Three of the Wisdom books — Ecclesiastes, Job, and Psalms — share a common theme: It’s permissible, even expected, that we should kvetch to God about the hardships we face, but this complaining and questioning should be accompanied by faith and trust and a recognition that God knows what He is doing, so that the complaining and questioning of his actions do not degenerate into insubordination or unbelief. This lesson is presented in three genres: philosophical (Ecclesiastes), narrative (Job), and prayer (Psalms). All confront the hard question for believers and would-be believers: If there is a God and He is beneficent and omnipotent, then why do bad things happen to good people?
The author of Ecclesiastes is Solomon (see verses 1:1 and 1:12). The take-away is short and simple (verse 12:13): “The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments. because this applies to every person.”
I bet that the Wisdom books contain more famous quotations per verse than any other books in the Bible. Some examples here: “So there is nothing new under the sun” (1:9). “[T]o eat and to drink and to be merry” (8:15). “I returned, and saw under the sun, 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 favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all” (9:11). And “of making many books there is no end” (12:12). The title of Henry James’s The Golden Bowl is taken from verse 12:6. One verse that ought to be quoted more often these days (choose your presidential administration): “The words of the wise heard in quietness are better than the shouting of a ruler among fools” (9:1;7).
It’s not a cheerful book. “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity” (1:2). “All go to the same place. All came from dust and all return to the dust” (3:20). “It is the same for all. There is one fate for the righteous and for the wicked; of the good, for the clean, and for the unclean; for the man who offers a sacrifice and the one who does not sacrifice. As the good man is, so is the sinner; as the swearer is, so is the one who is afraid to swear” (9:2).
And: “[I]n much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain” (1:18). “As he [a rich man] had come naked from his mother’s womb, so he will return as he came” (5:15).
So what is the point of all this dark lugubriousness? I think it’s pretty straightforward, and the point provides the sunshine: You can’t find purpose in life without God — but we have God. Indeed, the gloomier parts of the book tend to be those in which God is less prominent. And I love 3:11, which tells us that “God has also set eternity in the hearts of men.” I recall C.S. Lewis and Walker Percy each making the point, in different ways, that we are hardwired to know there is something beyond this world and to seek it.
I’m going to cut-and-paste the parts about Ecclesiastes from my discussion of Robert Alter’s translation of the Wisdom books.
- Alter characterizes Ecclesiastes’s author as “conservative” (338; see also 368 n.12).
- He likes the King James Version of Ecclesiastes (339).
- “We are unlikely ever to have a confident explanation of why [Ecclesiastes] — or, for that matter, Job or Esther or the Song of Songs — entered the canon, but its inclusion suggests that the canon may not have been determined solely on grounds of ideological and theological conformity” (343).
- He explains how Eccl. 4:12 (“the triple cord will not quickly be snapped”) is related to Gilgamesh (360 n.12).
- Eccl. 9:15 is translated, “… that person saved his town through his wisdom, but no one recalled that poor man” (379).
I also quoted two longer passages from Alter that bear on Ecclesiastes. Here’s the first (xvi):
Qohelet [i.e., Ecclesiastes] uses strongly cadenced, evocative prose, perhaps qualifying as prose-poetry, which in two extended passages moves into formal verse. [That includes, by the way, 3:1-8, which has been set to music in a song, the most popular version of which was sung by The Byrds in the 1960s, making it “the number one pop hit with the oldest lyrics,” according to Wikipedia.]. All three books [that is, Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes], then, deploy manifestly literary means to shape their visions of human life.
Wisdom literature is as close as the ancient Near East came to Greek philosophy, which was nearly contemporaneous with the latest Wisdom texts of the Hebrew Bible. It shares with Greek philosophy an inquiry into values and a disposition to reflect on the human condition, but it lacks both the purely theoretical and the systematic impulses of the Greek thinkers. Ethical issues are raised, but there is no real ontology, epistemology, anthropology, or metaphysics, and much of the thrust of Near Eastern Wisdom is pragmatic and even explicitly didactic. Job, for all its profundity, is a theological rather than a philosophic text. Its author is God-obsessed and never wonders or speculates about God’s existence but rather expresses his outrage at the spectacular injustice of a world governed by a purportedly just God. Qohelet, concerned as it is with the structure of reality and how ephemeral human life is locked into that structure, is close to a genuinely philosophic work, though it articulates its philosophy through incantatory language and haunting imagery rather than through systematic thought.
And here’s the second (368, discussing Ecclesiastes 6:12; I noted, “Hayekian”):
12 what is the advantage for man? For who knows what is good for man in life, in his days of mere breath, for he spends them like a shadow? Who can tell man what will be after him under the sun?
12. For who knows what is good for man. This question follows on “there are many words that increase mere breath.” Qohelet is a Wisdom writer who constantly questions the value of wisdom. He knows that a human life is likely to be bleak, that it is intrinsically unpredictable, may end badly, and will surely be blotted out by death. His “wisdom” is to register this perception, but, apart from his occasional exhortations to enjoy, he does not presume to know what is good for man, unlike the purveyors of mainline Wisdom.