Of all the works of the Bible, Ecclesiastes stands out as the most profound, probably because it is unlike any other chapter in either the Old or the New Testament. Written post-Exile, likely composed by a single writer, it is the greatest of all wisdom literature. It distills the essence of a deeply Hebraic worldview, which is why I prefer to refer to it by its Hebrew name, Koheleth, which means roughly "speaker to an assembly." What sets it apart from everything else in the Bible is its focus on mortality and the struggle of the here and now, rather than the otherworldly paradise to come. It preaches what are essentially pagan concepts, having more in common with the Stoics in many parts than with the early Jews or nascent Christians, although it is at its core a Jewish work. The writing is evocative and sonorous in the King James translation; a worthy rendering of what are universal truths orated by an idiosyncratic personality. I want to gesture at why Koheleth is one of the most important pieces of writing ever set down and why it remains a personal touchstone for my own life.
Life is presented in Koheleth as a wonderous, but ephemeral gift, and the more one understands this, the more sorrowful and painful life becomes. This lies directly in constrast with the Christian tradition, which has always been more concerned with prudential wisdom, acting as a guide to good life and good works, its focus on how to maintain the straight and narrow path that leads to the Gates of Heaven. Christ's life is something to be emulated, serving as a guide for the Christian on how to live. Catholics have refined that instinct by creating constellations of saints, each serving as specific models for the believer. There is a "total wisdom" to be captured in the Christian tradition (with the exception of early gnostic writings and gospels), there is a final and complete wisdom that is excrutiatingly difficult to achieve, but resides as an endpoint and goal.
The Hebraic wisdom, reaching its apotheosis in Koheleth, invokes a much different conception of wisdom. Wisdom, rather than being a propulsive force that pushes one towards a telos
, is a murky pool that deserves endless and eternal rumination. Fate and fortune, randomness and chance, absent from any other part of the Bible, are embedded in Koheleth, introducing a painful awareness that life is often beyond are control, incomprehensible and remote, endless, yet brief. It is, as Harold Bloom puts it, the wisdom of annihiliation and Koheleth is the only sustained treatment of this essential truth.
The first verse speaks more eloquently to Koheleth's designs than I ever could and I lay it here in its entirety and encourage the reader to speak it aloud, for it has the cadence of golden tongued oration.
The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity
What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever.
The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and haseth to his place where he arose.
The wind goeth to the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.
All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.
All things are full of labor; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done; and there is no new thing under the sun.
Is there any thing wherof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.
There is no rememberance of former things; neither shall there be any rememberance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.
The Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem.
And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith.
I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.
That which is crooked cannont be made straight; and that which is wanting cannot be numbered.
I communed with mine own heart, saying, Lo, I am come to great estate, and have gotten more wisdom than all they that have been before me in Jerusalem; yea, my heart had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.
And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly; I perceived that this is also vexation of spirit.
For in much wisdom is much grief; and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.
This is harrowing language, obsessed with the dual and dueling impulses of life: to quest for knowledge and to succumb to death. One engenders the other, making this intertwining the very core of all meaning and creating the most fundamental paradox that lies at the hearts of all men: our greatest mandate while alive is to gain wisdom, but the more we accomplish this goal, the closer to annihiliation we arrive.
I have ruminated on this passage many times and always find it illuminating. I want to return to an exegesis of Koheleth in the future, as this opening verse merely introduces a more sustained and particularized discussion of these initial concepts. But there is ultmately little I can say that will be of value, for all is vanity and the world neither remembers nor cares.