Vanity of vanities, the Preacher saith,
All things are vanity. The eye and ear
Cannot be filled with what they see and hear.
Like early dew, or like the sudden breath
Of wind, or like the grass that withereth,
(Christina Rossetti, “The One Certainty”)
Some years ago, the greatest comfort I found in the Bible was in the book of Ecclesiastes. This may sound strange to some people: it is hardly most people’s first choice for scriptural encouragement, with its repeated catch-cry variously translated as “everything is meaningless”, “everything is vapour”, or “everything is vanity”. Yet I remember nights when all I could read to help me sleep was this book, sometimes considered either the most depressing or most existential work in the Bible. If you look for the closest thing that scripture has to twentieth century philosophy, you will find it in the book of Ecclesiastes: curious, perhaps, but what is likely to be comforting in this?
Well, first of all, it needs to be said that I was not the first to be comforted by it. Throughout history, believers struggling with what is now termed “existential depression” – a sense of weight, of languor, of despair, over the nature, structure and meaning of life – have strangely found comfort in Ecclesiastes. Victorian poet Christina Rossetti, a devout Christian who still struggled with melancholy and sickness for much of her life, turned to the book in a number of poems, including the sonnet “The One Certainty”, “A Testimony” – written from the perspective of Ecclesiastes’ unnamed “Teacher” – and even wrote a book on the subject, entitled Ecclesiastes, or, The Preacher. Rossetti seems to testify to what I too found two years ago: that it is comforting to see melancholy, disquiet, existential depression reflected in scripture. It makes us feel less alone, less like the Bible is a theoretical work that knows nothing of our sorrows.
Rossetti’s journeys into Ecclesiastes are among some of her bleakest, since she refuses the kind of comforting answer that we might feel forced to impose upon the book. Yet the bleakness of Ecclesiastes, and of Rossetti’s poems, is one which forces us to look elsewhere. If it is ultimately disquieting, it is because we still live in the “evil under the sun”. We witness the same cycles over and over again; we feel the weight and weariness of our flesh; we see others prospering from that for which they did not labour; we are never satisfied:
The earth is fattened with our dead;
She swallows more and doth not cease:
Therefore her wine and oil increase
And her sheaves are not numberèd;
Therefore her plants are green, and all
Her pleasant trees lusty and tall.
Therefore the maidens cease to sing,
And the young men are very sad;
Therefore the sowing is not glad,
And mournful is the harvesting.
Of high and low, of great and small,
Vanity is the lot of all.
A King dwelt in Jerusalem;
He was the wisest man on earth;
He had all riches from his birth,
And pleasures till he tired of them;
Then, having tested all things, he
Witnessed that all are vanity. (Rossetti, “A Testimony”)
Where, then, do we go with this disquiet?
Ecclesiastes itself provides a number of answers, though sometimes we have to look carefully for them. The first comes in what is perhaps the most famous and most often-quoted passage from the book – the third chapter, with its memorable poem about the seasons of life, famously set to music by the Byrds. Within this series of declarations of what different seasons life affords, there is the statement that there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance”. Note, these seasons, though contrasting, are given equal weight. They are, seemingly, as important as one another, as much a part of life. Indeed, while we may struggle with some of the contents of the chapter – a “time to kill”, for instance – we must recognise that there is manifold complexity to the fabric of life which we, not being God, fail often to understand. Wisdom literature, with its emphasis upon “the fear of the Lord”, contends that the best place to start is to acknowledge our inability to understand what only God can truly hold together. Therefore, we can strangely take comfort in seasons, because all seasons are ordained by God and have their purpose – “and God will call the past to account”.
The second answer comes two chapters later, when the Teacher, having just criticised those who labour for their own advancement, turns to God’s majesty and our weakness before Him:
Do not be quick with your mouth,
do not be hasty in your heart
to utter anything before God.
God is in heaven
and you are on earth,
so let your words be few. (Ecclesiastes 5:2)
The answer, then, to the weight of existential depression? Mourn. Recognise your own lack of understanding and stand trusting before God. Recognise the seasons, and their value. Let this be a season of mourning, and rejoice that God ordains other seasons.
In the end, this is not, perhaps, an answer. Those wrestling with the apparent meaninglessness of life may not necessarily be comforted immediately to know that there is not a clear answer to the problem. Yet it is indeed comforting to know that God holds together what we cannot possibly understand.
The book of Ecclesiastes, for me, is comforting for a similar reason to why I find the Psalms comforting. It reveals life’s complexity, its many pleats and colours, in a way which ardent declarations of faith, however well-intentioned, cannot always do. And, revealing that complexity, it tells me to stand trusting before God. If this is a time for mourning, then mourn. But trust that God sees more than I see, and trust that He will call all things to account.
It takes weariness with life to write a book like Ecclesiastes. And it also takes a deep, abiding knowledge of our Creator, which can only come from acknowledging life’s pain, mourning it with Him and, in the end, standing in awe before Him.
Rossetti, C.G. Goblin Market and Other Poems. http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/r/rossetti/christina/goblin_market/contents.html