Koheleth

Home Up

Authors born between 400 and 200 BCE

Chuang Tzu ] Mencius ] Bhagavad Gita ] Epicurus ] Asoka ] Euclid ] Xunzi ] Han FeiTzu ] [ Koheleth ] Polybius ]

Click Up For A  Summary Of Each Author

    

Contents

     Introduction

Emptiness

Kings

The End of Life

Wisdom and Folly

Everything has its Time

Enjoy Life

To the Young

Source

 

 

Introduction

 Koheleth (Second Century BCE) is the sage whose collection of sayings is contained in the Christian Bible's Book of Ecclesiastes. He appears to have been a member of a group of philosophers or students, of which he was the head. The word Ecclesiastes comes from the Greek term for one who takes part in the deliberations of an assembled group. His views may have been jotted down at various times by students or followers and subsequently assembled in a somewhat random way into the book bearing his name. Later, scribal editors entered various pious declarations, often contradicting Koheleth’s own thought, presumably to make the work more acceptable to the faithful. Possible scribal additions have been removed from the extracts presented here.  
    Koheleth saw a fixed unchangeable order in the world, which man may feel compelled to study but whose meaning evades him. Ultimately, Koheleth seems to feel that human life is unsatisfying, that there is no moral justice in the destiny of men, or necessary sacredness or dignity in human life. He concludes that one should enjoy such pleasures as come one’s way, “The light of day is sweet, and pleasant to the eye is the sight of the sun; if a man lives for many years, he should rejoice in all of them. But let him remember that the days of darkness will be many.” 

 

 

Emptiness

1     Emptiness, emptiness, says Koheleth, emptiness, all is empty. What does a man gain from all his labor and his toil here under the sun? Generations come and generations go, while the earth endures for ever.

       The sun rises and the sun goes down; back it returns to its place and rises there again. The wind blows south, the wind blows north, round and round it goes and returns full circle. All streams run into the sea, Yet the sea never overflows; back to the place from which the streams ran they return to run again.

       All things are wearisome; no man can speak of them all. Is not the eye surfeited with seeing, and the ear sated with hearing? What has happened will happen again, and what has been done will be done again, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, "Look, this is new"? No, it has already existed, long ago before our time. The men of old are not remembered, and those who follow will not be remembered by those who follow them.

  2     So I came to hate life, since everything that was done here under the sun was a trouble to me; for all is emptiness and chasing the wind. So I came to hate all my labor and toil here under the sun, since I should have to leave its fruits to my successor. What sort of a man will he be who succeeds me, who inherits what others have acquired? Who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will be master of all the fruits of my labor and skill here under the sun. This too is emptiness.

  3     Then I turned and gave myself up to despair, reflecting upon all my labor and toil here under the sun. For anyone who toils with wisdom, knowledge, and skill must leave it all to a man who has spent no labor on it. This too is emptiness and utterly wrong. What reward has a man for all his labor, his scheming, and his toil here under the sun? All his life long his business is pain and vexation to him; even at night his mind knows no rest. This too is emptiness. There is nothing better for a man to do than to eat and drink and enjoy himself in return for his labors.

  4     Again, I considered all the acts of oppression here under the sun; I saw the tears of the oppressed, and I saw that there was no one to comfort them. Strength was on the side of their oppressors, and there was no one to avenge them. I counted the dead happy because they were dead, happier than the living who are still in life. More fortunate than either I reckoned the man yet unborn, who had not witnessed the wicked deeds done here under the sun. I considered all toil and all achievement and saw that it comes from rivalry between man and man. This too is emptiness and chasing the wind. The fool folds his arms and wastes away. Better one hand full and peace of mind, than both fists full and toil that is chasing the wind.

  5     Here again, I saw emptiness under the sun: a lonely man without a friend, without son or brother, toiling endlessly yet never satisfied with his wealth—'For whom', he asks, 'am I toiling and denying myself the good things of life?' This too is emptiness, a sorry business. Two are better than one, they receive a good reward for their toil, because, if one falls, the other can help his companion up again; but alas for the man who falls alone with no partner to help him up. And, if two lie side by side, they keep each other warm; but how can one keep warm by himself? If a man is alone, an assailant may overpower him, but two can resist; and a cord of three strands is not quickly snapped.

