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Friday Bible Blogging - Ecclesiastes 1 to 12

This entry is part of a series. For a listing of all entries in the series, go to the Index. Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). All headings are links to those Bible chapters.

BibleWow, has it really been over a month since the last time I posted in this series? Well, given my recent history of not really keeping up with weekly posts, this is the last time I'll apologize for being late. I will earnestly try to post every Friday, but if the past is any guide I won't actually keep that schedule, and I don't really feel like apologizing every post. In my defense for today, though, I think this may be the longest entry in the Friday Bible Blogging series, so it's taken me a little while to write.

Today's entry is the book of Ecclesiastes. It's rather thought provoking, and actually quite a bit different than pretty much every other book of the Bible. To quote a bit from Wikipedia:

There is considerable disagreement among scholars as to just what Ecclesiastes is about; is it positive and life-affirming or deeply pessimistic? Is Koheleth coherent or incoherent, insightful or confused, orthodox or heterodox? Is the ultimate message of the book to copy Koheleth, the wise man, or to avoid his errors? Some passages of Ecclesiastes seem to contradict other portions of the Old Testament, and even itself.

This was my favorite book of the Bible so far. As such, I've found many more passages to copy than normal, and my excerpts are often a bit longer than what I normally do. Sorry, but you'll just have to deal with it. I've finally found a book of the Bible that I'd recommend for its own merits, and not just historical or religious perspective.

Ecclesiastes, Chapter 1

First, let's address a translation issue depending on which translation you're reading. In several translations, like the NRSV that I'm reading or the King James Version, a certain Hebrew word is translated as 'vanity'. So, for example, we get a passage like this:

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
   vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

According to the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB), the Hebrew word, 'hebel', "literally means 'breath' or 'vapor'... In Ecclesiastes, it is used as a metaphor for things that cannot be grasped either physically or intellectually, things that are ephemeral, insubstantial, enigmatic, or absurd." It certainly helps to understand the meaning of those many passages by knowing what's meant by 'vanity'.

Here's a passage that I particularly like. In fact, I've quoted it a few times myself (such as in a footnote in my self-published book).

What has been is what will be,
   and what has been done is what will be done;
   there is nothing new under the sun.

The NOAB notes that the phrase 'under the sun' only appears in the Bible in Ecclesiastes, but is used elsewhere in ancient Near East literature. Additionally, it refers to the land of the living, as opposed to the land of the dead, unlike the related phrase, 'under the heavens', which refers to pretty much everywhere.

Here's another one that I like.

The people of long ago are not remembered,
   nor will there be any remembrance
of people yet to come
   by those who come after them.

It reminds me very much of Shelley's Ozymandias, and the somewhat melancholy inevitability of mortality.

Here's the next passage.

For in much wisdom is much vexation,
and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.

This verges on anti-intellectualism, but I prefer to interpret it a bit more charitably. It's kind of the opposite of ignorance is bliss. It's not so much that knowledge in itself brings sorrow, but that you learn sorrowful things about the world that you can't unlearn. How much happier I'd be if I knew about nothing but my own home life, job, and local community. But I can't ignore ISIS, North Korea, past atrocities like the Holocaust, etc.


Ecclesiastes, Chapter 2

If you notice, the passages I quoted up above were all in verse. But Ecclesiastes jumps around between verse and prose, and this chapter is mostly prose.

Mortality is a frequent theme of Ecclesiastes. Here's one passage that I like, about death being the great equalizer.

Yet I perceived that the same fate befalls all of them. Then I said to myself, 'What happens to the fool will happen to me also; why then have I been so very wise?' And I said to myself that this also is vanity. For there is no enduring remembrance of the wise or of fools, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How can the wise die just like fools? So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

Here's another one, not just about your own memory, but about what's going to happen to all your possessions and wealth when you've died. Despite all the work and toil you put into building your estate, there's no guarantee that whoever inherit it will put it to good use (particularly if you consider a few generations hence).

I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me --and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity.

This following passage is an attitude I adopted myself after becoming an atheist. It's not abject hedonism, but appreciating the moment and enjoying it.

There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil.

Granted, that passage was followed by a statement about this enjoyment coming from God, but I'll look past that.


Ecclesiastes, Chapter 3

I find it nearly impossible to read this passage without singing The Byrds in my head.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

Here's another version of the 'eat, drink, and be merry' line.

I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God's gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.

This next one reminds me of the expression, 'qué será, será'.

That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.

I suppose you could look at it pessimistically, that we have practically no power to alter the world, but I prefer to look at it more optimistically, such as the view typified in the Serenity Prayer - that we should focus on things where we can make a difference, and not stress out about the things beyond our control.

This is a rather skeptical passage to be in the Bible.

For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upwards and the spirit of animals goes downwards to the earth? So I saw that there is nothing better than that all should enjoy their work, for that is their lot; who can bring them to see what will be after them?

The NOAB described it as, "The author is apparently skeptical about the belief in survival after death, an idea which was beginning to be developed." That's interesting. It's certainly obvious from earlier Old Testament books that the ancient Hebrew idea of the afterlife was very different from the modern Christian one, so it's interesting to see someone writing on the issue in the midst of that evolution.

