Is Love an Answer to the Meaninglessness of Life?
The Song of Songs is recited on Passover, and Ecclesiastes on Sukkot, one corresponding to the spring, the other to the autumn. They are twin megillot (scrolls), both traditionally ascribed to Solomon, both probably composed in the early Hellenistic period, both responding, in different ways, to the apparent eclipse of biblical history.
The watchword of Ecclesiastes is havel havalim, “illusion of illusions,” while that of the Song is shir hashirim, “song of songs.” Ecclesiastes argues that life is meaningless, and tests that assertion by adducing every possible counterargument, of which the most important is the epicurean one, that one should live life to the fullest in the brief span allotted to us. The Song of Songs, however, argues that life’s meaning can be found in love. The Song’s rhetoric consists of multiple metaphors, all pointing to the idea that love is the only thing of true value, since only it survives death.
Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs echo each other in general and in detail. For example, Ecclesiastes contains what is almost a palindrome comparing a reputation (tov shem; “good name”) to fine oil (shemen tov, lit. “oil good”):
קהלת ז:א טוֹב שֵׁם מִשֶּׁמֶן טוֹב וְיוֹם הַמָּוֶת מִיּוֹם הִוָּלְדוֹ.
Eccl 7:1 Better is a name than fine oil, and the day of death than the day of birth.
The Song offers a similar phrase with the word-order reversed:
שׁיר השׁירים א:ג לְרֵיחַ שְׁמָנֶיךָ טוֹבִים שֶׁמֶן תּוּרַק שְׁמֶךָ עַל כֵּן עֲלָמוֹת אֲהֵבוּךָ.
Song 1:3 Your ointments yield a sweet fragrance, green-gold oil is your name —therefore do maidens love you.
In Ecclesiastes, the name is paralleled by the day of death, since a person’s reputation is the only thing that survives their death. In the Song of Songs, the name is a sign of love; all the young women are attracted to the very name of the man.
A Time for Love: Ecclesiastes
Ecclesiastes also addresses love and its power. Love first appears, formulaically, as part of the list of things for which there is a time (3:1–8):
קהלת ג:ח עֵת לֶאֱהֹב וְעֵת לִשְׂנֹא עֵת מִלְחָמָה וְעֵת שָׁלוֹם.
Eccl 3:8 A time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace.
Love has its proper time, and presumably, there is also a time when love is not appropriate. And yet, like everything else, love is fleeting, circular, and is even dangerous:
קהלת ז:כו וּמוֹצֶא אֲנִי מַר מִמָּוֶת אֶת הָאִשָּׁה אֲשֶׁר הִיא מְצוֹדִים וַחֲרָמִים לִבָּהּ אֲסוּרִים יָדֶיהָ טוֹב לִפְנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים יִמָּלֵט מִמֶּנָּה וְחוֹטֵא יִלָּכֶד בָּהּ.
Eccl 7:26 And I found bitterer than death the woman whose heart is traps and nets, her hands are fetters; the one who is good before God will escape her, and the sinner be taken by her...
The association of sex and death is a trope in wisdom literature. The woman traps with the promise of sex, which threatens to destabilize the entire social order and the sapiential system.
Ecclesiastes himself seems never to have found love, or even a woman he admired, as he ends this section with:
קהלת ז:כח ...אָדָם אֶחָד מֵאֶלֶף מָצָאתִי וְאִשָּׁה בְכָל אֵלֶּה לֹא מָצָאתִי.
Eccl 7:28 …One man in a thousand did I find, and a woman among all these I did not find.
Love Will Be Forgotten
The motif of love surfaces one more time, dramatically and poignantly, in chapter 9, where Ecclesiastes notes that, in the end, love, along with everything else that was most intense and important to a person, is reduced to nothing:
קהלת ט:ה כִּי הַחַיִּים יוֹדְעִים שֶׁיָּמֻתוּ וְהַמֵּתִים אֵינָם יוֹדְעִים מְאוּמָה וְאֵין עוֹד לָהֶם שָׂכָר כִּי נִשְׁכַּח זִכְרָם. ט:ו גַּם אַהֲבָתָם גַּם שִׂנְאָתָם גַּם קִנְאָתָם כְּבָר אָבָדָה וְחֵלֶק אֵין לָהֶם עוֹד לְעוֹלָם בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר נַעֲשָׂה תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ.
Eccl 9:5 For the living know that they will die, but the dead do not know anything, and they no longer have a reward, for their memory is forgotten. 9:6 Also their love and their hatred and their jealousy have already perished, and there is no portion for them for ever, in all that is done under the sun.
When the person is dead, their love is dead; in the long term, it leaves no imprint on the world.
Turning to the Epicurean Life?
Ecclesiastes also offers an apparent counterstatement to the pointlessness of life and love, that given our brevity and lack of a future after death, we should live life to the fullest. It is the Epicurean antithesis, expressed with a poignancy communicated through startling, sensuous images:
קהלת ט:ז לֵךְ אֱכֹל בְּשִׂמְחָה לַחְמֶךָ וּשֲׁתֵה בְלֶב טוֹב יֵינֶךָ כִּי כְבָר רָצָה הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת מַעֲשֶׂיךָ. ט:ח בְּכָל־עֵת יִהְיוּ בְגָדֶיךָ לְבָנִים וְשֶׁמֶן עַל רֹאשְׁךָ אַל יֶחְסָר.
