Well, this is awkward. 🙈 I spent hours and hours explaining how Qohelet thinks proverbs and poetry are a scam that needs to be exposed. He either quotes poems to contradict them or else he composes poems that mock the whole concept. But Qohelet composes an earnest poem. It’s the very last thing in his speech; it’s how he ends it, like a climax. A poetic climax by Qohelet?? 🤨 This calls for some sleuthing. 🕵️
Actually, it seems like there are ✌️ poems, or like Qohelet starts out with one thought and style and shifts to another thought and style. So I separated the speech into two parts.
By the way, it is standard for translators of biblical poetry (and of prose narrative too) to ignore the conjunction “and” wherever they can. They treat it like a bug of Hebrew, when most of the time it’s a feature, a genuine, expressive feature, and this sleuth considers it bad form to wave it off it like a lazy sleuth’s sloppy case-file. Anyway, a sleuth’s job is never to pretty things up; it’s to make the facts of the case clear. That’s where the real work is done. Clean up a few details and soon enough you’ll be overlooking the lot of them and bungle your cases altogether. You might as well pack it up and write your own material; be a case, not a sleuth. 🙄
Whoops, there I go running my mouth again.🗣 I’ll zip it 🤐 and give you Qohelet’s speech.
Enjoy, O youth, your childhood,
And let your heart gladden you in the days of your youth,
And go in the ways of your heart and by the sights of your eyes,
And know that for all these the divine will hold you to account,
And remove trouble from your heart,
And skim discomfort from your body,
For childhood and adolescence are absurd.
And be mindful of your creator in the days of your youth,
While the days of misery have not yet come, and years (not yet) arrive when you say, “I have no interest in them;”
While the sun and the light and the moon and the stars have not yet gone dark, and the clouds (not yet) return again after rain,
on a day when palace guards quake and men of measure crumple and grinders cease for they have whittled down and figures in the windows grow dark and doors in the market are shut, the sound of grinding is at a low and the sound of the birds grows loud and all the singers are brought low, yea, way up high they fear and (it is) tremors on the road and the almond tree becomes gross and the grasshopper drags itself along and desire is broken, because a person is going to their ‘eternal house’ and the mourners ambled about in the market;
While the silver thread has not yet been snapped and the golden bowl shattered and a jug been smashed by the spring and the wheel been shattered by the ditch and the dust on the earth returned as it was and the wind/breath returned to the divine who gave it.
שְׂמַח בָּחוּר בְּיַלְדוּתֶיךָ
וִיטִיבְךָ לִבְּךָ בִּימֵי בְחוּרוֹתֶךָ
וְהַלֵּךְ בְּדַרְכֵי לִבְּךָ וּבְמַרְאֵי עֵינֶיךָ
וְדָע כִּי עַל־כָּל־אֵלֶּה יְבִיאֲךָ הָאֱלֹהִים בַּמִּשְׁפָּט
וְהָסֵר כַּעַס מִלִּבֶּךָ
וְהַעֲבֵר רָעָה מִבְּשָׂרֶךָ
כִּי־הַיַּלְדוּת וְהַשַּׁחֲרוּת הָבֶל
וּזְכֹר אֶת־בּוֹרְאֶיךָ בִּימֵי בְּחוּרֹתֶיךָ
עַד אֲשֶׁר לֹא־יָבֹאוּ יְמֵי הָרָעָה וְהִגִּיעוּ שָׁנִים אֲשֶׁר תֹּאמַר אֵין־לִי בָהֶם חֵפֶץ
עַד אֲשֶׁר לֹא־תֶחְשַׁךְ הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ וְהָאוֹר וְהַיָּרֵחַ וְהַכּוֹכָבִים וְשָׁבוּ הֶעָבִים אַחַר הַגָּשֶׁם
בַּיּוֹם שֶׁיָּזֻעוּ שֹׁמְרֵי הַבַּיִת וְהִתְעַוְּתוּ אַנְשֵׁי הֶחָיִל וּבָטְלוּ הַטֹּחֲנוֹת כִּי מִעֵטוּ וְחָשְׁכוּ הָרֹאוֹת בָּאֲרֻבּוֹת וְסֻגְּרוּ דְלָתַיִם בַּשּׁוּק בִּשְׁפַל קוֹל הַטַּחֲנָה וְיָקוּם לְקוֹל הַצִּפּוֹר וְיִשַּׁחוּ כָּל־בְּנוֹת הַשִּׁיר, גַּם מִגָּבֹהַּ יִרָאוּ וְחַתְחַתִּים בַּדֶּרֶךְ וְיָנֵאץ הַשָּׁקֵד וְיִסְתַּבֵּל הֶחָגָב וְתָפֵר הָאֲבִיּוֹנָה כִּי־הֹלֵךְ הָאָדָם אֶל־בֵּית עוֹלָמוֹ וְסָבְבוּ בַשּׁוּק הַסֹּפְדִים
עַד אֲשֶׁר לֹא־ירחק [יֵרָתֵק] חֶבֶל הַכֶּסֶף וְתָרֻץ גֻּלַּת הַזָּהָב וְתִשָּׁבֶר כַּד עַל־הַמַּבּוּעַ וְנָרֹץ הַגַּלְגַּל אֶל־הַבּוֹר וְיָשֹׁב הֶעָפָר עַל־הָאָרֶץ כְּשֶׁהָיָה וְהָרוּחַ תָּשׁוּב אֶל־הָאֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר נְתָנָהּ
Eagle-eyed as you are, you’ll have noticed about the first part that it has rhythm and repetition. That’s because it’s a series of sentences formulated very similarly:
- they open with imperative forms (“enjoy,” “let gladden,” “go,” “remove,” “skim”)
- they close with the 2nd person pronoun (“your”)
- they focus on the physical self (heart, eyes, body)
- they put everything into the simple opposition of “good” and “bad”
- they express sentiments directly, with no metaphors or striking images.
