Qohelet 3: “Cliffs Notes” on Ecclesiastes

I will start this post with a confession that may offend any English Lit types. Back in the early 1970s, high school in Ontario was five years long (grades 9–13) for those hoping to go on to university. And we had to take English Literature every year. Some of it I enjoyed, but every year we had to read and discuss one of Shakespeare’s plays. I didn’t just dislike those classes, I detested them. Had it not been for Shakespeare I would have had a higher grade in my final year of English and I would have graduated at the top of my class. Instead, I graduated second in my class of 150 students. And it was all Shakespeare’s fault!

Anyway, what I should have done, but never did, was to use Cliffs Notes—I think they were called “Coles Notes” back then. However, doing so, while not prohibited, was certainly discouraged. Yet, I’ve known students who have been really helped to understand a work of literature by using Cliffs Notes while reading the assigned work of literature.

Not very many people, even those who value the books of the Bible, really enjoy reading Ecclesiastes. That’s why I enjoy answering the question, “What is your favourite book of the Bible?” especially when I respond, “Without a doubt, it is Ecclesiastes.” The reaction is priceless! Even back in Qohelet’s day (or shortly thereafter), probably not many really enjoyed this book. Maybe that is why the narrator of the book of Ecclesiastes (also known as the Framer), puts a summary of Qohelet’s teaching right at the very start of Ecclesiastes––a kind of ancient “Cliffs Notes” that is only eleven verses long (1:1–11)![1]

As Peter Enns notes, “The purpose of the opening verses is to summarize the content of Qohelet’s observations in 1:12–12:7, thereby introducing the reader to what he/she should expect in the chapters that follow.” A paragraph or two later Enns repeats, “In these eleven verses the narrator provides the reader not so much with an introduction to ease us into the blunt observations of Qohelet, but a summary…of what will be seen on page after page of what follows. In that way, there is no mystery whatsoever concerning what Ecclesiastes is about…” OK, Pete, I’ve got it now: The first eleven verses of the book of Ecclesiastes are a summary of all the Qohelet says in 1:12–12:7. [Note: This is really important to keep in mind, as is the Narrator’s summary in 12:9–14.]

So, here’s what the Narrator actually says (my rough translation):

The words of Qohelet, the son of David, the king in Jerusalem. “Utterly absurd,” says Qohelet, “Utterly absurd. Everything is absurd.” What profit is there to a person in all his work in which he toils under the sun? A generation goes and a generation comes, and the earth forever remains. And the sun rises, and the sun goes [down], and to its place it runs and rises there. It goes to the south and it goes around to the north; around and around the wind goes and on its circuit the wind returns. All the streams go to the sea but the sea is not full. To a place where the streams go, there they return to go [again]. All words are wearisome. No man is able to speak. No eye is satisfied for seeing and no ear is filled from hearing. What was, is what will be. And what is done, is what will be done. There is nothing new under the sun. There is a thing of which one could say, “See this. It is new.” [But] already it existed in the ages that were before us. There is no remembrance for the first [people] nor even for the last [people] who will be. There will not be for them, who will be coming after, any remembrance.

I find what Enns says regarding the Narrator’s summary to be quite helpful:

“…the overall message is being handed to us by the frame narrator on a silver platter. To paraphrase: This is what Qohelet is saying: At the end of the day, life is frustratingly absurd. The cycles of nature are screaming that message to you. You live. You exert a lot of energy, but nothing new happens. Just like the sun, wind, and rivers. Then you die. And one other thing: after you die, you will be quickly forgotten.”

Sounds depressing, right? In today’s world, this guy would be on medication. So, why would this be on anyone’s reading list, let alone their favourite biblical book? What could anyone possibly like about Qohelet’s observations and conclusions? OK, I’ll take the bait. Here’s why the book of Ecclesiastes is near the top of biblical reading list:

First, I appreciate the blatant honesty of the book. There’s no sugar coating here. This is life in the raw; life as it happens in the real world. This is how I feel and what I think sometimes. And instead of feeling like a loser, a lost and rebellious son, I feel heard and validated. Everything I think when I feel this way is not true, I know. But Qohelet helps me know that I’m not alone! Almost 25 centuries before, a very studious, knowledgeable and wise Jewish teacher wrote words of truth, plainly. That’s not just my opinion. That’s what book’s Narrator said (12:9–10) and those who chose Ecclesiastes to be including in the Writings of the Tanakh, must have agreed or at least believed that Qohelet’s perspective needed to be preserved. To these anonymous, ancient people, I say “Thank you” with all my heart.

Secondly, Qohelet’s expressions of cognitive dissonance serve as an example I can follow when doubts, concerns, questions and unanswered prayers threaten to cause my faith to implode. Qohelet shows me that I shouldn’t deny my cognitive dissonance, pray RC (religiously correct) prayers and stuff my questions and concerns deep into the recesses of my soul, while I spout spiritual platitudes. Rather, Qohelet’s example encourages me to be honest, complain, question, and admit the struggle that is going on for me when aspects of life “under the sun” seems “utterly absurd.” It is not heresy to say things like “it is an evil business that God gave to the sons of man to busy themselves with” or “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God,” when that is what I feel/think. Nor is it worldly and unspiritual. I’m not one step away from falling down the slippery slope into the valley of total unbelief. Rather, like Qohelet, I’m being honest about where I’m at and actually struggling to better understand God.

Third, in almost four decades of pastoring, I am convinced that Ecclesiastes is a book that needs to be read and discussed in faith communities. Afterall, it’s in the book that we claim to be “the word of God.” Yet, preachers, teachers and ministers in faith communities largely ignore or minimize it. Or, if they talk about it at all, they contradict its message by quoting various passages without any regard for context. We might, individually, rush through it as part of a Bible reading plan, but in the 44 years I have been part of various Christian communities, I can honestly say I’ve only heard it referenced or quoted in marriage or funeral sermons. It tells me that we don’t know what to do with it or that Qohelet’s perspective frightens us.

So, there are my three reasons why Ecclesiastes is one of my favourite books in the canon of Scripture. What are yours?

[1] 1:1–11 is written in the 3rd person (i.e., the words of the Narrator), whereas 1:12–12:7 is written in the first person (i.e., the words of Qohelet). Then 12:8–14 contain the closing remarks of the Narrator.