The Book of Ecclesiastes or “Stuff Trump hasn’t read.” Nov11

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The Book of Ecclesiastes or “Stuff Trump hasn’t read.”

I just read all of the Book of Ecclesiastes though it mostly makes no sense at all. Several times it does reveal the true purpose of existence though, which is nice. 

“There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil,” it says; then he (he is only known to us as “a Royal Philosopher”) says it again a slightly different way: “I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.” Then he says it again: “Likewise all to whom God gives wealth and possessions and whom he enables to enjoy them, and to accept their lot and find enjoyment in their toil – this is the gift of God.” And then he says it a fourth time: “commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil though the days of life that God gives them under the sun.” Now, you might be thinking, “Alright, alright, we get it,” but just in case you might say so without really getting it he tells it a fifth time but this time with a twist: “Go, eat your bread with enjoyment and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved of what you do. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head.” Funny how you’ll still likely find people saying that being gay is a sin because it says so in the Bible but not failing to wear white or neglecting to put oil in your hair. Now he says it again but this time he’s talking to young men: “Rejoice, young man, while you are young, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Follow the inclination of your heart and the desire of your eyes but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgement.” This is a bit different to the others, fair enough; it doesn’t mention bread and wine – or toil for that matter – and it’s different too because it doesn’t tell you to go and enjoy yourself with confidence: God is watching you and be careful what you wish for now. I’m reminded of Fr Ted outside the cinema: “Careful now.”

In fairness, the book is complex. I mean it says to eat, drink, work, be thankful and merry lots of times but also says that “The sayings of the wise are like goads” and that “all toil and all skill in work come from one person’s envy of another” which might mean that work isn’t wholesome and that we only do it to be better than others, to compete, so that the earlier advice doesn’t sound so safe anymore. But in fairness he does warn, as I said already, that “The sayings of the wise are like goads.” Does that mean we should resist their lure? Another thing that’s hard to understand is this: if we’re all sinners and nobody’s perfect how does “the one who pleases [God get] wisdom and knowledge and joy [while sinners get] the work of gathering and heaping only to give to one who pleases God”? Are those who please God not sinners then? If they are (and that’s what we’re led to believe since nobody is without sin) shouldn’t everyone get “the work of gathering and heaping”? You see my problem? Or are there two kinds of sinners: those who please God and those who don’t: or maybe it’s those who please God often and those who do so seldom. 

Now, in his defence, he does say that all is vain, that nothing is worth the bother really since “What has been is what will be and what has been done is what will be done […] nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them.” By the same token, “The people of long ago are not remembered.” It’s bleak, in other words. What’s the point of it all, you might ask, when he says he says things like this: “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun”? (By the way, doesn’t this sound like Of Mice and Men: “I think I knowed we’d never do her”?) I think maybe all this means is that we just don’t know what’s going to happen or if we’ll ever get a just reward for being good and working hard since “they do not know what is to be for who can tell them how it will be?” Isn’t this the same as I like to say: you can’t know God so don’t say you do? Is this what he meant when he said, “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God: to draw near to listen is better than the sacrifice offered by fools; for they do not know how to keep from doing evil.” I like to interpret that thus: anyone who tells you they know God is a fool; they can’t avoid sin. The “draw near to listen” reminds me of Marcus Aurelius’s injunction to “be simple, reserve judgement.” There’s an echo of this simplicity in the text: “Wisdom makes one’s face shine, and the hardness of one’s countenance is changed.” I think the hardness is there before wisdom is achieved because even those who are wise understand that “All things are wearisome; more than one can express” but maybe wisdom is knowing it without allowing it to destroy you? But then you don’t want to be too clever “For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.” 

The whole book seems to be challenging us with a question: Can you be wise and therefore sorrowful and still rejoice? Perhaps the consolation is that “A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death, than the day of birth.” But every time you think you’ve gained a purchase on a philosophical ledge on the precipice that is this book you slip down another few feet and gasp: “Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of countenance the heart is made glad.” Now this does seem like a direction contradiction of “Wisdom makes one’s face shine” but is it? Is it beautiful to be sad? 

Are we not to have fun, then? Should we guard against any joy or too much of it? Having fun certainly comes with a health warning in several places in the book: “There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy upon humankind: those to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honour, so that they lack nothing of all that they desire, yet God does not enable them to enjoy these things, but a stranger enjoys them.” Is this because “Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one bungler destroys much good”? And what does it mean to say this: “If the iron is blunt, and one does not whet the edge, then more strength must be exerted”?

What certainly seems true, especially after trying to understand this book is that “much study is a weariness of the flesh.” This might be the case because “no one can anticipate the time of disaster [but] the same fate comes to all [and] This is an evil in all that happens under the sun, that the same fate comes to everyone.”

R.H.