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David Cowles

Jul 9, 2024

“It seems that we are not only permitted to dance in the face of death, but that God expects us to do so.”

We do not expect our philosophers to be right, but we do wish they’d at least try to be consistent. Unfortunately, that’s a wish often unfulfilled IRL…nowhere more so than in the Old Testament book of wisdom known as Ecclesiastes


A friend of mine decided it was time for him to undertake the Christian equivalent of the Haj. One summer, he committed to reading the Bible from cover to cover. When he was done, I asked him, somewhat foolishly, which book was his ‘favorite’. To my surprise, he said, “Ecclesiastes, of course.” 


Ecclesiastes? Maybe. Of course? No way! But I shouldn’t have been surprised. Like me, my friend was a child of the ‘60s and even in that anti-clerical era, Ecclesiastes had its following (The Byrds).  


Plus, Ecclesiastes is crammed full of jaw-dropping insights into the human predicament. So, what’s not to love? These realizations look as though they might have originated in virtually any corner of the world at virtually any time in its cultural history. Some of the ideas sound like they come from the Vedas or even the Tao Te Ching. Some look like they were lifted off of a 20th century hand-out from a survey course on Existentialism. 


Still, the book sometimes reads as though it was an amalgamation of two texts culled from two very different traditions. On the one hand, Ecclesiastes offers a searing indictment of the human condition - vintage existentialism, full of angst and anxiety. In the spirit of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Camus, the emphasis is on the futility and absurdity of life. The mood is dark, the language strident! 


But on the other hand, there is a quietist thread running perpendicular throughout the text; it’s a blend of Epicurus, Voltaire, and Norman Vincent Peale.  


There is little doubt that Ecclesiastes is the work of more than one hand. Certain verses have almost certainly been added ‘after the fact’. But it would be a bridge too far to suggest that Ecclesiastes is really two books somehow elided into a single text. We will need to find another way to resolve this dilemma. So, let’s consult the text: 


“Emptiness, emptiness…all is empty.  (Emptiness’ is one translation of an Aramaic word that also denotes ‘absurdity, futility, vanity’.) 


“All things are wearisome… There is nothing new under the sun… I have seen all the deeds that are done here under the sun; they are all emptiness and a chase after wind…  


“The wise man is remembered no longer than the fool…all will be forgotten. Alas, wise man and fool die the same death!... Everything is the same for everybody; the same lot for the just and for the wicked…there is one lot for all… Men have no advantage over beasts, for everything is emptiness…all came from the dust and to the dust all return…  


“Better the end of anything than its beginning…The day of death is better than the day of birth. Better to visit the house of mourning than the house of feasting. 


“Time (entropy) and chance (quantum uncertainty) govern all.” 


Cheery! Koheleth (the Speaker), once thought to be King Solomon himself, has taken us down into an ontological pit from which there can be no logical escape. At this point, who could imagine that the book would end with everyone singing ‘Kumbya’ and dancing around a May Pole? And yet…Ecclesiastes has the temerity to suggest just this:  


“Fear God and obey his commands. There is no more to man than this.” 


“I know that there is nothing good for man except to be happy and live the best life he can while he is alive. Moreover, that a man should eat and drink and enjoy himself in return for all his labors is a gift of God…  


“Go to it then, eat your food and enjoy it, and drink your wine with a cheerful heart; for already God has accepted what you have done… Whatever task lies to your hand, do it with all your might.” 


Here Ecclesiastes dips into a Biblical thread suggesting that God has pre-ordained a specific set of tasks for each of us to complete. We see it in Jeremiah and the prophets, but it is most clearly summarized in Ephesians 2:10: “For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance that we should live in them.”  


In this view, we do not create our lives, we step into them (or not). We are invited to do the Will of God, to be part of his plan of universal salvation. Of course, God marches on, with or without our cooperation. We can jump on the bandwagon and play our scripted role in salvation history, or we can stand off to one side. We can ‘let life pass us by’ most literally. 


“It is good and proper for a man to eat and drink and enjoy himself… He will not dwell overmuch on the passing years because God has filled his time with joy of heart.” 


Et voila -  a full-throated endorsement of bad faith! Joie de vivre is intended by God to distract us from our disparate existential predicament. Faith really is the opiate of the people. It seems that we are not only permitted to dance in the face of death, but that God expects us to do so. Is this The Great Gatsby, BCE version? 


Taking the book as a single text with a consistent message, we might view its two faces as ‘problem’ and ‘solution’. As in much medicine today, biological and spiritual, the treatment plan does not seem adequate to the diagnosis. ‘Take two aspirin and call me in the morning’ is not likely to relieve anyone’s existential angst. 



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