The book of Ecclesiastes occupies a unique position in the Bible due to its prevalent sense of pessimism and absence of God’s intervention in our world. In fact, the all-pervading mood of a God remote from our human condition sets the tone for Ecclesiastes which seems incongruent with the other books of the Old Testament. It contains reflections more philosophical in nature rather than a testimony of belief which we would normally associate with the Hebrew scriptural tradition. For the traditional author, Ecclesiastes, God is the inscrutable originator of the world who determines the fate of humankind. Just as the natural world is in constant movement minus the presence of real change, so the human expenditure of energy comes to nought; despite the fact that reason leaves us baffled, the author affirms that life is worth living with all its limitations.
It is Ecclesiastes’ sharply critical attitude towards human conduct and the instability of earthly existence that has caught the attention of that great Cappadocian bishop, Gregory of Nyssa (c.335-c.395), who composed his own commentary on this book. He takes up the task by subjecting the book of Ecclesiastes to exhaustive analysis to the third chapter, verse thirteen. Gregory attempts to explore the book’s meaning and bearing upon Christian faith and conduct, for Ecclesiastes reveals a profound gulf between its dominant motif, “vanity of vanities,” and Christian hope as presented in the Gospel. However, we must acknowledge that no book of the Old Testament so challenges Christian faith for a response to the questions it asks which are as old as our search for life’s meaning. Even a cursory reading both of the book of Ecclesiastes and Gregory of Nyssa’s commentary upon it show the fundamental theme of vanity, another word for the transitory character of this world. The phrase “vanity of vanities” does not condemn creation but simply our misuse of what God had entrusted to our guardianship. As Gregory’s On Virginity briefly says, the outcome of our misuse of the patrimony entrusted to us is the illusion that we are masters of ourselves and of the earth. Two passages may be compared to illustrate this point:
“The text [Ecclesiastes] says that appearances are not simply vain; rather, they are characterized by a special kind of vanity as if someone were claimed to be more dead than the dead and more lifeless than the lifeless. Any exaggeration is out of place here, yet it serves to clarify a point. Just as we employ the phrase “service of works” and “holy of holies” to represent something outstanding, so does “vanity of vanities” demonstrate the incomparable excess of vanity.” (Commentary on Ecclesiastes, J.283)
“The earth, says Ecclesiastes, abides forever and ministers to every generation: first one, then another which succeeds it. However, even though men are scarcely their own masters, they are brought into life without knowing it by their Maker’s will. Before they wish it, they are withdrawn from life; nevertheless, in their excessive vanity, they think that they are her lords and that they who are now born, now dying, rule that which remains continually.” (On Virginity, J.270)