“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.