Koheleth

Koheleth means "Preacher" and is the name by which the author of the book of Ecclesiastes is known. When the rabbis got together to decide which books to put into the Old Testament and which to throw out, it is reported that Koheleth's almost didn't make it. You can't help seeing why, but at the same time you can't help being grateful to them for letting it in under the wire even so. In that great chorus of voices that speak out of the Bible, it is good to have this one long-drawn sigh of disillusion, skepticism, and ennui, if only because the people who read the Bible sometimes feel that way themselves, not to mention also the ones who wouldn't be caught dead reading it.

People are born and people die, Koheleth says, and the sun goes up and the sun goes down, and first the wind blows from the northand then it blows from the south, and if you think you're seeing something for the first time, just go ask your grandmother, and if you think you're seeing something for the last time, just hang around for a while, and the whole thing is as pointless and endless and dull as a drunk singing all six dozen verses of "Roaming in the Gloaming" and then starting in from the beginning again in case you missed anything. There is nothing new under the sun, Koheleth says, with the result that everything that there is under the sun both is old and, as you might expect in all that heat, stinks.

If you decide to knock yourself out getting rich and living it up, he points out, all you have to show for it in the end is the biggest income tax in town and a bad liver; and when you finally kick the bucket, the chances are that your dim-witted heirs will sink the whole thing in a phony Florida real-estate deal or lose it at the track in Saratoga. If you decide to break your back getting a decent education and end up a Columbia Ph.D. and an adviser to presidents, you'll be just as dead when the time comes as the high-school dropout who went into stuffing sausages, and you'll be forgotten just about as soon.

If you decide to be Mr. Nice Guy or Miss Goody Two-Shoes and never do the dirty on a pal, that may win you a gold star somewhere, but it won't keep you from getting it in the teeth like everybody else, because "there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous," Koheleth says (Ecclesiastes 8:14), and we're all in the hands of God, all right, but "whether it is love or hate, one does not know" (9:1).

God has a plan for us, to be sure, but he leaves us in the dark as to what that plan is, and if God's plan happens to conflict with some plans of our own, guess whose way wins out? That is what the famous "A time to weep and a time to laugh" passage is all about(3:1-9)-that is, if you feel like laughing at a time that God has already pegged as a time for weeping, start reaching for the Kleenex.

"The race is not to the swift," he says, "nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful" (9:11), and that about sums it up. The dead are luckier than the living, he says, but luckiest of all are the ones who had the good sense never to get born in the first place.

But the rabbis in their wisdom let Koheleth into the Good Book anyway, placing him not far from the Psalms of David on one side and the prophecies of Isaiah on the other. Maybe it was their hope that in that location a little of David and Isaiah might rub off on him, especially one of the insights they more or less shared, which was that often people are closest to God when they need him most and that sometimes they know him best by missing him.

The Book of Ecclesiastes

~originally published in Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words