Essays - 'Koheleth,' Or 'Ecclesiastes'
(An attempt to sketch the mental and moral history of a powerful and intrepid Jewish thinker of the third century B. C., whose book, after fierce and prolonged debate on the part of Jewish authorities, was admitted to a place in the canonical Old Testament.)
THERE are three dramatic dialogues in Scripture: The Song of Songs, a dialogue between the lover and the beloved one; the drama of Job, a dialogue between Job and his false comforters; and lastly, in Koheleth, or Ecclesiastes, we have in substance, if not in form, a drama, as Dean Stanley says, of a still more tragic kind. It is a dialogue of two voices, but the voices are the voices of the one soul: the pessimistic and the hopeful, or, more accurately, the God-reliant voice. Between these two the combat is sustained with intensity and unflinching candor up to the very end. The contest is by no means unequal or one-sided; charge and countercharge succeed each other with equal energy of affirmation and denial, and with equal dexterity of challenge and retort. Not until the very close is the hopeful or God-reliant voice able to sound its note of immeasurable triumph.
The sincerity, the insight, the beauty, and above all the boldness of the utterances of Koheleth captivated the fancy both of Voltaire and Renan, leading the latter to assert, "Ecclesiastes is the one really charming book ever written by the hand of a Jew." "Of all forms of madness," says Voltaire, "the insistence on seeing things exactly as they are is the most appalling and hopeless." Koheleth certainly stands committed under this charge. "He saw, and he spake; and he spake as he saw," says Browning.
In Koheleth's clear and searching survey of the facts of nature and life, of the sin, the sorrow, the vanity of man and his works, of the iron order of the world about him "stern as tyranny, merciless as fate" he is indeed far bolder in his utterances than any other canonical writer; bolder even than the occasional outbursts of Job. Hence, long after Job had attained a place in the canon of inspired Hebrew writings, that honor was withheld from Ecclesiastes. As a matter of fact, not until the close of the first century of our era was it so received. At the Jewish council of Jamnia, a few miles south of Java, in the year 90 A. D., after prolonged and acrimonious debate chiefly on the ground of its supposed Solomnic authorship, Koheleth was formally admitted into the canon of the Old Testament. Reverberations, however, of the fierce debate over its admittance continued for almost a century more among the Jews.
What we naturally ask is, what was really the aim or chief purpose of the book? Or has it one purpose or many? It is perfectly within bounds to say that in the case of no other writing, within or without the canon of Scripture, has there been such incredible variety of contradictory interpretations. We are positively assured that the book contains the holy lamentations of Solomon, written by himself, his penitence for his misspent past, together with his prophetic visions of the doom of the House of David, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the captivity. We are equally assured that it is the record of a discussion between a refined sensualist and a sober sage. Says another, "Solomon wrote it to seal his sincerity of repentance and to strengthen his brethren." Per contra: "Solomon wrote it indeed, but it is the product of his irreligious and skeptical manhood during the years he was given over to his amours and idolatry."
It is a book in which the nobler Solomon, the true son of David, addresses the Saints. It is the work of an unknown profligate, who, in order to disseminate the more readily his infamous sentiments, palmed them off as Solomon's.
It teaches us to despise the world with all its pleasures, and to flee to monasteries (says Jerome, in his commentary, " to induce Blacilla, a Roman lady, to enter monastic life"). It shows that the pleasures of sense are after all man's surest and greatest if not the only blessings upon earth; therefore make the most of them, quite in the spirit of Horace " Carpe diem" or of Browning:
"There may be heaven, there may be hell;
Again, it is said to be a philosophical lecture addressed to a literary society upon subjects of highest moment. It is a medley of heterogeneous fragments without unity or order, belonging, in fact, to various authors and to different ages. This latter was Luther's view.
It describes the beautiful order of the Divine government of nature and man, showing that "all things work together for good to them that fear the Lord and obey Him." It proves to a demonstration that all is confusion and that "the world and man with it" are the sport of chance or fate.
