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Ecclesiastes and the Meaning of Life

As I have been arguing, *most* of the authors of the Hebrew Bible who have anything to say about life after death believe that people go to Sheol – whether they are good or wicked, faithful or unfaithful.  It is the fate of all.  Different authors may have different views of what Sheol entails, but nowhere is it a place or reward or punishment for what one does (or believes) in this life.

A major exception seems to be the book of Ecclesiastes, which does not subscribe to an afterlife of any kind.  Looking back over the posts of the blog from the past five years I’m surprised to see I haven’t said much about Ecclesiastes – surprised because it is one of my favorite books of the entire Bible.  I’d like to give a bit of an overview, and that will take two posts.  I have lifted these reflections from my book God’s Problem.

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Ecclesiastes has long been one of my favorite books of the Bible.  It is normally included among the “Wisdom” books of the Hebrew Scriptures, because its insights into life come not from some kind of divine revelation (in contrast, say, to the prophets) but from a deep understanding of the world and how it works.  Unlike other Wisdom books, such as Proverbs, however, the wisdom that Ecclesiastes imparts is not based on knowledge acquired by generations of wise thinkers; it is based on the observations of one man as he considers life in all its aspects and the certainty of death.  Moreover, in some sense Ecclesiastes is a kind of “anti-Wisdom” book, in that the insights it gives run contrary to the traditional views of a book like Proverbs, which insists that life is basically meaningful and good, that evil is punished, and right behavior is rewarded.  Not so for the author of Ecclesiastes, who calls himself the Teacher (Hebrew: Qoheleth).  On the contrary, life is often meaningless, and in the end, all of us — wise and foolish, righteous and wicked, rich and poor — all of us die.  And that’s the end of the story.

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The Afterlife (or not) in Ecclesiastes
Life After Death According to Samuel

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Comments

  1. mjordan20149  April 5, 2017

    Good post, and I’m sorry for posting something that is off-topic, but I would be interested to hear if you saw the PBS documentary that aired last night. It was called “The Last Days of Jesus,” and it made some interesting points that might be of interest to the readers of this blog. Anyway, I’d be interested to see your response to the assertions that were made in the documentary (and in the book that they were pushing) There’s no hurry, of course.

  2. brandon284  April 5, 2017

    How are scholars certain that the author is claiming to be Solomon? Could it be that this author is claiming to be the son of David in the sense he is part of David’s lineage and not his direct offspring?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 7, 2017

      Well, he is literally a king in Jerusalem who is David’s son who is fabulously wealthy. Sounds like Solomon!

  3. RonaldTaska  April 5, 2017

    One point is that it gives us the freedom to decide what is important for us without having it dictated to us. I urge new readers of this blog to read “God’s Problem.” It is a terrific and very readable book.

  4. Todd  April 5, 2017

    I love Ecclesiastes. I am interested in Buddhist practices and philosophy and Ecclesiasties comes so very close to that…there is happiness in living day to day, accepting that all things are impermanent, yet we can make life meaningful in simple things.

  5. rivercrowman  April 5, 2017

    Bart,I’ve read your book “God’s Problem” so I think I know the gist of your next post. But now I’m curious about your thoughts on the final Chapter (12) of Ecclesiastes. The last few verses in particular run counter to the book itself, just like you noted in your commentary in your other book “The Bible.” Is this more religious ending, mentioning God’s final judgement, an editorial add-on to make the book fit better into the Old Testament?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 7, 2017

      It is usually though that these are a “redaction” of the book by an editor eager to bring its teachings into line with more traditional views. (Since those verses run counter to everything else the author says)

  6. Wilusa  April 5, 2017

    A different attitude toward life (which I share), a line I once heard expressing Buddhist belief: “Don’t build your house on a bridge.”

    Meaning, of course, that this life *isn’t* all there is: we’ve come from somewhere, and we’re going *to* somewhere. (But certainly not that vague Christian “Heaven.”)

  7. godspell  April 5, 2017

    It’s one of the greatest poems ever written, and like many other great poems, it’s atempting to express a very simple and highly refined truth–that a different poem, crafted by an equally great poet, might eloquently refute. I honestly think the only reason it’s in the bible is that nobody could bear to take it out, because it’s so powerfully written, and because everyone with the slightest capacity for inner reflection has felt this emotion.

