“The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:
says the Teacher.
Everything is meaningless.”
Ecclesiastes 1:1-2 NIV
Depending on your translation, the opening lines may leave you confused and possibly dismayed that a part of canonized scripture seems to suggest life is meaningless when we consider that so much of what’s in the Bible is meant to do the opposite.
I’d like to point out this translation I’ve pulled from the NIV is misleading. As Iain Provan points out in his Old Testament class at Regent, the word “meaningless” should be translated as “fleetingness.”
The original Hebrew word, hebel can be translated literally into English as “breath.” In the context of Ecclesiastes, it signifies something more evanescent about the nature of life. The idea being not so much that life is void of meaning, but rather there is something about the nature of life that is constantly escaping us. The age old paradox where the tighter we squeeze, the less we can hold on to.
Another translation used in the ESV is “vanity,” also fitting is the image of “smoke” as described in the Message. Ultimately the book is meant to demonstrate that our attempts to find satisfaction in life strictly by way of the wisdom of the world, will leave us searching in vain.
The book touches on several key themes, but one image recurs throughout the book. As I mentioned above, the Message version replaces “meaningless” with “smoke.” Smoke is something that we cannot grip. In the same way, our efforts to escape our own mortality are like trying to grab at smoke.
To me, this book wrestles with the facts of life and poses questions addressing our nature. Specifically it asks, why do we toil? What are we trying to accomplish if in the end we are all going to meet the same fate?
I believe one of the key lessons from Ecclesiastes is wonderfully exhibited in the film directed by John Huston, Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
Before I continue, I have to add this line…
You’ve been warned.
The film follows Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt as they set off on an expedition to find gold and strike it rich. After they hit the jackpot and begin collecting their gold with the aid of an old prospector played by Walter Huston, suspicion emerges between the two comrades. As the film progresses, Bogart’s own obsession with the gold and paranoia about the loyalty of his companions leads him to make off with all the gold only after attempting to murder Tim Holt’s character. Bogart justifies his own madness by providing himself evidence that his comrades meant to do the same to him. As Bogart flees, he’s killed by a gang of robbers who mistake the fine powdered gold he’s carrying for dirt and empty it into the desert. When Walter Huston and Tim Holt find the site where the gold was unwittingly scattered, they realize it’s lost to the wind. The two laugh when they realize what all their toil has become.
“It’s a great joke played on us by the lord, or fate, or nature, whatever you prefer. But whoever, or whatever, it certainly had a sense of humor.”
I’ve included a link to the ending here...
I bring up this film to illustrate an image that recurs in Ecclesiastes, “chasing after the wind.” (1:14, 2:11) Treasure of the Sierra Madre ends with both characters reaching an understanding that being driven to the edges of sanity to fulfil their desires to obtain wealth, have left them empty handed. However they now have a greater understanding that life is of infinitely greater value than the possession of gold. Both will now part ways, without great riches, but with a greater sense of purpose and optimism for what the future may bring. In the end, everything we strive to achieve, what value does it really have when weighed against the riches of life? In a more simplistic way, this could be a way to sum up the key message in Ecclesiastes. But Ecclesiastes also concludes that life must be lived, oriented towards God…
“Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.”
Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 NIV
The NIV has done a disservice to the text in its translation of the word “meaningless.” For it is not in the nature of the original text to leave us feeling purposeless, but instead to reflect on the human condition. This is also the major function of storytelling. Treasure of the Sierra Madre demonstrates how the fixed pursuit for worldly success can warp an individual and drive them to commit the most heinous of crimes. In the end, the joke is not life itself, but the crazed hunt for something that can be so easily lost to the wind. It is this fine powder called gold that we have labelled precious and that causes humans to become so bent they will stop at nothing to obtain it. Similarly, the writer of Ecclesiastes asks us what we consider to be the object of our desire by considering our conceptions of what will bring us fulfillment and then from his own experience demonstrates that seeking these things in and of themselves won't leave us satisfied. A constant point he brings up is that in the end we all meet the same conclusion.
“Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb, and as everyone comes, so they depart. They take nothing from their toil that they can carry in their hands. This too is a grievous evil: As everyone comes, so they depart, and what do they gain, since they toil for the wind?”
Ecclesiastes 5:15-16 NIV
But our toil should not be seen as meaningless. For Ecclesiastes also offers affirmation of the significance we can enjoy in ordinary things. It is not toil in and of itself that can be fleeting, but toil that focuses itself on the reward of worldly fulfillment.
“This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot. Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God.”
Ecclesiastes 5:18-19 NIV
If we only reach out for the temporary comforts of pleasure, the security of money and power, our efforts will be fleeting. It will be like grabbing smoke.
In the end, Ecclesiastes makes the point that our purpose in life in is to exist in reverence and devotion to God. While it doesn’t openly remind us of the fact that we are loved by God, who is greater than anything we can see in the Universe, it puts life into perspective and allows us to examine why we do what we do. And more importantly, it can act as a signpost directing us towards the living God.
One thing I must stress is that this book should be read in one sitting. The reason I suggest this is because the book’s flow matches the tone of an internal debate where multiple sides of an issue are being considered. Reading it in pieces could leave one with an incomplete picture of what Qoheleth (the teacher) is communicating.
I am a filmmaker from Ontario and have been living in Vancouver for five years. The best travel experience I had was a two and a half week visit to Iran in the summer during Ramadan. If I had a time machine I would go back in time to watch Led Zeppelin live and hang out with Martin Luther King Jr. My favourite colour is green, but not lime green, more of a forest green. I like wearing toques, kayaking and reading books. I’m still afraid of the dark… or maybe it’s just my imagination. I’m susceptible to buying anything that’s shiny and made by Apple. My favourite documentary is a film called the Act of Killing.