Ecclesiastes is one of the most puzzling, yet fascinating, books of the Bible. In it the “Teacher”1 shares a perspective on life as an older man who has gone through a lot. It’s full of cynicism; it’s opening line is its most famous: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:1). And yet, there’s a steady, underlying confidence that God is consistent and positively inclined toward us.
This is one of the books in our Old Testament (along with Job and Proverbs) that is part of a tradition called Wisdom Literature.2 These writings are not as much about worship or theology as about our basic understanding of the meaning of our existence and the universe around us, with the goal of helping us find the wisdom we need to maneuver successfully through life.
The final chapter of Ecclesiastes begins with a clever, classic poem about the process of aging (Ecclesiastes 12:1-8), concluding with the “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity” refrain first expressed in chapter 1. After the poem, there is this concluding summary of the book’s content:
Besides being wise, the Teacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs. The Teacher sought to find pleasing words, and he wrote words of truth plainly. The sayings of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings that are given by one Shepherd. Of anything beyond these, my child, beware. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments, for that is the whole duty of everyone. (Ecclesiastes 12:9-13)3
Ever since our cave-dwelling ancestors changed their writing surface from rock walls to animal skins and papyrus, curious thinkers in every human culture have been recording their ideas in “books” of some kind or other. And their descendants keep grinding them out in 2023 aided by the limitless “writing surface” we call on-line blog sites, social media, etc. More than ever before, we can say with confidence: “Of making many posts and blogs there is no end.” And the following verse in Ecclesiastes has a modern application as well: “Much study is a weariness of the flesh.” As long as we have people to write stuff indefinitely and other people willing to read their stuff to the point of fatigue, we’ll be fulfilling the prediction of the Teacher in Ecclesiastes.
But this leads to the information overload most of us feel inundated by. How can we make sense of it all? The Teacher gives us two intriguing words to help with that: goads and nails. Words of Wisdom, usually in the form of brief, memorable sayings, function as goads (the short, pointed prods shepherds use to move their herd animals in the right direction). Wise sayings stick out like sharp points in our minds and move us along in the way God wants us to go. On the other hand, wise sayings can be like nails that fix important truths in our minds in the chaotic swirl of ideas. They mark reference points we should never ignore in our lives.
The bottom-line reality the Teacher comes to, and the message he has for my life these many centuries later, is stated simply and succinctly:
Fear God, and keep his commandments, for that is the whole duty of everyone. (verse 13)
— Pastor George Van Alstine
1 The title of the book in the Hebrew Bible is Koheleth, which means “Teacher.”
2 Some traditions list 7 Wisdom Books in the Bible. Song of Solomon as well as many of the Psalms in our Bible have the quality of Wisdom Literature. In addition, the Catholic Old Testament includes some books that are not in either the Jewish or the Protestant Bibles, and two are in the Wisdom tradition: Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus (also known as Ben Sirach).
3 The ending of this paragraph is a bit confusing because rabbinic scholars have argued whether or not there should be a verse 14, as our English translations present the text. I’ll be glad to talk with anyone who wants to get into the weeds with me on this