This pattern (in Hebrew it also rhymes) helps evoke precisely what childhood is like, simple and focused on the physical self, and it makes for pretty simplistic poetry.
Now you also noticed that along the way, Qohelet says a few things that cut sharply the other way: “know that the divine will hold you to account” and “childhood and adolescence are absurd.” It’s as if while he is expressing that advice about childhood, he is simultaneously muttering under his breath his own disbelief in what he is saying. 🙄
In the next part of the speech, the thought and the style are both inverted. What was said in an undertone now becomes the dominant thought, and it is expressed completely differently. It starts out similarly, with an imperative verb (“Be mindful”), a second person pronoun (“your”), and a reference to youth (again, in Hebrew it rhymes), but —
☝️ the whole thing is only one long sentence
✌️ with only one imperative verb (“Be mindful”)
🤟 with a series of three subordinate clauses, which are marked by
- ungainly prepositions and verbal expressions (“while X have not yet Y” = עד אשר לא)
- explanatory particles (“because” = כי)
- uneven line-lengths
- no rhyme
- and a very long extension of one of them (“on the day etc.” = ביום וכו׳)
👊 with long strings of images that represent Qohelet’s main topic in so many ways but never actually name it — death.
Now I’ve seen some strange things in my time 👽, but this kind of mid-speech, double-voiced shape-shifting is a new one. This is the part where we have to do a sleuth’s math. Look, I don’t care if you are old-school 🧮 or cutting-edge 💻. Do it how you like. But a sleuth gets to a point where, high-school drop-out or not, one way or another, they have to crunch the numbers and get the facts to add up.
Like all sleuths pursuing the underbelly of life, its illusion of principles and control, Qohelet was prompted and driven by death. His predecessor Gilgamesh faced death and was haunted that he could not control it. Qohelet faced death and became haunted that he cannot control anything in life either (2:11–26). Plus, he said, no one knows what happens in death or after it (3:18–22; 6:10–12). All there is is fear of the divine; anyone who has something to enjoy ought to go enjoy it (3:11–15; 5:17–19). And proverbs and proverbial poems, which package the way life is, are illusory.
So now we can add this up. We have a profile to go on, and we can get into the mind of this character. Qohelet faced a conundrum. He needs to end the long speech. A speech needs closure, a point, a punchline, a message. But the speech he just gave denied that life has any principles, takeaways, or practical applications; there is no message to transmit. What could Qohelet possibly say now in closing? The result is confusion, a jumbled series of attempts to say something.
☝️ Qohelet tries to distill a practical message for the young person he is speaking to (addressed throughout the speech), the idea he mentioned earlier that one should enjoy life while they can, and because it’s a message he tries to give it a proverbial form. ✌️ But the form comes out simplistic and Qohelet doesn’t believe the message. As he says it, other thoughts intrude and vie for control, first, that there must be a divine accounting, then, that it is absurd to think there is any message for youth at all. 🤟 Eventually, the idea of death takes over. Qohelet continues the proverbial instructional form, but now it is to warn the youth to be mindful of the creator (“Be mindful… your… your”). 👊 Qohelet does not actually say what to be mindful about. To think of the creator is to think of being created, mortality, and death. But Qohelet does not say that out loud. Instead, he starts characterizing what days of youth are like, more specifically, what they are not, or what they are not yet — which brings him back around to death anyway. Since death is unknowable and it has no practical meaning, he simply paints its impact in a series of images, mainly of the people left behind, sapped of vitality and coming to a halt.
