In the next two articles, we will examine one of the more disconcerting aspects of Ecclesiastes: its tendency to undercut its own conclusions. We shall begin by looking at the phenomenon of quotations, since these are sometimes used by the Preacher when he wishes to present contradictory truths.
Quotations in Ecclesiastes
In everyday language, we frequently make use of quotation and allusion. We might, for example, use phrases which have become famous due to their occurrence on popular television programmes or in a movie. When talking with our brethren and sisters, we may quote parts of the Bible or our hymn book as part of our conversation. On some occasions this happens subconsciously: we are not deliberately quoting at all, it is just that our language has been so influenced by the Bible and our religious practices that we naturally fall into using this particular vocabulary. The New Testament often uses phraseology which arises from the Old, even when no particular point is being made by this usage.
On other occasions quotation is quite deliberate — to create humour or to add weight and authority to an opinion are just two possible reasons someone may quote a standard phrase or the language of someone else. The same sort of thing happens in Ecclesiastes too. Last time (Tidings, 3/99) we noticed a number of apparently conscious allusions back to the curses of Genesis 3. Ecclesiastes appears to be deliberately drawing on this language to show that the vain things of this life are a legacy of the Fall.
At other points, the Preacher appears to quote pieces of accepted or received wisdom for particular rhetorical effects. Ecclesiastes draws on stock wise sayings or proverbs just as we use standard expressions like “a stitch in time saves nine” or “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Identifying these quotations or sayings is not an exact science. One scholar may allege that a particular phrase is a quotation, another may deny that this is so — there is no way of proving the matter; nevertheless, most scholars agree that such quotations do exist. Let us take a few examples.
Examples of quotations
Sometimes the quotation is made to support what the Preacher is arguing. This appears to be the case in the following example:
“And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit. For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow” (1:17,18).
Here we have a record of what the Preacher did and observed (“I gave … I perceived…”), which is followed by two sentences that are short, pithy, and exactly the kind of wise saying or proverb that might be found in the book of Proverbs. One could conceivably imagine such proverbs being still around today. It is on the basis of the rhythm and poetic nature of these pithy sayings, their graphic and memorable character, scholars suggest they may be quotations of traditional sayings.
In an example such as this, it does not really matter whether the saying is a quotation or not. It does not affect our understanding of the passage whether the Preacher is quoting a traditional saying or creating something new.
In a number of other places, however, it seems the Preacher may quote a traditional saying in order to disagree with it — it is this which is both far more interesting and our concern here. An example is to be found in Ecclesiastes 2:13,14.
“Then I saw that wisdom excelleth folly, as far as light excelleth darkness. The wise man’s eyes are in his head; but the fool walketh in darkness: and I myself perceived also that one event happeneth to them all” (2:13,14).
Here again we have observations of the Preacher (“I saw … I myself perceived …”). Within those two observations, however, there is another saying which appears to have the character of one of these quoted proverbs: “The wise man’s eyes are in his head; but the fool walketh in darkness” (2:14a). We would not be at all surprised to find such a verse in the book of Proverbs, yet here it is in the middle of two of the Preacher’s observations. We shall have to look at the argument more closely to work out what is going on.
First, the Preacher sees that wisdom is better than folly. Indeed, to corroborate this, he quotes a traditional proverb (or one that he has created himself for the purpose: 2:14a, “The wise man’s eyes are in his head…”). He then undercuts this with an observation- bordering- on- contradiction which severely limits its value: “I myself perceived also that one event happeneth to them all” (2:14b). While assenting to the truth that wisdom is better than folly, the Preacher points out another truth which undercuts it: since they both die there is no ultimate difference between the wise of this world and the fool. In this way, recognising that 2:14a is a quotation or at the very least, a foil for a contrasting or contradictory truth is very useful. He might well conclude as he does: “Then said I in my heart, as it happeneth to the fool, so it happeneth even to me; and why was I then more wise? Then I said in my heart, that this also is vanity” (2:15). The one observation (wisdom is better than folly) is all very well, but it has to be put in context by another fact, that one event, death, reigns over all — wise or fool.
A good name
A similar example occurs in 7:1: “A good name is better than precious ointment; and the day of death than the day of one’s birth.” What is odd here is the juxtaposition of these two sayings. The first makes good sense, but why should it be followed by the second?
Let’s suppose that the first is a standard pithy saying or proverb. The likelihood of this is enhanced by the play on words that it contains: a good name (Hebrew: shem) is better than precious ointment (Hebrew: shemen). Reputation, having a good name, is better than possessing costly ointment and smelling nice.
Most people would accept this wisdom, but why it should be followed by the statement that the day of death is better than the day of one’s birth is most puzzling. One suggestion is that if one has a good reputation one can always lose it. The only way one can be assured of not losing one’s reputation is to die. If one dies “at the top” then that is how one is remembered. There is no possibility of disgracing oneself. This would be a highly cynical, even morbid, subversion of the original saying.
