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What Is The Meaning of Life? The Book of Ecclesiastes

In my previous post I pointed to the “Wisdom” literature of the Old Testament (usually said to comprise Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes), suggesting that this is a good time for all of us to ingest some wisdom from those who went before.  The book of Ecclesiastes has long been my favorite in the Old Testament.  It seems so modern in so many ways.  Even though written over 2000 years ago, it considers ageless questions about what the *point* of it all is.

If you don’t know it, it’s worth reading; it won’t take long.   If you do know it, it’s worth reading again.   To provide some orientation to the overall theme of the book, here is what I say about it in my book The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction,  (I begin with the final paragraph from the last post)

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Of the Wisdom books found in the Hebrew Bible, one, the book of Proverbs may be considered a representative of what we might call “positive wisdom.”  This is the more typical form of wisdom, both within Judaism and cross-culturally.   Positive wisdom attempts to describe the general orderliness of the world and to explain how people should live in accordance with it.  Job and Ecclesiastes have a contrary emphasis, and can be labeled “skeptical wisdom.”  These are writings that lament the world’s lack of order or the impossibility of understanding the world, and they try to explain how best to cope with life in light of this impossibility.

 

Ecclesiastes

The book of Ecclesiastes is an  example of “skeptical” wisdom, but it is a very different kind of book from Job.   Here the dominant question is not about why the innocent suffer, or even about suffering at all, per se; it is about how to make sense of this world.  We have seen that the writers of Proverbs – not to mention the historians, prophets, and poets we have read – seemed to understand the world.  It made sense to them; there was a coherence to it, a logic to it, a divine purpose behind it all.  But other people have never felt that way.  For them, it is hard to understand why the world is the way it is, why things happen the way they do, why we should strive to be good – or even strive to be rich, or intelligent, or influential.    What is the meaning of life?  Why are we here?  What will happen to us when we are gone?  For anyone who refuses to settle for easy answers to these questions, the book of Ecclesiastes is a treasure trove.  Here is an author who …

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Is There Any Point To Life? More on Ecclesiastes
A Good Time for Wisdom!

29

Comments

  1. sschullery
    sschullery  April 19, 2020

    So, was Albert Camus’ the Myth of Sysiphus totally or paritially redundant and vanity, so to speak?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 20, 2020

      Not sure what you’re asking!

      • sschullery
        sschullery  April 20, 2020

        Camus explores the issue of, why not suicide since life is so manifestly pointless and absurd. He imagines what was going thru Sisyphus’ mind as he descended the mountain to have another go at his respective pointless task. Camus posits that in the mere recognition of the absurdity of one’s fate is a “point”, and even a triumph, of sorts; “there is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn” and concludes that suicide is NOT an option and “All is well.”

        My question was whether or not this was just a total rehash of Ecclesiastes, illustrating its truism that there is nothing new “under the sun.” Upon reflection, I would say “of course,” and “so what” and withdraw the question.

        Personally, I am suspcious of any philosophy that is also consistent with the survival of the species hypothesis or that otherwise tells us what we would want to hear or that is so opaque as to motivate explanations of what the author means. That doesn’t leave me with much. In particular, I am not persuaded by your argument (although I agree with the conclusion) that Ecclesiates says we should enjoy life.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 21, 2020

          I doubt if Camus was directly thinking of Ecclesiastes; but the existential crises of the mid 20th century certainly would call forth similar reflections (even with the differences). But when you don’t think Ecclesiastes says we should enjoy life, what do you make of the repeated statements that we should enjoy life?

          • sschullery
            sschullery  April 21, 2020

            I agree that we should enjoy iife, but not because of any logical case made in Ecclesiates or elsewhere I have seen,

          • Avatar
            godspell  April 21, 2020

            There are many ways to enjoy life. And some who eat drink and make merry are in fact just pretending to enjoy life, while they are in fact just trying to forget it’s going to end.

            Ecclesiastes is a great poem–some might say this one has merits.

            https://poets.org/poem/do-not-go-gentle-good-night

            Dylan Thomas famously did precisely what Ecclesiastes advised. Got him to the destination a bit sooner than might otherwise have happened.

  2. Avatar
    longdistancerunner  April 19, 2020

    Very interesting….,excellent thanks.

  3. Avatar
    nichael  April 19, 2020

    For folks who might be interested in taking a deeper dive into these topics might I suggest the Great Courses’s “Biblical Wisdom Literature” by Joseph Koterski?

    [And, once again, a plug for The Great Courses. Great Courses Plus (Great Courses’s streaming-service) is a wonderful resource. (Not only do they also have many of Prof Ehrman’s courses, but much, much else.)

    But, especially at this time, I’ll point out that the first month is free. So for fellow blog-readers who (for some reason) might find themselves looking for something to fill some suddenly-free time, this might be a great opportunity to decide if tGC is a good fit for you.]

    [P.S. And to be clear, I write simply as a (very) satisfied customer. I.e. as the saying goes I send them money; not the other way round.]

