Courtesy Bernarda Shahn

Unflinching from the world’s sorrows, follies and futilities, the enigmatic Qoheleth—the Preacher—displays the opening words of Ecclesiastes, the biblical book attributed to him: “The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” This wood engraving by Stefan Martin is based on a drawing by the American artist Ben Shahn (1898–1969). The title of the picture— “Rex”—suggests that the artist may have pictured the author of Ecclesiastes as King Solomon, to whom tradition, as well as the text, attributes it.

To many, Ecclesiastes is the most disturbing book in the Hebrew Bible. Filled with an immense sense of futility, it also contains brief bursts of optimism, soon overtaken by cynical observations. James L. Crenshaw examines the themes and the variety of literary styles of this odd book in the Hebrew canon and suggests why its “dark thoughts” still matter today.