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Qohelet on the Soul

March 8, 2009

Ecclesiastes 6

This is a working translation based off of the BHS (Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia)

There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy on Man: a man to whom God gives wealth, property, and honor so that he lacks nothing  for his soul from all that he desires, yet God does not empower him to eat from it, but a stranger consumes it.  This is hevel and an evil sickness.  If a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years, however many be the days of his years, but his soul does not receive satisfaction from the good—he does not even receive a burial—I say better the stillborn than he.  For it comes in hevel and goes in darkness, and its name is covered in darkness.  Even the one who does not see or know the sun has more rest than he, even if he lives a thousand years twice over and does not enjoy the good—do not all go to one place?

All of Man’s labor is for his mouth, and yet the soul is not filled.  For what advantage has the wise man over the fool?  What has the poor man knowing how to walk before the living?  Better the sight of the eyes than the goings of the soulThis too is hevel and a pursuit of wind.

 


 

In this segment of Ecclesiastes 6 Qohelet gives incredible insight into the nature of the soul.  He begins by describing his observation as “an evil” and later modifies this to “an evil sickness.”  Qohelet describes the event in which a man gains possession of “wealth, property, and honor so that his soul lacks nothing,” and yet the man is not empowered to enjoy these things.  Qohelet continues by stating that death surpasses (tov)* the soul that “does not receive satisfaction from the good” because at least in death one finds rest.  Qohelet concludes that death, and the kind of death that never experiences life, is better than a life devoid of the pleasures generated by the good.  What interests me about this text is not simply the relation of the soul to the good, but what the soul derives from the good.  Qohelet refers to the person who technically has possession of the good, but lacks the ability to enjoy it.  The separation of possession from enjoyment is incomprehensiblehevel.  Enjoyment ought to accompany possession.

 

It is not enough for the soul to merely possess the good, for, as Qohelet argues, the soul must enjoy the good.  Qohelet instructs that it is the nature of the soul to partake in the fruit of the good, to both possess and enjoy the good.**  Without satisfaction the soul is better off finding rest in death.  By deferring to the rest one finds in death as something “good,” or better than the unsatisfied soul, Qohelet discloses “rest” as the enjoyment that accompanies (rather, what should accompany) possession of the good.  The soul is designed to find rest in the good.

 

This point is also made by use of the word “walk”—halach, which Qohelet uses three times.  Halach is used as a “going” through life to the human end at the grave where there is rest (do not all go to one place), the poor person’s knowledge of how to “proceed” before the living—I presume a knowledge of how to stay alive by constant striving—and halach is used for the “goings” of the soul that does not receive satisfaction indicating restlessness.  The contrast is between rest and wandering, striving, working restlessly.  The equivalent to rest is satisfaction—enjoyment.  A restless wandering of the living are those who possess life, but devoid of its pleasures.  Possession without enjoyment is labor without rest.  Just as the purposed end of work is rest, so enjoyment is of possession.

 

 

*  The Hebrew tov is the word for “good,” but it is translated as “better” when it is followed by the prepositional prefix mem/min – “from” – and is typical in proverbs that are making a comparison that states one thing is better than a second thing.  There are two of these proverbial tov structures in this passage.

 

**  I am wandering what (intentional?) relation this might have with Genesis 2 – 3?  In other places of this book Qohelet clearly works from particular themes of early Genesis.  The disclosure of the nature of the soul in this passage of Qohelet 6 as a partaking in the good echoes the taking of the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as opposed to the tree of life and all other trees in the garden.  Tov—good is also a dominant theme through Genesis 1.  But it is the idea of taking from the one tree with the desire to possess rather than receiving from what was already given that draws my attention.  The soul desires to possess, but not devoid of pleasure.  All these terms are prevalent in Genesis 3:6-8.  Pleasure was present in the gift, in which adam was invited to partake but not possess.  I am inclined to believe that it is the possession of a thing that redirects the soul away from the enjoyment/rest that it seeks.  And this is certainly something Qohelet alludes to over and over again throughout Ecclesiastes when he laments over the requirements of the grave forcing one to leave behind their possessions to be enjoyed by another.  The point is that we never truly possess anything, but the one who proceeds through life with the notion of possessing marks the empty soul—the one eating from the wrong tree.

 

Buck

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