    I don’t really see any indication about the afterlife in it, one way or another. Obviously the poet does not think the dead shall rise physically, thinks that view of the next life is vanity, but he does believe in a God who made this world, and that the world itself shall go on forever (which is factually untrue, earth itself shall be gone someday). One could say the poet is saying “Stop worrying about the things of this world, which are ephemeral–concentrate on the next world, which is eternal.” But he doesn’t know what the next world will be–he leaves that to God, in perfect humility and acceptance of the way of things. It’s a very high form of spirituality, very eastern, very zen.

    Oh, if you ever get the chance, you might read a short story by Roger Zelazny. “A Rose For Ecclesiastes.” I think you’d enjoy it.

  8. talmoore
    talmoore  April 5, 2017

    Qoheleth 7:15-17 is one of the best articulations in the Bible of what I call the Moral Paradox — namely, that one who acts “good” and does not act “bad” will thrive and prosper. But as Qoheleth puts it: יֵשׁ צַדִּיק, אֹבֵד בְּצִדְקוֹ, וְיֵשׁ רָשָׁע, מַאֲרִיךְ בְּרָעָתוֹ. One good man perishes in his goodness, while another bad man thrives in his badness. The world, ostensibly, is not as fair and just as our moral pretensions like to imagine it.

    So what’s Qoheleth’s remedy to this paradox? He says: אַל-תְּהִי צַדִּיק הַרְבֵּה and אַל-תִּרְשַׁע הַרְבֵּה. In other words, best not to be too good, nor too bad, but, by implication, somewhere in the middle. That is, there’s no place for idealism in this world. Do whatever you need to survive and that’s it. This is the kind of cynicism we would expect from a disenchanted man crushed by a dog-eat-dog world. Anyone looking for hope in this message, well, you better look somewhere else.

  9. mannix  April 5, 2017

    I was going to ask why you think Ecc. was included in the canon of scripture since, on its face value, seems to run contrary to modern teaching of an afterlife of reward/punishment. But I suspect you’ll get to that!

    • Bart
      Bart  April 7, 2017

      Wasn’t planning on dealing with that in the thread, but I think the reason is because it was thought to have been written by Solomon (who, possibly, was in a bad mood….)

      • dankoh  April 9, 2017

        On which point:, sort of Ecclesiastes is one of 4 books in the Hebrew bible (the others are Isaiah, Lamentations and Malachi) where the next-to-the-last verse is repeated after the last verse. This is because the rabbis did not like a book to end on a down note or word, Ecclesiastes ends with “be it good or bad” so Jewish versions of the Bible repeat the previous verse after it (“the sum of the matter….”).

  10. SidDhartha1953  April 5, 2017

    I saw a video of Lawrence Krauss, the cosmologist, explaining what the future of the universe will be like: cold, dark, dead, expanding forever. So even the most famous person ever, whomever that may have been, will ultimately have done it all for nought in the end. Existentialism — inventing meaning in defiance of the meaninglessness of it all — seems to be the only way to keep one’s sanity in such a world. Just writing about it makes me kind of sad.

    • Wilusa  April 8, 2017

      “what the future of the universe will be like: cold, dark, dead, expanding forever…”

      But not all scientists believe that! Or at least, some have come to believe the Big Bang that gave birth to this universe was caused by the eruption of a supermassive black hole in an older universe. And Big Bangs may be taking place, somewhere in a larger Cosmos, at every moment – at least some of them creating new universes.

      Everything in the Cosmos may actually be connected, parts of a single Whole. If so, and if some part of every living being is noncorporeal, that noncorporeal part may simply migrate from one universe to another.

  11. Dobson  April 5, 2017

    Hi Bart, I share your entusiams about this book, which is my favorite book in the Bible. I think, there are at least two things to consider. First, here is a highly successful man, who cannot find meaning in life. This may correspond to the well known midlife crisis. Such guys today try the same things to kill away the pain: sex, work, alcohol, parties. But, nothing really helps. The other thing is, the circular concept of time, which is in sharp contradiction to the escatological concept of time, which is the ruling concept in the Bible, creating a general base to Messianism. According to Ecclesiastes, time has no beginning and no end. According to the story of creation and all the other books, time has a beginning and an end.

  12. jimviv2@gmail.com  April 5, 2017

    Is the final verse a later addition? Chap. 12 verse 14 seems to imply a Judgement Day, hence, an afterlife?
    “For God will bring every deed into judgement, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.”

