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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Vanity of Vanities, 20 Mar 2013
Samuel Romilly (London United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
One of the great works of world literature, but to savour the richness of its language it has to be read either in the original Hebrew or at least in the Authorised Version (otherwise known as the King James Bible). To give something of its flavour and meaning I cite below the best sermon given on it by Harry Potter, then Chaplain of Selwyn College Cambridge:


Some two hundred and fifty years before the birth of Christ there lived in Jerusalem a man wise, learned, and intellectual: a teacher, a pedagogue, a professor. We do not know his name, only the title which he gives himself at the beginning of his one extant book, Koheleth, 'the Preacher', or, perhaps, 'the lecturer'. And the book, a curious compilation of phrases and philosophies for the use of the young, by an ancient and world-weary Oscar Wilde, is known to us as Ecclesiastes.

'Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity' are the familiar opening words.

What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? All things are full of labour; man cannot utter It... the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be, and that which is done is that which shall be done, and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there anything whereof it may be said, "See this is new?" It hath been already of old time, which was before us. there Is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after. (1.1-11)

If the workings of the universe are essentially mechanical and repetitive how petty and pointless is the labour of man. In such a universe the plight of the intellectual is worst of all, for he best perceives the vanity of human aspirations:

In much wisdom is much grief; and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow... Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh. This also is vexation of spirit. (1.18 and 12.12)

The wise and the foolish all come to the same pass, both die and are forgotten.

Therefore I hated life, because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous unto me; for all is vanity and vexation of spirit. (2.17)

In such a universe where all is predetermined and man can do nothing to alter his fate or better his lot, and where the good and the evil all end up the same, there is no incentive to be good, and indeed the world is not. Injustice and oppression reign and every tier of government contains corruption. That is the way things are - lamentable but immutable. Kohele th sets little store by the popular and vulgar notions of an afterlife where the wicked will be judged and the righteous recompensed - what evidence have we that our fate is any different from that of the cattle?

I considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun, and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power. Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive. Yea, better is he than both they, which hath not yet been, who hath not seen the evil work that is done under the sun.... The heart of the sons of men is full of evil, and madness is in their heart while they live, and after that they go to the dead. A man hath no preeminence above a beast, for all is vanity. (4.1-3, 9.3)

For those who have the grave misfortune to be alive in a universe such as this, the only escape from utter despair lies in pleasure. this too is ultimately vain, but it is fun while it lasts and anaesthetises the mind. It is a divine opiate.

There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This I saw was from the hand of God.... Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, drink, and be merry.... A living dog is better than a dead lion. For the memory of the dead is forgotten. Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart, for God now accepteth thy works. Live joyfully all the days of the life of thy vanity which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity, for that is thy portion in this life.... Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might, for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in the grave, whether thou goest. (2. 24; 9. 4, 7, 10)

The wise and the foolish all come to the same pass, both die and are forgotten.

Therefore I hated life, because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous unto me; for all is vanity and vexation of spirit. (2.17)

But do not be debauched. Over-indulgence leads to indigestion, high blood pressure and heart attacks. Do not be greedy, there is no need for excessive wealth, which only cause worries and cannot accompany you in the
grave. Be content with what you have - comfortable prosperity. Remember to be regular in your religious observance. It is wise to keep on the right side of God just in case he exists. Similarly it is a good idea to be
politically conservative: the powers that be could make life very unpleasant for those who oppose them, and in any case, disruption of the present social order will not benefit you. And above all, beware of women:

I find more bitter than death the woman whose heart is snares and nets. One man among a thousand have I found, but a woman among all those I have not found. Lo, this only have I found, that God hath made man upright, but women are very devious.

Moderation in all things, even in morality. In a wicked world it does not pay to be too bad, or too good!

Be not righteous overmuch, neither make thyself over wise: why shouldest thou destroy thyself. be not overmuch wicked, neither be thou foolish: why shouldest thou die before thy time?

Happiest of all is the man who is both wise and wealthy. For a clever man with money is likely to survive amidst the dangers of life and will have the means to enjoy it:

For wisdom is a defence and money is a defence. (7.12)

Having given this sound and sane advice our elderly intellectual sings a hymn of rhapsody to Youth - the original of Gaudeamus Igitur:

Rejoice, 0 young man, In thy youth, and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth.

For fleeting are those days, and transitory are their joys; old age comes apace, decay and dissolution. And so we end as we began, there is nothing new under the sun, all is an endless cycle of decay and degeneration, all is vanity.

In its historical setting Ecclesiastes belongs to the Wisdom Literature, the intellectual and highbrow, and cosmopolitan writings of ancient Israel which include Proverbs, Job, and the Song of Songs. They were written by teachers like Koheleth who tended more and more to believe in a God who controlled the machinery of creation and the ultimate fate of mankind, but who was distant and not intimate, an unknowable and inscrutable deity rather than the Lord who walked with Adam in the cool of the evening; a God who to all appearances let the world go on its sordid way, rather than the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob who intervened in history to bring about Justice and salvation for his people Israel. They neither needed nor wanted nor believed in an active and just God, nor in the sort of revolutionary social change that the prophets demanded, nor in an afterlife in which the humble and meek would be exalted and the rich put down from their seat. In the book of Ecclesiastes we have the sanctification of intellectual, well-to-do, middle-class values, of the worldly wise, the prudent, the careful, the conservative, and the complacent.

