“Vanity of vanities. All things are vanity.” So begins Ecclesiastes, a book of Old Testament Wisdom literature, traditionally attributed to King Solomon but probably written centuries after his death. The Hebrew word, translated here as “vanity”, denotes utter futility and emptiness and Ecclesiastes explores this theme in great depth. And yet, in the end it turns out to be one of the most optimistic and reassuring books in the entire Bible…and perhaps in all literature.
But let’s begin with vanity:
“What profit have we from all the toil which we toil at under the sun? One generation departs and another generation comes but the world forever stays…There will be no remembrance of past generations nor will future generations be remembered by those who come after them. I have seen all things that are done under the sun and behold, all is vanity and a chase after wind.”
The concept of vanity in Ecclesiastes is akin to the modern concept of ‘alienation’. In a word, there is a fundamental disconnect between our aims and our results. In classical Marxism, alienation is a function of the class structure of society and of the ownership of its means of production. Ecclesiastes takes the concept much further: alienation lies at the heart of existence itself; it is hard wired into the structure of our world.
First, there is alienation of appetite from satisfaction:
“All things are wearisome, too wearisome for words. The eye is not satisfied by seeing nor has the ear enough of hearing.”
“All human toil is for the mouth, yet the appetite is never satisfied.”
“…When I applied my mind to know wisdom and knowledge, I learned that this also is a chase after wind.”
“I undertook great works…But when I turned to all the works my hands had wrought, and to the fruit of the toil for which I had toiled so much, see! all was vanity and a chase after wind.”
Then there is alienation of reward from merit, fruits from labors:
“…The race is not won by the swift, nor the battle by the valiant, nor a livelihood by the wise, nor riches by the shrewd, nor favor by the experts…”
“…One’s legacy must be left to one who has not toiled for it. This also is vanity and a great evil.”
The disconnect between act and consequence is so deeply ingrained in the fabric of existence that our good efforts are often themselves the agents of our misfortunes:
“Whoever digs a pit may fall into it, and whoever breaks through a wall, a snake may bite. Whoever quarries stones may be hurt by them, and whoever chops wood is in danger from it.”
There is also the alienation of injustice:
“There are those who are just but are treated as though they had done evil, and those who are wicked but treated as though they had done justly.”
And the alienation of oppression:
“Again I saw all the oppressions that take place under the sun: the tears of the victims with none to comfort them! From the hand of their oppressors comes violence, and there is none to comfort them!”
And finally, the penultimate alienation, the great eschatological vanity, death:
“As they came forth from their mother’s womb, so again shall they return, naked as they came, having nothing from their toil to bring with them…What then does it profit them to toil for the wind?”
“For the lot of the mortals and the lot of beasts is the same lot: The one dies as well as the other.”
“Everything is the same for everybody; the same lot for the just and for the wicked…As it is for the good, so it is for the sinner…there is one lot for all.”
The litany goes on…but enough; you get picture! And a gruesome picture of human existence, indeed of all existence, it is. At one point, the author writes, “Therefore, I detested life, since for me the work that is done under the sun is bad; for all is vanity and a chase after wind.”
In the end, however, Ecclesiastes is not a summons to despair. Quite the opposite! Ecclesiastes is a clarion call to forsake vanity and build life upon a different foundation. This ‘dark night of the soul’ turns out to be ground zero for the development of a real spirituality and a genuine ethics. How so?
First, Ecclesiastes distinguishes between the work of man and the work of God:
“Consider the work of God. Who can make straight what God has made crooked?”
“I recognized that whatever God does will endure forever; there is no adding to it or taking from it…What now is has already been; what is to be already is…”
So on the one hand, we have the radically alienated work of humans and on the other hand, we have the work of God, eternal and unchangeable. Just as much as alienation permeates the plane of Existence (our world) so it is entirely absent from the plane of Being (God).
Faced with the fact that all human action is vanity while God’s actions endure forever, one might naively propose we throw in with God, follow his lead, and ask at all times, “WWGD?” (What would God do?)
But Ecclesiastes is much too profound for that; it doesn’t take that easy way out. To do so would be to reduce the work of God to our existential plane (an act of idolatry). And besides, it wouldn’t work:
“God has made everything appropriate to its time, but he has put the timeless into their (our) hearts so they (we) cannot find out, from beginning to end, the work which God has done.”
We cannot meaningfully ask, “WWGD?”, and even if we could, it wouldn’t matter; we wouldn’t get an answer.
The Decalogue notwithstanding, God’s will is not a rule book. With God, ‘everything goes’:
“There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens…A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to tear down and a time to build…A time to scatter stones and a time to gather them; a time to love and a time to hate; a time of war and a time of peace.”
So it is not a matter of knowing what to do; it is a matter of knowing when to do it. And we are ontologically blocked from that knowledge. The temporality of man, facing the eternity of God, is yet one more dimension of our alienation:
“Yes there is a time and a judgment for everything. But it is a great evil for mortals that they are ignorant of what is to come; for who will make known to them how it will be?” God enjoys the perspective of eternity, we do not. We cannot have the least inkling of his mind.