 

Kings

    6    Woe betide the land when a slave has become its king, and its princes feast in the morning. Happy the land when its king is nobly born, and it princes feast at the right time of day, with self-control, and not as drunkards. If the owner is negligent the rafters collapse, and if he is idle the house crumbles away. The table has its pleasures, and wine makes a cheerful life; and money is behind it all. Do not speak ill of the king in your ease, or of a rich man in your bedroom; for a bird may carry your voice, and a winged messenger may repeat what you say.

    7    Better a young man poor and wise than a king old and foolish who will listen to advice no longer. A man who leaves prison may well come to be king, though born a pauper in his future kingdom. But I have studied all life here under the sun, and I saw his place taken by yet another young man, and no limit set to the number of the subjects whose master he became. And he in turn will be no hero to those who come after him. This too is emptiness and chasing the wind.

    8    If your ruler breaks out in anger against you, do not resign your post; submission makes amends for great mistakes. There is an evil that I have observed here under the sun, an error for which a ruler is responsible: the fool given high office, but the great and the rich in humble posts. I have seen slave on horseback and men of high rank going on foot like slaves.

 

The End of Life

  9    The end of all man's toil is but to fill his belly, yet his appetite is never satisfied. What advantage then in facing life has the wise man over the fool, or the poor man for all his experience? It is better to be satisfied with what is before your eyes than give rein to desire; this too is emptiness and chasing the wind.

  10  The man who loves money can never have enough, and the man who is in love with great wealth enjoys no return from it. This too is emptiness. When riches multiply, so do those who live off them; and what advantage has the owner, except to look at them? Sweet is the sleep of the laborer whether he eats little or much; but the rich man owns too much and cannot sleep. There is a singular evil here under the sun which I have seen: a man hoards wealth to his own hurt, and then that wealth is lost through an unlucky venture, and the owner's son left with nothing. As he came from the womb of mother earth, so must he return, naked as he came, all his toil produces nothing that he can take away with him.

    11  A man may have a hundred children and live a long life; but however many his days may be, if he does not get satisfaction from the good things of life and in the end receives no burial, then I maintain that the still-born child is in better case than he. Its coming is an empty thing, it departs into darkness, and in darkness its name is hidden; it has never seen the sun or known anything, yet its state is better than his. What if a man should live a thousand years twice over, and never prosper? Do not both go to one place?

  12  Whatever has already existed has been given a name, its nature is known, a man cannot contend with what is stronger than he. The more words one uses the greater is the emptiness of it all; and where is the advantage to a man? For who can know what is good for a man in this life, this brief span of empty existence through which he passes like a shadow? Who can tell a man what is to happen next here under the sun?

 

Wisdom and Folly

    13  I set myself to look at wisdom and at madness and folly. Then I perceived that wisdom is more profitable than folly, as light is more profitable than darkness: the wise man has eyes in his head, but the fool walks in the dark. Yet I saw also that one and the same fate overtakes them both. So I said to myself, "I too shall suffer the fate of the fool. To what purpose have I been wise? What is the profit of it? Even this", I said to myself, "is emptiness. The wise man is remembered no longer than the fool, for, as the passing days multiply, all will be forgotten. Alas, wise man and fool die the same death!"

    14  A good name smells sweeter than the finest ointment, and the day of death is better than the day of birth. Better to visit the house of mourning than the house of feasting; for to be mourned is the lot of every man, and the living should take this to heart. Grief is better than laughter: a sad face may go with a cheerful heart. Wise men's thoughts are at home in the house of mourning, but a fool's thoughts in the house of mirth. It is better to listen to a wise man's rebuke than to the praise of fools. For the laughter of a fool is like the crackling of thorns under a pot. This too is emptiness.

