The Father William Most Collection
Commentary on Qoholeth
When was it written? Proposals vary much. A good estimate would be around 3rd century B.C. A copy was in circulation at least by 150 B.C. Fragments have been found at Qumram.
The author calls himself son of David, and seems to be a king, Solomon, though he does not use that name. Even if he had used it, it would be inconclusive, since it was so common then to pick the name of a famous man as a sort of pen name. And especially Solomon, famed for wisdom, would be a natural choice for a wisdom book. Could it really be Solomon? the late type of Hebrew used is a reason for arguing for a date later than Solomon, though it possible later scribes may have updated some words. There are also two Persian loanwords, pardes ("park") and pigam ("decree"). But that proves little if anything.
Questions have been raised whether there was one or several authors. An impressive argument claims that some parts seem to rule out a future life, while others seem to imply it. We will offer a new solution to this problem later.
The seeming skepticism prompted debates among the rabbis until around the end of the first century A.D. (Cf. Mishna, Eduyoth 5. 3 and Yadaim 3. 5. Yet it was retained (Talmud, Shabbath 30b). In spite of debates the scroll became traditional reading -- as one of the Megilloth - on the third day of the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles.
Most varied interpretations have continued into our own day. R. Y. B. Scott, author of the Anchor Bible edition, is almost gloomy. He says that in this book God is not only unknown to man by revelation, but unknowable through reason. -this is a distorted, undocumented comment. Scott also says that instead of a feeling of faith, hope and obedience, Qoheleth shows disillusionment.
A key text of St. Pal applies here. In Romans 3:29:
"Is He the God of the Jews only? No, He is also the God of the gentiles." It means this: If God had made eternal salvation depend only on keeping the Mosaic law, then He would act as if He did not care for any others. To think that is blasphemy, and St. Paul vehemently rejects the idea.
Instead, Paul insists that God has made salvation available to all thorugh faith. But it is important to understand that word faith in the Pauline sense - not in the way of Luther who jumped to the conclusion it meant: confidence the merits of Chrsit apply to me. No, Paul included three things: 1) believe what God says; 2) be confident in His promises; 3)obey His commands. (Even a major Protestant reference work, Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, Supplement, p. 333, defines Pauline faith just as we have done, especially commenting that in Romans 1. 5 Paul speaks of "the obedience of faith", which they explain means: "The obedience that faith is".
But next we meet with other troubles. Some important theologians in the past have almost in practice denied what St. Paul said. They say that without divine revelation, it is so extremely difficult to know what morality requires, that few attain it. Still less likely is it that anyone would love God.
Modern anthropology comes to the rescue of S. Paul here: It finds that even primitive peoples have a surprisingly good knowledge of the moral code, in some detail. If they obey that, they really can reach final salvation. Vatican II in Lumen gentium §16 taught the same: "For they who without their own fault do not know of the Gospel of Christ and His Church, but yet seek God with sincere heart, and try, under the influence of grace, to carry out His will in practice, known to them through the dictate of conscience, can attain eternal salvation". (The correct translation is "can", possunt, . not "may", as Flannery has it. ).
The Encyclical on Missions of Pope John Paul II in Section 10 has the same teaching: "The universality of salvation means that it is granted not only to those who explicitly believe in Christ and have entered the Church.... For such people [those who do not know of Christ] salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally part of the Church...." We underlined that word formally. It clearly means entering explicitly, getting one's name on a parish register. Yet there is a grace that saves them with a "mysterious relationship to the Church".
There are in all five texts of the magistrium which teaching simply the FACT that one can be saved without finding the Church and getting revealed doctine.
That FACT, and more, was already taught very early by St. Justin Martyr, one of the earliest of the Fathers in his Apology 1. 46, in which he wrote that some in the past who were considered atheists were really Christians, for they followed the divine Logos, the Word. In Apology 2. 10 Justin adds that that Logos is present in each man. Now of course a spirit does not take up space. It is said to be present wherever it causes an effect.
We ask what is that effect? We find it in Romans 2. 14-16 which says that the gentiles who do not have the revealed law, do by nature the things of the law, they show the work of the law written on their hearts." According to their response, of course, they will be saved or not saved.
So Paul was right, far from deserting the majority of mankind, and leaving it in darkness which in practice it would not overcome, and so would be damned - God instead writes the law on the hearts of primitives. As we said, modern anthropology confirms the factuality of this.
Now St. Justin had added that Socrates was an example of someone who was a Christian by following the Divine Word. (Socrates was NOT a homosexual - Plato often quotes him as saying that he who seeks truth must have as little as possible to do with the things of the body - far from foulness of homosexuality).
