Cedars of Lebanon: The Wisdom of Koheleth
If Renan is to be believed, the Book of Ecclesiastes is the most charming book ever written by a Jew. For twenty centuries it has exerted a profound fascination upon readers. This, in spite of the fact that virtually every aspect of the book—date of composition, authorship, interpretation—has been the subject of wide differences of opinion.
Perhaps the chief difficulty has been the apparent contradictions in which the book abounds, the cool skepticism of one passage, followed by unimpeachable orthodox sentiments in the next. Was Koheleth (under which name the author hid his identity) talking with tongue in cheek, or writing a Socratic dialogue? Or perhaps, that last resort of the troubled reader, there was no Koheleth at all, as there was no Homer: a dozen uninspired scribes had each written a few verses, the sum total making up the Book of Ecclesiastes.
Modern critical scholarship tended, at least until recently, to regard the original core of the book as basically heterodox and unconventional. This authentic element was then subjected to wide and persistent interpolation by conventional readers of two types: the Hasid, or pietist, who added typical religious sentiments; and the Hakam, or sage, who glossed the text with conventional maxims of a practical cast.
Such labored theories are unnecessary if Koheleth is placed against the background of his age and read with sympathy and insight. At once a thoroughly credible, indeed fascinating personality emerges from his pages.
Koheleth was a Jewish sage who lived in Jerusalem during the period of the Second Temple. He was thoroughly grounded in the sacred writings of Judaism extant in his time, particularly the Torah and the Prophets. But essentially Koheleth was a devotee of Hokmah, or Wisdom, the most secular branch of Hebrew culture. Hokmah was concerned with all the practical arts and technical skills required for success in the world. It was cultivated in special academies for upper-class youth, whom it taught a safe and sane, positive morality. Its medium was a special literary genre, the Mashal (parable or proverb). This practical, or lower, Wisdom was cultivated for centuries throughout the lands of the Fertile Crescent—Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Babylonia; one finds it in the Book of Proverbs in the Bible and in Ben Sira, or Ecclesiasticus, in the Apocrypha.
Among the many preceptors of Wisdom were some restless minds who refused to be satisfied with these practical goals, but sought to penetrate to the great abiding issues: the meaning of life, the purpose of creation, the nature of death, the mystery of evil. Like so many rationalist minds since their day, however, they found the unaided human reason incapable of solving these ultimate issues. Some, no doubt, finally made their peace with the traditional Judaism of their day. But others, more tough-minded, refused to take on faith what their reason could not demonstrate. Hence their writings reveal various degrees and types of skepticism and heterodoxy, and not a little of pioneering thought. Several of these devotees of the higher or speculative Wisdom transmuted the frustration and pain of their quest into some of the world’s greatest masterpieces, notably the books of Job and Koheleth.
Koheleth was moved by three things at the beginning of his career—the love of life, the quest for justice in the world, and the search for truth. But the easy optimism of youth turned to ashes for him in maturity, as he learned that justice was rare, and the ultimate truth about life and death, God and the universe, beyond man’s ken. Only the first goal, the enjoyment of the world, remained. With this impulse as his basis, Koheleth undertook to construct a philosophy of life.
All that is certain is that man has an innate desire for happiness. Since God has created man, He has also created this impulse. It thus becomes clear that God’s fundamental purpose for mankind is the furthering of man’s pleasure. To put it another way: Koheleth’s morality recognizes the pursuit of happiness as the goal; his metaphysics postulates the existence of God; his religion is a combination of both.
