Qoheleth Chapter Six

Translation from the Anchor Bible commentary by R.B.Y. Scott:

1 One misfortune which I have observed under the sun, and which bears heavily on men [is this]– 2 a man to whom God grants riches, possessions, and an honored place [in the community], so that he lacks nothing that heart could desire, but whom God has not given the power to enjoy it– rather a stranger enjoys it instead. This is a hollow mockery and a sore affliction. 3 If a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years and is prominent all his life, but does not find happiness– I declare that a stillborn child is better off than he. 4 Though its coming is futile and it departs in darkness, though its name is hidden in darkness and it has no burial place; 5 thought it never saw the sun nor knew anything– it rests more peacefully than he. 6 Even if a man should live a thousand years twice over, but find no contentment–does not everyone have the same destination?
7 All a man’s toil is for his mouth, but his wants are never satisfied. 8 How then is a wise man better off than a fool? [Only] in knowing how to conduct himself during his life. 9 “Better is what you can see than what you can imagine.” That, too, is futility and a grasping of the wind. 10 Whatever is was decided upon before [it came into existence], and its destiny is known. 11 For the more he talks, the more meaningless it becomes. How does man profit by that? 12 Who knows what is man’s good in life, the few and the futile days of his life which pass like a shadow? Or who can tell a man what will be after him under the sun?

Here, at the halfway point in Qoheleth, is good a place as any to pause and talk about two more interpretive tools that can help us: I want to talk about the phrase “under the sun” and the rhetorical device of exceptions that prove the rule.
The phrase “under the sun” is a unique phrase to Qoheleth; it appears nowhere else in scripture. But in Qoheleth it appears near thirty times, if not more. (In chapter six alone, it comes up twice.) Qoheleth only repeats the word hbl (vanity!) more often. What does it mean to keep talking about things with the qualifier“under the sun”? It is only ever “things under the sun” that Qoheleth calls vain. And it is “under the sun” that Qoheleth observes all manner of misery and toil and misfortune. It is not simply a “everything below the sun is bad” and “everything above it is good” though. For as we have seen, Qoheleth finds beauty in the cycles of the world, and creation. The rivers flowing to the sea that the eye can never get enough of seeing. Surely all these things are “under the sun” in the simplest sense of the phrase. But they seem to fall outside of whatever Qoheleth is distinguishing by it. It is ambiguities like this that make me think it is talking about something more complex than simply the location of objects in relation to our star.
When Qoheleth uses the phrase “under the Sun” what I think he is saying, is “in the realm of human works” or “the place that humans have power to effect things” or again “our own efforts and toil, as opposed to the efforts and toil of God.” When Qoheleth despairs of things “under the Sun” it is always about humans and how vain our works and lives and toil turn out to be. Luther can help here: Qoheleth never says “the sun is vain; but he makes the sun an exception, for he says: ‘under the sun.’ Therefore he is dealing not with the works of God, which are good, true and above the sun, but with the works that are under the sun, works that we carry on in this physical and earthly life” (LW 15, 14-15). In Luther’s theology there is a deep notion that there are two kingdoms: the left and right hand of god. The left hand Kingdom includes the rules for human life and human works. The right hand is God’s kingdom, where grace and love and creation abound. This may be something like the distinction that Qoheleth is making. There are God’s works (both in heaven and through the hands of humans) that are above the sun, and then there are the works and strivings and worryings of humanity which are under the sun. Community and enjoying our lot, eating, drinking, and being merry are probably above the sun (Although Qoheleth would never make such a positive statement). These would be works of and gifts from God, who works above the Sun. Things like trying to control wealth and power, are definitely under the Sun. This exception of the sun, brings me to my next point about exceptions that prove the rule.
The phrase “the exception proves the rule” is unfortunately often misused today just as often as the phrase “begs the question” or even the word “literally.” It does not mean, as it is often taken, that “this thing that breaks the rule, proves that the rule exists.” For instance, if you find that you are the only person that did not enjoy Toy Story 3, you would misuse the phrase if you said “I guess I’m the exception that proves the rule, that Toy Story 3 was a good movie.” Or some other such nonsense. What it really means for “the exception to prove the rule” is that a negative statement (exception) proves the existence of some otherwise standing positive statement (rule). For instance, a sign in front of a store that says “closed on Thrusdays” is the exception that proves the rule that the store is open every other day of the week. Or again, if a room in a store has the exception printed on the door “Employee’s Only” that proves the rule that the rest of the store is for more than just the employees.
So when Qoheleth says everything “under the sun” is vanity. This is the exception that proves the rule that things “above the sun” can be Good.  When, in this current chapter Qoheleth says it is a misfortune to have all manner of wealth but not enjoy any of it, it is the exception that proves the rule that enjoyment is truly something worthwhile and a great fortune to have.
Since Qoheleth always states things as exceptions, it is hard to hear the positive statements (rules) that are proven by them. The first six verses above talk all about how it is better to be a stillborn baby than a miserable rich man, but there is a positive statement buried deep within these words of despair. After all, in my Anchor Bible translation, the whole chapter is titled “Contentment is life’s highest good”! The rule that Qoheleth proves with all of these exceptions, is that it is good to enjoy the lot that we are given, and there is significant value in peaceful rest. If God does not give us enjoyment and rest, no manner of wealth or power, or planning, or anything else can help us. This idea that negative statements often imply an opposite positive one can be an invaluable tool for reading Qoheleth. It is one of Luther’s favorite interpretive tools as well. For example, for every commandment in his Large Catechism (exceptions all), Luther finds a positive rule that we should also follow.
So much for things “under the sun” and exceptions that prove the rule. I should say one more thing about chapter six before I leave it completely behind. The saying in verse 9 is of particular interest and mystery. On my first reading, this statement just seems false. I can imagine things quite a lot better than what my eyes are looking at. Maybe Qoheleth did not have as active an imagination as I do! But, it is more likely that “seeings are always qualitatively better than imaginings” is not what Qoheleth means by these words.
Luther’s gloss of verse 9 relates it to one of Aesop’s fables (a favorite interpretive go-to for Luther. He quotes Aesop everywhere.) He says “the meaning then, is this: it is better to enjoy the things that are in sight, right before your eyes, than to have a wandering desire. That is, use the things that are present and do not wander in your desires, as that dog in Aesop did when he desired the reflection and lost the meat that was present.” (LW 15, 101). This would then make sense with Qoheleth’s repetition of how ‘this too is a grasping after the wind.” So sure, I can imagine better things, but it is better for me to appreciate what things I do see. Qoheleth was not stating a fact about which reality is qualitatively better (the seen or the imagined). Rather, it is a statement about what it is better to appreciate. It is better to spend my time appreciating what is in front of me, than to be always escaping into my dreams.

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