So Socrates read what the Spirit of Christ wrote on His heart - making known to Socrates how he should live. Socrates believed the Spirit, had confidence in what he read on his own heart, written by the Spirit, and obeyed in the "obedience of faith". So St. Justin rightly calls Socrates a Christian. (Let us recall the three components of Pauline faith given above: Socrates had all three).
So, Socrates was justified by faith, as Paul said. God did not leave Socrates in the dark.
Still further, if we add the thought of Romans 8. 9, which says that those who do not have and follow that Spirit do not "belong to Christ." But then, those who do follow the Spirit, belong to Christ. But in St. Paul's terms to belong to Christ means to be a member of His Mystical Body, and that means a member of the Church. So we can say that Socrates, and others who meet the same requirements, are members of the Catholic Church, not "formally" to borrow the word from the Missions Encyclical cited above, but yet really. We might call it a substantial membership.
As we saw above, many texts of the Magisterium affirm clearly that those who through no fault of their own do not reach the Church, can still be saved. so the Church has repeatedly taught the FACT that they can be saved. The Church did not explain the HOW. We have attempted to do that, using the words of St. Justin as related to St. Paul. Many more patristic texts like his can be found in the appendix, 28 pp. of Wm. Most, Our Father's Plan.
What of the many texts, some even in the liturgy, which speak of the world before Christ as in darkness and wandering? We need to notice that there are two very different ways of speaking about these things.
God guides everything by His all powerful Providence. To begin to understand that which is so profound as to cause St. Paul to exclaim (Rom 11. 33): "O the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How incomprehensible are His judgements, and untraceable His ways!"
We start by distinguishing two areas: external economy and internal economy.
Economy means an area of divine management (Greek oikia, house, and nemein, to arrange. ).
The internal economy takes in all the things that lead to eternal salvation. In that area, the Father has accepted the infinite price of redemption: in return, He has bound Himself to offer forgiveness and grace without limit, infinitely. (cf. files "Predestination: Reasons for Centuries-Old Impasse", "St. Thomas on Actual Grace", "Predestination" and "He Wants Intensely to Make Us Happy".)
The external economy covers all else: what position a man will have in the outward order: will he be a lawyer, doctor, shoemaker or priest or bishop or even Pope? And also included is whether he will or will not reach full membership in the Church, the People of God. (We speak of full, for there is a lesser kind of membership, of which we will speak later on.
In the external economy we read (Prov. 21. 1): "The heart of the king is in the hands of the Lord: like a stream, wherever He wills, He directs it." This does not mean there is no free will. It does mean that by ordinary mans or even by transcendent power (over and beyond all our classifications) He can bring things about.
In the internal economy, He has made a commitment to free will, for that economy as we said leads to heaven or not to heaven. He wills it were trim on this only by way of exception, by extraordinary graces. He cannot, within good order, do it routinely: then the extraordinary would become ordinary. And someone could ask: Why did you set up these laws if you meant to go beyond them regularly?
But in the external economy He can operate in two ways:
1) Without violating freedom, and without resorting to any extraordinary means He can guide the hearts of rulers. Not so often does a human make a fully free decision, i.e., one in which he first sees e.g., 3 alternatives, then makes a list of the good and bad points of each, then looks over the picture and chooses the best. No, so much of the time, so many people simply follow their feelings, the grooves as it were.
God can within this framework, inject into a person a desire for something without violating the man's freedom. He does that regularly, e.g., by giving us an appetite for food, needed to keep us alive, and for sex, needed to keep the race going. He can also inject into a person a desire for religious life, or priesthood or for being an MD. The person then will most likely follow that groove, yet will do it freely. To have world, so many different callings are needed. Providence can arrange it in this way. (Although a desire for religious life or priesthood can be blocked out by materialism in a person who has grown up thinking it does him no good to give up any creature or pleasure for a religious motive).
2) He can operate by transcendence, that is, by so moving the person that he freely but infallibly does what God wills. In the internal economy this would be extraordinary (as a reduction of free will, for then God would make the first decision, not the person who ordinarily does: cf. 2 Cor 6. 1). Not so in the external economy.
We gather then, very clearly that Qoheleth even if he had not had the Mosaic law, still was guided by faith, Pauline faith, even without realizing how that was going on. So we must not call him a skeptic or say he simply gave up.
There is another way to explain his attitudes:
When a man makes considerable progress in spirituality, it is common that God will send him at times a flash of infused light. He will see and perceive - we did not say "feel", for this is not in the area of feeling or sensation -the total nothingness of all things in this world, of all things except God Himself.