Ecclesiastes, Chapter 4

Ecclesiastes can certainly take some cynical turns. Consider this passage.

And I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive; but better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.

From a purely political point, I wonder how the anti-choice crowd would respond to this passage, since it could be taken to mean that it would be better for people to never be born. (I'm sure they'd just say that type of interpretation was out of context, and it's more about how bad living people can be.)

Here's another passage that I particularly like:

Better is a handful with quiet
   than two handfuls with toil,
   and a chasing after wind.

I can think of a few people who would benefit from this advice - don't work so hard just to acquire material things if you're never going to have the time to enjoy them.

I rather liked this passage as well.

Better is a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king, who will no longer take advice.

It's a bit anti-authoritarian for a Bible verse, as well


Ecclesiastes, Chapter 5

Here's some good, practical advice, even if I think the 'God' part is a bit superfluous.

When you make a vow to God, do not delay fulfilling it; for he has no pleasure in fools. Fulfil what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not fulfil it.

Here's another interesting one.

Sweet is the sleep of labourers, whether they eat little or much; but the surfeit of the rich will not let them sleep.

It does seem a bit idealized, that those simple, poor labourers are just plain folk who are happy with what they have, while the rich are all Scrooge's more concerned with money than anything else. And it's not really true in a literal sense, either, since most studies I've read about indicate that up to a certain point, people do tend to be happier the more money they have (e.g. Wall Street Journal - Can Money Buy You Happiness?). But there is a grain of truth to it. It is better to enjoy what you already have than to worry too much about getting more.

Here's another quote on a common theme in the book - you can't take it with you.

As they came from their mother's womb, so they shall go again, naked as they came; they shall take nothing for their toil, which they may carry away with their hands. This also is a grievous ill: just as they came, so shall they go; and what gain do they have from toiling for the wind?

The writer of Ecclesiastes doesn't just seem to take this as a given, but actually considers it 'a grievous ill'.

And here's yet another of the eat, drink, and be merry passages.

This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot.

This one adds on that we should also take enjoyment in our work.


Ecclesiastes, Chapter 6

Here's another passage that I like, along a similar theme to ones I've already quoted.

A man may beget a hundred children, and live for many years; but however many are the days of his years, if he does not enjoy life's good things, or has no burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. For it comes into vanity and goes into darkness, and in darkness its name is covered; moreover, it has not seen the sun or known anything; yet it finds rest rather than he. Even though he should live a thousand years twice over, yet enjoy no good--do not all go to one place?

What's the point in a long life if you don't even enjoy it?

And another one:

Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of desire; this also is vanity and a chasing after wind.

I believe the modern day equivalent of this would be a warning not to keep up with the Joneses.


Ecclesiastes, Chapter 7

I like this one, because of how much I value honesty. Just ask my daughter how much emphasis I put on always telling the truth and maintaining your good name.

A good name is better than precious ointment...

I like this one, too.

Do not say, 'Why were the former days better than these?'
   For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.

It reminds me of the Franklin Adams quote, "Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory."

This next one reminds me of the Buddhist Middle Way. I suppose a less mystical way of putting it is 'everything in moderation'.

In my vain life I have seen everything; there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evildoing. Do not be too righteous, and do not act too wise; why should you destroy yourself? Do not be too wicked, and do not be a fool; why should you die before your time? It is good that you should take hold of the one, without letting go of the other; for the one who fears God shall succeed with both.

Here's another bit of good advice.

Do not give heed to everything that people say, or you may hear your servant cursing you; your heart knows that many times you have yourself cursed others.

Despite all the passages in this book that I do like, here's one that's a bit troubling.

One man among a thousand I found, but a woman among all these I have not found. See, this alone I found, that God made human beings straightforward, but they have devised many schemes.

The NOAB has the following footnote for that verse, "this notoriously difficult sentence may be a gloss prompted by misinterpretation of v.26 as referring to women in general. The first part of the verse refers to the elusiveness of wisdom..."


Ecclesiastes, Chapter 8

Here's a bit of pragmatic advice.

Keep the king's command because of your sacred oath. Do not be terrified; go from his presence, do not delay when the matter is unpleasant, for he does whatever he pleases. For the word of the king is powerful, and who can say to him, 'What are you doing?' Whoever obeys a command will meet no harm, and the wise mind will know the time and way.

We may not have kings in most of the world, today, but there are still powerful people who can make your life difficult. The advice here seems to be that at times it's easier just to keep those people happy.

Here, the writer makes an observation that can be summed up simply as 'life's not fair'.

There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity.

Here's another eat, drink, and be merry passage.

So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun.

Here's another of the few passages I didn't like.

When I applied my mind to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how one's eyes see sleep neither day nor night, then I saw all the work of God, that no one can find out what is happening under the sun. However much they may toil in seeking, they will not find it out; even though those who are wise claim to know, they cannot find it out.

