It has been a long break on this blog since I wended through the book of Ecclesiastes. Not counting my April Fool’s Joke, it has been more than eight months since I wrote my entry about Chapter six. But this Blog began with an outpouring about Ecclesiastes, so I feel dedicated to finishing my brief commentary on the book before the end of this year. So bear with me, dear reader, as I once again delve into the words of the Preacher (Qoheleth).
Translation from the Anchor Bible commentary by R.B.Y. Scott
1 “Better is fame than fine ointment” –hence the day of one’s death is more important than the day of one’s birth. 2 “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a feast” –for that is how all everyone comes to an end, and the living take it to heart.
3 “Better is grief than laughter” –it clouds the face but it improves the mind. 4 [So] the thoughts of the wise turn to the house of mourning, but the thoughts of the fools to the place of amusement.
5 “It is better to listen to the rebuke of a wise person than to lend one’s ear to the singing of fools”—for “like the noise of [burning] thorn bushes under a cooking pot is the loud laughter of fools.” This, too, is a hollow thing. 7 But oppression can turn [even] the wise into fools, and it takes away their courage.
8 “Better the end of something than its beginning,” and “Better to be patient than proud.” 9 Do not be easily upset, for vexation is typical of fools. 10 Do not say, “How does it come about that former days were better than these?” It is not the part of wisdom to ask such a question.
11 “It is good to have wisdom as much as an inheritance,” and it is an advantage to people while they live, for 12 “the shelter of wisdom is like the shelter of wealth,” with the added advantage of knowing that wisdom gives life to its possessors.
13 Observe how God orders things; for who can straighten what God has made bent? 14 Be pleased when things go well, but when they go badly, look out! God has arranged that one should correspond to the other, so that mortals may never know what lies ahead of them.” 15 I have seen it all during my transitory existence –the innocent perishing in spite of their innocence, and the wicked who live long in spite of their wickedness. 16 Do not be overscrupulous, or make a fetish of wisdom: why make your life horrible? 17 Do not be very wicked [either], or play the fool: why die before your time? 18 It is best to grasp one thing and not let go the other. The one who fears God will consider both sides. 19 [On the one hand], “Wisdom gives more strength to the wise than a council of ten gives to a city.” 20 Yet there is no one so righteous that they [always] do what is best and never make a mistake. 21 Do not pay too much attention to all the things people say, or you will hear your [own] servant reviling you; 22 for many times, as you know full well, you yourself have reviled others.
23 I sought for wisdom in all this; [I said, I want to be wise], but it was beyond me. 24 What it was, proved remote, and so very deep that no one could find it. 25 So I turned my attention to study and explore and seek for wisdom and meaning on the one hand, and to identify wickedness, stupidity, folly and madness on the other. 26 More bitter to me than death was my experience with woman, whose thoughts are traps and snares and whose hands are chains; by God’s favor one may escape her, but whomever he disapproves will be caught by her. 27 See, this is what I have found, [Says Qoheleth], adding one thing to another to reach a conclusion, 28 after searching long without finding anything –one man in a thousand I found, but not one woman in all these did I find. 29 This only, mark you, I discovered, that God had made humans upright, and they have willfully turned to many reckonings of their own.
My Harper Collin’s Study Bible titles this chapter: “A Disillusioned View of Life.” But I hear nothing but encouragement, and hope for life. I would rather title it as “A Call To Persistence When Faced With Life.”
To be fair, the first part of chapter seven seems to contradict everything that Qoheleth has said so far. If there is nothing better for one to do in life than “eat drink and be merry.” How can Qoheleth turn around and say here “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting” and “sorrow is better than laughter” (NRSV, verses 2&3)? What are we to make of such statements?
One way to parse this out, is that it could be a comparative argument and not a statement of absolute truth. To say “it is better to go into the house of mourning than the house of feasting” does not mean that feasting has no value. It is rather a comparative statement saying that there is a lot of value to be had in the house of mourning. Just as if I were to say “Better to keep away from that peanut butter than stick your finger in it” it does not mean that sticking your finger in that peanut butter is always objectively bad. There are times when sticking your finger in peanut butter is perfectly acceptable, but in this instance I am making a comparative argument that points to some value about the peanut butter. (For one, that peanut butter is mine, and there is value in my friendship if you do not eat it.) In the same way, it is likely not Qoheleth’s point here that given the choice, we should never chose to go into the house of feasting. But instead, it points out that there is value to be found in the house of mourning.
