What would Qohelet do?

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You may recall the popular song from the ’60s, the chorus of which ran:

To everything
Turn Turn Turn
There is a season
Turn Turn Turn
And a time for every purpose under heaven 1

Written and composed by Pete Seeger and later popularised by the Byrds, the words of the song are largely drawn from the writings of an ancient Israelite man named Qohelet.

Qohelet lived around the mid-300s BCE, likely in Jerusalem, and his writings are preserved in a book of the Hebrew bible by the same name (in English bibles, Ecclesiastes). He probably was not a king, as is said in the book, but was likely a sage or philosopher. Referred to as the Teacher or Preacher, the editor of the book may have been one of his students.

The book is part of the Israelite wisdom tradition – a broad range of literature that is concerned very directly with life, and how to deal with the difficulties and challenges of our existence. The book of Qohelet is unique in being highly skeptical of the goodness of God and of the value of wisdom itself. Its approach is so unusual that people have wondered how it made its way into the bible at all.

While it is a lovely and melodic rendering, Seeger’s song gives a wrong impression of the book – the sense of cosmic justice and balance that is conveyed by Seeger’s song (most of which is drawn from the beginning of ch. 3) is a far cry from the sense of futility that Qohelet experiences and which pervades the book.

The Qohelet we find in the pages of his book is a serious and curious man, a sort of Hunter S. Thompson cultural explorer and recorder who, after a long life during which he had attained much in the way of status and material success (2:4-8), takes it upon himself to thoroughly examine his society. By poking and prodding into all its corners he hopes to find what, if anything, is the meaning of life.

I said to myself, ‘I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.’ And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. (1:16-17) 2

In his search for answers he tenaciously observes what is happening in the lives of the people around him, rich and poor, old and young. Relentlessly clear-eyed, he does not allow himself to succumb to self-delusion or sugar coat what is going on around him. He is not susceptible to spin. As Qohelet says, ‘The wise have eyes in their head, but fools walk in darkness’ (2:14). And as his editor says, ‘he wrote words of truth plainly’ (12:10).

As a result of his explorations Qohelet concludes that the world can be summed up in one word: hebel. This word is typically translated as ‘vanity’, but because ‘vanity’ now almost always has the sense of being vain or conceited, the true sense of the world as it is meant by Qohelet is not conveyed. A more accurate translation of hebel than ‘vanity’ is ‘a breath, whiff, puff, vapour’ and it refers to anything that is illusory, incomprehensible, futile, or meaningless. This sense of meaninglessness is at the heart of the book – ‘vanity’ appears 38 times and is the first word after the superscription and Qohelet’s last word in 12:8. The superlative construction ‘vanity of vanities’ that begins and ends the book points to complete and utter meaninglessness. Nothing we possess, be it material goods, pleasure, or religion, can change the fact that everything is ephemeral and ultimately futile. As Qohelet discovers in the course of his inquiries, even the pursuit of wisdom itself is finally nothing but folly and ‘a chasing after wind’ (1:17).

***

The society that Qohelet lived in is an echo of our own. At the time he was writing, the Persian empire which ruled throughout the Near East had replaced Israel’s agrarian subsistence economy with a monetary economy, based on standardized currency. Epigraphic evidence from the period shows that money was being used in large and small business transactions, given as gifts and bribes, and hoarded. It is the growth and development of this monetary economy that provides the socio-economic context of the book. The book’s vocabulary suggests an audience very concerned with the economy; it is full of words like money, riches, private possession, salary, surplus, yield, account, assets, worker, and consumer. 3

A key part of the economic system imposed throughout the empire was a system of property grants. These grants gave rights over various properties to favoured individuals, military personnel, or temple communities; additionally, even more exclusive royal grants were given outright to relatives and friends of the crown. Recipients of these grants were required to collect taxes from their lands for the king, but were entitled to keep a portion.

Needless to say, under this system there were fortunate people who fared extremely well, and there were unfortunate ones who received little or nothing at all. The system benefited the political elites with friends in high places and those powerful entrepreneurs who had access to large amounts of capital; at an obvious disadvantage were smallholders, whose political influence and access to capital was limited. Not surprisingly, the gap between the rich and the lower classes grew larger, with the rich becoming extremely powerful and the poor becoming more and more vulnerable.

