Qoheleth’s driving question, according to Ogden, is posed in the opening lines of his book. It is the question, What lasting advantage (yitron) results from the multitude of activities in which humans find themselves engaged? In a word, the answer is “None”; still, the supplementary question remains, How shall we then live?
Qoheleth is no pessimist. Even though he believes that nothing survives from the activities of life, he encourages his readers to live life to the full, to “eat, drink, and enjoy what God provides.” Wisdom is one of those enjoyable benefits of life, but even it has its limitations: it can never produce an understanding of the totality.
What of the classic term hebel (traditionally translated “vanity”) in Qoheleth’s thought? It is much better understood, argues Ogden, as “enigma” or “mystery,” and the mystery it points to is the mystery of the yitron: How is joy the proper goal of human life when we know it must inevitably come to an end without leaving any surplus?
Graham Ogden is a Translation Consultant for the United Bible Societies. He lives near Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.
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