“Read More” to pursue answers from Ecclesiastes.
Draw me into your holy Presence, that I might know you as my Father
And manifest the image of Christ in this world, and the world to come. Amen.
One of the (many 🙂 confusing things about Ecclesiastes is that I haven’t been able to figure out what “genre” it is: poetry, prose, narrative, compendium, autobiography, whatever. Of course many of these categories didn’t even exist (per se) back then, but surely the author had some purpose that shaped what he did and did not include in his writings, and it ought to be possible to find modern analogues of that purpose. No?
Well, yesterday it struck me that the modern literary form most similar to Ecclesiastes is (gasp) a blog! Okay, sure, it isn’t in reverse-chronological order with an RSS feed (though that might be a fine piece of performance art for someone to attempt :-). But it is:
Traditionalists might complain that a blog is nothing more than an online diary, but (to me) the difference is that Ecclesiastes — like blogs but unlike diaries — was a) intentionally written for a larger audience, and b) more about communicating opinions than recording experiences.
Whether or not you agree, I find it useful in explaining why the author interrupts the first-person narrative with a laundry list of proverbs:
* Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour: [so doth] a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom [and] honour.
* A wise man’s heart [is] at his right hand; but a fool’s heart at his left.
* Yea also, when he that is a fool walketh by the way, his wisdom faileth [him], and he saith to every one [that] he [is] a fool.
These first three seem pretty straightforward, emphasizing the value of wisdom and the danger of folly. Then he appears to switch to a discussion of rulers:
* If the spirit of the ruler rise up against thee, leave not thy place; for yielding pacifieth great offences.
* There is an evil [which] I have seen under the sun, as an error [which] proceedeth from the ruler:
* Folly is set in great dignity, and the rich sit in low place.
* I have seen servants upon horses, and princes walking as servants upon the earth.
To be sure, it continues the theme of wisdom and folly, but adds a harmonic about the injustice that can afflict even the wise. Though that is followed by a counterpoint about consequences:
* He that diggeth a pit shall fall into it; and whoso breaketh an hedge, a serpent shall bite him.
* Whoso removeth stones shall be hurt therewith; [and] he that cleaveth wood shall be endangered thereby.
* If the iron be blunt, and he do not whet the edge, then must he put to more strength: but wisdom [is] profitable to direct.
I get the feeling that there is some higher-level pattern linking all these proverbs together, but I’m too dense (or at least too lazy) to figure it all out. Then again, that’s arguably how the writer of Ecclesiastes views the universe, so the effect may be deliberate. 🙂
Though I suppose one could argue he’s just doing what comes naturally:
* Surely the serpent will bite without enchantment; and a babbler is no better.
* The words of a wise man’s mouth [are] gracious; but the lips of a fool will swallow up himself.
* The beginning of the words of his mouth [is] foolishness: and the end of his talk [is] mischievous madness.
* A fool also is full of words: a man cannot tell what shall be; and what shall be after him, who can tell him?
As someone who loves the sounds of his own voice, words like these always haunt me (though I suspect the author of this book suffered from the same affliction, which makes the whole thing — including my loquacity here! — deeply ironic :-).
* The labour of the foolish wearieth every one of them, because he knoweth not how to go to the city.
* Woe to thee, O land, when thy king [is] a child, and thy princes eat in the morning!
* Blessed [art] thou, O land, when thy king [is] the son of nobles, and thy princes eat in due season, for strength, and not for drunkenness!
* By much slothfulness the building decayeth; and through idleness of the hands the house droppeth through.
* A feast is made for laughter, and wine maketh merry: but money answereth all [things].
These verses make for a nice study on diligence and sloth: happy is the man who fulfills his true purpose, and happier still are those who rely on such a man. To be sure, one could take this as a cynical comment about money, but I prefer to see money (in this context) as a reflection of how much value we create for others.
Of course, just when I think I’ve discovered a nice coherent flow, along comes this non sequitur:
Curse not the king, no not in thy thought; and curse not the rich in thy bedchamber: for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter.
I give up — I don’t see any meaningful way this is connected to what came before, which makes me wonder whether my earlier groupings were merely Rorschach projection. Which again might be what the author intended. 🙂 Maybe the point is simply that we don’t know everything that’s going on, so it is best to always be humble and discreet.
God, I thank you for the author and conveyors of Ecclesiastes, those faithful men (and women!) who have passed down their hard-earned lessons about life, love, and you. Lord, may their sacrifices — and failures — not be in vain. May I learn all that they have to teach me, and may I pass it along to those who need to hear it. I ask this in Jesus name, Amen.