Ecclesiastes or Qoheleth is certainly the strangest book in the Bible. It not only has no relationship to Judaism but no relation to religion in the sense commonly accepted when the Bible was formed or now. Its language is an odd Hebrew full of words derived from Aramaic, several words which occur nowhere else, Phoenician influences and two loan words from Persian: pardes, “park,” the origin of our “paradise,” and pitgam, “decree,” which serve to date it later than the spread of the Persian Empire in the sixth century B.C. It has been said often enough that Ecclesiastes was influenced by Greek philosophy, by Heracleitus, the Sophists, the Stoics, Skeptics and Epicureans, which of course would date it, if they all influenced it at once, after the conquests of Alexander. No hint of the intensely sectarian Judaism which prevailed in all this time, from the priestly “seizure of power” in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, down to the Scribes, Pharisees, Zealots, Saduccees, Essenes and the Qumran Sect at the beginning of the Christian era, not a vestige is to be found in the whole text of Qoheleth.

Most of the Wisdom literature of the Bible shares this international and religiously ambiguous character, whatever its date. The Hymn to Wisdom in Proverbs, the Book of Job, certain of the Psalms, the Hymn to Wisdom in the Wisdom of Solomon in the Apocrypha, as well as The Song of Songs and tales like Esther, Ruth, Tobit, Jonah and Judith, that have been more or less Judaized in their final form, are survivals of a Near Eastern ecumenical literature shared by all the peoples of the Fertile Crescent and created by what comes close to being an international community of intellectuals. The significant relationship between Qoheleth and Greek philosophy is the reverse of that commonly accepted. The early nature philosophies of Greece flourished in Ionia, now an integral part of Turkey, in Greek cities that were neighbors of Semitic towns whose ruins, like Ras Shamra where the Ugaritic texts were discovered, are now yielding up literary and religious documents which illuminate the whole dim field of human speculation on man’s ultimate problems in the days before philosophy. The Egyptian Memphite Theology with its Logos doctrine and “great chain of being,” and the collections of Sumerian and Egyptian skeptical aphorisms on the puzzle of existence go back to the very beginning of history. Qoheleth is almost certainly late, but books of this sort were being written soon after writing itself was invented. Men in the three great river valleys had discovered the existential dilemma, the absurdity of the human situation, before they discovered the use of bronze.

The basic character, the inescapable insights, of all this literature has led not just to the inclusion of the Megilloth — the “Scrolls” — the tales, speculations, and poems — in the canon of Scripture; the fact that they are revelations more fundamental than those of Moses and the Prophets has led to them being especially attractive to piety and mysticism, meditation and contemplative prayer amongst both Jews and Christians. Kabbalists and Hasidim, the mystic theologians, Hugh and Richard of St. Victor and St. Bonaventura, the baroque mystics St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, down to Teilhard de Chardin in our own day, all have turned to this literature because it opens channels into the deepest recesses of the interior life.

The Song of Songs is probably a collection of group marriage hymns sung at the ancestral Feast of Tabernacles — Succoth — when runnels of the new Water of Life were turned into the fields from the irrigation ditches and the young men and maidens together made love in the grape workers’ huts in the fields, a period so long ago that the date has moved across the calendar. Yet The Song of Songs has been the favorite book of the most intense mystics, holy women walled up in the apses of medieval English churches and drunken Zaddiks in villages in the Polish Carpathian forest. The Wisdom who danced before the face of the Almighty, before the beginning of days, has been hypostasized as the female syzygy of Yahweh, the Shekinah. Much of Proverbs has been interpreted as a contention between Wisdom, the Divine Woman, and The Adulteress, the Scarlet Woman of the Apocalypse — Ishtar, Anat, Astarte — the “abomination behind the altar,” the benign and maleficent aspects of the Ba’al who in the end won out over all the other ba’als of all the High Places of the Near East. This is an interpretation which leaps over orthodoxy from the Neolithic to the contemporary occult, Jewish, Christian or syncretistic.

