Monday, February 15, 2016

Vanity of Vanities

A friend of mine asked me to have a look at the Book of Ecclesiastes with particular attention to the third chapter. He was not interested so much in the famous lines that inspired the Byrds hit “Turn, Turn, Turn”, but was instead more curious of the verses that followed that famous passage. In my usual style I could not limit the scope of my examination to such a small area but I had to think of the entire book in context. The following is a brief examination of this wisdom literature.

The book we know as Ecclesiastes gets its name from a transliteration of the Greek name given to the book in the Septuagint. The Hebrew name is Qohelet (or sometimes spelled Kohelet, or several other ways but I always love to use a 'Q' without following it with a 'u'). The name appears several times in the text itself and is translated in the KJV as “the preacher”. This is not necessarily a good translation. The word probably means “to gather” and in this sense “teacher” might be appropriate, however so might terms like “builder” or “leader” or “organizer”. Really in light of the fact we don't know much about the meaning of the name many modern translations prefer to leave it untranslated and treat it as a proper name.

The authorship and identity of Qohelet is unknown as is the date of its composition. From the text he is identified as “the son of David, king in Jerusalem.” (1:1) and “king over Israel in Jerusalem” (1:12), implying that he was part of the united kingdom, the only time “Jerusalem” would be capital of “Israel”. He also says he “I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven.” (1:13). The obvious implication is that he is Solomon. However it is probably unlikely that the text was actually written by Solomon, or for that matter unlikely it was written by a king at all. Instead Solomon is probably being used as a stock character to represent the height of wisdom, wealth and power for the deep analysis of the meaning of life that follows. This type of pseudepigraphical writing was common in the ancient world.

The text is obviously deeply theistic with common references to God and never any doubt expressed as to his existence. However many readers wonder if the author believes in any type of afterlife for certainly the text focuses sharply on the observable world in which we find ourselves. I think this conclusion is unjustified for several verses seem to clearly consider the possibility of an afterlife but point out that any such life is simply unobservable to us in this world. Within the text it seems clear that there are multiple voices. The text seems to be structured with an introduction by a third person narrator for the first 11 verses. It then switches to a first person account who then through the end of chapter 2 gives a personal accounting of his search for happiness and meaning in life. Starting in chapter 3 we have a startling poem whose beauty is readily apparent and has been quoted in many contexts from a dramatic scene in Footloose to the previously mentioned song by the Byrds. From 3:9 until about 12:7 or 12:8 Qohelet explains his wisdom teaching. His words are then followed by two distinct epilogues with very different approaches, 12:8-11 then 12:12-14.

Throughout the main body of the text (3:1-12:8) many different voices are heard and it seems the work is a compilation of many different fragments of literature woven together to fit a general loose theme. This is supported by the first epilogue which tells us Qohelet “sought out, and set in order many proverbs.” (12:9) and “Qohelet sought to find out acceptable words” (12:10). So it seems clear that the main author is quoting freely from poetry and proverbs that were common among the people of his community. Perhaps he is offering a slight alteration when needed and perhaps he is hoping that many of his words will echo the familiar phrases offered as wisdom by grandparents in every village or the songs sung at every campfire by youth. He is taking these folk truths and adding commentary and trying to form a running theme. Occasionally the result may seem a bit repetitive, disconnected, or culturally obscure to the modern reader.

Perhaps the text is most famous for its use of the word chavel translated “vanity” in the KJV. The word doesn't have much connection to the modern word “vanity”. It actually means “vapor” or “breath”, something fleeting and unstable. Trying to grasp it is impossible. The word is used repeatedly in the text to describe this life. No matter what Qohelet examines he is struck by impermanence of it all. The introduction seems to point out a contrast between the efforts of man which disintegrate “but the earth abideth forever” (1:4). To illustrate this he mentions several cycles:

  • generations which die and are replaced by new children
  • The sun which circles the earth
  • The wind which blows in one direction then hurries back in a circle to keep blowing in that direction
  • The water cycle in which waters flow to the sea but then somehow go back to the head of the rivers

These cycles have lasted forever and are unchanging leaving “nothing new under the sun”. Man for all his efforts cannot change the earth or its course.

