Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

But whoever is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no more reward, and even the memory of them is lost. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished; never again will they have any share in all that happens under the sun.

Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are 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 with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going. – Ecclesiastes 9:4-10

More thoughts for meditation

The megillot (“scrolls”) are part of the Ketuvim. All five are are traditionally read publicly in the synagogue over the course of the year in many Jewish communities. In common printed editions of the Tanakh they appear in the order that they are read in the synagogue on holidays (beginning with Passover). Ecclesiastes is read publicly in some communities, especially by Ashkenazim, on the Sabbath of Sukkot (Sept/Oct). In other communities it is not read at all.

The Hebrew name of Ecclesiastes and of its author, Qoheleth, is actually a title. It means “assembler” (of students, listeners) or “collector” (of wisdom sayings). The book’s more common name, Ecclesiastes, is an approximate translation into Greek of this Hebrew word. The book is an extended reflective essay employing autobiographical narrative, proverbs, parables, and allegories. An almost unrelenting skepticism characterizes its tone. The issues with which the author deals and the questions he raises are aimed at those who would claim any absolute values in this life, including possessions, fame, success, or pleasure. Wisdom itself is challenged, but folly is condemned.

The refrain which begins and ends the book, “Vanity of vanities” (1:1; 12:8), recurs at key points throughout. The Hebrew word, hebel (“vanity”), has the sense of “emptiness, futility, absurdity”: “I have seen all things that are done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a chase after wind” (1:14; 2:11, 17, 26; etc.). Everything in human life is subject to change, to qualification, to loss: “What profit have we from all the toil which we toil at under the sun?” (1:3). The answer is in the negative: No absolute profit or gain is possible. Even if some temporary profit or gain is achieved, it will ultimately be cancelled out by death, the great leveler (2:14–15; 3:19–20). Wisdom has some advantage over foolishness, but even wisdom’s advantage is only a temporary and qualified one.

Many say Ecclesiastes was written in the third century B.C., even though it is attributed to Solomon. This was a period when Judea was under the oppressive domination of Hellenistic kings from Egypt. These kings were highly efficient in their ruthless exploitation of the land and people (4:1; 5:7). The average Jew would have felt a sense of powerlessness and inability to change things for the better. For Qoheleth, God seems remote and uncommunicative, and we cannot hope to understand, much less influence, God’s activity in the world (3:11;8:16–17).

The book’s honest and blunt appraisal of the human condition provides a healthy corrective to the occasionally excessive self-assurance of other wisdom writers. Its radical skepticism is somewhat tempered by the resigned conclusions to rejoice in whatever gifts God may give (2:24; 3:12–13, 22; 5:17–18; 8:15; 9:7–9; 11:9).

Paul echoes this sentiment in the New Testament when he says, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all people the most pitiable” (1 Corinthians 15:19). Paul said that if this life is all there is, then we would all be justified in concluding that this life at its best is only futile. However, Paul knew there is a life to come.

“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:20-22).

Suggestions for action

Here is a place you may never have visited in the Bible: “Whoever is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion” — Ecclesiastes 9:4

This could be a Circle of Hope proverb! We share the pragmatic (and sometimes cynical sounding) outlook of Qoheleth. We may not know everything (and think know-it-alls are tiresome) but we are still alive in Christ and not dead dogs.

Take a philosophy check. By what thinkers are you “assembled?” Are you unwittingly in a group of which you disapprove?

Bible Project animated summary for Ecclesiastes [link]