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Thought for the Month

From The St John's Eagle February 2002
The Book of Koheleth (Ecclesiastes)

The Book of Koheleth like the "Song of Songs", encountered considerable opposition before being accepted as a canonical book of the Hebrew scriptures. Even then, some scribal additions were deemed appropriate to tone down the bleak pessimism of the original text. In the long pull, it was probably the mistaken attribution to Solomon ("The Words of Koheleth, Son of David, King in Jerusalem". Verse 1:1) and the author's fictional assumption of the role of Solomon (though not explicitly named) in Chapters 1 & 2  that carried the day.

It is important to place Koheleth --- a nom de plume of obscure meaning --- in his historical context. The probable date of his work is 250 BCE --- more than seven hundred years after the reign of the ancient king of Israel. The author would appear to be a member of the aristocracy, living in Jerusalem, who had in his earlier years gathered about him a group of young men of the privileged class. Such groups, or "academies," were common at the time; they dispensed knowledge to those who would soon take their place in government, etc. The instruction given to them was eminently practical --- perhaps something like the MBA programs in our own day.

In his old age, Koheleth is compiling a book containing the results of his lifelong observation of, and meditation on, the human condition. He believes in God, but God is remote and ultimately unknowable. Koheleth accepts traditional worship (in moderation) , but all that he can say with any degree of assurance is that it is God's will that we live happy, successful, fulfilled lives while we are young. Obviously, only a few can attain this state of worldly happiness. For the most part, the universe is an unending round of meaningless activity; most human lives are miserable beyond expression. Everything is predetermined; nothing can be essentially changed. Koheleth has no messianic hope, no belief in life after death. He can only observe, with detachment and wry humor, thankful that he has himself been able to enjoy what pleasures are possible, even though, at the last, they are seen to be futile and evanescent --- they are all "vanities," mere "vapors." Even in his imaginary role as king over Jerusalem, he sees all his power, all his wealth, all his wisdom, as "a striving after wind." Not even Solomon can prevail over the essential meaninglessness of the universe.

These are the thoughts that Koheleth was writing down at the end of his life --- a final vision of the nullity of things. Yet this fundamental pessimism does not preclude many passages of extraordinary poetic beauty --- verses 1:4-11 or 3:1-9. Of these, none is more moving that the final "Allegory on Old Age," in which the enfeeblement of the body is compared to the decay and ruin of a great palace. (Verses 11:9, 12:1-7)

"Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth; walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes...

Remove vexation from your mind and put away pain from your body; for youth and the dawn of life are vanity.

Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come, and the years draw nigh, when you will say, "I have no pleasure in them";

Before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain;

In the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look through the windows are dimmed,

And the doors on the street are shut; when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low;

They are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along and desire fails, because mangoes to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets;

Before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is broken at the fountain, or the wheel is broken at the cistern.

And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it."

"Vanity of vanities", says Koheleth. "All is vanity". Although my view of things does not coincide with that of the ancient Hebrew sage, some members of St. John's may hear these verses at my memorial service.

by John Harcourt

Professor Harourt is the Charles A. Dana Professor of
English English Emeritus at Ithaca College.

Author's note: The best book I have found is Robert Gordis's "Koheleth--the Man and his World: A Study of Ecclesiastes". Gordis has also written brilliantly on Job and on The Song of Songs. Readers may be lucky enough to find an old recording of Ecclesiastes by James Mason, who strikes just the right notes of tired boredom and bitter humor.