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Ecclesiastes, Fleeting and timeless

Biblical Philosophy

It is this bitter discovery of mortality that propels Kohelet on his quest for meaning. We are reminded of Franz Rosenzweig’s words that “All cognition of the All originates in death, in the fear of death.”36 Or of the story of the young Siddhartha, the first Buddha, who lived in India just a few centuries after Solomon. His privileged upbringing, comparable to Solomon’s own, shielded him from the reality of the outside world; Siddhartha embarked on his spectacular spiritual journey “to find the real meaning of life and death”37 only after his first confrontation with age, illness, and mortality. Kohelet’s quest, as well, is triggered by the traumatic realization of human transience—that the greatest efforts of the wisest king cannot stop the flow of time, nor can they eliminate suffering and injustice from the world.


Dejection soon gives way to acceptance, however, as the book enters its second stage, starting at 6:4 and running through chapter 7, in which Kohelet begins to view the ephemeral nature of reality more philosophically.38 Combined phrases such as “transient and grievous”39 are completely abandoned in this section, less than halfway through the book. The neutrality of the six appearances of hevel in this stage is typified by the example of temporary flattery: “The cheers of the ignorant,” we read, are “like the crackling thorns under a pot; all so temporary, too.”40 Kohelet loses no sleep over the fickle nature of fools’ praise and fleeting popularity. Having resigned himself to transience, he has come to recognize that it may not be inherently bad after all. This is expressed most vividly in the verses describing the stillborn child

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