The Book of Ecclesiastes can elicit many responses. Most moderns love the thing, but it has always struck me as being something that only a bored urbanite could produce. I had some friends before my conversion who were the sort of people the Preacher is in this book - sophisticated to the point of resigned complacency. I mean it takes a certain kind of effete intellectual to produce a work like this; only a certain kind of person could not only say that "all is vanity", but that even the simple things that give us joy, such as eating and drinking and sometimes even working is "vanity". There is nothing new under the sun? Well, who cares when we live in such a world with such a sun!
Still, however, what the Preacher says is true. All is "vanity" if life in the world is all we've got. Thus, the book can certainly be read as an admonition to avoid worldliness, as a prelude to Christian asceticism. But it's not really that because it's far too pessimistic and negative - negative to the point of Buddhism - to be the great book of wisdom that many make it out to be.
I think it's in the Bible almost as a kind of irony or contrast. It shows the limits of life without life, life without the spark of the Spirit, the invigorating Breath of God. It shows how far we can go without Him and still congratulate ourselves for being wise.
And here's something that struck me today. Ecclesiastes could never be written by a woman.
No woman who ever lived has ever cultivated and developed this keen sense of airy disappointment. Only guys get depressed philosophically. Women don't experience this kind of turmoil - this kind of distant and cool distress. Why is that?
And why is it that only the Woman at the Well (who wrote a recent guest post here) can feel the profound sense of shame and worthlessness of a life wasted? Men who go wrong either make a sweeping change and go suddenly right (as did the Prodigal Son), or dally and brood in a kind of netherworld where their sin and dissipation leads them to a theoretical land of ennui.
But women know much more innately the promise that is in them. No woman would ever say, "Vanity of vanities. All is vanity." She might get despondent, but she knows the value of life and she knows that she is the incubator of life. She knows that even in vanity or emptiness a silent seed can sprout. She knows life more intimately, more practically and less theoretically than the man, and she doesn't lose herself in the kind of speculative Neverland that some men do. When she goes bad, she knows it with a kind of burning shame that incubates the way the seed does, festering in her in an immediate way that can't be examined with the kind of distant objective dispassion that the Preacher uses. Touch upon the shame in a shameful woman and she'll cut you to pieces. She lives it too closely to examine it. She must act and bring forth life now - or death, or something! Existence is not a game for her - it's not a theory or a philosophy, and she typically has little patience with that tendency in men - especially in the man who happens to be her man.
This is why Shakespeare's Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth ring so true. He's philosophical about his descent into sin. She has no patience with that; she gets the job done. "Infirm of purpose, give me the dagger!" Likewise, the Melancholy Dane would never be a Melancholy Dame.
Now the last time I made an observation about the difference between men and women, my readers offered to crucify me. But I've stopped allowing comments, so you'll have to get mad at the God who made us different, and not at the poor schlub who points the differences out.