I mentioned [in a Facebook post] that I’m spending a little time in the wisdom writings of the Old Testament, and then a couple of days ago I quoted from Ecclesiastes 1 (around verse 10, depending on the version). Right before that verse comes this:
πάντες οἱ λόγοι ἔγκοποι·
οὐ δυνήσεται ἀνὴρ τοῦ λαλεῖν,
καὶ οὐκ ἐμπλησθήσεται ὀφθαλμὸς τοῦ ὁρᾶν,
καὶ οὐ πληρωθήσεται οὖς ἀπὸ ἀκροάσεως.
Well, that’s the translation used by ancient Greek-speaking Jews, including the early Christians. The good old King James Version, whose rendering of this book is a classic English-language prose poem in its own right, has this (it was originally published as flowing prose, but I’m breaking it into sense lines corresponding to the lines in the Greek above):
All things are full of labour;
man cannot utter it:
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
But this English rendering doesn’t line up perfectly with the Greek because it is translating the original Hebrew; the Greek version (commonly called the Septuagint, though that’s not technically the right term for the Greek version of this particular book) take a different interpretation than the KJV English. The Hebrew runs thus:
לֹא־יוּכַ֥ל אִ֖ישׁ לְדַבֵּ֑ר
לֹא־תִשְׂבַּ֥ע עַ֙יִן֙ לִרְא֔וֹת
וְלֹא־תִמָּלֵ֥א אֹ֖זֶן מִשְּׁמֹֽעַ׃
As I admitted the other day, my Hebrew was never that great and is rusty to boot, and I’m not pulling out books and looking stuff up this morning beyond what the my Bible app tells me, so I may be skating on thin ice here, but the subject of that first line in Hebrew (כָּל־הַדְּבָרִ֣ים) is the plural of the noun “dabar,” which has a broad range of meaning. It can mean just “thing” or “subject matter,” so that “kol debarim” means “everything” or as KJV says “all things.” But “dabar” quite regularly also means “word,” whether in the specific sense of what we call one of these strings of letters between spaces that you are looking at now but also in the broader sense of something someone thinks or says, whether it’s a single word or a sentence or a paragraph or for that matter a whole book. And this latter sense—“word” or “unit of discourse” rather than “thing”—is how the early Greek version understands the Hebrew. So where the KJV says “all things,” the Greek says πάντες οἱ λόγοι. Logos being the Greek word for “word” for a unit of discourse: anything from a single word to a larger unit of reasoned speech or writing, with a bit of emphasis (especially in the philosophical tradition) on “reasoned.”
There’s no problem as far as I know with the adjective used in that first line. Whether you’re looking at the Hebrew, the Greek, or the English, “full of toil” implies “wearisome” or “tiresome.”
So where the Hebrew of this book may very well have meant something as broad as the KJV translators took it to mean—everything is tiresome—the Greek, by rather woodenly matching up Hebrew “dabar” with Greek “logos” without much thought about the differing ranges of meaning of the two words, gives us a slightly different spin: something that implies that “all attempts at reasoned speech” or maybe “all argument”—not in the sense of quarrels, but in the sense of attempts to explain or persuade—are tiresome. Followed by a further expression of despair: “A man will not even be able to say anything”—which seems to express the same “Why not just give up?” that I hear implied when younger folk these days respond to something they have seen or hear with “I can’t even” or “I can’t even with that.”
Plato’s Socrates made up a word for the impatience with or intolerance of logos—reasoned discourse—that he found in the air in fifth-century Athens. He called it “misology” (no, spell-check, not “mixology,” that’s a very different thing, though behaviorally mixology might be a logical next step from misology). So we could speak of misologists: people who can’t even with another argument, another attempt to persuade, because the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear with hearing.
I think we have many misologists in our time and place. Many people are tired of—will not tolerate, cannot stomach, will shut down, will even lash out angrily against—reasoned attempts to persuade. Maybe they are not in principle misologists, but under our circumstances, with regard to the matters that are most on the minds of many of us, or perhaps being under some dark enchantment, we have many functional misologists. The misologist motto: “Just shut up already—it does no good, and we’re tired of it.”
So was the writer of Ecclesiastes a misologist? One could cite in further evidence the verse from near the end of the book that people always (often but not always humorously) are casting in the teeth of publishers (and professors, and students): “Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”
But this is where if we’re attentive we’ll see here in Ecclesiastes a case in point of a phenomenon that once noticed starts turning up everywhere: the pedagogy (instructional strategy) of scripture is not flat and monotonous but richly variegated. Sometimes scripture just flat out tells us something. But sometimes it asks us a question, sets us a problem, tells us a story and sees how we react, or prods us, or straight up kicks us in the backside. Sometimes scripture (as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said of a famous oracle in his own world) “neither reveals nor conceals but gives a sign.” Sometimes scripture points beyond itself. Surely this is the case here. Otherwise what sense are we to make of the fact that the writer who is telling us, on the surface, that words and books are pointless says this in the course of stringing words together into yet another book, and not just any book, but a book that became a book of scripture?
A Christian—a person who believes that what became flesh in Jesus Christ was the Logos—cannot possibly be a misologist. “All things are full of labor,” yes, and at times reading or hearing or writing or speaking even one more word can be an intolerable prospect, but we cannot give up. The impatient, word-rejecting misological impulse comes not from the Spirit of God but from some other spirit. We cannot give up on words, on speech, on patient, reasoned explanation and persuasion. Only let the words be wise words. As either the same Preacher said who wrote these words in chapter 1 of Ecclesiastes (or if you want to take the route of the historical-critical scholars, as a later editor added in fixing up the ending to make the book usable as Hebrew scripture): “The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd.”