September 24, 2021

The Four Noble Truths of Ecclesiastes

by Simon Eder

The Individual and Self-Worth

Mao Ch’i Ling, a 17th Century Chinese public official climbed the ladder of success and also won esteem as a playwright, poet, painter and musician. Even though he had achieved many great accomplishments, he felt that he had wasted his life. His exciting existence included ten years devoted to what he believed was a worthy cause, armed resistance to a foreign invasion. Many of his friends and relatives died in that war, while he assumed a whole variety of disguises to escape arrest and execution, moving endlessly between the most bizarre hiding places. Desperate for respite, he went along to the government that he did not respect and despised himself for doing so. He survived into old age but despite all this he could not suppress his overwhelming feeling that – ‘’I have not established myself as a virtuous man….I failed to make any real contribution…My empty words serve no purpose…My heart is anguished.’’ He told his descendants that they should destroy all but one tenth of his work. The pitiless obituary that he himself prepared read: ‘His life was lived in vain.’(1)

The inner anguish expressed by Ling and the cognitive dissonance he exhibited, I could not help thinking parallels some of the turmoil that we see so clearly in the book of Ecclesiastes. Both display an acute sense of pessimism, both speak to us in quite an individualistic sense, both of course strongly identify with the word ‘vanity’ – it is the final epitaph of Ling and is used throughout Ecclesiastes. Both are also perhaps examples of bold attempts to explore their idiosyncrasies for meaning. So many biographies written prior to the modern era were hagiography but in Ling and the author of Ecclesiastes we see them reveal themselves not as models of saintliness but confused minds, reflecting on their weaknesses directly.

Were both Ling and the author of Eccelsiastes to be alive today we might well wonder with the advances of modern medicine, the welfare state and the service economy whether they would have arrived at their pessimistic conclusions? Would any of the multitude of therapies available today have yielded a cure to their melancholic dispositions? Would their social media following have provided them access to untold influence and given them peace of mind?

It may well be that in spite of all the achievements that modernity has had to offer that there are more people today that feel like they have wasted their lives than ever.

Contradictions In the Book of Ecclesiastes

It may well be that in spite of all the achievements that modernity has had to offer that there are more people today that feel like they have wasted their lives than ever. The Book of Ecclesiastes with its preoccupation perhaps for some of our deepest concerns – the meaning of life, how we should live certainly speaks to our modern sensibilities.

What is perhaps most striking about the book is its plethora of contradictions. Virtually every subject broached is met with a divergent opinion. Its incorporation into the Hebrew Bible is even debated in the Talmud as a result of its contradictory nature(2). For example, regarding practical advice as to how life should be lived we first read:

Then my thoughts turned to all the fortune my hands had built up, to the wealth I had acquired and won – and oh, it was all futile and pursuit of wind; there was no real value under the sun!(3)

The very next chapter however expresses something entirely different:

There is nothing better for man than to enjoy his possessions, since that is his portion(4)

In addressing the subject of what befalls man after death we read the following in chapter 3:

In respect of the fate of man and the fate of the beast, they have one and the same fate; as the one dies so the other dies, and both have the same lifebreath; man has no superiority over beast, since both amount to nothing. Both go to the same place; both came from dust and both return to dust. Who knows if a man’s lifebreath does rise upward and if a beast’s breath does sink down into the earth?(5)

And yet in chapter 12 following a digression on the ravages of old age we then read:

And the dust returns to the ground as it was, and the lifebreath returns to God who bestowed it(6)

Indeed it is the one book of the bible whose opening and closing conclusions could not be more discordant. The book starts of course with its fatalistic declaration that ‘All is futile’(7). Its ending however says that we must make moral decisions, revere God and observe His commandments – certainly a far cry from the outlook of ‘utter futility’ that we encounter in the beginning. The inconsistency that we encounter in its chapters are not merely what we encounter in folk wisdom which is so often ad hoc and in need of completion. The verdict of Jack Miles is perhaps apt here who describes the author as ‘a proto-philosopher, a seeker after wisdom who has looked with skepticism on many of the ordinary pursuits of mankind and has begun to look with skepticism on traditional wisdom itself’(8)

The Four Noble Truths and Ecclesiastes

Given all the contradictions then is it possible to etch out a coherent message that the book is advocating? Difficulties abound for any Bible scholar attempting to decipher an overall picture of the work. Roland Murphy for example says of the book: ‘’Ecclesiastes’ thought is tortuous and the danger of selectivity on the part of the interpreter is ever present’’(9)

Some recent scholarship has noted some pretty stark similarities between the teachings of Buddhism and those of Ecclesiastes that are perhaps worth exploring and that might go some way to answering our question. They both draw similar conclusions about the sufferings of the world and both give similar suggestions as to how we should live our lives. 

Some recent scholarship has noted some pretty stark similarities between the teachings of Buddhism and those of Ecclesiastes.

The First Noble Truth: Life is Suffering and Ecclesiastes

Buddhism teaches that life is suffering – we age, we fall sick, we die and that no matter what, it will never live up to our expectations. This outlook is echoed in the very opening lines of Ecclesiastes’ opening :

Utter futility! – said Koheleth – Utter futility! All is futile! What real value is there for a man in all the gains he makes beneath the sun’(10) 

It is in these opening lines that the author expresses that his life is one characterised by meaninglessness. There is an underlying stress within him because everywhere he looks in life, all he sees is hebel, striving after the wind, trying to catch something that cannot be caught.(11) This same pessimistic initial truth as espoused by Buddhism is indeed reflected throughout Ecclesiastes. 

The Second Noble Truth: Origin of Suffering and Ecclesiastes

Buddhism goes on to explain that the origin of suffering lies in our desires. Such desires come in three forms including – greed, ignorance and hatred. Remarkably these traits are also referenced in the book of Ecclesiastes and the following verses illustrate:

All such things are wearisome: No man can ever state them; the eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear enough of hearing(12)

And I saw that all labour and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbour… There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth. “For whom am I toiling,” he asked. “and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?(13)

Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income… I have seen a grievous evil under the sun: wealth hoarded to the harm of its owner.(14)

The central difference between the two outlooks is of course the notion of God, absent in a Buddhist context and mentioned forty times in Ecclesiastes. An important qualification then is necessary when it comes to drawing parallels on the implications of the Second Noble Truth, namely that it is not desire per se but desire for things and people other than God from where the origin of suffering arises, according to the biblical author.

The Third Noble Truth: Cessation of Suffering and Ecclesiastes                            

The Third Noble Truth of Buddhism explains that to end suffering it is necessary to eliminate desire. To achieve this state we are urged to act with detachment. Ecclesiastes here diverges from Buddhism’s prescription and questions man’s potential for achieving this given that ‘’there is not one good man on earth who does what is best and doesn’t err’’(15). Instead we are redirected to channel our desires to something permanent, specifically God. It is this approach which does indeed go some way to resolve certain of the contradictions that we encounter. We read for example:

Follow the desires of your heart and the glances of your eyes – but know well that God will call you to account for all such things.(16)

Our actions should not be seen as an end in themselves – it is on this basis they are regarded as futile. Rather in directing them to a higher purpose and the permanence of a living God, we may indeed find ourselves unshackled from the chains of a futile existence. Because the author of Ecclesiastes knows that God is the writer of history ‘’(no man) knows what is to happen even when it is on the point of happening’’(17) he teaches us to embrace the present and live in a God conscious way. 

Our actions should not be seen as an end in themselves – it is on this basis they are regarded as futile.

The 4th Noble Truth: The Path to the Cessation of Suffering and Ecclesiastes

The fourth Noble Truth which advocates an eightfold path or ‘middle way’ is an existence of moderation between sensual indulgences and self-mortification. Many of the attributes associated with this path are in fact also referenced in Ecclesiastes. How one should speak: ‘’Foolish utterance comes with much speech’’(18), how one should think: ‘’don’t revile a rich man even in your bed-chamber’’(19), how one should live: ‘’Don’t overdo goodness and don’t act the wise man to excess….Don’t overdo wickedness and don’t be a fool or you may die before your time’’(20) are all examples of the way of moderation that the text is seeking to champion. 

After his opening treatise on the futility of life, the author reaches a staggering conclusion . He says: “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. The enjoyment that seemed unattainable up to this point is in fact within reach, even in the midst of “toil.” How? His basic answer is that one must be connected to the sovereign God, “for apart from him,” no one can have the enjoyment so desired. 

It is for this reason we are not called to liberate ourselves from suffering. Rather, we are called to embrace suffering head-on, knowing that “God has made the one as well as the other”(21) and that we are ultimately answerable to God for our choices. 

The Subversive Nature of Ecclesiastes                                                                    

It is certainly plausible that the author was somewhat influenced by an interaction with Buddhist philosophy. The book is however no mere recasting of The Noble Truths in a traditional Biblical vein. Shorn of any particularistic tendencies, the God of Ecclesiastes presents a definite challenge to the hidden premises of Jewish monotheism. The notion of reward as in any way the consequence of human action – whether as covenant reward or simply as the reward of diligence is called into question.(22). Ecclesiastes, also evokes a scandalous notion of God as both friend and foe, creator and destroyer, as we read:- ‘’sometimes a good man perishes in spite of his goodness, and sometimes a wicked one endures in spite of his wickedness.(23) 

In so many ways it is a kind of inversion of much that has gone before in the Hebrew Bible. Nonetheless its inclusion, we may agree with Rabbi Jacobs demonstrates how precarious it is to try to draw a picture of Judaism in simple terms. The book also serves as a reminder that Judaism does not frown on a sincere quest for life’s meaning and significance.(24) The work is an early encounter between faith and reason – the continued search for which is still our quest today.

1.Theodore Zeldin, The Hidden Pleasures of Life, pp.30-31

2.Shabbat 30b

3.Ecclesiastes 2:11

4.Ecclesiastes 3:22

5.Ecclesiastes 3:19-21

6.Ecclesiastes 12:7

7.Ecclesiastes 1:2

8.Jack Miles, God – A Biography, p.350

9.Roland Murphy, Ecclesiastes, Dallas, 1992, p.lviii

10.Ecclesiastes 1:2-3

11.CJ Moore, The Employment of Ecclesiastes for Relevant Contextualization to Buddhists: A Restatement of the Four Noble Truths for Use in Missiological Method, Evangelical Missiological Society, p.15

12.Ecclesiastes 1: 8

13.Ecclesiastes 4:4,

14.Ecclesiastes 5:10, 13

15.Ecclesiastes 7:20

16.Ecclesiastes 11:9

17.Ecclesiastes 8:7

18.Ecclesiastes 5:2

19.Ecclesiastes 10:20

20.Ecclesiastes 5:16-17

21.Ecclesiastes 7:14

22.Jack Miles, God – A Biography, p.350

23.Ecclesiastes 7:15

24.Jacobs, The Jewish Religion, A Companion, p.139

Simon Eder is Editorial Director of Jewish Quest. He writes regularly for the site and has written for the Judaism column of the Jewish Chronicle. He is a founder of the Jewish Community in Dubai and due to feature in a documentary later this year about its founding. He studied Theology at The University of Cambridge.