In this sense, this book reminded me of the Tao Te Ching. While there were many parts that were interesting or thought provoking, there were also a few passages that run counter to Enlightenment ideals. Now, I'm not saying people will ever understand everything, but this passage from Ecclesiastes seems especially pessimistic.


Ecclesiastes, Chapter 9

Here's another passage that illustrates how this writer's concept of death and an afterlife was much different than the modern Christian's.

But whoever is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no more reward, and even the memory of them is lost. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished; never again will they have any share in all that happens under the sun.

In fact, while this passage seems a little too pessimistic to me, I think there's good wisdom in it. We only get this one life, and there is no after for us (at least, not in any conventional sense of self - look for the section on 'materialistic reincarnation' in Does Religion Really Answer the Tough Questions?).

Here's a passage that's interesting not just for its message but also for its probable source.

Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.

According to the NOAB, "A similar passage in the ancient Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh suggests that the advice to enjoy life in the full knowledge of certain death was a piece of folk wisdom."

Here is a very famous passage from Ecclesiastes that I particularly like.

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favour to the skilful; but time and chance happen to them all. For no one can anticipate the time of disaster. Like fish taken in a cruel net, and like birds caught in a snare, so mortals are snared at a time of calamity, when it suddenly falls upon them.

It speaks to the element of chance in everything that we do, that no matter how talented or well prepared we might be, shear bad luck may dash our hopes. Here's how the NOAB describes this passage, "The author disputes the cause-and-effect or act-and-consequence logic that characterizes Proverbs' view of life. Outcomes are not predictable."

Again thinking purely politically, I think this is a lesson that certain elements of the right wing should take to heart, recognizing that people in dire straits are often there through no fault of their own.


Ecclesiastes, Chapter 10

Here's another passage I like, a more ancient version of 'one bad apple spoils the bunch.'

Dead flies make the perfumer's ointment give off a foul odour;
   so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honour.

Since I've mentioned politics a few times in today's entry, here's one for the right wingers.

The heart of the wise inclines to the right,
   but the heart of a fool to the left.

Of course, I take a bit of issue with that (if I used emoticons, there'd be a little smiley here). I guess this just comes down to the long standing mistrust of left-handed people.

Here's another good one.

Whoever digs a pit will fall into it;
   and whoever breaks through a wall will be bitten by a snake.
Whoever quarries stones will be hurt by them;
   and whoever splits logs will be endangered by them.

Actually, I'd like it a bit better if it just stopped after the first couple lines, since they seem to be implying just desserts, or a type of poetic justice. The latter two lines make it seem just like occupational hazards.

Here's one that didn't jump out at me particularly until I read the commentary in the NOAB.

Through sloth the roof sinks in,
   and through indolence the house leaks.

According to the NOAB, this might be "subversive political commentary in the guise of an innocuous proverb. The saying appears to be about the ruin of a house because of the owner's laziness, but the house may have political overtones, suggesting the incompetence and indiscretion of the leaders. Similarly, v. 19 may be read as a proverb affirming life's pleasures and rewards, or as a critique of the irresponsible lifestyle of the elite."

Here's another piece of pragmatic advice concerning kings and the wealthy.

Do not curse the king, even in your thoughts,
   or curse the rich, even in your bedroom;
for a bird of the air may carry your voice,
   or some winged creature tell the matter.

Some people think this might even be the origin of the expression, a little bird told me.


Ecclesiastes, Chapter 11

Here's another passage interesting for its probably origin.

Send out your bread upon the waters,
   for after many days you will get it back.

According to the NOAB, this is "a parallel from an Egyptian wisdom test" about "spontaneous good deeds".

Here's another bit of good advice. In modern language, I think we'd call it diversifying your investments.

Divide your means seven ways, or even eight,
   for you do not know what disaster may happen on earth.

This passage struck me.

When clouds are full,
   they empty rain on the earth;
whether a tree falls to the south or to the north,
   in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie.

It seems to be about people's powerlessness over nature.


Ecclesiastes, Chapter 12

I'm not exactly sure what to make of this line.

Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

I certainly agree with the first part - there is no end to learning, so no end to making new books. I'm not sure if the second part is derogatory towards studying, or just saying that it can be tiring.

According to the NOAB, the book originally closed with the very next phrase, "The end of the matter", but then a few more lines were tacked on at some later date. Moreover, those extra lines having to do with obeying God's commandments aren't really consistent with the rest of the book.

---

Ecclesiastes is by far the best book of the Bible I've read so far. It's very thought provoking and has plenty of good advice. My only worry now, though, is that I've already read the best of what the Bible has to offer, and it will only be downhill from here.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Comments

I too love this book. So much so that I have now memorized it and travel about performing it while cooking an eastern meal. The response has been quite astounding. People do want to hear wisdom from 2500 years ago.
One quote you have missed is the theme of the book. This is a book about our working lives and it all relates to his theme question "what do we gain from all the toil at which we labour under the sun."
I would love to mail you a free copy of my translation of Ecclesiastes. Just send me an email with your mailing address.

Thanks,

Vance

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