A bunch of readers rebuked me for calling Ecclesiastes a Buddhist book. I don’t know much about Buddhism—I’m no “JewBu“—and I may have made the classic ignoramus mistake of assuming any vaguely Eastern-sounding spiritual advice is Buddhism. In particular, several of you noted that “everything happens over and over again” is much more a Hindu concept than a Buddhist one. Meanwhile, a couple of other readers said Ecclesiastes actually resembles Greek philosophy, particularly Epicureanism, rather than Buddhism. And still other readers counter that, in fact, Ecclesiastes is even more Buddhist than I suggested. I am way out of my depth here. I’m retiring from the field. Fight it out, comparative religion scholars!
This chapter contains perhaps the finest tribute to family and love in the entire Bible. Koheleth begins by deploring the “solitary individuals,” who spend all their time working but have no one to share their wealth with. This flows into the following glorious passage:
Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone?
This is an out-of-fashion sentiment for our individualistic era—like something from a Swedish government pamphlet, circa 1975. But my God! It’s phenomenal! Let’s talk about the killer line of the passage: “How can one keep warm alone?” My all-time favorite Slate article is this 1997 essay about marriage by the late Herb Stein, written right after the death of his wife. Stein described watching couples walk by the sidewalk cafe where he was sitting. He asked why the wives were important to their husbands.
First, she is a warm body in bed. I don’t refer to their sexual activity. That is important but too varied for me to generalize about. I refer to something that is, if possible, even more primitive. It is human contact. A baby crying in its crib doesn’t want conversation or a gold ring. He wants to be picked up, held, and patted. Adults need that physical contact also. They need to cuddle together for warmth and comfort in an indifferent or cold world.
When I read Stein’s article 10 years ago, I wept, imagining him with no one to cuddle with anymore. And I almost cried at this passage from Ecclesiastes, thinking of all those who don’t have someone to keep them warm in bed.
The chapter closes with a smack at the ostentatiously religious: “Be not overeager to go to the House of God.” The implication, if I read the surrounding verses correctly, is that the prayers and offerings of fools are worthless.
Chapter 5 and Chapter 6
Koheleth has been reading his Proverbs: You should speak rarely, since most people sound stupid when they talk too much. And you should never make any kind of vow—especially a vow to God—unless you intend to keep it.
Koheleth concludes that wealth and greed bring only dissatisfaction. “A lover of money never has his fill of money.” It’s also pointless to love money because you can’t take it with you. Ripping off Job—or being ripped off by Job—he declares: “As he came out of his mother’s womb, so must he depart at last, naked as he came.” (Compare to Chapter 1 of Job: “Naked I came out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there.”) So don’t bother to work; you might as well bang on the drum all day.
This gloomy chapter loses me. Most of Ecclesiastes is nihilistic but pleasure-seeking. But here it dives into the black hole. The day of death is better than the day of birth. “It’s better to go to a house of mourning than a house of feasting.” And “Vexation is better than revelry.” These verses baldly contradict the eat-drink-party ethos of the rest of the book.
There’s another awful bit at the end of the chapter, when Koheleth delivers a misogynistic rant: “I find women more bitter than death,” he begins, then goes on to say that there is only one true human being in a thousand, and that person is never a woman.
The big K makes another Job-like observation. There is no justice on earth. If there were justice, those who revere God would prosper and those who despise God would suffer; but it doesn’t actually work that way. “Sometimes the upright man is requited according to the conduct of the scoundrel; and sometimes the scoundrel is requited according to the conduct of the upright. I say all that is frustration.” So don’t bother trying to make sense of it, Koheleth advises. Instead, if I may quote This Is Spinal Tap, “have a good time, all the time.”
I now understand why Ecclesiastes is the favorite Bible book of people who don’t much believe in God. It offers the only viable competition to the Bible’s main theme of heaven, redemption, and judgment. If you believe in God, you can explain injustice and wickedness on earth with an afterlife or judgment day, where the good get their just desserts. (Pecan pie for me, please!) But what if death is just death? What if there is no afterlife, no second chance? How do we live then? Koheleth faces this head on. Koheleth believes that you die and that’s it—”even a live dog is better than a dead lion … the dead know nothing … their loves, their hates, their jealousies have long since perished.” Koheleth’s answer for this dilemma is: Seize the day. “Whatever it is in your power to do, do with all your might.” “Enjoy happiness with a woman you love.” This is all we get, so make the most of it.
I am not criticizing one bit when I say: This is a godless philosophy. It is literally a way to live well without God. So what on earth is it doing in the Bible? Why did the rabbis and bishops keep Ecclesiastes all these thousands of years? I can think of a couple reasons. First, it may be that there is a powerful agnostic strain in the Judeo-Christian tradition—hey, that’s certainly my strain—and Ecclesiastes is a way to speak to that crowd, a way to acknowledge their doubts but keep them in the fold. (A few weeks ago, an evangelical Christian friend told me that Ecclesiastes is his favorite book, which makes me like him even more but wonder if his pastor should worry about him.) Second, maybe they kept it in the Bible because it’s so provocative. It riles people up, it makes them think, and that may make them more active in their faith.
The last chapter is a beauty. Returning to our key lesson—repeat after me, class, enjoy your days under the sun, because they are brief—Koheleth delivers a poetic montage, a list of people, places, and things coming to their end. It has a relentless, gorgeous rhythm. It sounds exactly like a Bob Dylan song:
“When the guards of the house become shaky,
and the men of valor are bent,
and the maids that grind, grown few, are idle,
and the ladies that peer through the windows grow dim,
and the doors to the street are shut,
with the noise of the hand mill growing fainter,
and the song of the bird growing feebler,
and all the strains of music dying down;
when one is afraid of heights
and there is terror in the road …
Before the silver cord snaps
And the golden bowl crashes,
The jar is shattered at the spring,
And the jug is smashed at the cistern.
And the dust returns to the ground,
As it was.”
So live now! Live now, before it’s too late!
That should be the end of Ecclesiastes, but it’s not. There’s a hilariously misplaced coda, obviously tacked on by another author trying to make the book more palatable. It declares: “The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe His commandments … God will call every creature to account for everything unknown, be it good or bad.”
Uh, dude, did you read the rest of the book? That’s exactly what it doesn’t say.
Coming up next: another crowd favorite, the book of Esther.
Thoughts on Blogging the Bible? Please e-mail David Plotz at firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)