Of the Making of Books

June 09, 2022

We’re thrilled to publish our first course, Poetry in the Bible. While we’ve tried to cover all the basics of biblical poetry, there is of course much we couldn’t include. There are many beautiful passages that would have been great to talk about. One example is the ending of Ecclesiastes, a haunting meditation on the passage of time and the meaning of existence. It is worth quoting at some length because the poetry is so profound:

Ecclesiastes 12

1 Remember your Creator
    in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
    and the years approach when you will say,
    “I find no pleasure in them”—
2 before the sun and the light
    and the moon and the stars grow dark,
    and the clouds return after the rain;
3 when the keepers of the house tremble,
    and the strong men stoop,
when the grinders cease because they are few,
    and those looking through the windows grow dim;
4 when the doors to the street are closed
    and the sound of grinding fades;
when people rise up at the sound of birds,
    but all their songs grow faint;
5 when people are afraid of heights
    and of dangers in the streets;
when the almond tree blossoms
    and the grasshopper drags itself along
    and desire no longer is stirred.
Then people go to their eternal home
    and mourners go about the streets.

6 Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
    and the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
    and the wheel broken at the well,
7 and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
    and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

8 “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher.
    “Everything is meaningless!”

What is perhaps most fascinating is that the writer of Ecclesiastes thought it important to use poetry to describe the vanity of life. After all, is poetry not also meaningless? A few verses later, the Teacher confronts this irony: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” What about the Teacher’s own book? Would he say that was different? In that case, only simpletons are warned not to write bad books. But it’s also possible that there is something humorous about the idea of a book that points out its own meaninglessness in the grand scheme of things.

The fact that the Teacher writes the most beautiful poetry to say that “Everything is meaningless” seems odd at first glance. Nevertheless, it is the most fitting choice. Poetry stirs the emotions and makes us feel what the Teacher is arguing. By using poetry (a form of expression many people see as impractical and meaningless) the Teacher makes us experience the vanity of it all. What could be more ironic than wanting to be remembered as a great poet when everything returns to dust?

And yet despite the meaninglessness, anything done in the service of God is beautiful and wise. From that perspective, poetry suddenly has a lot of meaning. Writing poetry in the face of meaninglessness is an important demonstration of faith. That is also the assumption behind our first course. Poetry matters. And if God’s Word is full of poetry, then it also makes sense to study literature in general. That’s why we’re excited to get started, even with the realization that of the making of many books there is no end…

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