The dichotomies of life

“A good name is better

Than precious ointment.

The day of death is better

Than the day of birth.

It is better to go to the house of mourning

Than to go to the house of feasting.

This is the end of everyone.

The living will lay it to heart.

Sorrow is better

Than laughter.

By sadness of countenance,

The heart is made glad.

The heart of the wise

Is in the house of mourning.

But the heart of fools is

In the house of mirth.

It is better for a man

To hear the rebuke of the wise

Than to hear the song of fools.

Like the crackling of thorns under a pot

So is the laughter of fools.

This also is vanity.

Surely oppression makes the wise foolish.

A bribe corrupts the heart.”

Qoheleth presents a reflection on life and death, like the modern philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). With his phrase Sein zum Tode, from his book Being and Time, Heidegger meant that all human beings were destined to die. It is our purpose in life to die. Therefore we must live our life now in authenticity. Qoheleth starts off by saying how important a good name is, more prized than precious ointment. Also the day of death is more important than the day of your birth. It is better to mourn than to feast. As usual, he points out that everyone will die, so that the living must be aware of that. Sorrow was better than laughter, rather than the other way around. The heart was made glad through a sad face. The truly wise mourn, while the fools live a life of mirth. Listen to the criticisms of the wise rather than the songs of fools. Foolish laughter is like burning thorns crackling on a fire since it is pure vanity and useless. Oppression makes us wiser, but bribes corrupt the heart.

The wise Qoheleth (Eccl 1:15-1:18)

“‘What is crooked cannot be made straight.

What is lacking cannot be counted.’

I said to myself.

‘I have acquired great wisdom.            

My wisdom surpasses all

Who were over Jerusalem before me.

My mind has had great experience of wisdom.

My mind has had great experience of knowledge.

I applied my mind to know wisdom.

I applied my mind to know madness.

I applied my mind to know folly.

I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind.

In much wisdom

Is much vexation.

Those who increases knowledge

Increase sorrow.’”

This book once again has the first person singular of Qoheleth speaking. He points out, quite correctly, that the crooked cannot be made straight. However, you can come close. On the other hand, there is no doubt that you cannot count something that is not there. Then Qoheleth gets quite personal. He explains that he has great wisdom and knowledge, greater than anyone whoever was in Jerusalem before him. He knows the difference between wisdom, madness, and folly. In a kind of reversal of the Proverbs, he seems to imply that that with all this wisdom, he is still like chasing after the wind. More problems and vexation come with wisdom. There is an increase in sorrow that comes with more knowledge. Wisdom is not the be all and end all like in Proverbs.

The wine drinker (Prov 23:29-23:35)

“Who has woe?

Who has sorrow?

Who has strife?

Who has complaining?

Who has wounds without cause?

Who has redness of eyes?

The answer is

Those who linger late over wine,

Those who keep trying mixed wine.

Do not look at wine when it is red.

Do not look at it when it sparkles in the cup.

Do not look at it when it goes down smoothly.

At the last it bites like a serpent.

It stings like an adder.

Your eyes will see strange things.

Your mind will utter perverse things.

You will be like

One who lies down in the midst of the sea.

You will be like

One who lies on the top of a mast.

You will say.

‘They struck me.

But I was not hurt.

They beat me.

But I did not feel it.

When shall I awake?

I will seek another drink.’”

This is a stinging rebuke against drunkenness. What are some of the characteristics of a drunkard or an alcoholic? They are full of woe and sorrow. They are always in arguments complaining. They have wounds on their body that they do not know where they came from. Of course, they have redness in their eyes. There is a lure to excessive wine drinking. They stay up late drinking and talking. This red wine sparkles in the cup and goes down so smoothly. However, this wine has a bite like a snake or viper adder. That is when you hallucinate. You see strange things and image even stranger things. You think that you are in the middle of the sea or at the top of a ship’s mast. You complain that you got hit, but it didn’t hurt.   People beat you, but you do not feel it. All you think about when you wake up is when I will get my next drink. These are the true symptoms of an alcoholic. You need to get help.

Blessings of Yahweh (Prov 10:22-10:29)

“The blessing of Yahweh makes us rich.

Bur he adds no sorrow with it.

Doing wrong is like sport to a fool.

But wise conduct is pleasure to a man of understanding.

What the wicked dread will come upon them.

But the desire of the righteous will be granted them.

When the tempest passes,

The wicked are no more.

But the righteous are established forever.

Like vinegar to the teeth,

Like smoke to the eyes,

So are the lazy to their employers.

The fear of Yahweh prolongs life.

But the years of the wicked will be short.

The hope of the righteous one ends in gladness.

But the expectation of the wicked ones comes to nothing.

The way of Yahweh is a stronghold for the upright.

But the way of Yahweh is destruction for the evildoers.”

