Ecclesiastes is one of my favourite books of the Bible (it's in the top 66 anyway), but it's also one of the most misunderstood. Even a good, generally evangelical commentator (in this case Tremper Longman, NICOT) argues that because the message of the main part of the book isn't Christian, Ecclesiastes is actually another author doing long quotes from a book he disagrees with.
Ever since I became a Christian, the book always had some resonances, but I wasn't entirely sure how it fit with the rest of the Bible. I guess the turning point came when I read this post by Hebraist Chris Heard, which got me thinking about translation issues.
The key phrase in Ecclesiastes can be seen in the second verse.
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
Ecclesiastes 1:2, ESV
says the Teacher.
Everything is meaningless."
Ecclesiastes 1:2, NIV
Smoke, nothing but smoke. [That's what the Quester says.] There's nothing to anything—it's all smoke.
Ecclesiastes 1:2, Message
Clearly there are some issues in translation. The key word is הבל / hebel, which is translated "vanity" (more "literal" translations), "meaningless" or "smoke". It usually means something much closer to "breath" in Hebrew. Oddly, given that no-one uses that translation, it seems to make more sense translated that way. Well, to me anyway. Everything is just a breath - it's "meaningless" because it's ephemeral.
In addition, as Heard argues, the longer form of hebel is also frequently mistranslated.
I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
Ecclesiastes 1:14, NIV
I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.
Ecclesiastes 1:14, ESV
I've seen it all and it's nothing but smoke — smoke, and spitting into the wind.
Ecclesiastes 1:14, Message
A more literal translation of "and a chasing after the wind" is "a neighbour of wind". It makes more sense too! The point of Ecclesiastes isn't that everything is meaningless - it isn't. The point is that everything "under the sun" - everything in this life is ephemeral - it passes away, therefore it doesn't make a long term difference, in a sense it's futile. It's just a breath, the neighbour of wind.
So then, what's the point of Ecclesiastes? To remind us of the fact that things in this life pass away. It's exploring what meaning can be found in life when that life is transitory.
In the following quotes, remember that "meaningless" is referring to the idea that it's only a breath - it will soon pass away. This is what Ecclesiastes says about the purpose of life.
What does the worker gain from his toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him.
Ecclesiastes 3:9-14, NIV
Whoever loves money never has money enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income.
This too is meaningless.
As goods increase,
so do those who consume them.
And what benefit are they to the owner
except to feast his eyes on them?
Ecclesiastes 5:10-11, NIV
Be happy, young man, while you are young,
and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth.
Follow the ways of your heart
and whatever your eyes see,
but know that for all these things
God will bring you to judgment.
So then, banish anxiety from your heart
and cast off the troubles of your body,
for youth and vigor are meaningless.
Ecclesiastes 11:9-10, NIV
Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
"I find no pleasure in them"-
before the sun and the light
and the moon and the stars grow dark,
and the clouds return after the rain;
when the keepers of the house tremble,
and the strong men stoop,
when the grinders cease because they are few,
and those looking through the windows grow dim;
when the doors to the street are closed
and the sound of grinding fades;
when men rise up at the sound of birds,
but all their songs grow faint;
when men are afraid of heights
and of dangers in the streets;
when the almond tree blossoms
and the grasshopper drags himself along
and desire no longer is stirred.
Then man goes to his eternal home
and mourners go about the streets.
Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
or the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
or the wheel broken at the well,
and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
"Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher.
"Everything is meaningless!"
Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the whole duty of man.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.
Ecclesiastes 12, NIV
It's about the futility of trusting in wisdom, riches, power, sex to bring meaning to life and the importance of being content with what you have and of fearing God, because what God does lasts forever, unlike what we do (Ecclesiastes 3:14).
As book recommendations go, the best one I've found on Ecclesiastes (so far; I've skim read quite a few) is the NIV Application Commetary by Iain Provan.
Coming next - Ecclesiastes and the New Testament.