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Ecclesiastes, Fleeting and timeless


Biblical Philosophy

Conventional interpretations of Ecclesiastes offer little help in resolving these contradictions.9 In taking the frustration expressed by Kohelet to its existential extreme, most commentators conclude that he rejects completely the finite nature of life, either by means of a skeptical nihilism or fatalistic moralism. As M. James Sawyer writes, according to Ecclesiastes “Man is compelled to seek for an answer to the meaning of life. It is a task which wearies him and causes him grief and is doomed to ultimate failure.”10 Yet any reading of the book that does not account for its affirmation of joy and wisdom misunderstands the central message of the text. For in truth, Kohelet is neither a determinist nor a nihilist. Rather, he is a profound humanist, valuing both life and the process of learning that makes it worthy of our sincerest efforts.


To be sure, Kohelet was not alone among the ancients to concern himself with the meaning of death and the quest for eternal life. Throughout much of the ancient world, rulers built monumental structures to establish their immortality. The pyramids of ancient Egypt, which aimed to project the “star” of Pharaoh into the eternal sphere of the heavens, are evidence of this.11 Furthermore, it was common to amass material riches—what archaeologists call “grave goods”—in the hope of transferring them to the world beyond.12 This practice was prevalent, for example, among the Egyptians, Sumerians, Mayans, and Chinese; indeed, like King Tutankhamun’s numerous shabti and ushebti companions, the Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang had thousands of life-size clay soldiers buried near his grave in order to ensure victory in his battles in the afterworld

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