by Fr. William Most
When was it written? Proposals vary much. A good estimate
woud 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 call is 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
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
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 thngs: 1)believe what God says; 2) be confident in His
promises; 3)obey His commands. (Even a major Protestant
refernece 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. VaticanII 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 Jobn 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 i all five texts of the magistrium which
teaching simply the FACT that one can be saved without finding
the Cchurch 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 followd
the divine Logos, the Word. In Apology 2.10 Justin adds that
that Logos is present in each man. Now of coure a spirit does
not take up space.It is said to be present wherever it causes
We ask what is that effect? We fid 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
anthrolopology confirms the factuality of this.
Now St.Justin had added that Socrates was an example of
someone who was a Christian by following th Divine Word.
(Socrates was NOT a homosexual - Plato often qutoes 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
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 whadt 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.Pauls' 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 Cathlic
Church, not "formally" to borrow the word from the Missions
Encyclical cited above, but yet really. We might call it a
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, our Father has accepted
the infinite price of redemption: in return, He has bound
Himself to offer forgiveness and grace without limit,
infinitely. (cf CRNET Library files 1thomist.txt and
2thomist.txt and predesti.txt. and salvwll.)
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 spoke
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 means 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 to hell.
God will as it were trim on this commitment 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 M.D. The person then will
most likely follow that groove, yet will do it freely. To have
a 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 so: 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,stil was guided b yfaith,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 progrees 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 calles 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
satisfication in any thing in the world,or even in divine
things (Cf.St.Johnof the Cross,Dark Night I.9-10 and Ascent
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 devloped 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 nonChristian 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
sanese given by Justin). It means that God does not use pagan
false worship as a means of salvatiion,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 illict 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
Not stranely 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 ealier,
St.Gregory Thaugmaturgus (died 270 AD:Commentarius in
Ecclesiasten,PL 10.987-1018) said its purpose was to show that
all afffairs 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
thqt 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 givng 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
desribed 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 spiritualyl 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 bfore 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 excelent sense if we realize the two
perspctives 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 lirt 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 conclusins 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 --
We come now to Qoheleth, Many have insisted he denied all
surrival.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 hmself 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
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
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."
Generatins come and go but the earth stays ths
same.Tehre 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:
Other philsophers 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 especialy in the thought: for whom do I
accumulate these treasures? My successor or son may dissipate
So take what satisafaction 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 undestanding 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
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 nto 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 wnd 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 agaist making a vow and not keeping it.We
think of Luther who broks 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 comunicate 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 alrady 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 perishng,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 righ tbefore 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 th darkis spiritually
good: then the willadheres toGokd al 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 Scriptue 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 confidenct 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 agains the outrageous claims of
Luther, said we cannot be sure that God will offer each one
the grace of final peseverance --. 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 withold 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
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 persererance.
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
Now something taught repeately 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 comenting 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 covenat hold sway, nor did they know what was
happeneding 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
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 devleopment 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.IOt wopuld
p[resupppose a clear knowledge of teh two part natue of man-
which did not come until later on in the OT>
So Q returns to an earlier theme: enjoy that yu can
while you can. and then caahtper 2,a lyrically beautiful
Chapter 12: Remember your Creator in the days of your youth
before the years come in which you have no plesure - 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 oclorful picture follows inwhich
there is no pleasure- not even in eating the neecessary food.
Some versions render very literaly:"the caper berry fails." It
was used to stimulate apettite 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
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 Anjst.
It is clear that Quheleth is not an Existentialist,
since for him there are General moral principles, and a God
who judges justly.