    • Bart
      Bart  April 7, 2017

      Yes, it is usually thought to be a redaction by an editor trying to bring the book in line with traditional thinking.

  13. Jason  April 5, 2017

    Again, echoes of Epicurus.

    Not to parallel the claims of the mythicists you’ve been forced to put up with lately, but given the claim of Solomon’s authority here, do you think that the historical existences of David and Solomon are in the same realm of certainty as that of Jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 7, 2017

      No, not really. There probably was a David, but the accounts of his life are almost entirely legendary. I think there is little historical information. So too with Solomon. With Jesus we are much better situated (among other things, four biographical accounts all written within 60 years of his life, and all based on sources that can to some extent be reconstructed, not to mention an author who actually knew his brother and his disciples, writing just two decades after his death. We have nothing at all like that for David and Solomon.

  14. steelerpat  April 5, 2017

    I too like this book , so real life. Can relate… So 60s. To every thing turn turn..live for the now!
    Chapter 3

    20 All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. 21 Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?”

    Seems ideas of spirits leaving bodies were oft the thoughts of that time?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 7, 2017

      Good question. I need to think about that one and look at the Hebrew a bit….

    • talmoore
      talmoore  April 7, 2017

      What Qoheleth is saying is, in verse 20, everyone goes to one (and only one) place: we come from dust, and we return to dust. In the previous verse, 19, Qoheleth is insistent that men are no different from beasts, “Yea, they have all one [type of] breath/spirit” (ru’ach), so that men are no better than other animals. And then in verse 21, the Hebrew is tricky to translate (indeed, I disagree with most translations I’ve seen). It says, literally, “Who knows, the breath/spirit (ru’ach) of the children of Adam, it rises up? or the spirit/breath (ru’ach) of the beast, it descends down to the earth?” The context of the Hebrew implies that a familiar belief at the time of Qoheleth’s writing is that the “spirits” of men are superior to that of other animals, so that the souls of men go up to heaven and that of beasts go down into the earth. And it is this contemporary belief that Qoheleth is questioning. He’s asking, how does anyone know where the human soul goes after death? Just like the lowly animals, our body goes to the exact same place, the dirt, so what makes us so special? Clearly, all is futile.

  15. steelerpat  April 5, 2017

    Off topic a bit, Have u seen PBS “Jesus’ LAST DAYS” . Like to get your take on the resurrection narrative being much longer in time vs the few days porayed in gospels. Ie jesus returning to jerusalem around time of Tabernacle vs passover? Tia

    • Bart
      Bart  April 7, 2017

      Seems completely implausible to me. But I didn’t see the show.

  16. Hume  April 5, 2017

    You and I have argue on this point before. Let’s see if we can find agreement.
    I think there is meaning in an individual’s life, but only for the moment and the near future (how ever many decades you wish to define that). And that is it.

    Would you agree?

  17. Hume  April 6, 2017

    I came up with this on my own tonight.
    Every modern story, movie, book, etc., especially if they have super powers, sci-fi, etc.. often comes back to the theme of the powerful beings recognizing how good/awe inspiring/perserverance that weak little humans have. That’s how I know Iron Man, Supernatural, Super Heroes are all written by humans. The writers make humans the centre of the story when we clearly are not, nor really need to be. It is the same with Lucifer. It is hard to believe that humans are that envied by a powerful archangel. When humans enter an important role in this cosmic drama, the story of Genesis like our modern fiction leads back to us, and demonstrates these books were written solely by humans.

    What do you think?

    Supporting verses: Of all the creatures, God made them “a little lower than God” and “crowned them with glory and honor” . In fact, God made man “ruler over the works of your hands; you put all things under his feet.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 7, 2017

      I’m not sure what option there is to books being written solely by humans! (I.e., I don’t think of and can’t conceive of any other kind of book)

      • dankoh  April 9, 2017

        Well, maybe we can teach elephants to write!

  18. Paul  April 6, 2017

    Ecclesiastes best explains why there Seems to be such a strong emotional *need* to believe in an afterlife (“is that all there is?”).

    Samuel epitomizes one of the central tenets of an afterlife: that we ‘live on’ after our mortal life ends, retaining our same consciousness, same memories, etc. Maybe I’m happier, living on gold-paved streets in heaven, or writhing in pain in the fires of hell, but I’m still the same ‘me’ after I die. Which makes sense. What would be the ‘value’ of an afterlife if I became something or someone else, with no connection to or memory of my former self?

