Ecclesiastes is one of the most misunderstood books of the Bible. Its wisdom can be hard to understand and, even when it’s clear, hard to accept. The contemporary tendency to prooftext can be especially problematic with Ecclesiastes. Is life really “vanity”? Is the “house of mourning” really better than the “house of feasting”?
To illustrate Ecclesiastes’s themes with examples from film risks oversimplifying the theology of a complex and profound text. But like all risks, this one comes with potential rewards. Such an exercise can lead to a deeper appreciation of the art, as well as a stronger understanding of the text.
In what follows I cite 13 films intended to illustrate some important themes in Ecclesiastes: Forrest Gump; Searching for Bobby Fischer; Roman Israel, Esq.; The Greatest Showman; La La Land; Before Sunset; No Country for Old Men; In Cold Blood; A Man For All Seasons; Selma; Silence; A Man Escaped; The Man Who Planted Trees. Certainly there could be many, many more.
Limits of Human Wisdom
Since the Enlightenment, faith in the perfectibility and supremacy of the human intellect has been a driving force in secular philosophy. But there are reasonable distinctions to draw between “intelligence” and “wisdom.” The former usually connotes the accumulation of factual knowledge; the latter the right (just/moral) application of that knowledge. This is why it’s evident throughout literature and even Scripture than one can be intelligent and still a fool, or intellectually limited and still wise.
It is evident throughout literature and even Scripture than one can be intelligent and still a fool, or intellectually limited and still wise.
Film, like other art, is filled with examples of holy fools: characters whose moral integrity inoculates and protects them from malicious, intelligent characters. Forrest Gump is a classic example.
What we see in Ecclesiastes is not the intellect’s corruption, but its impotence. When faced with questions like why good or (relatively) innocent men suffer or evil men prosper, factual knowledge is inadequate. It is not that these questions have no intellectual or theological answer; it is that the answers, however intellectually or theologically correct, generally do not satisfy us.
There are two excellent films that show characters who are intelligent but whose confidence in their intelligence blinds them to threats to their success and happiness. In Searching for Bobby Fischer, Josh’s (Max Pomeranc) chess teacher, a genius named Bruce (Ben Kingsley), attempts to mold his protege into a champion. But he is puzzled and angered by the boy’s passivity and lack of a killer instinct:
Bruce: Do you know what it means to have “contempt” for your opponent?
Bruce: It means to hate them. You have to hate them, Josh. They hate you.
Josh: But I don’t hate them.
Bruce: Well you’d better start.
Josh realizes instinctively that being smart can’t make him happy. In fact, the smarter he is shown to be, the unhappier he becomes. At one point Josh declares that it is perhaps better not to be the best, because then one can lose and it is “okay.” More importantly, a wise player can offer grace to an unworthy opponent, while a player who is only intelligent sees this as foolish.
In the more recent film, Roman J. Israel, Esq., Denzel Washington plays a lawyer who can recite long passages of the criminal justice code from memory. He is unrivaled in his intellect and knowledge of the law, but he too runs into problems that cannot be solved with intelligence alone. In fact, knowing what is right causes him to become increasingly frustrated at a system that frequently fails in practice because too many people are lazy, selfish, or weak. Changing the system is not simply a matter of knowing the right solution; it’s also a matter of forging relationships with others who can participate and promote a work that is too big for any one person, however smart, to tackle.
Intelligence is not the only thing the author of Ecclesiastes says humans seek in order to make their lives happy and successful. At various points he confesses pursuing wealth, pleasure, and fame, ultimately realizing that each in turn is transient—and thus insufficient to secure eternal happiness. “All the toil of man is for his mouth, yet his appetite is not satisfied” (6:7).
Jenny Lind’s song in The Greatest Showman powerfully echoes this realization: Towers of gold are still too little / These hands could hold the world, but it’ll / Never be enough.
One might protest—probably should protest—that the introduction to Lind’s (Rebecca Ferguson) song postulates that what will be enough is not the love of God but that of another human being. Yet if we think about her song in the context of the film, remembering that she is a foil for P. T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), we should be painfully aware that even receiving human love proves insufficient to satisfy his (or any) soul that instinctively needs ever more.
Some of the most bittersweet films depict hurting characters who pursue good things but, in attaining them, remain unfulfilled. Mia’s (Emma Stone) wistfulness at the end of La La Land is not meant to suggest she chose wrongly and that some alternate path would have led to an unreservedly happy life with Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). Only when we get everything we’ve ever wished for do we start to realize that having it doesn’t fulfill us like we assumed it would.
