Today is a Sabbath, the Last Great Day, and so I did my weekly quiet time in Ecclesiastes 2.
A question that’s been swimming around in my mind has been, “How have religious interpreters of Ecclesiastes dealt with the book’s notion that there is no afterlife, when they themselves believe in an afterlife?” Last week, I read Ecclesiastes Rabbah 1:4, which states that, while Ecclesiastes is correct to say that there’s no reward “under the sun”, that doesn’t exclude a reward for the righteous above the sun, namely, in heaven.
I observed a similar approach in today’s study, as rabbis distinguished between this world and the World to Come. In Ecclesiastes Rabbah 2:1, we read that Torah study and prosperity in this world are vanity, since people can forget what they learn from the Torah, and (as Qoheleth says in Ecclesiastes 2) their wealth can easily be bequeathed to fools after their death. Solomon is therefore correct when he discusses the futility of wisdom and of prosperity in this world. In the World to Come, however, the rules will be different. Israelites won’t forget the Torah that they learn, for God will write his law on their minds and their hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). People’s hard-earned prosperity won’t fall into the hands of fools, for Isaiah 65:22 predicts that the Israelites won’t build, only for another to inhabit.
At the same time, there are rabbis who deny that Solomon is even talking about the labor of Torah when he discusses the futility of labor. Ecclesiastes Rabbah 1:4, for example, states that Solomon is saying in Ecclesiastes 1:3 that “his labor”—the earthly labor of human beings—does not profit, but that doesn’t apply to labor in Torah, which is profitable.
Today, in my study of Ecclesiastes 2 and its interpreters, I encountered other ideas. In Ecclesiastes 2, Qoheleth says that, while wisdom is better than folly, the fact that both wise people and fools die puts a damper on having wisdom: why be wise if you’ll meet the same end as fools? That appears to be a denial of an afterlife, or at least Qoheleth doesn’t seem to conceive of the possibility that there is a post-mortem reward for the wise. How have religious interpreters dealt with this?
Ecclesiastes Rabbah 2:18 basically disagrees with Qoheleth. Qoheleth says in Ecclesiastes 2:15 that there is no remembrance for the wise and the fools, and Ecclesiastes Rabbah states that Qoheleth was remiss to think that. After all, Israelites appeal to the memory of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel (Exodus 32:13) long after their deaths, but the heathen do not appeal to the memory of Nimrod. Abraham, Isaac, and Israel (the wise) have been remembered, whereas such is not the case for Nimrod, a fool. This passage in Ecclesiastes Rabbah doesn’t pertain to the afterlife, but we do see that it attempts to undercut Qoheleth’s nihilism, affirming instead that being wise is worthwhile.
The Jewish commentator Rashi tries to undercut Qoheleth’s nihilism without disagreeing with the biblical text. In Ecclesiastes 2:15, Qoheleth asks why he became wise, since what happens to the fool (death) will happen to him. Qoheleth then asserts that this is vanity. For Rashi, Qoheleth is saying in v 15 that his nihilistic statement is vanity: Qoheleth flirts with the notion that the same end meets the righteous and the wicked, right before he repudiates it. In his comment on v 16, in which Qoheleth asks how the wise shall die with the fool, Rashi treats Qoheleth’s question as rhetorical, as if behind Qoheleth’s question there lurks a sentiment that “Of course the wise won’t perish like the fools!” V 16 also states that there’s no remembrance forever of the wise and the foolish, but Rashi essentially ignores this, commenting that the passage teaches that the heroism and success of the wicked are forgotten: Rashi limits the statement’s application to the wicked, when Qoheleth is talking about both the wise and the foolish.
The eighteenth century Calvinist commentator John Gill says that Ecclesiastes 2 is talking about wisdom and intelligence about the world, not spiritual wisdom, which profits people eternally. The following passage humbles me, as one who thinks that I’ll achieve a degree of immortality through my writing:
“a wise man may not only be caressed in life, but may be remembered after death for a while; the fame of him may continue for a little time, and his works and writings may be applauded; but by and by rises up another genius brighter than he, or at least is so thought, and outshines him; and then his fame is obscured, his writings are neglected and despised, and he and his works buried in oblivion; and this is the common course of things.”
Essentially, many of the preachers I heard go the route of the rabbis and John Gill, saying that this life is pointless if you’re not right with God, and so you should be right with God so as to find satisfaction in this life, and to live forever in an afterlife.
In my study today, I also observed a tendency among commentators to soften the nihilism of Ecclesiastes 2:18-26. Qoheleth asks why he should work so hard, when his wealth could easily pass on to a fool. Christian preachers and commentators note that Solomon’s wealth indeed did pass on to fools, namely, Rehoboam and Jeroboam! But many see in vv 24-26 Qoheleth’s answer to his dilemma. Both evangelist Jimmy Swaggart and Harvard professor Peter Machinist make the same sort of point: that Qoheleth advocates enjoying one’s work and the fruits thereof with gratitude to God, without worrying about what will happen to one’s wealth after death; the wicked, however, are vexed, for they are obsessed with accumulating wealth that will fall into the hands of the righteous, under the direction of God. But doesn’t Qoheleth say that it’s vanity and vexation of spirit for the wealth of the wicked to pass on to the righteous? Here at least, Qoheleth doesn’t appear to be all that positive when it comes to reward-and-punishment scenarios, either because he doesn’t believe in them, or he sees them as pointless even if they are true. And they’re not entirely true, for wealth can easily fall into the hands of fools, not only the righteous.
Another thought: Qoheleth may be relevant to people who are materialistic, who work a lot for luxuries that they do not need. Qoheleth does well to ask, “What is the point of that?” It’s better to enjoy one’s work and life itself, without looking to material things or lusts of the flesh as if they will satisfy the cravings of the human heart. But what about people who toil long hours for their very survival? How can they enjoy work and life? Qoheleth is aware of this kind of problem, for he talks about oppression later in his book. But how would his advice of “Enjoy work and life” speak to their situation?