A really good documentary film can change your world-view. It can do this more powerfully than even a good feature film. The great documentaries, from Nanook of the North (1922), to Man on a Wire (2008) put you in the action. Because they are not linear – but simultaneously hold on to the different threads of a story, they allow us to digest - both emotionally and intellectually – a complex issue. Because the documentary filmmaker has all the tools of filmmaking in his tool-belt he is able to communicate deeply into our consciousness. In Spike Lee’s masterful film 4 Little Girls (1997), he jump cuts between the words of the parents of the girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing of 1963, and brief (almost subliminal) shots of the coroner’s photos of those dead girls. The effect is nightmarish – much more affecting than if he had just let us look at the photos. A great documentary lets you live through events a diverse as a penguin migration (March of the Penguins), and a championship heavy-weight boxing match (When We Were Kings).
There is a book of the Bible that, to me, is presented in documentary form. Understanding this, I think, is the key to understanding the book. That book is Ecclesiastes.
Ecclesiastes is not like any other book in the Bible. It is written by someone who identifies himself as “the spokesman” (Ecclesiastes 1.1). The KJV uses the phrase “the preacher” to translate a Hebrew word derived from the verb “to assemble.” The writer has gathered us together because he has something to say. He identifies himself as a king. He is a man with historically unparalleled power, resources, and intellect (Ecclesiastes 1.12-16, 2.1-11 – Solomon seems the only person described in the Bible who fits this description). Because he has the resources, the power, and the critical ability to investigate the great questions he decides to answer one. That question is, “What is the profitable thing for a man to do under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1.3).
“Under the sun” is an important phrase. It limits his field of investigation to life on earth. In other words, he can make no assessment of an action’s value based upon future reward. In fact, in the body of the text he only refers eternity once – in Ecclesiastes 3.11 as something elusive.
And so he sets about experimenting – with excess, with achievement, with pleasure, with great learning. His quest, described in chapters two through eleven is not linear. This structural characteristic of the book has made many readers frustrated with it, and has caused others to think of the book as dark or pessimistic. But that is the way of a documentary. It holds on to several threads at once. It makes you earn moments of clarity by living through moments of frustration.
The moments of clarity are there. The writer realizes certain things matter – and they are not the things he thought about at first. Relationships matter (Ecclesiastes 4.9-12). Enjoying the blessings you are given the moment you are given them matters (Ecclesiastes 9.7-9). Doing your best for its own sake matters (9.10). Sharing your blessings with others matters (Ecclesiastes 11.1-4).
The conclusion reached seems inevitable when we reach it. In fact one could argue that the book need only be seven verses long – Ecclesiastes 1.1-3 and Ecclesiastes 12.11-14. Then again, if we were only given seven verses, we would use this hard earned lesson like a platitude. Instead, the reader understands fully that even if there is no heaven or hell this conclusion is true. We also know that there is a heaven and hell. The eternity God has placed in our hearts will be reached – in one way or another.
The conclusion, when everything has been heard is this: Fear God, and keep His commandments - this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every act into judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12.13-14)