From:  Ecclesiastes and the Perpetual Paradoxes of Life               Return to Home

By Roland H. Worth, Jr.                               © 2012

 

 

 

[Page 29]

 

 

Chapter One:

The Paradox of Intelligence and Knowledge:

We Idealize Them, but They are Unable to Bring Full Satisfaction in a World of Perpetual Change

(1:1-1:18)

 

 

 

            The person who can not “dream” of a better world--either personally or for society--condemns himself to perpetual unhappiness.  Ironically enough, however, the person who does “dream” of betterment may fail to reach that goal because it is sought from the wrong sources or because the perpetual changes of life will bring us both good and ill.  On this earth, there is never a permanent utopia, only periods when the dream comes tantalizingly close only to vanish again. 

Hence all our intelligence and knowledge and seeking for enlightenment inevitably becomes frustrated by either our own misdirection or by circumstances beyond any one’s control.  They bring us pleasure because of what they have made possible, but simultaneously discontent us because the results fall short of our objective.  “Absurdity!  Absurdity!” is the cry of our mind as it rebels at the intolerable situation. 

 

 

 

 

The Flow of the Argument

 

A.  We can’t base happiness on what will happen tomorrow because in a very real sense life consists only of change—there is never a permanent status quo or stability (1:1-11)

 

B.  Hence we also can not trust wisdom to bring satisfaction in spite of its rightful appeal (1:12-18)

 

 

[Page 30]

 

 

 

A.  We Can’t Base Happiness on What

Will Happen Tomorrow

Because in a Very Real Sense Life

Consists Only of Change——

There Is Never a Permanent Status Quo or Stability (1:1-11)

 

 

            The king’s condemnation of unbridled optimism (1:2) has challenged translators as to how to render it into English.  The traditional reading is, “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”[1]  In modern English, “vanity” makes us think in terms of looks and outward appearance.  The person (traditionally a woman) who is so preoccupied with the exterior physical image that matters of substance become irrelevant.  Think in terms of plastic surgery and face lifts and inordinate expenditures on clothing.  Hollywood, of course, has vividly demonstrated the ability of both genders to fall into this trap—making obvious what had always been true.

            Every one but the person involved eventually recognizes that it is all show and appearance and nothing of substance.  Daniel C. Fredericks notes that outside Ecclesiastes the translation has much to commend itself since it clearly carries the idea of “vain and valueless” in its application to evils such as idolatry.[2]  Ecclesiastes, however, seemingly applies it to be just about everything in life (1:2; 12:8).  Yet if the author intended it in this sense, how could he possibly give words of praise to certain phenomena of life such as joy?[3]  Hence one looks for a different connotation in some or all of its usages in the pages of this work.           

Though thinking of life as a whole as “vanity” (in its modern connotations) requires a great mental leap, it is not a totally unreasonable one.  When one “must” wear the right clothes with the right designer labels, when one “must” go to the right schools and the right college, when one “must” have the best of cars and the best of homes, it doesn’t require a great effort to recognize that people, by their behavior, are applying to all of their life a term that, in its strictest sense, applies to appearance. 

An older generation recognized this lifestyle by calling it “keeping up with the Joneses.”  It didn’t matter what you were; life was all about what you appeared to be—especially in relation to others.
            As a ruler, the author was obviously subjected to this temptation.  In about as close an overt self-criticism as the book contains he clearly includes himself as guilty of the offense.  Otherwise, why such intense frustration over other people’s [Page 31]   weaknesses that did not affect him personally unless he sensed something of the failure in himself as well?

            As king he would have had access to the finest attire the nation’s revenues could purchase.  Foreign potentates seeking favor would find the giving of such garments as natural as modern ones give expensive gifts to the President of the United States, as a sign of both good will and as examples of the finest quality products from their homeland. 

            As the decades went by, as perceptive a mind as the author’s could hardly avoid looking at himself and his court and think in terms of aging peacocks:  vividly attired but inevitably growing older and with nothing to stop it.  The outward vestments as glorious as ever, but the bodies they hide, slowly declining and growing ragged.  Vanity it would all appear and so it was.  

            But even though this gap between reality and veneer represented the tension between human physical vanity and actual decay, one has to “work at it” to make the connection.  Hence it would be far better to seek out the underlying concept “vanity” conveys and utilize that idea instead.     

