Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The House of Mirth (Ecclesiastes 7:4)

Complete: “The heart of the wise is the house of mourning, but _____________________________________________.” The heart of fools is in the house of mirth (Ecclesiastes 7:4)

Ecclesiastes is one of five Biblical books classified as wisdom literature. The book documents the sayings of “the Preacher” (Ecclesiastes 1:1 NASB), often left untranslated as Qohelet. Ecclesiastes 7 addresses a theme common to wisdom literature — the contrast of wisdom and folly. For Qohelet, one of the dividing lines between wisdom and folly is an awareness of one’s finitude.

The mind of the wise is in the house of mourning, While the mind of fools is in the house of pleasure. (Ecclesiastes 7:4 NASB)
Ecclesiastes 7:4 uses antithetical parallelism, a juxtaposition of opposites, to contrast the sage and the fool. Qohelet claims that the mind of the fools resides in the house of “mirth” (ASV, ESV, KJV, NKJV, NRSV, RSV) or “pleasure” (HCSB, NASB, NIV). The traditional translation, “the house of mirth”, was immortalized by Edith Wharton (1862-1937) in her 1905 novel of the same name. The book examines the fashionable New York elite, whose surface achievement and refinement in the house of mirth conceals a moral vacuum that contributes to the death of the book’s protagonist, Lily Bart.

Qohelet says that the wise are always aware of their pending date with death. Tremper Longman III (b. 1952) explains, “In keeping with the previous verses, he states his belief that those who are wise contemplate their ultimate death, while fools are those who blithely live as if there is no end in sight (Longman, The Book of Ecclesiastes (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 184).”

William H. Bicksler (b. 1933) adds,“The wise are in the house of mourning, the place of death, much like tragedies are so much truer to life than comedies (Bicksler, Commentary on Ecclesiastes: The Believing Skeptic with a Message, 115).”

Craig G. Bartholomew (b. 1961) claims that Qohelet is actually advocating a preoccupation with death:

This does not just refer to healthy awareness of one’s finitude but to an obsession with death. The heart is the center of the person and for Qohelet the “wise” person’s center dwells in the house of mourning. Qohelet’s logic leads him to the view that the wise person is consumed with death and the fool with celebration and joy. (Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms), 248)
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) posited that a human could not fully process the concept of one’s own death. Freud writes, “It is indeed impossible to imagine our own death; and whenever we attempt to do so we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators. Hence the psychoanalytic school could venture on the assertion that at bottom no one believes in his own death, or to put the same thing in another way, in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his own immortality (Freud, “Thoughts for Our Times on War and Death”, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume 14, 289).” For Freud, on some level, all humans are fools dwelling in the house of mirth. How would you put this verse into modern terms? Does Qohelet suppose that wise people should never venture to the house of pleasure? What are the lessons of the funeral home? What benefit is there to contemplating one’s own death?

The realization of one’s death provides the opportunity for a new awareness of life. James L. Crenshaw (b. 1934) explains that “the thought flows logically from Ecclesiastes 7:1 to Ecclesiastes 7:4. In these ‘better’ sayings Qohelet seems captivated by death’s finality. Since everyone eventually dies, a realist prepares for that moment. In considering that unwelcome event one encounters an astonishing paradox: suffering can instruct, purge the spirit, and offer increased learning. An astute observer of life makes a path for the house of mourning, anticipating an encounter with the essence of human existence.” (Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 134-135).

Iain Provan (b. 1957) adds that there is a moral byproduct to this revelation:

Depth is, in fact, a characteristic of the person who lives in the light of reality, just as superficiality is the mark of the life in denial. The wise person knows the value of things. This is clear from Ecclesiastes 7:5-6, where words having moral content and directed at the important question of how we should live (the “rebuke”) are preferred to the inane, pointless (hebel, NIV “meaninglessness”) , sounds produced by fools, whether in song or in laughter. (Provan, The NIV Application Commentary: Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs)
Commentators have long been befuddled by the stark contrast between this passage and other sayings in Ecclesiastes, most notably the “carpe diem” (“seize the day”) passages (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26, 3:12-14, 22, 5:18-20, 8:15, 9:7-10).

Tremper Longman III (b. 1952) writes:

It is important to feel the tension between this verse and the carpe diem passages that appear throughout the book. In the latter, Qohelet asserts that there is ‘nothing better’ than the pleasures of eating, drinking, and working, while here he seems to say that such an attitude is the mark of the fool. These tensions lead to the conclusion...that Qohelet is a confused wise man who doubts the traditions of his people. (Longman, The Book of Ecclesiastes (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 184).

Leonard S. Kravitz (b. 1928) and Kerry M. Olitzky (b. 1954) expound:

The verse seems to say that wherever they are, the wise think about mortality and the limitations of the human condition, while fools seek only personal enjoyment and pleasure. The Targum relates the verse to the destruction of the Temple: the wise mourn and reflection its destruction, while the fools are indifferent and engage in irresponsible behavior...Perhaps Kohelet is recommending that we focus on death in order to appreciate the days we are alive. Such a perspective would be consistent with Ecclesiastes 2:24, from which this teaching would have emerged naturally. Or perhaps, from the perspective of old age, Kohelet has simply changed his mind. If so, then Ecclesiastes 2:24 contradicts this verse, which may be why, in his comment on the previous verse, Ibn Ezra reminds the reader that the Rabbis sought to suppress this book because they felt that its verses (and therefore its teachings) included inherent contradictions. (Kravitz and Olitzky, Kohelet: A Modern Commentary on Ecclesiastes, 65)
Perhaps Qohelet was not confused, was not self contradictory and did not change his mind. Perhaps the proper perspective upon one’s own mortality lies somewhere between living moment to moment, seizing the present day and dwelling on the inevitably of death at an unknown future date.

What is the proper attitude toward one’s own death? Have you faced your own death? Do you dwell in the house or mourning or the house of mirth?

“To suspect your own mortality is to know the beginning of terror, to learn irrefutably that you are mortal is to know the end of terror.” - Frank Herbert (1920-1986), Children of Dune, p. 132

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