Qoheleth: The Ironic Wink


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The largest of the books is Psalms, usually linked with Job and Proverbs. Traditionally these three have been arranged in two different sequences to yield anagrams indicating either truth or perfection in the sense of wholeness. In addition five books eventually came to be known as festal scrolls. The books of Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles round out this third division.


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As a mix of divine and human words, the second and third divisions have secondary authority for Judaism while Christianity accords equal revelatory status to all three divisions. In the third division three books are generally identified as wisdom literature. In it the wise, as they are called, give their own insights gleaned from observing nature and people. The results of rigorous analogical thinking, these observations and instructions are distilled for those willing to hear, especially the young.

The collected sayings in Proverbs are overwhelmingly prudential. Except for a few cracks here and there, the teachings suggest that individuals can control their destiny and that God oversees a just universe. The book of Job turns that comforting world upside down. The tragic death of his seven sons and three daughters and the rupture in the intimacy with God forced Job to reject the truisms that his friends dished out to a hungry soul. Such revolutionary ideas may have been produced for more sophisticated thinkers than the youthful audience of the book of Proverbs.

Unlike the author of the Joban masterpiece, Qoheleth thought it futile to swim against the stream. Qoheleth chose other human beings as partners in conversation. In the entire book, twelve chapters comprising two hundred and twenty-two verses, he never once addressed the deity, never identified him as my God. Although he had much to say about God, both positive and negative, he was content to talk about but not to the distant deity. He realized that no human exertion, not even that of a primordial king, Gilgamesh of Uruk, can change the human condition.

As the Stoic philosopher Epicurus is reputed to have said, Against other things it is possible to obtain security, but when it comes to death we human beings all live in an unwalled city. For his honesty and astute study of human nature and the environment into which mortals have been thrown, Qoheleth has gained a small band of admirers in high places.

Among others, they include a Nobel laureate, a recipient of various prizes and a Guggenheim Fellowship for poetry, a newspaper columnist, and a composer of folk songs. First the Nobel laureate in literature. In her acceptance speech at Stockholm in , Wislawa Szymborska began by expressing admiration for Qoheleth while at the same time questioning his assertion that there is nothing new under the sun: You were born under the sun, the poem you created is new, as are your readers, and so is the cypress under which you are sitting.

Have you taken notes yet, do you have drafts? Second the Guggenheim fellow. What if, he asked, his father had said the sun rises and sets; the wind blows south and then north; rivers run into the sea; fourteen-year-old girls would manage to end it all; and nothing is new under the sun? What if the pastor had said the eye is not satisfied with seeing nor ear filled with hearing?

Would he then want to see the room in which the suicide took place or to hear the sound of the gunshot? What if, Jarman continued, the pastor had said he praised the dead more than the living, and the one not yet alive is better than the dead or the living? Or if he had said, Be not rash with your speech or in a hurry to utter something before God, for God is in heaven? What if he had said that the dead know nothing because their memory is forgotten, as are their love and hatred, for the dead have no more portion in what is done under the sun?

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What if, on taking leave of the couple, the preacher had urged them to live joyfully all the days of their vain life, for that is their portion? After describing his memory of his father, who had visited strangers on that awful night, Jarman concluded that the God who will bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, good or bad, could have shared his knowledge with those who urgently needed to hear it but kept a secret. Jarman continued the theme of costly divine silence in another book of poetry, Unholy Sonnets.

The fourth unholy sonnet in Questions for Ecclesiastes celebrates divine absence. Jarman thought of a deity who recedes into the void and demonstrates love through absence, baffling humans but receiving the adoration of the stars. Third the newspaper columnist. Without them religion takes ungodly flights into realms of abstraction, pomposity, hysteria, and murderous purity.

Qoheleth: The Ironic Wink

These prompt a person to claim too much—visions that turn out to be untrue, moral pronouncements that turn out to be mere bullying, divine errands that turn into blood-baths. An old cycle gets revved up again—religious conflict, violence, disillusion, bewilderment, loss of faith, desecration, the name of God besmirched again and again, taken horribly in vain. Fourth a song writer. The familiar poem about a time for everything under heaven inspired Pete Seeger to compose Turn, Turn, Turn, which strikes a familiar chord with many listeners in the same way the words of Qoheleth appeal to those who choose to read them at funerals.

There seems to be both promise and finality in the cadence of things that are subjected to fixed times, none of which is under our control. There is indeed a time to give birth and a time to die, just as there is a time for war and a time for peace. And there is a time for everything in between these beginnings and endings. Like few others, the philosopher Bertrand Russell recognized the promise even in the presence of vanity: To take into the inmost shrine of the soul the irresistible forces whose puppets we seem to be—death and change, the irrevocableness of the past, and the powerlessness of man before the blind hurry of the universe from vanity to vanity—to feel these things and know them is to conquer them.

It is meaningless that we are born; it is meaningless that we die.

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The philosopher Jacques Ellul thinks Qoheleth viewed life as a thread of which one end is vanity and the other is the presence of God. According to Ellul, In reality, all is vanity. In truth, everything is a gift of God. This ironic tone underlies everything Qoheleth says to us, in my opinion. Qoheleth makes visible all the blanks and gaps: the gap in our knowledge, the gap in social reality, and the gap of existence. The reason: direct truth leads to despair.

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At one time Robert Gordis said that the two fundamental themes are the essential unknowability of the world and the divine imperative of joy. As a result Gordis isolated three basic themes instead of two. While he may have been unable to settle on two themes for the book, Gordis could hardly contain his admiration for Qoheleth.

Even his love of life flowed from the tragic brevity of existence rather than from a world governed by a good God. The similarities between him and modern existentialists, especially Albert Camus, are easily recognized. Qoheleth would probably have agreed with the following sentiment from Camus: If the only significant history of human thought were to be written, it would have to be the history of its successive regrets and its impotencies. The task is endless and without profit, something Qoheleth underscored at the outset.

His motto could be: Nothing in excess. Another notable figure, this time from a wholly different cultural context, reached the same conclusion that Qoheleth did. After twenty-nine years of living in luxury, Gautama Buddha embarked on a search to understand suffering. The catalysts were four accidental observations of a sick person, a beggar, an old person, and a corpse. Deeply troubled by what he had seen, the Buddha tried wisdom first, drinking deeply from the fountain of gurus.

Six years of asceticism followed, and then he turned inward and achieved enlightenment.

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He tried to eliminate the cause of suffering, which he took to. This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue? Upload Sign In Join. It is a must-read for all students of wisdom, one that invites both appreciative and critical engagement.


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James Crenshaw, without a doubt, has been the leading scholar of his generation concerning the wisdom traditions of Israel. These volumes present a summation of his lifetime of good work. Crenshaw shows that the biblical tradition is open to a broad cultural reading, truth claims given in a compelling manner. This is a most welcome volume. James Crenshaw has been a leading voice in the study of wisdom literature for several decades.

His knowledge of the texts and the scholarly literature about them is unparalleled. The present study comprises a culmination of his lifelong scholarly engagement with sapiential literature.

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