Bible Q&A: Does Jesus contradict the writer of Ecclesiastes?

Our Bible Q&A series explores the questions you’ve asked us about the Bible.

This article represents the author’s personal view. It accords with Bible Society’s values, but is not intended to express our position as an organisation.

Question:

Why are some verses in the book of Ecclesiastes so pessimistic, with advice such as ‘Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’ included in the Bible? They seem completely contrary to the teaching of Jesus.

Answer:

The book of Ecclesiastes certainly can seem very pessimistic. It focuses on the feeling that life is ultimately meaningless (‘Life is useless, all useless’ 1.2), on the injustice of life (‘Sometimes the righteous get the punishment of the wicked, and the wicked get the reward of the righteous’, 8.14), and the pointlessness of trying to understand it all (‘You could stay awake night and day and never be able to understand what God is doing’, 8.16–17). These are not the words of an atheist or someone who has lost their faith. The writer believes in a personal God who sees what we do and judges whether it is good or bad, but he does not claim to be able to make any sense of God’s work in the world.

If we are honest, most of us will at some time have a feeling of disillusionment or even despair about the world and our place in it – and this can be true whether we have a Christian faith or not. So Ecclesiastes reflects real human experience and gives us words to express it, just as the Psalms help us put into words a range of human emotion, from joy and peace through to grief and anger.

The main message of the book is that nothing in life brings ultimate satisfaction, however hard we work or study, so the best we can do is to take each day as a gift and enjoy to the full whatever pleasures we can find in it, without worrying about an unknowable future. Martin Luther thought this was a positive message, not a negative one. In his introduction to the book of Ecclesiastes, he wrote that it is ‘the height of vanity and misery, to cheat oneself of the use of present goods and vainly to be troubled about future ones’. Better, then, to eat, drink and be merry (with contentment and gratitude for what we have) than to wear ourselves out by always anxiously striving for things we don’t have, things that will never satisfy us in any case.

Luther also says that Ecclesiastes’ encouragement to enjoy the present moment is in accordance with Jesus’ words in Matthew 6.34: ‘Do not worry about tomorrow; it will have enough worries of its own. There is no need to add to the troubles each day brings.’ So in this sense, the book is not contrary to Jesus’ teaching. We could also note that they both warn against the deceitfulness of riches (take a look at Ecclesiastes 5.10–12 and Luke 12.16–21), and both are acutely aware that good and evil exist side by side in our world (see Ecclesiastes 3.16 and Matthew 13.24–30). 

A major difference between them, though, is that Ecclesiastes’ viewpoint is coloured by the author’s lack of belief in a true afterlife. The Old Testament writers did not believe in heaven as we imagine it to be. They thought that the dead descended to a dark, shadowy place called Sheol, where (as Ecclesiastes 9.10 says) ‘there will be no action, no thought, no knowledge, no wisdom’. By contrast, Jesus’ teaching assumes the background of a belief in resurrection life: as he said to the repentant thief on the cross, ‘I promise you that today you will be in Paradise with me’ (Luke 23.43). This brings a sense of ultimate hope that is lacking in Ecclesiastes.

We needn’t be worried that Jesus’ view is different from that of an Old Testament writer. Jesus deliberately built upon the foundation of Old Testament teaching when he said things like ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” But now I tell you: do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you’ (Matthew 5.38–39). He was not contradicting the Old Testament law; he was taking it further, looking for a pure attitude of heart rather than just good behaviour.

So yes, in some ways Ecclesiastes is at odds with Jesus, but this is not surprising if we accept that Jesus’ teaching is likely to be a progression from Old Testament ideas. Ecclesiastes is an unsettling book to find in the Bible if we assume that the Bible’s sole purpose is to give us positive messages that will bring us comfort, hope and guidance. However, Ecclesiastes is a sincere reflection of common human thoughts, feelings and experiences. It encourages us to trust in God and give him thanks for ordinary, everyday goodness. This trust and gratitude can sustain us even when we honestly do not understand the meaning of life.

All biblical quotations are taken from the Good News Bible.

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