NPJ Book Review: Reason for Being, A Meditation on Ecclesiastes by Jacques Ellul

Reason for Being, A Meditation on Ecclesiastes by Jacques Ellul (1990) When I first read Ellul’s work, I felt as an existentialist I was in an “existential conversation” about the meaning of life rather than being engaged in the plethora of “touchy feely” as well as sensitive and “solemn” interpretations, from various theological perspectives.

I reread this book among others every so often, as I gain something each time I examine it from a philosophical view. In Ellul’s case, he was an attorney and sociologist by training and emerged as a significant 20th century philosopher that had spent decades ruminating about the meaning of Ecclesiastes.

The author of Ecclesiastes is identified as Qohelet and that all is vanity* in life. Ellul quotes the French author, George Bernanos who wrote: “In order to be prepared to hope in what does not deceive, we must first lose hope in everything that deceives.” Ellul offers an intriguing and at times a delicate but disarming interpretation of Ecclesiastes.

Ellul notes that the author of Ecclesiastes devotes much focus on money and work. He quotes Qohelet, “I turned to all the works my hands had made and toward the work I had done to make them and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind, and there is no profit under the sun.” Ellul sees the author of Ecclesiastes viewing work having value that must be deeper than money and power.

Yet, no matter what course one takes in life all is vanity. “Ideologies, idealism and utopias” turn humans away from the spiritual and instead offer us fleeting material objects. At the same time these ideals and utopias produce the vanities to be found in the money we make, the work we perform and the politics we play and so forth. “What profit is there for a person in all his work which he does under the sun?” There is none, especially in terms of the material.

For Jacques Ellul to understand Ecclesiastes one must begin perhaps with the “fear of God” while realizing that all wisdom and knowledge disturbs the human spirit and resolve. “I applied my heart to understanding wisdom and to understanding madness and folly, and I knew this also is a pursuit of wind.” Ellul uncovers the ambiguities of this work and leaves us with more.

Numerous works, as noted, have been written about Ecclesiastes. Ellul’s meditation is provocative as he addresses the brutal, heartless nature of human existence and asks why. To what end? He looks at the book’s structure and content and offers his read on it. This is not necessarily a brightly optimistic meditation as some claim though it is quite thoughtful and offers insight to Ellul’s mind – he suggests that there is a value in our relationships and our work that transcend the material world and moves from an ontological to an existential approach and reflection. Paradox is one of the words used to describe the nature of the writings at times.

Reason for Being is an intellectually stimulating read. The author’s opinions remain relevant in a world that appears to hang by an existential thread. I will add that the author sees a glimmer of “hope.” Ecclesiastes is a read that offers multiple meanings depending on the filters of one’s experience and knowledge.

* In the Hebrew text of the Tanakh, vanity is translated as futility or emptiness.