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Sunday, March 07, 2010

does the author of ecclesiastes need prozac?


Does
the Author of
Ecclesiastes
Need Prozac?

The author of Ecclesiastes is
often labeled a depressed pessimist.
But a careful study reveals
the author to be an honest—and
hopeful!—realist about life, not a
candidate for Prozac.

By  M i l e s C u s t i s

It’s easy to understand why people think
Ecclesiastes is depressing, or think that
the conclusion of the book is that life is
meaningless. Verses like “And I declared
that the dead, who had already died, are
happier than the living, who are still alive”
(Eccl 4:2 niv) make the book seem less than
hopeful. Even its famous phrase “vanity of
vanities”—found at the beginning and the
end of the book (1:2; 12:8) makes the author
sound like a complete pessimist. I’ve found,
though, that if you give the book enough
serious attention, Ecclesiastes reveals that the
author is actually hopeful, and his message
can easily be applied to each of us.

The refrain “vanity of vanities” (1:2 and 12:8)
is where we find our first clue to the author’s
optimism. The translations “meaningless”
(niv) or “vanity” (nasb) come from the
Hebrew word hebel ( הבל ). This word occurs
in Ecclesiastes far more frequently than
in any other book of the Old Testament
(38 of 73 occurrences). Neither “meaningless”
nor “vanity” quite fits the way it is used in
Ecclesiastes. Sometimes hebel emphasizes the
brevity of life; at other times it speaks to the
futility of life. Most often, however, the author
uses hebel to judge situations as senseless,
absurd, unreasonable, or unfair. For example,
in 2:21 the fact that the author must leave
his fortune to someone who did not earn it
seems “unfair” to him (not just “worthless”
or “vain”). Likewise, in 8:14 it seems
“senseless” to the author that the outcomes
of a righteous or a wicked life are reversed.

Some Occurrences of Hebel ( הבל ) in
Ecclesiastes (esv) with Miles Custis’
Translations Inserted
Ecclesiastes 2:18–21
I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing
that I must leave it to the man who will come after
me, 19 and who knows whether he will be wise or a
fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled
and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is
absurd. 20 So I turned about and gave my heart up
to despair over all the toil of my labors under the
sun, 21 because sometimes a person who has toiled
with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave
everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not
toil for it. This also is unfair and a great evil.
Ecclesiastes 8:14–17
There is a senselessness that takes place on earth,
that there are righteous people to whom it happens
according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are
wicked people to whom it happens according to the
deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is absurd.
15 And I commend joy, for man has no good thing
under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for
this will go with him in his toil through the days of his
life that God has given him under the sun. 16When I
applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the
business that is done on earth, how neither day nor
night do one’s eyes see sleep, 17then I saw all the
work of God, that man cannot find out the work that
is done under the sun. However much man may toil
in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise
man claims to know, he cannot find it out.


The author’s main point in using hebel is to
show that life often does not make sense and
that neither he (being extremely wise; see
1:16 and 12:9) nor anyone else can explain
the senseless situations that life can bring.
Life is contradictory, and human ability to
understand life in all of its contradictions
is limited.
The limitation of human wisdom is
an important theme in Ecclesiastes.
The author’s goal was to understand life
(1:13), but it is a goal he was unable to reach.
In fact, it is a goal which no one can
reach (8:16–17).
But doesn’t this make the author a
pessimist? The answer can be found in
3:10–17. This passage affirms that God is the
One who controls “the times.” He has made
everything “beautiful” or “good” in its time
(3:11a). We are not able fully understand
everything He has done (3:11b; 8:17). It is
clear that He is the One in control (3:14a).
“God does [all this in mystery] so that man
will fear him” (3:14). The proper response to
living in a chaotic world, with situations that
are often beyond our control, is to put our
trust in the One who is in control—God.
Rather than a message of gloom, Ecclesiastes
gives us hope: while life might be full of
injustice and absurdity (3:16), we can trust
that God is in control and ultimately justice
will prevail (3:17).2 Ecclesiastes points
out life’s difficulties, but does not call for
despair. The book’s conclusion drives the
point home (12:13): “This is end of the
matter; all has been heard. Fear God and
keep his commandments, for this applies to
everyone.”

Miles Custis holds an ma in Biblical Studies, specializing in
Ecclesiastes, as well as four ancient languages. He is an
electronic book designer at Logos Bible Software.

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