Mad props for Ecclesiastes

I stumbled across Ecclesiastes because of a reference in a novel about a year ago, and I’ve read it from  front to back several times since. It reminds me of a TS Eliot poem, whirling around with its repetitive motifs and images, asking questions without answers, providing what seem to be contradictions. The pessimistic tone, the positions it takes which approach a sort of existentialism, these speak to me. Since the book only got a passing reference in Sunday School last week, here’s a few favorite passages for people to comment on:

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. (1:2)

In Hebrew, the word rendered in the KJV as ‘vanity’ is hevel, meaning literally breath, and according to The HarperCollins Study Bible, it is ‘difficult to translate with any single English word’ but refers to ‘the ephemeral, unknowable, mysterious, absurd, and ironic.’In other Bible translations, the image that often accompanies the idea of vanity is ‘chasing after wind,’ (rendered in the KJV as ‘vexation of the spirit’) or the futility to capture that which cannot be captured. For The Preacher, almost everything we experience here ‘under the sun’ is vanity. Humility is the key. Mormons tend to ignore the concept of the mysteries of God implied by hevel, as if Paul wouldn’t have seen through the glass darkly if he had had a copy of Gospel Principles in his hand. Ecclesiastes is a good antidote to occasional restorational arrogance.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: (3:1)

Thanks to Pete Seeger, this has become a cliché, but the sense that our situation here ‘under the sun’ is more cyclical and less planned gives me some comfort; it conforms nicely with Lehi’s concept of opposition in all things. Another related passage by The Preacher is, ‘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 favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.’ (9:11)

Though a sinner do evil an hundred times, and his days be prolonged, yet surely I know that it shall be well with them that fear God, which fear before him: But it shall not be well with the wicked, neither shall he prolong his days, which are as a shadow; because he feareth not before God. There is a vanity which is done upon the earth; that there be just men, unto whom it happeneth according to the work of the wicked; again, there be wicked men, to whom it happeneth according to the work of the righteous: I said that this also is vanity. Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry: for that shall abide with him of his labour the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun. (8:12-15)

Likewise,

Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works. Let thy garments be always white; and let thy head lack no ointment. Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun. Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest. (9:7-10)

Good things happen to bad people, and so on. So it goes under the sun. Mirth is good, pleasure is a gift from God, so love and work. Within the constraints of the fear (or respect) of God, enjoy life and benefit from your labors. We know something about life after death, but too little to provide any details. As another wise preacher said, ‘Let us relish life as we live it, find joy in the journey, and share our love with friends and family. One day each of us will run out of tomorrows.’

I’m no Bible scholar; I tend to read the Old Testament as a literary text with the ability to inspire and teach. Ecclesiastes has done both of those for me.

Any more love (or other feelings) for Ecclesiastes?

Comments

  1. I like the book of Ecclesiastes for most of the same reasons. I know, however, of some members who have distaste for the pessimism. I never really saw it as pessimism but just some very straight-forward preaching about the impermanence of life. It almost has a very Zen “life is an illusion” feel to it.

  2. I’ve always loved Ecclesiastes.

    Sorrow is better than laughter; for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better.

  3. Anson Call says:

    That’s funny. We were recently voting on what book we think is least fitting as a book of scripture and I picked Ecclesiastes.

  4. I have found great strength and courage at times from Ecclesiastes. It really requires some work though. I think it’s more about attitude readjustment than pessimism, showing that yes, life really is an illusion that doesn’t make much sense in and of itself. It only makes sense with correct over-beliefs and mystical connection with Deity.

  5. Mad props for your post. I love Ecclesiastes – I love the despair and searching, and I find the message to live this life with zest and gratitude to be both calming and inspiring.

    A nice little book that I’ve read a few times is The Wisdom Literature. Check it out.

  6. I was also sad Ecclesiastes didn’t get more attention last Sunday. I used to call it “the righteous husband’s handbook.”

  7. .

    I too love Ecclesiastes and as soon as I become a man of leisure, I intend to write a book about it.

