient, wealthy, high-achieving audience to “eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot” (5:18). Notice that he does not advise a life of unbroken leisure, either; work is unavoidable, but it should be done intentionally, in moderation, and with joy: “For they will scarcely brood over the days of their lives, because God keeps them occupied with the joy of their hearts” (5:20).

Ecclesiastes and Work

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, workers in the United States—and indeed, in many places across the world—began to reassess the place and purpose of work in human life. Employees rejected long commutes and sought more opportunities to work remotely. Employers faced difficulty recruiting workers without raising pay and offering benefits. Qoheleth, too, is a voice calling for a reevaluation of the conditions of work. Although Qoheleth is a voice from the ancient past, “work” is an experience common to the human condition throughout time, and it seems that even antiquity could have “workaholics.” That does not mean, however, that Qoheleth’s words to “take pleasure in all…toil” (3:13) are equally prescriptive in every circumstance. The idea that 

God assigns each person to a particular “station” or “lot” in life—and that one should be content with one’s own poverty, dangerous job, etc.—has been wielded by the powerful at many points throughout history to maintain the status quo of their own privilege. Like any biblical text, applying the insights of Qoheleth to today’s circumstances should be done with care, discernment, and critical analysis.  

Enjoying the Gifts that are Given

At Ecclesiastes 6:1-2, the Teacher laments the fate of the wealthy person who, for whatever reason, is unable to enjoy the good things available to them in life: “There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy upon humankind: those to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that they lack nothing of all that they desire, yet God does not enable them to enjoy these things, but a stranger enjoys them. This is vanity; it is a grievous ill.” This paradox recalls the “Selkirk Grace,” a Scottish blessing traditionally attributed to the poet Robert Burns: “Some hae meat and canna eat, and some wad eat that want it. But we hae meat an’ we can eat, and sae the Lord be thankit.” (Translated out of the Scots dialect: “Some have meat and cannot eat, and some would eat that don’t have it. But we have meat and we can eat, and so the Lord be thanked.”) Both Ecclesiastes and the Selkirk Grace remind us that having things is no guarantee of enjoying them, and that to be able to enjoy what life gives, be it a little or a lot, is itself a blessing.

The Ephemerality of Power

The “Teacher” in Qoheleth is meant to be a king—specifically King Solomon, though the book dates from hundreds of years after Solomon lived. Part of what makes the book extraordinary is that the king, who has done and acquired everything one can think to get, is nonetheless unhappy, because he realizes that his accomplishments are “vanity”: he will be no different than a pauper once the years of his life have passed and he is under the earth like everyone else. 

The sonnet “Ozymandias,” written by the early 19th century British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, similarly captures the way that the powers of time and death outstrip the power of kings. In the poem, a traveler comes across the ruins of a giant statue in the desert, with “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone”:

And on the pedestal, these words appear: 

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; 

Look on my Works, ye mighty, and despair!” 

Nothing beside remains….

Not only has the king himself long ago turned to dust, but even the statue meant to proclaim the king’s legacy through the ages has decayed, and the king’s mighty works have been forgotten. His fearsome power blows away like sand. One can only imagine that the author of Ecclesiastes would have greatly appreciated Shelley’s poem!

The Parable of the Rich Man

The Revised Common Lectionary pairs readings from the first and second chapters of Ecclesiastes with the parable of the rich man in Luke 12:13-21. The rich man has such an abundant yield of crops that he doesn’t know what to do with them. He decides to build barns to store up his wealth for future years, when he will finally be able to “…relax, eat, drink, and be merry”—language that echoes Ecclesiastes. In a twist that also sounds straight out of Ecclesiastes, the rich man faces death that same night. His future life, which he was once so certain of, has now been eliminated. Particularly striking in the parable is the rich man’s “I” language; he is in conversation with only himself, addressing himself rather than another human being.  Though the lectionary draws from Ecclesiastes 1 and 2, the parable’s attention to the futility of self-reliance also recalls Ecclesiastes 4, which emphasizes companionship over the false joys of riches: “Again, I saw vanity under the sun: the case of solitary individuals, without sons or brothers; yet there is no end to all their toil, and their eyes are never satisified with riches” (4:7).    

“Turn! Turn! Turn!”

The book of Ecclesiastes made its way into popular culture through the song “Turn! Turn! Turn!” written by Pete Seeger and popularized by the Byrds. You can listen to the song here. The only place the lyrics deviate from the language of Ecclesiastes is at the very end after “A time for peace,” when it adds, “I swear it’s not too late.” The song’s extra plea for peace sounds particularly poignant in its original context on the heels of the Korean War and in the early years of the Vietnam War. While Pete Seeger was by no means a Christian evangelist, his song nonetheless has brought many people to the book of Ecclesiastes—and therefore to some knowledge of the Bible itself—who otherwise may have never cracked its spine.