            The original Hebrew word is hebel (some prefer the transliteration hevel).[4]  Literally, it means “breath, vapor”[5] or such parallel conceptions as “puff” and “breeze.”[6]  (Elsa Tamez suggests that the term is used literally only in Isaiah 57:13.)[7]  Demonstrating that it is one of Qohelet’s key images or concepts, it is utilized on thirty-eight occasions in the book of Ecclesiastes and five times in 1:2 alone.[8]  In the entire Old Testament it is used only seventy-three times altogether.[9] 

If one desires to retain the type of imagery carried by the original term, then “hot air” (= empty, useless, futile, frustrating, etc.) provides the same general conception, though the colloquial nature of the phrase argues against it being used as an actual translation.  Duane A. Garrett suggests that the English equivalent concept would be “insubstantial and transitory,”[10] just as a breath and breeze are.

Hugo Odeberg opts for “emptiness and inanity” both in order to provide a roughly literal meaning as well as a symbolic one at the same time.[11]  H. C. Leupold suggests “fleeting and transitory”[12] which both describes what a breath or vapor is as well as providing a metaphorical concept of impermanence, instability, and inevitability of change.        

The Septuagint chose mataiotes, which connotes “emptiness, futility, purposelessness, transitoriness.”[13]  The Latin Vulgate selected the more specific vanitas, which conveyed the meaning of “emptiness” and thereby omitted the other connotations the word could carry.[14] 

The situation is further complicated by the possibility that the actual meaning shifts from passage to passage (rather than maintaining the same strict intention in each).[15]  This scenario has in its favor the fact that in any language a single word can significantly shift in connotation according to its context.[16]   Even so, it would still be useful to recognize the basic conceptual intent that is being modified and adapted throughout the book.

Furthermore, the emphasis on “all” being hebel (1:2) argues for an underlying consistency of intent.[17]  Yet when the contextual approach to translating hebel is carried out, the suggested translations represent “distinct qualities, not [Page 32]    merely different nuances or colorations of one concept”—arguing that Qohelet’s basic point is being miscommunicated in one or more sets of renditions.[18]    

The NKJV marginal note on this verse suggests several terms that might convey the underlying sense:  “Absurdity.  Frustration.  Futility.  Nonsense.”  All share in common somewhat similar (but not identical) diagnoses of how to describe that tension between reality and appearance.  Of them, I personally prefer “absurdity.”[19]  (See the discussion at the end of this chapter “On Translating Hebel.”)

            A recognition of life’s absudity and its inevitable futility, emptiness and frustration was recognized by others who we would not normally connect with the wisdom tradition.  The Psalmist refers to it upon varied occasions (Psalms 39:5-6; 62:9-10; 144; 4).  In the New Testament Paul alludes to it as well (Romans 8:20).  

            Yet in interpreting Qohelet’s thoughts we need to always keep in mind that he avoided despair (especially its suicidal forms) by taking the approach that through all is ultimately hebel yet, even within that context, causes of joy and happiness can still be found and--when found—should be enjoyed to the fullest.  As Elizabeth Huwiler rightly observes,[20]

 

In counterpoint to the relentless insistence on hebel is a series of affirmations of joy or pleasure in human existence—in eating, drinking, working, loving (2:24-26; 3:22; 5:18-20; 8;15; 9:7-10; 11:7-8). . . .  Such positive expressions most often occur in complicated contexts that also include some negatives.  These commendations of pleasure serve multiple functions.  They provide some balance for the frequent “meaningless” judgments and underscore Qohelet’s conviction that there is some good in life.  At the same time, they qualify and restrict that goodness, putting it into the context of human limitations.

A particular challenge for interpreters is the fact that Qohelet clings tenaciously to both claims:  all life is hebel, and yet joy is both possible and good.  It is important not to make one of these claims the only message of the book and dismiss the other as either a distraction or a grudging qualification.  Qohelet insists on both, and often in the same passage.  Thus any interpretation that attempts to separate them to exclude one is a distortion.
 

 

            Having laid down his premise of the absurdity of life, the monarch then illustrates the every changing nature of life by both human and natural phenomena.

