The Burden of Prophecy: Poetic Utterance in the Prophets of the Old Testament

By Albert Cook | Go to book overview

6
Self-Reference, Prophetic Recursion, and Image in Ecclesiastes

T HE FIRST WORDS of Ecclesiastes indicate the metamorphosis that the prophetic tradition has undergone through the centralization of the wisdom tradition. Indeed, more than any other wisdom text, Ecclesiastes fixes its fusion of roles from the start: "The words of the Preacher [qôhelet, "convener"], son of David, king in Jerusalem" (1.1). The action of the prophet, to call the people together and speak, and the message of the prophet are linked to a legendary wise king, Solomon, here defined in terms of his descent from David, a king who was also a prophet. The vision of empire and career and life cycle in this book distantly echoes the themes of prophecy, while at the same time enlisting the parallelism of biblical poetry in new ways. The wisdom tradition of Proverbs, sometimes continuous in its runs, has been adapted in Ecclesiastes to a new rhythmic continuity in which the skillfully modulated flow, allowing for prose punctuations, appears in sharp relief, especially if it is seen in the light of the similar, longer, but somewhat more simply additive Ecclesiasticus. A comparison with The Wisdom of Solomon, too, will point up how integrally shaped Ecclesiastes is.

In the suppleness of this flow, contradictions as well as varied repetitions and qualifications are absorbed into the overall harmony, which manages to string together proverbs without either obscuring their distinct, aphoristic force or allowing them to come apart disjunctively:

Vanity of vanity, saith the Preacher,
Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
What profit hath a man of all his labor
Which he taketh under the sun?
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh:
But the earth abideth forever. The sun also ariseth and the sun goeth down,
And hasteth to his place where he arose.

-103-

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