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Heroic and Elegiac in Qohelet: A Practice in the Art of Listening


A Practice in the Art of Listening



 Traditionally, within the Western and Evangelical interpretations of Qohelet an emphasis has resulted in either a negative or positive reading of this arduous book.  Perhaps the most recognized negative reading would be that of Crenshaw’s.  In the opening lines of his introduction he writes, “Life is profitless; totally absurd.  This oppressive message lies at the heart of the Bible’s strangest book.”[1]  Elsewhere, Crenshaw is noted for describing the mood of Qohelet as a “tragic pessimism.”[2]  The meaninglessness of life, the absence of any moral order, and the divine’s abandonment of life to chance governs the reading of Qohelet as a whole.


At the other end is a positive reading of Qohelet that stands in distinction to that of Crenshaw’s.  A commentary that was published the same year as Crenshaw’s was Graham Ogden’s Qoheleth.  The same year also saw Ogden’s article ” ‘Vanity’ It Certainly Is Not.”[3]  Ogden argues that the English translations, and translators, of the Hebrew hebel have for the most part failed to take into account the usage of the word throughout the text of Ecclesiastes when determining its meaning.  The result has been a negative connotation given to hebel, which, says Ogden due to its frequency, “has given the entire book a distorted image and a falsely skewed meaning.”[4]  Contrary to Crenshaw, Ogden’s reading of Qohelet is strongly influenced by the seven exhortations to enjoy life (2.24, 3.12, 22, 5.18, 8.15, 9.7, 11.9).  Ecclesiastes does not exert that life is meaningless or even absurd, but that its meaning is beyond the human ability to comprehend; it is enigmatic.


There have been other readings of Qohelet that have freely moved between these two poles leaning toward one or the other.  While it may not be said that they are entirely a negative or positive reading of Qohelet, they do tend to favor one over the other.  Most recognize the contrasting messages within Qohelet, and the attempt is to produce a synthesized reading of the text.  There is uncomfortableness with contradictions resulting in interpretive efforts that seek to smooth them out.  Still, other approaches to Qohelet have attempted to eschew the polarity of readings.  One such example is Elizabeth Huwiler.  She notes that such interpretations concentrating only on the material that supports either a positive or negative reading essentially dismisses the contrary material within Qohelet that gives grounds for the other, and thus, distorts the overall message of the book.  Instead, we must exercise a reading that accepts both and emphasizes both simultaneously.[5]


Our struggle, however, is how this exercise might be accomplished.  The question concerns the preservation of paradox.  Yet, this wars against our Western-analytical minds.  For the most part, our scientific approaches to interpretation have prohibited us from entering into the text.  We stand outside the text and bring our tools to it.  That is not to say that this is to be entirely abandoned as hebel.  But, we must recognize and confess that the desire of the church has predominantly been “How do we live what we believe?”  That is, how do we live in agreement with our faith, and not in contradiction to it?  How do we not only move the mind (for we have accomplished this for the most part), but also move the soul?


Among all the places to find a discussion of this dilemma, an interesting and potentially helpful insight is found in Edgar Allen Poe’s expository essay, The Poetic Principle.  In the words of Poe, the poetic principle essentially regards the “elevating excitement of the soul.” 


While this Principle itself is, strictly and simply, the Human Aspiration for Supernal Beauty, the manifestation of the Principle is always found in an elevating excitement of the Soul-quite independent of that passion which is the intoxication of the Heart-or of that Truth which is the satisfaction of the Reason.[6]


Having associated the poetic principle with Taste, and its relation to Beauty, Poe argues that Poetry has at best only “collateral relations” with either the Intellect or the Conscience.[7]  Poe further notes that in producing this excitement or elevation of the soul the poetic principle may embody various forms-such as, landscape, architecture, painting, music, and words.  While Poe’s discourse does revolve around the mechanics of form to some extent, it also dips into the matters of substance.  This movement toward substance brings us to the world of story.  The interest of Poe at this point is not our task as listeners to enter the story, but the story’s ability to draw us to itself, to draw us beyond ourselves, to generate the “elevation of the soul.”  “There must be the steady pressing down of the stamp upon the wax,” says Poe.[8]  This is the movement of the soul. 