           

1.  No one can fully profit from his hard work because we die and leave it all to the next generation.  In contrast to such human fragility, it is only the earth that abides forever (1:3-4). 

Although through the ages religious theorists have used “the earth abides forever” as proof of the eternal existence of the planet, in context the point is simply the earth’s permanence in comparison with that of the individual human being.  In comparison, the triviality of our sixty or seventy or even eighty years of life is a mere second on the clock of the earth’s lifespan, past and present.

[Page 33]           The hard work an individual engages in is not directly for the next generation (at least not beyond the time they become adults), it is for his or her own advancement and prosperity.  Yet all the countless hours of intensive labor—both mental and physical—provides only a short-term advancement.  The hour of death inevitably arrives and, with it, the passing on to the next generation of what we have left behind.  That is fine and good, but that does not alter the fact that we were primarily laboring for the improvement of our own situation in life (even when that was intended to assist others as well) and now all that has gone down the tubes.

            From the standpoint of the ruler, this is even more galling than to others.  He--that age had very few “shes” in the position of monarch--could delegate only a certain amount of work to subordinates.  No matter how much there was, there were decisions that could only be made by the king.  There were disagreements among counselors that had to be decided.  There were appeals from those outside the government power structure. 

The physical strains were few but the mental ones many.  And in the case of Solomon we know that the outward appearance was one of vast prosperity and success.  Yet the recognition that all the skill and work that had made it possible would be only of temporary value to himself had to be galling.  Inevitable, true, but galling to the pride and self-respect.       

            When Jesus dealt with the inevitability of death, He used it to raise two inter-related issues.  The first was how can even the greatest earthly success truly and permanently benefit you, if you lose your soul in divine judgment?  Then you are in an even more tragic situation than if you had never had the wealth (Matthew 16:26-27).  The flip side was the futility of spending all one’s time striving for things that will end while ignoring the spiritual things that won’t (John 6:26-27).  These were not in the purview of Solomon; he was content with the more this-world aspects of the subject.

 

            2.  Perhaps at this point, the king is seeking a logical palliative to relieve the grief that this brutal fact of absurdity conveys to both his mind and emotions, for he next turns his attention to the surrounding world and reminds himself that nowhere can this situation be escaped:  both the world and life is always a system of continuous change in which nothing is ever permanent (1:5-7).  The sun rises and sets every day (1:5).  The wind is always moving from one direction to another (1:6).  Perpetual cycles that never cease.

Another such phenomena:  The rivers run into the sea and yet they are never full.  Somehow the waters manage to return to the rivers to flow into the sea yet again[21] (1:7).  An acute deduction but he makes no pretense to understanding the means by which it occurs.  We would think of the evaporation of water into the sky and its transformation via rain clouds into water which returns the water back to the rivers; whether some vague form of this idea was in his mind or some other scenario or whether it was viewed as just one of the “unsolvable mysteries of life” we do not know. 

So far as his argument goes, the solution is totally irrelevant.  He just accepted the fact that somehow it happened.[22]  And, when one has no full or

[Page 34]    adequate explanation for a phenomena, what else can be done except accept the obvious even if we can’t explain it?         

           

3.  Mortals are malcontents by nature (1:8):  what we do is never enough.  What we see never brings full satisfaction.  What we hear in the way of compliments or possible future plans is never adequate to fully satisfy our souls and dreams.  We always feel there is something “more” somewhere out there, something that will fill the void in our emotions or thoughts or plans.

            Rulers, of all people, knew this specialy well.  By the very fact that they were blessed—sometimes cursed—with numerous advisers, they recognized that there was always going to be more than one option available to them.  Yet the king who was determined to serve the best interests of his people could easily second guess himself:  is this really the best approach?  Will this really make the situation better or is it only a band-aid when a more fundamental difficulty needs to be addressed?  Should I have chosen the policy that other adviser recommended?

            Yet at some point a decision has to be made and the plans have to be made to implement it.  Whether it is the “best” decision or even only an “adequate” one.   

            There is nothing wrong with making plans or taking advantage of opportunities that come our way.  Even if they are only “good” choices rather than the “best.”  The problem lies in never learning to be content while striving for betterment.  In that vein of thought, Paul urged slaves to be reconciled with their slavery but if the opportunity came to be freed to take advantage of it (1 Corinthians 7:20-21). 