The chief object of the writer is to prove the immortality of the soul. The author, says another, is a Sadducean physician, whose real design is to deny definitely a future existence. The author's aim is patriotic and religious, to comfort his unhappy fellow-Jews amid the desolation of their fallen fortunes, and to strengthen their hopes of future compensation. The sole purport of the book is narrow and personal, to give the relief of utterance to the author's satiety. There is nothing here but the gloomy imaginings, the despairing sentiments of a melancholy and jaded misanthrope.
Apart from its profound moral and philosophic teaching, it actually anticipates many modern discoveries, among them, especially, the theory of the trade winds and Harvey's doctrine of the circulation of the blood. "Koheleth is the Song of Songs of utter skepticism," says the Jewish poet Heine. "It is the Song of Songs of a profoundly religious soul," says Professor Delitzsch."
Finally, according to one of the latest and most learned authorities (Professor Graetz) all previous interpreters are utterly mistaken, for Ecclesiastes, in point of fact, must be recognized as simply a keen and searching satire on Herod the Great, written no earlier than about the year 8 B. C. After this survey we feel like reading over a second time before assenting to it. Renan's declaration: t "The book as a whole is clear, very clear. It is only the theologians who have had an interest in finding or rather making it obscure."
Before we attempt to decide as to the authorship or purpose, in the face of such a conflict of authorities, let us take a brief survey of the book as we actually have it. The contents may be distributed with a Prologue three acts or stages of experiences and the Epilogue. We will attempt only a rapid survey.
The Prologue: (Chap. i-ii) Problem to be solved:
Quest of the summum bonum.
First stage: (Chap. 1:12-Chap. ii:26) Seeking it in Wisdom, Pleasure, and Philosophy.
Second stage: (Chap. iii-Chap. v:20) Traffic and Political Life. (Chap. vi-Chap. viii:15) Wealth and Golden Mean.
Third stage: (Chap. viii:16-Chap. Xii:7-13) Chief Good Includes life of reverence and righteousness tranquil and cheerful enjoyment of the present. Epilogue: (Chap. xii:8 to 12 and 14) By later hand.
The book opens (Chap. 1:1-12) with reproducing the mood of weariness and despair in which it had originated. The author was evidently living in a dark day. His nation's hope was almost extinguished, the foreigner had sacked its cities, devastated its fields, carried its people into exile. Everywhere is failure, disappointment, misery. All things are vanity. The monotony of succession, the ever-recurring cycles in nature and human life were absolutely oppressing. It was made all the more so by the reflection that oblivion sooner or later falls upon all human activities. There was nothing new, nothing permanent.
The author, Koheleth, impersonating King Solomon, retraces his own past experience. " I, the preacher, was King over Israel in Jerusalem; and I applied my heart to survey and search by wisdom into all that is done under heaven." (Chap. i:12.) He had found the search after wisdom wearisome and unsatisfying. Increase of knowledge was but increase of sorrow. (Read Chap. i:12-18.) From wisdom he had turned to consider pleasure and kingly state, to find this also vanity. (Read Chap. ii:1-11.)
Then came study of human nature, its sanity and insanity.
"Then I turned to compare wisdom with madness and folly." (Chap. ii:12.) The former might be better than the latter, but it was only for a moment. Death, the great leveller, placed wise and foolish on the same footing. "The wise man dieth, even as the fool." This also is vanity. (Read Chap. ii:12-23.) (Read the conclusion, ii:24-26.) He turns to the religionists of his time, only to find hollowness, formalism, hypocrisy, frivolous excuses, and dreams taken for reality.
From the religious life he betook himself to the political. There he beheld rulers oppressing tillers of the soil, yet less happy in their wealth than the tillers in their poverty. The inequalities of the human lot were forced upon his attention; the manifest indifference of the world order as to whether men were virtuous or wicked, so far as regards the distribution of prosperity and happiness.
Men misled by such teachings as Ezekiel xviii might indeed talk of a law of individual retribution; might feel and argue that there must be such a law, but facts were against them. "There is one event to the righteous and to the wicked." (Read Chap. ix:1-3.) At first this thought had nearly driven him to utter despair. Further reflection leads him, however, to what he thinks is the true, at least a truer solution: Make life worth living work, rest, rejoice, laying resolutely aside the vexing questions that make life miserable. All beyond is darkness. (Read Chap. ix:4-10.) For "no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end." (Chap. xi-xii:7.) Koheleth feels that it is time his story of these many experiments should end. He passes, therefore, to more direct and positive teaching.