So likewise Ecclesiastes. It probably owes its survival in the canon of Scripture to the connivance of the disciples to whom the author was the Qoheleth or Teacher above all others. His philosophy is a skepticism common to men who have grown weary of handling words as a business, the philosophy of scribes who see through their commissions, whether they press styluses into wet clay or dictate in sumptuous suites on Madison Avenue or in Washington. As so many people in similar positions before and after him, Qoheleth is always careful to avoid a direct offense to orthodoxy, and his editor appends an apologetic footnote designed to soften the blow of the relentless existentialism of the philosopher.

Qoheleth never challenges miracle, mystery or authority directly. Rite, dogma, taboo and superstition are bypassed by routes that are always uncomplicatedly moral. He never advises his hearers to eat pork or marry within the forbidden degrees. He never challenges the historicity of Moses. He only says that there is no evidence of a divine moral order in the affairs of men. What God may be doing he keeps to himself. As far as we know life is a puzzle bounded on all sides by oblivion. Its satisfactions are to be found immediately in existence itself and existence may well betray the seeker. The wicked triumph more often than not and there is no reward for good. In fact, the definition of good cancels the notion of reward as life cancels death. There is a basic and incorrigible folly that haunts the ways of men. God and eternity may be unknowable but the tendency of man to choose a trivial, immediate good over a great final good is indisputable. What future ages were to call original sin is the only provable theological dogma. Socrates was wrong. Man does not follow his reason if only he understands it. Unless one faces facts and learns to live with what cannot be changed and finds enjoyment in work, and in understanding of the simple facts of life, he will live and die in folly, and never have been fully a man.

“Face existence” might not have been the first and greatest of the commandments, but it is the first and greatest of realizations, and on it hang not only all the law and the prophets but all religion in the modern sense whatsoever, whether Paul, Augustine, Kierkegaard, Scheler or Sartre. This is where the religious experience begins. The vessel must be emptied before it can be filled. Western philosophers and theologians are verbally explicit, but this is the meaning of the emptying sought as the preliminary to religious growth in all the philosophical religions of the Far East, whether Buddhism or Hinduism. Zen is only a practical nonverbal technique for realizing the philosophy of the Void. St. Paul’s word was “kenosis” — “emptying out.”

Another consideration which undoubtedly aided the admirers of Qoheleth in forcing his book into the canon of Scripture is its superlative literary quality. As a piece of writing, it is one of the finest and most sustained things in the Bible. Its elevation compares with the great canticles, the Song of Deborah (Judges 5), the Song of Hezekiah (Isaiah 38), the Song of Moses (Exodus 15), the Magnificat and Benedictus in Luke, the Song of the Three Holy Children (The Apocrypha), the Song of Hannah (First Samuel 2), the Song of Isaiah (Isaiah 12), the Song of Habakkuk (Habakkuk 3). These are all moderately short and extremely intense lyrics, very fittingly sung on the different days of the week in the monastic office of Lauds. Ecclesiastes is an extended philosophic revery, a discursive questioning of the meaning of life which relies very little on the devices of poetry for its effect and yet this effect is that of a profound philosophic poem. It ends, however, with one of the finest poems properly so called in all the Bible — “Remember now the Creator in the days of thy youth . . . ,“ an elaborate metaphor of the decline and fall of the noble palace of the human body into decrepitude and then oblivion. The King James Version rises to no greater heights. Whatever Tudor ecclesiastic was responsible for its tremendous language was a very great artist indeed. It is true that as a translator he gives the text an unwarranted interpretation which greatly aids its adjustment to orthodox taste. The first line almost certainly read originally, “In the days of your youth remember your grave,” a different pointing of the Hebrew, boreka for bor’eka, “your grave” for “your Creator.” I suppose this is a kind of final irony, a subtle change in the last words of The Teacher, that he would greatly have appreciated, for it is this slight change which has ensured that he would be heard amongst the Gentiles, in parts of the earth he never dreamed existed, for two thousand years.



This essay, originally published in 1966, was reprinted in With Eye and Ear (Herder & Herder, 1970). Copyright 1970. Reproduced by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

Other Rexroth Essays