Ecclesiastes is often understood to be one of the more dour books in the Bible. The preacher (Solomon) seems to be saying that everything in life is pointless and therefore we should approach things in an “ignorance is bliss” sort of way. Otherwise we will just be depressed all the time.
Peter Leithart offers a different interpretation in his book Deep Comedy. Whereas many translations key in on all of life being “vanity” or “meaningless” or “futile”, Leithart suggests that the Hebrew should be translated as “vaporous.”
At first this change in translation doesn’t seem to bring much of a difference. What’s the difference between “meaningless” and “vaporous.” But once Leithart begins to work things out the difference is not only apparent, its massive!
In this change of perspective it is not apparent that our lives (according to Solomon) aren’t meaningless, they are simply finite. Moreover, everything we encounter in this world expresses the finitude (not meaninglessness) of our lives. What is Solomon’s solution?
There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? (Ecclesiastes 2:24-25)
Again, when we understand that Solomon is not saying that everything is pointless we can receive whole new insights into what he is actually saying here!
Solomon is hoping to teach us that we can rest and rejoice in our finitude! Rather than pining for immortality and omnipotence man need only to rest in the fact that God Himself is immortal and omnipotent and sovereign. This acknowledgement allows man to rest in his labors and enjoy the finite things that God has granted to him in his life. Here’s how Leithart puts it:
Solomonic joy is a hedonism that arises from the confidence that the world is always under Yahweh’s control. Solomon is saying that the world itself teaches us that it is not under our control, but Solomon adds the implication that the world is under God’s control. Instead of chafing at our finitude and yearning to be as gods, Solomon counsels that we rejoice in our limits and in all the vaporous life that we are given. (pg. 21)
In our Adamic nature we are prone to chafe under our limits (for this was how Satan tempted our parents in the garden: “You will be like God”), however, when we rest in the sovereignty of God we find that we can not only accept our role as limited creatures but actually rejoice therein!
Food for thought!