Does the Author of Ecclesiastes Need Prozac?

The author of Ecclesiastes is often labeled a depressed pessimist.[1] But a careful study reveals the author to be an honest—and hopeful!—realist about life, not a candidate for Prozac.

Author Miles Custis

UnfairMeaninglessAbsurd

It’s easy to understand why people think Ecclesiastes is depressing, or think that the conclusion of the book is that life is meaningless. Verses like “And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive” (Eccl 4:2 NIV) make the book seem less than hopeful. Even its famous phrase “vanity of vanities”—found at the beginning and the end of the book (Eccl 1:2; 12:8) makes the author sound like a complete pessimist. I’ve found, though, that if you give the book enough serious attention, Ecclesiastes reveals that the author is actually hopeful, and his message can easily be applied to each of us.

The refrain “vanity of vanities” (Eccl 1:2 and 12:8) is where we find our first clue to the author’s optimism. The translations “meaningless” (NIV) or “vanity” (NASB) come from the Hebrew word hebel. This word occurs in Ecclesiastes far more frequently than in any other book of the Old Testament (38 of 73 occurrences). Neither “meaningless” nor “vanity” quite fits the way it is used in Ecclesiastes. Sometimes hebel emphasizes the brevity of life; at other times it speaks to the futility of life. Most often, however, the author uses hebel to judge situations as senseless, absurd, unreasonable, or unfair. For example, in Eccl 2:21 the fact that the author must leave his fortune to someone who did not earn it seems “unfair” to him (not just “worthless” or “vain”). Likewise, in Eccl 8:14 it seems “senseless” to the author that the outcomes of a righteous or a wicked life are reversed.

The author’s main point in using hebel is to show that life often does not make sense and that neither he (being extremely wise; see Eccl 1:16 and 12:9) nor anyone else can explain the senseless situations that life can bring. Life is contradictory, and human ability to understand life in all of its contradictions is limited.

The limitation of human wisdom is an important theme in Ecclesiastes. The author’s goal was to understand life (Eccl 1:13), but it is a goal he was unable to reach. In fact, it is a goal which no one can reach (Eccl 8:16–17).

But doesn’t this make the author a pessimist? The answer can be found in Eccl 3:10–17. This passage affirms that God is the One who controls “the times.” He has made everything “beautiful” or “good” in its time (Eccl 3:11a). We are not able to fully understand everything He has done (Eccl 3:11b; 8:17). It is clear that He is the One in control (Eccl 3:14a). “God does [all this in mystery] so that man will fear him” (Eccl 3:14). The proper response to living in a chaotic world, with situations that are often beyond our control, is to put our trust in the One who is in control—God.

Rather than a message of gloom, Ecclesiastes gives us hope: while life might be full of injustice and absurdity (Eccl 3:16), we can trust that God is in control and ultimately justice will prevail (Eccl 3:17).[2] Ecclesiastes points out life’s difficulties, but does not call for despair. The book’s conclusion drives the point home (Eccl 12:13): “This is end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this applies to everyone.”

Prozac® is a registered trademark of Eli Lilly and Company.

Notes:

[1] James L Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes. (Old Testament Library. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987), pgs. 23–28.

[2] See Eccl 2:24–25; 3:12–13; 3:22; 5:18; 8:15; 9:7–9; 11:9–12:1.

Bible Study Magazine delivers tools and methods for Bible study, as well as insights from respected Bible teachers, professors, historians, and archaeologists. Take over 30% off the cover price—subscribe now!

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Logos Bible Software. Originally published in print, Vol. 1 No. 3.

Thorns, Thistles and Toiling

Author Jeannine Seery

“To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.’

To Adam he said, ‘Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, “You must not eat of it,” cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life’” (Gen 3:16–17, NIV).

Thorns, Thistles and Toiling

Perhaps it’s because of the immense joy and pain I’ve experienced being a parent that I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about how the actions of Adam and Eve, our first parents, influence our daily lives.

As I’ve read it and heard it preached, the curse itself seems to be pretty straightforward: Women will toil in childbirth while men toil in work. I find myself wondering, though, how is this ancient curse evidenced in our modern existence, as we seek to work out our salvation with fear and trembling?

At the very core of the curse is the act of rebellion against God. Adam and Eve were not satisfied with what their Father had given them and deemed it necessary to follow their own interests. They chose to look outside of their relationship with God for fulfillment, instead of trusting that He would satisfy their every need. In doing so, they broke relationship with Him. The rest is history.

I’m not sure if the curse, as seen in 21st century America, is only the actual pain of childbirth and hard work. I believe that we are cursed also (perhaps even more) by our desire to find satisfaction, identity and meaning in our children and work, rather than our relationship with God.

Male and female, it seems that we are endlessly striving to make a name for ourselves—whether that would be in reaching the top of the corporate ladder, or parenting the next Albert Einstein. Take a look at the shelves of your local bookstore: You’ll find countless resources on how to become a more effective, successful person in the world of work. A quick search on the internet can yield a wealth of information on how to best meet the physical and emotional needs of your child, even before birth.

The creators of these resources appeal to our deepest insecurities and deceive us into believing that if we can somehow find the secret formula, our success will be guaranteed.

People typically aspire to be the absolute best at what we do, which in and of itself is a noble pursuit. Our problems begin to arise when we seek to measure our intrinsic value by our successes and failures. Contrary to what we’ve been told, we are not what we do. It has never defined the essence of who we are, and it never can. We have been created by a loving God to bring glory to His name in all the circumstances of our lives. And often the very circumstances that bring Him the most glory are the times of our greatest failure, times when we give up trying to work in our own power and instead allow His power to be made perfect in our weakness.

The Word of God says in Eccl 1:9, “there is nothing new under the sun.” While our daily struggles may not appear in the same form as our first parents’, their essence is quite similar. We often find ourselves dissatisfied with the path that God has ordained for us, which leads us to pursue our own agenda. Instead of taking our confusion and dissatisfaction to the one who knows us best, we are tempted to look outside of our relationship with God to find answers to our failures and disappointments. We toil, not against actual thorns and thistles, but against “the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things [that] come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful” (Mark 4:19 NIV). We seek the forbidden fruit of this world that will never satisfy, while God waits for us to come and walk with Him in the cool of the day. He can meet our every need, if only we would let Him.

Bible Study Magazine delivers tools and methods for Bible study, as well as insights from respected Bible teachers, professors, historians, and archaeologists. Take over 30% off the cover price—subscribe now!

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Logos Bible Software. Originally published in print, Vol. 1 No. 3.