Indeed, perhaps the incongruity of the two expressions is the very point. Perhaps this second half of the verse is to be read as a highly ironic and sarcastic undercutting of the first. At the end of chapter 6, the Preacher had just been talking about death. Then he introduces this traditional proverb, but he juxtaposes this with a statement that does not fit with it at all — that the day of death is better than one’s birth! This is highly ironical. In other words, the Preacher is saying: “‘A good name better than precious ointment’?! That’s what people say is it? Pah! It’s better not to have been born at all; it’s better to die than to be alive!” He then goes on in verses 2-4 to expand on this theme of the superiority of death, sorrow and mourning. By this ironic juxtaposition, the Preacher makes his conclusions about death all the more graphic. He shows the triteness of conventional wisdom when placed against the harsh realities of life and death. These realities, we recall, are the basic themes of which he never tires.
A time for everything
Ecclesiastes 3, with its description of the various times of life, is justly famous. It has poetic beauty in English (though especially in Hebrew), is unique in the Bible, and has even been made the subject of a song in the Sixties. But what is its purpose in the context of Ecclesiastes as a whole? Why does the Preacher include this long poem? This question becomes even more puzzling when its context is examined. Notice particularly what follows immediately on its heels:
“What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboureth? I have seen the travail, which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised in it. He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end” (Eccl. 3:9-11).
To abruptly exclaim “what profit has he that worketh in that wherein he laboureth?” after such a beautiful poem is jarring, to say the least. What is behind this juxtaposition?
I suggest that here again the Preacher is deliberately undercutting his material. Our natural response to the beautiful poem of verses 1-8 is to admire it and to agree that there is indeed an appropriate time for everything in life. But just as we are nodding in agreement, we are slapped in the face, so to speak, by the material with which the Preacher follows it up. It is, indeed, possible that the poem is an already existing piece which he is citing (rather than a composition which he has written himself), inserted at this point only to undercut it with what follows. What then is the argument in this passage?
Although the Preacher agrees that there is a time for everything (otherwise he wouldn’t have included the poem), he nevertheless counteracts this by saying that there is no profit in these things, even if there is a time for them! Our lives are consumed by these various activities (sowing, reaping, loving, fighting, dying), and yet they all constitute travail with which we are exercised for no ultimate profit. The poem is a clever foil for this more sinister truth.
Verse 11 is particularly intriguing: “He (God) hath made everything beautiful in his time.” The word beautiful can be (and in the opinion of many, ought to be) translated as appropriate, fitting: “Yes,” the Preacher says, “everything is fitting and appropriate in its time, and these times are ordained by God.” The problem arises because man is man and not God — he probably doesn’t know the right time! Although God knows what time it is — what is fitting when, how the various “times” fit together and make sense in His all-encompassing plan — man probably does not.
This is how verse 11 continues: “Also he hath set eternity (or, the world) in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end” (3:11). Man cannot fathom God’s great scheme by which He orders the world. God has indeed ordained everything to be right in its time, but if we do not know when that time is, as far as our own lives are concerned, then we may well get the time wrong! We may be doing the wrong thing at the wrong place at the wrong time. There is a fittingness about the universe, and yet we, in our cursed human condition, cannot see it! So there is nothing for it, as far as we humans are concerned, but to get on with our eating and drinking in all its unprofitability (3:12,13). This is how limited we are in comparison to Him.
It is worth pausing a moment longer over that phrase “he hath set eternity (or, the world) in their heart.” “Eternity,” a more likely translation than the AV’s “world,” is of course a time word. God has put eternity in our hearts; perhaps this means a longing for the eternal, a grasping after and appreciation of it. This longing for the eternal, this dissatisfaction we feel with our limited and vain existence, only serves to emphasise how pathetic we are. Indeed, the Preacher seems determined to exploit this gap between ourselves and God: “I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor anything taken from it: and God doeth it, that men should fear before him” (3:14). What God does is for ever! How that contrasts with our own existences, limited by time — miserable when compared with God. But the verse tells us more than this.
It tells us God has made the world like this deliberately. He has done this that we might perceive the gulf between ourselves and Him and so we might yearn for Him more, realising there must be something more to life than this vain existence that we now have. This point is made in a number of places throughout the book: God has made the world like this deliberately for our learning and ultimate benefit.
Thus, what we might have originally thought to be simply a good poem about the fittingness of everything in life turns out to be so much more. The Preacher uses the time poem as a springboard for other layers of meaning, undercutting and subverting it to illustrate the great gulf that exists between ourselves and God, between our time-bound existence and His eternity.
In the next article, Lord willing, we shall take one or two more examples like this and making some suggestions about what we should do when we find apparent contradictions within the book.