Dealing with ancient Christian businessmen who thought they could lay out their plans for success far into the future, James warned them to hinge all their hopes on the strategies being in accord with God’s purposes for them and others (James 4:13-16).  Paul could even cite himself as an example of the man who could go through anything yet not despair (Philippians 4:11-13).  Even when decisions “blow up in our face” we can still survive the consequences.

Yet none of this removes the pain.  None of this alters the frustration, the discontent, and, yes, the recognition of how absurd it is that such good intentions, good plans, and hard work come to naught.  At such points we walk in Solomon’s shoes.

 

            4.  However much change, things never really change (1:9-11).  Technologically speaking this is absurd, but that is a twenty-first century viewpoint and one that only became rational about a century  or two ago.  Prior to then, technological changes were so few—and over such a prolonged period of time--that they were aberrations even when they ultimately altered society dramatically (such as in the printing press).

            a.  A “literalistic” approach to the language.  But our text is not talking about technology.  It is talking about how society works and functions.  Corruption never dies out.  Time-servers never perish.  Even ideas never die, but are recast in accord with the stereotypes and illusions of a changed culture.  In the middle ages we spoke of angels intervening on earth.  Today it is space aliens.  The labels differ but the underlying concept remains remarkably similar.  Demons are obsolete.  But among [Page 35]    millions there is the belief that evil aliens are putting implants into selected human beings and otherwise experimenting with the human race.    

b.  We turn “forever” into a description of our own and possibly the past generation.  The commonly accepted moral assumptions of the society of my youth (1943-1961) were those that seemed to “always have been this way.”  Those growing up from say 1994-2012 likewise tend to assume that their moral views and cultural assumptions reflect the way things “always have been.”  But how diametrically contradictory those moral assumptions actually are in the two periods! 

We assume perpetuity because it has remained the same so long as we are aware.  In other words, we actually tend to describe “always” as meaning “always in our lifetime” and, sometimes, even including that of our parents through that second-hand knowledge.  

            c.  Yet the image of permanence is an illusion (1:11), produced by human forgetfulness and ignorance of the past.  The phenomena of stability the text describes is produced by more than merely our inability (with rare exceptions) to excel others; there is another aspect to it as well:  Collective human forgetfulness.  F. Buck rightly suggests that, “A thing is thought new, only because its previous existence is not remembered.”[23] 

I write history.  I will abstain from the ranting and raving that could justifiably be included here.  But we might well re-word the old adage about those who forget history will relive it:  those who are uninterested in history will ultimately be bitten by it (as its modern equivalent takes us down a parallel road of tragedy and disaster).  But those are the negative things of history.  Sadly we forget the successes and positive ones as well.    

            How applicable is this principle to Solomon?  Rulers want to make a mark, to do something distinctive.  Make war. Make peace.  Gain their nation an international reputation in one form or another.  Yet try as they might, whatever they’ve done has been done before.  And even if they do defy the odds and do something unprecedented, the world is more likely to forget about it than remember it.

At its human most extreme, even genocide is not unique to any one nation or any one century.  It simply gets repeated, but with a different set of victims. 

Yet whatever happens—however tragic--it all creates a temporary mark on the world but nothing more.  The expanded borders you have earned at great cost and blood your grandson loses.  For that matter, is there a large chunk of territory anywhere in the world that has not gone through a succession of rulers, most of whom would have no use for what came next and even less the regime currently in power? 

The author could see enough of this happen in his own lifetime and that of his contemporaries to have the dread feeling—no, the grim acknowledgment of the hated fact—that his own accomplishments would make no more permanent a mark than that of others of his generation.  He might, hopefully, accomplish great good.  But it would soon be forgotten.  

            Verse 11 notes that the “now equals forever” reflex is a permanent plague on society, “There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of things that are to come by those who will come after.”  In other [Page 36]     words, they will share our short-sightedness, converting “today” into “forever.”  And forgetting how things used to be.