However, Poe’s concern is not simply with the effect that “Supernal Beauty” has upon the soul, but also with the soul’s desire to grasp that beauty.  “It is the desire of the moth for the star.”  A highly poetic line found in the midst of prose marks the presence of the poetic within the prosaic.  Poe continues,


It is no mere appreciation of the Beauty before us-but a wild effort to reach the Beauty above.  Inspired by an ecstatic prescience of the glories beyond the grave, we struggle, by multiform combinations among the things and thoughts of Time, to attain a portion of the Loveliness whose very elements, perhaps, appertain to eternity alone.  And thus when by Poetry . . . we find ourselves melted into tears . . . through a certain petulant, impatient sorrow at our inability to grasp now wholly, here on earth, at once and forever, those divine and rapturous joys, of which through the poem, or through the music, we attain to but brief and indeterminate glimpses.[9]


Here we recognize the simultaneous presence of both the mortal and the immortal.  The “desire of the moth for the star” is not strictly about a moth, nor is it strictly about a star.  It is about the relationship between the two that creates a new reality that did not (does not) exist with either one independently.  A new relationship has formed a tension between two opposites – the established presence of paradox.


In the following discussion concerning the presence of the heroic and elegiac particularly in the opening poem of Qohelet it is precisely this “desire of the moth for the star” that will contribute to a reading that seeks to preserve paradox.  How this is accomplished, it will be suggested, will be by practicing the “art of listening.”  This will entail a movement away from our desires for control toward an appreciation and reception of gift. 


A Generation Goes and A Generation Comes


After reading Qohelet we discern that the wise are no better off than the fool, the king than the poor, and oppressors than the oppressed.  This is simply a mourning reflection upon what is.  Accordingly, Qohelet can only conclude, “There was no profit under the sun” (2.11).  But implicit throughout Qohelet is also a desire for what is not.  Within the resounding question “What profit is there?” (1.3; 2.11; 3.9; 5.16; 6.11) we hear the tacit desire for eternality.[10]  “He has set eternity in their hearts” (3.11).  This is the ecstatic desire of Qohelet that drives him onto his quest to seek and to discover, if he may, that which perpetually abides.   


Qohelet as Observer


We begin with the opening question, “What profit is there for a person in all their toil in which they labor under the sun?” (1.3).  Is there any enduring value to what I do in this life?  Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) asks the same question in Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt (2002).  When returning home from his daughter’s wedding, he walks through an exhibit that honors the pioneers who settled the Western Frontier.  He asks himself what has he done to leave the stamp of his presence after he is gone.  The answer, nothing.  If there is no enduring value to what we do, if there is nothing abiding to all our efforts in life, then what meaning do they hold?  Ultimately, the opening question of Qohelet leads to an inquiry of whether or not there is any meaning in life.[11]  The focus for Qohelet is upon life and nothing else.  Qohelet is not concerned with what happens after death, neither is he concerned with what took place before life.  Qohelet is solely concerned with the activity that takes place under the sun.  It is this question of verse 3, that initially has no answer, that sends Qohelet on a quest “seeking,” “exploring,” “testing,” and “seeing” life (1.13, 16; 2.3, 11, 12; 4.1, 7).


As we follow Qohelet on his quest we discover the paradoxical presence of two opposing realities.  On the one hand, Qohelet does not dodge the disturbing realities that he encounters.  Neither does he attempt to soften them as he records his observations, but boldly presents them, even if they do not make sense.  In response to these raw realities, Qohelet occasionally expresses his emotional response to them without disguise.  “It is a wicked task that God has given people to be occupied with” (1.13).  And, “So I hated life, because the work which had been done under the sun was evil for me” (2.17).  At this point, to answer the opening question of what profit is there in all our efforts as we seek to produce some sort of meaning, Qohelet’s observation replies that meaning is absent.[12]  However, on the other hand, there is a subtle dissatisfaction and even contentment for these vexing realities.  While Qohelet records what he sees and his immediate response to these things, he also adverts to a reality that stands in contra-diction to what he witnesses.  Qohelet does not just see wickedness, but he sees it “In the place of justice.”  “I observed continually under the sun: in the place of justice, there is wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, there is wickedness” (3.16).  Throughout, Qohelet recognizes what should not be, and makes explicit references of what ought to be.  In the midst of all his seeking, Qohelet desires in the absence of meaning its presence. 


