Ecclesiastes, Nothing New Under the Sun

There is great philosophy, writing, and word play in the Bible.  I’m personally fond of the Old Testiment Book of Ecclesiastes, thought to have been written around 200 BC.  It is a wonderful read because of the author’s exceptional command of language and beautiful King James translation.  The author is one of the most original thinkers in the Bible. 

Like much good prose and poetry, the writings in Ecclesiastes are frequently open to a variety of interpretations.  This allows the reader to personalize them without losing the general meaning.  One of my favorite quotations reads (KJ 12:1):  “Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.”  To me, that always seemed like an encouragement to foreign travel, to explore new things.  But the same verse from The New English Bible reads:  “Send your grain across the seas, and in time you will get a return.”  This could mean a lot of things, including investment advice (for the next verse reads:  “Give a portion to seven, and also to eight; for thou knowest not what evil shall be upon the earth,” think diversification here).  However, I prefer to think of this verse as an encouragement to “pay it forward” or to commit random acts of kindness.  Although I think most giving should not focus on the “return.”

Since I’m a civil engineer with a background in hydrology, I was very interested in the writer’s take on the hydrologic cycle:  “All the rivers run to the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from when the rivers come, thither they return again.”  And:  “If the clouds be full of rain, they empty themselves upon the earth.”  And if taken out of context, there is also an admonition to meteorologists and hydrologists:  “He that observeth the wind shall not sow, and he that regardeth the clouds will not reap.”

And with anything related to water supply, there is a very random element, as there is with everything in life:  “I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all.”  This is an eloquent version of the rhetorical question I occasionally used on my children:  “Who says life is fair?”  Hurricanes hit the just and the unjust.  According to Mary Ellen Chase:  “Although he (biblical author) does not doubt the existence of God as a cosmic force and as an inscutable spirit which gives life to man, he can discover no just plan for human life and in the monotonous round of nature only futility.”

One of my favorite songs growing up was Turn! Turn! Turn! as performed by the Byrds.  The music was composed by Pete Seeger in the 1950s.  The words are almost straight from Ecclesiastes (KJV 3):

Ecclesiastes KJV Chapter 3

Ecclesiastes KJV Chapter 3

These lines are open to a variety of interpretations, but as a song they are a plea for peace.  The song ends on a hopeful note:  “a time for peace, I swear it’s not to late,” with the last phrase added by Seeger

The Byrds

The Byrds

Several phrases from Ecclesiastes are easily recognizable:  “there is no new thing under the sun” and “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”   Some people using content analysis have suggested that the Biblical writer became somewhat less pessimistic and secular as he wrote.  The results of this analysis is shown below.

When I was on my mission in France in the 1960s, I became interested in French existentialism.  Existentialism is defined as:  “a philosophy that emphasizes the uniqueness and isolation of the individual experience in a hostile or indifferent universe.”  It regards “human experience as unexplainable, and stresses freedom of choice and responsibility for the consequences of one’s acts.”  In the case of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus (see photograph below), their philosophy was heavily influenced by the horrors of world wars; both were very active in the French resistance movement during WWII.

Albert Camus

I particularly enjoyed reading Camus; his novel L’Etranger resonated with me.  The French “life-is-absurd” movement seems eerily, yet genetically, connected to Ecclesiastes.  The Old Testament writer, heavily influenced by the Greek philosophers, showed a weariness toward the frustrations and absurdities of life, yet seemed to maintain his belief in God.  He was disillusioned . . . but not bitter.  According to Chase:  “through his own reflections, he discovered that the Jewish orthodoxy of his time had little meaning and less truth for him and that, on the whole, traditional religion is but wishful thinking.”

For me, Ecclesiastes is a bridge between French existentialism and Mormonism.  Both existentialism and Mormonism emphasize good works (altho Mormon’s overemphasis on obedience must be problematic for existentialists).  With Ecclesiastes and existentialism, you have a common frustration with the meaning and randomness of life.  For me, Ecclesiastes puts God in the picture, something that is missing from existentialism.  But to the biblical writer, God’s role in our earthly journey is unclear.  Something I can relate to, but that orthodox Mormons will never admit to.

                                          Ec              Ex           Mo

Belief in God                      Yes            No             Yes

Belief in a Plan                   No             No             Yes

Good Works                       No             Yes            Yes

A.J. Jacobs in his wonderful book – A Year of Living Biblically – praises the book of Ecclesiastes (p. 114):

“probably my favorite book of the Bible”

“It’s a pragmatic worldview”

‘the writing is awe inspiring”

“It’s the closest I’ve come to proselytizing – telling my friends they have to read it.”

In the book he tells of a wonderful experience which peripherally involves the Book of Ecclesiastes (pp. 118-9):

. . . my ethical state leaves much to be desired.  This occurs to me as I am sitting on the crowntown bus today reading Ecclesiastes.

I’m concentrating hard.  Too hard.  I feel a tap on my shoulder.  I’m annoyed.  I don’t like strangers touching me.  I look up.  It is a fiftyish man.

“Excuse me, this lady is feeling sick.  Could you give her your seat?”

He points to a tall brunette woman who was standing right in front of me.  How did I miss this?  The woman looks horrible:  Her face is sallow, nearly the color of lima beans.  She is doubled over.  And she is weeping.

I get up in a hurry with mumbled apologies.  To paraphrase Ecclesiastes, there’s a time for reading and a time for getting off your butt.

