Vanity? Or was Qoheleth just having a bad day?

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | August 19, 2013

Teachings of this biblical Wisdom Book is more familiar to us than we might first think

“Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity! What profit have we from all the toil which we toil at under the sun? One generation departs and another generation comes, but the world forever stays” (Eccl 1:2-4).

Qoheleth, as one of my former theology professors said, was having a bad day.

Who is this “Qoheleth?” We heard about him earlier this month, in the first reading for Aug. 4 (18th Sunday in Ordinary Time). His name was probably difficult to say and it doesn’t sound exactly biblical. It rolls off the tongue more like something out of Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings,” maybe as the name of a dragon.

That’s probably because “Qoheleth” isn’t a name, but a title. Yes, Qoheleth identifies himself in the first line of this book as “David’s son, Qoheleth, king in Jerusalem.” Tradition has identified “Qoheleth” as King Solomon, but many scholars have questioned this, based on the fact that “Qoheleth” is not a name, but a title. The Hebrew “Qoheleth,” which most people know better by its Greek translation — “Ecclesiastes” — means “one who gathers together,” as in one who gathers an assembly. It’s more traditional translation is “teacher” or “preacher.”

This book of the Bible is one of several that are called the “Wisdom books” and include Wisdom, Sirach, Proverbs, Psalms, Song of Songs and Job. While the book could even be titled “Qoheleth,” we know it better as Ecclesiastes and it’s even more familiar than you might think.

  • For example, if you’ve ever heard the song “Turn, Turn, Turn” (written by Pete Seeger and made Billboard-charts-famous by The Byrds in the 1960s — and sung by rock group Red Umbrella in 2008 and Tori Amos in 2010), you know Qoheleth’s third chapter (vv. 1-8).
  • Or what about that golden nugget of wisdom: “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die”? Sound like Shakespeare? Wrong. Try Qoheleth (Eccl. 8:15). (Jesus said it, too, in the parable of the rich landholder in Luke 12.)
  • Then there’s the favorite with which Henry David Thoreau closed “Walden”: “A living dog is better than a dead lion.” Qoheleth said that first too (9:4).
  • And motivational speakers no doubt love “Cast your bread upon the waters; after a long time you may find it again.” Yep, it’s verse one of chapter 11.

Besides pithy gems of wisdom, what else does Qoheleth offer? It’s true that this biblical book can, in its own way, be as depressing as Job’s. While Job suffers calamity after calamity, Qoheleth offers a broad-ranging lesson on the futility of much of life: from the pursuit of wealth and knowledge, the tensions between men and women, the shortness of life and on to the uncertainty of anything in the future. His most common theme is “vanity” — coming from the Hebrew word “hebel” which means “a vapor” or “a mirage.” Vanity is also one of the deadly sins. (It used to be called vainglory — and sometimes is listed as “pride”— but vainglory is a pretty archaic word now.)

St. Joseph Edition of the New American Bible says that this book’s apparent lessons for life seem to be: “Merit does not yield happiness for it is often tried by suffering. Riches and pleasures do not avail. Existence is monotonous, enjoyment fleeing and vain; darkness quickly follows. Life, then, is an enigma beyond human ability to solve.”

Sounds like a really bad day to me. Where is the wisdom of this? Where’s the faith lesson during this Year of Faith? Where’s the grain of hope that enlightens all “vanity?” Even Job’s book ended on a happy note.

The first answer is that Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes) makes you stop and think. Do you want to be a dead lion or a live dog? Is all the hard work you do just “vanity and a chase after wind?” (Another oft-repeated phrase of Qoheleth.) And what bread (our hard work) do we cast upon the waters, and for what purpose?

The second answer is found scattered here and there throughout the entire book, but brought home clearly in the epilogue:

  • Whatever we have and enjoy “is a gift from God.” (For example, see 3:13, 5:18.)
  • What we do on our own is “vanity” but God’s work endures forever. (See 3:14 and 7:14 as examples.)
  • Spend your time praising God — “it will be well with those who fear God” (8:12). As Qoheleth concludes: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is man’s all.” (12:13).

Not a bad summation in terms of wisdom. After all, God created us to know him, love him and serve him. It seems that Qoheleth learned this lesson, whether he was that wise king, Solomon, or not.


Sources: “Baker Commentary on the Old Testament: Wisdom and Psalms”; “A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching” and “The Catholic Encyclopedia.”

Kasten is the author of “Linking Your Beads, The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers,” published by Our Sunday Visitor Press.  Her newest book, on sainthood, will be published by OSV in Spring 2014. 


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