Look on Your Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair!

The Hidden Good News of Ecclesiastes

Ben Self / 2.18.22

Whether it’s the seasonal drab of February, Covid, or the death of beloved celebrities (Meatloaf, Bob Saget, Desmond Tutu, Betty White…) it feels as though death has been in the air of late. A constant companion that hovers on the periphery to darken the mood. If there’s ever been a time to find kinship with the author of Ecclesiastes, it’d be now. Overlooked in some circles, Ecclesiastes is top-shelf Old Testament. In my view, it is truly one of the most sublime works of wisdom poetry ever written, as fresh and relevant now as it must have been when it was first compiled sometime around 2400 years ago. But Ecclesiastes is a thoroughly morbid book. The author — ostensibly “Kohelet, son of David, king in Jerusalem” (1:1) — seems obsessed with his own looming death, and keeps saying uncomfortable things like:

All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. (3:20)

Better than both [the living and dead] is the one who has never been born. (4:3)

It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart. (7:2) 

In that last line, Kohelet is basically instructing us to skip all the Mardi Gras-like celebrations life has to offer and head straight for the Ash Wednesday service. In 2022, reading a line like that makes me want to say, “C’mon … haven’t we lived through enough already? I don’t need that kind of negative energy in my life.” Really, who ever wants to take death “to heart,” especially when it feels like we’ve been living in a death-shrouded world for two years?

But, of course, this is a death-shrouded world. And Kohelet, at least, believes it doesn’t help anyone to pretend otherwise. He clearly feels it’s in his readers’ interest to confront their own mortality. One of the many reasons why this pandemic has been so hard for us all — and why we generally haven’t handled it very well — may well be that we just aren’t used to being so routinely confronted with death (or the prospect of it). As modern people in the West, this proximity to death is something we’ve not been remotely equipped to handle. In fact, as many have pointed out, we’ve usually done a remarkable job of keeping death at a seemingly safe distance.

There’s an interesting passage from psychologist-theologian Richard Beck’s book The Slavery of Death where he talks about some of the modern changes that have removed death from the foreground of our daily experience and in the process enabled us to engage — mostly subconsciously — in a “denial of death”. He highlights four: 

  1. Changes in life expectancy: The incredible combination of affluence and modern medicine has resulted in a doubling of the average human lifespan worldwide since 1920. Death is just a much less common occurrence among the non-elderly. 
  2. Changes in our relationship to food: “In agrarian and herding cultures there was a close association between death and food. People literally killed their own food. […] In our age, death has become radically disassociated with our food consumption.”
  3. Changes in how and where we die: “In the past, family members cared for the sick […] and the ill, injured, and elderly died at home. […] [Death] was a routine part of family life […]. In addition, after death families prepared the body and buried their loved ones.”
  4. Changes in proximity to cemeteries: “In times past the dead were buried on family land or in cemeteries adjacent to churches […]. But with the rise of the modern funeral industry, cemeteries […] moved from the center of life to the periphery.”

There are other changes you could highlight as well — the loss of traditions around grieving, the disintegration of small close-knit communities, the decline in religious observance, etc. Giles Fraser recently argued that the rise of atheism has “made us less able to talk about death, not knowing how it fits into the story of our lives. Instead of bravely facing death, too often the secular world ducks it.”

All of these changes have helped to foster what Beck and others describe as a “neurotic” modern relationship to death. Our inborn survival instinct and fear of death — what Beck calls “basic anxiety” — has become sublimated as “neurotic anxiety.” He writes,

Unlike basic anxiety, neurotic anxiety isn’t involved in monitoring environmental threats and resources. Rather, it is characterized by worries, fears, and apprehensions associated with our self-concept, much of which is driven by how we compare ourselves to those in our social world. Feelings of insecurity, low self-esteem, obsessions, perfectionism, ambitiousness, envy, narcissism, jealousy, rivalry, competitiveness, self-consciousness, guilt, and shame are all examples of neurotic anxiety, and they all relate to how we evaluate ourselves. […] On the flip side, feelings of superiority, contempt, and pride are also forms of neurotic anxiety.

Feel familiar? Even during a pandemic, that “neurotic anxiety” is so much a part of our programming that it’s still how our fear of death most often manifests, shaping “how we form our identities and pursue meaning” and driving us towards all kinds of twisted striving, grasping, and competition — even violence. To put it simply, this “neurotic anxiety” is making us all miserable.

So what does all this have to do with Ecclesiastes? Well, the morbid poet-king of Israel did not merely try to remind us of our mortality. It’s something much worse. His point was not just that we’re going to die but that all the things we live for and measure ourselves by, all the things we care so much about and identify with, all the idols we worship and serve this side of the grave — are rendered meaningless by death. It’s all “vanity and grasping at the wind.” 

That’s the message that makes Ecclesiastes feel like such a gut-punch to read, and still so relevant today. Take this passage, for instance: 

[T]he wise, like the fool, will not be long remembered;
the days have already come when both have been forgotten.
Like the fool, the wise too must die!

So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun. (2:16-18)

It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done — it all comes to naught in the end. A couple verses later, he adds, “[M]y heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor…” Who doesn’t feel like that at least once a day? As is often the case, this transgressive message is the one most needed in the 21st century. What does all our effort and striving amount to? Not much.

Ecclesiastes is a meditation on self-despair. Kohelet takes aim at the idol of self that lies at the root of all our “neurotic anxiety” — and he blows it to smithereens. You think you’re a big-shot? Well, Kohelet says, I experienced and achieved way more than you ever will — and my life is just as meaningless as yours in the face of death. Just like me, you’ll be forgotten, and any record of your life scattered to the wind like dust. In this sense, Kohelet is a kind of inverted Ozymandias figure, instructing us all to “Look on [our] Works … and despair!”

So how could any of this possibly be read as good news? How could there be hope amid the death and self-despair of Ecclesiastes? Well, there are two reasons, and the first is obvious: It suggests that we’re not ultimately measured by our works. We can relax. While wisdom may be better than folly on some level, Kohelet says, in the end the difference is meaningless, so we might as well “eat and drink and enjoy the good of all [our] labor — it is the gift of God.” 

But the second reason for hope is better: The self-despair of Ecclesiastes points us toward our need for God. Faith is “the substance of things hoped for,” Hebrews says, but it begins in a kind of despair — despair in the self. It begins with the recognition that the self is profoundly weak, limited, inconsequential, and ultimately doomed without God. Salvation begins with desolation. 

Yes, Kohelet suggests, you should despair in your works. All of that is indeed vanity. But do not despair about everything, for there is a God who “knows and remembers” (as Czeslaw Milosz puts it). He alone is our “immortal Witness.” And what’s more, in the end, He calls us home. For as Christ ultimately reveals, God’s love even extends beyond the grave and overcomes all our failings and limitations. Death is not the end. 

In that sense, what Ecclesiastes offers us is not merely the false, fleeting hope of stoicism or nihilistic hedonism, but the ultimate hope of faith in a loving God. Without that, I can’t imagine that anyone would ever “go gentle into that good night.” That kind of faith is the only true salve for our morbid thoughts. So as we walk through this valley in the shadow of death, Kohelet exhorts, let us remember Whose we are. He concludes with these sublime words: 

Remember your Creator before the silver cord is loosed,
Or the golden bowl is broken,
Or the pitcher shattered at the fountain,
Or the wheel broken at the well.
Then the dust will return to the earth as it was,
And the spirit will return to God who gave it.

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