A review by Linda Hoffman Kimball of Nothing New Under the Sun: a blunt paraphrase of ecclesiastes by Adam S. Miller, 2016
A decade ago I taught seminary. Preparing to teach Ecclesiastes, I read it thoroughly for the first time. (I probably read it parts in my Protestant upbringing but didn’t know much about it.) My first task was to try to find a deeper meaning to “vanity” than the “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall” variety that the King James’ version called to mind. I learned that the original noun in Hebrew was a word (“hevel”) that had among its other meanings: breath, vapor, smoke, wind, transitory. Adding those nuances to the text, I dove in.
Besides encountering the original text of the Pete Seeger’s and later the Byrds’ 1965 folk rock hit, “Turn, Turn, Turn,” I found rhetorical sledge hammer after sledge hammer. The Solomonic author of this Old Testament book of Wisdom literature bashed to smithereens one effigy of mortal success after another. Nothing survived. Good choices, bad choices – same result. And in the end, we all die. No mincing words. No free passes for good behavior. In the words of another 1960’s song, “Ain’t got time to wonder why. Whoopee, we’re all gonna die!”
I loved it. This felt like the real, gritty life I knew. Not that I hadn’t benefited from a multitude of the good things, good people and The Good News in my life. I had and have. I had also experienced the impacts of death, suicides, disappointments, the insecurities of parenting, addictions, disease and terrors close up – and that’s just in the course of a pretty typical life for a middle-aged American woman. Ecclesiastes was an ancient voice calling out what my contemporary life could feel like, making mortality worthy of the title “a lone and dreary world.”
Reading that book of scripture through the first time also came with a snappy summation that impressed me: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.” Eccl. 12:13. Maybe the author who was so powerfully poetic with his images of corruption and futility, couldn’t muster any more than that blunt end note. For me it was okay. I read it as, “Yes, mortal life is transitory with no lasting medals or ribbons. That’s not the point. Just love God and get close enough to Diety for Them to teach you how to put that love into action.”
I have just now read Adam S. Miller’s Nothing New Under the Sun: a blunt paraphrase of ecclesiastes.
The first sentence of his introduction begins, “You won’t like this book.”
I was on my guard right there because I already had put Ecclesiastes on my “favorites” list. However, Miller concludes his articulate and radiant introduction with this:
“I expect, then, that you will not like Ecclesiastes. But if, neither liking nor disliking it, you have come to love Ecclesiastes, then you will have seen, at least in part, what I wanted to show.”
He was right. I love Ecclesiastes. And I love what I read and was shown in Nothing New Under the Sun. Be sure to read the introduction to this book. It is luminous and insightful. Be sure to read the Miller’s “blunt paraphrase” of Ecclesiastes. It is grim, sassy, no-nonsense bleak…and yet. And yet, it’s the introduction and the paraphrased text together that creates the shimmering whole.
One significant new idea for me concerns that end note summation I appreciated in Eccl. 12:13. Miller writes:
The only significant change made in relation to the King James Version of the text is one of omission. In line with the bulk of contemporary scholarship, I omitted the concluding verses found in 12:9-14 on grounds that they are clearly a late scribal addition aimed at softening the book’s existential blow.
Well, there goes my tidy wrap up.
But what immediately came to my mind in its stead was this passage from Romans 8:35, 37-39:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Take THAT, you lone and dreary world!
How satisfying to discover that Adam Miller views Ecclesiastes as “an essential companion to Paul’s letter to the Romans.” And, while I had to look up what “propaedeutic” meant, I concur that Ecclesiastes and Nothing New Under the Sun are meaningful introductions to the study of the works of St. Paul.
One of the aspects I most appreciate about Adam Miller’s take on Ecclesiastes is that he doesn’t see the “reality/transitory nature” of life (what the King James Version keeps referring to as “vanity”) as a negative. Other scholars writing on the topic use pejorative terms like “meaningless” (Longman) or “vacuous” (Hoffman – no relation). Miller doesn’t impugn the ephemeral nature of mortal life. It’s just a given.
Rather than being what you’d hoped for, things will just be, instead, whatever they actually are. Sunlight will just be sunlight. Laundry will just be laundry. Your child will just be, perfectly, the faltering child that they are. But this is the nature of grace.
I also value Miller’s affirmation that while it may seem appropriate to holler at every newborn still damp from its arrival, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here!”, there is another side, a transcendent overlay of an acid-washed, divinely baptized “hope.”
This is not the heroic, screw you, shout-into-the void hopelessness of the nihilist. No. It is rather, the pragmatic, clear-eyed, tender-hearted, mature hopelessness that liberates life from self-regard and empowers Christians to practice an unparalleled kindness in the face of this world’s absurdity.
Using synonyms for the KJV’s term “vanity,” Miller concludes his “blunt paraphrase” this way:
Everything is empty, futile and vain. Everything is ephemeral. Breath is all.
Somehow, guided by Miller’s insights, connections and wisdom, this feels triumphant, holy and invigorating.
P.S. Give this as Christmas gifts to your friends– with a smile and a chunk of coal?