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The Life and Literature of the Ancient

Hebrews
XIII.— The Book of Ecclesiastes

By Lyman Abbott
HE Book of Ecclesiastes is like brought up by religious parents; had a
the Book of Proverbs in that it is religious training ; was familiar with the

an interpretation of life from the law of God and the ritual of the Temple; point of view of experience; it differs his conscience was educated by the law, from the Book of Proverbs in that it is his reverence by the ritual. But when he by a single author, who interprets life came to full age and the possession of chiefly from the point of view of a single power and wealth, he departed from his experience—that of King Solomon. religious training and became the great

All modern or literary students of the sensualist of Israelitish history. The deBible are agreed that Solomon is not the scription of his splendor given in the Books author of the book. The fact that in the of Kings and Chronicles is paralleled only opening verse of the first chapter the by the historical accounts of the analoauthorship is attributed to "the Preacher, gously corrupt splendor of the reign of the Son of David, King in Jerusalem," is Louis XIV. in France. He built a magnot conclusive. That certainly means nificent palace; his throne was of ivory; Solomon : but in all ages it has been cus- his dishes were gold; silver, it is said, tomary for an author to write in the name was nothing accounted of; he had all the of some other character, real or fictitious. sensual pleasures of an Oriental courtSuch writing is not fraudulent, unless the men singers and women singers and object of the writer is to palm off a false dancers; he had a great retinue of servname upon his readers in order to secure ants; at his table, it is said, there were for his writing a false authority. In this daily consumed thirty oxen, one hundred case there is certainly no such endeavor sheep, and quantities of game. The acby the author to secure divine authority curacy of the figures does not concern us; for this book, for the experience portrayed there is no reason to doubt the accuracy is anything but a divine experience. No of the picture which they convey. With one charges Robert Browning with fraud this incursion of sensuality came ambi. because in the “ Death in the Desert ” he tion not only to ape but to rival the puts his own sentiments into the mouth of splendor of other empires. He introthe dying Apostle John. In some such duced the harem, and the sensual worship manner a poet, probably of the fourth of pagan gods; and this latter carried century before Christ, took Solomon as a with it, in both social and religious life, vehicle for the expression of a certain in- the imitation of pagan ideals. And yet terpretation of life. But though Solomon with this sensual and pagan splendor did not write this prose-poem, in interpret there was maintained a certain intellectual ing it we may make use of our knowledge glory. This man, trained in religion, of Solomon, as our understanding of the possessing an educated conscience, and character of King John will help us to surrounding himself with a barbaric and understand Shakespeare's play of that sensual splendor, maintained his fame for name. What sort of character, then, was wisdom. He was the coiner of proverbs. Solomon, and what sort of experience of From his reign apparently dates the belife would a poet attribute to him ? ginning of what is known as the Wisdom

Solomon, more than any other man in Literature of the Old Testament. When Old Testament history, represents that the Queen of Sheba, attracted by the complexity of character which Paul has fame of his splendor, came to see him, she so graphically described in the seven- came, it is said, to try him with hard questeenth chapter of Romans. He was tions, What they were we are not told, but she was satisfied with the shrewdness erbs; that is, ranged over literature to get of his answers. It is such a man as this, apothegins that will throw light upon the with these contradictory and conflicting problem which he is considering. These elements—a religious training, an educated proverbs, familiar in his time, are inserted conscience, a sensual and self-indulgent in the dramatic monologue; in our time nature, and a philosophic mind dealing they would be put in quotation-marks, with with the actualities of life and trying to a foot-note to say where they had come understand the riddle of existence—that from ; but there were no quotation-marks the poet who wrote the Book of Ecclesi- at this time, and the proverbs are incorastes chose for his mouthpiece. He im- porated in the body of the text. How agines Solomon musing over the problem much of the book is gathered from a wide of life; reflecting upon wealth, sensual range of literature and how much is origipleasure, gratified ambition, philosophic nal with the writer we do not know; but wisdom, and what these bring; and while at times there are literary breaks in the this meditative musing on the varied order which may fairly be attributed to experiences of life is going on, there quotations more or less apt. breaks in upon him from time to time the We are, then, to imagine a man with memory of his childhood's instruction, religious training, an educated conscience, the sanctions of God's law, the protest of an apostate life, who has tried the various his own conscience, and reflections sug- phases of self-seeking-sensuality, philosgested by his faith in the righteousness ophy, ambition-and has undertaken to of God and a future judgment.

