I’m looking for a twist here, a hook, something I can hang a lesson on and I just cant find it. He starts off chapter 8 with a question “Who is like the wise?” by implication no one. He ends chapter 8 with “Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.”
In between he makes several comments:
- Obey the king if you took an oath.
- There is always a proper procedure
- Nobody can foretell the future
- You can’t get away from wickedness once you start
- People often lord it over others to their own hurt.
- Delayed punishment encourages crime.
- Bad stuff happens to good people and vice versa
- There is nothing better than to eat, drink and be glad.
This sounds like a repeat of things he has said before, and they are. We can talk about the individual proverbs, but what is the point of all the repetition? That’s what I’m really interested in. What is he telling us beyond the parables? Is the repetition an indication that Qoheleth is beyond intellectual skepticism and into full blown nihilism? Is he using repetition as a literary tool to artistically illustrate the meaninglessness and repetitive nature of life “under the sun”? I don’t know, but I feel certain there is more here than I am seeing.
In 9 he delivers some culturally popular quotes, like “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong”. That one in particular is widely quoted by underdogs as some assurance that they could still win. But in context it is not an encouraging thought at all. Rather, within his main theme that everyone has a common destiny (death and sheol), this points to the randomness of events.
He says that nothing can be read into outcomes. One cannot say that preparation, intensity and concentration always determine results because “time and chance” catch everyone.
The other popular saying from chapter 9 is “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might…”. In context this is also not very encouraging. Qohlelth says eating, drinking, enjoying your wife, looking good and working hard are the things that come closest to giving life meaning. You need to do them now because there is none of that where you are going.
As you read Ecclesiastes 8 and 9 it becomes evident that some of what Qoheleth believes may contradict our own theology about the afterlife. The Ancient Hebrews believed Sheol (literally meaning grave or pit) was where everyone, good or bad, wound up after death. Because of its similarities with the Greek concept of Hades, Sheol was rendered Hades in the LXX (the Greek Translation of the old testament widely used in the Greco-Roman world). But neither Sheol nor Hades is hell as we conceive it.
When Qoheleth says in 9:2 “All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not” he may be saying they all go to Sheol and “no one knows whether love or hate awaits them”. Do we still feel confident about our working theory on what Quoheleth means by “under the sun”?
So what is the point of all this? I don’t know. Its infuriatingly enigmatic, hebel, like the picture of life it paints. Its bits of wisdom embedded in evidence there is no wisdom. Its challenges to work hard combined with the knowledge that your work may bring you sorrow or despair or, at best, nothing at all . Its encouragement to act righteously while admitting the righteous and unrighteous suffer the same fate. Perhaps that’s the whole point.