The existentialism behind the wisdom of King Solomon

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This is an article I first wrote 3 years ago.  Which I’ve revised and appended 25 select verses, from the Book of Ecclesiastes, at the end. 

Verses that demonstrate not only the down to earth sensibilities of this wisest of kings, but the reason so many of the cultural memes expressed, are still with us today. 

You are sure to recognize many, yourself.

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It has been argued among biblical scholars, that of the three books of the Old Testament attributed to King Solomon – those being Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Songs of Solomon – that Ecclesiastes was written in so different a style from the other two, as to likely have been written by someone else.

Actually, when it comes right down to it, all three of these works differ radically in their context and voice, and likely represent three separate epochs of this mans long life.

Songs of Solomon, despite being last in the order of inclusion, when the Christian version of the Old Testament was Canonized, are impassioned verses,  that openly celebrate the virile potency and carnal desires of youth.

How fair and how pleasant art thou, O love, for delights!

Proverbs, on the other hand, is a rich collection of learned saws, by someone at the apex of their power and authority. Someone very confident in their own world view, and how best to administer one’s affairs.

 He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind

It is only in Ecclesiastes that we first encounter the existential angst of this man, as he wrestles with the question of finding meaning in life, in the face of his own mortality.


Here
– where he cries out “Vanity of vanities . . ; all is vanity. . . there is no new thing under the sun” – and then goes on to detail some of his own existential observations, as well as his reasoning, for arriving at those few conclusions one can honestly come to, in acquiring a knowledge and understanding of our own existence in this life, and the world:

I gave my heart to seek and search out . . .all things that are done under heaven . . . And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly . . . I sought in mine heart to give myself unto wine, yet acquainting mine heart with wisdom; and to lay hold on folly, till I might see what (it) was . . .Then I saw that wisdom excelleth folly, as far as light excelleth darkness.

Conversational throughout, the mood gradually shifts to a more relaxed delivery of his increasingly philosophical observations – many that still shine as hallmarks of any self-help, or motivational book of today.

 Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.

If the clouds be full of rain, they empty themselves upon the earth: and if the tree fall toward the south, or toward the north, in the place where the tree falleth, there it shall be.

He that observeth the wind shall not sow; and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap.

In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thine hand: for thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good.

Clearly a philosophical treatise on the condition of man – and the reason this book of the Old Testament barely made the cut at all – his relationship with God, throughout, is one of ancient world superstitious propriety, in religious observances, while recognizing it’s up to us to find or create our own meaning in life.

Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God. . . Suffer not thy mouth to cause thy flesh to sin . . .

Give a portion to seven, and also to eight; for thou knowest not what evil shall be upon the earth.

And in twelve short chapters, he weaves throughout, that most famous of admonitions:

Behold that which I have seen: it is good and comely for one to eat and to drink, and to enjoy the good of all his labour that he taketh under the sun all the days of his life . . .

Possibly no other book in the bible is so misunderstood by religious scholars, and at the same time so unrecognized by students of existential philosophy.

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From the Book of Ecclesiastes, King James Bible “Authorized Version”, Cambridge Edition. (Emphasis added.)

1:18 in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.
( A sentiment we hear echoed in Dostoyevsky’s 19th century novel, Notes From Underground.)

3:18 I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that God might manifest them, and that they might see that they themselves are beasts.
3:19 For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.
3:20 All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.
(Battling cultural memes, concerning mankind’s deluded sense of his own self-importance.)

4:13  Better is a poor and a wise child than an old and foolish king, who will no more be admonished.

5:9    Moreover the profit of the earth is for all:  the king himself is served by the field.

5:12 The sleep of a labouring man is sweet, whether he eat little or much: but the abundance of the rich will not suffer him to sleep.

5:15 As he came forth of his mother’s womb, naked shall he return to go as he came, and shall take nothing of his labour, which he may carry away in his hand.

7:7  Surely oppression maketh a wise man mad; and a gift destroyeth the heart.

7:21 Also take no heed unto all words that are spoken; lest thou hear thy servant curse thee:
7:22 For oftentimes also thine own heart knoweth that thou thyself likewise hast cursed others.

7:29 Lo, this only have I found, that God hath made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions. (About everything from reading tea leaves and astrology, to Tantra-sex.)

8:11 Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.  (Apparently, even Kings can bemoan the slow grind, of the wheels of justice.)

9:4  For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion.

9:9  Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun.

9:10 Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.

9:11 I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

10:1 Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour: so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour.  (I’m immediately reminded of former US Senator, and Democratic Presidential hopeful, John Edwards’ sex scandal.  Carried out even as his wife, Elizabeth – working her heart out on the campaign trail – was dying of cancer.)

10:8 He that diggeth a pit shall fall into it; and whoso breaketh an hedge, a serpent shall bite him.

10:19 A feast is made for laughter, and wine maketh merry: but money answereth all things.

10:20 Curse not the king, no not in thy thought; and curse not the rich in thy bedchamber: for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter.

12:12 And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

In fairness, it should also be pointed out that even King Solomon’s thinking could be colored by the cultural misogyny of his time.  And he was clearly at a loss to understand some women:

7:26 And I find more bitter than death the woman, whose heart is snares and nets, and her hands as bands: whoso pleaseth God shall escape from her; but the sinner shall be taken by her.
7:27 Behold, this have I found, saith the preacher, counting one by one, to find out the account:
7:28 Which yet my soul seeketh, but I find not: one man among a thousand have I found; but a woman among all those have I not found.  (He could’ve probably found at least a few dozen women, voicing the same opinion of men, eh?)

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'10 MAth footer, Bk

 

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