Why Is It So Unfulfilling?
I have a friend who likes to study the history of the Biblical text. He talks (at length) about the Codex Alexandrinus and its differences from the Codex Sinatiticus. He knows about the Oxyrhynchus Papyri and the Chester Beatty Papyri. And he would ask this question before we could even start to discuss Ecclesiastes. Did Solomon really write Ecclesiastes? And since that is where Ecclesiastes itself starts, that is where we will start as well.
I do not think that the authorship matters. The minority view is that the literal King Solomon, son of King David, wrote the book. The majority view is that the style and vocabulary strongly indicate another author. The majority view would suggest that the book was written during or after the Babylonian exile. (At this point my friend would object to the word “indicate.” Textual scholarship is not an exact science. Many of its adherent’s act as if is. However, like doctors and medicine, they are only best guessing.)
I think a clue through this is in the first few words of the book. The ancient Jews named a book by its first few words. So the title of this book is not “The Preacher.” It is “The Words of the Preacher.” This is not an autobiography. Nor is it a biography. It is a sermon! As such there is no intent to deceive. It is a literary device of the authors to remain anonymous. There was no need for pride and trying to be original. They were quite content to give credit to someone else even if what they had to say was quite innovative and of great value.
But we still must give the writer a name. The Preacher seems to impersonal. So we will go with the traditional Solomon.
And what a sermon it is. To make sure you do not miss the point, he states his premise in the second verse, talks about that main point for 12 chapters, and says it 3 times at the conclusion of the book (12:8). Vanity, all is vanity!
So what does Solomon mean when he writes this? I alluded to this a bit last week. The Hebrew word for vain is not about looking in the mirror and obsessing what you look like so others will notice you. It is a life lived with no purpose or chasing after the wind. Life has no purpose (no telos) only an end (a finis). And that finish is death. Life is meaningless. It is nothing.
Ernest Hemingway was seized by this idea that life is nothing. It pops up in his writing time and again. It is very explicit in the following passage:
…what did he fear? It was not a fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee….
Nada. The Spanish word for nothing. John of the Cross, the great Spanish mystic, used that word to describe God. John named God todo y nada. God is everything and nothing. For John (and the other great mystics) God is so full of being that he is No-Thing. For the modern man, the modern nihilist, God is so empty that he is Nothing. For modern man, God is simply another name for Nothingness.
Solomon’s overarching point is that without God – no that is not right because Solomon speaks frequently about God. Without faith in God – but that is still not quite right because Solomon has a faith in God. Maybe a rock-solid-no-doubt kind of faith. Best way to say what Solomon is pointing us to? Without a faith that develops into a passionate-no-holds-barred-damn-the-torpedoes-love-affair with God life is just vanities of vanities. A Dream of a Dream. A Shadow of a Shadow.
I want to close with a one last thought. This idea of life as vanity is not just in the Hebrew Scriptures. In fact, the New Testament dispenses with philosophical posturing. It does not examine the case leaving no stone unturned. The New Testament sums it all up in one word.
In Philippians Paul lists all his successes, education, wealth, power, privilege, and prestige. He was the man – “Pharisee of the Pharisees,” a Roman citizen.
“Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ” (Phil. 3:8, KJV)
Some translations use the word garbage or rubbish where the KJV uses the word dung. But the Greek word is not so soft. The vulgarity of the Greek word is the same as our word “sh*t.”
We wonder why people feel so hopeless. We wonder why they rage. We wonder they chase drugs. Sex. Alcohol. Power. Education. Religion. Anything else people chase. And when they seem to catch it, why is so unfulfilling.
Crap. Its all crap.