transcribe the results of his experiences. Thus the Book of Ecclesiastes is a dra- The product is a journal of fragments, in matic monologue portraying the compli- this respect analogous to Amiel's Journal. cated experiences of life; these voices are After an introduction giving general exconflicting, but they portray the conflict pression to his spirit of pessimistic fatalof a single soul at war with itself. In this ism, the poet records the experiences monologue the man is represented as argu- which wealth and self-indulgence bring. ing with himself-weighing the contrasted He pictures the king as throwing himself experiences of life over

against one another. with a certain abandon into a life of selfA philosopher would take these problems indulgent luxury, and yet remaining, as it in order; he would consider first the value were, outside of himself, a spectator of of pleasure, then that of ambition, then himself, a self-student, his wisdom remainthat of wisdom, etc., and, finally, he would ing with him, as he expresses it, that he draw from this orderly and consecutive may thus investigate and see what is the consideration a logical conclusion as to value of wealth and self-indulgence. He life's teaching. But the writer of Eccle- thus reports the result of this spiritual siastes is not a philosopher; he is a poet vivisection : interpreting human experience. And it is

I said in mine heart, Go to now, I will prove not in such well-ordered thinking that our

thee with mirth; therefore enjoy pleasure; experiences are fashioned within us. On and, behold, this also was vanity. I' said of the contrary, thoughts come tumultuously laughter, It is mad : and of mirth, What doeth into our mind ; they fight their battle out

it? I searched in mine heart how to cheer my within our consciousness; they contend

flesh with wine, mine heart yet guiding me with

wisdom, and how to lay hold on folly, till I for the mastery—ambition, sensuality, wis- might see what it was good for the sons of dom, conscience. There are no parlia- men that they should do under the heaven all mentary laws in the human soul, and no the days of their life. I made me great works;

I builded me houses; I planted me vineyards; one to keep order : first one voice speaks,

I made me gardens and parks, and I planted and then another; they shout against one: trees in them of all kinds of fruit: I made me another; they drown one another. Thus pools of water, to water therefrom the forest the Book of Ecclesiastes is deliberately

where trees were reared: I bought mensery

ants and maidens, and had servants born in and of intention confused, because it is

my house ; also I had great possessions of the portrayal of the confused experiences herds and flocks, above all that were before of a soul divided against itself. This con- me in Jerusalem: I gathered me also silver fusion is enhanced by one literary charac

and gold, and the peculiar treasure of kings

and of the provinces; I gat me men singers teristic. The writer has told us, in the

and women singers, and the delights of the last chapter, that he has sought out prov- sons of men, concubines very many. So I was

great, and increased more than all that were can be discovered; all is vanity of vanibefore me in Jerusalem : also my wisdom remained with me. And whatsoever mine eyes

ties. The poet's conclusion as to wisdom, desired I kept not from them: I withheld not

“Of making many books there is no end, my heart from any joy, for my heart rejoiced and much study is a weariness of the because of all my labor ; and this was my flesh,” recalls that of the Persian poet, as portion from all my labor. Then I looked on

interpreted by Edward Fitzgerald : all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labor that I had labored to do: 'and, Myself, when young, did eagerly frequent behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit,

Doctor and Saint, and heard great argument and there was no profit under the sun.'

About it and about: but evermore The king is next portrayed as giving

Came out by the same door where in I went. himself in a similar spirit to ambition, Next the king tries the golden mean : with a like reflection on the experiment he proposes to take life as he finds it; while he is trying it; the result is the to live day by day, without ambition, withsame : “What hath a man of all his labor, out philosophy; to choose the middle and of the striving of his heart, wherein path, the path of safety. He will try the he laboreth under the sun ? For all his plan of taking care of his own interests, days are but sorrows, and his travail is but so as to have some regard for his grief; yea, even in the night his heart neighbor's property: taketh no rest. This also is vanity.” Two are better than one; because they have

The preacher's experience of wealth, a good reward for their labor. For if they pleasure, ambition, is much that which fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe

to him that is alone when he falleth, and Lord Byron has expressed, imputing his

hath not another to lift him up. Again, if two interpretation to Childe Harold :

lie together, then they have warmth: but how Years steal

can one be warm alone? And if a man preFire from the mind as vigor from the limb; vail against him that is alone, two shall withAnd life's enchanted cup but sparkles near the stand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly brim.

broken.' His had been quaffed too quickly, and he Combination is better than unregulated

found The days were wormwood ; but he filled again, competition; not because love and service And from a purer fount, on holier ground,

are higher than self-seeking, but because And deemed its spring perpetual; but in vain! combination is a wiser kind of self-seekStill round him clung invisibly a chain Which gall’d for ever, fettering though

unseen, moderated by sympathy for the mourner,

ing. All excess fails; feasting is to be And heavy though it clanked not; worn with pain,

for “it is better to go to the house of Which pined although it spoke not, and grew mourning than to the house of feasting : keen,

for that is the end of all men ; and the Entering with every step he took through king will lay it to his heart.” It is well

many a scene, Next the king tries philosophy; the

to be righteous, but not too righteous; result is no better : the wise man is there is a golden mean between abandonnone the better off for all his thinking:

ing one's self unreservedly to self-indulFor that which befalleth the sons of men

gence and devoting one's self too herobefalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth ically to virtue : them : as the one dieth, so dieth the other; Be not righteous over much; neither make yea, they have all one breath; and man hath thyself over wise: why shouldest thou destroy no pre-eminence above the beasts : for all is thyself? Be not over much wicked, neither vanity."