That is a poignant concept to me as a historian.  World War One was once simply known as “the Great War” and “the war to end war.”  Today I attended the birthday of my son-in-law and my daughter asked me what the First World War was all about.  Millions of dead.  The borders of Europe totally reworked.  The excuses laid for the rise of Hitler.  The overthrow of the Czarist regime and the Bolshevik counter-revolution that brought into power an expansionist ideology that killed even more millions and shaped the history of the remainder of the twentieth century.  And yet few know any more than my daughter of that horrible tragedy that laid the ideological and nationalistic seeds for the bloodshed that lasted almost an entire century. 

On his own lesser scale, the ancient king had recognized this reality.  Of what value is it to be the wisest king who ever lived (cf. 1:12-18) and yet be largely forgotten?  Or to be one of the greatest conquerors (such as Alexander the Great) about whom now few know more than the bare name?  At least Alexander has been permitted by skeptics to retain his reputation as world conqueror.  Poor Solomon is even denied the prestige of unprecedented wisdom.        

            A consumer society such as that of the western world—and to the extent practical, the competing local equivalents throughout the world—encourage the very conspicuous consumption that Ecclesiastes implicitly mocks.  It creates ever changing “styles” which are called “better” but are actually only “different.”

            Our western society brags of its vast and unprecedented accomplishments.  Yet it was not the technological west but untechnological antiquity that built the pyramids.

            We have reached the “end of history,” to use the conceited and foolish terminology of not that many years ago.  We have not created the synthesis for all of the future.  The Greeks erected an impressive and influential culture, but they vanished, with only key remnants preserved in later ones.  Likewise the Romans.  Likewise medieval Catholicism. 

Each represented a powerful consensus of educated opinion and seemed destined to rule forever, just like we think our cultural-technological-ideological world will.  But if our world is still around a thousand years from now, our descendants will look back with just as much amazement at our conceit as we do upon those of past centuries who thought that in them the definitive and permanently defining point in culture and politics and economics had been reached.     

 

 

 

 

B.  Hence We Also Can Not Trust Wisdom to

Bring Satisfaction

in Spite of Its Rightful Appeal (1:12-18)

 

 

[Page 37]

 

            The author consciously set out to “seek and search out by wisdom” everything that could be learned and deduced about the nature of the surrounding world (1:13).  (This certainly fits the Biblical picture of Solomon’s goal in life.)  The author’s humility is demonstrated by the fact that he does not regard this search as something reserved either for royalty or for the ancient equivalent of the intellectual class.  Rather the searching out of wisdom was a task given “to the sons of man” (1:13), i.e., all human beings. 

One of the besetting sins of the college world is a strange despising of even the educated outside their ranks.  When I was a typesetter we once processed a manuscript where the author dismissed a certain historian as a mere “writer” while reserving the term “historian” solely for fellow academics.  Yet that mere “writer” had uncovered invaluable source documents that the professionals had overlooked or been unable to talk the holders into sharing.  The challenge was not to their genuineness nor to the interpretation placed upon them by the “writer.” 

No, they lacked acceptability solely because the right intellectual class had not handled, touched, and given them their formal blessing.  This ancient ruler would have been appalled at such egotistical indulgence.  To him knowledge and insight was to be the right of one and all.

            Yet wisdom-knowledge seeking had a built in problem:  it was a “burdensome task” (1:13).  I have just finished a massive four volume commentary series on First Corinthians—it edges toward 500,000 words in length.  I’m in the exhausted, “glad it’s over” phase.  Learning can be deep and tiresome work, however useful you hope the results will be for other people’s benefit.

Proverbs 2:1-5 speaks of how one must search for wisdom and insight anywhere and everywhere, treating the result as being as valuable as silver.  Paul does not use the language, but he certainly conveys the “work” aspect of it in his instructions to Timothy to “meditate” upon the Pauline writings (1 Timothy 4:15-16). 

Any one who has ever tried to establish the historical truth on any major controversial topic will sympathize with the Preacher in describing how “burdensome” the search for accurate understanding can be.  The checking of facts.  The verifying of their credibility.  The cross-checking against rival claims.  Equally importantly, evaluating the reasonableness of the reasoning being invoked. 

After all, you can prove anything if you “polish” the facts sufficiently.  As an under-graduate I was once assigned the task of proving the existence of Atlantis, but I was limited to the six or seven sources quoted at length in a certain textbook.  I did very well on that paper (an A- if my memory serves me correctly—and that was before the more recent infamous era of grade inflation) but the teacher was astute enough to add a telling note that she recognized full well what I had done, “You’ve twisted, misrepresented, and distorted every fact you’ve presented.” 

