Qoheleth says "All is vanity!" But what does this even mean?

“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!” (Ecclesiastes 1:2).  For many, this well-known phrase sums up the message that the narrator of the book Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth, is trying to present.  Qoheleth looks out at the world and concludes that all he sees is vanity.  He challenges his audience to reconsider the value of things that they unquestionably accepted as good.  To paraphrase, Qoheleth argues like this.  “You think that it is better to be wise than foolish?  But I have seen that the ultimate fate of the wise and the fool is the same: death.  Why then should we bother being wise?”  We could express the mindset of Qoheleth by imagining how he might question one of our accepted Christian values.  “You think that God is loving?  But, I have seen young children die from cancer. How can you say that God is loving?  Life is meaningless.”
Though many scholars consider the message of Qoheleth to be incredibly pessimistic, numerous others view the book quite differently.  How one interprets Qoheleth’s message depends greatly on how one translates a word that is often repeated in the original Hebrew text of the book: hebel.  Hebel, which literally means “vapour”, is most commonly translated as “vanity”.  Some, assigning an even more negative connotation to the word, translate it as “futility” or “meaningless”.  Others, however, argue that hebel really means something like “enigmatic”.  Understanding hebel in this way gives Qoheleth a very different message.  Qoheleth does not want us to have a naive understanding of the world.  He challenges us to realize that there is much that does not make sense or fit our idea of how God should act.  For example, innocent people suffer while the evil prosper.  Life is full of such enigmas and paradoxes.  If we do not realize that there are things we cannot hope to understand, then we are foolish.  Qohelth teaches us to appreciate life, which is a gift from God, is spite of its enigmatic nature.  Far from being pessimistic, the vision of Qoheleth is rooted in a realistic faith.

This message is important to hear.  Questioning how a loving God can allow the innocent to suffer does not mean that we lack faith.  At times we give suffering people overly simplistic advice which can do more harm than good.  “If you just prayed more, it would make sense!” or “You are suffering, but you just need to offer it up!”  No, Qoheleth wants us to avoid thinking that we can understand everything.  Some things do not make sense and cause us to question our faith.  In spite of this unavoidable aspect of human existence, Qoheleth encourages us not to give up.  The solution is not to ignore the paradoxes but to accept that they are a part of life.  We need to wrestle with them.  At the same time, there is always goodness in life that comes from God.  Regardless of what we are going through, we are called to search for this goodness and appreciate it as a gift.

How does Jesus appear to me? Two different ways God intervenes in our life

During the Easter season we read at Mass different stories describing how Jesus appeared to His disciples.  When considering these stories, we can ask, “but… how does Jesus appear to me?”  Even in the Gospels, we see that there are variations in Jesus’ appearances.  Sometimes He shows Himself in a direct and bold way, like with Mary Magdalene at the tomb or the apostles in the upper Room.  At other times, however, Jesus appears to people in a gentler, more indirect manner.  This was the case with the disciples along the road to Emmaus.  They walked with Jesus and never knew it was Him until they finally recognized Him in the breaking of the bread.

In the Old Testament, God intervenes in people’s lives in two main ways, one forceful, the other less direct.  When God revealed Himself to the prophets, He did so in a powerful way.  Think of Moses at the burning bush or the dream of Isaiah when he was first called to be a prophet.  They had no doubt that they met God.  As a result of God’s powerful intervention in their lives, they spoke His words to people in an equally bold and direct way.  They passed on God’s revelation in the same way that they received it.  In what we call the Wisdom Literature (Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon), however, we see a very different way of perceiving God’s revelation than with the prophets.  There are no visions or fantastic dreams.  Rather, the sages who wrote these works began by observing nature and human experience.  Grounded in the belief that all this was made by God, they were able to perceive an order in creation.  They then became convinced that the best way to live was in accord with this order.  In transmitting what they discovered to others, they used a very different mode than the prophets.  They did not speak forcefully.  Rather, they expressed the revelation they had perceived in creation through proverbs and beautifully constructed poems and stories.  In this way, they led their audience to ask questions, ponder and discover for themselves the order that they had found and choose to live in accord with it.

God sometimes speaks to us like He did to the prophets.  When describing how they knew what important decision to make in life, some explain that they had an incredible experience.  For example, maybe someone knew that their spouse was the right person to marry after having a profound and moving experience on a retreat.  Oftentimes, however, God reveals himself to us as he did to the sages who wrote the Wisdom Literature.  If we take the time to prayerfully ponder creation and our experiences, we too can perceive the order in it that comes from God.  We discover slowly which actions will lead to our well-being and the well-being of those around us.  God reveals Himself in different ways. No way is better than another.  The important thing is to approach life prayerfully, with an open heart and mind, confident in the fact that God is indeed revealing Himself to us.

Why the words of Isaiah never get old

The Book of Isaiah is incredibly versatile.  We read from it regularly at Mass.  Its words speak strongly to us year of year when we are passing through very different circumstances.  The rich versatility of Isaiah arises in part from the fact that although it possesses an overall unity, different voices are discernible which were initially aimed at distinct audiences in dissimilar settings at specific moments in history.  When we identify with certain aspects of one of these audiences, the message originally intended for them exerts power over us.
Chapters 1-39 of Isaiah were initially directed towards a people under threat in the 2nd half of the 8th century BC.  At this time, both the kingdoms of Israel and Judah faced the very real possibility of being wiped of the map by the Assyrians, the strongest and most brutal force at that time.  Isaiah called this threatened people to trust in God and to use this moment of crisis to convert and grow closer to Him.  At different times, we too can feel as though everything is about to be taken away from us.  Those faced with health troubles, financial insecurities or tensions in their marriage often feel like they are living under the weight of a looming threat.
Chapters 40-48 were originally spoken to a devastated people in the 2nd half of the 6th century BC.  At this time, the Jews were living in exile in Babylon.  The temple, Jerusalem and the surrounding cities lay in ruins.  All seemed lost and many felt abandoned by God.  To this people, the author of Isaiah spoke a message of hope in the darkness: God is still with you and He will make something new rise from the ashes.  When I think of people today who are experiencing something similar, my mind turns to those in Syria.  There are, however, many circumstances that provoke us to lose hope and feel that all in our life has been destroyed, for example, the death of someone we love, the loss of a job or a family break-up.
Chapters 49-66 were initially addressed to people trying to start anew.  After the Persian King Cyrus defeated Babylon in 539 BCE, Jews began returning to Jerusalem.  Once there, they faced the challenge of rebuilding.  There were setbacks.  Divisions arose regarding the best way to proceed.  The author of Isaiah called this fractioned people to be united and focus on what is most important, namely, the love of God and neighbour.  This is the only foundation on which anything can be built.  Often we need to be challenged to return to basics when we are trying to accomplish something individually or as part of a group.  Divisions can too easily arise in families, Church groups, schools and other communities over inessentials.

The Book of Isaiah illustrates a principle we find throughout Scripture.  Words addressed to people living more that 2000 years ago who had a culture alien to our own are heard today as though they were spoken personally to us.  The message comforts and challenges us.  The words God uttered to His people long ago have not lost their power.