That Koheleth has not been understood is due to several aspects of his style. For one thing, Koheleth was struggling to use Hebrew for quasi-philosophic purposes, a use to which the language had not previously been put. Then there is the admixture in his Hebrew of Aramaic idioms and expressions. Even more important, however, are two hitherto unregarded elements of his style: his use of a traditional religious vocabulary to express his own unconventional ideas and the various highly original ways in which he employs proverbial quotations. Sometimes Koheleth quotes a proverb simply because he agrees with it, elaborating on it with a characteristic comment. Frequently, however, his comment subtly changes the proverb’s meaning, shifting the ground of the discussion from the realm of the matter of fact and practical to the uncharted regions where speculation and skepticism have free rein. Often Koheleth will cite a proverb that expresses a widely accepted point of view, and then subtly register his disagreement, not in lengthy argument, but by citing another utterance that contradicts the first. In each pair of contrasting proverbs the latter represents his opinion.
From all that has been said, it is clear that the Book of Koheleth is not a debate, a dialogue, or a philosophical treatise. It is best described as a cahier, or notebook, in which the author jots down his reflections during the enforced leisure of old age.
For a detailed study of Koheleth, the reader is referred to the present writer’s Koheleth—The Man and His World (Jewish Theological Seminary of America). This commentary on Ecclesiastes also contains a new translation of the text. The following selections and introductory comments are taken from this work.
The processes of nature, holds Koheleth, are part of a ceaseless and changeless cycle, without goal or meaning. Nothing new ever happens. Viewed against the background of the universe, all man’s striving is folly.—(l: 1-11)
Vanity of vanities, says Koheleth, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.
What profit has a man of all his toil beneath the sun? One generation goes and another comes, but the earth is forever unchanged. The sun rises and the sun sets, breathlessly rushing towards the place where it is to rise again. Going to the south and circling to the north, the wind goes round and round, and then returns upon its tracks. All the rivers flow into the sea, but the sea is never full; to the place where the rivers flow, there they continue to flow. All things are tiresome, one cannot put them into words, and so the eye is never satisfied with seeing nor the ear filled with hearing.
What has been will be, and what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. There may be something of which a man says, “Look, this is new!” It has already occurred in the ages before us. For there is no recollection left of the earliest generations, and even the later ones will not be remembered by those who come at the very end.
Koheleth adopts the role of King Solomon in order to test the value of wisdom and wealth, for both of which Solomon was famous.
His first experiment is with wisdom. It leads him to the conclusion that the search for truth is futile and calculated only to make men miserable.
He then turns to physical pleasure, to the joys that wealth can bring, spacious gardens and elaborate mansions, wine, women, and song. For a space, he finds satisfaction in the novelty of sensation and the joy of activity, but it soon wears off. Pleasure is no more satisfactory than wisdom.
Koheleth concludes that the wise man has no advantage over the fool, nor the diligent worker over the sluggard. To cap it all, when a man dies, after a lifetime of toil, some stranger whom he may not even know inherits after him. The only sensible goal that remains is the quest for “joy,” however inadequate it may be by any absolute standard.—(l: 12-2:26)absolute standard
I Koheleth was king over Israel in Jerusalem. I applied my mind to search out and explore in my wisdom all that happens beneath the sky—a sorry business it is that God has given men to be afflicted with.
I have seen all the works that are done under the sun and behold, all is vanity and chasing of wind, a crookedness not to be straightened, a void not to be filled.
Said I to myself, Here I have greatly increased my wisdom, beyond all those who were before me over Jerusalem, for my heart has attained much wisdom and knowledge. But as I applied my mind, I learnt that wisdom and knowledge are madness and folly. Yes, I perceived that this, too, is chasing after wind. For the more wisdom the more grief, and increasing one’s knowledge means increasing one’s pain.
Then I said to myself, “Come, let me try you out in joy and enjoy pleasure,” but this, too, was vanity. Of laughter I said, “It is folly,” and of joy, “What good is it?” For I had explored the matter with my mind, by stimulating my body with wine (while my mind was acting with wisdom) and by taking hold of frivolity, so that I might see what course is best for men under the sky during the brief span of their lives.
