The Wisdom of Ecclesiastes
"What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done. There is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, 'See, this is new?' It has already been, in the ages before us... I saw everything done under the sun; all is vanity and chasing after wind... I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive. But better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil done under the sun... The same fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil. As are the good, so are the sinners. There is an evil in everything under the sun, that the same fate comes to everyone." (Eccles. 1:9-10,14; 4:2-3; 9:2-3a)
Tyler Williams offers some New Year’s wisdom from the best book of the bible, Ecclesiastes. He writes:
"Those familiar with the book of Ecclesiastes may be asking yourself what does a book that renders everything as hebel or absurd have to say about personal goals and resolutions for the new year? Well, that's a good question! Especially considering Ecclesiastes 1:9 which says 'History merely repeats itself. It has all be done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new.' This verse probably rings true to all of us who have ever made a new year's resolution year after year only to break it by the time February comes around! If everything is hebel or absurd and if we're caught in this endless cycle, what's the point of trying to do things different this coming year?"
He notes that hebel connotes absurdity in the sense of "chasing after the wind", which no one can catch. It means vanity, meaningless, or -- yes -- even flatulence. The good book tells us that everything in life is just one big fart.
Tyler finds resolution to this pessimism much as the writer of Ecclesiastes did (though he puts it in a Christian context). Not everything is absurd, truly, only everything sought apart from God. "If we try to find meaning in wisdom, wealth, or work 'under the sun', that is, apart from God," says Tyler, "then our search will be futile."
Many people, however, do find meaning apart from God, so I will attempt to put the wisdom of Ecclesiastes in terms to which non-deists can relate. Life is indeed hopeless and absurd, and we chase after wind all the time. We certainly don't progress as much as we think we do, something Stephen Jay Gould often emphasized. History is a long defeat, and humanity will eventually lose altogether -- probably to bacteria. But in the meantime we do the best we can, and we try to do good for goodness sake alone, perhaps on grounds that life under the sun can be good no matter how bad because that's all there is.
Happy New Year to all.
UPDATE: See Chris Heard's post. He takes issue with Tyler restricting "under the sun" to refer to "apart from God", as if Ecclesiastes is implying that life is meaningless only apart from God. The righteous and the wicked are certainly envisioned as being treated indiscriminately by God "under the sun" (Chris cites the passage I did above: 9:2-3a). Chris suggests that "under the sun" instead refers to "a designation of normal human life, as distinct from the realm of death...life 'under the sun' for Qoheleth is not some special quality of life; it is simply the normal human condition."