Coming back around to the opening question, it is Qohelet’s desire for the presence of meaning that initially sends him on his quest.  What we also discover, though, is that the question has led us to the simultaneous presence of two opposing realities.  While Qohelet discovers the absence of meaning, he at the same time yearns for its presence.  He is unable to let this go; he continues to hold onto this desire, even as he encounters realities that proclaim its absence.  Consequently, we discover two planes of reality within this reading of Qohelet.  Upon the one plane Qohelet encounters the reality that he experiences, and we observe as he faithfully discloses what is.  In this reading, Qohelet may be described as a realist.  However, to view this plane only would leave us with the absence of meaning and resulting in a loss of hope with no other option but to mourn.  Such is an elegiac reading of Qohelet.  Yet, upon the other plane Qohelet tenaciously maintains his grasp upon the reality of what is not.  In this reading, Qohelet may be described as a romantic.  To persistently seek what is not in the midst of what is, while amongst other things, is a heroic effort toward meaning (yitron).  It is the presence of the poetic within the prosaic, the “desire of the moth for the star.”  Only this presence of the heroic within the elegiac keeps Qohelet and us from falling hopelessly and tragically into utter despair in response to life and the world we live in.


Qohelet as Mourner


One of the clearest laments of Qohelet is recognizable in his responses to the “all things” that occur “under the sun.”  His responses are, “It is a wicked task,” and, “I hated life” (1.13, 2.17).  As previously mentioned, Qohelet is looking intently upon what is, describing and responding to this reality as it really is.  In chapter 2 Qohelet realizes that in spite of all his wisdom death will force him to leave everything to the person who will come after him.  Thus, he remarks, “I hated all the fruit of my labor for which I toiled.”  Furthermore, Qohelet reflects, “Who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool?”  As a final response Qohelet mournfully notes, “Therefore I completely despaired” (2.18-20).  John Pilkey writes that, “The elegiac genre . . . features adult disillusionment based on experimental knowledge of the weaknesses of human nature.”  He continues by describing elegy as “the literature of lost causes and the just mortification principle arising out of lost causes.”  And in reference to the characters themselves, “Elegiac characters have already experienced enough to have lost hope.”[13]  For Qohelet the inevitable reality of death with its ever-encroaching presence leads him to see the collective fruit of his toil as a series of “lost causes.”  In addition, Qohelet sees death as the greatest weakness of human nature.  The despair, or mourning, of Qohelet reflects the elegiac element not only in what is (the “lost causes”), but also in Qohelet himself as an elegiac character (reality of death).


Qohelet’s focus upon what is, draws us to the realist plane when reading the book as a whole.  We noted that what Qohelet discovers is the absence of meaning.  Reading the book within this plane allows us to see the mourning of Qohelet.  This is further evidenced in the opening poem of chapter 1, of which most describe as an introduction to all that follows in the book, but may just as well be seen as a summary poetically describing all that Qohelet has encountered and discovered.  Whatever the case may be, this poem creates for us a vision that is to govern our reading of all that follows.  


The poem opens in verse 4 with two programmatic lines before it progresses into a downward movement toward the “all things” occurring “under the sun.”  The first of these two lines (4a) expresses the mourning of Qohelet most succinctly.


A generation goes and a generation comes; 


Beginning in verse 5 and continuing through to verse 11 the poem begins a downward movement from the “sun” to the “wind” to the “waters,” and finally to “mankind” and the “all things” taking place “under the sun.”  Qohelet is drawing our focus to the events that take place upon the earth throughout the course of life.  Rather than looking up, Qohelet causes us to turn our investigative gaze down through the lens of the sun upon all that happens under it.  This downward gaze reflects a mournful disposition toward the “all things” occurring “under the sun.”  As noted, Qohelet has observed “all things” as recorded throughout the book, concluding that the answer to “what profit is there?” is the mournful reply that there is no yitron (profit, or enduring value) to humanity’s efforts.   This mourning is encapsulated within the downward movement of Qohelet’s opening poem. 


Returning to the going and coming of generations in verse 4, in light of the content of the poem it seems clear that the “generation” is not referring exclusively to human progeny.  Rather, the “generations” are referring to the “all things” of verse 8, which incorporates all that has been mentioned in the preceding lines.[14]  The sun, wind, waters, humanity, and works that have and will be done are the generations that go and come. 


