Tuesday, December 22, 2020

My Take on Ecclesiastes

 About Solomon and Ecclesiastes... Here's my take:

The speaker in this book tags himself with the title Qoheleth, a participial form based on the root q-h-l (= to gather, assemble).  The English title Ecclesiastes comes from the Greek Septuagint, where it is derived from ekklesia and means "the one calling an assembly."  The exact nuance of the word is difficult to capture in English, and some of the various attempts are worth reiterating, including the transliteration qoheleth  without any attempt to translate it:  "preacher" (KJV, NASB, RSV, ESV), "teacher" (NIV), "leader of the assembly" (NIVmg), "speaker" (NEB), "qoheleth" (NAB), "philosopher," "president" or "spokesman.It is also worth noting that in the Hebrew text (cf. 12:8) the title Qoheleth appears with the definite article, indicating that it is not a proper name. 

But just who is Qoheleth, and when did he write?  Unquestionably, the author patterns himself after Solomon, the son of David (1:1), the king of Israel (1:12), even though the name Solomon does not appear in the book. This first person claim to have "grown and increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled in Jerusalem before" (1:16) leaves little doubt that the author intends an identity with the one who asked God for wisdom (2 Chr. 1:7-12) and was heralded as "greater in wisdom than all the kings of the earth" (2 Chr. 9:22-23; cf. 1 Kg. 4:29-34).  All are agreed upon this point. However, there are some mitigating factors. In the first place, the opening of the book is offered in the third person (1:1-2) as are a few later interludes (7:27; 12:8), though most of the rest of the book is in the first person. Does this mean one writer is presenting the wisdom of another, or is the writer adopting the third person to stand outside him/herself temporarily? The Massoretic text offers the rather intriguing possibility, based on an alternative word division, that a woman is the writer by dividing the consonantal text of 7:27 as 'amerah qoheleth (= says Qoheleth [feminine]). The feminine construction would exclude Solomon, of course.  Most scholars reject the Masoretic division and divide the words as 'amar ha-qoheleth(= says Qoheleth [masculine]), the same as in 12:8.

Those who argue for Solomon as the author generally also suggest that the book was composed near the end of his life after he had built a large harem of non-Israelite wives who turned his heart away from Yahweh (1 Kg. 11:1-13), hence, the darkly pessimistic tone of the work.  Most scholars, however, judge it is more likely that the writer is not Solomon (why else avoid his name when obviously patterning a work after him?) but intends to faithfully present the wisdom of Solomon. The author expresses the wisdom for which Solomon was famous by rehearsing the projects of Solomon's life.  In any case, the pessimism in the book is not its final word, but rather its penultimate word. At least one strand of Jewish tradition held that the book was composed by the company of Hezekiah, probably with the understanding that this group edited a Solomonic text, though other Jewish traditions cite Solomon as the author.  Since the time of Luther most scholars, conservative or otherwise, have held that the book, while written as an idealistic representation of Solomon, was put in final form by someone later.

Though some have taken this approach, I would hesitate to say that we should discount the wisdom in the book, even if it be granted that Solomon wrote it in his declining years. This is not something like the words of Satan, which appear from time to time and are to be understood as the voice of evil. Rather, the book, in my view, should be taken as Holy Scripture, but from the viewpoint of exploring life "under the sun," which ends up being empty. This, of course, is the critical phrase--life "under the sun." By this phrase, I think the author intends to explore observable life, bracketing out, as least provisionally, whatever is not observable (and this includes God). 

Further, I think Qoheleth contains an implicit narrative line. The author is "going somewhere" with his thoughts. The book recounts a grand experiment in existential reflection. Thus, any attempt to reach final conclusions about the book's meaning apart from consideration of the whole is bound to fall short. To be sure, the book has many proverbial sayings that stand on their own, but between the prologue (1:1-11) and the epilogue (12:9-14), the main body of the book evidences a coherence that is hardly haphazard. 

On the surface, Qoheleth sounds like an unmitigated pessimist. His opening cry, repeated periodically, sounds like an accusation:  "Utter futility-everything is meaningless!" But there is more to Qoheleth than skepticism. He intends to bring his readers to the conclusion that the only thing giving meaning to life is the presence and recognition of God. However, though this is his conclusion, he does not start here.  He will only arrive by a circuitous route--over ten chapters! On the way, he puts himself and his readers in the sandals of what in the modern world we would call a humanist. He intends to lead them in a systematic search for the meaning of life by following the path that most men and women follow.

He begins as a secularist--a man who is preoccupied with the observable world and its culture. It is not that he denies God (philosophical atheism was not really an option in the ancient world) so much as he ignores him in the existential search. He begins much like a modern person concerned with financial security, personal happiness, leisure, social status and pleasure. Systematically, he moves from lifestyle to lifestyle--from the ancient counterpart to our modern stereotype of the beer-swilling "good ole boy" who is obsessed with television sports to the young executive who is a pragmatic intellectual driven to succeed to the artistic idealist who dabbles with reality while trying to find meaning in aesthetics. Qoheleth invites his readers to follow his quest.

At the outset, Qoheleth adopts a provisional self in the mode of Solomon, king of Israel. The author's provisional self was surely carefully chosen, for Solomon had both the time and the means to conduct such an exploration, and in fact, there is abundant evidence that he closely followed this very path (cf. 1 Kg. 4:20-34; 5:13-18; 7:1-12; 9:17-19, 24, 26-28; 10:1--11:8). Solomon had a much wider range of opportunity than most folks enjoy. He was rich beyond the dreams of avarice, intellectually brilliant, and had both the leisure and power to pursue whatever he wanted. He faced no serious political threats, and the affairs of state set up by his father were stable and required a minimum of effort. In short, he had both the time and resources to do whatever he wanted, and before Qoheleth is done, the author will guide his readers in exploring intellectualism, philosophy, decadence, sensual pleasure, aesthetics, politics, and entrepreneurial business. Qoheleth is an ancient version of the modern phenomenologist who is able to bracket the parts of life that he does not want to consider while he concentrates on isolated segments. In modern terms, he climbs to the heights of Ernest Hemingway's brilliance, Marilyn Monroe's sensuality, and Howard Hughes' wealth and creative genius--a man living in the (supposedly) best of all possible worlds with brains, beauty and money. To be sure, Qoheleth does not conclude by saying this is how life should be lived. In fact, he warns the reader at the outset that there will be profound disappointment. He drives relentlessly to his final conclusion that life ought to be lived in the fear of God. Anything less will be a climax of despair. Still, the reader only reaches this last point when desperate for an answer. Qoheleth's resolve is to see how far a person might get in life without the fundamental framework of deep reverence for God.

Qoheleth's approach raises complications, of course.  There will be tensions between Qoheleth's deepest self and his provisional self.  Still, all this is part of the game, and in many ways, his experiment is very much like a game except that the stakes are the highest possible.

So, this is how I take the book, and indeed, the book is one of my favorites!