Bible Read: Ecclesiastes

An intriguing, cryptic book, very un-dogmatic, the polar opposite of Leviticus. Difficult and sometimes depressing, and surprisingly unorthodox. Definitely my favorite book so far.

Also seems to be the most Buddhist book of the Bible. Practically everything in Ecclesiastes could have come from the Buddha’s mouth.

Books we’ve read so far:

  • Genesis
  • Exodus
  • Gospel of John
  • 1 Thessalonians
  • 2 Thessalonians
  • Gospel of Mark
  • Leviticus
  • Galatians

Up next:

  • Daniel
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10 responses to “Bible Read: Ecclesiastes

  1. any favorite or memorable passages from this book?

    • Well, there are three passages that are famous, and rightly so: 3:1-8 (“For everything there is a season…”), 9:10 (“Whatever your hand finds to do, do with [all] your might…”), and 9:11 (“…the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong…”).

      But I also really liked 5:1 (“Guard your steps when you go to the house of God; to draw near to listen is better than the sacrifice offered by fools…”). I thought 8:14 was refreshingly honest (“…there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous…”), and likewise 1:18 (“For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow”).

      Finally, I was especially struck by the rather unorthodox doubt about the afterlife found in 3:19-21 (“For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth?”). To me, skepticism is essential to wisdom, so I was glad to see some of that spirit in Ecclesiastes.

  2. I’m a fairly regular reader of your blog, and seeing you read the Bible has piqued my interest.
    How would you suggest I go about reading it, considering the facts that I’ve never read any, nor am I a Christian?

    • Great question, and someone could probably write a book answering it. Here are my initial thoughts.

      1) I think it’s important to learn about the Bible in general, at least a little, before you start reading it. The Bible is extraordinarily complex – not just one book but 66 different separate books (even more in the Catholic version) by many different authors, writing at many different times, for many different audiences and reasons, in two major languages (Hebrew and Greek). Some are written by a single author, while others are composites of many authors. We know the authors of some; others claim an author, but it’s probably wrong; others are anonymous. There are historical accounts, genealogies, laws, legends, poems, letters, prophecies, and at least one book I’d describe as erotica (the Song of Solomon). You have to understand the historical context and purpose of each book to really see what it’s all about.

      I’ll make some people shudder with this, but Wikipedia actually offers a pretty decent broad overview of the Bible, as long as you take it with a grain of salt. Or find a book about the Bible that seems trustworthy and skim through that.

      2) I’d recommend reading the Bible with at least two different perspectives in mind: the traditional Christian interpretation, and the secular historical interpretation. These are often very different. For instance, many passages in the Old Testament (and Isaiah in particular) are seen by most Christians as prophecies about Jesus, about things that happen in the New Testament. Most historians, though, would say that they aren’t about Jesus, that they refer to other things entirely.

      Betsy and I are reading the New Oxford Annotated Bible (4th Edition), which has tons of footnotes that provide the secular perspective. I’ve been getting the Christian perspective from other reading. Probably best to focus on one perspective or the other at first. You definitely want to read the footnotes, though.

      3) Pick a good translation. Betsy and I are reading the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), which seems good. The New International Version (NIV) is also supposed to be good. I wouldn’t recommend the King James Version (KJV), which is older and has a lot of translation problems (although it does have beautiful language and is the source of many traditional Bible quotes).

      4) I don’t recommend reading the books in order. You can, of course, but it’s rough. Start with Genesis, sure, but after that, skip around some. Read some of the New Testament, or other parts of the Old Testament. In particular, if you read the first five books in order (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), everything from the end of Exodus onward is very slow, boring, difficult reading, and may give you the wrong idea of what the Bible in general is like.

      5) Don’t stress too much. 🙂 I’m giving you lots of suggestions and guidelines and stuff, because that’s how my brain works. But the main thing is just to dive in, start reading, see what’s out there – and above all, keep an open mind. Most parts of the Bible have more than one interpretation, and not everything means what it appears to mean, and not everyone’s analysis is correct. There are a lot of mysteries still. Just see what’s out there, and don’t jump to conclusions too quickly.

      Hope that helps! If you have more questions, I’d be happy to talk more.

      • Okay this is amazing!
        Thank you for actually taking out the time to type all that for me.
        I’m going to reread your comment a few times, and then see how to go from there. I was thinking of starting with Genesis and I did find it online- the NIV one.
        I also checked out Wikipedia to get an idea of how much there is to read, but other than that, it only confused me.
        I agree with you when you say that I need to read it with context, and know about the perspectives.
        Once I have read more about reading it, I will decide what to do and then tell you as well.
        And thanks for offering to help- it means a lot 🙂

      • No problem! By the way, if you’re reading online, Bible Gateway is a good site. They’ve got the NIV, the NRSV, and almost any other translation you can think of. (It’s handy to compare translations sometimes.) Also you can jump straight to any chapter and verse you like, by typing in (for instance) “Genesis 1:1” or “John 3:16”.

        I agree that Wikipedia can be a bit confusing and overwhelming, especially on giant topics like this. I’ll hunt around a bit and see if I can find a good, relatively simple introduction to the topic. (I could use an intro like that, too!)

        Anyway, I’ll leave you to it. Good luck, and let me know how it goes!

  3. Really interesting post. A friend once told me that when he was depressed this was the book that kept him going. Like your choice of translations, BTW.

    • Thanks! I’ve been liking NRSV too.

      Ecclesiastes is an interesting choice as a remedy for feeling depressed. I think it would depend a lot on the type of personality. I can certainly see how the philosophy of, essentially, “s*** happens, just roll with it” would be deeply comforting for some, while it could be even more depressing for others. But I think genuine wisdom is like that sometimes.

      • A friends says that some books like Proverbs focus on conventional wisdom, “live like this and good things will come to you” and books like Ecclesiastes and Job are about when this doesn’t work and life goes to hell in spite of all your good efforts. I think you are spot on in your comment about genuine wisdom.

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