What has been is what will be,

And what has been done is what will be done;


A generation goes and a generation comes;


But, why should we view this as mourning, as reflecting the elegiac?  This single poetic defining of “all things” in verse 4a immediately follows the question in verse 3, “What profit is there for a person in all their toil in which they labor under the sun?”  The answer, “A generation goes and a generation comes.”  The answer is that if we observe the “all things,” the wise and fool die alike (2.15), no one knows who will replace them (2.19, 6.12), and people cannot discover what will occur after them (7.14, 10.14).  All things go and come; all things are in motion.  There is no lasting profit and neither is there any enduring value-meaning is absent.  Thus, in “A generation goes and a generation comes” we encounter the mourning of Qohelet.  What is, is, and to this Qohelet laments.  However, there are two things that we may gather from this.


First, this should not be read as an entirely negative or bad thing.  We tend to read the temporality of “all things” as undesirable, or as something that should be rejected.  For us the word “temporal” generally carries with it a negative connotation.   Yet, a large part of the “all things” is in reference to the creation itself.  Essentially, this is the way that God designed it.  God created the “all things” to be ecstatic, going and coming.  In fact, Qohelet even retorts that there is nothing to add or remove from God’s activity, for God has so worked, purposefully (3.11, 14; 8.17).  In addition, the creation narrative speaks of a going and a coming inherent within the creative activity of God throughout the creation week – “there was evening and morning.”  Also, the elements within the 4th day of creation constitute the measurements “for seasons, and for days and years” (1.14).  The greater light is to “govern the day” while the lesser light is to “govern the night” (1.16).  God’s defining response to all this was that, “it was good.”  The creation poem of Qohelet and Qohelet’s mourning must be read in light of the creation narrative of Genesis 1-2 in order for us to acquire a sound understanding of the elegiac within Qohelet.


Secondly, this leads us to an understanding of the mourning as that which moves us toward the anticipation of a reality beyond what is presented to us in Genesis 1-2 and in the “all things under the sun.”  The presence of mourning, while a real and even natural thing, is a dissatisfaction with what is.  At this point, the elegiac can potentially become tragic.  If all we were left with in Qohelet were the realist reading upon the plane of what is, an evaluation of Qohelet as hopeless and absurd would be justified.  But there is another plane throughout Qohelet that discloses a movement toward what is not.  It is a desiring for something greater than the first creation.  It alludes to the generation as going somewhere – or at least hopes as much.  The mourning of Qohelet is not a cry of self-loathing or hatred, but a cry of an emptiness that desires to be filled.  It is a mourning that reaches in anticipation for something greater – desiring to be, to abide.  Here, the elegiac turns toward the presence of the heroic.


Qohelet as Hero


Thus far we have noted the observations of Qohelet and have discussed his mourning over what he sees.  But is it possible at the same time to speak of Qohelet as a hero?  Leland Ryken writes that “heroes sum up what a whole culture wants to say.”  They are both idealized figures and representatives, and as such they may be seen as a “comment on the three great issues of life: values . . . morality . . . and reality.[15]  Ryken further identifies four types of heroes, one of which he describes as “realistic heroes.”  “They are essentially ‘one of us,’ possessing our strengths and weaknesses.”[16]  Moving from character to story, Ryken concludes, “In summary, hero stories are about the struggles and triumphs of the human race.”[17]  While Pilkey seems to identify the heroic with the epic genre, his discussion of the lyric and its Romantic element tend to be much more akin to Qohelet.  “The spiritual key to the lyric genre is a sudden elation in the midst of distressing circumstances,” it is a “hopefulness against all odds.”[18]  Pilkey continues, “Our religious term for this elusive and mysterious ability to rally from despair is ‘resurrection power.’ “[19]  Recognizing this quality in Qohelet warrants a possible description of him as a romantic hero.  There are at least three possible ways in which to see Qohelet as a hero. 


