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Back to the Bible - Revisiting the Old Testament
Had I been asked as a teen or young adult to name my favorite book of the Bible I most likely would have indicated Ecclesiastes which fit my depressed and cynical outlook during that time of my life. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (or “Emptiness, emptiness, all is empty” in the New English Bible) seemed a good description of life as I then experienced it.
Ecclesiastes doesn’t fit very well with the rest of the Bible; in fact it seems outright heretical in its cynical outlook. It is in sharp contrast with the orthodox and positive tone of Proverbs. Wisdom praised in Proverbs is just another form of empty vanity in Ecclesiastes. According to rabbinic tradition the inclusion of Ecclesiastes in the canon of Hebrew scripture was disputed. The traditional belief that Solomon wrote it is perhaps why it is in the Tanak and the Old Testament.
The rather strange non-Hebrew name of the book is a Greek form (the Oxford Annotated Bible says "attempted Greek translation) of the Hebrew Koheleth whose words the book presents. Koheleth is a title for someone who conducts an assembly or school. Perhaps “teacher” would be a better English rendering than the “preacher” of the King James Version. Koheleth relates how he pursued knowledge and wisdom, madness and folly. He indulged in pleasures, acquired vast possessions, slaves and concubines, and built great works. But in the end concluded that “all is vanity.”
Koheleth is identified as “the son of David, king in Jerusalem” which would seem to mean that he is Solomon. But textual considerations and the rationalistic tone, which may have been influenced by Greek thought, indicate a third century BCE date. But we don't have to look to Greek philosophy for parallels as other ancient Near Eastern literature shares Ecclesiastes' pessimistic attitude. The epic myth, Gilgamesh, from approximately 2100 BCE Sumer, like Ecclesiastes, describes human achievement as “only wind” and recommends that life be enjoyed now because eventually death will end it all. Another text describes a conversation between a man and his slave in which they conclude that suicide is the only rational answer to the human dilemna.
In the first chapter the book’s thesis is stated: “All things are full of weariness. . . . What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun” (1:8-9). Nothing anyone can do can change the fact that “all is vanity and striving after the wind” (1:14). The ways of God in ordering what happens are beyond understanding: “The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all” (9:11). Righteousness goes unrewarded while the wicked prosper, and all alike perish in the end. No matter what one does s/he will still die and vanish from existence just as the animals do. “I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are sill alive; but better than both is he who has not yet been” (4:2-3). Again and again aspects of human existence are examined and the conclusion drawn that “all is vanity.”
There is no hope of an afterlife: “The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing. . . . Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and they have no more for ever any share in all that is done under the sun. . . . Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going” (9:5-6, 10).
The best one can do is to enjoy life. “I commend enjoyment, for man has no good thing under the sun but to eat and drink, and enjoy himself, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of life which God gives him under the sun” (8:14). “Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart. . . . Enjoy life with the wife whom you love” (9:7,9).
There are several sections of proverbs, most of which maintain the overall pessimistic tone of Ecclesiastes. Chapter 3:1-9 contains the “For everything there is a season” verses Pete Seeger set to music which the Byrds turned into a folk-rock hit. But Seeger left off the final line which undercuts the positive tone of the song people know: “What gain has the worker from his toil?” (3:9).
As has been the case with passages in several of the other OT books that I have so far read, I came across familiar verses which take on a different meaning when read in context. For instance the often cited “Remember your creator in the days of your youth“ (12:1), which seems to be urging a young person to be mindful of God, takes on a different meaning when read with the following texts which metaphorically describe the inescapable decrepitude of old age which ends in death. A note in the Oxford Bible suggests that a very similar Hebrew word meaning “your grave” would fit the context better than “your creator.” Maybe someone, perhaps a later copyist, tried to introduce piety into a discouraging text?
The Preacher/Teacher concludes with “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (12:8). There follows a brief description of Koheleth as a wise teacher and a warning to “my son” to not go beyond “the collected sayings which are given by the one shepherd. . . . (For) of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (12:11-12).
Then comes the Ecclesiastes text I most often heard quoted: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgement, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (12:13-14). This utterly orthodox statement coming after eleven plus chapters that at times come close to heresy is more than a little startling. It is like a cynical opinionated and wise person who challenges orthodoxy at length and then ends with a trite statement of belief. Many scholars have concluded that the “end of the matter” text is a later addition by an editor attempting to make the book more acceptable as scripture. If so, the attempt was successful as Ecclesiastes made it into the Old Testament for us to puzzle over.
Samuel Sandmel nicely reconciles the seeming contradictions of Ecclesiastes: “The genuinely religious do not blot out the doubts the are to be found in Ecclesiastes by pretending that they do not exist. They tolerate them as a part of the normal expression of perceptive and thoughtful people. These words of doubt do not defeat genuine religious faith, but form the counterbalance that keeps religious faith effective and suitable for human beings” (p. 274). Faith and doubt are perhaps the two sides of religious experience, perhaps of human experience in general - see my for this idea in a different context.
© 2021 James Moyers