She was right.  And I learned an invaluable lesson in how easy it is to do it and to be on guard against it when I’d writing what I really stand behind.

            Someone once said that inspiration (in the human sense) is 1% genius and 99% perspiration.  We think of Solomon on his throne, calmly conjuring up nuggets [Page 38]    of wisdom and insight.  He knew better.  Much of it had to be sweated out of himself and the sources he utilized. 

The Lord assured that the finished product came out right, but the king himself had to play his part as well.  He was seeking, after all, not “revelation” (as in the prophets, where everything came from God) but “wisdom” (which, in this context, surely implies a degree of personal input and consideration not required when everything is being directly revealed.)        

            This hard thinking had brought him to a disturbing conclusion:  the unchangeability of the world in which we live (1:15).  As so often, he overstates the case.  Consider it this way:  Would he even bother to search for wisdom unless he thought it could, at least to a reasonable degree, be used to produce desired change?

Furthermore, as a ruler, with the power of life and death, he would never be so naïve to be an absolutist in such an assertion:  if you are executed, the world has changed; if your life is spared at the last minute, the world has changed—at least your world.  In the broader fields of taxation and foreign relations, decisions also have a real impact. 

His point is not to deny the obvious, but to stress what change so often causes us to forget:  that so much remains fundamentally impervious to our attempts at alteration.  And that which does occur, will soon go unrecognized by future generations, so preoccupied will they be by the “here and now.”

            The author of The New Class, decades ago, summed it up well:  Every revolution creates a new class of oppressors.  It eliminates one set, but at the cost of establishing a new one.  Communism suppressed the tyranny of the capitalists and replaced it with the tyranny of the Communist bureaucracy.

            We have abolished slavery in most parts of the world.  But there are many places where if you wish to join a union you are in danger of being fired and even death.  On the other (and equally repugnant level) there are places where if you don’t want to join a union, you face unremitting harassment and even death threats.

            The list could go on endlessly.  We can change so much.  But never, ever enough.  It drove the Preacher to distraction.

            This literally pained him:  he had so diligently sought wisdom and yet in that which he discovered he found disillusionment and sorrow (1:16-18).  To know is not synonymous with the ability to change.  To understand is no guarantee of improvement.  We see this on the personal level.  We can well understand the multitude of pressures and anxieties that lead us to drink too much.  We may well grasp the underlying motivation, but without prayer, counseling, and encouragement, we may be able to alter nothing at all.

And even the fact that we both “know” and “understand” is no absolute assurance that we “know” and “understand” the right things.  For example, to understand the economic underpinnings that often encourage international war can easily blind us to the existence of tyrannies of left and right who act the way they do out of pure self interest rather than anything economic. 

At the other extreme, it is equally easy to disguise every war as one of unmitigated idealism against tyrants while ignoring those whose economic interests are injured or promoted by the conflict.  And the supreme irony:  even when we fully recognize the existence of both economic and personality predispositions, if we [Page 39]    are the leaders of a nation we are still going to have to do something.  Whatever it is, it is unlikely to be “purely” good or evil in either intent or result.  Because of that need to act in some manner.        

            The frustration such insights created in a monarch had to be immense.  Rulers have power.  Rulers expect to use power.  And rulers expect to see things change when they use that clout.  The frustration comes not in gleefully looking over what has altered but at the perception of how much one has utterly failed to change.

           

In this section the author deals with two  problems that plague much of thinking today just as did that of the ancient world.

            (1)  First, that change will make things better.  (Isn’t that the very rationale for change in any positive sense?)  There is a tremendous “drag,” however, that resents fundamental changes and, when they occur, prefers to ignore them and revert to the old ways.  In some ways and in some fashions, of course, change does “stick.”  But there is a fundamental inclination for reversion to what has been expected as the norm.

Hence, though some changes seem to alter a society, yet in other ways, the same old problems remain.  We alleviate poverty, but we never eliminate it.  Few would think of openly ridiculing those who have less, but through “gratuitous consumption” they mock through the ultra-expensive “prestige” clothes and vehicles they utilize.  Are mocking words necessary when visual insults do such an adequate job of “putting us in our place?”

