1) For, not thinking
rightly, they said among themselves:
“Brief and troubled is our
there is no remedy for our
nor is anyone known to
have come back from Hades.
COMMENTARY: “They” means the unjust
people mentioned in the previous chapter.
Thus begins the arguments of despair that lead to sin: they have no
proof of an afterlife. Thus they see
death as a universal ill without cure and life as short and unhappy.
The Christian believes
this problem answered first by the testimony of Lazarus, and then ultimately by
the death and resurrection of Jesus. But
before then people had nothing but faith and speculation.
The devout Jew believed that it didn’t matter, that God deserves our love and
devotion with or without reward. But the
sort of person who always asks, “What’s in it for me?” would see no reason to
serve God without a guarantee of some consequence for either doing so or not.
2) For by mere chance were we born,
and hereafter we shall be
as though we had not been;
Because the breath in our
nostrils is smoke,
and reason a spark from
the beating of our hearts,
COMMENTARY: So here comes the next step
in the sinners’ reasoning: life is
meaningless, a mere coincidence. They
see no proof that anybody decided that they, specifically should exist; they believe
that it makes no difference what they do.
Regarding “breath”, Hebrew
used the same word for “breath”, “wind” and “spirit”. So these people deny the existence of the
spirit, that the breath is nothing except material, soon dissipated as if it
had never been.
Similarly they dismiss
reason as a chance byproduct of being alive, as opposed to a guiding
principle. Unlike too many Christians
today (I have met them even in my own church) the ancient Jews saw no
competition between reason and spirit.
They believed that the God who created their minds wanted them to
exercise their intelligence as fully as possible, and saw study as a kind of
devotion to the One who gave us reason.
So here the devaluation of reason also counts as a rejection of God.
The people described aren’t
necessarily atheists. Rather, they doubt
if their Creator cares, or has any particular plans for them, in this life or
3) And when this is quenched, our body will be ashes
and our spirit will be
poured abroad like empty air.
COMMENTARY: The Old Testament describes
precisely this fate for evildoers. But
these poor souls jump the gun and assume that this will befall them no matter
what happens, so why not sin?
We can tip people over
into assuming that they’re damned from an early age, inducing despair of
salvation, when we exaggerate their faults to them. I remember, for instance, a coworker leading
a self-destructive life, who told me that it didn’t matter what she did because
her mother assured her that she was going to Hell for smoking. Once you resign yourself to hopelessness, you
have nothing to lose; you don’t even have enough sense of self to believe you
could lose that.
4) Even our name will be forgotten in time,
and no one will recall our
So our life will pass away
like the traces of a cloud,
and will be dispersed like
Pursued by the sun’s rays
and overpowered by its
COMMENTARY: If one believes that no one
will remember what one has done, why not do whatever one pleases? It’s all going to vanish anyway.
As mentioned before, many
Jews believe that, after death, regrets burn away any part of the soul given
over to sins, and if anything remained that core person moves on to join their
ancestors. Here the sinner compares
himself to an evaporated cloud overpowered by the heat of the sun; he has no
faith that anything of himself could remain.
The Christian believes
that Jesus guarantees that there will always be a remnant left of each of His
followers, and they will enter Heaven.
The very act of loving Him is indestructible.
5) For our lifetime is the passing of a shadow;
and our dying cannot be
because it is fixed with a
seal; and no one returns.
COMMENTARY: The sinner sums up the
existential crisis that motivates him:
Life is short and meaningless, and death is permanent and absolute.
6) Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that are
and make use of creation
with youthful zest.
COMMENTARY: At first this sounds
sensible, even positive. Enjoy what is, rather
than what might or might not be. But
“youthful zest” hints at rebelliousness, living so much in the moment that one
pays no heed to the voices of experience.
(We will shortly see that these sybarites aren’t even thinking of
reaching maturity, let alone an afterlife.)
And “make use of creation” reminds the reader that there is indeed a God
after all, who created everything, for generosity but not for exploitation.
7) Let us have our fill of costly wine and perfumes,
and let no springtime
blossom pass us by;
COMMENTARY: This would have been
harmless had it stopped with the springtime blossoms—the perfume freely given
by God. But no, these folks are going to
go all-out to indulge themselves, sparing no expense. To give you some idea of how labor-intensive
perfume was in those days, it takes 250 pounds of roses to distil a single
ounce of its oil. Obviously not everyone
can share in the wealth, here!
And the writer specifies
“costly” wine. Not the everyday wine
pressed by a farmer’s own vineyard (remember, the ideal of prosperity in those
days was “Every man under his own grapevine and fig tree”) but imported wine
from the very best vineyards in the known world—wine that somebody else labored
to produce, and then others to import.
Which still wouldn’t be
too bad, if he had intended to earn these unusual pleasures with unusually
great contributions to society. But see
the next verse.
8) let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they
COMMENTARY: This implies imprudent
impatience. He’s not going to wait for
the rosebuds to unfold into their full flowering, because his fear of death has
hastened his perception of time; he sees the buds as about to wither already. And by worrying about that eventuality, he in
fact brings about their withering prematurely.
