Friday, February 6, 2009

The Book of Ecclesiastes

The Book of Ecclesiastes.
1998 Tremper Longman III
284 pages, plus indices

Man's fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?" So I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot. For who can bring him to see what will happen after him?

A few years ago, I read a quotation that astonished me. My astonishment rose not from the quotation itself, but from its source. The above is from the Judeo-Christian bible, believe it or not. Intrigued, I picked up my old Bible and turned to the Hebrew scriptures and read the the entire book. It was only twelve chapters or so, but my mind was boggled by the fact that such a book was in the Bible. The author purports to be Solomon and claims that he wants to share his wisdom: life is pretty meaningless. He describes his efforts to find meaning in life: he accrues wisdom, chases skirts (well, robes), builds lavish palaces, collects gold, pursues fame in war -- but everything seems to be fairly pointless. The author of Ecclesiastes -- let's call him the Teacher for the sake of convenience -- notes that regardless of what you do, you're still going to die. He notes that evil is visited upon the good and good is visited upon the evil, apparently without any purpose whatsoever. What came up in my reading was that although everything was ultimately meaningless, small pleasures could be achieved on Earth. What I disliked about the book was the Teacher's admonition that people should just obey God and the king, because there's no point in resisting them.

Despite that, the rest of the book strikes me as interesting. As someone with a disregard for money, fame, fortune, chasing skirts, and pedantry, I find much to be sympathetic with here. When I read the first volume of Asimov's Guide to the Bible, I wondered if there were books written on Ecclesiastes that were similar in tone. The closest I found was this book by Temper Longman III. I requested the book online through my library's network website, and so I missed the distasteful intention of the author to reconcile the book with Christian theology. Fortunately, however, this intention is not really made manifest until the last paragraph of the book.

The commentary is fairly straightforward. Longman devotes the introductory chapters to examining the book's author, background, style, genre, and canonicity. The author's view is that the book should be not be considered canon, but should instead be viewed as the collection of proverbs. In taking this approach, the author avoids having to address some of the book's internal inconsistencies. It also saves those of us who do not subscribe to Christian theology the potential annoyance of the author attempting to cram Jesus into every crack in the book. After the introductory chapters, the author moves verse by verse through the book. Longman always precedes each chapter with an introduction, then inserts the verses to be commented on, and then comments on each one individually. He then ends each chapter with a summary. To my surprise and delight, the author doesn't seem to impose outside meaning on anything: he explains what various Hebrew words might mean, shows the different interpretations by different commentators, and introduces his own. Generally there's not a lot of disagreement. When Longman does speculate, he makes it public, which I find admirable. In the last paragraph of the book, though, he posits that Jesus is the answer to the meaningless of life that the Teacher observed. He says that the book in final analysis "must be understood in the light of the canon".

In general, I found the book agreeable. I don't agree with his final assertion, but it's really a moot point. If he feels the need to ret-con his philosophy, that's his business. The appeal of the book is limited to those who are interested in Ecclesiastes, though.

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