We avoid most international wars, but at any given time it seems a dozen or more major insurrections and civil wars burn around the globe.  Not to mention “insurgent” groups of non-government forces who think it’s a holy cause to distribute dead bodies in countries they aren’t from and, often, have no interest in living within.  

Back in the 60s or 70s I happened to read through my mother’s copy of the newspaper published by the cigarette maker’s union that she was a member of.  The topic of an editorial was how little peace there ever is in the world.  It claimed that since the twentieth century began there was only one year in which there had not been a major international or intranational conflict being waged.  I wouldn’t be surprised if they overestimated the number of years of peace. 

Peace is, to be blunt, a delusion, but we can still pray for it, labor for it, and hope for it.  Not because it can be, but because it should be.  And because wars’ excesses can be minimized and the number of conflicts reduced in number.  Better “peace for some or more” than “peace for none.” 

            (2)  Secondly, Ecclesiastes shows us the delusion that insight will cure a problem.  Critics have sometimes called this the fundamental failure of psychoanalysis:  that if you know why you do something, that will enable you to avoid the failure in the future.  In the “real world” it rarely works out that way.  For example:  You hate, perhaps, because you were abused as a child.  But that neither removes the hate nor guarantees that you won’t act in a similar abusive manner. 

A change of behavior requires the substitution—the conscious substitution—of a different manner of action.  When John the Baptist spoke of the need to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:8), that is what he had in mind.  In

[Page 40]    accomplishing that, there will be failures, there will be relapses, there will be moments of despair.  But so long as we are alive there is still the possibility of change.  But only if we persist in the internal fight to bring it about.    

 

 

           

 

On Translating Hebel

 

 

            David A. Hubbard’s commentary translation varies between individual passages with “mystery,” “enigma” and “futility” being the most common renderings.[24]  R. N. Whybray believes that hebel is “mainly” used by Qohelet in the sense of “futility.”[25]  Tremper Longman opts for “meaningless” or “completely meaningless”—the latter when the plural form is used.[26]    More off-the-beaten path suggestions have been “mystery,” “enigma,” and “irony.”[27]

            Much scholarly debate has raged over which of these to use and additional possible alternatives as well.  One would be hard pressed to find any that has not been challenged.[28]                   

            As to the individual translation alternatives, “vanity” deserves attention because it is the traditional one.  Yet (as we saw earlier) it so heavily emphasizes the element of pride[29] that its use in other contexts does not represent normal or natural English usage.

            “Meaningless” seems an absurd translation for a work whose intent is to give meaning to what has been observed and seen.  Why even make the effort if you really believe it is all meaningless?  (As part of a suicide note, perhaps, but surely not in a “philosophical” treatise to be shared with others while one is still alive!) 

“Futility” has been objected to by R. N. Whybray on the grounds that the author would not have wasted his time in giving “practical advice to young men about the way they should live if he had thought that life was ultimately futile.”[30] 

Harold I. Leiman believes that the word has two variable meanings, according to context.  One is “worthlessness” and the other is “futility,” the word we currently have before our attention.  “Worthlessness,” Leiman tells us, “refers to a situation where the objective is attainable but hardly worth the effort, whereas futility refers to a situation where the objective is impossible of attainment.”[31] 

Yet the role of wisdom teacher assumes that at least some of the goals can be reached and some are worth obtaining:  otherwise we make mincemeat of the values the book of Proverbs was preserved to meet and encourage.  Even assuming a different author(s) from that book, the Preacher is clearly walking in the “wisdom tradition” which sought wisdom to make the current life better and more understandable.  To so thoroughly label anything and everything (in 1:2 in particular) as “worthless” or “futile” seems an utter repudiation of the very basis of the craft.  

