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The meaning of life has puzzled humanity for thousands of years. Religion points back to divine beings as sources of true hope and peace in life while philosophy attempts to use logic and questioning to explain the purpose of man’s existence. Even science seeks answers to life’s greatest mysteries through experimentation and observation. Yet, people still wonder what it means to live well in the world around them. In the Hebrew scriptures, the book of Ecclesiastes discusses how humans try to make sense of the world through aimless pursuits that ultimately fade away into nothing. The author of the book argues life is an uncontrollable enigma in which people have little control.
The author of Ecclesiastes identifies himself as Qohelet and a son of David. The identity of Qohelet remains a topic of debate among biblical scholars. Peter Machinist, author of Ecclesiastes: Introduction, states the book was written by King Solomon, David’s biological son. He claims “the genealogy and descriptions given of Qohelet in his book make the identification with Solomon clear.” Also, Machinist believes the Eastern tradition of associating kings with wisdom helps prove Solomon is the author of the book. Although Qohelet may claim to be Solomon, Bart Ehrman, author of The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction, counters that there is no way he can be Solomon, considering the book appears to be heavily influenced by the philosophical traditions of the Hellenistic times. Most of the words are “derived from Persian or Aramaic,” which means the text may have been written in third or fourth century B.C.E, 600 years after the death of Solomon. Harold Ginsberg and Michael Fox, authors of Ecclesiastes, support this argument by showing how the language used in Ecclesiastes is a later stage of Hebrew. The Hebrew root of used in verses 4:12 and 6:10 is derived from Aramaic, which was not used before the seventh century B.C.E. Much of the book’s content “points to Hellenistic and Greek influences.” References to foot races in verse 9:11 and the mindset of early Greek philosophy, such as Stoicism and Cynicism, reflect this idea. According to Mette Bundvad, author of Time in the Book of Ecclesiastes, Ecclesiastes seems heavily influenced by other early Greek wisdom literature, such as poems written by Theognis. The theory that Qohelet adopted Solomon as a persona seems likely, considering the use of a later stage of Hebrew and various Greek influences, which date hundreds of years after Solomon’s death. He may have tried to persuade his audience into thinking he really was Solomon through perceived wisdom and outlandish wealth.
Ecclesiastes is one of the four wisdom books in the Hebrew Scriptures. By using various topics and themes, the author explores how to live well in a world full of empty pursuits and sorrow. He observes how life is a temporary experience, and people’s attempts to find meaning and purpose in their lives ultimately amount to nothing. Since death is inevitable, Qohelet believes people should stop trying to control the outcome of their lives and enjoy simple things, like a good meal with friends, sunsets, or deep, meaningful relationships with people. He concludes by telling his audience the hope of God’s judgment makes life bearable. Qohelet believes God will clear away the disparity of life and bring justice into the world. Fearing God and keeping His commandments fuels this hope, even though life is an unsolvable mystery.
Qohelet is able to illustrate how pointless life is through the use of the Hebrew word hevel. Defined as air or breath, some translations translate hevel into “futility” or “meaningless.” Ecclesiastes 1:2 states “Utter futility!-said Qohelet-Utter futility! All is futile!” By using hevel as an idiom, Qohelet describes how life is temporary and fleeting, like a wisp of smoke. Like smoke, life appears secure and straightforward, but when people try to grasp it, they discover it is empty.
The march of time is a major theme in the book of Ecclesiastes. Qohelet writes, “only that shall happen, which has happened, only that occur, which has occured; there is nothing new beneath the sun. Sometimes, there is a phenomenon of which they say, ‘Look this one is new!- it occured long since, in ages that went by before us. The earlier ones are not remembered; so those too those that will occur later will no more be remembered than those that will occur at the very end.’” This illustrates how some people spend their whole lives working and achieving great things without stopping to consider the march of time. Neither humans nor nature truly accomplish anything new, and nothing ever changes, despite humanity’s best efforts. People continue to develop technology and build nations, but “when one generation goes, another comes, but the earth remains the same forever.” Time erases the knowledge of humanity’s accomplishments, while the earth continues to exist long after they are gone, rendering life meaningless.
Death is another important theme in the book of Ecclesiastes. Qohelet discusses the concept of death throughout the book, and he surmises death equalizes all of humanity. “A wise man has his eyes in his head, whereas a fool walks in darkness, but I also realized that the same fate awaits them both.” In reality, everyone will die, and death is an inescapable fate. “Because the wise man, just like the fool, is not remembered forever; for, as the succeeding days roll by, both are forgotten. Alas, the wise man dies, just like the fool!” No matter how much people try to achieve in their lives, they will die and be no different or better off than a wretched fool. Death shows no partiality. It does not care about the character qualities or accomplishments of someone. Everyone, no matter how righteous or wicked, is going to die someday. Death, like time, is another cosmic force that makes life meaningless.
With the themes of time and death in hand, Qohelet describes how he has tried to find the meaning of life through aimless pursuits. He describes his examinations of pleasure, wealth, and wisdom only to “conclude the best thing to do is to enjoy life.” He claims to have undertaken great architectural projects and indulged himself with the best things in life. He lives his life as if everyday is a social celebration. Soon Qohelet realizes “…it was all futile and pursuit of the wind; there was no real value under the sun!” The pleasures people desire only lead them to an empty and shallow existence. People have an insatiable hunger to fill their lives with things that bring them temporary happiness. They do not realize how precarious their lives really are. The pursuit of wealth has no lasting value to him either, since an unknown successor will inherit his wealth, and his money will be of no value once he is dead. The successor may not even care about his wealth and squander it all away. He writes “For what will the man be like who will succeed the one who is ruling over what was built up long ago?” He points out the quest for wisdom is pointless because “for as wisdom grows, vexation grows; to increase learning is to increase heartache”. Indeed, conducting investigations into certain matters can lead to more sorrow, since it uncovers the whole truth. People spend their whole lives trying to quench their thirst for more knowledge and wisdom and find they will never come to a satisfying conclusion.
The meaning of life is an elusive mystery and does not have a straightforward answer. Qoheleth, author of the book of Ecclesiastes, has discovered that the pursuits of pleasure, wealth, and wisdom are not solutions to the meaning of life, since time and death renders them all meaningless. After much searching, he realizes since nothing in life is guaranteed, people must enjoy life while they can. Although death is inevitable, people should learn how to enjoy the simple things in life, like a good meal with friends, sunsets, and deep, meaningful relationships with people, because they have more meaning and purpose than the trivial pursuits of self-seeking activities. Tomorrow is not promised and living in the present moment is the only thing anyone has left.
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