We then launch into Qohelet's description of his own search for meaning. He laments “The crooked cannot be made straight” (1:15) His is a broken world in need of fixing. He will emphasize this again in 7:13 where he declares that God himself has made the world crooked and no man can make it straight again. These words are obviously related to the prophecy if Isaiah in Isaiah 42:16 and 45:2 where the prophet declares in messianic prophecy that the Lord will indeed make the crooked straight. It is unclear which writing came first Qohelet or Isaiah. I suspect Qohelet is the older text and Isaiah's is a response to it, however either way the message is clear. The work of setting the world right is beyond the power of a man. It would require a God.

Qohelet tells us He has pursued learning until he has learned all that human wisdom has to teach. None of this has helped him. Knowing things just makes him unhappy. “For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” (1:18). He tries next to just be joyful and bury his thoughts in wine but this doesn't help (2:1-3). So he decides to build great things (2:4-6) and pursues accumulating wealth (2:7-9). But the wine, the construction, the learning, the money, none of it filled his emptiness (2:11). He reassures himself it must be better to be wise than to be a fool (2:12-14) but then realizes that wise men and fools both die the same death (2:16). “Therefore I hated life; because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous unto me: for all is vapor and like trying to gather the wind.” (2:17). The darn kids that are going to inherit this stuff don't appreciate it anyway (2:18-23). I might as well eat drink and be merry for tomorrow I die (2:24). This theme will recur in 8:15 and 9:7. These verses may well have inspired their direct answer found in 2 Nephi 28:7-8. At the end of the chapter the message seems to take a somewhat disharmonious turn and suggest that those who do good get wisdom, knowledge and joy and those who offend get travail, and hard work, then the benefits of which will be passed on to the good guys. But immediately this thought is negated by the refrain “this is a vapor and like trying to gather the wind.” It does not seem to make a logical flow and makes me wonder if the preceding thought was inserted by a later moralizer who was concerned with the pessimistic tone.

As chapter 3 begins the famous poem is inserted that is very probably a preexisting popular piece in the author's community. After the poem the question is asked “what is the point of working?” (3:9). It explains that God has set the 'olam in man's heart (3:11). The world 'olam is one that changed meanings over the course of time in Hebrew. In later Hebrew the term meant “the world” and this is how KJV choose to render it. However earlier in Hebrew the term meant “eternity”, or something that endures forever. This same word was used to describe the earth in 1:4 and appears to be an antonym of chavel, “vanity” or “vapor”. God having placed this idea of eternity in man's heart, this longing for that which endures, is what drives man forward. But the verse also says “which man cannot find the works that God makes from the beginning to the end.” This understanding, that there is an eternity and a permanence but the withholding from our eyes the reality of it, forms the center of our mortal experience. Here we must walk by faith, believing that there is something eternal but unable to verify its reality. Qohelet tells us again that we must enjoy our time on this earth. He assures us that if God does something it is intended to last forever (3:14). We are all connected in a great repeating cycle (3:15), an eternal round.

Qohelet then turns his attention again to the brokenness of the world. In places where there should be “judgment”, a synonym for “righteousness”, he finds wickedness. the hypocrisy of some of those who profess to follow God concerns him and he assures himself they will be held accountable. His thoughts then turn to the animals and he wonders if there is really something that separates himself from them (3:19). Both are subject to death and return to dust (3:20) and there is no evidence to show that man somehow returns to God rather than sinking into the earth like the animals (3:21)