  4. kt@rg.no
    kt@rg.no  April 19, 2020

    Meaning of life,,,, who wouldn’t love to know that.

    The founder of Quantum physics, Dr. Max Planck won the Nobel price in Physics for his work i once said:

    “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.”

    and

    “All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.”

    Had he lived hundred or thousands years earlier, with such ideas he whould have fit perfectly into the frame of “religious mystics” who also talks much about level of counsiousnesses, a state which modern neuroscience now claim is seperate from what the brain is able to create.

    So,,,,, and within such frames,, the meaning of life could then mean,,,,,,,,,to live ! ,,,,to live on this level of consiousness which I seemingly belong,,,,and then know the meaning of life in all its facetts,, and being able to grow within the concept of consiousness.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 20, 2020

      Yes indeed. And as you know, the study of consciousness has come a very long way since Planck’s day.

  5. Avatar
    Poohbear  April 19, 2020

    In King David’s suffering he had the revelation of the rejected and crucified Redeemer (ie Psalm 22 and 69) David was a typological figure of the rejected and reigning King that Zechariah speaks of.
    However, Solomon had a life of luxury. He ignored the wisdom that a good king should not have many wives, horses or gold. And like many people who are used to having their own way he became a darker figure. He first wrote Song of Solomon, then Proverbs and finally Ecclesiastes. We see the transition of his life to the point that he lost the God he once loved.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 20, 2020

      My view is that the historical David didn’t write the Psalms or Solomon Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (Ecclesiastes is the easiest to prove: it reflects a time period centuries later). But I take your point, and it’s a good one. Different authors had very different views, and people change their views of over time.

  6. Avatar
    Ashitindi  April 19, 2020

    Hi Sir
    What does Ecclesiastes think God does? Does he think God cares if you’re a good person?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 20, 2020

      The book doesn’t say. On the other hand, I can’t think of any ancient Israelite author who imagined God did *not* care about how people behave. It just isn’t what this book is about.

  7. Avatar
    Toby  April 19, 2020

    Bart Ehrman saved me!

    I was not brought up a Christian but suffered from severe depression all my adult life. Suffering from deep despair and worthlessness I turned to Christianity in hope, and became attracted to both a local modern Calvanist evangelical church and a much more traditional Catholic church – polar opposites really.

    Unfortunately many of the Anglican churches here in the UK are pretty moribund. They shut up completely for most of the week and their Sunday service they’ll be lucky if they get three people and a dog turn up…

    Anyway, learning about Christianity helped me cope with life, but what I didn’t bet on was encountering Dr. Ehrman’s superb, insightful lectures and formidable debates (where he invariably creams the opposition, *every* time)

    I know Bart is right, because the rational side of me is in conflict with the spiritual side. But I absolutely stand by Bart’s creed that you should go where the truth leads you, and not lead the truth to where you want it to go, while applying skeptical critical thinking and not blindly accepting what you’ve been told. This applies to many aspects of life I think.

    So thank you Bart, you have opened my eyes.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 20, 2020

      Thank you! Keep plugging away. There can be meaning in life even if you are not finding it in the church.

  8. Avatar
    Eaglesjack  April 19, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman:
    What do we know about Hellenistic thought and philosophy and it’s relationship to Hebrew thinkers, prophets etc? Who were these men that wrote the books of wisdom? I’d assume maybe priests or members of some high order, but how did they acquire Greek modes of thought, how were they schooled and learned, and how much did Greek culture influence the Hebrew/Israelite understanding of life, of philosophy, of prophecy, and of God? There exists this common notion to laypeople that Israel are a chosen people and therefore remained separate, educated solely by God.. But what do we know about Israel and the way they were taught, influenced in the ancient world? I mean, even the writers of the most ancient OT script were highly learned, not just some peasant who spent his days wandering in the wilderness or tending sheep…A bit heavy of a question, but I don’t tend to find really solid answers here. Thank you, always, for your time and devotion to scholarship and wisdom.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 20, 2020

      The clearest overlaps are in Ecclesiastes, which appears to be heavily influence by Epicurean thought. Proverbs and Job do not, in my judgment, show traces of any connection with Hellenistic philosophy.

  9. Avatar
    veritas  April 19, 2020

    I somewhat agree with your explanation and want to further expand. It is true ,as you say, the writer is saying, what the heck does this all matter, we will all die, literally. From its theology though, it is saying more than what you are implying. Continue on reading after your closing remark in ( 2: 14, 16). The next verse 17,says “So I hated life, for the work which had been done under the sun was [m]grievous to me; because everything is *futility* (vanity) and striving after wind,(NASB). So its essence seems to suggest that after all you have done there is *no lasting value* in your efforts and the pain to acquire it is worthless. We will die like fools who also have nothing. To me, the overarching theme in Ecclesiastes is that, your *intrinsic worth* lies not on your wealth or accumulation of material or wisdom but rather in fear of God and living a life of obedience(submission), something even the great Solomon and his father had trouble exemplifying. It can’t be done. Am I understanding your view correctly, enjoy life and be merry? The author’s experiences are meaningless no matter how desirable they were.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 20, 2020

      Thanks! See today’s post, about the way the book ends. Yes, my view is that the author is teaching that we should enjoy life as much as we can as long as we can, since there is nothing else. A person’s experience may indeed seem meaningless to others; but they are not meaningless to him/herself.