Whatever else was doubtful, it had become clear to him at least, beyond all peradventure of debate, that to do good must be right and wise. To do good, however, without anxiety and misgiving as to immediate results, this was the path of wisdom. (Read Chap. xi:1-6.) This at least made life worth living, even though darkness lay beyond. Ease and pleasure, it is true, are by no means evil in themselves, but may easily become so; and the young man in the glow and flush of life must remember that God is not only the Creator and Giver, but also, in a sense, the Judge. "Rejoice, O young, in thy youth, and let thy heart cheer thee. Walk in the ways of thy heart and in the sight of thine eyes. But know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment." (Chap. ii:9.)
We see, indeed, but partial tokens of that judgment working here and now. Soon the goal is reached, and death closes all. But beyond death well, as for the wicked, he has no further word than Chapter viii—i2 B. C.; but for him who has striven to live a life of reverence and righteousness, to "fear God and keep His commandments "—for him he has this to say: That whether death be descent into Sheol or "return to God" (that is, perhaps, absorption in the Infinite), his compensation is assured, for he has had it already in the quality of life he has lived.
The Epilogue (Chap. xii:8 to end, last seven verses, excepting thirteenth) like the Epilogue to Job, is beyond all doubt a supplement by a later hand, and adds nothing to the argument.
Who Was the Author ?
That Solomon had nothing to do with it is to-day the universal verdict of competent critics. "We could as easily believe that Chaucer wrote 'Rasselas' as that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes." Professor Ginsberg. "If the Hebrew used by Koheleth could have been the Hebrew of Solomon's time, then the Hebrew language simply has no history." Prof essor Delitzsch.
In point of language, philosophic views, and the conditions of society reflected in the book, the author must have lived many centuries after Solomon; probably at the very earliest not before the middle of the third century B. C. Among the best commentaries on Ecclesiastes are the twelfth and thirteenth chapters of Josephus' "Antiquities."
As we do not know, and in all probability never shall know from other sources, either the name or the personal history of this profound thinker on the highest themes, we may permit ourselves to gather what hints we can from the writing itself, in the way of an "Imaginary Biography." (Dean Plumptre, Dean Perowne, Tyler, and Coxe.)
Koheleth was born, let us suppose as most probable, somewhere between 240 B. C. and 200 B. C., an only son of wealthy parents. "There is one alone and not a second; he hath neither child nor brother." The family lived in the country. He was brought up a country lad, and in later life could recall how he regarded it as a venture of courage and sagacity "to visit the City." A Witless one could not well do it. (Chap. x:15) : "The work of a fool wearieth him, for he cannot find his way to the City."
His early education was carried on in the synagogue of the Gallilean country town, later in the Jerusalem schools. It was a time of comparative deadness in Israel. The last of the Prophets, (Malachi) had spoken centuries before; the heroic struggles of the Maccabees were yet a generation in the future. There was a growing tendency to fall into the modes of thought, speech, and life of the Greeks and Syrians, with whom the sons of Abraham were at that time brought in constant contact. Even the sacred name of Jehovah had fallen into the background. His country-men spoke of "God" or the "Creator" after the manner of the Greeks. (The name of God occurs twenty-seven times.) The author of Ecclesiastes himself never once uses " Jehovah," or even "Adonai," but always "Elohim " " God " a name commonly applied to heathen gods as well.
The religion of the day was not such as to awaken any enthusiasm in the boy. Sad to say, even his mother, it would seem, left no memory of a true pattern of devout womanhood for him to reverence.* "I have found one man among a thousand; but in all that number a woman have I not found." t "The author says far too many hard things of women, not to have loved them much at some time." "I find more bitter than death the Roman whose heart is snares and whose hands are as bands."
The religionists of his day called each other "Friend," "Brother," "Companion," claimed to be those of whom Malachi spoke, "who feared the Lord and spoke often one to another."