  15  A wise man's words win him favor, but a fool's tongue is his undoing He begins by talking nonsense and ends in mischief run mad. The fool talks on and on; but no man knows what is coming, and who can tell him what will come after that? The fool wearies himself to death with all his labor, for he does not know the way to town.

    16  Slander drives a wise man crazy and breaks a strong men's spirit. Better the end of anything than its beginning; better patience than pride. Do not be quick to show resentment; for resentment is nursed by fools. Do not ask why the old days were better than these; for that is a foolish question. Wisdom is better than possessions and an advantage to all who see the sun. Better have wisdom behind you than money; wisdom profits men by giving life to those who know her.

  17  Dead flies make the perfumer's sweet ointment turn rancid and ferment; so can a little folly make wisdom lose its worth. The mind of the wise man faces right, but the mind of the fool faces left. Even when he walks along the road, the fool shows no sense and calls everyone else a fool.

 

Everything has its Time

  18  A wise man knows in his heart the right time and method for action. There is a time and a method for every enterprise, although man is greatly troubled by ignorance of the future; who can tell him what it will bring? It is not in man's power to restrain the wind, and no one has power over the day of death. In war no one can lay aside his arms, no wealth will save its possessor. All this I have seen, having applied my mind to everything done under the sun.

  19  For everything has its season, and for every activity under heaven its time:

a time to be born and a time to die;

a time to plant and a time to uproot;

a time to kill and a time to heal;

a time to pull down and a time to build up;

a time to weep and a time to laugh;

a time for mourning and a time for dancing;

a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them;

a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing;

a time to seek and a time to lose;

a time to keep and a time to throw away;

a time to tear and a time to mend;

a time for silence and a time for speech;

a time to love and a time to hate;

a time for war and a time for peace.

 

Enjoy Life

  20  Enjoy life with a woman you love all the days of your allotted span here under the sun, empty as they are; for that is your lot while you live and labor here under the sun. Whatever task lies to your hand, do it with all your might; because in Sheol, for which you are bound, there is neither doing nor thinking, neither understanding nor wisdom. One more thing I have observed here under the sun: speed does not win the race nor strength the battle. Bread does not belong to the wise, nor wealth to the intelligent, nor success to the skillful; time and chance govern all. Moreover, no man knows when his hour will come; like fish caught in a net, like a bird taken in a snare, so men are trapped when bad times come suddenly.

  21  Good man and sinner fare alike, the man who can take an oath and the man who dares not. This is what is wrong in all that is done here under the sun: that one and the same fate befalls every man. The hearts of men are full of evil; madness fills their hearts all through their lives, and after that they go down to join the dead. But for a man who is counted among the living there is still hope: remember, a live dog is better than a dead lion. True, the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing. There are no more rewards for them; they are utterly forgotten. For them love, hate, ambition, all are now over. Never again will they have any part in what is done here under the sun.

Go to it then, eat your food and enjoy it, and drink your wine with a cheerful heart.

22  There is an empty thing found on earth: when the just man gets what is due to the unjust, and the unjust what is due to the just. I maintain that this too is emptiness. So I commend enjoyment, since there is nothing good for a man to do here under the sun but to eat and drink and enjoy himself; this is all that will remain with him to reward his toil throughout the span of life.

 

To the Young

    23  The light of day is sweet, and pleasant to the eye is the sight of the sun; if a man lives for many years, he should rejoice in all of them. But let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. Everything that is to come will be emptiness. Delight in your boyhood, young man, make the most of the days of your youth; let your heart and your eyes show you the way.

    24  So Koheleth, in his wisdom, continued to teach the people what he knew. He turned over many maxims in his mind and sought how best to set them out. He chose his words to give pleasure, but what he wrote was the honest truth. The sayings of the wise are sharp as goads, like nails driven home; they lead the assembled people, for they come from one shepherd. One further warning, my son: the use of books is endless, and much study is wearisome.

Source

Adapted from The New English Bible Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press, 1970, p 788-797. An electronic text of the King James Version of The Bible is available from Project Gutenberg.

  Selection and adaptation Copyright © Rex Pay 2000