“Vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas.” That, of course, is the opening sentence of the book of Ecclesiastes, as translated into Latin by St. Jerome. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” as the King James Version has it.
The book takes it name from its speaker. “Eccleasiastes” is a Greek rendering of the Hebrew “Qoholeth,” variously thought to mean Preacher or Teacher, though it could also be understood as Member of the Assembly.
He identifies himself in the opening sentence as son of David, king in Jerusalem, and tradition has held that the author was Solomon. Be that as it may, he is someone who has seen enough of life to no longer be taken in by it.
Practically everybody is familiar with some of the book, thanks to Pete Seeger’s having adapted the opening lines of the third chapter into “Turn, Turn, Turn,” the treacly peace ditty best-known in a super-saccharine version by the Byrds. (who also ruined Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man”).
Nothing is saccharine about Qoholeth himself, though (what follows is the Douay-Rheims version, which is less evasive than the King James version):
And I saw that wisdom excelled folly, as much as light differeth from darkness.
The eyes of a wise man are in his head: the fool walketh in darkness: and I learned that they were to die both alike.
And I said in my heart: If the death of the fool and mine shall be one, what doth it avail me, that I have applied myself more to the study of wisdom? And speaking with my own mind, I perceived that this also was vanity.
For there shall be no remembrance of the wise no more than of the fool for ever, and the times to come shall cover all things together with oblivion: the learned dieth in like manner as the unlearned.
And therefore I was weary of my life, when I saw that all things under the sun are evil, and all vanity and vexation of spirit.
I don’t imagine this text serves often as the basis for a sermon. Oh, I’m sure that bit in the first verse contrasting wisdom and folly gets cited. But the rest? Not so much.
As it happens, Ecclesiastes is eminently quotable. He’s the guy who coined the phrase about a fly in the ointment. He cautioned us that “the race is not to the swift,” reminded us that there is “nothing new under the sun,” and advised that there is “no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry.”
But, as I noted earlier, he tends to be quoted with care and discrimination. He’ll be cited approvingly for encouraging us that “whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might,” but his reason for saying that is likely to be overlooked: “for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.”
For Ecclesiastes, death is death. Life is a parenthesis between one darkness and another. But no less precious for that: “Truly the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun.”
And no less a gift from God. For Ecclesiastes is no atheist. In his view, we are created for a space of time, and we should make the most of it, and be grateful for it. It is a religious outlook quite different from what we have become used to. And it makes me wonder how many people of faith would love God, as they say they do, if they thought the way Ecclesiastes did.
Just imagine: To ask nothing more of God than the brief flicker of being that life may amount to. It is an outlook aptly summarized by John Hall Wheelock, in a poem called “Dear Men and Women”:
I have learned it from them at last, who am now grown old
A happy man, that the nature of things is tragic
And meaningful beyond words, that to have lived
Even if once only, once and no more,
Will have been — oh, how truly — worth it.
That’s religion made of sterner stuff indeed.