A Latin word meaning: a book you might find in church.
A mysterious book of the Bible, called in Hebrew “Kohelet” or the preacher, after its enigmatic narrator. A book read annually by Jews, during the early fall holiday of Sukkot, reminding us: it’s a good year to ask questions.
Kohelet asks: How should people spend their time on this good earth? Can we make our lives meaningful, or is life ultimately meaningless? Does God do anything besides operate the universe? Can we ever become wise, or does wisdom always elude us?
In Kohelet’s own words:
Utter futility! — said Kohelet — Utter futility! All is futile! What real value is there for a human being in all the gains he makes beneath the sun? One generation goes, another comes, but the earth remains the same forever. Only that shall happen which has happened. There is nothing new under the sun.
I set my mind to study and to probe with wisdom all that happens under the sun. And I learned that this was pursuit of wind. For as wisdom grows, vexation grows; to increase learning is to increase heartache.
I multiplied my possessions…built houses…planted vineyards…constructed pools…bought slaves…acquired herds…amassed gold…hired singers… A lover of money never has his fill. Riches are lost in unlucky venture. One must depart at last, naked as one came.
I observed all the oppression that goes on under the sun; the tears of the oppressed, with none to comfort them; and the power of their oppressors — with none to comfort them. If you see in a province oppression of the poor and suppression of right and justice, don’t wonder at the fact; for one high official is protected by a higher one, and both of them by still higher ones.
A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven. A time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted. A time for silence and a time for speaking. A time for war and a time for peace. The action of even the righteous and the wise are determined by God. Humans know none of these in advance — none! Human hearts are full of sadness and minds of madness, while they live; and then, the dead know nothing.
Whatever it is in your power to do, do with all your might. Eat your bread in gladness. Let your clothes be freshly washed. Enjoy happiness with a spouse you love. For that alone is what you can get out of life. The race is not won by the swift, nor the battle by the valiant; nor is bread won by the wise; nor wealth by the intelligent, nor favour by the learned.
God will doom both righteous and wicked. Human and beast have one and the same fate. Both came from dust and will return to dust. Who knows if a human life breath rises upward and a beast’s breath sinks down? The secret of what happens is elusive and deep, deep down; who can discover it? Utter futility, all is futile!
Who is Kohelet, and how does he hope to inspire us?
Is Kohelet a king? King Solomon perhaps? Kohelet says he was king in Jerusalem, wise and wealthy. But his criticisms of King and court are sharp, and it is unlikely a king would publish such a self-undermining book.
Is Kohelet a radical social preacher? His heart breaks over oppression, and he calls the oppressors to task. Yet he encourages everyone, rich or poor, powerful or weak, to make peace with their lot in life.
Is Kohelet a philosopher, influenced perhaps by Greek thought? He explores the world through observation and reason. And of all possible paths through life, he prefers the quest for wisdom. But ultimately, he says, wisdom brings you nothing special, neither happiness nor immortality.
Is Kohelet a sage in the ancient Near Eastern tradition? He generously shares proverbs and aphorisms, metaphorical keys to deep personal and political insights. But he undercuts them. Each one may be good for a certain time and place – but times and places change.
Is Kohlelet a guru or a lama, teaching wisdom he studied in the Far East? He urges us to learn about the ebb and flow of life, to bring ourselves in harmony with its movements, and be less attached to thoughts and feelings that pop up and dissipate. Yet he feels that self-mastery cannot help him achieve the enlightenment he seeks.
And he leaves us with the very questions he first posed: How should people spend their time on this good earth? Can we make our lives meaningful, or is life ultimately meaningless? Does God do anything besides operate the universe? Can we ever become wise, or does wisdom always elude us?
Kohelet excerpts from the NJPS translation.