Still further, in the last stages of what St. John of the Cross calls the Purgative Way, there are commonly three signs that God intends to give even infused contemplation: 1) Inability for discursive meditation; 2) the thought of God tends to return even after necessary interruption; 3) there is a total aridity: The soul finds no satisfaction in any thing in the world, or even in divine things (Cf. St. John of the Cross, Dark Night I. 9-10 and Ascent II. 13).
It is perfectly possible that Qoheleth went through this state and was given even infused contemplation. In it the soul sees no vision, hears no sounds, but experiences the presence of God as really as a hand pressed on a table. This may happen in a sweet way, i.e., with warmth and pleasure; or it may happen in an arid way. This later would be more likely what Qoheleth experienced - if we wish to assume he developed this far. We are of course far from certain.
St. Teresa of Avila wrote (Meditations on the Canticle of Canticles 6. 1) that God would delight to do nothing but give if He could only find souls to receive. St. Irenaeus, 4. 14. 1 wrote that God created man, not as having any need of him, but to have someone to receive His benefits. Would it not then be merest insanity for God to create our race to receive His benefits, and yet so arrange things that most people would be in such darkness as to be unlikely to receive salvation? And Lumen gentium §13 cites St. John Chrysostom saying: "He who sits at Rome, knows that those of the Indies are his members." In fact, in the Declaration on non-Christian Religions §2 the Council went so far as to say that "In Buddhism, according to its varied forms, the radical insufficiency of this changeable world is recognized, and the way is taught by which men with devout and confident soul can either attain a state of perfect liberation of soul, or with their own strivings and depending on higher help, can attain to the highest illumination."
In other words, since God is so eager to give His graces, when he finds conditions at all suitab e - even if very deficient in some respects - will make use of what He finds to raise a soul to "the highest illumination". In fact the early Christain writer Origen in his Homily on Numbers 16. 1 dared to say: "Since God wants grace to abound.... He is present not to the [pagan] sacrifices, but to the one who comes to meet Him, and there He gives His Word (the Logos seems meant, in the sense given by Justin). It means that God does not use pagan false worship as a means of salvation, but He can and gladly does use the good will found in those who in ignorance try to worship Him in such ways.
At this point we need to notice that John Paul II, in his book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, said on p. 86 that Buddhism is in large measure "an atheistic system." Does this clash with the words cited above from Vatican II which speaks very positively of even Buddhism? There is no clash. If we were to meet a man on the street, and ask him: Do you believe in God? And he would say: No. Even so he may or may not be a real atheist, for if he reads and obeys what the Spirit writes on his heart - as we explained above in connection with Socrates, then without realizing it he does accept and obey God. And the development we added from Romans 8. 9 would let us say that such a man might even be in a lesser but substantial degree a member of the Church.
So there is a ample room for Qoheleth to have reached high on the spiritual level by way of his detachment from all the things of this life. So, even in the lower reaches of spirituality this perception, without the special infused light (with ordinary graces of light), can take place. St. Augustine wrote (Confessions 1. 1): "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and restless are our hearts until they rest in you." He let himself have every illicit pleasure he wanted but found nothing fully satisfactory. Instead he praised God for sprinkling bitterness into his pleasures, as he says (Confessions 2. 2). He was coming slowly then to know that all is vanity except God.
We do not mean earthly things are no good, o f course they are good. Vatican II, in the Decree on the Lay
Apostolate §7 wrote that they have a threefold dignity: they were declared good by God when He made each thing in Genesis; they are destined for our race, the highest thing in visible creation; Christ Himself in the incarnation took on Himself a created nature, and used created things. So they have a great dignity and goodness.
But that is all true if we speak of the on the absolute scale. We could also, with St. Paul in Philippians 3. 7-9 speak of them on the relative scale, that is, compared to eternity: "The things that were gain to me [Jewish privileges of the past] I have considered loss for Christ. Rather, I consider all things loss because of the lofty knowledge of Jesus Christ my Lord, because of whom I have made everything a loss, and consider them as dung, that I may gain Christ.". Qoheleth could not have spoken so clearly, for his knowledge of the future life was not that clear.
But even without a clear knowledge, there is really nothing on earth that satisfies the human heart. We may look ahead to getting some added good thing. But when we get it, it is great for a while, e.g., a new tape or recording. But when we have played it a dozen times, we find it dull. Even sex, strongest of human pleasures, wears down, so that there are manuals telling people to try to recapture the thrill.