As the next chapter opens Qohelet is dismayed by the suffering found in the world. The powerful hurt the poor with impunity. I will not deconstruct the entire book, but Qohelet provides proverbs and makes commentary on the value of work, the need for companionship, wisdom verses riches. In chapter 5 he touches on religious piety and gives some profound advice for temple worship suggesting “be more ready to hear” (5:1). He also discusses the importance of keeping covenants made there, dealing with injustice, the illusion of wealth, an interesting thought that just having a lot of kids is not so important as having a relationship with them (6:3), the importance of honor, the need for sorrow, the dangers of wicked women, the importance of not getting kings upset with you. Qohelet notes that because consequences do not follow wicked actions quickly our world appears inherently unjust (8:11). After discussing the ideas that sometimes the wicked prosper and sometimes the righteous suffer, Qohelet then turns to death as the great equalizer (9:4-6). In this case he examines it only from the perspective of the observable world. From this vantage point death is the end, and we return to the wisdom of eat, drink and be merry (9:7). Everything in our world is but random luck “that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.” (9:11). Qohelet tells the story of a poor wise man who saves a city from destruction, but is not honored for doing so even from those he saves (9:13-18). He then goes through a series of examples of people working hard only to be rewarded by calamity for their works. He gives dire warnings for people who would defy the powerful of the earth even in secret (10:20).

Qohelet then changes gears and advocates giving to the needy, working to plant crops, but maintains that the future is uncertain and success is never assured (11:1-6). He encourages us to enjoy the light on our face but remember the darkness for it is never far away in this world. Our childhood and youth are fleeting (11:10). We must remember our Creator for old age comes quickly. In the final words Qohelet poetically describes the breakdown of age and death. When the sound of the grinding or our labors has gone low and the musick has ended (12:4). The silver cord and golden bowl are broken (12:6). These are poetical references to the spinal column and the skull. Then in a final affirmation of the afterlife, “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.” (12:7).

The book then ends with two different epilogues. It is unclear if verse 9 is part of the epilogue or a closing summation of the book's catch phrase. The first epilogue in 9-11 acts as a justification for the inclusion of the text as a sacred document. We are told “words of the wise are as goads”. From the earliest time it was understood that the text was valuable not for the answers it provides but for the questions it raised. Indeed some scriptural texts, such as the cited verses in Isaiah and 2 Nephi, seem like they are specifically intended to answer the questions it poses. The role of the text is to make the reader face these terrible questions. It uses the poetic imagery describing the words “as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd.” While Joseph Smith did not make any modifications to this book as part of his inspired translation of the Bible, he did find this verse of particular inspiration. In his journal he recorded on December 29, 1835:

at early candlelight I went and preachd at the school house to a crowded congregation, who listened with attention, while I delivered a lecture of about 3, hours in length, I had liberty in speaking, some presbyterians were present, as I after learned, and I expect that some of my saying’s set like a garment that was well fit[t]ed, as I exposed their abominations in the language of the scriptures, and I pray God that it may be like a nail in a sure place, driven by the master of assemblies

Joseph is here clearly combining this verse from the epilogue with imagery found in Isaiah 22:23-25.

The final epilogue in verses 12-14 is wholly different. The author of this epilogue is obviously uncomfortable with the message of the text and is concerned for those who might read it and conclude that the world lacks justice. Perhaps this same author inserted the somewhat oddly placed idea at the end of chapter 2. The attitude is a familiar theme that too much education can cause a crisis of faith. It seems to act as a very ancient TLDR. Verse 12 warns that reading books is hard. Verse 13 says “just keep the commandments and don't worry about the rest” and finally verse 14 promises that the injustice so deeply covered will be taken care of at some final judgment day.

So, in conclusion, Ecclesiastes is a masterful work of ancient literature that expresses many ideas that continue to perplex man today. These questions have answers that are powerful and real but these are not to be found in the text. Instead the text is intended to inspire the journey to seek such answers. Because its themes are so universal and because of the encouragement for people to bring their own answers, the text has an almost universal appeal. Despite questions over authorship, dating, or a perceived challenge to orthodox views, the book remains a treasured part of the scriptural canon.


1 comment:

  1. You need to post more often. What you write reflects great thought, insight and wisdom.