Thursday, February 15, 2007

A Writer’s Reflections on Ecclesiastes (Annotation G1-5/Goddard)

The emptiness of all endeavour, wisdom and folly compared, and advice to a young man are the three parts of the book of Ecclesiastes, and the best advice might be: read this book on a sunny day. Culturally speaking the book of Ecclesiastes is often quoted. The Byrds’ song “Turn, turn, turn” comes directly from chapter 3 “For everything it’s season, and for every activity under heaven its time:
A time to be born and a time to die;
A time to plant and a time to uproot;
A time to kill a time to heal;
A time to weep and a time to laugh;
A time to time to love and a time to hate;
A time for war and a time for peace.” (The New English Bible, Ecclesiastes 3. 1-8).
In this first part of the book, The emptiness of all endeavour, the concepts outlined are more common than even pop songs. “What has happened will happen again, and what has been done will be done again, and there is nothing new under the sun.” (The New English Bible, Ecclesiastes 1.9) In light of all emptiness it may be true that there is nothing new under the sun. Of course David, king of Jerusalem, the speaker of the words may have understood the fundamentals of human existence summed up in the time for every purpose under heaven. Oddly all purposes and all activities these are certainly human endeavors, times for each are humanistic and not dictated by heaven. As a speaker, and as a king, David assures the readers that each activity has its place among all human emotions, and perhaps this is a passive justification of all things under the sun. If there is indeed a time to weep and a time to laugh and a time for war and a time for peace, and in this justification all emotion related to each begins to lessen, each one last only long enough to swing the other way. In this ordering of events and human activities each will only last in turn, (as the Byrds sing) and onto the next emotion. If each one lasts only during it’s time and nothing can every change and the cycle of events have been before and in the universal whole is nothing new, then the truth is simply stated by the subtitle “The emptiness of all endeavor.” The speaker sees all purposes as equal all the piteous and all the evil deeds have the same ends. “God will judge the just man and the wicked equally; every activity and every purpose has its proper time.” The New English Bible, Ecclesiastes 3.17) There is more in the greater understanding of mankind: “the world contains no man so righteous that he can do right always and never do wrong.” The New English Bible, Ecclesiastes 7.20)
Everyone has heard the old saying “Ignorance is bliss,” and this is also nothing new under the sun. “For in much wisdom is much vexation, and the more a man knows, the more he has to suffer.” (The New English Bible, Ecclesiastes 1.18) The advice is never to find more knowledge, nor is it a stride for spiritual enlightenment. What the speaker wants to impart is simply summed up in another old saying “eat, drink and be merry.” That saying is found here: “So I commend enjoyment, since there is nothing good a man to do here under the sun but to eat, and drink and enjoy himself.” (The New English Bible, Ecclesiastes 8.15) This inspires a hedonistic approach to life, never mind the wisdom, for that is burden, always delight in life’s pleasures and let the way of things be the way of things. “Time and chance govern all.” (The New English Bible, Ecclesiastes 9.12)
In the conclusion of the book the speaker gives advice to a young man. “Everything that is to come will be emptiness.” (The New English Bible, Ecclesiastes 7.9) This is perhaps not the advice to give a young man who may want to make something of himself or his environment. As far as an entrepreneur or anyone wishing to make a move in the business world, forget about it. There is no point, after all there can be nothing new done under the sun, and as for any future enterprise, it’s pointless “since I should have to leave its fruits to my successor. (The New English Bible, Ecclesiastes 2.18)
The sayings in our language which come from the book of Ecclesiastes may be many, but fortunately many of its lofty ideals do not take hold of many people’s lives. After all should a reader take any of it too seriously work and toil, success and life would not exist. Emptiness, perhaps, but life is indeed noble and worth the struggle. Should writers endeavor to read the wisdom of David, king of Jerusalem, there may be insight to be gained. A writer may find truth in the wisdom of emptiness, and indeed the speaker of these words may be a fitting subject study for characters. The true toil is not finding something new under the sun, but to find a more entertaining way to say it. If not entertaining the toil may be a way to tell it which may enlighten, steadfastly or lightheartedly. After all in wisdom and advice comes caution as David imparts to young men: “one further warning, my son: the use of books is endless, and much study is wearisome.” (The New English Bible, Ecclesiastes 12.12)

The New English Bible. The Delegates of the Oxford University Press, and The Syndics of the Cambridge University Press, 1970.

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