Announcement of Theme: “All is Vanity!” or “What Profit is There?” (1:2-3) (contd)

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Michael V. Fox (1989: 31) argues that in Ecclesiastes hebel means absurd or absurdity, thus making the theme pessimistic. He summarizes his argument as follows: “In other words, ‘toil’ may be futile, but the fact that toil is futile is absurd” (his own emphasis). So he himself recognizes that hebel (when applied to toil) in and of itself does not mean “absurd,” but rather “futile.” But the fact that toil is futile evokes the reaction that it is absurd. Why is there such a reaction? Because the reality that toil is futile is not acceptable. This happens, we acknowledge, in individuals whose expectations in life are sorely let down by the reality.

Such individuals would include people who put their hopes in the things of this temporal world, who are then bound to pursue after them. In contemporary societies they would do so even to the detriment of their marriage, family and their own health. Thus they do not expect and cannot accept the reality that what they are doing is, in the final analysis, profitless. So it evokes in them the sense that everything is absurd or meaningless. So they react pessimistically to the reality that “all is vanity.” Given the unprecedented obsession with temporal success in recent history, it is not surprising that the world today is characterized by a prevalent sense of meaninglessness. This may explain why there is a tendency in recent years to translate “all is hebel” as “everything is meaningless (or absurd).”

According to William Brown, the “notion of the absurd is forged not only from a collision between [a man’s] expectations and [realities in] the world, but also from a collision within himself” (1996: 132). Philosopher Thomas Nagel (1971: 720) explains why this internal collision occurs: “Humans have the special capacity to step back and survey themselves, and the lives to which they are committed, with that detached amazement which comes from watching an ant struggle up a heap of sand” (cited in Brown 1996:132). The “detached amazement” becomes “attached disillusionment” when we realize that we are that ant, and its futile and senseless struggle up a heap of sand is a reflection of ours.

As affirmed by even atheist philosopher Paul Edwards (1967) in his classic essay on the meaning and value of human life, our temporal life will make sense only if and when there is a worthwhile purpose to live for. Philosophers may have different theories about what constitutes a worthwhile purpose. But given the painful realities of life under the sun, can a life that is given to the pursuit of vaporous things be experienced as meaningful? According to renowned psychiatrist Viktor Frankl (1978: 21),

For too long we have been dreaming a dream from which we are now waking up: the dream that if we just improve the socioeconomic situation of people, everything will be okay, people will become happy. The truth is that as the struggle for survival has subsided, the question has emerged: survival for what? Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.

To substantiate, he reports that a former assistant of his at Harvard University could show that “among graduates of that university who went on to lead quite successful, ostensibly happy lives, a huge percentage complained of a deep sense of futility, asking themselves what all their success had been for.” He then asks, “Does this not suggest that what today is so often referred as ‘mid-life crisis’ is basically a crisis of meaning?”

Thus many people do actually experience futility and meaninglessness. But Fox has wrongly assumed that every human being must have the same expectations. There are people, even if they are a minority in contemporary societies, who do not put their hopes in temporal things. Therefore they have different expectations. The reality that “all is futility” need not evoke in them the sense that everything is meaningless or absurd.

These are people who have intellectually as well as emotionally come to terms with the reality that all is vanity. They know and accept that when they die they cannot take with them anything from the fruit of their labors. So the most sensible thing to do is to enjoy what they have when they still have them. They recognize that it is meaningless to crave after the “good things” of this world. For they know this will cause them to pursue after them in such a way that they cannot enjoy what they already have, whether marriage, family, or even material luxuries. Thus they respond realistically to the reality that everything is futility.

As we shall see, this is actually Qoheleth’s own response and is a central teaching of Ecclesiastes. So neither Ecclesiastes the book nor Qoheleth the author is being pessimistic just because many people react to the theme of the speech pessimistically. It is true that the rhetorical question in 1:3 comes with a somber tone. It can easily be misinterpreted as conveying pessimism. But it is no more pessimistic than the somber rhetorical question that Jesus Christ asked, “What profits a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36).

We can now conclude what “all is hebel (vanity)” means: In the light of death everything is transitory and is thus ultimately profitless and worthless even though items that come under this sweeping conclusion, such as wisdom and wealth, may have temporal profit and worth. This is realism and not pessimism. But to one who, for whatever reason, is not able or willing to come to terms with this reality, it is pessimism. But this is a listener’s response and not the speaker’s meaning. Since different listeners can respond differently to the speaker’s meaning any translation that reflects only one possible response is misleading. This includes, “everything is meaningless,” even though it strikes a responsive chord in the hearts of very many people today.

Distinguishing Qoheleth’s intended meaning and the listener’s individual response is crucial not only to the understanding of the theme but also the rest of the speech. But is it really possible to recover Qoheleth’s intended meaning? This present writer believes that at least some, if not most, readers of this exposition are able to follow his trend of thoughts. Otherwise, why bother to write at all? He is thus confident that those who can make coherent sense of his exposition do recover at least the essence of his own intended meaning. On this basis he is assuming that if we could make coherent sense of Qoheleth’s speech as a whole we would have recovered essentially not only the intended meaning of the speech, but also its persuasive force. After all, Qoheleth expects his audience to understand at least the essence of his speech and feel some of its persuasive force. For in 12:13 he summarily exhorts them to make a decision based on the speech.


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