Koheleth, even as a youth, saw through their hypocrisy, watched them going to the House of God (temple or synagogue), and heard their long and windy prayers, the very "sacrifice of fools." (Chap. vi:2) : "Be not rash with thy mouth; be not hasty to utter words before God; for it is better to obey than to offer the sacrifice of fools."
He saw how they made vows in time of peril or sickness, and then when danger had passed, came before the priest with frivolous excuses for nonfulfilment. (Chap. v:4-6) : "When thou vowest a vow unto God, defer not to pay it; for he is a fool whose heart is not steadfast."
As Koheleth grew to years of manhood, he was called to take a larger part in the labors of the cornfield and vineyard; digging, building stone fences, chopping wood. (Chap. x:8-10) : For his wealthy father still held to the blessedness of toil. (The Jewish proverb, " Whoso teacheth not his sons to labor with their hands, teacheth them to be thieves," is much older than the date of Ecclesiastes.) Or take another: "Better skin a carcass for pay in the public streets, than live without working with thine hands, dependent on charity."
In later years when pleasure had brought satiety, we find Koheleth looking back regretfully to those days of hard and open air toil, and the refreshing sleep that nightfall brought. (Chap. v:12.) "Sweet is the sleep of the husbandman, whether he eat little or much; while abundance suffereth not the rich to sleep."
When early manhood was reached (like the younger son in the Parable), he desired to go out into the great world, and see life for himself. There was no question whither he should bend his steps. Alexandria in Egypt was, for the Jew of that day, the place above all others in which to view the world-life in greatest variety. Many thousands of Jews were already settled there. It was a city cosmopolitan, above all others, and distinguished for learning. Alexandria took up the torch of learning from decaying Greece. t It was not from Athens, but from Alexandria, that the Romans learned their civilization.
A wealthy Jew, like Koheleth, coming to that city, was sure to be well received, and Koheleth sought and soon found admission to the life of the courts. Alert and watchful, he noted the way favor was won, and the seats of the mighty attained, and marked the rise and fall of court favorites. (Chap. x:6-7) : "A great fool is lifted to a high place, while the noble sit degraded. I have seen servants upon horses, and masters walking like servants upon the earth."
The system of universal spying and espionage did not escape him. Words spoken in whispers were carried to the ears of the King. (Chap. x:20) : "Revile not the King even in thy thoughts, nor a prince in thy bedchamber; lest the bird of the air carry the report, and the winged tribes tell the story." Experiences such as these could not fail of ill effect, and temptations of another kind were at hand to enforce and confirm the evil tendencies.
Unlike Son of Sirach (author of Ecclesiasticus at 170 B. C.), patriotism was not a religion with Koheleth. He was not proud of being a Jew. Having come into relations with Greeks and Romans, we are not surprised to find him ready to dissimulate his race, and anxious to a degree to make a fine figure in the high life of his time.
We can best picture him as a man of exquisite tastes and re-fined manners; a veritable ancestor of a modern rich Parisian Jew of genius, who wandered from Judea to Egypt before the times of the Maccabees.
His wealth enabled him to surround himself with a certain magnificence. Wine in abundance sparkled at his banquets; hired singers, men and women, entertained his guests with songs of boldness and revelry; the great demi-monde of Alexandria, famous for their fascinations, surrounded him. (Chap. xi:3) : "I thought in my heart to cheer my body with pleasure, and to lay hold of folly till I should see what it is good for the sons of men to do under heaven." Like Goethe, he proposed to lend himself to pleasures of sense, while in thought to keep above them. "I made me gardens and parks. I bought me menservants and maidservants, and had servants born in my house.
I got me men singers and women singers, and nothing that my eyes desired did I withhold from them." Tennyson's "Palace of Art," seems like an echo:
"I built myself a lordly pleasure house,
Like the Prodigal Son in the Parable, he wasted his substance in riotous living. The tendency of such a life, as all experience shows, finds its end in the bitterness of a cynical satiety.
