Yes, the Book of Ecclesiastes is pessimistic and dreary, but that dreariness and pessimism is calculated to make an important point.
Long acquaintance with the Book of Ecclesiastes makes it easy to overlook things that would otherwise be fairly obvious to someone who has never read it. Familiar eyes need help to see Ecclesiastes in a new light, to gain a fresh understanding of its message. A simple exercise that can open up the central theme of Ecclesiastes is to simply count the number of “buts” within the text. Doing so highlights how frequently the author states an accepted “good” and then immediately qualifies or limits it. Consider the following passages and pay special attention to the word “but”:
- 1:17 I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned it was like chasing after the wind.
- 2:1 I used everything, even pleasure, to discover what is good, but everything proved to be meaningless.
- 2:14 The wise man has eyes in his head, while the fool walks in the darkness; but I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both.
- 2: 26 To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
- 4:16 There was no end to all the people who were before them. but those who came later were not pleased with the successor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. God gives a man wealth, possessions and honor, so that he lacks nothing his heart desires, but God does not enable him to enjoy them, and a stranger enjoys them instead. This is meaningless, a grievous evil.
- 7:23 I tested everything by wisdom and was determined to be wise, but it was beyond me.
- 9:1 The fate of both the righteous and the wise are in God’s hands, but neither knows what awaits them.
- 9:11 The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.
- 9:15 A poor but wise man may save a city, but no one will remember him. 16 Wisdom is better than strength, but the poor man’s wisdom is despised….
- 9:18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.
The spiritual horizon of Ecclesiastes is limited to the present world, not the world to come. Counting the “buts” helps make that clear. Thus the almost irresistible impulse to Christianize the Book of Ecclesiastes misses the point. Rather the real point of the book is to take up a pessimistic position in an ancient debate over the ultimacy of wisdom by deploying a relentless critique of wisdom’s efficacy in the face of life’s unpredictability.
The Book of Proverbs, for example, is cheerfully optimistic– be wise and prosper. The point of Ecclesiastes, in contrast, is gloomy, its purpose being not to exalt wisdom, but to expose its limits. Thus the author sagely observes that the race does not always go to the swift nor does the battle necessarily go to the strong. Instead things happen that frequently undo all the expectations (and labor) that wisdom inspires.
Surely we can relate to that message. How many times have we had our carefully laid plans overturned by time or chance? Of course human wisdom is valuable, but the one who puts all of his or her trust in wisdom is unwise.
The ultimate answer to the search for the truly good life is frequently not more wisdom, but more faith. Unlike wisdom, faith in God is not like chasing after the wind; it is not meaningless; it is not overtaken by time or chance; it is not forgotten; it is not undone by the mistakes of others. And the same fate does not await the faithful and the unfaithful.