Qoheleth then even without any clear knowledge of the future life, could see that creatures are simply not enough to fill our hearts. And, moved by inspiration, he could record that fact, with great force. It would help people even in his own day not to be so attached to earthly things - look, a man of fabulous wealth, perhaps a king, who can get everything he wants - even he finds things wear down and become dull.
But we in the future after Qoheleth, now that we have the great knowledge brought us by Christ, can still find Qoheleth very helpful.
Not strangely then, one modern author went far from the despair we saw expressed early on: Franz Delitzch (1875) called this book "the quintesssence of piety." Much earlier, St. Gregory Thaugmaturgus (died 270 AD: Commentarius in Ecclesiasten, PL 10. 987-1018) said its purpose was to show that all affairs and pursuits of men are empty and useless.
Did these early people know nothing of love of God-- such a claim is made. It comes from those who do not know what the word "love" means. It is found in the great Shema. But it also appears in those who meet the conditions given by St. Justin. For whereas to love anyone but God means to will good to the other for the others' sake, yet to love God means to will that He have the generous pleasure of giving to us. That means in practice: we obey. And to love Him is to obey. Cf. 2 John 6, and John 14. 21. That obedience within the framework described for Socrates is actually love of God.
Still a further objection emerges; Does not St. Paul give us a very dismal picture of most people, in the last part of Romans 1, and in Romans 3. 10-18 where he says there is no one who is just, and again in Romans 7. 7-25 he says he sees that is good, but is unable to carry it out.
We need to know that St. Paul has ways of speaking different from ours: he can take either of two perspectives on the situation of man vs. the law, and arrive at very opposite answers. 1) Often he says approximately this: the law makes heavy demands, it gives no strength - to be under heavy demand without strength means a fall, and being spiritually dead and cursed. Further, no one can keep the law: it is the ministry of condemnation (cf. 1 Cor 3. 9). 2) But if we add to that artificially restricted picture (we could call it focused, as if we were looking through a tube, and saw only what was framed by the circle of the tube) - if we add to our picture the fact that grace even before Christ was available to all, then one need not fall and be dead or cursed. Rather, he is, by the wisdom of the law, steered clear of the evils that lurk in the very nature of things: cf. 1 Cor 6. 12. In this perspective - and we must not overlook the passages- elsewhere, e.g., at the start of chapter 3 and 9 of Romans, Paul says that having the law was a great spiritual privilege. In fact, in Phil 3. 6 he claimed that even before coming to know Christ, he kept the law perfectly! How can that be? No wonder some exegetes say one cannot make sense of St. Paul.
But it can make excellent sense if we realize the two perspectives We might even coin a fine German word and say there are two kinds of Gesetzanschaung.
And Paul is not alone in using such a way of speaking. In First John at 1. 8 we hear that anyone who claims he does not sin is a liar. Yet in 3. 9:"he who is begotten of God cannot sin". Again, it is a case of shifting perspectives.
We could add that although Paul in Romans 1 paints so dismal a picture of gentiles, he in 1 Cor 6. 11, after giving a shorter list of great sins, adds: "Certain ones of you were these." That is, not all of you were great sinners. And he wrote this to Corinth, the most licentious city in all Greece!
The next major problem is this: Did Qoheleth deny any future life? Before replying we look at mankind in general. Did people in general know of survival? Many exegetes today say the Jews did not - they had unitary concept of man, body with breath of life. Breath goes into air, body rots, nothing left. But at the same time they did believe in surrival as is clear from necromancy - three times laws were needed against it in OT: Lev. 19 31; 20. 6; Dt 8. 11,
They were using excellent theological method -- without formally knowing about it of course. In it at times we meet two conclusions that clash. We recheck, they are still there. T hen we must hold both without any straining hoping someone sometime will find how to make them fit. The Fathers did this wonderfully on the human knowledge of Jesus in regard to Lk 2. 52 and Mk 13. 32(cf. Wm. Most, The Consciousness of Christ --patristic chapter).
We come now to Qoheleth, Many have insisted he denied all survival. Before even looking at his work we can be sure that is not correct to say he denied all survival. Exegetes tend to forget - if they ever knew it - that the Holy Spirit is the chief author of all parts of Scripture. Vatican II, in Dei verbum §11 said that everything asserted by the human author is asserted by the Holy Spirit This is to be understood within the framework of the approach via literary genres). So if erroneous ideas were asserted, it would be also the Holy Spirit was asserting them. Of course that is nonsense.