One option available to people wanting to get ahead in the empire was to take out a loan. Interest rates were high, however, and it was easy to fall behind on payments. In the event of default an entire estate could be seized – lands, house, children, and slaves. Based on studies of Persian documents of the period, it appears that something was occurring at the time Qohelet was writing that suddenly caused many people to lose their land holdings. Those who once possessed property had to give it up and many found themselves imprisoned for debt or enslaved.

The sense drawn from these documents is that in this competitive economic environment some people were willing to do just about anything to move ahead, and that the rich were getting around the law at the poor’s expense. Qohelet condemns this economic culture, viewing it as one in which people were deluded into thinking that ‘money meets every need’ (10:19) and driven by envy to strive for success that could not be satisfied:

The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This also is vanity. (5:10; cf. 4:4-8)

Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from one person’s envy of another. This also is vanity and a chasing after wind . Again, I saw vanity under the sun: the case of solitary individuals, without sons or brothers; yet there is no end to all their toil, and their eyes are never satisfied with riches. ‘For whom am I toiling,’ they ask, ‘and depriving myself of pleasure?’ This also is vanity and an unhappy business. (4:4, 7-8)

Greedy consumers could not find peace, either because of indigestion or anxiety concerning their investments. ‘Sweet is the sleep of labourers, whether they eat little or much, but the surfeit of the rich will not let them sleep’ (5:12).

In addition to being at the mercy of rich and powerful proprietors, ordinary citizens were victimised by corrupt courts and judges and unscrupulous priests. ‘Moreover I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, wickedness was there, and in the place of righteousness, wickedness was there as well’ (3:16). He also warned against the government and its spies, for to say too much could mean being scooped up by the state security apparatus. ‘Do not curse the king, even in your thoughts, or curse the rich, even in your bedroom; for a bird of the air may carry your voice, or some winged creature tell the matter’ (10:20).

As he looked around at his world, Qohelet saw a volatile and unpredictable place where there was a lot to worry about and very little of certainty. People found themselves caught up in rapid political and economic change, and most were helpless to do anything about it. Theirs was an upside-down world in which nothing seemed reliable or permanent; even people who had been given grants could not rely on having them forever. ‘I have seen slaves on horseback, and princes walking on foot like slaves’ (10:7).

Ultimately, this world was a difficult place for Qohelet to comprehend. While he seems to accept many of its contradictions, he saw that the world was full of inconsistencies and even glaring contradictions that could not be explained away. ‘So I said, ‘Wisdom is better than might; yet the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are not heeded’ (9:16). Qohelet is certainly a theist, but he saw it as pointless to turn to God for answers to his questions – like the Persian emperor, God is a distant and incomprehensible mystery, responsible for deeds both pleasant and unpleasant (7:13-14). The bottom line is that we live in an unreliable world dominated by powerful people who inevitably impose their will over others. ‘For the word of the king is powerful, and who can say to him, “What are you doing?”‘ (8:4). Things rarely turn out as we might want or expect and justice does not prevail. All truly is vanity.

***

As will be apparent, there is much in Qohelet’s world and writings that sound familiar. If Qohelet were alive today he would see much that is recognisable in our world – economic uncertainty, job and housing loss, huge income disparity, rampant consumerism, and social dislocation. As he says, little changes.

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. (1:9)

But there is one obvious difference between Qohelet’s times and our own: Qohelet was operating on the assumption that the natural world was stable and unchanging. While he likely observed shifts in weather, the basic patterns would have seemed permanent. There was no reason for him to assume otherwise.

A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow. (1:4-7)

But as we now well know, with climate change nothing is predictable. There is no longer a reliable flow to nature. The natural order – probably the one iota of stability that Qohelet could rely upon – is rapidly becoming undone. So how would Qohelet respond to our situation? What would Qohelet do?

One thing he wouldn’t do is take the human-centred position taken by some religions that places humans apart from and above nature.