It was mentioned earlier that a romantic reading of Qohelet was possible.  Not only does Qohelet observe and concentrate on what is, but he also perceives what is not.  Three particular paradoxes illustrate this point.  The first paradox is one that is found in 5.19-6.2, where in both cases God gives a person “riches and wealth.”  However, for the person in 5.19 God “empowers” them to enjoy their riches and wealth, while for the person in 6.2 he does not “empower” them but grants that privilege to a stranger.  Qohelet’s reply is that “this is hebel and an evil sickness” (6.2).  He perceives that what is true of the person in 5.19 ought to also be true of the person in 6.2, but it is not.  In a second paradox, Qohelet does not just see that there is wickedness, but that there is wickedness in the place of justice and righteousness (3.16).  Also, Qohelet observes that the righteous receive the rewards of the wicked, and the wicked the righteous (8.14).  Again, what is is not what it should be, and Qohelet persistently desires to see what is not.  The third paradox found in 7.15-17 is the most interesting, and as Murphy notes, its intent “is elusive, and differing interpretations have been given.”[20]  Qohelet mournfully advises “do not be overly righteous . . . Why should you ruin yourself?” (7.16).  He has already learned that the wise and foolish die alike – what difference does it make?  However, “do not be overly wicked.”  Why?  Qohelet answers, “Why should you die before your time?” (7.17).  Qohelet is disclosing a literally “unexplainable hope,” a “hopefulness against all odds.”  There is no reason after observing “all things under the sun” why one should have such a hope.  This unexplainable hope has as its object a God whom one should fear (7.18).  Qohelet makes reference to this fear and also to God’s judgment elsewhere following similar paradoxes (3.17; 8.12-13).  Implicit in these readings, and throughout Qohelet, is this unexplainable hope for what is not to take the place of what is.  Such hope causes Qohelet to insist on joy over sorrow, righteousness over wickedness and wisdom over folly.


Secondly, this brings us back to where we left off in the discussion of Qohelet’s mourning within the opening poem and in the light of the creation narrative of Genesis 1-2.  It was noted that “a generation goes and a generation comes” is a reality of creation, and Qohelet recognizes this.  However, there is this dissatisfaction with what is and a desire to press beyond this toward what is not, toward that which abides – yitron.  Poe speaks of an “immortal instinct” within humanity (“he has set eternity in their hearts”) that is both a “consequence and an indication of his perennial existence.”[21]  The desire for meaning, the desire for yitron, the desire to abide is the mortal’s desire for immortality.  “It is the desire of the moth for the star.”  This desire, or unexplainable hope in the very presence of “lost causes,” is Qohelet’s heroism.  As Trinity tells Neo, in the Wachowski brother’s The Matrix (1999), “You’re looking for him.  I know, because I was once looking for the same thing.  And when he found me, he told me I wasn’t really looking for him – I was looking for an answer.  It’s the question that drives us, Neo.”  It is the question of verse 3 that has driven Qohelet to confront the daunting task of seeking for yitron, for something beyond the what is of “all things under the sun,” seeking for that which abides.  The answer to verse 3 is found in the second line of verse 4. 


                        A generation goes and a generation comes,

                        But the earth, continually abides.


Once again, we encounter the heroism of Qohelet; this is what he is seeking.  The yitron of verse 3 is at one and the same instance the mourning of verse 4a and the heroism of 4b.


The third form of heroism that we witness in Qohelet counters the mourning that we experienced from the downward movement of the opening poem.  As the poem forces us to bow our heads in a mournful disposition toward the “all things” taking place “under the sun,” so also does Qohelet gaze upward in order to receive the divine gift.  What Qohelet discovers in his desire for meaning is that while its absence pervades the “all things” taking place below, its presence is descried from above.  Out of the seven references to enjoy life and one’s labor, five are directly ascribed as being “from the hand of God” or as being the “gift of God” (2.24, 3.13, 5.19, 8.15, 9.7, 9).  Qohelet’s admonition is to receive this gift from above, to accept it, for meaning cannot be wrested from the “all things,” but is only discovered within the God who grants it.  The heroic disposition of Qohelet is in this humble ascent of receiving a gift from the other.




An interesting parallel is found in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Work Without Hope.”  Even though, I believe, this poem is primarily about the activity of the creative imagination that occurs in the process of writing, its association with nature and the imagination make it equally applicable to the order of nature and the aesthetic.  In addition, it communicates the same elements concerning the simultaneous presence of the elegiac and heroic that we have been discussing in Qohelet.  Furthermore, it expounds Poe’s line “It is the desire of the moth for the star.”


                        All Nature seems at work.  Slugs leave their liar-

                        The bees are stirring-birds are on the wing-

                        And Winter slumbering in the open air,

                        Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!

                        And I the while, the sole unbusy thing,                                   5

                        Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.


                        Yet well I ken the banks where amaranths blow,

                        Have traced the fount whence streams of nectar flow.

                        Bloom, O ye amaranths!  bloom for whom ye may,

                        For me ye bloom not!  Glide, rich streams, away!                  10

                        With lips unbrightened, wreathless brow, I stroll:

                        And would you learn the spells that drowse my soul?