Cut rosebuds woven into a wreath never get the chance to fully develop.
In the same vein, he’s not
going to wait around to obtain the money for his expensive tastes slowly,
steadily, and honestly through hard work.
He has become obsessed with squeezing the most out of life right now, in
his youth, and feels that anything unpleasant wastes his time. Yet his prodigal lifestyle cannot help but
age him prematurely and most likely bring his death early.
Crowning themselves also
implies putting on airs. They’re
starting to convince themselves that they’re entitled to more than other
people. Just because. And indeed, this is how narcissism starts:
first worthiness seems unattainable, then one salves the wound by convincing
oneself that one has already attained it.
To maintain this fantasy, one must presume oneself entitled to the best
9) Let no meadow be free from our wantonness;
everywhere let us leave
tokens of our merriment,
for this is our portion,
and this our lot.
COMMENTARY: They won’t even take the
time to clean up after themselves, let alone time for courtship and long-term
10) Let us oppress the righteous poor;
let us neither spare the
nor revere the aged for
hair grown white with time.
COMMENTARY: And now it comes down to the
real rub. The money for all of this
self-indulgence has to come from somewhere.
So they target the most vulnerable in their community to finance their
11) But let our strength be our norm of righteousness;
for weakness proves itself
COMMENTARY: They convince themselves
that might makes right. They see no
value in the righteousness of a poor man if it brings them no money, nor the
years of devotion that a widow once gave, nor the wisdom won with age. For them everything boils down to the bottom
line. They idolize the one advantage
that they have in their youth: their brute physical strength. They will wield this without mercy, living
too much in the moment to foresee that it won’t last forever (especially
considering the physical toll of the self-indulgent lifestyle!)
12 Let us lie in wait for the righteous one, because he
is annoying to us;
he opposes our actions,
Reproaches us for
transgressions of the law
and charges us with
violations of our training.
COMMENTARY: Now they don’t just prey on
those they can profit from, but now, hardened to hurting others anyway, they also
attack anyone who criticizes them. Deep
down their consciences torment them, but they keep burying remorse in
self-indulgence—only to have the righteous one expose it again, by reminding them
that they weren’t raised with these values.
13) He professes to have knowledge of God
and styles himself a child
of the LORD.
COMMENTARY: I see several layers to why
the hedonists would have a problem with this.
First is simple envy that someone else can experience a mystical
encounter with God. Plus it refutes
everything that they have based their lifestyle upon; what they had done to
evade pointlessness becomes itself pointless.
Worse than that, they have by now grown accustomed to self-indulgence
and now this threatens to make them think about some of the things they did to
get there and realize just how wrong it is.
That threatens their defensive sense of entitlement.
14) To us he is the censure of our thoughts;
merely to see him is a
hardship for us,
COMMENTARY: The righteous man’s very
existence refutes all of their choices.
He has a sense of meaning in his life and thus can be easily happy
without their desperate grasping.
15) Because his life is not like that of others,
and different are his
COMMENTARY: People often convince
themselves that something they do is at least “normal”, if they fail to
convince themselves that it is good. To
meet someone who doesn’t find it necessary to do as they did rebukes them by
16) He judges us debased;
he holds aloof from our
paths as from things impure.
He calls blest the destiny
of the righteous
and boasts that God is his
COMMENTARY: When people feel guilty, you
don’t even need to criticize them out loud for them to accuse you of judging
them, just because you’re not doing what they’re doing. Even if they’re not on your radar, they will
see your choices as a refutation of theirs.
I know this firsthand.
17) Let us see whether his words be true;
let us find out what will
happen to him in the end.
18) For if the righteous one is the son of God, God will
and deliver him from the
hand of his foes.
19) With violence and torture let us put him to the test
that we may have proof of
and try his patience.
20) Let us condemn him to a shameful death;
for according to his own
words, God will take care of him.”
COMMENTARY: Catholics see this passage
as prophetic of Jesus Christ. But it
also illustrates the needs of those who have based their lives on hopelessness
to disprove the hope of others. Verse 19
stands out for me, because it makes clear that however they might rationalize
their anger, they’re not attacking someone who actually abused them with his
disapproval, but who offered them gentle correction and showed them patience.
21) These were their thoughts, but they erred;
for their wickedness
COMMENTARY: Wickedness blinds because it
requires layers of lying to oneself. The
more you immerse yourself in evil, the less you can afford to look at squarely.
22) And they did not know the hidden counsels of God;
neither did they count on
a recompense for holiness
nor discern the innocent
COMMENTARY: A reward fulfilled after
23) For God formed us to be imperishable;
the image of his own
nature he made us.
COMMENTARY: One could see this as
meaning having an imperishable soul, rather than body. Although we Christians believe that Jesus
brought back His body as well.
24) But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world,
and they who are allied
with him experience it.
This is the first scripture to equate Satan
with the serpent of Genesis.