There is nothing new in this, as Koheleth would be the first to appreciate: there is nothing new under the sun! It is the philosophy of Aristotle, it is the aphorism of Polonius, it is the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and it is the ethos of so much of modern Western society.

It is, for instance, the philosophy of Dr Koheleth of Corpulent College, Cambridge, a former lecturer in Ecclesiastical History, a retired bachelor Fellow in Class E, who in his rather paternalistic way likes to take 'the Young' - as he quaintly calls them - under his wing. He often muses on his own lost youth, the early promise which rather petered out, the research which never quite reached its conclusion. His professional dissatisfaction is exacerbated by his one and only romantic attachment which ended when she ran off with a chap who got only a lower second: women are all the same! And so, consoled by a gentle misogynism and a protective cynicism, he has grown old. Of essentially kindly disposition, he is distressed by the never ending stream of news of wars and famines and by the personal individual misfortunes he sees all around him. They confirm his pessimistic view of life, and, convinced that nothing can be done, he sighs and reaches for the sherry.

It is a universal philosophy, its in the Bible and its in Cambridge. But is It the Gospel? It is not the gospel of the rest of the Old Testament, of the Law which believed in the primacy of justice, and of the Prophets who, faced with injustice, passed judgment on their own society and condemned it to destruction. An evil city should not stand. Fiat iustitia, ruat coelum let justice be done though the heavens fall. Not prudence and self preservation, but righteousness and faithfulness were their watchwords. They saw the connection between one man's wealth and another's poverty: Woe to them that are at ease in Zion, that lie upon beds of ivory, that stretch themselves upon their couches, that drink wine in bowls, but are not grieved for the affliction of Joseph. (Amos 6.1-6.)

It is not the gospel of the New Testament. Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Nineteenth Century American philosopher points the difference very well when he quots from Ecclessiastes:

The rule of joy and the law of duty seem to me all one. I think 'Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might' infinitely more important than the vain attempt to love one's neighbour as oneself.

The great command of the Old Testament and of the New is seen as mere vanity by this modern Capitalist Koheleth. Incomprehensible in this context is the story of Dives and Lazarus, the rich man in his palace, the poor man at his gate. Every day Dives feasted lavishly, unaware or uncaring of the poor man who begged crumbs at his door. The dogs, dumb animals, showed more concern. But as Koheleth observed, the same end comes to all - death. In this story, however, after death comes the Judgement, and the reversal of fortunes. Lazarus is carried to Abraham's bosom while Dives is tormented in Hell. He calls on father Abraham to help him, but Abraham points out the justice of the sentence: `Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things, but now he is comforted and thou art tormented.' (Luke 16.25.) And Jesus said earlier, `Blessed be ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God; woe unto you who are rich, for ye have received your consolation.' (Luke 6.20,24) In desperation Dives asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers, to which Abraham replies: `If they hear not Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.' (Luke 16.31.) They could have found their salvation in Moses and the Prophets, but there is no mention of the Writings. Koheleth and the rest buttressed a system in opposition to the Law, the Prophets and the Gospel.

And so what of Dr Koheleth of Corpulent College, Cambridge? Can he, can Cambridge be saved? By God's grace alone, and with difficulty if at all. The sophisticated urbanites of Amos' day heard his words and laughed them to scorn. Dives had the Law and the Prophets for his guide but he still fell into the ditch. Like Koheleth and Dives we are surrounded by a comfort and a security we are loathe to surrender: wisdom is a defence and money is a defence - a defence against the harsh realities of life, a defence against our own basic insecurity, a defence against the demands and commands of God. Insulation becomes isolation from the calls of humanity and the call of God. Religion becomes an intellectual pursuit of marginal importance, a comfortable life here and now precludes any need for an afterlife and any desire for it. When we have everything now we have nothing, to gain by judgement and justice. What incentive do we have to renounce our present advantages for an uncertain and overpopulated paradise? Can we who eat oysters and pheasant - as I have done - appreciate the unleavened bread of the Lord's frugal Supper? Can we who drink the finest Burgundy enjoy the watered down vin ordinaire of Christ's Blood? Indifference, agnosticism, and the mere outward show of religiosity is so much easier an option given our present circumstances. They are the options of the comfortable and cosy. So what is the Gospel here? How shall I be saved?

A rich young man asked the secret of eternal life, and was told by Jesus to give up all that he had and follow him,

`but when the young man heard that saying he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions. Then said Jesus unto his disciples, "Verily I say unto you that a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of God... It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." When his disciples heard it they were exceedingly amazed, saying, "who then can be saved?" And Jesus said unto them, "With men this is impossible but with God all things are possible".' Matt.19.22-26.

`La misericorde de Dieu est infinie: elle sauvera meme un riche.' - the mercy of God is infinite, it will save even the rich.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Doris Lessing's introduction is illuminating and original, 20 May 2000
By A Customer
Doris Lessing's introduction takes a simple approach to a text which has been much analysed over the centuries. She highlights the beauty of the language, and the second-hand fragmented nature of the wisdom in the book. Most interestingly, she laments how easily wisdom can degenerate once it has sprung 'from the well-springs' of knowledge.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Great stuff in the OT., 28 July 2013
J. Humphreys (Teessside,UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Ecclesiastes or, The Preacher (The Pocket Canons Bible Series) (Kindle Edition)
I remember mention of Ecclesiastes in the Barchester Chronicles series on TV, the Vanity quotation with all its ramifications, meant to follow it up but neglected to do so until I heard the 'time for all things' passage which reawakened ny interest:To find a pocket version with a intelligible commentary was a bonus.
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