« PreviousContinue »
The book is brought to a close by what resembles the curious final title pages called in English literature 'colophons':
I have written in this book
With the Book of Ecclesiastes we reach a further stage in the evolution we are describing. The book contains miscellaneous sayings, and original essays. But the new feature is a Prologue and Epilogue, which have the effect of binding together all the book contains into a literary unity. The man who is responsible for this book always refers to himself as “The Preacher.” Apart from this the book is anonymous. We must here note a curious mistake in the traditional interpretation of the Book of Ecclesiastes which has done much to hide its real significance. In one of the essays contained in this book these words occur:
“I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem”.
the reference being obviously to king Solomon. These words were understood to mean that Solomon was the author of Ecclesiastes; accordingly the unwholesome personality of the historical Solomon has come like a veil between the reader and the spirit of the book. But, carefully studied, the words do not bear the interpretation put upon them. The Essay in which these words occur (below, page 429) is a narration of an experiment made to test different types of life:-an imaginary experiment, put into the mouth of the historical personage most fitted to make it. The “Preacher,” or author of the book, identifies himself for the moment with the one man who could command all the resources of life; in this way the supposed experiment is narrated in the first person. When the experiment is finished, this narration in the first person
is dropped; there is no further connection with Solomon. Thus Solomon is not the author of the book, but the hero of one essay contained in it. Yet, though the name of "the Preacher” is unknown, similarity of thought and expression pervades the whole book, including even the miscellaneous sayings. And the epilogue contains words that aptly describe a book of wisdom in this its complete form (page 435):
The Preacher . . . pondered, and sought out, and set in
order many proverbs. “ Pondered" suggests original composition; " sought out" covers the collection of traditional sayings; while the words "set in order," just fit what is the new feature of this book—the binding the whole together by prologue and epilogue into a unity of thought.
In the fourth of the books, collection of miscellaneous sayings has entirely disappeared. From beginning to end we have the thinking of a single mind. Yet the writer is anonymous. The title of the book follows the usual tradition of ascribing to the great Patron of Wisdom all that developing philosophy produces. The book is a succession of discourses on texts; and these are made imaginary discourses of Solomon addressing other kings. Thus the development of literary form in wisdom literature is complete: at the beginning there was no author other than a collector; in the final book collection of the miscellaneous has given place to original authorship in the modern sense.
The representation of these four books of Wisdom in the present work is as follows. First, under the name of Wisdom Brevities,' is given a selection of short sayings taken from the separate books, intended as a specimen of the floating literature out of which particular books of wisdom have developed. Then, each of the four books is represented by Selections giving the essential parts of the book, and enabling the reader to form a clear idea of its distinctive character. But it may be well, before studying the separate books, that the reader should have some idea of wisdom as a whole; of its general character, and of the progression of philosophic thought which these books of Scriptural wisdom involve. In this connection it is helpful to take a distinction sometimes
made between what is called the 'lower' and the ‘higher' wisdom. 'Lower' is used in the sense of fragmentary. Not only the short proverbs and epigrams, but also the larger essays and sonnets, are occupied with single aspects of human life; with such topics as Fear, Meekness, Self-will, Government of the tongue, Duty to parents or children, Prosperity and adversity, Pride and true greatness. In contrast with all this, the higher wisdom' is an attempt to take in Life and the Universe as a Whole. Thus, in this usage, the higher Wisdom is regularly spelled with a capital letter—the more so because this Higher Wisdom is often personified, and made to speak for herself. Here however a misunderstanding is to be avoided. The scientific analysis of external nature for its own sake, which makes so large a part of modern philosophy, has no counterpart in Scriptural wisdom. This is a contemplation of conduct and human life; the external universe appears only from the human point of view, appears as that in which human life is framed.
When this distinction of higher and lower is assumed, we can say that the first two of the Books of Wisdom are in the main presentations of the lower wisdom. But the other type appears, and in a most exalted form. These two books contain Hymns of Adoration to Wisdom as the unity and harmony of all things. There is shrewd analysis of life in its single aspects. But for life and the universe as a whole there is no analysis; there is only adoration, and the wording is often such as makes it difficult to distinguish this adoration of Wisdom from adoration of God. These Hymns to Wisdom in the Books of Proverbs and Ecclesiasticus have contributed to human thought one of its most noble and inspiring ideas. This idea is the harmony of the world within and the world without, which has lyric celebration in the nineteenth psalm. One of the finest presentations of this idea is in a poem cited from the Book of Proverbs (below, pp. 409-10), in which Wisdom is heard in Praise of Herself. It is personified Wisdom who is speaking; after she has identified herself with counsel, righteousness, and other moral excellencies, the poem continues:
The Lord formed me in the beginning of his way,
Before his works of old.
I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning,
Or ever the earth was.
Before the mountains were settled,
Before the hills, was I brought forth:
When he established the heavens, I was there:
When he set a circle upon the face of the deep:
When he marked out the foundations of the earth,
Then I was by him,
In these lofty strains is brought out how the harmony of the moral world has extended itself to coalesce with the harmony which holds together the physical universe, both cohering in this exalted Wisdom. God created the universe, but Wisdom was (so to speak) his architectural plan. Very notable is the use in the above lines of the word sporting: not only does a single harmony pervade the inner and the outer world, but the recognition of this harmony is a spiritual delight. The representation of Wisdom "sporting before God, sporting in his habitable world” is a strong lyric celebration of what appears in simple words in Genesis, where the account of the Creation concludes with the saying that God saw all he had made “and lo it was very good.”
When we come to the third of the wisdom books the atmosphere seems entirely to have changed. Instead of adoration we have despondency; the higher Wisdom-even the word itself-has disappeared, and another word takes its place, the word Vanity. Analysis has been turned upon the consideration of the totality of things; the analysis has failed, and the reiteration of this word 'vanity' emphasizes the inability to see any consistent meaning in life. On the other hand, when we turn to the fourth of the wisdom books, once more the situation is reversed: Vanity has disappeared, and Wisdom is recognized more clearly than ever. It is the great problem in the study of Scriptural wisdom to understand the negative tone of Ecclesiastes, which is so contrary to all that appears elsewhere.
Sometimes this negative tone is described by the word ‘scepticism.' If the thought of Ecclesiastes is to be called scepticism, it must be noted that it is a scepticism which is singularly devout. It has the effect, not of separating the thinker from God, but of driving him closer to God. The prologue of the book is summed up by the title, “All is Vanity”; the epilogue is, “All is Vanity; fear God." The meaning of the universe is God's secret; therefore fear God. When, however, we read Ecclesiastes—as it always ought to be read-side by side with the fourth of the wisdom books, we can define more closely what is implied in the negative tone of the Preacher. The thought of the vanity of life appears bound up with another thought-our ignorance of anything beyond the grave.
Who knoweth the spirit of man whether it goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast whether it goeth downward to the earth? (Page 433-)
This blank in the thought of what is beyond death pervades the book, and determines the writer's thought. On the contrary, when we turn to the Wisdom of Solomon, the great discourse (cited below, page 436) opens with the thought that death is no part of God's universe. “God made not death . . . righteousness is immortal.” In a most striking monologue, put into the mouth of the wicked, this inability to see anything beyond death is bound