    That’s why reincarnation as a form of afterlife always seems a ‘what’s the point?’ philosophy to me. Dying and returning as a new ‘self’ offers no continuity with my former self, no more so than claiming I will live on after death because my atoms will still exist after I die.

    • Wilusa  April 8, 2017

      First, there’s very strong evidence that reincarnation is a fact.

      Given that…our species, like every other species, is still evolving. It’s possible that at some time in the future – maybe hundreds of years from now, maybe thousands – all of us will remember enough about our previous lives to discern a pattern.

  19. shakespeare66  April 6, 2017

    Why live a life without pleasure? Life is something to fill with different pleasures. Whatever that pleasure may be. Love the wisdom of eccessissasties.

  20. GWB51  April 6, 2017

    In the previous post you’d asked about links to the Pew poll information I’d cited. I posted the reply below, but initially I got a response the site wasn’t working. After refreshing my reply was visible however it kept showing a flag that it was waiting for moderation. So, just to be safe I’m posting the information to you again.

    There is a new poll that just came up you might find interesting. It’s “The Changing Global Religious Landscape”.

    http://www.pewforum.org/2017/04/05/the-changing-global-religious-landscape/?ex_cid=SigDig
    =================
    Sure, Pew does a Religious Landscape Study.
    This was the page I referenced. But, you can drill down to a lot of other information.
    http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/party-affiliation/

    FWIW, Media Bias rates Pew as “Least Biased” and “Very High” on factual reporting.

    The stuff about religion and climate change was in their Religion and Science section:
    http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/10/22/religion-and-views-on-climate-and-energy-issues/

  21. Eric  April 6, 2017

    A grimmer counterpart to Boethus’ “Consolation of Philosophy”

  22. Raemon  April 6, 2017

    Bart, what leads you to conclude that Ecclesiastes isn’t an exercise in Jewish sarcasm as our Evangelical brethren claim?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 7, 2017

      I don’t see any hints of it in the text.

    • HawksJ  April 10, 2017

      Raemon, can you expound upon what you (or they) mean by an “exercise in Jewish sarcasm”?

  23. Judith  April 6, 2017

    To me, it seems whoever wrote “The Preacher” had an underlying problem with depression. Those of us not so afflicted know that the endless joyful moments when just to be alive is worth living for gives reason enough for living.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 7, 2017

      I’m not completely sure. I have many of his views and I’m not depressed!

  24. Stephen  April 6, 2017

    Perhaps the KJV translators’ finest hour?

  25. Raemon  April 7, 2017

    Bart, I have to agree with your appreciation of Ecclesiastes. Your column reminded me of a worthwhile quote from one of our premier Western writers, Louis L’Amour. I had to look it up again: “The trail is the thing, not the end of the trail. Travel too fast, and you miss all you are traveling for.”

  26. tskorick  April 7, 2017

    For someone like myself whose favorite band is Nine Inch Nails, the book of Ecclesiastes has always resonated with me as well. It is soaked with sagely “been there done that bought the t-shirt” experience, but there is also a strong anti-establishment undercurrent running through it. “This is what you may think you’re supposed to pursue in life, but it’s worthless; look elsewhere for what really matters.” I see a real admiration for rebellion in this attitude that is almost absent in the preponderance of OT stories, even though they pay lip service to it in stories like that of Samson or David.

  27. Boltonian  April 8, 2017

    According to Finkelstein and Silberman’s book, ‘The Bible Unearthed,’ which I know you admire, there is zero evidence for the existence of Solomon and not much more for David and Saul (Shlomo Sands takes a similar view). Your position seems to be that all three existed: can you please tell me why you think this? Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 9, 2017

      I agree with that pretty much. I’ll address it on a blog post though. We do have evidence of a dynasty of king David from outside the Bible (the Tel Dan inscription), and “Solomon” would simply be the one who followed David in Jerusalem, whatever his name wsa. The stories, though, are almost certainly legendary.

  28. PhilipS  April 10, 2017

    Do you also like poem that is used in Turn! Turn! Turn! and do you like the song?

  29. gabilaranjeira  April 19, 2017

    I like Ecclesiastes too.

    “There’s nothing new under the sun” is the best line ever. One thing that is definitely not new is this pursue of the so called “meaning of life”. Life doesn’t have a meaning in itself. We, as emotional and rational beings, assign meaning to our perceptions and experiences.

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