  10. Avatar
    clerrance2005  April 20, 2020

    Prof Ehrman,
    Were the Israelites during the Pre-exilic period practicing Yahwism and the Post-exilic period practice Judaism? In other words, did the event around the captivities see to the end of Yahwism and the birth of Judaism?

    And please is there a difference between a Jew and an Israelite? If so, what is the difference?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 21, 2020

      It completely depends on what you mean by Yahwism and Judaism. And of course there’s the problem that neither one was one, single thing. the term “Jew” comes to be used in the Persian period when Judea because a region and people from there were Jews. “Israelite” is generally reserved for those in the pre-exilic period.

  11. Avatar
    clerrance2005  April 21, 2020

    Prof Ehrman, a follow up please.
    Many thanks for the response. I have been reading and reflecting on the Israelites and in particular the origins of Yahweh and link to the Canaanite God El.

    What I gathered seems to suggest that Pre exilic Israelites were at best Monolatrist and post exilic Israelites, monotheistic (your view on this please)

    It also seems to allude that the Israelites originally worshipped El who was a Canaanite deity (your view on this please)and that there was an element of syncretism of the Canaanite El and Yahweh which eventually renders El as a common generic name meaning ‘god’ for the Israelites and also Yahweh takes upon the attributes of other Canaanite deities (your view on this please).

    Your view on these and most importantly, is Yahweh as held by the Jews a syncretism of Canaanite deities and Yahweh?

    Thank you

    Reference
    Were the Israelites during the Pre-exilic period practicing Yahwism and the Post-exilic period practice Judaism? In other words, did the event around the captivities see to the end of Yahwism and the birth of Judaism?

    Bart
    It completely depends on what you mean by Yahwism and Judaism. And of course there’s the problem that neither one was one …

    • Bart
      Bart  April 22, 2020

      It appears that the earliest Israelites were at best henotheists, insisting on the worship of Yahweh above all other gods. But at an earlier period their ancestors (maybe not at all distant) worshipped other Gods, such as El. As the religion developed, these other gods were no longer to be worshiped, and some Israelites solved the problem by saying El *was* Yahweh, by a different name. So too other deities int he Canaanite pantheon. All of that happens long befoer we have “Judaism,” which is a further development after the exile.

      • Avatar
        clerrance2005  April 23, 2020

        Prof Ehrman,
        Extremely grateful for the responses, I am very much appreciative.

        Please can you help with the date for the writings of the Law, Prophet and Writings of the Hebrew Bible and is it factual that some of the books of the Hebrew Bible were filtered or changed by post-exilic Jews?

        Thank you very much.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 24, 2020

          That would require more than a post, but if you’re really interested, check out my book The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction. It may be that some of the earliest sources of hte Pentateuch were 10th century BCE, but it’s debated. Earliest prophets (Amos, Isaiah) were 8th c. final book to be written: Daniel, probably in the 160s. And yes, the earlier books were seriuosly edited and reworked after the exile.

    • Avatar
      Edward_Dodge  May 13, 2020

      I am writing a book on this subject. In my view the early Hebrews were monolatrists, worshipping El, the Heavenly Father, above the rest of the Canaanite/Phoenician pantheon. But those other deities were still popular and we see them in the Bible. Baal was the king of the gods, the son of El, and the equivalent of Zeus who was contemporary.

      More importantly, were the goddesses who were behind the popular festivals and rituals. Asherah, Astarte, and Anat were the Canaanite/Phoenician triple goddess. Asherah is the mother goddess, the wife of El (the Wife of God), whose Asherah poles stood beside the altar in Solomon’s Temple. Astarte was the Queen of Heaven and the most popular goddess, the equivalent of Ishtar of Babylon, whose sexually licentious worship scandalized the Hebrews. They called her Ashtoreth, meaning ‘Shameful Astarte’ (-eth means shame). Anat is not mentioned in the Bible, she brought death, the goddess of the slaughter, the equivalent of the Hindu Kali.

      Moses introduced the name Yahweh and monotheism, the idea that there is only one god, precipitating a culture war and a divorce between God and the Goddess that plays out through the entire first temple period.

  12. Avatar
    brandon284  May 19, 2020

    Hi Dr. Ehrman, I’m wondering what our best evidence is that Paul anticipated the end times during his lifetime? Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  May 20, 2020

      In both 1 Thess 4:13-5:12 and 1 Corinthians 15:50-54 he appears to think he will not be one of the dead who is raised but one of the living; moreover, when he says he is living in the “last days,” he does not appear to be using the term metaphorically.

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