Further, It is clear that the Chief Author at times, as anywhere in Scripture, may have in mind more than what the human author perceived. Vatican II makes this clear in Lumen gentium §55. Speaking of Genesis 3. 15 and Isaiah 7. 14, the Council wrote: "These primeval documents, as they are read in the Church, and understood in the light of later and full revelation, gradually bring before us the figure of the Mother of the Redeemer." Now the full content comes out only in the light of late revelation, and gradually; the implication is that perhaps the original human writer may not have seen all that the Church now sees. (This is what is called the sensus plenior, the fuller sense. Exegetes have long debated whether or not it is possible. Yet we see Vatican II in the text just cited clearly making use of the idea.
The wretched thought of Martin Heidegger thinks that the correct response of man to seeing himself in a universe that makes no sense is simply Angst - a sort of total blank dismay.
But Qoheleth, as we suggested, is likely to have had some experiences of flashes of infused light, , or at last more ordinary graces of light. One of the first things these flashes do is to convey to the soul a deep perception of the fact that all in this life is of no account - if viewed just in itself, and not as a means to union with Christ.
Without seeing clearly that magnificent truth which is now accessible even to the most ordinary soul in Christ, Qoheleth saw the nothingness of all created things.
He seems even to have had some perception of a future life after death. We will consider later the indications of this, in two sets of texts in his work.
Today it is often said that the author did not believe in an afterlife - but we have already commented on such claims in general earlier, in connection with Psalms Sirach and Job. Some time ago many believed there must be two authors for the book, for what they considered contrasting or incompatible statements. However, if we recall proper theological method, we can gain some light. In divine matters, it is not unusual to find two conclusions which remain even after rechecking our work, but which seem to clash. Then we need to resist any temptation to force the meaning of either. Rather, we should accept both, and remain that way until someone finds a solution. It is likely that Qoheleth did precisely this.
The first set of texts do seem not to know an afterlife, though they do not deny it:
2:14: "The eyes of a wise man are in his head; the fool walks in darkness. I myself perceived: the same thing comes to all of them." That is, all die and turn to dust.
3:19: "For what happens to man is the same as happens to beasts. As one dies, the other dies".
3:20: "All are from dust and will return to dust."
3:21: "Who knows whether the spirit of the sons of man goes up and the spirit of the beasts goes down?" Of course the sense is debated. The word we have rendered "spirit" is Hebrew ruach. Its sense is similar to that of nefesh - which is also much debated. Both surely have a wide range of meanings. However, we notice here that the author considers if the ruach of humans goes up, but that of animals goes down. At least a hint of a difference.
9:5-6: "The dead know nothing. They have no more reward... their love and their hate and their envy have perished. Nor do they have any more forever a portion of all that is done under the sun." We spoke of this in commenting on Sirach and Job. Yes, the dead have no normal means of knowing what goes on on the earth. And being in the Limbo of the Fathers, not in heaven until after the death of Christ, their lot is indeed dim. They never will return to ordinary earthly life - we know that after the resurrection life will be much different. Qoheleth would not know what we know, but what he said is not false.
Yet no one of the above really proves a denial of an afterlife.
The second set seem at least to imply a future life:
3:17: "I said in my heart: God shall judge both the just and the wicked." But the author knew well it does not always work out so in this life - hence an implication of a judgment beyond this life.
8:12: "If a sinner does evil a hundred times, and prolongs his life, yet I know surely that it will be well with those who fear God." Again, a possible implication, especially since in 8:14 he adds: "There are just men to who it happens according to the deeds of the wicked; and there are wicked men to whom it happens according to the deeds of the just."
12:14: "For God will bring every deed into judgment, every hidden thing, whether good or evil." Again, since it often does not happen in this life, there is an implication of retribution after death.
Since we have already covered at length the great problems of Qoheleht, fewer snd shorter comments are all that is still needed.
Chapter 1: Every thing is hebel, a Hebrew word which means vapor or mist- all are unsubstantial, do not really satisfy the human soul. We think again of Augustine's well-known words: "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and restless are our hearts until they rest in you."
Generations come and go but the earth stays the same. There is nothing new under the sun-- of course Q did not dream of the fabulous technological advances made in our day, But yet the substantial picture remains: nothing really satisfies us. Suicide rates are up today. It is still true that all streams run to the sea, but the sea does not overflow.
He is not thinking of the common Greek cyclical thought that all goes in circles: Plato, in Timaeus 22; Statesman 269 and Laws 677. Plato even taught a cycle of rebirths for the individual though the philosopher might eventually escape rebirth: Phaedrus 247-48, Phaedo 70 ff and 114. There was also a cyclic aspect in the Platonic Great World Year: cf. Timaeus 38-39.