Some of the most bittersweet films depict hurting characters who pursue good things but, in attaining them, remain unfulfilled.
This lack of fulfilment doesn’t always mean the things we pursue are intrinsically bad. In Before Sunset, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) desperately long for love—a magical connection to another person. Yet even before the first movie (Before Sunrise) of the trilogy finishes we sense what they will ultimately come to know: their romantic attachment cannot fully heal the wounds and needs that drive them to pursue it. Humans who give that love are fallible and finite, and the holes we try to fill with their love require something or Someone that is inexhaustible.
Evil Under the Sun
The author of Ecclesiastes repeatedly points out that what we experience in life (“I have seen” and “under the sun”) appears contrary to what we have been taught, either from God or about him (“I know”). Because so much of Western literature has been shaped by social censors following the tradition that a moral narrative must depict the wicked punished and the virtuous rewarded, biblical texts that acknowledge this pattern doesn’t always hold in our lives feel shocking and problematic. Ecclesiastes 4 speaks of the oppressed having no one to comfort them, of evils so shocking that the author suggests those who have already died are better off than the living.
At the end of the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, a psychopathic murderer leaves the house of an innocent woman he has killed and is involved in a violent auto accident. As if by some perverse miracle, he climbs from the wreckage, apparently unhurt. In Richard Brooks’s adaptation of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, we witness the execution of a Kansas family by two inept and misinformed criminals looking for a stash of loot that was never there to begin with. In a brief epilogue in Fred Zinnemann’s A Man for All Seasons, we’re told the only character to live a full life and die comfortably in old age is the perjuror, Richard Rich. Surely these events make even the most faithful believer wonder whether life is “vanity” or, as the NIV translates it, “meaningless.”
The Hebrew word customarily rendered as “vanity” in most translations of Ecclesiastes is transliterated “hebel,” and it literally means “breath” or “vapor.” It is also the same root from where the name of Abel is derived, suggesting that the story of Adam’s son—whose life is tragically and senselessly cut short—epitomizes all that Ecclesiastes understands as evil, unfair, or unjust under the sun.
Our lives and our histories are full of examples where injustices prevail and the lives of the virtuous prove as fragile and insubstantial as vapor. We can, perhaps, comfort ourselves by repeating metanarratives that attempt to situate our current present suffering within a broader context of eventual rewards. But we should never deny the existence of horrible injustice as all creation groans. The moral arc of the universe may bend, but if it is long, that means some may not live to see it move toward, much less intersect with, justice. Films like Selma and Silence remind us that while God’s eventual victory is secured, there is no guarantee that any individual, however sanctified, is immune from horrible suffering.
The moral arc of the universe may bend, but if it is long, that means some may not live to see it move toward, much less intersect with, justice.
How should we then live?
Fortunately, while Ecclesiastes is brutally honest about the likelihood we will encounter problems that exceed our power to understand, much less solve, it manifestly does not conclude with cynicism or existential despair.
“In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good” (11:6). The appropriate response to a world that overwhelms us intellectually and scandalizes us morally is not despair but incremental, daily, faithfulness. Just as Jesus teaches us to pray for our daily bread, Ecclesiastes admonishes us to get on with our daily work.
The appropriate response to a world that overwhelms us intellectually and scandalizes us morally is not despair but incremental, daily, faithfulness.
That is why, for me, the two greatest Ecclesiastes films are Frédéric Back’s The Man Who Planted Trees and Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped. The latter famously quotes from John 3:8, telling us that the wind, like the Holy Spirit, blows where it will. In the movie, a French prisoner named Fontaine (François Leterrier) is taken to a Nazi prison. Despite the seemingly impossible obstacles facing him, he takes small steps as they become available. Should he fight, or wait for a guard to pass? He doesn’t know which course will succeed or whether each will do equally well. His life is reduced to the present moment.
In Back’s short, animated masterpiece, a shepherd named Eleazar Bouffier transforms a barren, deserted valley into a fertile home for many happy families. That transformation is achieved gradually over the course of his life—through planting trees, cultivating bees, and largely ignoring the princes and principalities that wage war around him. Like Fontaine, Bouffier doesn’t allow the lack of a complete plan to keep him from taking the first step. At one point, the film’s narrator calls Bouffier and those like him “God’s athletes.” That metaphor suggests acts of immediate faithfulness can be viewed, for believers at least, as what Richard Foster and Dallas Willard call spiritual disciplines.
If reading Ecclesiastes helps us to understand the importance of the spiritual discipline of immediate faithfulness, films that inspire us by illustrating that discipline in practice can edify as well as entertain.