When we use this formula “better___ than___,” today, we often immediately want to dismiss the second thing in the comparative. This is because we live in a culture that values quantity over quality. Our culture says “more is always better” so why would you ever pick the second option? If something is less than something else, we do not want any part of it. So when we read these comparative arguments in Qoheleth, we want to dismiss the house of feasting. But that kind of thinking is foreign to Qoheleth, and it is not her/his intention behind introducing a comparative formula. For Qoheleth, this is simply a good way to talk about where quality resides (there is lots of it in mourning). It is not a way to dismiss one thing completely over another. Any prolonged reading of Qoheleth teaches us that quantity is not where it is at. Because any amassing of number will turn out to be vanity. Therefore our culture sets us up for error when we look at these comparatives as a quantity judgment; we hear that we should drop the feasting for the sake of the mourning. So it is good that chapter seven gives us its own central interpretive tool: “It is good that you should take hold of one, without letting go of the other; for the one who fears god shall succeed with both.” (NRSV Verse 18). Do not let go of the feasting for the sake of mourning. “For the one who fears god shall succeed with both!”
Luther’s gloss is that this passage warns us against extremes- its contradictions show us a lesson in moderation. We have heard on the one hand how we should enjoy the things that are present in life, that all things are a gift from God, so we should take joy when joy is given to us. But the other extreme then, is making a test of pleasure and keeping too light. “If we teach that nothing but faith alone justifies, then wicked people neglect all works. On the other hand, if we teach that faith must be attested by works, they immediately attribute justification to these . . . It is difficult to remain on the royal road, as, for example, here: neither sadness alone nor happiness alone , but the middle between them is what one is to keep” (LW 15, 111).
This reading makes sense of verses 13-22. They clarify what the middle road looks like- that God is in charge and we should look to God when confronted with the many opposite extremes of life. We should be neither foolish nor too wise, neither too wicked nor too righteous. But take the middle road with God. Instead of a disillusioned view of life, therefore, we get a call to persistence. We can take comfort in the idea that God is in control. We should not give up hope when faced with despair. God can work through sorrow just as much as god can work through joy. With God, we can persist after the worth in life, which can be found just as much in sorrow as in feasting. There is value in the ends of things, and in seeing things through to their logical conclusion: for there the living will find something to lay in their hearts (Verse 2).
Finally, I must confront the unfortunate discussion in verses 26-29. To modern ears this just sounds misogynist. It is a passage that has been abused and trotted out as a polemic against women. Even Luther’s gloss falls wayward of any modern sensibility that begs for gender equality. A lot of this passage is really an artifact of the time, and not something that can directly speak to us today. It is not likely however, that Qoheleth truly meant it as an attack against women. But, as Harper Collins puts it: “more likely it echoes Proverbs’ warning against the seductiveness of Folly and adultery, in which males [in Qoheleth’s culture] are responsible for sexual restraint toward women other than their wives.” So we can read this as more an argument for appreciating the love that you already have, than an argument against women. Harper Collins continues to say that the sense of this discussion in the context is unclear, but “Perhaps it is a hyperbolic idiom using the image of rarity to express the great value of a good man and woman.” I think this interpretation is maybe a bit of a stretch, and it provides slim comfort. But sometimes artifacts of earlier cultures like this one, cannot truly be rescued for modern ears.
We should always hold in mind that the point and purpose of Ecclesiastes “is to instruct us, so that with thanksgiving we may use the things that are present and the creatures of God that are generously given to us and conferred upon us by the blessing of God (LW15, 10). If this is truly a polemic against women, it does not do anything to advance that central argument Luther helps us to identify. For women are just as much a part of God’s creation as Men are, and both should equally be enjoyed as they are present. If I am right and these verses do not push the purpose of the book one way or the other, we can comfortably leave them behind as an artifact that does not need much of our attention. If they do add to the argument, then it must be something like Harper Collin’s gloss that a good mate is a rare find indeed, and so we should doubly enjoy a good partner when God gives one to us. It is best not to dwell on the end of chapter seven too long, or we will find ourselves becoming much too anxious about this old and unfortunate single illustration in an otherwise comforting and helpful book. Let us not let go of the one for the sake of the other.