Focal Passages: Ecclesiastes 1:1-11; 12:13-14
In 1514, German Renaissance painter, Albrecht Durer,
produced one of his most famous engravings, Melancholia. This work of art,
though extensively interpreted, is a picture of the state of melancholy. One
sees the figure of an angel, gazing, sitting heavy with head weighing on his
left hand. Around the figure are evidences of wealth, wisdom, and “on the
horizon the splendour of a landscape composed of water, mountain, city, and
forest” (Jean-Luc Marion).
It appears that all that could satisfy and complete
is lost in the hollow gaze toward a vanishing point that cannot be grasped.
Many feel that perhaps Melancholia is Durer’s spiritual
self-portrait. Regardless, it is a picture of one saturated with the resources
and experiences of this life, yet always gazing beyond to that ungraspable
something that lies beyond the horizon.
And so observes also Qoheleth (which is
the Hebrew name used coming from a word meaning to assemble or gather), or the
Preacher (1:1). Like Durer’s figure, this individual saturated with all that
life offers and all that can be obtained, gazes out onto his kingdom and can
not see what truly satisfies or completes — “Vanity of vanities! Vanity of
vanities! All is vanity!”
That is, like a vapor, breath, or a condensation, all
is absolute aimlessness, emptiness, and transitoriness. The constant repeating
of the term vanity emphasizes the superlative degree of that condition.
Further, note the superlative effect of this vanity upon reality: “All! Vanity!
(there is no verb in the Hebrew text),” “all his labor” (1:3), “all things are
full of weariness” (1:8 RSV). “The world for him is suspended by the breath of
The remainder of the text (and book) paints a picture of
monotony and purposelessness. The wheel of time and process turns, but in the
end nothing has changed or novelty is a whisper of steam on a windy day. He states,
“Whatever has happened is what will occur, and whatever has been done is what
will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun” (1:9 RSV).
One senses an
air of disillusionment and despair in the midst of great wealth and success.
But, is that the end of the story?
Echoing Ecclesiastes 12:13-14, Second century BC Jewish
writer, Ben Sirach, writes, “Though we speak much we cannot reach the end, and
the sum of our words is: ‘He is all’” (Sirach 43:27).
Thus, the end of the
story is God — “Fear God and keep his commandments; for that is everything for
humankind” (Norbert Lohfink). That is, when we know the Lord, we come to know
ourselves; when we believe God, the very riches of the treasures of God,
humankind and the world are opened up (Walter Kaiser Jr.).