Byron's "Childe Harold," Tennyson's "Vision of Sin," furnish counterparts of the temper of meditative scorn and unsatisfied desire that uttered itself in Koheleth's cry: "All is vanity, and feeding upon wind." (Chap. i:14) : "When I turned to look on all the works which my hands had wrought, and at the labor which it cost me; Behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun."
It was in this frame of mind that Koheleth probably turned his steps for the first time to the great library* at Alexandria, founded by Ptolemy. Here were afforded ample resources for study and investigation.
Having grown weary of psalms and prophecies and Rabbinical lore, as perhaps not a few to-day have grown weary of Bible, prayer book, and hymnal, he turned to the writings of the Poets and Philosophers of Greece, and the priestly orders of Egypt and Buddhism, for comfort and counsel. Perhaps from Sophocles he learned to look on "not being" as better than any form of life (Chap. iv:2-3). "I accounted the dead who died long ago happier than the living who are still alive; while happier than either is he who hath not been born, who hath not seen the evil on the earth." "Wherefore, I praise the dead that are already dead, more than the living who are yet alive."
The favorite Greek maxim ", n& v áryav" (nothing in excess) he seems at this time to have made his own. (Chap. vii:16-17) : "Be not righteous overmuch, neither wise overmuch. Be not very wicked, nor yet very foolish, lest thou die before thy time." (Sentences that might have come from an eighteenth-century bishop.)
The doctrine of the cycles of all phenomena, emphasized by the Stoics, impressed him deeply. Physical nature and human history were only repeating themselves; there was nothing new under the sun. In the words of a modem poet:
"Into itself, out of itself, all that we see or know,
(Chap. 1:5): "The sun riseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth toward the place where it will rise again." "The wind goeth toward the south, and veereth to the north. It whirleth round and round, and returneth on its course." An echo of this sentiment is found in a recent article t of the great naturalist and rival of Darwin, Dr. Alfred R. Wallace: "I have come to the conclusion that there has been no advance, either in intellect or morals, from the days of the ancient Egyptians and Syrians, down to the present; nothing new under the sun."
In human history we meet the same (verses 9 and io). "What hath been will be. That which is done, is that which will be done again." "If there be anything of which it is said, Behold, this is new ! it hath been long ago in the ages before us."
This thought gave him a deepened sense of the invariable and universal order, by which the intention of all things is appointed, enabling him to view, with a measure of tranquillity, the strifes and turmoils of ambition, and lust for place and power. For (Chap. iii:1-8): "To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heavens." He could turn, in consequence, with less perturbed vision to the study of human nature itself. Exceptional virtue and vice, viewed against the back-ground of universal order, which he now recognized, were essentially but forms of insanity. (Note by all means kindred passages from Lecky's Map of Life, last two chapters, XVI and XVII. No better epitome of the teaching and tone of Koheleth):
"La vie est vaine;
"La vie est brève,
Therefore he betook himself to extended study of "wisdom, and madness, and folly" in the great mental hospital of the world, and life around him. "I gave my heart to know wisdom, and madness, and folly." (Chap. i:17.) This philosophic calm derived from Stoic teaching seemed for a time as much above the common life of man as the sun is above the earth. (Chap. ii:13) : "I saw that wisdom excelleth folly, as far as light excelleth darkness."
But the passion or the fashion of Stoicism had its day and passed. (Chap. vii:12) : "For who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun." "In much wisdom is much grief. He that increaseth knowledge, increaseth sorrow." (Chap. i:18). The Stoics of Alexandria, it would seem, did not personally commend themselves to him, the earnest seeker. They talked well of the dignity of virtue, and the virtue of philosophic calm; they drew fine pictures of both, but when he came to know them close at hand, he found them vain, irritable, self-seeking, and not infrequently as sordid and sensual as the common run of men they affected to despise.
Disappointed, disenchanted, we might say, Koheleth turned from the Stoics to the Epicureans, in his search after the "chief good." The system of Epicurus was at least less pretentious than the Stoic. It did not mock him with an ideal of unattained and unattainable perfection. All things had been compounded out of eternal atoms, and into the same all things would be resolved. (Chap. iii:20) : "All go unto one place. All are of the dust, and all turn to dust again." Annihilation stripped death of the terrors with which superstition had clothed it. Sheol and Gahenna with their darkness and misery were no longer to be feared. It fortified his purpose to make the most and the best of the only Life that is. (Chap. ix:10) : "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."
