The harper song from the tomb of king Intef (Ecclesiastes 3)

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Illustration: The coffin of king Intef

A song carved on the tomb od Intef, an Egyptian pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom (ca. 1206-1963 B.C.), has been preserved in two later copies: a papyrus manuscript and an inscription on a tomb contemporary with Amenhotep IV. Harper Songs were most likely sung at funerary banquets honouring the dead and praising the afterlife, but the Intef Song is notable for its sceptical attitude toward seeking immortality. It begins with lamenting the cycle of passing generations and grieving over the silence of the graves of long-dead nobles (cf. Ecclesiastes 1:4, 11). The song recommends rejoicing while one is still alive, wearing fine linen and anointing oneself with oil (cf. 9:7-10). Since no one can escape death or take along earthly possessions into the afterlife, the author advocates that a person can do no better than follow his or her heart’s inclinations while here on earth.

It is conceivable that the author of Ecclesiastes was familiar with the Intef Song. The kingdom of Solomon had strong contacts with Egypt, and the wise men of that day would have known and studied the masterpieces of Egyptian literature. If anything, this similarity reinforces the credibility of the Solomonic authorship of Ecclesiastes (see 1:1), since no other time in Israelite history was so notable for tits strong interest in wisdom and close ties to Egypt. At the same time, although certain phrases and concepts of this song reflect sentiments similar to those found in Ecclesiastes, the overall effect is different. Whereas the Intef Song endorses pleasure for its own sake, the author of Ecclesiastes approved of enjoying life as an expression of gratitude for God’s gifts (3:13, 9:7). Also, in Ecclesiastes, the manner in which His people celebrate is subjects to God’s judgement (11:7-12:1, 13-14).


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