So, Qohelet’s initial attempt at a message took the form of an empty poem. His attempt at painting images has the form of prose, with the lopsided subordinate clauses and prose particles, but the content is poetic, with its sense of patterning, rhythm, and serial imagery — a prose poem. It is fitting that a speech prompted and driven by death that explodes proverbial poetry about life ends with a prose poem illustrating death.
Case closed. 🗂
Now I need to go off-topic here for a bit, away from poetry. ⚠️ This is because I know some of you out there think this way of solving the case of Qohelet and its poetry helps show that what comes next in the text (12:9–14) was added to the book to make Qohelet’s whole speech more acceptable. Let me just say, I don’t know how that little speech at the end makes the rest acceptable. It simply denies that what Qohelet just said was meaningful or even a reliable portrayal of him. That’s a bizarre way to fix a book if I ever saw one. If that’s the aim, better to just burn the whole scroll, 🔥 and write a new one with the final bit (or add it at the end of Proverbs, where it fits right in). The key to that little pious speech at the end of Qohelet is that it belongs to another character in the book. Now who that character is, why they are saying that, and what they have to do with the character Qohelet, would take us into a whole new case. What, you didn’t know Qohelet has three characters in it? 🤦 OK, let me just say this then. Qohelet is not the story of Qohelet. It’s the story of a man who tries teaching his son about life, and to do so he quotes Qohelet and instantly regrets it. But that’s all I’m going to say about it now. 🤐
This little addendum is for those of you who want to get into the gritty details about the English and the Hebrew.
הַ־ as a rule does not always mean “the”; it also means “a/an, a certain, some.” Throughout this text, it can be very difficult to decide which is meant. For instance (12:1), יְמֵי הָרָעָה “days of misery” or “the days of misery”? The parallel expression that follows just has שָׁנִים אֲשֶׁר “years when.” Or take the items in this series (12:6): עַד אֲשֶׁר לֹא־יֵרָתֵק חֶבֶל הַכֶּסֶף וְתָרֻץ גֻּלַּת הַזָּהָב וְתִשָּׁבֶר כַּד עַל־הַמַּבּוּעַ וְנָרֹץ הַגַּלְגַּל אֶל־הַבּוֹר. If הַ־ means “the” in these, which silver thread, gold bowl, wheel, and ditch are meant? It’d be odd that the jar is indefinite while the spring is definite. Probably, these should all be indefinite. It’s a time when such things happen to such things.
12:3–5 Many of the words and images linked to “the day when” (בַּיּוֹם שֶׁ־) are ambiguous:
וּבָטְלוּ הַטֹּחֲנוֹת כִּי מִעֵטוּ — Women grinders ceased because there are too few of them left, or grinding stones have ceased because they are too ground down to be useful?
וְחָשְׁכוּ הָרֹאוֹת בָּאֲרֻבּוֹת — Women looking through windows or things for looking through windows have become dark?
וְיִשַּׁחוּ כָּל־בְּנוֹת הַשִּׁיר — Have women singers, songbirds, or notes of song bowed or become low? Or, parallel to the previous clause, is it that songbirds chatter (restore וְיָשִׂיחוּ), namely, more audibly now that everything else is quieting down?
וְיָנֵאץ הַשָּׁקֵד — Does the almond tree bloom (from נצ״ץ with silent, extra aleph) or become gross (revocalize וְיִנָּאֵץ) or shrink in disgust (revocalize וְיִנְאָץ)?
וְתָפֵר הָאֲבִיּוֹנָה — A type of fruit (caper-berry) causes breakage (instead of arousal), or desire is broken (revocalize וְתֻפַר)?
כִּי־הֹלֵךְ הָאָדָם אֶל־בֵּית עוֹלָמוֹ — Because a particular person is going to their grave or because “man,” namely every person, goes to his grave? Is Qohelet describing a specific day that illustrates what happens to everyone or a type of day that applies to everyone?
12:6 Ketiv: לֹא־ירחק / Qeri: לֹא־יֵרָתֵק — Neither root, distancing or chaining, seems appropriate in the context. It is attractive to restore יִנָּתֵק “snap,” which occurs with all kinds of thread, string, etc., and חֶבֶל specifically too (Isa 33:20). But יִנָּתֵק is closer to the Qeri than the Ketiv, and the Qeri is usually a correction of the Ketiv. I have to wonder if the Ketiv has the right letters in the wrong order: ירקח “disintegrate” (one makes scents, pastes, and lotions by crushing, dissolving, etc.).