Finding Joy in Futility: Reading Ecclesiastes in a Pandemic

Ecclesiastes is one of the less-cherished books of the canon. In fact, it nearly didn’t make it into the canon because of arguments over its seeming lack of orthodoxy. It has historically been known for its cynicism; theologian Gerhard von Rad referred to it as a “bitter skeptical marginal note on the tradition of the wise men,” and Qohelet (Hebrew for “the Teacher”) as one who was “suspended over the abyss of despair” (Old Testament Theology vol. 1, 455-459). On the other end of the spectrum, however, Qohelet has been called a “preacher of joy” (Whybray, “Qoheleth, Preacher of Joy,” JSOT 7 [1982]). Which one is right? Or could he be both? And how might his strange and unorthodox-sounding theology help us cope with living in a pandemic?

Eunny Lee takes a more nuanced view of Qohelet’s internal state, calling him a “faithful realist.” One thing that can certainly be said for Qohelet is that he is honest and does not shy away from the harsh realities of life. In Ecclesiastes, no spiritual platitudes serve as a bandaid to the bleak landscape of meaningless existence he describes. Instead, we’re forced to confront it and dwell in it for 12 chapters. Aside from the epilogue, the book begins and ends with the same refrain: “‘Futility of futilities!’ says Qohelet. ‘Utterly futile! Everything is futile!'” As one of the teenagers in my youth group put it, “He tells it like it is…it’s like the un-sugarcoated version of life.”

But I believe it is this very honesty, this willingness to confront reality and tell it like it is, that enables Qohelet to give us meaningful advice for living through these times.

There is a scene in the Disney-Pixar film Inside Out, in which Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong begins to cry because she has forgotten him. Joy feels very uncomfortable and immediately tries to do anything she can to cheer up Bing Bong, to move past his grief as quickly as possible – telling jokes, making funny faces, tickling him. Nothing works. But then Sadness comes and sits beside Bing Bong. “I’m sorry they took your rocket,” she tells him. “They took something that you loved. And now it’s gone. Forever.” And she and Bing Bong sit and cry together. And a remarkable thing happens: somehow, Sadness brings Bing Bong more joy than Joy can. (Calvin Cooke, “Finding Joy in an Unjust World,” JYM 17 [2019]).

Reading Ecclesiastes during this time is like Sadness sitting beside us, describing frankly what has happened and, well, how much it sucks. “You didn’t get to have the wedding you’ve always dreamed of, even though you worked hard to plan it for months, even though you deserve it. And that’s not fair.” “You didn’t get to be there for your niece’s birthday, and that’s a day you’ll never get back. Time just keeps on going, no matter how much you wish it wouldn’t.” “You were working so hard and doing so well at your job, and now you don’t know how you’ll make ends meet. It’s not supposed to work that way.” This pandemic took something you loved. And now it’s gone. Forever.

In the midst of upbeat, inspirational memes assuring us that everything happens for a reason, sometimes the painful truth is what we need to hear. And Qohelet tells it.

In fact, Qohelet tells us all that he has seen under the sun, all the “grievous ills” he has witnessed. And it’s a depressing picture. Entire fortunes worked for and lost in the blink of an eye (5:13-14). The tears of the oppressed under the power of their oppressors (4:1). Exhausting, unceasing toil (2:22-23). That the wise and the foolish share the same fate (2:14-17). It’s a world of injustice in which things don’t work the way they’re supposed to – the race is not to the swift, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, but time and chance happen to them all (9:11).

And Qohelet has a word for all of these things: they are all hevel. Hevel is the Hebrew word translated “meaningless” or “vanity.” It actually means breath, or puff of smoke. It means that something is ephemeral, fleeting, ungraspable; Qohelet often follows the word hevel with the qualifying phrase, “chasing after the wind.” It is both ungraspable and absurd. In the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament), the word is mataiotes, the same word Paul uses in Romans 8 when he says that the creation was subjected to “futility.” People getting what others worked for – this is hevel. The fact that sometimes the wicked come out on top, while the good suffer – hevel. All of our goals and plans, all the effort we expend to reach them, only for them to be taken away from us – hevel.

But this is not all that Qohelet has to say. Woven into his observations and reflections about the nature of life is a refrain about joy, of all things. Joy, in the midst of this topsy-turvy, nonsensical world he describes! Ironically, in the face of existential crisis, Qohelet sees that enjoyment can be found only in the very physical, grounded realities of eating and drinking. He continually returns to this refrain eight different times after describing another of life’s absurdities. Because it is only once we recognize and acknowledge how fleeting our life is and how little control we actually have, that we can begin to let go of our futile grasp on it and really live it. 

In the beginning, he notes only that enjoyment is what “he has seen to be good.” But then he moves from observing the goodness of bread and wine, to commending it: “So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat and drink, and enjoy themselves” (8:15). And finally, the refrain crescendos into an imperative:

“Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has long ago approved what you do. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the one whom you love, all the days of this hevel life that are given to you under the sun, because that is your portion in life, and in your toil at which you toil under the sun” (9:7-9).

With the dramatic build toward the imperative, the emphasis on how to eat and drink (with “enjoyment” and a “merry heart”), and the addition of other activities of enjoyment, here Qohelet’s theology of joy “swells into a veritable celebration of life” (Lee, Vitality of Enjoyment, 64).

Perhaps such a mundane concept of joy seems inadequate to existential crisis. The world is falling apart all around me, people are dying, and his answer to that is to…relish a glass of wine?? Or perhaps it seems spiritually lacking. Shouldn’t my comfort come from the knowledge that there is more than this life? What is this about food and sex being my “portion in life”?

But in fact, allowing ourselves to live fully and enjoy these everyday embodied activities may be an aspect of what it means to “fear God.” The epilogue of Ecclesiastes admonishes us to “fear God, for this is the whole duty of humankind” (12:13). Eunny Lee takes this as a summary of Qohelet’s argument up to that point; what it means to fear God is to understand one’s place in the world as a finite creature who is not God and who cannot control the vicissitudes of life, and “to recognize both the tragic limitations and the joyous possibilities of human existence” (Lee, Vitality of Enjoyment, 8).

This is the wisdom of Ecclesiastes: enjoy what God has given you in the present, because it is not guaranteed and may not be here tomorrow. Love the fleeting moments. Especially in this time where the pace has slowed down somewhat, savor that cup of coffee or glass of wine. Revel in the delicious dinner you made and the small bit of comfort it brings you. Delight in the feel of the warm shower, the crisp sheets, the cool breeze. When everything else is uncertain, this is your portion in life. Not the 401k or your stocks, but this bowl of ice cream, in this moment, because it is a gift of God.

In her bestselling book One Thousand Gifts, Ann Voskamp recalls her journey of noticing and writing down all of the small, mundane gifts throughout the day. “Jam piled high on the toast…leafy life scent of the florist shop…kettle whistling for tea on a cold afternoon” (Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts, 45, 83). Voskamp’s book, and her practice of journaling, make Qohelet’s theology of joy practical and accessible for us. Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis writes,

“Such minutely specific blessings may be the best way for us to learn how to pray as we ought, for they aim at the basic purpose of all praise: to sanctify the world, to name it as holy. Saying those myriad tiny prayers is like seeing our world and our own life as a crystal, holding it up and letting light fall on its different facets. They remind us that nothing, nothing at all may be taken for granted” (Davis, Getting Involved with God, 40).

So what is the message of Ecclesiastes for you in this season? What grievous ills have you seen under the sun, what hevel and wind-chasing has this pandemic made evident? What is there that you need to name and grieve? What small enjoyments in these days of quarantine are your portion, your gift from God? And what can you do to receive them?

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