                        Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,

                        And Hope without an object cannot live.[22]


The first thing to note is the immediate comparison of the writer to nature.  “All Nature seems at work” creating newness by making the appropriate association between things (i.e., by pairing off), yet the writer is the “sole unbusy thing.”  Even winter anticipates the new arrival of spring.  The long sleep of winter (death) is beginning to awaken with spring (life).  Though the writer is at present mute, this creation of newness (of what is not) out of the things that are (of what is) is not something that has never been experienced.  The writer knows well “the banks where amaranths blow” and has experienced the very source of this creative activity that is taking place all around him.  Recognizing the amaranth as the imaginary flower that never dies, it is an allusion to both the imagination and to that which “continually abides.”  In regards to Poe, it is the star after which the moth desires.  But now, the writer begins to mourn as he laments how the amaranth is blooming for everything and everyone but himself.  The climax of his mourning comes as nothing springs forth from his mouth, and he asks, “would you learn the spells that drowse my soul?”  The last two lines of this poem reflect the whole of its message.  “Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve” is the utter despair of mourning over “lost causes,” in the purely elegiac reading of Qohelet that discovers the absence of meaning among the “all things under the sun.”  Indeed, this line directly parallels Qohelet’s line, “A generation goes and a generation comes.”  Yet, Coleridge does not let go of hope, but concludes, “And Hope without an object cannot live,” as well as Qohelet, “But the earth, continually abides.”  Hope (the desire of the moth), in order to endure must have an object in which to hope in (the star).  Without hope, without the presence of the heroic-that unexplainable hope-life is meaningless, and is merely a series of “lost causes.”  However, the presence of unexplainable hope in the midst of mourning enables us to discover meaning, if we are willing to receive it and preserve the paradox.


Art of Listening


In Robert K. Johnston’s 1976 article, “Confessions of a Workaholic,” he suggests that the negative reading of Qohelet by some wisdom scholars was perhaps due to a subtle shift from viewing wisdom as the “art of steering” to understanding wisdom as the “task of mastering.”[23]  He notes how, following von Rad, Brueggemann moves from the aesthetic view of wisdom to the ethical.  Although von Rad described wisdom as the “art of steering” (c.f., Prov 1.5), he seems to identify wisdom more with humanity’s attempt to “wrest some form of order from chaos.”[24]  The assumption is that the discipline of wisdom, in the presence of disorder, is within humanity’s ability to restore the cosmic order of things.  Working within this concept of wisdom, the employment of wisdom becomes the method by which one pushes through the inconsistencies of life, or is able to “straighten what is crooked.”  Obtaining the knowledge of the order of the cosmos is to have acquired wisdom, and to appropriately administer that wisdom was to have acquired the ability to control one’s life.  It is the assumption of this concept of wisdom that one is able first to know the cosmic order, and then second, to administer it within one’s own ability.  The degree to which one is capable of doing this is the degree to which one has mastered life.  The “task of mastering” life is a continual movement toward the individual ability of the sage to control life.


The key to understanding this type of wisdom is control.  Recognizing this, control is something that is also seen in the cultures of modernity and postmodernity as numerous discussions have unfolded.[25]  Both modernity and postmodernity are built upon and held together by the human individual’s ability to control.  Both are concerned with the “task of mastering” life.  Essentially, the problem with these two systems is that knowledge and authority lie within human reasoning.  Human authority is the starting point, while the divine, or any outside voice for that matter, is denied or temporarily set aside. 


The effect of mastering, which leads inevitably to control, is the devaluation of the other, of the object of control.  In effect, the particularity of the other, of the controlled object, is swallowed up and looses its identity to the one who controls it.  Ultimately, its value is removed, destroyed, or replaced by its subject.  In a word, it is consumed.  What we witness within the cultures of modernity and postmodernity is the self-seeking control, either of the outside world, as with modernity, or of the individual’s own world, as with postmodernity.  Within both of these systems everything is first reduced to the thinking, or feeling individual.  This center-ness of the human individual results in the shutting off of the outside voice.  There is literally no room for the other, for gift.  The “task of mastering” has only one voice, and it is of the self-seeking control.  In such a system, faith is considered a weakness, and perhaps even an impediment. 


