Life is meaningless and vain?that, we?ve been told, is the message of the book of Ecclesiastes. But is that what the author is really saying?
Not according to Douglas Miller, professor of biblical and religious studies at Tabor College.
?A major issue in Ecclesiastes studies is the Hebrew word hebel,? said Miller, author of ?Ecclesiastes,? the newest addition to the Herald Press Believers Church Bible Commentary series.
?It is often translated as ?vanity? or, more recently, ?meaningless.? But it literally means ?breath? or ?vapor.??
For Miller, the author of this ancient book of wisdom isn?t saying ?that life is vain or meaningless?so grab for whatever fun you can find, or shake your fist at the sky.?
Instead, the author describes ?a world of tragedy and chance, in which good things are short-lived, and where treasured things turn out to be of little worth,? Miller said.
While conceding that this view is ?certainly grim,? Miller noted that ?the author has not given up hope. He advises his readers how to make the most of their lives in the midst of such realities.?
For Miller, the author?s hopeful message has three elements. First, he urges his readers to acknowledge and accept the ?vapor? nature of all human experience.
Second, he challenges his readers to reject inadequate ways of responding to these realities, such as assuming that hard work and wisdom guarantee success, or that pleasure and material gain will bring satisfaction.
Finally, Miller says, he ?offers some carefully-worded strategies for those who would take the risk to hopefully navigate their complex world.?
These include cultivating contentment, embracing community and generosity, advocating for the oppressed, showing prudence toward those in power, and, especially, enjoying God?s gifts of work and pleasure.
?I understand the author to be giving realistic counsel in a world of uncertainty, paradox, tragedy and stressful challenge to the possibilities of faith,? said Miller, adding that it?s a message that still applies today.
?All people, at all times, face the issues that are addressed by Ecclesiastes,? he said. ?Things like lack of satisfaction or sense of purpose, financial catastrophe, personal tragedy, societal injustice, fear, frustration, chance, uncertainty, physical suffering, old age, and death. That?s why this book has proved to be timeless.?
In the end, Miller said, Ecclesiastes is a complex book.
?But I believe it has an analysis of life, faith, and human experience that is especially relevant for our current situation. As the author points out, ?there is nothing new under the sun.??
The Believers Church Bible Commentary series is a cooperative project of several Menno?nite and Brethren in Christ denominations.
It is available from Menno?nite Publishing Network at mpn.net.