Jacob’s in making the case for not getting so caught up in the regulations that you forget about the big things, like compassion and respect for life.

The last chapter of Ecclesiastes is one of the most beautiful poems ever written.  It is a paean on growing old, something I can relate to.  And it is rich with imagery.   For example, “the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden.”  In the enigmatic Gilgal Sculpture Gardens in downtown Salt Lake City, one of the monuments created by Thomas B. Child is dedicated to this biblical poem.  On the monument, in addition to verses engraved on stone, Child presents several objects from the Old Testament poem.

Ecclesiastes Monument in Gilgal Gardens

Ecclesiastes Monument in Gilgal Gardens

Child was particularly excited about his grasshopper which was carved from a green boulder he found in the mouth of a nearby canyon.  Also as part of the monument, Child planted an almond tree which grew and fourished despite Utah’s cold winters.  The tree died in 1963, the same year as Child. It doesn’t take long to read Ecclesiasties, but it is time well spent.  It is time that skepticism be granted a higher level of respect in religious activity.

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8 Responses to Ecclesiastes, Nothing New Under the Sun

  1. Roger Hansen says:

    Comments from Frances Lee Menlove in Dialogue (October 2008):

    “The second maverick in the Bible [after Job] is the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes, another book that honors the questions and makes peace with not knowing. Scholars often begin the study of Ecclesiastes with the question of how it sneaked into the canon in the first place. ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,’ it declares right off the bat, causing us all to shift uncomfortably in our seats. It’s stange, existential stuff, but the book was too beautiful, too wise, and (yes) too pious to leave out. Work, study, rejoice in your labors, seek wisdom, but don’t assume the battle goes to the strong or riches to the learned. Time and chance happen to us all.”

    “Like Job, Ecclesiastes is almost free of ideology. It’s more like a self-help book, advising its readers to focus on the day-to-day, the here and now. It has an almost Buddhist mindfulness quality to it. Accept the world and what it brings. Love what is. There is nothing to do but rejoice, do good, and be grateful.”

    “The advice is so beautiful and comforting it feels good just to hear the words. Listen to some of the most beautiful English prose ever written, framed as words from the Teacher. It comes from an oral culture. It was written to be spoken out loud.”

    [Ecclesiastes 3:1-8]

    “Maybe the Teacher is trying to teach us that we ought simply to be glad we are alive. We ought to stay awake and pay attention. The Teacher tells us we live in a world of staggering complexity and beauty. The world is a mystery. But though we don’t know how the world works, we do know that it is and that it is spendid. Try to stay awake. Ecclesiastes is not about pursuing rewards but about living in the present. Live right here, right now, in the complex, beautiful present. Wake up!”

  2. Roger Hansen says:

    . . . one of my favorite passages of Ecclesiastes (KJV):

    “Words from a wise man’s mouth are gracious, but a fool is consumed by his own lips.” 10:12

    from Barry Hamilton

  3. Roger Hansen says:

    Gospel song “Cast Thy Bread upon the Water:”

    Barney E. Warren

    Cast thy bread upon the water,
    ‘Twill return in many days;
    Crumbs of truth from Jesus scatter,
    All along thy pilgrim ways.

    Cast thy bread upon the water,
    It will soon return again;
    Cast thy bread upon the water,
    Jesus says ’tis not in vain.

    Cast thy bread upon the water,
    Christ will watch the rolling wave,
    As it ripples slowly onward,
    To the soul He seeks to save.

    Cast thy bread upon the water,
    Let it spread from pole to pole;
    And the prayers of patient toilers
    Soon will yield some precious soul.

    Cast thy bread upon the water,
    Trusting it is not in vain,
    For the lost and wand’ring sinner
    May be gathered back again.

  4. Roger Hansen says:

    ” . . . The book of Ecclesiastes grapples with the issue of our inability to gain understanding, only to come to the less-than satisfying conclusion that we cannot ever understand: ‘All this have I proved by wisdom: I said, I will be wise; but it was far from me. That which is far off, and exceeding deep, who can find it out (7:23-24)

    Perhaps, though, the haunting feeling of inadequacy we sometimes get–the one I associate with reading Ecclesastes (1:4-8), being surrounded by desert mountains, or looking into a star-filled night sky–is also ultimately hopeful, because it tells us something about our capacity to sense that which we cannot know. Perhaps that sense of smallness comes from our spirit’s sense of how limited our vision is.”

    Mark J. Nielsen in Dialogue (vol 42:3)

  5. Roger Hansen says:

    Mark J. Nielsen (see above), during the first few months of his LDS Mission in Virginia, had an ephany after reading the opening verses from the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. The scripture (1:4-8) reads:

    “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth forever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, not the ear filled with hearing.”

    Mark says, he remembers “those verses striking a power chord with me when I read them on a bright autumn day in 1980.”

    He explains that his ephany was a “powerful religious feeling” which “nearly brought me to tears.” . . . I read the the remainder of the book eagerly, naively hoping to find its resolution.” Mark goes on to describe his version of the limits of human thought.

  6. Roger Hansen says:

    Left the TV on in the motel I was staying in. I think I heard the following in a “Simpson’s” rerun. “When I cast my bread upon the waters, all I got was soggy bread.”

  7. Pingback: Comments About Romney’s Mormon Mission | Tired Road Warrior

  8. Pingback: Book of Ecclesiastes Misinterpreted (by Me) | Tired Road Warrior

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