            Even “absurdity” is not without grounds for challenge.  Eric S. Christianson, who prefers this alternative, concedes that the paring of hebel “with phrases such as ‘a grievous ill’ and so on, carry a moral aspect.”  Therefore, at least some of the [Page 41]    things critiqued as hebelQoheleth often clearly regards to be evil or unjust in themselves (especially 1:13-14; 2:23; 8:14; cf. 7:6-7).  Can the notion of absurdity therefore be extended to include the moral aspect?  Yes, but this entails a choice.  While it is probable that most readers consider what is absurd to be ‘not good,’ the word’s intellectual sense allows the reader to choose to ignore its moral aspect.”[32] 

Indeed, perhaps the word would be even more appealing to Qoheleth since he is writing “wisdom” type literature, in which the specifically religious element is secondary in emphasis to the “this worldly” aspect of the teaching.  Furthermore an outcome may be absurd either because we did it, knowing it to be wrong, and should not be shocked at the result or because there is a result that seems inappropriate and uncalled for and it is absurd for that very different reason.[33]  The first involves a religious or moral root for the absurdity; the second roots it in the incongruity between intent and result.            

           

 

 

Footnotes

 



[1] For an attempt to prove that the author did not intend for the reader to take his words seriously, see Harold I. Leiman, Koheleth:  Life and Its Meaning (Jerusalem:  Feldheim Publishers, 1978), 30-31.

  

[2] Daniel C. Fredericks, 15-16, citing such texts as Deuteronomy 32:21 and Psalms 31:6.

  

[3] Ibid., 15-16.

 

[4] Such as Ibid., n. 1, p. 12.

  

[5] Ibid.

 

[6] Tamez, 34.

   

[7] Ibid.

   

[8] Ibid.

   

[9] Ibid., n. 7, p. 156, although shifting the number of usages in Ecclesiastes from the thirty-eight already noted to forty-one.

   

[10] Garrett, 282-283.  He regards the term as so flexible in actual usage that it needs to be rendered variably, in accord with the different contexts.

  

[Page 42]    [11] Hugo Odeberg, Qoheleth:  A Commentary on the Book of Ecclesiastes (Uppsala, Sweden:  Almqvist & Wiksells Boktryckeri, 1929), 100.

  

[12] Leupold, 41.

   

[13] Fredericks, 15.

 

[14] Ibid.

 

[15] The shifting approach is the view of such individuals as Kamano, n. 115, p. 56, and R. J. Kidwell, “Ecclesiastes,” in Ecclesiastes [and] Song of Solomon, edited by R. J. Kidwell and Don DeWelt (Joplin, Missouri:  College Press, 1977), 10.

 

[16] Cf. Kaiser, 48.

 

[17] Michael V. Fox, Qohelet, 36.

 

[18] Ibid.

 

[19] For a detailed defense of “absurdity” as the preferred rendering, see Ibid., 29-51.

 

[20] Elizabeth Huwiler, “Ecclesiastes,” in Roland E. Murlphy and Elizabeth Huwiler, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, in the New International Biblical Commentary:  Old Testament Series (Peabody, Massachusetts:  Hendrickson Publishers/Paternoster Press, 1999), 165.

   

[21] Longman (70) argues that in a Palestinian context, the most likely sea for the author to have in mind would be the Dead Sea—large enough to be considered by them as a “sea,” but one which the inflowing Jordan never managed to expand.

  

[22] Leupold, 47.

  

[23] Buck, 514.  In a similar vein, Longman, 75.  Loyal Young, A Commentary on the Book of Ecclesiastes (Philadelphia:  Presbyterian Board of Publications, 1865), 50, takes a very different approach:  he suggests that the author is speaking subjectively rather than objectively, i.e., even if new things occur they will not bring ultimate satisfaction to us any more than do the things of the current world.

 

[24] Hubbard, 44.

  

[25] Whybray, Ecclesiastes (Century), 36.

  

[26] Longman, 59, and n. 11, p. 59.

  

[27] See the citations in Ibid., n. 25, p. 62.

 

[Page 43]    [28] Christianson, 85-86.

 

[29] Hubbard, 44, argues that the term “may” carry such connotations and hence is inappropriate.  If anything, “usually” would seem a more just judgment on its English usage.

  

[30] R. N. Whybray, “Qoheleth as a Theologian,” in Qohelet in the Context of Wisdom, edited by Antoon Schoors (Leuven-Louvain, Belgium:  Leuven University Press, 1998), 264.

  

[31] Leiman, 31.

  

[32] Christianson, 85.  We have inserted the scriptural references from Christianson’s footnote.

 

[33] Cf. Fox, Qohelet, 46.