Other philosophers taught an unending cycle of destructions and restorations of the whole world. Prob. earliest is Anaximander ( cf. 610-545 BC); Aristotle On the Heavens 21. 10, in 279B says that the cycle was also held by Empedocles and Heraclitus. It is found in the Stoics: cf. Diogenes Laertius, Zeno 8. 137. It is even in the Christian writer Origen, Peri archon 3. 5. 3. St. Augustine in City of God 12. 12-15 thinks such theories are an attempt to explain how God who is unchangeable, made the world in time - he gets this from a very fanciful exegesis of Psalm 11 (12) esp. the last two verses: "The wicked walk in a circle". Cf. also Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return.
He says he also applied his mind to know wisdom and madness and folly - that attempt too is chasing the wind. He is not of course denigrating true wisdom, but false wisdom.
Chapter 2. After such a start he says he tried to find satisfaction in pleasure: as king he could get everything, and he did. But nothing satisfied his soul. Aristotle in Ethics 1. 5 said that to make pleasure the goal of life "is a life fit for cattle." In chapter 1 Q seemed to say wisdom was worthless. But we now see he means a false wisdom, for true wisdom excels folly as light does darkness.
Even so, the wisdom of a man cannot satisfy him: all things in this life come to an end. The futility of working hard appears especially in the thought: for whom do I accumulate these treasures? My successor or son may dissipate them.
So take what satisfaction you can while you can.
Chapter 3: All things are good for a time, but not forever. God has made things well - for their times. In v10 Q even says that God has put eternity into man's mind. This seems not to mean our Christian sense - though we see in various places, as explained in the introduction, that he seems to understand a real afterlife. But in context it seems to mean that even with endless time man cannot fathom the works of God. And even today without great advances in natural science, we are far from understanding all. We have the means of seeing and admiring His works more fully than past generations: yet even so we do not come to the end of it, e.g., the intricacies of the human brain still escape the best medical men.
He notices that even in the courts of justice there is wickedness. But yet: "God will judge the righteous and the wicked. He has appointed a time for that." Again, we see a definite indication of a future judgment, for in this life it is still true that wickedness so often prevails even in the place of justice. He asks: Who knows if the spirit of man goes up and that of the beast down - we discussed this line in the introduction.
Chapter 4: He looks again at the oppressions of the just, and in that context says it would be better for one who had never to live though it - semitic exaggeration of course.
He notes how many things are motivated by envy, . We need to watch: it is not envy if I see someone has some thing good, and think: I wish I had it too. Envy sees another having good and thinks: It is bad for me that he has it--I wish he did not have it. - Such an attitude ruins a soul and makes it greatly unhappy even here.
In v 5. he says the fool folds his hands - that is, does nothing, does not even work to get his sustenance - and so ruins himself ( a translation often found: "and eats his own flesh" is fanciful. Result: better is moderation in all things. So better is a poor and wise young man than an aged king who has no wisdom.
Chapter 5: He warns against the sacrifice of fools-- they indeed may make offerings, without the proper attitude of heart - that of which God complained in Isaiah 29. 13:"They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me." Q may also have in mind the endless prayers of pagans, such as the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18: they called on Baal from morning to noon, and even cut themselves with their daggers, but with no result.
Q also warns against making a vow and not keeping it. We think of Luther who broke all his vows, and then ridiculed those who do NOT break vows.
Superstitious interest in dreams is also to be avoided. God at times has used dreams to communicate with men-but this is the exception: to imagine He is doing it a lot with you is folly.
A laborer is apt to get good sleep; he who overeats may find being gorged makes sleep hard to reach. So better is moderation and enjoying what God gives you. Then life will pass without becoming wearisome.
Chapter 6: It is sad to see a man who has reached plenty of material things, but then God does not let him enjoy them. They go to a stranger, even if he lives a century.
In v. 10: "Whatever has come to he has already been named." We recall that the name of a things is almost identified with it in Semitic speech.
Chapter 7: We now meet a stretch of verses with disjointed sayings, like those we saw in Proverbs: Better is this than that - and many examples are given. He says sorrow is better than laughter - meaning empty headed laughter. Sorrow makes one see things as they are.
