Saturday, August 27, 2011

Sheer Koheleth, the Song of Ecclesiastes

I got into a conversation last night that drifted into a discussion of the book of Ecclesiastes.  The hour was late and we weren't able to finish our talk.

When I was in seminary, and had finished my mandatory Hebrew classes, I decided to take an Old Testament course that would focus on using Hebrew to study a book of the Old Testament.  I was a little dismayed when I realized by only choice at that time was a study of Ecclesiastes, which at the time I considered a really depressing book.  I am always a little startled when people tell me how much they like the book of Ecclesiastes, and I am also a little suspicious that most of what they have actually read in the book is the part that made it into the folksong:  "For everything...there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven."

But I have also learned over time that if I am willing to take the time to deeply study almost any part of the Bible, it will become meaningful to me.  As I studied Ecclesiastes, I came to feel that it forms a kind of counterpart to the book of Job.  In Job, the problem is the suffering of innocent people, and the ultimate answer is when Job experiences God, and is satisfied by that.  In Ecclesiastes, the problem is the search for answers of the intellectual, and just as Job does not give a simple answer, the author of Ecclesiastes also does not find easy answers to his questions. He complains, among other things, that God has set eternity into the hearts of men, yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end (Ecclesiastes 3:11),and he calls this a burden (3:10).  Ultimately, he concludes with

Now all has been heard;
     here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
     for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
     including every hidden thing,
     whether it is good or evil (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)

As I studied Ecclesiastes , I found that in addition to summarizing my work in a mandatory academic paper, I wanted to try my hand at expressing its essence in this song, which I called Sheer Koheleth.  Koheleth is the name of Ecclesiastes in Hebrew.  It means "The Gatherer" or "The Assemblyman" or "The Preacher" or "Teacher" or "Scribe".  In other words, we're not entirely sure exactly what it means.  It's what the author of Ecclesiastes called himself.  Traditionally, that person has been understood to be Solomon.  Sheer is, of course, an English word that means pretty much "just", but Sheer or Shir is the Hebrew word for Song.

One of the most famous phrases of Ecclesiastes "vanity of vanities" in the King James Bible, or "Meaningless! Everything is meaningless" in the NIV, is a metaphor that in its literal meaning is about the steam that rises off a pot.  I toyed at one point with translating it as "It's all a lot of hot air," but I wound up with the chorus of this song.  This then, is Sheer Koheleth or the Song of Ecclesiastes, and it is my attempt to loosely translate what I understand to be the central message of this book.  Most of the lines are colloquial translations of something in the book.

Sheer Koheleth

What does life mean? It has to mean something.
I set my heart to discover life's "why"
This was my task to look for the meaning
I tried, and I tried. but my answer was this:

I have focused on fog
I've mastered the mist
All my achievements are smoke in my fist
They slip through my fingers
I've been chasing the wind
And it adds up to nothing,
Again and again.

I tried doing good. I tried owning treasure.
No matter how much, it was never enough.
I drank to the dregs life's passions and pleasure,
But wisdom and folly ended like this:

As I look around I see pain and oppression
Sometimes life's fair, but often it's not
More things are bent than one man can straighten
All my best plans were diminished to this.

As you go through life you might as well cherish
Each day that comes, every season God gives.
Knowing in time that all things will perish.
Still joy is God's gift, though it comes back to this:

So this was my task, to look for the meanings,
God planted eternity deep in my soul.
Though under the sun all is empty and aimless
I'm left with awe and the fear of the Lord.

And God isn't fog
God isn't the mist
The one thing that's certain
The one thing that's fixed
Before the beginning
And after the end
My answers lie hidden
In the palm of His hand.

Listen to the song

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