The language of Ecclesiastes is eloquent when read in the KJV. It was not, however, written by David’s son, as stated in the first verse. Whoever wrote it sounds jaded, in the introductory monologue about the meaninglessness of life. V 3-5, 9, and 15 are familiar phrases. V 5-7, regarding nature, contain lovely imagery when read metaphorically, but of course they were taken literally until recently. Does v 7 describe the water cycle? It could, but there is no evidence that the author really knew where the water went or how it cycled. TalkOrigins points out that it was once thought that the water from rivers returned underground.
The author continues on with some kind of weird, sad essay. This doesn’t seem like it belongs in the bible at all. The author sounds depressed as he describes how wealth and material possessions did not bring him happiness (v 4-11). Note the casual, accepting references to slaves and concubines. In v 12-17, he turns philosophical, comparing wisdom to foolishness, and reaches the same conclusion – life is meaningless. Why did I always have the impression that this book was happy and uplifting? By the time I got to the end of his rant about the purposelessness of work (v 18-23), I was just plain depressed. Doesn’t this border on nihilism?
Ah, now we get to the part everyone knows.
Back to the philosophy. V 9-15 says that if everything’s worthless in the end, we might as well enjoy what we can. (Does this sound like hedonism?) But I have to challenge v 11 – that god has made everything beautiful. Does that include cancer? Tsetse flies? Tsunamis?
And what about “people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work…” – well, not until the microscope, anyway. And don’t even start me on v 14 “God’s purpose is that people should fear him.” I thought we finished with that fear crap back in Proverbs. Yeesh. There are some good points, though, in the last paragraph comparing humans to animals (v 18-22). And note again the belief in the finality of death.
This book is depressing. But here’s something interesting about translations. Take a look at v 2. In the KJV it says “Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive.” Huh??? The NIV modernizes the language while trying not to change too much, and comes up with “And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive.” The NLT paraphrases in an attempt to make some sense of the original and says “So I concluded that the dead are better off than the living.” This is why I like the NLT – it makes the bible readable and easily understandable – but it sometimes oversimplifies and/or sanitizes. I like to also see the ‘original’ wording of the KJV (which is course not original at all), but sometimes I can’t make head nor tail of it. How can anyone know what the author really intended to say? The sentiment of v 7-12 is rather touching, and there’s a lot of truth there.