In 15-18: He has seen the righteous perishing, and the wicked prospering: this is is an advance over earlier thoughts so common before, in which the writer bravely tried to tell self that God makes all things right before the end of life. He did know indeed that God is just - but not knowing that there is retribution in a future life, had to as it were hold on in the deark, believing what seemed impossible. It is likely that only by the time of the great persecution of Antiochus IV of Syria, c. 170, did many Jews come to see that-- stimulated by 1) the hideous deaths of some of the Maccabean martyrs--2) the encounter wit Greek thought, which helped them to see a man has two parts, not one, so that there is something to survive. Before that they held on bravely to two things: the firm belief in survival (shown by insistence on necromany) and the unitary concept of man. Holding on in the dark is spiritually good: then the will adheres to God all the more strongly. Cf. Wm. Most, Our Father's Plan, 129-31.
But he who fears God will come out well - and in view of the second set of texts given in our introduction he seems to imply: he will come out well in the future life.
In vv. 26-28 we meet verses often misunderstood as being against women as such. Rather he has sought for wise persons. He says he has found hardly any men - one in all-- and no women. This of course is Semitic. He hardly means to say his own mother was wicked, or the mother of his children. He is saying that one should avoid loose women - a common thought in the wisdom books.
Chapter 8: He sees the wicked may have success, and be praised unjustly after their deaths. But Q still has the firm confidence: It will be well with those who fear the Lord, not well with those who act wickedly. The implication of retribution in the future is strong - otherwise this would make no sense.
Chapter 9: the first verse has caused serious misunderstandings, as if it said: we do not know if God loves or hates us. First, God hates no one. And in semitic speech, they often say: I love one and hate the other, while meaning: I love one more than the other. At most it could mean we are not sure if God is or is not pleased with us. Could it mean we cannot be sure of the state of grace? There are some texts of the Council of Trent that have been taken very stringently. But we always need to consider the setting and context of conciliar texts. Trent was called to deal with Luther. Canon 13 (DS 1564) condemns the teaching: "no one is really made just unless he believes he has been made just. And absolution and justification are accomplished only by this faith (confidence)". The trouble was that Luther did not understand the word "faith" as used by St. Paul. Luther thought it means simply confidence that the merits of Christ apply to me - and then I am infallibly saved, and no matter how much I sin I am infallibly saved. In his Epistle of August 1, 1521 to Melanchthon, Luther said (Luther's Works, American Edition, vol. 248, p. 282): "Be a sinner and sin boldly.... No sin will separate us from the Lamb, even if we commit fornication and murder a thousand times a day." It was such an outrageous notion that Trent meant to condemn.
Can we be at least morally certain we are in the state of grace? Definitely yes. In DS 1534 Trent said: "no one can know with the certitude of faith, which cannot be wrong that he has attained the grace of God." But who has asked for a special revelation in Scripture for him individually, or in an apparition that he is in the state of grace? We can be practically certain when we have done what we can. God is not a monster, seeking to trip us up, so we must worry: Am I really certain that I was sorry for my sins in Confession? St. Paul in Romans 8. 16 tells us: "The Spirit bear witness along with our spirit that we are sons of God." If sons, we have no need to scrupulously ask: Am I sure I had contrition?. Rather, being sons gives us a real claim to enter our Father's house.
St. Paul three times gives us an assurance that God will give us even final perseverance. In 1 Thess 5. 7 Paul exclaims; "May the God of peace make you completely perfect, so that your spirit and soul and body may be kept without blame at the coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ. He who promised is faithful: He will also do it." Again in 1 Cor 1. 8-9: "He will strengthen you without blame, up to the coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, through whom you have received a sharing in His Son, Jesus Christ, the Lord." Similarly in Philippians 1. 6:"I am confident of this very thing, that He who began in you a good work, will bring it to perfection until the day of Christ Jesus." The Council of Trent, in reacting against Luther, still quoted this last text, (DS 1541):"No one can know anything with absolute certitude but yet must put most firm confidence in the help of God, for unless they fail His grace, just as He has begun a good work in them, so He will bring it to perfection, bringing about that we will and that we work [alluding to Phil. 2. 13]."
Some regrettable theologians of an earlier era, in part influenced by the reaction against the outrageous claims of Luther, said we cannot be sure that God will offer each one the grace of final perseverance --. They contradict St. Paul triply. Some of them said the only reason needed so that
God might refuse a man the grace he needs to persevere - without which he cold not be saved - might be just "inculpable inadvertence" on the part of the man -a thing not a sin at all. So they claimed God might withhold this grace, essential for salvation, earned with such pain by Christ, promised three times by St. Paul - They claimed
God's desire to save us (1 Tim 2. 4) was so weak He might let a man go to hell because God would refuse the necessary grace without any sin at all!
