What profit have we from all the toil
which we toil at under the sun?
One generation departs and another generation comes,
but the world forever stays.
The sun rises and the sun sets;
then it presses on to the place where it rises.
Shifting south, then north,
back and forth shifts the wind, constantly shifting its course.
All rivers flow to the sea,
yet never does the sea become full.
To the place where they flow,
the rivers continue to flow.
All things are wearisome,
too wearisome for words.
The eye is not satisfied by seeing
nor has the ear enough of hearing.
(The New American Bible, Ecclesiastes 1:2-8)
The poetic language of these opening verses of the biblical book, Ecclesiastes, combines images of both nature (sun, wind, rivers, sea) and the human body (eye, ear). Despite the beauty of the poetic images, the reader cannot ignore the fact that these opening verses present sentiments of pessimism, futility, and mundanity. The reader’s choice to continue may very well be based on a desire to further enjoy the author’s poetic language and/or a desire to know if/how the author eventually nuances the overwhelmingly negative sentiments that he initially presents.
There is an appointed time for everything,
and a time for every affair under the heavens.
A time to give birth, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant.
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to tear down, and a time to build.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them;
a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces.
A time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away.
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to be silent, and a time to speak.
A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.
Reading on, this passage from the third chapter of Ecclesiastes surely satisfies the reader seeking further poetic elements. The repetition of “time” combined with the repetition of juxtapositions like “birth”/”die,” “kill”/”heal,” “weep”/”laugh,” etc., provides the passage with a sort of meditative structure. The passage also appeals to the reader seeking the author’s redemption from his previously negative tone, though this appeal, for several reasons, is more subtle than the appeal of poetic elements. For the reader who recognizes the passage as one that is commonly read at funerals, the sentiment of the passage remains overwhelmingly negative, as the reader associates it with death, loss, loneliness. However, upon a closer reading of the passage, one notices that the author varies the order of the positive and negative elements of the juxtapositions. Specifically, the first two juxtapositions feature the positive element before the negative element, the next five juxtapositions feature the negative element before the positive element, the following three juxtapositions feature the positive element before the negative element, the next two juxtapositions feature the negative element before the positive element, the following juxtaposition features the positive element before the negative element, and the final juxtaposition features the negative element before the positive element. It is this last part of the observation that the reader should remember, so to restate it: one can observe that the passage ends with a positive element, that of “peace.” The passage ends with a positive sentiment that is so subtle that it may not satisfactorily oppose the initially negative sentiment, though it does begin to nuance the negative sentiment. The curious continue reading Ecclesiastes.
And I saw that there is nothing better for mortals than to rejoice in their work; for this is their lot. Who will let them see what is to come after them?
In this verse, the author seems to further nuance the initially negative sentiment. Whereas at the beginning of Ecclesiastes, the author questions, “What profit have we from all the toil which we toil at under the sun?” (1:2), now he refers to “toil” as “work,” a synonym with a slightly more positive connotation. Furthermore, the author tells the reader to “rejoice” in his work. Though work is mundane, and sometimes futile, two sentiments which the author expresses at the beginning of Ecclesiastes, here, the author chooses to adjust his initial sentiment of pessimism to one of rejoicing. Yet, some degree of pessimism remains in that the author still poses the (rhetorical) question, “Who will let them see what is to come after them?” The eager and persistent reader continues on.
Here is what I see as good: It is appropriate to eat and drink and prosper from all the toil one toils at under the sun during the limited days of life God gives us; for this is our lot.
Those to whom God gives riches and property, and grants power to partake of them, so that they receive their lot and find joy in the fruits of their toil: This is a gift from God.
For they will hardly dwell on the shortness of life, because God lets them busy themselves with the joy of their heart.