Eccl 9:7 Go, eat your bread in gladness, and drink your wine in joy; for your action was long ago approved by God. 9:8 Let your clothing be white; may the oil on your head never be lacking.
The injunctions to eat, drink, to feel joy, to have clean clothes and anoint one’s head in oil, evoke the scene of a banquet. The full life also includes love:
קהלת ט:ט רְאֵה חַיִּים עִם אִשָּׁה אֲשֶׁר אָהַבְתָּ כָּל יְמֵי חַיֵּי הֶבְלֶךָ אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לְךָ תַּחַת הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ כֹּל יְמֵי הֶבְלֶךָ....
Eccl 9:9 See life with the woman that you love, all the days of the life of your evanescence, which he has given you under the sun, all the days of your evanescence….
“Seeing life” is a traditional wisdom stance, maintained by Ecclesiastes throughout: The detached sage observes life and comments on it. One undertakes the journey through life “with the woman whom you love,” sharing one’s observations so that the quest is part of the fabric of one’s love. This is the one trace of a positive relationship in the book.
That relationship, however, is limited to “all the days of the life of your evanescence (hevel).” Evanescence refers to the quality of disappearing like vapor. The repeated description thus emphasizes life’s transience, and the interminable prolongation of that transience. Even love is “illusion,” another connotation to the Hebrew term hevel. Death awaits even the greatest lovers.
Love in the Song of Songs
The Song of Songs celebrates love through an accumulation of images and narratives, and the systematic interchange of metaphors and descriptions to show that the lovers lose their separate identity in love. The man is a deer or a young gazelle (2:9, 8:14), but so are the woman’s breasts (4:5, 7:4); the woman is a dove (2:14, 5:2, 6:9), as are the man’s eyes (5:12). Metaphor also links remote objects, to make the world whole in the imagination.
The Song of Songs is haunted by death, since death is love’s ultimate antagonist. Sixty soldiers guard Solomon’s bed against “the fear of the night,” the terror which is ultimately of death. A statement at the end of the Song serves as refutation of Ecclesiastes’ belief that death conquers all:
שׁיר השׁירים ח:ו שִׂימֵנִי כַחוֹתָם עַל לִבֶּךָ כַּחוֹתָם עַל זְרוֹעֶךָ כִּי עַזָּה כַמָּוֶת אַהֲבָה קָשָׁה כִשְׁאוֹל קִנְאָה רְשָׁפֶיהָ רִשְׁפֵּי אֵשׁ שַׁלְהֶבֶתְיָה.
Song 8:6 Let me be a seal upon your heart, like the seal upon your hand. For love is as strong as death, jealousy as harsh as Sheʾol; its sparks are the sparks of fire of the flame of Yah.
The seal that begins the verse is a sign of the permanence of the relationship, despite every separation. Love and death are engaged in a ceaseless struggle throughout time. In death love finds its only equal; in love death finds the only thing that resists it.
Corresponding to the pairing of love and death are jealousy and Sheʾol. If love is powerful, jealousy is harsh and self-destructive: through jealousy, love turns into suspicion and hatred. Jealousy is the shadow side of love, just as Sheʾol is the aftermath of death. Sheʾol is grievous because of the loss of life, jealousy because of the loss of love.
Only Love Survives
The Song’s denouement returns to the strength of love; even flood waters cannot quench this flame:
שׁיר השׁירים ח:ז מַיִם רַבִּים לֹא יוּכְלוּ לְכַבּוֹת אֶת הָאַהֲבָה וּנְהָרוֹת לֹא יִשְׁטְפוּהָ אִם יִתֵּן אִישׁ אֶת כָּל הוֹן בֵּיתוֹ בָּאַהֲבָה בּוֹז יָבוּזוּ לוֹ.
Song 8:7 Many waters cannot quench love, nor can the rivers overwhelm it. If a man offered all his wealth for love, he would be laughed to scorn.
The many waters and the rivers are both symbols for chaos, for the primal ocean that surrounds the earth and on which it is founded (e.g., Ps 24:1–2, 93:3–4). Only love survives the waters of chaos, death, and time. Like Ecclesiastes, the Song also sees wealth as ultimately useless, but instead of noting that wealth cannot save you from death, it argues that it cannot buy you love.
The Song’s Response to Ecclesiastes
The Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes can be read together, as deliberate presentations of opposite sides of the question of the point or pointlessness of life—like two panels of a medieval diptych painting. Ecclesiastes claims that everything, even love, is evanescent, and yet the Song argues that love is as strong as death.
Is the Song an answer to Ecclesiastes? Does spring compensate for autumn? Ecclesiastes himself doesn’t think so; he asserts that he does not like songs:
קהלת ז:ה טוֹב לִשְׁמֹעַ גַּעֲרַת חָכָם מֵאִישׁ שֹׁמֵעַ שִׁיר כְּסִילִים.
Eccl 7:5 Better to hear the rebuke of the wise than a man listening to the song of fools.
This would seem to apply even to the “song of songs,” but, even according to Ecclesiastes, there is a time for everything.
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April 19, 2022
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Prof. Francis Landy is Professor (Emeritus) of Religious Studies at the University of Alberta. He holds a D.Phil in Comparative Literature from the University of Sussex and is the author of Beauty and the Enigma and Other Essays in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield), Paradoxes of Paradise: Identity and Difference in the Song of Songs (Sheffield Phoenix), and Hosea: a Commentary (Sheffield Phoenix).
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