be thou foolish : why shouldst thou die before Wisdom, ambition, wealth, pleasure, all thy time?' are vanity. It is useless to build houses The satirical conclusion of the king and plant gardens and get men singers may be stated thus: Be as virtuous as the and women singers; useless to allow one's public opinion of your time requires; more self to be inspired by a great ambition to than that is perilous ; less than that is attempt great things in the world, or to fatal. In the same spirit of keen satire be incited by a great curiosity to under- Cardinal Newman has graphically destand life's mysteries.

scribed “ the safe man :" Nothing can be changed and nothing "In the present day mistiness is the down half a dozen general propositions the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be which escape from destroying one another broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at only by being diluted into truisms, who

mother of wisdom. A man who can set " Ecclesiastes ii., 1-11. · Ecclesiastes ii., 22, 23. • Childe Harold : Canto JII., stanzas 8 and 9.

! Ecclesiastes iv., 9-16. • Ecclesiastes iii., 19.

? Ecclesiastes vii., 16, 17.

the cistern; and the dust return to the earth

as it was, and the spirit return unto God who can hold the balance between opposites gave it. ...! so skillfully as to do without fulcrum or This is the end of the matter; all hath been beam, who never enunciates a truth with heard: fear God, and keep his commandout guarding himself against being sup

ments; for this is the whole duty of man. For

God shall bring every work into judgment, posed to exclude the contradictory--who with every hidden thing, whether it be good holds that Scripture is the only authority, or whether it be evil.” yet that the Church is to be deferred to;

Perhaps in this chapter I have laid too that faith only justifies, yet that it does much stress on the cynical and satirical not justify without works; that grace does view of life which pervades this poem. not depend on the sacraments, yet is It is truly a poem of two voices; in it not given without them; that bishops are

the two spirits speak. Through it are a divine ordinance, yet those who have scattered nuggets of practical wisdom them not are in the same religious condi- which are not cynical nor satirical ; such tion as those who have—this is your safe

are those which commend the cultivation man and the hope of the Church; this is of the cheerful spirit, the joyous life, the what the Church is said to want, not

real and right use of the world and what party men, but sensible, temperate, sober, it brings to man- _“Go thy way, eat thy well-judging persons, to guide it through bread with joy, and drink thy wine with the channel of no-meaning between the

a merry heart;" “Live joyfully with thy Scylla and Charybdis of Aye and No." 1

wife whom thou lovest all the days of the To be as good as the public opinion of life of thy vanity;"

life of thy vanity;" " Rejoice, O young your time requires is the golden mean.

man, in thy youth ;" such are those which And what comes of that? How does it counsel to moderation and self-restraint, seem when old age comes on and death to self-respect and the cultivation of a draws near?

The author of Ecclesiastes Sound mind—“A good name is better endeavors in imagination to forecast the than precious ointment;" “ The patient end of life, and with beautiful poetic figures in spirit is better than the proud in spirit;" describes the breaking down into decay

“Wisdom is as good as an inheritance;" and ruin of the habitation of the old man:

such are some of the proverbs which Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth ; and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy attached to it, much as, in a journal, the

seem not to belong to the poem but to be youth, and walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes: but know thou, writer incorporates apothegms which have that for all these things God will bring the impressed him as specially worthy of into judgment. Therefore remove sorrow from preservation—“He that diggeth a pit thy heart, and put away evil from thy flesh: shall fall into it;" “ If the serpent bite for youth and the prime of life are vanity. Remember also thy Creator in the days of thy before it is charmed, there is no advanyouth, or ever the evil days come, and the tage in the charmer;”. “Cast thy bread years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have

upon the waters, for thou shalt find it no pleasure in them; or ever the sun, and the after many days.” But these are incilight, and the moon, and the stars, be darkened, and the clouds return after the rain : in dental rather than essential to the poem. the day when the keepers of the house shall Its theme is indicated by its opening and tremble, and the strong men shall bow them- its closing lines: “Vanity of vanities, all selves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows is vanity;" what then ? let us eat and be darkened, and the doors shall be shut in drink, for to-morrow we die? No! “Fear the street; when the sound of the grinding is God, and keep his commandments; for low, and one shall rise up at the voice of a

this is the whole duty of man.” bird, and all the daughters of music shall be brought low; yea, they shall be afraid of that