I acted in grand style, I built mansions for myself and planted vineyards. I laid out gardens and parks, and planted in them every kind of fruit-tree. I made pools of water, to water a forest of trees. I bought slaves, both male and female, though I already had a large household. I also owned much cattle and sheep, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. I also amassed silver and gold, and the treasures of kings and provinces. I acquired singers and songstresses, all the delights of men, of mistresses a goodly number. So I grew great and added to my possessions beyond all who had been before me in Jerusalem, while my wisdom remained with me. Whatever my eyes desired, I did not deny them; I did not deprive myself of any pleasure—for my soul rejoiced in all my labor, and that was my reward for all my labor.
I then turned to observe all the work that my hands had done, and all the labor I had strained to perform and lo, everything was vanity and chasing of wind, with no advantage under the sun.
Once again I saw that wisdom is but madness and folly, for of what value is a man coming after the king, who can only repeat what he has already done?
I have heard it said: “Wisdom excels folly as the light is better than darkness”; “The wise man has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness.” But I know that one fate overtakes them both! So I said to myself, The fate of the fool will befall me too. Why, then, have I become so extremely wise and I said to myself that this, too, is vanity. For the wise man is no more remembered than the fool, in the multitude of coming days everything is forgotten. Yet how can the wise man die like the fool! Hence I hated life, for all the work done beneath the sun seemed worthless to roe, and everything vanity and chasing of wind.
And I hated all my wealth on which I was toiling under the sun, which I must leave to the man coming after me, not knowing whether he would be wise or a fool. Yet he would rule over all my possessions, upon which I had spent my effort and skill under the sun. Indeed this is vanity! So I turned to rid my heart of any illusions concerning all the work on which I had labored under the sun. For here is a man who has labored with knowledge and skill, yet he must leave his portion to a man who has not toiled over it—surely that is vanity and a great evil. For what good does a man derive from all the labor and thought he expends under the sun? During all his days, pain and grief are his lot, and even at night his mind is not at rest that too is vanity.
There is no greater good for man than eating and drinking and giving himself joy in his labor. Indeed, I have seen that this is from the hand of God, for who can enjoy a pleasure or abstain, except it be by His Will? To the man God favors He gives wisdom, knowledge and joy, but to the “sinner” He assigns the task of gathering and amassing, only to hand it over at last to the man who is pleasing to God. Indeed, this is vanity and chasing of wind!
The spectacle of wickedness in the seats of justice and the fruitless tears of the oppressed fill Koheleth’s heart with despair. Nor can he find consolation in the shadowy doctrine of retribution in another world, which he dismisses with a shrug of the shoulders. Only the pursuit of personal happiness is a sensible goal for men.—(3:16-4:3)
Furthermore, I saw under the sun that in the place of judgment there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, wrong. I said to myself, “Both the righteous and the wicked God will judge, for there is a proper time for everything and every deed—over there!” I said to myself concerning men, “Surely God has tested them and shown that they are nothing but beasts.” For the fate of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As the one dies, so does the other, for there is one spirit in both and man’s distinction over the beast is nothing, for everything is vanity. All go to one place, all come from the dust and all return to the dust. Who knows whether the spirit of men rises upward and the spirit of the beast goes down to the earth? So I saw that there is nothing better for man than to rejoice in his works, for that is his lot, and no one can permit him to see what shall be afterwards.
Again I saw all the acts of oppression that are done under the sun. Here are the tears of the oppressed, with none to comfort them; and power in the hands of their oppressors, with none to comfort them. So I praise the dead who already have died, more than the creatures who are still alive. And more fortunate than both is he who has not yet been born and so has never seen the evil deeds that are being done under the sun.
Koheleth reflects on the “golden mean,” the Aristotelian principle of ethics with which he has become familiar. He urges it, however, from his own vantage point: extremes of both saintliness and wickedness lead to unhappiness.