But let us notice that it is one thing for God to offer the grace without which we could not persevere - another thing to be sure we would not reject it. However Pope Pius XI, in Explorata res. Feb. 2, 1912 (AAS 15. 104) wrote: "Nor would he incur eternal death whom the Most Blessed Virgin assists, especially at his last hour. This view of the Doctors of the Church, in harmony with the sentiments of the Christian people and supported by the experience of all times, depends especially on this reason [namely] , the fact that the Sorrowful Virgin shared in the work of redemption with Jesus Christ."
We notice two things: First, this is an assurance to cover the gap as it were. It assures us she will so manage things that we will not actually reject final perseverance. 2) He rests this statement on the universal belief of the faithful (which cannot be in error. Cf. LG 12) and especially on the fact that she shared in earning all graces at the Cross. (To fill in on this Cf. Wm. Most, Our Father's Plan.
Still further, it was not only one Pope but three who spoke this way: Benedict XV wrote (Inter Sodalicia, March 22, 1918: ASS 10. 182:"There is a most constant view among the faithful, proved by long experience, that whoever employs the same Virgin as Patron will not perish forever." Pius XII spoke similarly in Mediator Dei, Nov. 20, 1947. AAS 29. 1957, p. 584.
Now something taught repeatedly on the ordinary magisterium level - less than a solemn definition - cannot be in error. And we note too the appeal to universal belief, whose infallible validity was confirmed by Vatican II in LG §12.
Verses 4-6 go back to the usual wisdom thoughts: a living dog is better than a dead lion. The love and hate and envy of men have already perished. They no longer are involved in anything that is done on the face of the earth, under the sun. We saw earlier in commenting on Sirach 17. 27-28 that the state of the dead before Christ was such that even the just could not reach the vision of God - they lived in the dim Limbo of the Fathers where there was no liturgical praise of God, not did the covenant hold sway, nor did they know what was happening to their children on earth. And we saw the two sets of texts in Qoheleth in the introduction to this work, plus comments on Job, especially 14. 13ff.
Chapter 10: The folly of a fool affects all that he does, just as a few dead files in the ointment can make the whole smell foul. The fool can be come so foolish as to no longer know the way back to the city.
Q advises us not even to think of cursing the King: a little bird might carry the thought back to him!
Chapter 11: Cast your brad on the waters, and in due time you will be repaid. Give freely to many, for you do not know what may come.
In verse 5 some versions can be misleading: The Hebrew is capable of more than one rendering. It is probably best to say that: Just as you do not know where the wind comes from, and how the bones of a child are formed in the womb of the mother, so also you cannot understand many things. The RSV here reads: "As you do not know how the spirit comes to the bones in the womb." It is for certain wrong to take these words as meaning we do not know at what point in the development a soul comes to the fetus. The comparison suggests otherwise, and even more important, the very speculation as to the time of animation would be beyond the thought world of Q. It would presuppose a clear knowledge of the two part nature of man- which did not come until later on in the OT.
So Q returns to an earlier theme: enjoy what you can while you can. and then chapter 12, a lyrically beautiful piece:
Chapter 12: Remember your Creator in the days of your youth before the years come in which you have no pleasure - the sun and moon are darkened (cf. the language of Isaiah 13. 9-10: cf. similar imagery in Isaiah 34. 3 and Ezekiel 32-7-8) --and the clouds return after the rain - instead of bringing sunshine. And a series of colorful picture follows in which there is no pleasure- not even in eating the necessary food. Some versions render very literally: "the caper berry fails." It was used to stimulate appetite for food in the feeble old who long longer want to eat: if they cannot eat of course they do not live long. - and then the silver cord is snapped and the dust returns to the earth and the spirit returns to God who gave it. So, there is nothing at all even to the end of life that makes it really fulfilling. There are pleasures, but they are so transitory and finally must give way to the dread years so poetically described here.
Verses 9 -13 are surely by another hand, for he speaks of Qoheleth as a third person. The bottom line is: Fear God, keep His commandments. God will bring every deed into judgment and even secret things. Strong implication here of a judgment after death!
A Note on Existentialism:
An existentialist is someone who cannot say God made all things, only that He made me. Similarly, he cannot say adultery is wrong; nor can he say, adultery is good. The reason is he believes there are no general essences or truths. Therefore the world makes no sense, for the world to make sense, it needs general principles under which many things fall, and still other things fall under the bigger principles. In that way the world makes sense. But for an existentialist without principles, it cannot make sense. What is the normal attitude of the man who finds himself in a world that makes no sense? It is described by the German word Angst.
It is clear that Qoheleth is not an Existentialist, since for him there are General moral principles, and a God who judges justly.