Ecclesiastes: Looking on the bright side

Last week I finished checking through the 12 chapters of Eccelsiastes in draft translation in Kasem. No hiding the fact that the writer takes a rather negative view of life, but following the guidance of the Translator’s Handbook produced by United Bible Societies, I came to see that he generally gets a harder press than he perhaps deserves. A lot depends on the particular slant you give to two or three key Hebrew words and phrases that form a pattern throughout the book. Maybe the author was not so much depressed by the uselessness of life itself, as he was frustrated by the impossibility of coming up with a satisfactory explanation for all its anomalies.

How do we understand his frequent use of the Hebrew term <hevel>, which has a primary meaning, of “vapour, breath, breeze”? Does the ‘Teacher’ (Qoheleth) use it in the sense of “empty, vacuous, transitory”—giving us the translation “vanity of vanities, all is vanity”, or is it rather used in the sense of something difficult to get a handle on, enigmatic, hard to understand and explain? The latter fits well with his other much-used expression; it’s like trying “to shepherd the wind”, a frustrating exercise. The Translator’s Handbook has the following to say by way of introduction:

In this Handbook we have assumed that Qoheleth was an honest scholar who observed life very carefully and thoroughly. We see a person who believed firmly in God’s control over the universe and human lives, but also someone who experienced much pain when confronted with the injustices and unanswered questions in life. He worked within the framework of the wisdom school and the traditional beliefs of his time, yet he saw their limitations. However, Qoheleth never renounced his faith. His continual advice to enjoy the good things in life—eating, drinking, and working—affirms his belief that God is in control and life is worth living.

Looking at Ecclesiastes in a more positive light made me want to translate it this way into English. Here is my version (PPV—Philip’s Positive Version) of Chapter One:

This is what the Teacher has to say, the one who is David’s descendant, king in Jerusalem.

Life poses lots of questions (1:2–11)

The Teacher says: Life is hard to understand; totally puzzling; a complete enigma. You just can’t get a handle on it. Tell me—what lasting benefit do people get from all their life of hard labour in this world? One generation passes on and another one succeeds it, but the earth continues the same as ever. The sun rises and the sun sets and as soon as you know it, it’s back where it started again. Round and round in circles! The wind goes through the same routine: north, south, east, and west; back and forth, then back to the beginning again. The rivers keep on channelling water down into the sea, but the sea never fills up! The water just makes its way back to the springs, and here we go again! All it adds up to is a ceaseless repetition. You’ll never get to the end of what people can say, nor to the end of what they can see, nor to the end of what they can hear.  Whatever has been around in the past will continue to be with us. Whatever people have done in the past, others will continue to do well into the future. You won’t find anything new coming up in the whole wide world. You may hear someone say, “Take a look at this! Now this is new!” But in fact you will find it was already around long before we were born. The trouble is, nobody looks back to former generations to think what happened then. Nor will it change—our offspring will soon be forgotten by their descendants.

My quest to make sense of life (1:12–18)

I, the Teacher, have been king of Israel, ruling from Jerusalem. I have made every effort to get to the bottom of all that goes on in this world, using [the methodology of] conventional wisdom. I found that the whole business is a sorry mess that God has given us human beings to cope with. I took a good look at everything that people do in this world, and what do you know? I just can’t make head or tail of it. It’s like trying to pin down the wind. A waste of time.

They say: “If something is twisted, you won’t be able to straighten it out.”
And: “You can’t count things which aren’t there.”
[Things are just the way they are, and you have to accept it that way.]

I reflected, “See, I have become very wise, more so than any of my predecessors that have ruled in Jerusalem. In fact I have got to the bottom of what wisdom and knowledge really are.” So I made every effort to understand what wisdom is and to compare it with foolishness and stupidity. But I realised that this is a fruitless task, like trying to pin down the wind.

As they say: “Too much wisdom only increases frustration; too much knowledge only increases sorrow.”

What do you think? Maybe there’ll be more to follow.

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2 responses to “Ecclesiastes: Looking on the bright side

  1. adisasullivan

    Reading your comments on Old Testament passages with interest since I brought back four books in first draft and need to start on one or other fairly soon.
    I looked at the helps available and then the list of annotated commentaries available and then at our slender budget and wondered about how to select one or two.
    I didn’t really face this problem with the New Testament because there were rather better helps available on Translator’s Workplace.

    How do you handle it? Perhaps in England, and so close to many libraries this is not such a problem there.

  2. adisasullivan

    p.s.
    So far I’ve dodged the problem by just slogging ahead in Hebrew study but this is just a short-term solution

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