I remember reading Ecclesiastes in high school, and being utterly baffled: how is this scripture? It seems the opposite of what the gospel message was! “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity!” Everything is useless? Nothing I do matters? I can’t have hope? It even seems to deny an afterlife completely! I just couldn’t work out what the meaning was supposed to be. The Bible definitely couldn’t be this existential.
And yes, if you approach Ecclesiastes with the read scriptures + pray -> inspirational quotes + cute memes approach, you aren’t going to find it here. It took me a while to figure out Ecclesiastes. Some books along the way helped, including some thoughts on Wisdom literature from “Re-Reading Job” by Michael Austin. This little book isn’t a translation of Ecclesiastes persay, but rather a paraphrase, as the title puts it. What a clever and helpful book! It’s a very quick read– a nice introduction on the author’s perspective on the book, and then it’s just as long as the book of Ecclesiastes is.
I will let some of the quotes speak for themselves:
As Paul insists, in order to become Christian, we must first learn to be hopeless. Hopelessness is the door to Zion. Hopelessness is crucial to a consecrated life. Before we can find hope in Christ, we must give up hope in everything else.
Life in Christ doesn’t overcome this hopelessness. It doesn’t replace it with hope, trading one for the other. Rather, life in Christ baptizes hopelessness and then draws strength from it. It practices a rare kind of messianic hope that is rooted in futility and grows only in that bleak soil.
As sinners, we resist life in Christ by resisting the hopelessness that conditions it. We resist Christ by refusing to give up. We are too proud. But to find Christ, life must be surrendered. All of our projects and plans and vanities must be surrendered. And not just once, but continually. Surrender isn’t just the gate to a Christian life, it is the mode of that life. Living life in Christ means performing life as a continual act of surrender—each plan, each loss, each trophy; each breath, each sight, each thought; each mother, each husband, each child. It means performing hope in Christ by way of an ongoing confession of hopelessness.
Things that can’t be neatly predicted, controlled, or explained can show up with a gift-like quality. Underdetermined by law, they are free. In this sense, hopelessness is an acid bath for developing images of grace. True, often what is given won’t be what you wanted or expected. Rather than being what you’d hoped for, things will just be, instead, whatever they actually are. Sunlight will just be sunlight. Laundry will just be laundry. Your child will just be, perfectly, the faltering child that they are. But this is the nature of grace. And this is why grace is more difficult than the law. To be capable of love and not just obedience, we must be capable of responding with grace to whatever is given. To be capable of love, we must love things for what they are, not for what we had hoped they would be. As a result, only disappointment opens onto love and only disappointment is capable of grace. There is no love without our attendant surrender. This is Zion’s severe superscription: abandon all hope, ye who enter here!