"A moment's halt, a momentary taste
"And fear not lest Existence closing your
Other Epicurean teachings confirmed the lessons of his own experience. All extremes were to be avoided. What the wise man should strive after was just the maximum of enjoyment that would not be followed by reprisals, of exhaustion, and dejection; not disdaining the pleasures of sense, but " µßl Sèv ä7av " carrying nothing to excess. (Chap. iv:6): "Better is a handful with quietness, than both hands full with travail and vexation of spirit."
Acts of kindness and benevolence he now came to recognize as one of the surest sources of satisfaction. (Chap. xi:1) : "Cast thy bread upon the waters; give a portion to seven, also to eight." Into this new form of life Koheleth seems to have entered with enthusiasm. It made him feel that life after all was worth living. (Chap. x:6-7) : "Sow thy seed in the morning, and in the evening withhold not thy hand; and the light shall be truly sweet to thee, and pleasant to thine eyes to behold the sun."
He began to find a secure if quiet pleasure in visiting the sorrowing, the fatherless, and the widow in their afflictions. (Chap. viii :2-4) : "It is better to go to the house of mourning, than the house of feasting. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better."
The teachings of the Epicureans seemed at last to point the way to the "chief good," the "summum bonum" of life. His satisfaction and relief might at this stage find expression in the glowing terms of a kindred soul, Lucretius, a century later. "E tenebris tantis tam clarum extollere lumen."
But at about this stage in his career, it would seem, he was led to take part in the discussions then so prominent and popular in the great Alexandrian Museum. t An august body of philosophers and litterateurs, in part elected and in part appointed by royal favor, composed the museum society. They dined at public expense, and held their discussions in its great auditorium. All schools of thought were represented in this metaphysical society.
To Alexandria flocked philosophers from all parts of the world. At one time not less than 14,000 students were assembled there. Atheists who had been banished from Athens, devotees from the Ganges, monotheistic Jews, even followers of Aristippus from distant Cyrene.§ There was some clear and candid argument, but sophistical reasoning, anxious only for victory, mainly characterized the discussions. To one of his temper, earnest and truth-seeking on the whole, the result could only be confusing and disappointing. One truth at least was definitely pressed home upon him, that here again in this parliament of the learned, as in the world without, "the race was not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to men of understanding." (Chap. ix:11.) (Horse-racing was one of the chief diversions, noted for unfairness and bribery of the jockies.)
In the war of words, the charlatan and sophist out-talked the true and thoughtful man.
"Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Above all, the confusion and turmoil of debate upon the favorite theme of the day, the immortality of the soul, but made the problem for him darker than before. (Chap. iii:21) : "Who knoweth whether the spirit of man goeth upward, or whether the spirit of the beast goeth downward to the earth?" seems to be an echo of the state of mind in which the parliament of these philosophers left him. (From Pyramid Tests, so-called.) "Death tears a man away from his house, and throws him upon the hills. Never will he return again to behold the sun."
But now we approach the end. The powers of human nature have their term, and this profound explorer of the problems of life and time must perforce cease from further experiments. The shadows of the "evil days," of which he must say, "I have no pleasure in them," were rapidly drawing down upon him. (Chap. xii:1.) The early life of revelry and pleasure had sapped his strength. The strain of study, the excitement of prolonged de-bates, the restless and incessant eagerness of search into all the deep and dark things of the world and life, which characterized his later years, were now working their reprisals.
The slow decay of premature old age, perhaps of advancing paralysis, as Tyler or Plumptre suggests, now confronts him. t (Chap. xii:3-7) : "The keepers of the house began to tremble, the strong men to bow themselves." Sight was failing; "those that look out of the windows are darkened." The ear grew dull of hearing; "the doors are shut on the street." He could no longer listen with delight as of old to "the voice of the daughters of music." Sleep was broken, his nights restless "rising up at the sound of a bird." Even the "note of the grass-hopper" was a burden. Gray hairs grew plentiful "like the white of the almond tree when it flourishes "—the signal that "desire had failed."
The remainder of his life was probably one long struggle with disease, and yet those days of evil wrought their good. As the bodily power grew weaker, the ancient faith, the heritage of his people, so long ignored, and supplanted by what he thought a larger wisdom, secretly and silently renewed its life and strength.
A voice within him seemed to speak in even clearer tones, and with a prophet's emphasis, those words which occur again and again in the book: "Fear thou God "— " Return to God." It was not, indeed, that cry of the prodigal, "I will arise and go to my Father" for the thought of the Divine Fatherhood as a living reality, here and now, was as yet far below the spiritual horizon. Rather the old familiar thought of his people, that God was his Creator, the Giver of Life, and breath, and all things; and that in spite of all the darkness that appals, the contradictions that oppress, the shadows that betray, it was at once the joy and the duty of man to trust in Him.
One may find Koheleth at times skeptical, materialistic, fatalistic, and above all pessimistic, but never an atheist. He never really lost his hold on God.* Cornell says, "Old Testament piety nowhere enjoys a greater triumph than in Ecclesiastes." t "Koheleth's teachings to the Christian were somewhat chilling and disappointing, but it had no doubt a function to perform, in clearing away outworn conceptions before a new, larger, truer, and more inspiring faith could have its birth."
It would seem most probable that it was at this stage of his experience that he set himself to put in written form the record of his manifold experiments with life, and the final conclusion he had reached in the long battle with its problems.
The general purpose of his book, that which gives it whatever formal unity, or approach to formal unity, it has, would seem to be the dominant desire to fix and deepen in the hearts of any who should care to read his lines the same true fear of God, the same trust in Him, in which his own soul had at last found its comfort and stay.
The close of the book was most probably all but coincident with the close of his mortal life. He waited, if not with the full assurance of faith, for the accent occasionally falters up to the last, yet with a resigned trustfulness for the hour "when the silver cord should be loosed, and the golden bowl be broken; and the few mourners go about the streets." "And his dust return to the earth as it was, and his spirit to God who gave it." (Chap.xii, 7.) "Return to God." That was his last word, facing the unknown beyond; in a sense his final solution of the dark problem of life.
Some later hand or hands added the closing verses from the eighth to the end of the last chapter (excepting the thirteenth, which would seem to have formed the original ending).
"Hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments; for this is the whole duty of man." (Thirteenth verse.)
We have, then, in Ecclesiastes, not merely a moral and philosophical dialogue, but a life record, one whose every sentence vibrates with the note of reality. Not merely the picture of the struggle, the fall, the recovery of an imaginary child of Israel, drawn for us by the hand, as it were, of some mere spectator or onlooker as regards the experiences he portrays, some philosophic and moralizing Rabbi, but a life record, we repeat an autobiography of one who set himself resolutely and profoundly to experiment with life, and who records for all time with incomparable genius, sincerity, and power, the doubts, the fears, the perplexities, the final hope and trust, of a human life lived long ago. Browning's words in "Saul" are a fine and just epitome of Koheleth and his testament, if we might place them as his grave epitaph:
"I have gone the whole round of creation; I saw and I spake; and I spake as I saw. I reported as man may of God's work."
Looking steadily at the facts of life, and the world we live in, setting forth the results arrived at untroubled by any thoughts of the necessity of apology or justification, we are not surprised to find occasional striking parallels in thought and judgment, in tone and expression, in other great writers, those of other days and our own as well, souls who have also looked fearlessly on life and the world of man to note only a few who will readily occur to us:
Shakespeare in many of his sonnets in "Henry V," in "Hamlet," "The Tempest," and especially "Timon of Athens" (if that be Shakespeare's)affords striking parallelisms. Tennyson also in many parts of "In Memoriam"; but especially in the "Two Voices," "The Palace of Art," and the "Vision of Sin."
These last three poems are indeed most impressive commentaries of the stages of Koheleth's experience.
