A Time For Everything

In the mid-1960s, as opposition to the Vietnam War was growing in the United States, the Byrds released Pete Seeger’s “Turn!  Turn!  Turn!” as a call for peace and tolerance.  It rocketed to number 1 on the pop music charts, and can sometimes still be heard today.  All but six words of the song come from the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament.

It is in periods of great turmoil that we, as human beings, are driven to look for meaning in life.  We want to know that there is reason amidst the unreasonable.  There must be a purpose for all things, otherwise – it seems possible – perhaps nothing has meaning.  It is in this striving for meaning, for truth, for comfort, or even just some explanation of the world that our consciousness inhabits, that most religions find their strength.  It is here where people seek to “lift this mortal veil of fear” so that we can “rise above these earthly cares.”[1]  To do this, many turn to ancient manuscripts for hope and wisdom.  In the Western world, the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) look to their Holy books for guidance and comfort.   These religions share many of the same writings, but not with equal enthusiasm.  One of the books that enjoys some amount criticism and skepticism from all three of the religions that consider Palestine sacred, is Ecclesiastes (or more appropriately, Qoheleth).  I contend, however, that Ecclesiastes is an ancient but misunderstood and, therefore, hidden treasure for all mankind.

Ecclesiastes, which dates from around 150 B.C., is simultaneously poetic, mathematical, physical, and metaphysical in its structure as literature and in its discussion of life itself.  A bold statement, I know.  But it is fundamentally about the human condition, and is not the human condition one of richness and poverty, wisdom and foolishness, toil and rest, joy and sorrow?  And none of this, none of life itself exists without both existential experience combined with mathematics and science.

The excellent coverage of Ecclesiastes by Addison G. Wright, S.S., in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary points out that what Qoheleth has done is more than merely written a magnificent poem in the Jewish Wisdom tradition.[2]  First, this is a numerical composition:  “the refrains indicate that the whole book is to be divided into two parts; each part contains 111 verses.  The refrains indicate that the body of the book is in two parts; each part contains 93 verses.  These 186 verses are flanked by an 18-verse introduction and an 18-verse conclusion.  The numbers 18, 93, 111, 186, 222 are all related to the number 37 (the numerical value of hebel, “vanity,” which itself occurs 37 times in the book).  In addition and most important, the assorted and varying verse quantities of the smaller units as indicated by the refrains are not random numbers but are in a fixed pattern, for the numbers have been systematically derived from additive series and have been systematically assigned to each of those units.”  (Internal citations omitted.)  Ecclesiates is mathematically formulaic.  It makes sense both as a symmetrical structure (being divisible by two), and as numerically keyed to its prime number theme of “vanity.”  The beauty of this is that mathematics can be found at the heart of all existence.

Next, Wright claims that Qoheleth, while writing in the Near East wisdom tradition, is challenging some of the conventional beliefs of that tradition.  Qoheleth defies any system of belief that ignores experience; that fails to account for the real.  He attacks simplistic theology thoroughly.  He has seen that the cause-and-effect teachings of mankind fail to take into account that life is truly a mystery; and the facts revealed by a life lived demonstrate that the mystery does not always unfold as we would expect.  He is not condoning folly or license, but he is saying that little in this life satisfies because so much is transitory.  As a result, a key to life is to enjoy the good days, knowing that much of life will also bring us trouble.  Attain what one can, provide for the future, keep options open in uncertainty, and always remember that death awaits.  For all is vanity….

We return to the word that provides meaning to this book.  Vanity.  Today, many may think and preach that the meaning of this word is self-seeking foolishness or being inflated with pride, and that Ecclesiastes is a warning against it.  If this were so, it would be an odd statement that wisdom, hard work, childhood, and many other quite normal parts of life are also vanity.  This interpretation is error.  Writing at the turn of the Age, H.C. Ackerman attempted to take on The Problem of Ecclesiastes.[3]  His 1916 work offers a key that unlocks the beauty of Qoheleth’s poem in terms of both philosophy and 20th century science that even Ackerman likely did not appreciate when he wrote his words.  He contends that we have misinterpreted the central word and message of Ecclesiastes:

Thus we find at once the foundation of our problem—this ‘vanity’ existence.  But the English word ‘vanity’ does not make clear the meaning intended by the writer; and here lies one of the most common pitfalls of wrong exegesis which has resulted so unfortunately for the success of the whole book.

Ackerman explains that this Hebrew word signifies “to become a vapor.”  In other words, all these things pass away.  Everything is in a constant state of flux and the only real constant is change.  We know (thanks to Antoine Lavoisier in the 18th century) that everything, all matter in existence, is in a state of transformation from one form or state to another with no mass or energy ever being lost.  Writing at a time when human history was beginning a steep descent into a radical transformation in terms of governance, science, health, social conditions, and more, Ackerman noted, “there is nothing in existence which is not in a constant state of flux, having a vaporizing tendency to dissipate itself into nothing or something else, a tendency of utter transiency like an evaporation, a dynamic unsubstantiality, an impermanent nature in all things which constantly changes and vanishes like a vapor fleeting into space.  This is the condition of all things….  Everything is unstable and fluctuating that exists in the world:  existence itself is just this—incessant change.  Indeed, the only thing real and enduring is the incessant change….”[4]  The result is profound.  “All things, thus, are subject to vanity in this technical sense.  What a tremendous conception is put in the compass of one term!”

Tremendous.  This conception of vanity opens up this text to us.  The wisdom of Qoheleth was one that fought against the simplistic theology of his day, but in turn has been used by the simplistic theology of our day in an attempt to make us more comfortable with a moralistic message.  It seems to me, the author was not concerned with the reader’s comfort, but with speaking truth.  That truth goes to the nature of life itself.  There is, in this life, time for everything.  But everything is subject to change.  Inexorably, all shall pass away.  It may seem counter-intuitive, but this should provide comfort first, because it is true.  Energy-Matter is always in a state of transformation.  We are a very real part of that; and we are free to choose how we interact with that truth.  We can chase the vanities of this life looking for something in them.  Or we can choose to enjoy the good days and accept the bad.  Ackerman closed his article thus:  “When we learn to live simply for the sake of being good, the whole world is transformed into abundant opportunities of happiness.  For the man who has come to this conclusion, there is only one note of life to be struck—‘Live joyfully.’”

Forgive me,

Rdr. Timothy

“Turn!  Turn!  Turn!” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4ga_M5Zdn4

[1] Loreena McKinnett “Dante’s Prayer”

[2] The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, eds. Raymond E. Brown, S.S., et al., (Prentice Hall 1990).

[3] H.C. Ackerman, “The Problem of Ecclesiastes,” The Biblical World, Vol. 48, No. 2 (Aug. 1916), pp. 82-88 (The University of Chicago Press).  Ackerman was Professor of Old Testament in Nashotah House, Nashotah, Wisconsin.

[4] Reviewing the matter in present times, Wright confirms Ackerman’s view stating that Qoheleth was “[t]remendously impressed by the transitory nature (vanity) of all things….”