As always, the ideas are couched in typical religious terminology. “Reverencing God” means fulfilling His purpose by seeking the happy life. Folly and wickedness are synonymous for Koheleth, as for all the Wisdom teachers, though his views of what folly means differ from theirs. He again reminds his readers that his conclusions are based on reason and sound observation.—(7:15-25)
I have seen everything during my vain existence, a righteous man being destroyed for all his righteousness and a sinner living long for all his wickedness. Hence do not be righteous overmuch nor be overzealous for wisdom—why be left desolate? Neither be overly “wicked,” nor be a fool—why die before your time? Far better it is to grasp the one and hold fast to the other, for he who reverences God will do his duty by both! Be not a fool, for it has been well said, “Wisdom gives a wise man strength greater than ten rulers who are in the city.” Nor be overly righteous, for it has been observed, “There is no man on earth always in the right, who does the proper thing and never errs.”
Pay no attention to every word that is spoken, lest you hear your own slave reviling you. Besides, you know very well that many times you have reviled others.
All this I tested concerning Wisdom. I thought I could become wise, but it is much beyond me. Far away is all that has come into being and very, very deep; who can find it? With all my heart I turned to learn, explore and seek after wisdom and thought, and I saw that wickedness is foolishness, and folly is madness.
For all its frustrations, life remains the central good in the world. After death all activity and sensation are ended—and even during life unknown perils lurk along the way. All the more reason why man should enjoy life while he can with all the vigor and zest at his command.—(9:4-12)
He who is attached to all the living still has hope, for surely a live dog is better than a dead lion! The living know at least that they will die, but the dead know nothing, nor have they any reward, for their memory is forgotten. Their loves, their hates, their jealousies, all have perished—no longer have they a share in all that is done under the sun.
Go, then, eat your bread with joy,
And drink your wine with a glad heart,
For God has already approved your actions.
At all times let your clothes he white,
And oil on your head not be lacking.
Enjoy life with the woman whom you love,
Through all the vain days of your life,
Which God has given you under the sun,
Throughout your brief days,
For that is your life’s reward
For your toil under the sun.
Whatever you are able to do, do with all your might, for there is neither action nor thought nor knowledge nor wisdom in the grave towards which you are moving.
Again I saw that beneath the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the brave, nor is bread won by the wise, nor wealth by the clever, nor favor by the learned, for time and accident overtake them all. Though man does not know his hour, like fish caught in an evil net, like birds seized in a snare, so men are trapped in an hour of misfortune, when it falls upon them suddenly.
In the closing section, Koheleth rises to heights of eloquence that equal and surpass the majestic opening. In impassioned phrases he repeats that it is God’s will that man be happy. The time for joy is youth, when our faculties are unimpaired. It is then that man must seek his happiness, before old age sets in, with its burdens of debility and failing powers.
The book closes with a moving “Allegory on Old Age,” in which the tragedy of man’s progressive deterioration is graphically described.—(l 1:7-12:8)
Sweet is the light,
And good for the eyes to see the sun!
For if a man live many years,
Let him rejoice in them all,
And remember that the days of darkness
will be many,
And that everything thereafter is nothing-
Rejoice, young man, in your youth,
And let your heart cheer you in your youth-
Follow the impulses of your heart
And the desires of your eyes,
And know that for all this
God will call you to account.
Banish sadness from your heart,
And remove sorrow from your flesh,
For childhood and youth are a fleeting
Remember your Creator in the days of your
Before the evil days come and the years
Of which you will say, “I have no pleasure
Before the sun grows dark,
And the light of the moon and the stars,
And the clouds return after the rain.
In the day when the watchmen of the house
And the strong men are bent,
The grinding maidens cease, for they are
And the ladies peering through the lattices
When the doubled doors on the street are
And the voice of the mill becomes low.
One wakes at the sound of a bird,
And all the daughters of song are laid low.
When one fears to climb a height,
And terrors lurk in a walk.
When the almond-tree blossoms,
The grasshopper becomes a burden1
And the caper-berry can no longer stimulate
So man goes to his eternal home,
While the hired mourners walk about in the
street. . . .
Before the silver cord is severed,
And the golden bowl is shattered,
The pitcher is broken at the spring,
And the wheel is shattered at the pit.
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