The book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament is one of the Bible’s most unusual books. It does not expressly identity its author. But it begins, “The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king of Jerusalem” (Ecclesiastes 1.1 NRSV). If the author is honest about this, he obviously is King Solomon of Israel, the nation’s third king. Ecclesiastes and the book of Proverbs represent the pinnacle of the Bible’s wisdom literature. Proverbs begins, “The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel” (Proverbs 1.1).
The Bible relates elsewhere, “God gave Solomon very great wisdom, discernment, and breadth of understanding … Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt. … He composed three thousand proverbs, and his songs numbered a thousand and five. … People came from all the nations to hear the wisdom of Solomon; they came from all the kings of the earth who had heard of his wisdom” (1 Kings 4.29-34).
In my early theological education, my church pastor taught that Solomon’s book of Ecclesiastes presented a pessimistic view of life from the viewpoint of the fallen nature of humankind. Thus, he contrasted the content of this book with a positive spirituality found in so much of the Bible, especially in the letters of the apostle Paul in the New Testament. Yet this negative viewpoint of Ecclesiastes was not peculiar to my pastor, but adopted by other teachers of this book throughout church history.
Years later, before I departed from that church, I read and studied Ecclesiastes and concluded that I didn’t think my church pastor had the correct concept about it. I concluded that the book is full of wisdom and common sense. Yes, it has some serious negativity. But a perceptive viewpoint of human life on this planet is that many people experience suffering and tragedy in life that can go rather unnoticed. I further thought this viewpoint was remarkable for a man of Solomon’s stature. He had it all in life regarding riches and pleasure. Thus, he easily could have ignored this frailty of life.
Perhaps the highlight of the book of Ecclesiastes the following: “I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind. What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted. I said to myself, ‘I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.’ And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow” (Ecclesiastes 1.12-18).
Many people would reject what King Solomon says in Ecclesiastes and settle for a more positive outlook on life. I am reminded of Norman Vincent Peale who was the pastor of Marble Collegiate Church in New York City that Donald J. Trump and his family attended when he was a teenager. Donald and his first wife, Ivana, were married in that church. Mr. Trump has often paid much tribute to Mr. Peale who wrote a bestselling book entitled The Power of Positive Thinking. I don’t know what Peale thought of the book of Ecclesiastes, but I believe it clashes with some of Peale’s book, which I have read. And it appears to me that former President Trump took Peale’s philosophy beyond where his pastor intended with Trump’s positive thinking that he won the 2020 presidential election when 60 judicial court cases decided to the contrary.
This overly positive view of life reminds me of New Age. I live in Arizona, and the beautiful town of Sedona is often called “the capital of New Age.” A favorite saying of New Agers is “life is good.” Yes, it is, as long as you don’t experience the suffering, poor health, and financial hardship that many people must endure in life that is largely beyond their own choosing.
Last Saturday, the UK website SciTechDaily had an article entitled “New Study Links Optimism To Lower Cognitive Abilities.” It puts to rest this idea about how life is “all good” and supports King Solomon’s view in Ecclesiastes. Here’s how this article begins:
“Optimistic thinking, often celebrated in self-help literature as a pathway to happiness, health, and longer life, can also lead to poor decision-making. This aspect of optimism is especially critical in matters of financial health, where it can have severe consequences.
Research from the University of Bath shows that excessive optimism is actually associated with lower cognitive skills such as verbal fluency, fluid reasoning, numerical reasoning, and memory. Whereas those high in cognitive ability tend to be both more realistic and pessimistic in their expectations about the future. … ‘low cognitive ability leads to more self-flattering biases—people essentially deluding themselves to a degree’ said Dr. Chris Dawson of the University’s School of Management. … ‘Plans based on overly optimistic beliefs make for poor decisions and are bound to deliver worse outcomes than would realistic beliefs,’ Dr. Dawson added.”
The article reveals, “The study took data from a UK survey of over 36,000 households and looked at people’s expectations of their financial well-being and compared them with their actual financial outcomes. The research found that those highest on cognitive ability experienced a 22% increase in the probability of ‘realism’ and a 35 percent decrease in the probability of ‘extreme optimism.'”
The article concludes with Dr. Dawson adding, “Unrealistic optimism is one of the most pervasive human traits and research has shown people consistently underestimate the negative and accentuate the positive. The concept of ‘positive thinking’ is almost unquestionably embedded in our culture—and it would be healthy to revisit that belief.”