For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth? (3:19-21).

He would not see us as detached from what is going on – whatever happens to the natural world happens to us.

Neither would he see the world as a learning ground for humans with suffering and ecocide somehow ‘for the greater good’ or fitting into a discernible cosmic plan. I very much doubt that he would deny the reality of climate change, avoid it, or succumb to any of the myriad ways humans have found to numb themselves to it. He would not buy into any spin. Rather, I suspect he would be one of those who are able to confront the dark truths of our times head on.

Neither, I suspect, would Qohelet attempt to resolve the contradictory nature of the situation we find ourselves in. He would clearly see that our economic system has put many people in a position where on the one hand they are aware of the devastating problems our actions have created, but on the other hand aren’t willing to give up what they have. He would accept the folly of this way of thinking and view it as futile to try and convince people to think otherwise.

Would he fall into the camp of those proposing resistance? Given his view that power inevitably rests with the wealthy (i.e. oil barons) this does not seem probable – he would likely view active resistance against these powerful forces as another futile endeavour. ‘If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and right, do not be amazed at the matter’ (5:8). Unlike the ancient Hebrew prophets, Qohelet’s critique of society is not accompanied by a call for social transformation. Nonetheless, pursuit of knowledge about the world is not without value. Our knowledge may be limited (10:14), and the answers he comes up with to his questions are that all is ‘futile’ or ‘meaningless’, but it seems that it is still better to know this than to walk in the darkness of the fool. It is still better to be engaged in the world than to blindly ignore or deny what is happening. And while no formula or strategy will necessarily change things, practical wisdom may still have at least some effect (10:4). Therefore, one makes sure to sharpens one’s implements before beginning a task that calls for sharp tools. ‘If the iron is blunt, and one does not whet the edge, then more strength must be exerted; but wisdom helps one to succeed’ (10:10). Preparation may in some cases make a difference.

I suspect, though, that ultimately, after he has let the facts of our situation register, Qohelet would probably not do much of anything. There are times when even careful preparations are not enough, and this (he would say) may be one of them. It seems likely, though, that he would continue to observe and comment on what he sees. Being a literary man, he may well start a blog (‘Nothing New Under the Sun’), or send out the occasional tweet (@Qohelet, #allisvanity). But our collective fate has been sealed; events are now out of our control and there is little that can be done. And, given our enormous capacity for folly, he probably wouldn’t be surprised that we have arrived at this juncture. In his view there is oppression and injustice in the world because there are ambitious and greedy people who simply cannot have enough (5:8-12). Society, and even the entire cosmos, is now endangered by their lack of contentment. At the end of the book Qohelet shifts to a vision of the end of humanity (12:1-8). It is not much of a stretch to imagine Qohelet enfolding nature in this description of the end of things – a casualty of humanity’s staggering greed and folly.

But Qohelet is not without advice on how to live in the world as it is. The only possible response to the fact that all is vanity is, he says, to enjoy life whenever possible. This is his most persistent counsel – seven times he explicitly exhorts his readers to enjoy life:

So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun. (8:15)

Do everything you can when you are able (eat, drink, and be merry), as in death there are no opportunities to do anything. ‘Even those who live many years should rejoice in them all; yet let them remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity’ (11:8; cf. 9:7-10). Of course, being Qohelet, enjoyment is also elusive, so do not wait for perfect conditions but be spontaneous – be sure to celebrate at any occasion that presents itself. ‘In the morning sow your seed, and at evening do not let your hands be idle; for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good’ (11:6). Given that we cannot control what is happening in the world, spontaneously experiencing joy whenever possible is an appropriate response. ‘When times are good, enjoy; when times are bad, see’ (7:14) 4. For in spite of everything, there are moments when the sweetness of life is undeniable: ‘Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun’ (11:7).

