Blogging The Bible

Why Rock Stars Dig Ecclesiastes

Several readers ribbed me for being naive about Ruth’s barn-floor rendezvous with Boaz. She uncovers his “feet” and lies down next to them. Being slow on the uptake, I assumed that meant she uncovers his feet and lies down next to them. But, according to readers, feet is a duh-obvious euphemism for genitals, so their nighttime encounter isn’t exactly Platonic.

I’m going to try to tackle two books today, Lamentations and Ecclesiates (at least the first few chapters of it). I will rocket through Lamentations, which may be the lamest book in the Bible. (It gives Zephaniah a run for its money.)

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The Book of Lamentations

Chapter 1
The Christian Bible places Lamentations right after Jeremiah, in the middle of the prophetic books. That’s smart, because Lamentations addresses the same themes as the prophets—the destruction of Jerusalem, the exile of the Jews, God’s disappointment with us. In the Hebrew Bible, by contrast, Lamentations is tossed way in the back, separated from thematically similar books.

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As you might surmise from the name, Lamentations is not the cheeriest read. It begins “Alas,” and goes downhill from there. The five poetic chapters address the destruction of Jerusalem and the misery of the Jews. The first one, written in the voice of the Israelites, admits that God “is in the right” to punish Jerusalem but mourns how the enemy has conquered and humiliated the city. The Lamenter tries to look on the bright side, begging the Lord to make Israel’s enemies as miserable as the Israelites. (It reminds me of the Soviet-era joke about my neighbor’s cow.)

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Chapter 2 and Chapter 3
The author graphically recounts how the Lord destroyed Israel, including demolishing His own temple. One very vivid line: “The Lord has become like an enemy.” The poem mostly accepts that the Lord’s punishment is justified but occasionally erupts with anger, as when it urges God to look at what He has done, to see how He has made Israelite women eat their own children.

The God of Chapter 3 is an entirely malevolent figure, almost a sadist. The first half of  the chapter is an excruciating recounting of His various revenges, and it makes Him seem more like a psycho movie villain (a la Saw) than our sweet Lord. He has “broken my bones … put heavy chains on me … shot into my vitals … made my teeth grind on gravel.” After all this moaning, the author suddenly, and inexplicably, declares: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, His mercies never come to an end.” It’s a bizarre reversal, but I don’t think it’s intended as irony. The Lamenter is not turning away from God. He’s struggling to find something hopeful in the disaster. It is the nature of tragedy that it makes some people reject God—any God who could let this happen is no God to me!—and makes others turn to Him—I know You are punishing me for my sins, God; now please help me! The Lamenter is clearly in the second group.

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Chapter 3, like Chapter 1, ends will a plaintive prayer that God give a serious beat-down to the Israelites’ enemies. Sometimes the Bible denounces schadenfreude, and sometimes it’s the only item on the menu. 

Chapter 4  and Chapter 5
The author claims that the Israelites’ sins exceeded those of Sodom, which is a pretty bold assertion. The absolute evil of the Sodomites is almost beyond comprehension (Remember?!): How on earth could the Israelites have matched it?

The final verse lacks the optimism you find at the very end of even the grimmest Bible books: “For truly, You have rejected us, bitterly raged against us.” I guess that’s why they call it Lamentations. No happy endings.

The Book of Ecclesiastes

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Chapter 1 and Chapter 2
Ecclesiastes, like Deuteronomy, has a name that is at once familiar and nonsensical. Goodness knows I have heard “Ecclesiastes” or “ecclesiastical” a million times, but I couldn’t for the life of me tell you what the word means. So, I did the usual quick Google and learned that it seems to be the Greekified name of the book’s author, “Koheleth” in Hebrew.

In the first sentence, Ecclesiastes announces that it is “the words of Koheleth son of David, king in Jerusalem.” This immediately sets the wheels spinning, since the only son of David who became king, at least according to 1 Kings, is Solomon. Does that make Koheleth Solomon? Presumably not, because then the book would be called: “Solomon.” Or is there a King Koheleth that I overlooked? Or, as I suspect, is this a wisdom book written after the time of Solomon and David, and attributed to the mythical Koheleth in order to give it street cred? (Other translations call him the “Teacher” or the “Preacher.”)

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In any case, Koheleth is a thoughtful, weary fellow, trying to come to grips with the fact that wealth, power, and wisdom don’t seem to matter—we all end up making a meal for the worms. The book mixes the contemplative, self-help style of Proverbs with a shrugging, but not cheerless, fatalism. It’s Proverbs as written by a Russian.

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My Bible renders the second verse: “Utter futility! All is futile!”—which, I think, captures the tone of the book better than the famous KJV translation: “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” The King James line suggests Ecclesiastes is a hectoring book, but actually it’s hopeless.

Koheleth wants to know what a man gains from all his work, prosperity, and success “under the sun.” The key phrase, which appears probably 30 times in the book, is “under the sun.” Koheleth is interested in the here and now. “Under the sun” suggests brightness, joy, youth. He is seeking to sum up life at its best. How does it hold up?

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Not well, apparently. Koheleth immediately concludes that generation after generation lives on Earth, and nothing ever changes: “There is nothing new under the sun.” Even the things we think are new aren’t new; we have just forgotten about them. Koheleth sets out to study mankind and discovers that “all is futile, and pursuit of wind.” He studies wisdom, and realizes that it, too, is pointless, because the wiser you are, the more heartache you suffer. He examines merriment—that’s pointless as well. He builds houses, plants vineyards, buys slaves and cattle, amasses gold and silver. He gets nothing out of it except a little pleasure. It’s futile, of “no real value under the sun!” At first he thinks the wise man is better than the fool, but then he realizes there is no difference, because “the same fate awaits them both.” Pretty bleak, eh?

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He decides he loathes life because it’s futile. But then he embraces a kind of nihilistic hedonism. If life is pointless, you might as well enjoy it. So eat, drink, be merry!

Chapter 3
Another one of the most famous Bible passages—the “there’s a time for everything” riff. (Ecclesiastes is, verse for verse, the most quoted book in the Bible.) There’s “a time for being born, and a time for dying, a time for planting, and a time for uprooting the planted … a time for loving and a time for hating; a time for war and a time for peace.” And a bunch more times, besides. If you’re like me, you know this best as the Byrds’ cover of a Pete Seeger song. Modern readers view this passage as soothing: Ah, look, the whole world fits together. There is a time for everything. Cool. But Koheleth reaches a gloomier conclusion: If it’s all put together by God, all planned out in this way, then what purpose is life? If the fix is in, we might as well just “eat and drink and get enjoyment.”

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I just had a thought. So far Ecclesiastes doesn’t sound Christian to me. It doesn’t sound Jewish. It sounds … Buddhist. Look at what it’s saying: Everything happens over and over again; there’s always going to be a balance of good and evil, righteousness and wickedness, love and hate; nothing we do really matters; so we might as well live in the moment. Hmm. Am I missing something?

Tune in next time, when I finish Ecclesiastes and try to figure out what it has to do with the rest of the Bible.

Thoughts on Blogging the Bible? Please e-mail David Plotz at plotzd@slate.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

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