But it turns out that this is ok after all. God is not as fragile as most of us have been taught to believe. On the contrary, he is infinitely resilient.
“I said in my heart, both the just and the wicked God will judge, since a time is set for every affair and for every work.”
“All this I have kept in my heart and all this I examined: The just, the wise, and their deeds are in the hand of God. Love from hatred, mortals cannot tell…”
“…God will bring to judgment every work, with all its hidden qualities, whether good or bad.”
The Hebrew words, translated here as “judge” or “judgment”, do not just refer to an intellectual exercise of approval or condemnation. Judges in the Old Testament do not just render verdicts; they are actively engaged in the process making society more just.
When God judges “the just and the wicked…and their deeds”, he is not only evaluating them; he is actively transforming and integrating them into the harmony of a final, all-encompassing synthesis…himself.
“God retrieves what has gone by.”
Nothing perishes. Everything exists eternally in God. God is perfect, i.e. “essentially good”, and a function of that perfection is his perpetual action on all existents to perfect them as a necessary part of the process of harmonizing them into a single whole.
So where does this leave us? What are we to do? We cannot pursue the vanities of the world; that would be silly. We cannot achieve them because of our alienated nature, nor should we wish to, for they are nothing but wind.
We cannot conform our behavior to a set of moral precepts or laws because God’s will does not consist of any such code. With God, everything goes; we just don’t know what, when.
Nor can we try to fathom God’s will in order to be guided by it. Our mortality cloaks the eternal mind of God.
Yet we must act and we must choose how we act.
We cannot act randomly. If we try to simulate randomness, that simulation is itself an intentional act. We must act and we must choose how we act, even though we have no knowledge of the consequences of our actions.
In fact, it is only by acting that we exist. It is only by acting that we contribute material for God to judge, for God to work into his final synthesis. In this sense, each of us does play an essential role in the world’s gradual migration to God after all, regardless of what we do.
15th century theologian, Nicholas of Cusa, built on this realization:
“Since…God is the enfolding of all things, even of contradictories, nothing is above to escape God’s providence. Whether we have done one thing or its opposite or nothing at all, everything has been enveloped in the providence of God. Nothing, therefore, will happen except according to God’s providence.” (On Learned Ignorance)
So how do we choose? Surprisingly, Ecclesiastes offers some guidance after all:
“Here is what I see as good: It is appropriate to eat and drink and prosper from all the toil one toils under the sun during the limited days of life God gives us; for this is our lot…This is a gift from God.”
“Go, eat your bread with joy and drink your wine with a merry heart, because it is now that God favors your works. At all times let your garments be white, and spare not the perfume for your head. Enjoy life with the wife you love, all the days of the vain life granted you under the sun. This is your lot in life, for the toil of your labors under the sun.”
Ecclesiastes proposes an ethic of everyday life.
“Anything you can turn your hand to, do with what power you have; for there will be no work, no planning, no knowledge, no wisdom in Sheol where you are going.”
“One who pays heed to the wind will never sow, and one who watches the clouds will never reap…you do not know the work of God that is working in everything.”
“Send forth your bread upon the face of the waters; after a long time you may find it again.”
“But profitable for a land…is a king concerned about cultivation.”
Despite its dire indictment of the human condition, Ecclesiastes rejects quietism, cynicism and asceticism, as well as legalism. Relieved by the assurance that God will “judge” whatever we do and “retrieve” it, perfecting it into his eternal synthesis, we are free to live our lives and live them passionately.
We seem to have arrived at moral relativism, the brink of amorality. But no! Ecclesiastes declines to take that turn. Instead, it proposes an Existentialist ethic. We cannot know what will become of our actions, we know we won’t be around to enjoy their fruits, and we can’t even know how God would want us to act in any given situation. But we do know that our actions will somehow exist eternally, albeit perfected, in God; and we know that it is through those actions that we will share in God’s eternity.
So how do we want to share in that eternity? As the “oppressor” or as one who “comforts” the victims of the oppressor?
“On the other hand, I saw this wise deed under the sun, which I thought magnificent. Against a small city with few inhabitants advanced a mighty king, who surrounded it and threw up great siegeworks about it. But in the city lived a man who, though poor, was wise, and he delivered it through his wisdom.”
In the final analysis, we are responsible for what we do. There are no external guideposts or standards, just our own free choice. What we do is how we choose to participate in the cosmic dance; and how we participate in the cosmic dance is who we are, eternally! So choose your identity.
We have no control over how God disposes of our acts but we have absolute control over the acts we present to God for disposition. Man proposes, God disposes! We are totally responsible for what we propose.
We have no say over the disposition (thank God!) but we have total say over the proposition. This is the ultimate dimension of our alienation: our proposition is radically separated from God’s disposition; but that alientation is the foundation of our spirituality and of our ethics.