What I would like to suggest is that we consider a movement away from the type of wisdom described as the “task of mastering life” toward a wisdom that may be described as the “art of listening.”  Inherent within this movement is the abandonment of the human (Western) desire to control by embracing the exercise of listening to the other.  This is essentially an exercise that seeks to make room for the presence of “gift.”  It is the unexplainable hope for what is not within the mourning over what is.  It is the heroic disposition of turning upward in order to receive meaning from the divine other.  When considering the activity of the art of listening there are at least three things that we discern about the nature of gift.


First, the initial move in the art of listening is accepting the presence of the other.  If not accepting, it at least allows for the possibility of the real presence of the other.  In his Biographia Literaria: XIV Coleridge speaks of “poetic faith” as the “willing suspension of disbelief for the moment.”[26]  Contextually, Coleridge is discussing the plans that he and Wordsworth had for the creation of the Lyrical Ballads.  Coleridge’s task was to make believable “shadows of imagination” procuring from them a real sense of “human interest and a semblance of truth.”  When encountering any form of story – film, literature, music – one must for a moment set aside their conceptions of reality, truth, beauty, and goodness and enter into the other world that is being presented to them, accepting or receiving (suspending disbelief) the conception of these things from the other.  Failing to take this initial step prohibits one from ever entering into the world of the story.  It also prohibits the other from making a real presence among us.  The dangers involve on the one hand alienation for the one who does not receive the other (absence of meaning), and on the other hand a conformity of the other by the one who rather than “receiving” “uses”[27] the other for selfish purposes.  To willingly suspend disbelief is to step forth in faith entering into a new relationship creating new life, a new possibility as one welcomes the presence of gift filling life with meaning and value.  Thus, “poetic faith.”  This aspect of the art of listening is about the practice of receiving.


Secondly, as we step into a practice of the art of listening we immediately recognize the presence of the same paradox that we have been discussing throughout this paper.  There is on the one hand a negative aspect to the art of listening that we encounter in the presence of gift.  This is the aspect of humility.  It is the recognition (confession) of incompleteness within the desire for something more.  We experience it in mourning, yet again, not a mourning that takes us tragically towards disillusionment and despair, but awakens us to a feeling of anticipation for an alien joy made present through the gift of the other.  As such, the role of gift as bringing about our experiencing the fullness of joy is necessary.  We are incapable on our own to do this and to make it happen.  It is beyond our control; it is beyond our created nature.  While we may mourn at this image of our finitude, it is not a flaw in our constitutive make-up.  The reality of the matter is, we were created this way.  This mourning of our incompleteness, if we practice the art of listening, will draw us toward the other, toward the fulfillment of joy, toward receiving the gift of the other.  It is in this communal movement of humility that we anticipate our fullness.


Finally, there is on the other hand a positive aspect to the art of listening in this communal movement toward the other.  This is the aspect of greatness.  As we humbly move forward in faith receiving gift, we are moving toward the other, toward that which reminds us of our finitude, but is drawing us beyond that reminder toward itself.  Out of our humility we perceive the sublimeness of the other and while presently absent we desire its abiding presence.  Returning to Poe, who said, “It is no mere appreciation of the Beauty before us-but a wild effort to reach the Beauty above.”[28]  Yet, not only do we desire its presence, we yearn to participate in its sublimity.  Simone Weil captures this as she reflects on our desire for the beautiful, and writes, “The beautiful is a carnal attraction which keeps us at a distance and implies a renunciation . . . We want to eat all the other objects of desire.  The beautiful is that which we desire without wishing to eat it.  We desire that it should be.”[29]  We do not want to consume (control) the other, but to partake in its beingness.  As the art of listening enables us to partake in the divine gift we attain to that wholeness that was absent among the “all things under the sun.”  We not only experience meaning, we partake in it, and when we do we begin to truly and really live.




To hold two opposing realities simultaneously is the world of poetic faith.  It is something lived, experienced, and known only as we walk through life holding onto paradox.  Poetic faith is that which draws us out and moves us toward the very thing of desire.  It moves us from what is toward what is not, and allows us to take hold of both.


The focus of this paper has been on this paradoxical element that we witness as being present in creation and part of our common humanity.  In her book, Literature and the Christian Life, Sallie TeSelle discusses what she describes as Paul Tillich’s “religious amiability” when noting the relationship between religion and art.[30]  While she celebrates Tillich’s dismissal of a sacred and secular divide, she questions what exactly is distinctive about Tillich’s defining of Christianity.  Rather than being anything particular, it is much more general.  For Tillich, Christianity “is the answer to man’s search for the power of being.”[31]   As TeSelle continues in reference to Tillich,


The “Gestalt of Grace” has both a negative and a positive pole; it is the dialectic of the “No” of the “boundary situation,” the “No” to all human attempts to absolutize the finite, and the “Yes” that comes to man when he relinquishes all props and feels the full brunt of despair over finitude as the basis of existence.


