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Thinking Out Loud

Qoheleth's Breath

by Michael Jinkins | Nov 16, 2015

Qiheleth's BreathWe were enjoying a rare weekend break at a favorite B&B in Nashville, Indiana. It was early Sunday morning. Debbie was, as I remember, taking a walk. I was sitting on a porch of the B&B having a cup of coffee and reading one of the Bibles our hosts thoughtfully provide in each room. As it happened, the translation of the Bible they left us was the New International Version (NIV). I began reading Ecclesiastes (or “Qoheleth,” as the book is titled in Hebrew). It is a book of the Bible I have been thinking about a lot lately.

The well-known opening passage of the book (actually Ecclesiastes 1:2) in the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible which many of us grew up with runs like this: "’Vanity of vanities,’ saith the preacher, ‘vanity of vanities; all is vanity’." I have often heard it said that "vanity" in this English translation carries the idea of "emptiness" rather than the idea of that other kind of vanity that can't stop preening in the mirror.

The version I read that particular Sunday morning, however, went like this: "'Meaningless! Meaningless!' says the Teacher, 'Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless'." (Ecclesiastes 1:2, NIV)

Hmmm, I thought. Vanity. Emptiness. Meaninglessness?

Translation inevitably involves interpretation. Moving from one language to another requires not only knowledge of ancient worlds and languages, it takes imagination and wisdom, too. Words, even familiar words in one’s own native language, are subject to a considerable variety of interpretations and may carry multiple meanings depending on changing contexts and common usages as well as, perhaps, the worldview, creativity and motives of the reader or interpreter.

The NIV translators are reading Qoheleth through the lens of a particular version of Existentialist philosophy. This is one of any number of ways we might read this text. And you can almost feel the heartbeat of Karl JaspersAlbert Camus or Paul Tillich in the NIV translation of these passages. This approach is not uncommon. It has often been said that Ecclesiastes presents an Existentialist take on life, and a number of extraordinarily constructive commentaries and sermons have found this line of interpretation fruitful and edifying.

Recently my colleague Amy Plantinga Pauw wrote a superb commentary on Qoheleth, in the “Belief” series of theological commentaries on the Bible, in which Søren Kierkegaard, sometimes called the “father of Existentialist philosophy,” becomes her “theological companion” in reading Qoheleth. As Amy writes:

“In my commentary on Ecclesiastes, I turn to a more tormented Augustinian soul, Søren Kierkegaard. Like Qoheleth’s wisdom, Kierkegaard’s thought is ‘frequently iconoclastic and rife with tension’; it ‘subverts tidy explication and defies coherent summarizing.’ Kierkegaard’s disillusionment with the philosophical and religious establishments of his day and his frequent recourse to personal narrative and ironic parables echo Qoheleth’s approach. Like Qoheleth, Kierkegaard found that faith in God created space for joy in the midst of the absurdities of life.” Amy Pauw, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 11-12.

I find Amy’s reading of Qoheleth particularly illuminating because Kierkegaard’s Existentialism (or, perhaps, more accurately his “Proto-Existentialism”) is utterly suffused with a sense of one’s absolute dependence on God in contrast to the more Nihilistic Existentialism that seems to inform the NIV translators and leads them to ascribe to Qoheleth the view that life is “utterly meaningless.”

As I sat on the porch of the Nashville B&B that Sunday morning, however, reading this ancient text through the lens of an Existentialism that veered toward Nihilism, I remembered a translation of these words which offers yet another alternative. This translation is provided by Norbert Lohfink in the “Continental Commentary” series on the book of Qoheleth. It reads: "'A breath, a puff of breath ... A breath, a puff of breath,' Qoheleth used to say, 'they all are a breath'."1

“A breath. A mere puff of breath.” Lohfink reflects on the Hebrew word for “breath” which appears in this text, observing that the word is not univocal. In Psalms of lament, he writes, “… ’breath’ is an image of the ephemeral character of human life, its brevity, the fruitlessness of its striving (like shadows or wilting flowers). A similar meaning is found in the wisdom literature, both in Israel and in surrounding cultures. Moreover, in the Deuteronomic writings, ‘breath’ had become a designation for false gods, idols.”2

While Lohfink indicates that the meaning of this text is ultimately ambiguous, his translation opens up a hearing of Qoheleth that does not close down further reflection by pronouncing that all life is “utterly meaningless.” Rather, this reading invites us to take seriously life’s transitory nature.

“A breath, a puff of breath.” The often and so easily taken-for-granted act of respiration. Inhaling. Exhaling. Breathing. Fleeting. Impossible to hold or to hold onto for long, a breath, inhaled, exhaled, whether sweetly scented or sour tasting, moving just in this moment, in … and out … and gone, dissipated into the air here and there and forever. Indeed, if we hear an evocation of life’s fleeting quality in this word, “breath,” and we also hear a warning against false gods or idolatry, we may be discerning here both the promise of holding life precious with the caution against clinging to life, making of life an ultimate value, a god, an idol which we fear letting go of.

The opening lines of Qoheleth, rendered in this way, prepare us to open ourselves to all the chapters that come thereafter in this wondrous book of deep wisdom. In Qoheleth, we have a mature soul of deep faith coming to terms with how very precious this short life is. Here in these pages, we meet a person of psychological depth and spiritual insight, a profoundly enlightened person, receiving life as it comes, accepting each breath and every moment and every season of life as a gift, always with eyes on the horizon beyond which we cannot see.

Perhaps it is the profound resistance to claiming more than we can know, the restfulness in not-knowing that causes some translators and interpreters to conclude that Qoheleth is pessimistic, cynical, or even nihilistic. Perhaps it is the absence in this book of comfortable expressions of pious certainty that causes some readers to distort the message of Ecclesiastes into something ultimately faithless. But let me invite us to read this book as if we had never before heard a word of it preached and never before heard it sung, as Pete Seeger's great "Turn, Turn, Turn." Let's read it so that, to borrow Marcus Borg's delightful phrase about Jesus, we can meet Qoheleth again for the first time.

“A breath, a mere puff of breath,” a fleeting sigh. Life is but a breath. We are all just a breath, a puff of air. Fragile. Precious. Like the grass of the field that flowers for a day. We are granted a moment. Just this brief moment of life and consciousness. A moment of breath. A moment to notice. This. All of this. Whatever this is. Before darkness falls again. And we are committed into the hands of the One from whom we come. From whom emerges every breath, every mere puff of breath. Of this. Of this, we are a part. That which rises converges, we are told. The sun sets. The sun also rises. In this world, it has never been otherwise. If this is all. And all this is from God's hand. This is enough.

So Qoheleth used to say.

1Norbert Lohfink, Qoheleth: A Continental Commentary, translated by Sean McEvenue (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 19.
2Lohfink, Qoheleth, 35-37.

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