Tag Archives: Ecclesiastes

Ecclesiastes in Ellen F. Davis‘ “Simple Gifts” (Getting involved with God pp. 104-120)

Some of us at St Dunstan’s (Madison, Wisconsin) have been reading Ecclesiastes together. Wondering how we might sum up what we’ve encountered, I reread Davis’ essay, which prompted the following.

“From the mainstream sages of Proverbs we may learn about the nature of ‘righteousness, justice, and equity’ (Proverbs 1:3), but Kohelet teaches us about humility. This is the core of his teaching: life can never be mastered, if ‘mastery’ means shaping it in conformity with our desires. It can only be enjoyed, when pleasures great and small come our way. Or, when enjoyment is not possible, then life must be endured. What Kohelet aims to instill in his students is the ability to receive the pleasures of life as the gift they are and to recognize God as sole Giver—‘For who eats or who feels anything, apart from him?’ (2:25).

“It is often said that the message of Ecclesiastes is best summed up as carpe diem, ‘seize the day.’ But the evidence belies that. The key verb in the book is not ‘seize’ but ‘give’, which occurs twenty-eight times in these twelve chapters—and most often the one who gives is God. The essential message, then, is ‘Receive the gift.’ We practice the core religious virtue of humility by noting with pleasure, day by day, the gifts that come to us from God.”

Kohelet “specifically urges us to realize three forms of happiness in our lives: sensual pleasure (eating and drinking, sleep, sunlight), intimate relationships (friendship and conjugal love), and satisfaction in work.”

“The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless” (T. S. Eliot in “East Coker II”)

Very helpful, and noticeable overlap with William Brown’s description of the “fear of God” in the book (see June 12, 2020 post).

As is often noted, Kohelet (the teacher) slams the door on speculation re the afterlife (e.g., 3:20-21). In the context of the entire biblical witness, is this a defect? The teacher might argue not: why should we expect to receive/enjoy the afterlife if we’ve not learned to receive/enjoy this life?

The sharp tension in the book between the teacher’s theology (God is active; God “will bring every deed into judgment” [12:14]) and God’s inscrutability is like the tension in the petitionary psalms and Job. But the petitionary psalms typically call on God to conform to the psalmist’s theology, and Job—loudly, repeatedly—calls on God for an explanation. Why is the teacher silent? “Never be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few” (5:2). To speculate: perhaps the teacher’s prayers are kept private. Perhaps the teacher regards teaching about or modeling prayer too likely to be mistaken for an attempt to wrest mastery from God.

Davis: “Kohelet has meditated long and hard on the first few chapters of Genesis,” noting hebel as also the name of Cain’s brother, and the role of death. We might also wonder about “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Kohelet (the teacher) has spent the book seeking knowledge through experience, with both negative and positive results. The negative: our ignorance is profound: the past (forgotten), the present (what God is up to), the future (the results of our actions especially). The positive: a stance or character that might be described in terms of humility, fear of God, receiving God’s gifts. The bottom line—in sharp contrast to the Genesis 3 story—“Fear God and keep his commandments” (12:13).

Re the Daily Office Readings May 31 Anno Domini 2020

Sisyphus by Titian

The Readings: Deuteronomy 16:9-12; Acts 4:18-21, 23-33; John 4:19-26

The OT Reading bumped by Pentecost: Ecclesiastes 1:1-11

Since I’m focusing on Ecclesiastes over the next two weeks, today the focus is on its first 11 verses, bumped in the Lectionary for the Feast of Pentecost.

By numerous measures we’re the world’s leading nation, and we have over 100,000 coronavirus deaths, around 40 million unemployed, the House and Senate on different pages, the President and his scientific advisors only sporadically on the same page. Have we had enough futility yet? Enter Ecclesiastes, our conversation partner for the next couple weeks. Upfront, I need to remember that (1) what Ecclesiastes means by futility/vanity/absurdity is not necessarily what I (or Paul) mean, and (2) the author’s perspective and the perspective of the “I” in the book are not necessarily the same. The second point is important because it’s quite possible that the book is a sort of thought-experiment: if I assume this, where do I end up?

As for the first point, ‘futility’, ‘vanity’, ‘absurdity’ are interpretations of Hebrew hebel, which literally means “the flimsy vapor that is exhaled in breathing, invisible except on a cold winter day and in any case immediately dissipating in the air” (Alter). It’s a metaphor, and perhaps we should let it do its work as a metaphor without tying it down to a particular meaning.

“All is mere breath” (Robert Alter’s translation). Here, and elsewhere, we might wonder: what would it take for this not to be true?

One of the book’s innovations is the use of a number of terms from the world of economics, e.g., ‘gain’ or ‘profit’ in v.3. Same question: what would gain look like? Pulling back the camera: how well does approaching life as an exercise in bookkeeping work?

Finally, something (else) notably odd: the tradition out of which the book works (“wisdom”) typically values tradition, the old, the well-tested. Anything new is likely an outlier. But here’s the speaker (complaining): “there is nothing new under the sun.” What sort of world does the speaker inhabit that makes this complaint make sense?

Perhaps this is an apt moment for reflection. Where am I particularly encountering “mere breath” now?