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A timeless message
Mennonite Church Canada/Mennonite Publishing Network joint release
WATERLOO, Ont. and SCOTTDALE, Pa. — 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 in Hillsboro, Kansas.
“A major issue in Ecclesiastes studies is the Hebrew word hebel,” says 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 ‘vapour.’”
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 says.
While conceding that this view is “certainly grim,” Miller notes 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 “vapour” 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,” says 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 says. “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.”
The author’s honest approach to “the dark side of faith” also makes Ecclesiastes valuable for those within the believing community, Miller says.
“He understands those who are disappointed with God, whether they are pondering in silence or crying out in their pain,” Miller says, adding that “his unrelenting questions, sometimes scathing criticisms and refusal to accept simplistic or comfortable answers,” also make Ecclesiastes a welcome traveling companion for those outside the faith or on the boundaries of faith.
In the end, Miller says, 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 Brethren in Christ Church, Brethren Church, Church of the Brethren, Mennonite Brethren Church, Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada.
Ecclesiastes is available from Mennonite Publishing Network at www.mpn.net/ecclesiastes or by calling 1-800-631-6535 (Can.),1-800-245-7892 (U.S.). Price: $28.99 CAD/$ 24.99 USD.
Herald Press is the book imprint of Mennonite Publishing Network, the publishing ministry of Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA.