The professor stood in front of the class and made a bold claim. “Every philosopher, artist, and political thinker, every human being in all of history – all of them have shared one overarching question in common.” He paused, and looked at us. “What do you think that is?”
We made various guesses: “Is there a God?” “What does it mean to be human?” “Where do we come from?”
He shook is head to all of them. “Why,” he said simply, “do I have to die?”
To be human is to be mortal. Every moment of our lives, as we laugh and cry, work and play, celebrate and love, the shadow of this inescapable and ultimate reality lurks in the background: you, and everyone you love, are going to die someday. Memento Mori. “Remember you must die.”
This knowledge of our own mortality – often accompanied by fear and a desire to escape it – runs throughout art and literature from the ancient world until today. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the earliest surviving work of literature, a man named Gilgamesh goes on a journey to discover the secret of eternal life after the death of his best friend Enkidu. In Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquy, Hamlet ponders what will happen when he dies; Macbeth, meanwhile, calls life “but a walking shadow, a poor player / that struts and frets his hour upon the stage / and then is heard no more: it is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.” Poets like Robert Herrick and Andrew Marvell use the ephemerality of life to seduce women, as do modern pop songs by One Direction, fun., and Drake. The hit musical Hamilton’s titular character reminds us again and again that he “imagines death so much it feels like a memory,” and the popularity of stories about vampires and zombies speaks to our enduring fascination with immortality and the grave. Existentialist Albert Camus summarizes these sentiments bluntly: “There is not love of life without despair about life.”
It should come as no surprise that the Bible, as perhaps the most influential book in Western literature, also contains extended meditations on mortality. While most mentions of death in the Bible link it to God’s plan of salvation and resurrection, this is not the case for the book of Ecclesiastes. The book opens with the declaration that “everything is meaningless” and only gets bleaker from there (1:2 NIV).
The book is organized into sections in which the Teacher summarily declares source after source of potential meaning is meaningless: pleasure (2:1-11), wisdom (2:12-16), work (2:17-26), advancement (4:14-16) and wealth (5:8-20). “All share a common destiny,” he declares, “the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not…For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten. Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished; never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:2, 6 NIV).
While the Teacher attempts to finish on a note of hope, his words tend towards sentiments of, unsurprisingly, mortality and despair. Echoing the seduction poets and pop singers, he writes, “You who are young, be happy while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your heart sees, but know for all these things God will bring you into judgment. So then, banish anxiety from your heart and cast off the troubles of your body, for youth and vigor are meaningless” (11:9 NIV).
While the author does end the book with a repeated admonition to honor and obey God, the point of the book harmonizes with that of Job. The world we live in, while ordered by God's wisdom, is volatile, dangerous, and not necessarily always aligned with justice. Good things happen to bad people; bad things happen to good people; at the end, all people face death. The best way to live in light of this is to recognize God's goodness in the simple pleasures of life.
In the film Wit, Emma Thompson plays Vivian Bearing, a professor of English Literature who is diagnosed with terminal stage IV ovarian cancer. As she puts her life in perspective, and struggles with agonizing pain and loss of dignity, she considers the wisdom imparted by the literature she has devoted her life to studying. While she occasionally lapses into periods of fear and despair, the film ends with her voice reciting John Donne’s “Death be not proud” over images of her own death.
“Death, thou shalt die,” the poet concludes, evoking the words of 1 Corinthians 15:55 (KJV): “Oh death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is your victory?”
Related texts or passages to consider: Genesis 3:19; 1 Corinthians 15:22; Romans 6:23; Isaiah 25:8;
• Compared to most other discussions of aging, mortality, and death in the Bible, Ecclesiastes is a deeply melancholy book full of despair and doubt. Why do you think it was included in the Bible?
• Does it show a lack of faith to fear death or resent mortality?
• How does belief in God and resurrection affect our attitudes towards death? Can we have hope or peace without that belief?
• Read through Ecclesiastes 3 & 4. Do you find this to be helpful wisdom for living? What parts start out to you as particularly helpful?
• In Ecclesiastes 1:2 we are introduced to one of the main themes of the book, which many translations render differently. Some say "everything is meaningless," while others say "vanity, all is vanity!" The Hebrew word is Hevel (הָ֫בֶל) which means "vapor," or "breath," sometimes even "smoke." Read through Ecclesiastes 1 and 2. What do you think the point of this "Everything is vapor" statement means? Can you relate it to something in your life?
• What practical life advice is being give in Ecclesiastes 11? How might you go about following this advice? If the poetic language is difficult for you, try reading it in the New Living Translation.
• Does it surprise you that a book like Ecclesiastes is in the Bible? Read through chapter 12. Does this seem like the kind of advice Christians would give? Do you think other parts of the Bible balance this out? How does this book shape/change your opinion of the Bible, if at all?
• Watch this fascinating video by The Bible Project. How does it help you understand the book more?