“What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity. Ecclesiastes 2:22-23
You don’t hear Ecclesiastes; read very often in church. As a matter of fact, it is only assigned twice in the entire three-year lectionary cycle, and one of those is only when Sunday falls on January 1. You might hear the part about “for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” read at a funeral. But otherwise, the wisdom of Ecclesiastes is easily overlooked.
Part of the problem is that the main message of the book can sound a bit depressing. As the speaker examines the human condition, they conclude that everything is, in the end, finite, tenuous, and ephemeral. Or, to put it into a term the speaker prefers, all is vanity.
Obviously, death is the greatest instance of finitude. Celebrate and cultivate wisdom, morality, work, and joy all you want. But in the end, no matter how wise, moral or intelligent you become, you face the same reward as any blundering idiot; the cold hard ground of the grave. And so the only conclusion one can make about all of life is “Utter futility, all is vanity.”
And yet maybe the speaker in Ecclesiastes has something to say to our times (quoting Dr. Brent Strawn): “Well, what did you expect? That your economy could grow forever? That your business could turn a profit forever? That your country would be on top forever? That you could do what you are doing and the planet could handle it forever? That you could oppress other people forever?” Stupefied at our stupidity, the speaker would likely add, “Give me a break.”
But there is something else to the wisdom of Ecclesiastes. Take a look at the lilies of the field or the intricate spiderweb on the back porch it suggests. The finality of finitude can, or rather should, cast into sharp relief—the highest definition possible—the exquisite nature of life in all its limitedness. And so Ecclesiastes encourages us to find joy (no fewer than seven times). Again as Dr. Strawn points out: it is nevertheless striking that, as cranky as Ecclesiastes is about finitude, it too stops to smell the roses.
Such honesty is refreshing, if not the most profound. It would be easy to hear Ecclesiastes encouraging us to resign, especially in the face of injustice. If we really can’t change things, why waste our time trying?
Thankfully, we don’t need any single book of the Bible to carry the full weight of God’s Word to us. If you want a call to fight oppression, just look up your nearest prophet. But Ecclesiastes has its part to contribute. Given how much time and energy we waste trying to deny our mortality, sometimes it is healthy to be reminded that each one of us can be tempted toward vanity.
BTW, the Bible Project has a wonderful video that gives an overview of Ecclesiastes.