Image: The Goddess Maat, the personification of truth, morality, and justice.
The book of Ecclesiastes is one the books of the Bible which is widely misunderstood and thus widely neglected by many Christians. The book displays a pessimism about life in general which does not agree with the theological perspective of some Christians, primarily when compared with the gospel of prosperity and feel-good-about-ourselves ideology that is proclaimed in many pulpits today.
This is the reason so few Christians understand the message of Ecclesiastes, even though the book has a message that, when correctly understood, can be relevant to many people who are in search of meaning in their lives. The writer of Ecclesiastes was facing some difficult issues in his life and he tried to deal with them honestly.
Nothing is too sacred or too profane for the person who is seeking answers to life’s most eluding question, “What is the meaning of it all?” The book of Ecclesiastes is not the only book dealing with the enigmas of life. The purpose of this post is not to provide a commentary on the book of Ecclesiastes, but to compare its contents to other pessimistic and wisdom literature of the Ancient Near East.
The ancient Israelites were not the only ones asking questions about everyday problems. The literature of the Ancient Near East shows people from different cultural backgrounds searching for answers in their quest to understand the mysteries of life.
Pessimism can be defined as the inclination to emphasize adverse aspects, conditions, and possibilities. Pessimistic literature emphasizes things in life that are unjust, paradoxical, or just plain confusing.
There seems to be two major themes which are the focus of pessimistic literature. The first theme is that of innocent suffering: “Why does a righteous person suffer?” The second theme is the search for the meaning of life.
The issue of innocent suffering is the question addressed in the Bible by the book of Job as well as many other ancient texts in the literature of the Ancient Near East. The attempt at explaining why a righteous person suffers and why a good and almighty God allows the righteous to suffer is called “theodicy.”
Some of the pessimistic literature that the people of the Ancient Near East produced could be considered examples of philosophical speculation. However, the focus of these writings is religious. The writers’ attempt to examine the mysteries of life comes from a presupposition of religious faith. They questioned the gods, accused them of being unfair, removed from the people, and even disinterested, but they never said that the gods were nonexistent.
In some respects these writings known as pessimistic literature do not deserve such a designation because when read in the context in which they were written, these writings are not so pessimistic as they are realistic since in order to effect social and religious changes, the writers had to focus on the problems they faced.
What follows is a brief summary of the various examples of pessimistic literature that have survived outside of Israel. All references are taken from James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd. ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978). All references will be identified by the abbreviation ANET.
The Good Fortune of the Dead (Egypt; ANET, 33-34).
The song is found in an inscription on the tomb of Nefer-hotep at Thebes and dated to the reign of Hor-em-heb (1349-1319 B.C.). This song describes the blessed state of those who have died.
A Song of the Harper (Egypt; ANET, 467).
This song, which was found in the same tomb, exhorts people to live a life of pleasure and ease because one is not absolutely sure what is waiting on the other side of life.
A Dispute Over Suicide (Egypt; ANET, 405-407).
In the poem the writer is arguing with his soul on whether or not to kill himself. The problem is that the writer finds his life unbearable and not worth living. His soul vacillates on whether or not he should commit suicide. First his soul agrees that the man should kill himself, then that he should live a life of pleasure, and finally his soul decides to remain with him even in death.
The Protests of the Eloquent Peasant (Egypt; ANET, 407-410).
The peasant, whose name was Khun-Anup, was robbed by a noble and he proceeds to go to the court of the lord over the noble and delivers a series of eloquent speeches asking that justice be done to his case. In the end all ends well, with the peasant receiving his positions back.
The Satire on the Trades (Egypt; ANET, 432-434).
This text was an exercise that students used who were training to become scribes. The text glorifies the work of a scribe while it is condescending toward all other professions. The poem on the surface does not seem that pessimistic, but if one is not able to be a scribe or does not enjoy scribal work, then one is forced to take a job which is not good and does not bring satisfaction to life.
Man and His God: A Sumerian Variation of the “Job” Motif (ANET, 589-591).
This Sumerian pessimistic writing is similar to the book of Job. It is also known as “The Sumerian Job.” The theme of the book is human suffering in which the sufferer cries to his god for mercy and for an explanation.
The Babylonian Theodicy (ANET, 601-604).
This poem is also known as “The Babylonian Job.” The story is similar to the book of Job. The poem deals with a man and his friend who came to comfort him at the occasion of his suffering. One difference is that the Babylonian friend is a much better counselor than Job’s friends, even though he too came short of solving his friend’s problem.
I Will Praise the Lord of Wisdom (ANET, 434-437).
The title of this poem reflects the ironic intentions of the writer since he praises his god very little. In the poem the writer complains about his suffering. The writer is suffering and he writes to tell the world and god of his misery.
A Pessimistic Dialogue between Master and Servant (ANET, 437-438).
This poem relates the conversation between a master who is trying to find something worth doing and his servant who attempts to show him the value and the drawback of each idea. The approach this poem takes is somewhat similar to the first chapter of Ecclesiastes where the writer describes how he tried to find meaning in life by doing various activities.
It is unfortunate that many Christians know little about the wisdom literature outside the Bible. A brief survey of the literature mentioned above reveals that some of the major themes that appear in these writings appear also in the books of Job and Ecclesiastes.
Posts on Ecclesiastes:
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary