Is Qohelet a cynic or a realist? His view of human life is certainly darker than the Deuteronomist's but, like the book of Job, Ecclesiastes takes into account the fact that the wrongdoers sometimes prosper and the righteous sometimes suffer unjustly. It is an unusual move for a biblical author to judge human endeavors "vain" but it is unjustified?
In my consideration of Ecclesiastes 3 I didn't pay attention to verse 21:
Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?
The implicit answer to this question is "God knows." I have a couple of study Bibles that lean toward biblicism. (I don't think it is good to read only the things that confirm one's own biases). A note in the NIV Study Bible says:
On their own, human beings cannot know. They can only guess. The answer, revealed at first in glimpses...,was "brought fully to light through the gospel."
That answer may be doctrinally satisfying, but I'm not sure it does justice to Qohelet's thought. There was, apparently, some debate in Qohelet's time, concerning the fates of humans and animals after death. A note in the Jewish Study Bible (using the variant spelling "Koheleth" where I use "Qohelet") puts the matter this way:
Here Koheleth questions the difference that evidently others in his community were asserting: that humans have an afterlife above (in heaven) and 'beasts' only one below (in the netherworld). All Koheleth can see, however, is the same 'fate' of the 'dust' of death for both. He does not deny that there may be something more, and some rabbinic Sages, trying to harmonize Koheleth with their own beliefs, reinterpret all these lines to make Koheleth finally affirm a human afterlife with God.
The bottom line: Qohelet is content to admit the limits of his knowledge. I wish sometimes my fellow Christians would be as circumspect. Too often we state as fact what we hold as faith, hope, and promise. Although I affirm the Christian doctrine of the resurrection I will not pretend to know just what it means. I don't have first hand evidence for what the world to come will look like. I am ready to trust God for it.
This is actually a liberating stance. Leaving the next life in God's hands frees me to live this life as fully, as meaningfully as possible.
Anyway, back to Ecclesiastes. Chapter 5 opens as Qohelet turns his attention to matters of worship. Vows are to be kept. Worship should be unhypocritical (verses 1-7).
Next Qohelet says that the oppression of the poor is not a surprising thing. It's built into the hierarchical system of government that prevailed in Qohelet's time. Still, he concludes in a verse that the Jewish Study Bible says is "difficult," that it is good to have a king. I'm not sure I'm buying that one. Had Qohelet been among the poor, he may not have been so sanguine about their oppression.
Ecclesiastes 5:10-17 state that the pursuit of wealth is "meaningless." From this Qohelet concludes once more that the best course is to eat, drink, and enjoy what you can.
Qohelet is not quite done with the topic of wealth, however, as chapter 6 takes up the topic once more. Some of the rich cannot enjoy their possessions. A stillborn child is better off, he says (verses 1-6).
In verses 7-9 Qohelet renders a negative judgment on desire. Desire interferes with enjoyment of what one has. In 10-12, he reiterates his theme that there is nothing new under the sun.
Qohelet was such a cheerful fellow. Really. How could anyone consider the man a cynic who wrote that "the day of death is better than the day of birth" (Ecclesiastes 7:1b) and "sorrow is better than laughter" (Ecclesiastes 7:3a, NRSV)? In case anyone is wondering, I was being sarcastic there.
Laughter or sorrow, weal or woe, God is responsible for all things (Ecclesiastes 7:14). And Qohelet has seen it all in his meaningless life (Ecclesiastes 7:15) which provides all the excuse I need to embed the video at the end of this post.
Ecclesiastes 7:16-17 again call for moderation, advising us to be neither too righteous nor too wicked. In 7:28, arguing that people are unreliable, Qohelet indulges in a little misogyny:
I found one upright man among a thousand,
but not one upright woman among them all.
I'm not sure he meant that quite the way it sounds but, then again, it was a masculinist culture.
Chapter 8 begins with a declaration that wisdom is good (verse 1). It goes on to say that we ought to obey the king because he is powerful (verses 2-9). Still, even the king is mortal (verse 8). Next Qohelet observes that good people and bad people don't always get what they deserve (verses 10-14). What to do? Enjoy yourself, naturally (verse 15).
Chapter 8 concludes with a statement of wisdom's limits. The human mind cannot comprehend the deep things of God (verses 16-17).
That brings us to the promised video. If you don't like the song, you have to dig the haircuts.
Scripture quotes are from the New International version except for Ecclesiastes 7:3 which I took from the New Revised Standard Version. The NIV reads "Frustration is better than laughter...."
Next: Ecclesiastes 9-12