In response, TeSelle notes that “the significant thing is that there is nothing specifically Christian about this pattern.”  She is absolutely correct, for this pattern is something inherent within the order of the cosmos itself, and thus, we see it everywhere.  As she keenly concludes, “the negative-positive dialectic is written into the nature of things.”[32]


There is within us all the paradoxical presence of the elegiac and heroic, and it is something that is expressed in many places-in poetry, in film, in literature, in creation, and in Qohelet.  What this paper has further attempted to demonstrate is that these are not two separate experiences that exist independent of each other.  For they coexist as simultaneous realities.  There are realities in life we encounter that disturb our souls, and we mourn over them.  We mourn over such things as oppression, starvation, destitution, poverty, illness, and death.  Yet our mourning is not hopeless if we are willing “to see what eye has not seen, and hear what ear has not heard” (Is 6.9-10, 1 Cor 2.9).  As we see these things we desire the liberation of those who suffer.  We desire realities “that are not” to replace those “that are.” 


A re-reading of Qohelet that practices the art of listening is not an attempt to understand Qohelet as much as it is an attempt to allow Qohelet to aid us in understanding life “under the sun.”  In the words of Jesus from Luke 14.11,


                        For everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled,

                        And he who humbles himself shall be exalted.



[1] James L. Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1987), 23.

[2] In Robert K. Johnston, ” ‘Confessions of a Workaholic’: A Reappraisal of Qoheleth,” CBQ 38 (1976): 14 note 2.

[3] Graham S. Ogden, Qoheleth (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1987); and ” ‘Vanity’ It Certainly Is Not,” The Bible Translator 38/3 (1987).

[4] Ogden, ” ‘Vanity’ It Certainly Is Not,” 301-02.

[5] In Robert K. Johnston, Useless Beauty (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 28.

[6] The Modern Library, The Collected Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (New York: The Modern Library, 1992), 906.

[7] Ibid., 894.

[8] Ibid., 890.

[9] Ibid., 894.

[10] The connotation that is typically associated with eternality is the notion of forever, or timelessness.  This is not what is intended here.  Rather, ‘olam has the connotation of perpetuity, or continuity.  Thus, the second line in 1.4 would read “But the earth, continually abides” (i.e., in time).  See Anthony Tomasino, “Mlvf” in Willem A. VanGemeren, NIDOTTE  vol 3 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997).

[11] Michael V. Fox, A Time to Tear Down and A Time to Build Up (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), 3.

[12] Crenshaw (1987, 25) links this conclusion to the nullifying reality of death, “Because death cancels every human achievement, Qohelet concludes that life has no meaning.”

[13] John Pilkey, “An Introduction to Literature,” on-line, available from

[14] Others have noted this as well.  See, e.g., R. N. Whybray, “Ecclesiastes 1.5-7 and the Wonders of Nature,” JSOT 41 (1988), 106-107; Crenshaw, 62.

[15] Leland Ryken, Words of Delight (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987), 108.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 109.

[18] Pilkey, An Introduction to Literature.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Roland E. Murphy, “Ecclesiastes” WBC vol 23a (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1992), 69.  See also Fox, 259-260.

[21] Poe, 893-94.

[22] I. A. Richards, ed., The Portable Coleridge (New York: Penguin Books, 1978), 209-10.

[23] Johnston 1976, 26-27.

[24] Ibid., 27.

[25] See for instance, Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1989); David Lyon, Postmodernity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999); Trevor Hart, Faith Thinking (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1995); and Colin E. Gunton, The One, the Three, and the Many (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

[26] Richards, 518.

[27] C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 14-25.  When referring to those who “use” music and art, Lewis states that “Both rush hastily forward to do things with the work of art instead of waiting for it to do something to them” (p. 25).

[28] Modern Library, 894.

[29] Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 205.

[30] Sallie TeSelle, Literature and the Christian Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), 8-11.

[31] Ibid., 11.  Note the similarity in this line with Poe’s “It is the desire of the moth for the star.”

[32] Ibid.

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