  8. Thanks for this post. Maybe I need to read it again. I’ve always had problems with Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. They’ve always appeared like a collection of poetic more-or-less-truisms without any hint of revelatory power greater than Confucian sayings or Franklin’s almanac. In other words, there seemed nothing scriptural about them — you just pick the gems you like and discard the rest without having to justify yourself. With real scripture, the stuff you don’t like keeps you up at night trying to make it fit or explain it away.

  9. Michael V. Fox, in his book on Ecclesiastes states that the Preacher seeks wisdom as did the Greeks: through logic and reasoning, rather than revelation.

    While the Preacher makes some profound statements of fact, he does not find an answer. Why? Because he is using his limited understanding. He only encourages us to obey God, not to seek guidance or enlightenment from God. His writing almost seems to suggest no afterlife, but that we only have this life in which to live, and therefore there is no rhyme nor reason for any of it. He fits in nicely with the Greek Stoics, which may have indirectly influenced him.

    Gospel Principles is not a philosophy, but lessons on revealed theology or religion. And that is why Ecclesiastes does not easily fit as an inspired or revealed book of the Bible. Yes, it asks hard questions and makes some good observations about earth life. But revealed religion gives us basic answers to why we exist in the first place. It explains that there is more to life than this life. It discusses atonement and resurrection, which the Preacher seems to not understand or know about.

    The Preacher had no choice but to be Stoic. For him and the Greeks, there was no resurrection, no revelation, etc. There was just this life, and nothing afterward.

  10. When I taught Ecclesiastes in Gospel Doctrine a number of years ago, I played the Byrds’ rendition of Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!” for the class. I thought it was appropriate for the lesson.

  11. This book has as good a claim to being revelation as any other I think.

  12. I’ve always thought of Ecclesiastes more like poetry than scripture, too. There are some fascinating images and language, and I love the sound and rhythm of it, but it often seems uninspired doctrinally. Of the passages you quoted, the ones that are the most difficult doctrinally are:

    “Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry: for that shall abide with him of his labour the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun.”

    Compare with 2 Ne. 28:

    7 Yea, and there shall be many which shall say: Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die; and it shall be well with us.
    8 And there shall also be many which shall say: Eat, drink, and be merry; nevertheless, fear God—he will justify in committing a little sin; yea, lie a little, take the advantage of one because of his words, dig a pit for thy neighbor; there is no harm in this; and do all these things, for tomorrow we die; and if it so be that we are guilty, God will beat us with a few stripes, and at last we shall be saved in the kingdom of God.
    9 Yea, and there shall be many which shall teach after this manner, false and vain and foolish cdoctrines, and shall be puffed up in their hearts, and shall seek deep to hide their counsels from the Lord; and their works shall be in the dark.

    Also:

    “for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.”

    Strictly speaking, I suppose that’s true in a way, but what about the resurrection? Isn’t the finality of death supposed to be done away in Christ? Aren’t we supposed to understand that our work, knowledge, wisdom and intelligence are the things that go with us into the grave and persist in the eternities? In other words, isn’t this statement just flat wrong doctrinally?

    Doesn’t mean I don’t love the book for what it is, but I have never thought of it as particularly inspired scripture. More like a mood piece or tone poem.

  13. #10 Norbert, the book does not claim to be using revelation, but philosophy. It may be correct philosophy and perhaps even inspired, but it does not claim revelation as its source.

    Perhaps this is how Solomon fell from grace. In his early years, he received revelation in dreams, etc. But in becoming a wise philosopher, he may have stopped seeking revelation and depended upon his wisdom and the wisdom of those nations around him.

  14. Many of the Old Testament writings ignore resurrection and the afterlife. Does that mean that they didn’t come from revealed sources? If we believe the ninth article of faith we claim to not have received all revelation at this time; does that mean that the revelation that we have received is less valid.
    I’m not claiming that Ecclesiastes was written as revelation, I don’t really know. But a temporal focus and ignorance of resurrection are not sufficient argument to claim that something is not revelation, much less inspiration.
    On a similar note, I imagine that most GC talks are simple inspiration building on previously revealed principles. I don’t know whether or not the counsel to not get piercings was revelation given to Gordon B. Hinkley, or if it was simply the inspired thoughts of a wise man that I love. In the end its pretty irrelevant since its probably just good advice either way.