I do not know and cannot easily imwhich is high, and terrors shall be in the way; agine what he makes out of the Book of and the almond tree shall blossom, and the Ecclesiastes who believes that every sengrasshopper shall be a burden, and the caperberty shall fail : because man goeth to his

1 Ecclesiastes xi., 9-xii., 1-7; 13, 14. long home, and the mourners go about the ? Some critics think that this conclusion of the whole streets: or ever the silver cord be loosed, or matter was written by another pen. I cannot understand

their point of view. It seems clear to me that from the 1" Apologia Pro Vita Sua,” by John Henry Cardinal beginning to the that was the result constantly kept Newman, pp. 102, 103.

in mind by the writer of this gnomic monodrama.

tence in the Bible is equally authoritative satisfied? The end of this, too, is “ Vanwith every other sentence. “Be notity of vanities." Self-indulgent pleasure righteous over much ;” is that a divinely ends in pessimism ; self-indulgent ambiinspired counsel? “Vanity of vanities, tion is fatalism: “That which hath been all is vanity ;” is that a divine revelation is that which shall be; and that which of the truth? If so, how shall we recon- hath been done is that which shall be cile it with the declaration of Paul, “ All done ; and there is no new thing under things are yours, whether Paul, or Apollos, the sun.” There is nothing in Ecclesiastes or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, more mournful than is to be found in the or things present, or things to come,” or fatalism of John Cotter Morison's “ Science that other declaration that “God giveth of Man.” Even self-sacrificing service of us all things richly to enjoy"? The truth man is of but little value: “A man with of Ecclesiastes is the truth of human ex- a criminal nature and education, under perience, larger and deeper than the truth given circumstances of temptation, can no of any text. Let the self-seeker try how more help committing crime than he can he may to get satisfaction out of life, he help having a headache under certain conis sure to fail—that is the lesson of Eccle- ditions of brain and stomach.” “No merit siastes, and a lesson the more eloquent or demerit attaches to the saint or the because wrought out of a living experi- sinner in the metaphysical and mystic ence. Try to get satisfaction out of sense of the word. Their good or evil things-warehouses ten, twelve, fourteen qualities are none of their making." "The stories high ; railroads binding together sooner the idea of moral responsibility is the borders of a continent; great palaces, got rid of, the better it will be for society hundred-thousand-dollar balls; what is and moral education.” “Bad men will the end? “Vanity of vanities, all is van- be bad, do what we will ;" the most we ity." We are as children who build their can do is to make them less bad. This, houses on the sand, and the tide comes the necessarianism of its latest apostle, is and sweeps them all away. Try to get satis- as dismal and depressing as that of Ecclefaction out of philosophy-say, We do not siastes. Let us, then, try opportunism; need God, nor conscience, nor churches, take life as it comes; have a good time, nor religion; these are for women and but not with abandon; co-operate with children ; we will have a public school others, but to serve outselves; keep the system, great universities, knowledge, golden mean; be a trimmer in politics culture. What comes of that experiment? and vote with the winning party; be a The end is the same. Cultivate the “safe man ” in the church, and teach, not brain and leave the heart to be atrophied; what we believe, but what others think we cultivate the intellect and leave the con- ought to believe. And though the party science to die; teach men how to be may give political rewards and the church shrewd, but not how to be honest, just, ecclesiastical rewards, when old age comes true, pure; and the end of that Mr. Hux- and death impends and the disgrace of a ley thus describes : “ Undoubtedly your prosperous but useless life is about to be gutter child may be converted by mere bequeathed to our sons and our sons' sons, intellectual drill into the subtlest of posterity will write our biography in this all the beasts of the field;' but we know single phrase, “ Vanity of vanities, all is what has become of the original of that vanity.” description, and there is no need to in- What then? If there be no satisfaction crease the number of those who imitate in pleasure, in wisdom, in ambition, in the him successfully without being aided by golden mean, where can it be found ? In the rates.1 This also is “vanity of duty. In doing right because it is right. vanities.” Try, then, to accomplish great Not for reward here, nor for reward here. achievements; but still for ourselves, not after ; not for happiness on earth, not for for others; not great service of love, but crowns in heaven, not for immortality of great service of self; not great houses, fame, not for immortality of personal not great wisdom, but great ambitions, shall existence; but because duty is duty, and be our aim; in this shall we find our soul right is right, and God is God. This

seems to me the meaning of the confessScience and Education Essays: The School Boards,

edly enigmatical Book of Ecclesiastes.

P. 396.

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