***

In the ancient Israelite wisdom tradition, there is a metaphor of a mine that contains wisdom 5.The idea is that if we dig deep enough a gem of insight will be found that will reveal the appropriate way forward through life. It is hard going finding any such gems these days – if they exist at all they seem to be hidden in the mine’s deepest chambers. Wisdom is, as Qohelet says, ephemeral and elusive. While the advice he gives to his contemporaries – ‘enjoy the moment’ – still applies, many will find it difficult not to see this as a not very helpful cliché, given the gravity of our circumstances. If he were alive today Qohelet may well agree. So perhaps the most important thing to learn from Qohelet is his modus operandi, his way of being in a world much like our own: ask questions, stay engaged, and if so inclined, record.

1 ‘Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)’, was written by Pete Seeger in the 1950s; it was recorded by the Limelighters in 1962 and popularised in the Byrds’ 1965 cover version.

2 Quotes from Qohelet/Ecclesiastes are from the Revised Standard Version of the bible (except where noted).

3 For my understanding of Qohelet and his social context I am indebted to C.L. Seow, Ecclesiastes. A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1997.

4 C.L. Seow translation.

5 Job 28. Considering the destruction wreaked over the centuries by mining, this may no longer be such a useful metaphor.

Margaret Miller works as an editor and administrator at a small non-profit environmental organisation in Vancouver Canada. She has a Masters of Theology degree from the Vancouver School of Theology.

Image: Jonah Preaches to the Ninevites, Gustave Do(Wikimedia Commons)

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12 thoughts on “What would Qohelet do?

  1. Thank you Margaret for an informative and intelligent look at Ecclesiastes. This is one of my favorite books to the point where I created a new translation, memorized it and now perform it. This lead me to write a short novel of Kohelet’s life to try to break it free from those who keep saying “This is a nihilistic book written by a cranky old Solomon after he fell away from God”. Its refreshing to read from someone who shares similar thoughts.
    http://www.artofwork.ca

    • This sounds fascinating, Vance – quite an amazing project – I’ll check it out. I too am glad to know that there are those of us who share similar views on Qohelet.

  2. This is very interesting, if not very comforting. Perhaps there is small comfort in knowing that others have seen things the same way I do. There is a pernicious optimism in the American character that I, fortunately or unfortunately, don’t share. Still, I have to wonder, if the truth is so dismal, is it better to console yourself with lies? I can’t do that, but should I despise those who can?

    • Thanks Pamela. Knowing we are not alone in the boat may be small comfort, but it seems to be comfort nonetheless. (On most days …)

  3. Words are so mysterious, slippery rascals. In this story, “hebel” means “anything that is illusory.” When I saw the word, I had a flashback. In his book The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin told his interpretation of the story of Cain and Abel. Here’s a snip:

    Abel was a keeper of sheep. Cain was a settled farmer. Abel was the favorite of God, because Jahweh himself was a “God of the Way”. The names of the brothers are a matched pair of opposites. Abel comes from the Hebrew “hebel”, meaning “breath” or “vapor”: anything that lives and moves and is transient, including his own life. The root of Cain appears to be the verb “kanah”: “to acquire”, “get”, “own property”, and so “rule” or “subjugate”.

    Thanks!

    • Interesting! I too read The Songlines but, like you, had forgotten about this. Word studies are very very cool.

    • I appreciate your comment, Susan. I do think the ancient texts have a lot to tell us (in spite of my skepticism).

  4. Many thanks Margaret, for this great reflection.

    I wondered about the distinction you make, here, between resistance and enjoyment. I’m taking the time read and reply to your piece because, among other things, I’m enjoying having enough food, and being free from immediate crisis – including that of immanent arrest. And its true, I find myself in no hurry to forfeit these temporary privileges. This, despite what we now know about the price of such enjoyments.

    So yes, Qohelet has my number.

    But I wonder if the notion of choosing between resistance and enjoyment might dissolve if we put it this way: Where a life led by joy means resisting, that’s the best of all reasons to resist. Perhaps that’s about the only reason left.

    What’s curious about that, to me anyway, is that it seems the challenges of living joyfully – what Guy McPherson called ‘living a life of excellence’ – remain curiously unchanged by the immanent, and apparently inevitable, demise of our species. As well as so much else.

    Wishing you joy, then.

    Mat

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