Vanity of vanities!” So goes the refrain of Ecclesiastes—a book of the Bible that, depending on whom you ask, is either confounding or comforting in how it reckons with life in a broken world. In all the ways that we labor, in every pursuit of pleasure, the mission of Ecclesiastes is to point out a kind of pointlessness to human existence, with one major caveat: that life becomes full of meaning if we fear God and keep His commandments. I spoke with Dr. Philip Ryken, president of Wheaton college and author of Why Everything Matters: The Gospel in Ecclesiastes, about how we can better receive the book as the blessing it’s intended to be.
I’ve talked with people over the years who have confessed that, for various reasons, the Bible wasn’t speaking to them anymore. But often, Ecclesiastes remained one of the few books they could still turn to for spiritual nourishment. Why that book? What is it about Ecclesiastes?
I think it has a realism about life—the range of experiences the author went through, its honesty about doubt. I’m also thinking of the weariness of work as a big theme in Ecclesiastes. People getting tired of their work has been around as long as there has been work—all the way back to Adam. We see examples of it in our own world with the kind of jobs people do today, and it helps the Bible come alive. But the book, somewhat surprisingly, also says things like, “Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. Enjoy [the] life that He has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might” (Eccl. 9:7-10 ESV). And so Ecclesiastes provides adequate place to the difficulties of our work without giving in to despair. And it does that by acknowledging the reality that there is also a blessing for us in the work God has given us to do—when we recognize that it’s a gift from Him and under His care.
You wrote that Ecclesiastes touches the hearts of people who struggle. Can you say more about that?
If you’re the kind of person who has a lot of doubts and struggles, it feels as if the church often gives you easy answers that maybe aren’t as satisfying or deep. Ecclesiastes may be a book where you say, “Finally, here’s something that’s really honest about the troubles of life.” Now, we get that in other places in the Bible—in Job, all over the place in Psalms. But that’s kind of the point of Ecclesiastes—how difficult and discouraging life is if you don’t have a God-centered perspective. Another thing is, the author of Ecclesiastes does a kind of experiment. He asks, “How far is pleasure going to take me? How far is money going to take me? How far is sex going to take me? How far is materialism going to take me?” The reality is that there are lots of people in the world who have tried those things and have also found they’re not satisfying. That creates a sense of connection with Ecclesiastes and an openness to its message. You know, if rich people lived typically happy, satisfied, contented, and joyful lives, there wouldn’t be an audience for Ecclesiastes.
What can you say about the poetry in Ecclesiastes? A lot of contemporary readers express difficulty with that kind of writing in the Bible.
Ecclesiastes may be a book where you say, “Finally, here’s something that’s really honest about the troubles of life.”
People think that they don’t like poetry, that they find it hard to read and it’s not very accessible. On the other hand, most Americans consume poetry every day, because the popular songs they listen to are poems. They’re poems set to music, but they’re in a poetic idiom. And actually, one of the things you enjoy is thinking about a line in a song you didn’t quite catch or aren’t quite sure what it means. Then you have an aha moment and suddenly realize, “Oh, that’s what they were saying—that’s what they were talking about.” That enigmatic quality of poetry is, I think, appealing, even with biblical poetry. But it’s not meant to be read fast. It’s not like a story, where you just read for the next event. Here’s an example: What does the writer of Ecclesiastes mean when he says, “All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again.” I mean, you’re going to have to think about that a little, and you’re going to have to breathe a bit. To reflect. Poetry is literary slow food—not fast food.
We don’t tend to think of “capital T” truth in poetic terms these days, it seems to me, perhaps preferring to lean on data above all else. But if the Bible is often poetic, that orientation could limit our reading and appreciation of what it offers us.
A lot of things in the Bible—certainly a lot of its poetry and images—are more open-ended; they have a depth of meaning, not just one simple truth. I’ll give another example from Ecclesiastes: “The protection of wisdom is like the protection of money, and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of him who has it” (Eccl. 7:12 ESV). There’s a lot said about wisdom there, about its protective quality, how it advances your interests, how it actually strengthens your life. But you’re not going to be able to reduce that verse to a simple proposition for one particular application. It has an open-ended, maximal quality to it.
What would you say to those people who want to approach books like Ecclesiastes with a kind of certainty and simplicity that says, “This is what that means,” and be done with it?
There are different kinds of writing in the Bible—stories, letters, histories, love songs, praise poems. Ecclesiastes is in the category of wisdom literature. And wisdom literature, particularly, is something you’re going to have to sit with. Actually, it’s true of everything in the Bible that the more you think about it and meditate on it, the more you’re going to get out of it. But people don’t have a lot of patience. To come back to the food analogy, if you’re at a fast food restaurant, the person that operates the deep fryer isn’t going to walk out from around the corner and say, “Hey, you’re eating that too fast. You really need to savor that.” But a carefully prepared meal with some kind of sauce that has a richness of flavor—to really experience that kind of food, you have to eat slower and think about what you’re eating. And Ecclesiastes is that kind of spiritual food.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4). Do you think we can see Ecclesiastes as a book of mourning in the sense Jesus means, or not?
I love that connection. First of all, I think a lot of times in the evangelical church here in the United States, we miss out on the blessing of mourning because we do not have a biblically robust and spiritually healthy practice of lamentation. There’s a lot of lament in the Bible. And lament is one of the main things you can do with the burdens and troubles of life—both your own and all the problems in the world you don’t know how to fix. Our impulse is to take a problem-solution approach to things, but then that gets frustrating if you have problems you can’t solve. We often feel frustration or anger, but it’s hard for that anger to be righteous or productive. Lamentations says, “I don’t know how to solve your problem, but, brother or sister, I can weep with you about this.” Or, “Lord, I’m frustrated. Here’s a problem for which I’m going to take up the kind of lament Jeremiah took up, or the psalmist took up, because I see that’s a God-honoring way to respond to this kind of trouble in life.”
Ecclesiastes is a mournful book with invitations to lamentation. Here’s one: “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth” (Eccl. 7:2-4 ESV). Some commentators have treated this as a kind of cynicism—a kind of despair, or futility, or giving up. I don’t think that’s the point at all. Ecclesiastes is helping us live an emotionally balanced spiritual life, and it’s doing that partly by providing a little bit of counterbalance. Even though it’s more on the pessimistic side, the hopeful passages—the “life above the sun” passages, where God is brought into the picture—are so strong by way of contrast that they really pop. One of the ways Ecclesiastes provides that counterbalance is by giving a nice space to mournfulness as a wise approach to life in a fallen world.
I think when Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” one of the ways we can experience that blessing is by entering into some of the laments of Ecclesiastes. But entering into the laments of Ecclesiastes in such a way that we also see the hope in the book, because the blessing for those who mourn is not the mourning in and of itself; it’s comforted mourning. So, I think Ecclesiastes is one place to learn how to enter into the blessing that Jesus promises.
Photography by Darren Hauck