“Vanity of vanities–all is vanity!” cries Qoheleth (or “the preacher”) in what is perhaps the most mysterious and eerily modern book in the Old Testament canon, Ecclesiastes. Whatever else one makes of this highly complicated work, it is clear that the broader literary horizon for Qoheleth is the account of creation’s internal sabotage and tragic fall in Genesis 3. Multiples allusions and echoes back to the creation story of Genesis 1-2, and its subsequent unraveling through humanity’s rebellion against God, haunt the pages of Ecclesiastes. In the end, the factor which demands the theological conclusion that all human endeavor and existence is ultimately doomed to “futility” (hebel in Hebrew) is the universal and unrelenting presence of death in the good creation. When looking at anything (pleasure, wisdom, work, knowledge, etc.), Qoheleth lacks the ability–so wonderfully possessed by most of us today–of conveniently forgetting our final destiny as we engage in our short-lived pursuit of happiness. Qoheleth is, indeed, utterly consistent in his inspired pessimism.
(It is the organic and inevitable connection between death and futility, incidentally, that provides the rationale for the only possible significant allusion to Ecclesiastes in the New Testament writings–namely, in Romans 8:20, where the word for “futility” (mataiotes) is the same as that found in the Septuagint of Ecclesiastes whenever hebel is translated into Greek. For Christians, the final silencing of the desperate cry “vanity of vanities–all is vanity!” will come with the dawning of the resurrection from the dead, when the entire creation will be set free along along with the children of God in a divine act of universal renewal. Along with the earliest Christians, “we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” Hallelujah!)
Probably no more fitting modern counterpart to Qoheleth can be found in society today than Woody Allen. Though known mostly for his witty if eccentric New York comedies, it is clear from many of his candid writings and interviews that Allen has internalized the agonized conflict of Ecclesiastes, discovering in it the ring of truth for the human condition. Listen to this contemporary rendition of the book of Ecclesiastes:
“I always see the death’s head lurking. I could be sitting at Madison Square Garden at the most exciting basketball game, and they’re cheering and everything is thrilling, and one of the players is doing something very beautiful — and my thought will be: ‘He’s only twenty-eight years old and I only wish he could savor this moment in some way, because, you know, this is as good as it’s going to get for him.’ . . . The fundamental thing behind all motivation and all activity is the constant struggle against annihilation and against death. It’s absolutely stupefying in its terror, and it renders anyone’s accomplishments meaningless. As Camus wrote, it’s not only that he dies or that man dies, but that you struggle to do a work of art that will last and then realize that the universe itself is not going to exist after a period of time. Until those issues are resolved within each person — religiously or psychologically or existentially — the social and political issues will never be resolved, except in a slapdash way.” (Woody Allen, “Woody Allen Wipes the Smile off his Face,” Esquire, May 1977)
This is so good and necessary for us to remember. Christians hold the key to human existence not only in their announcement that the death of Jesus overcomes sin, but also (and equally) in their claim that the resurrection of Jesus is the triumph of God over death. Though many can, through sheer willpower, simply ignore the bleak implications of the reality of death in their pleasure-driven lives, I am thankful that there are prophetic voices like Woody Allen who can never be satisfied with such humorless dishonesty and unreality (another such voice can be found in Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Denial of Death). If death has the last word for human beings and the universe as a whole, then human beings do not matter–nor does the universe itself. Yet Christians know that human beings matter, because death will indeed not have the final word in this universe.
“When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’…But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:54-57)
For those wishing to dig more deeply into the wonders and mysteries of Ecclesiastes, I highly recommend A Time to Tear Down, and a Time to Build Up: A Rereading of Ecclesiastes by Michael V. Fox. His approach to the book as a whole is the most convincing I have yet come across. For the important parallels between Ecclesiastes and Genesis 1-3, see David M. Clemens, “The Law of Sin and Death: Ecclesiastes and Genesis 1-3,” Themelios 19.3 (May 1994): 5-8