This passage presents the clearest opposition yet to the author’s initially negative sentiments. The choice to preface the passage with the declaration that what follows is “good” marks a clear transition. Here, the author recognizes that work, toil, is not always futile; rather, we can “prosper,” too, from our work, acquiring “riches,” “property,” “power,” and, in further contrast to the author’s initial negativity, “joy of heart.” In this passage, it seems that the reader may no longer deem the author pessimistic, but only realistic, such as when he recognizes that we have only “limited days of life,” a “shortness of life.” At this point in Ecclesiastes, the reader who seeks knowledge of whether or not the author eventually nuances the overwhelmingly negative sentiments that he initially presents ought to be satisfied. Yet, out of curiosity and persistence, the reader continues. Will the author move beyond his now realistic sentiment to achieve an optimistic sentiment?
Therefore I praised joy, because there is nothing better for mortals under the sun than to eat and to drink and to be joyful; this will accompany them in their toil through the limited days of life God gives them under the sun.
I applied my heart to know wisdom and to see the business that is done on earth, though neither by day nor by night do one’s eyes see sleep,
and I saw all the work of God: No mortal can find out the work that is done under the sun. However much mortals may toil in searching, no one finds it out; and even if the wise claim to know, they are unable to find it out.
In this passage, it is clear that the author’s nuancing of his initially negative sentiment does not continue to progress. The author’s sentiment stagnates at one of realism. He maintains his declaration that we ought to find our toils “joyful,” and he continues to recognize our lives as consisting of “limited days.” There is futility in one’s efforts to unveil God’s will for His Kingdom, yet, here, the author does not seem to emphasize that futility requires a pessimistic sentiment; the author does not imply that a lack of knowledge of God’s will for His Kingdom is an undesirable outcome.
For whoever is chosen among all the living has hope: a live dog is better off than a dead lion.
For the living know that they are to die, but the dead no longer know anything. There is no further recompense for them, because all memory of them is lost.
For them, love and hatred and rivalry have long since perished. Never again will they have part in anything that is done under the sun.
Go, eat your bread with joy and drink your wine with a merry heart, because it is now that God favors your works.
At all times let your garments be white, and spare not the perfume for your head.
Enjoy life with the wife you love, all the days of the vain life granted you under the sun. This is your lot in life, for the toil of your labors under the sun.
Anything you can turn your hand to, do with what power you have; for there will be no work, no planning, no knowledge, no wisdom in the nether world where you are going.
Though firmly maintaining his sentiment of realism in this passage, the author provides the reader with tangible examples of how he might find joy in his life despite the reality that the reader will occasionally find his work to be futile and mundane. By poetically juxtaposing the living and the dead, the “live dog” and the “dead lion,” and by ultimately declaring that “the dead” will “never again…have part in anything that is done under the sun,” the author suggests that we, the living, through our daily works, do take part in what is done under the sun, here on earth, here in God’s Kingdom.
Earlier this semester, I read in a post by Blessed is She, a daily blog for young Catholic women, “I am finding purpose in the process.” Ever since I read this, the sentence has become my personal mantra. Though the current process for each of us, our works as students, may seem futile and mundane at times, perhaps leading us to feel pessimistic, we ought to be at least realistic. We ought to at least find purpose in our works. This purpose lies in recognition that our lives, our toils under the sun, are designed to fulfill God’s will for his Kingdom, though we will never, in a tangible sense, know exactly what God’s will entails. We know not the vision that He has for His Kingdom, yet we must recognize that we are part of His present Kingdom and that we are part of building His future Kingdom.
While the author transitions from a pessimistic to a realistic sentiment over the course of Ecclesiastes, what he maintains throughout the book is his vivid poetic language. The significance of the poetic image and repetition of “under the sun” is worth noting. The sun provides light and warmth and allows for growth. What is growing, under the sun, is God’s Kingdom. Just as the sun is an element required for the growth of God’s Kingdom so, too, is each of our toils, our everyday works. I find this to be profound. The realization that I, and every person, am responsible, in part, for growing God’s future Kingdom, through my present works, the present process, provides me with purpose, making me very glad to have read Ecclesiastes and very grateful that the book is included in the Bible.
Marina Spinelli ’18 is a Junior in Eliot House studying Human Evolutionary Biology.