Coincidences could be noted on many a page of Emerson also, both in his essays and his poems. Take but a single illustration: (Chap. ix:2-3) : "No man knoweth either love or hatred by all that is before them." "All things come alike to all; to him that sacrificeth, and to him that sacrificeth not." "As is the righteous, so is the wicked." "Nature," says Emerson, in his chanting phrase, "does not cosset nor pamper us. Providence has a wild, rough, incalculable road to its end. It is no use to try to white-wash its huge, mixed instrumentalities, or to dress up that terrific benefactor in the clean shirt and white neck-cloth of the student of divinity."
Omar Khayyam's Quatrains might be quoted apropos of almost every paragraph. The recurring ideas and the forms of literary expression are indeed alike almost to the point of identity, but the tone, in great part, is utterly different. Omar, with cynical smile, with bitter and humorous jest, not infrequently gives one the impression of a profound genius, simply diverting himself with speculative problems of Deity, Destiny, Matter and Spirit, Good and Evil; while Koheleth makes us feel, at every stage of the intense debate, the stern and passionate earnestness that inspired his search into the mysteries of life and death. Koheleth could never have entertained the flippant mood which dictated the lines:
"Some for the glories of this world, and some
"Alike for those who for today prepare,
To adventure a brief judgment in conclusion, it would seem two great purposes stand out fairly clear to all who come to a study of the book, without theological prepossession or preconceived theory, as to what Ecclesiastes ought to teach. The one purpose is Negative: to overthrow the traditional and popular doctrine of retribution, viz.: that material rewards and punishments are always the consequences here and now, of good and bad conduct, and are proportionate to moral desert. The second is Positive: to enforce the great conviction that to "fear God and keep His commandments" in other words, a life of reverence, and a life of righteousness is its own reward, independent of any compensations here or hereafter.
In a recent sermon (Sunday, December 13, 1908) before Yale, by Dr. Lyman Abbott, we catch somewhat of the same emphasis and accent on the duties of reverence and righteousness, as the true "éclaircissement" of the problem and purpose of man's life, to which, however, the speaker's faith (not his argument, as he confesses) would add the guarantee of perpetuity, eternal life. "If a man die, shall he live again?" "No," says Doctor Abbott, "the evidence would have to be very strong to make me believe in a new life. What I think is, that if a man has the real life, he does not die. Frankly, I am not at all sure that some men may not die, but the man who spends his life in usefulness and loving service cannot die."
The conclusion, as Koheleth leaves it, however, is unqualified by any definite future outlook. It may seem in truth a stern doctrine, but the real question for him, for every man, is: Is it true, or how near the truth, or have we a better?
"Thou maketh thine appeal to me;
The old doctrine of the invariability of retribution here and now, of the agreement of fortune and merit in this life, finds with men to-day, theoretically at least, little or no standing ground. We recognize instead, the invariability of natural laws. Disobedience to the same, whether through ignorance or wilful intent, is equally punished. Laws of the world, we have come to learn, vindicate their supremacy, not by word and blow, but by the blow without the word. (Huxley.)
But how about the second great conviction that Koheleth enforces? A life of reverence and righteousness has its own re-ward. We must confess that not a few to-day seek excuse for religious and moral indifference in the plea, and further think their plea meritorious beyond debate, that if they had a clearer and more assured proof of Immortality, they would perhaps feel it a duty to accept Christianity, and to try to pattern life after its Founder. Yet this acute and profound thinker, this man of long ago, who sounded all the depths and heights of life, affirms as his last word, as the result of his broad and all-embracing survey and experience, that such excuse is no excuse. That a life of reverence and righteousness, irrespective of Immortality, is the one thing most worthy to command a rational soul's endeavor and a rational soul's devotion.
( Originally Published 1914 )
The Heritage of the Commonwealth:
Essays - Bacon—shakespeare
Essays - 'the Lords Of Creation'
Essays - Japan
Essays - 'koheleth,' Or 'ecclesiastes'
Sermons - Baccalaureate Sermon
Brief Sermons By Doctor Converse
Brief Sermons By Doctor Converse
Brief Sermons By Doctor Converse
Brief Sermons By Doctor Converse Part 2
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