  15. Yeah, what B Russ said. And the letters of Paul make no claim to be revelation but we find useful and true precepts there. Also Solomon didn’t write it.

  16. You can find good principles in lots of places that aren’t scripture. I guess I don’t really have a good idea of what should constitute scripture, since there are several books in the OT which I don’t think should qualify.

  17. Norbert, thanks for this. I too love Ecclesiastes because it’s paradoxical, existential, and abounds with uncertainty. After Genesis, it and Job are my favorite books in the OT. I’d be careful saying it is not revelation. That is not for me to decide, I was handed a library of books, all of which contain strangeness and contradictions, mysteries piled on mysteries, and which I am called upon to accept as revelation. There is depth here. I recall Luther did not think James worth much, yet Joseph Smith found it of some worth as I recall.

  18. hevel is elsewhere translated Abel. No idea why Eve named her second son that.

  19. Thomas Parkin says:

    If I were to begin listing all the books that have a quality like scripture for me personally, but which are not canonized … because I find them true and essential. My spiritual life would not have approached the degree of wholeness is has without these books. Out of Africa is one them; there are many others. As for the canon, it isn’t all canon. Most of the Book of Mormon, most of the 4 Gospels, the books of James and Hebrews and some of Peter and some of Revelation, the Epistles of John over those of Paul, little isolated portions of the OT, a hefty little read portion of the D&C, and all the Pearl of Great Price, is canon.

  20. # 9 Rameumptom,

    Dude, with a statement like this–“The Preacher had no choice but to be Stoic. For him and the Greeks, there was no resurrection, no revelation, etc. There was just this life, and nothing afterward.”–you kind of destroy any credibility to discuss Greeks, Stoics, or Qoheleth. This is just about a half-step away from the ridiculous old pun “they didn’t believe in resurrection, that is why they are sadd-u-cee.”

    Oh, and I like Ecclesiastes, the author speaks to my Stoic/Epicurean/Platonic/Skeptic/Cynic/Pyrrhonic/Mormon material/non-material/immortal/ad hoc/corruptible/incorruptible/created/happenstance/divine/mundane soul.

  21. All the scriptures are a wonderful gift from God to man. Different portions will be appreciated and used more or less by differing persons. But I hope everyone will accept and receive every portion as part of the larger gift.

    I love Ecclesiastes, and Job, and Genesis also. I love testimonies of real people. There is nothing wrong with doctrine-teaching scripture, and I like that, too — but I love testimonies. Ecclesiastes is wonderful testimony of the goodness of God.

  22. Re: 19
    “As for the canon, it isn’t all canon.”
    Thomas, can you explain what you mean? When you say “canon”, do you mean “personal canon”? Taking the D&C as an example, what is the little-read portion you consider canon, and what’s an example of a portion you consider non-canon?

  23. Ecclesiastes is wonderful testimony of the goodness of God.

    Well said, ji.

  24. I also like Ecclesiastes. However, I’m not convinced on how much of it is revelation versus just keen observations from an aged King (or more likely whoever wrote it between 600-200BC).

    The fact is, others in the time frame understood after life and resurrection, such as King David (you shall not leave my soul in hell) and Job (in my flesh I’ll see God).

    I enjoy philosophy very much, engaging in LDS-Phil and LDS-Herm as an avid learner and occasional commenter. Still, there is a big difference between keen philosophy that leans to the Stoics and divine revelation that answers why we are here.

  25. Glenn Smith says:

    Ecclesiastes is the source of some great modern proverbs like

    “A little bird told me!” See Ch 10, Vs 20
    ” Curse not the king, no not in thy thought; and curse not the rich in thy bedchamber: for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter. ”

    And I have fun with Ch 10 vs 19
    “19 A feast is made for laughter, and wine maketh merry: but money answereth all things.”

  26. BTW, I just put my OT lesson 31 on my blog, which includes more details on my thoughts regarding Ecclesiastes.

    http://joelsmonastery.blogspot.com/2010/08/ot-gospel-doctrine-lesson-31-happy-is.html

  27. We just touched on it today in Sunday School, and it was timely for me, as I just came across Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry. Ecclesiastes has the same feel for me as Spring and Fall, mourning the transience of life and even identity.

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