Yahweh has an important impact on our lives. The blessings of Yahweh make us rich with no sorrow. Fools do wrong things as if it was some kind of sport. On the other hand, the understanding people take pleasure in wise conduct. Whatever the wicked fear, it will happen to them. However, the righteous will be granted their wishes. After a storm, the wicked will no longer exist, but the righteous are established forever. Lazy people are like vinegar to your teeth or smoke to your eyes. The fear of Yahweh will prolong your life so that the wicked will have a short life. Righteous hope ends in gladness, while wicked expectations come to nothing. Yahweh’s way is a stronghold for the upright, but destruction for the evildoers.

Yahweh helped the weak (Ps 107:39-107:43)

“When they are diminished,

When they are brought low,

Through oppression, trouble, and sorrow,

He pours contempt upon the princes.

He makes them wander in trackless wastes.

However he raises up the needy out of distress.

He makes their families like flocks.

The upright see it.

They are glad.

All the wickedness keeps its mouth shut.

Let those who are wise,

Give heed to these things.

Let them

Consider the steadfast love of Yahweh.”

This psalm ends with something that looks like it was added on. All of a sudden there are princes that are brought low and diminished with oppression, trouble, and sorrow. Yahweh had contempt for the princes wandering in some waste land. On the other hand, he raised up the needy or the poor out of their distress. He made them fruitful like flocks of birds. The upright, those with a right heart, were glad because wickedness never came out of their mouth. The wise person paid attention to these things. They always remembered the steadfast love of Yahweh.

David wants Yahweh to hears his lament (Ps 13:1-13:2)

“To the choirmaster leader, a psalm of David.

How long,

Yahweh?

Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I bear pain in my soul?

How long must I have sorrow in my heart all day long?

How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?”

This is another short Psalm 13 with no other mention than a choir leader and David. David has a personal lament. He wanted to know how long Yahweh would forget him. How long would Yahweh hide his face from him? How long would he have sorrow in his heart and soul all day long? How long would his enemies exalt over him? Clearly David was concerned that he was being neglected by Yahweh.

The official institution of Purim (Esth 9:20-9:23)

“Mordecai recorded these things. He sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Artaxerxes, both near and far. He enjoined them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month of Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year. These are the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies. This is the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness, and from mourning into a holiday. They should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another, and presents to the poor. Thus the Jews adopted as a custom what they had begun to do, as Mordecai had written to them.”

Mordecai put in a decree for the Jews of the Persian kingdom, a custom that they had already started. This became known as Purim. Each year they should remember what happened to them on the 14th and 15th of Adar. They should exchange food gifts and give to the poor. They were to remember that on this day that they turned from sorrow to gladness and from mourning to feasting. In modern day Judaism, this has become a big holiday eating and drinking for Conservative and Orthodox Jews, much like a Halloween feast. Children dress up and exchange treats. They read the Book of Esther, while booing Haman and cheering Mordecai.

Edna comforts her daughter Sarah (Tob 7:15-7:16)

“Then they began to eat and drink. Raguel called his wife Edna. He said to her.

‘Sister, get the other room ready!

Take her there!’

So she went and made the bed in the room, as he had told her. She wept for her daughter. Then wiping away the tears, she said to her.

‘Take courage, my daughter!

The Lord of heaven grant you joy in place of your sorrow.

Take courage, my daughter!’

Then she went out”

With the legal marriage all determined, they finally sat down to eat and drink. Then Raguel asked his wife Edna to prepare the marriage room. She then went and made the bed, but she was crying. She tried to wipe away the tears for her daughter Sarah. She told her to take courage. The Lord of heaven would protect her. Hopefully, she would have joy instead of sorrow, after 7 failed attempts to marry. Then the mother left.

The celebration at the laying of the foundation (Ezra 3:10-3:13)

“When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of Yahweh, the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise Yahweh with trumpets. The Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals followed according to the directions of King David of Israel. They sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to Yahweh.

‘For he is good,

For his steadfast love endures

For ever toward Israel.’

All the people responded with a great shout. They praised Yahweh because the foundation of the house of Yahweh was laid. But many of the priests, the Levites, and heads of families, the old people who had seen the first house on its foundation, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, although many shouted aloud for joy. The people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping. The people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.”

When the foundation was completed, there was a big celebration. The Levites followed the prescriptions laid down by King David. The priests sounded the trumpets. People cried with joy and remorse. The older people still remembered old Temple. There was a mixture of joy and sadness at the same time. However, it was such a loud noise that no one could tell if it was joyful or lamenting. This was reminiscent of the time of King David when he brought the covenant into Jerusalem. In fact, he is explicitly mentioned as the ideal to which they were seeking. Of course there is the lovely refrain about the enduring steadfast love of God for Israel.