A few biblical books have rather odd endings. For example, having described Israel and Judah’s time in exile the book of Isaiah ends with a series of hopeful post-exilic visions describing the restoration of the nation and a subsequent time of peace and prosperity. The change in the nation’s fortunes are so dramatic they are pictured as a “new heaven and new earth” and the book (almost) ends on this high note:
For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me, says the LORD; so shall your descendants and your name remain. From new moon to new moon, and from sabbath to sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, says the LORD.Isaiah 66:22-23
All the nations coming to Jerusalem to worship the God of Israel is a positive note on which to end the book. But then, inexplicably, the author adds a dampener:
And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.Isaiah 66:24
That’s it?! After building up to the high point over several chapters the writer then spoils it all with the reference to mounds of dead rotting carcasses.
Malachi, a short book of only 4 chapters (in the Hebrew Bible it is actually part of a longer book called “The Twelve Prophets”) is similar to Isaiah in many ways. It too almost ends on a positive note with the elevation of those who revere God, and the coming of the prophet Elijah who will “turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents” (4:5-6). But then the writer concludes on a negative note ” … so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.”
Incidentally, as some readers of this blog will know, I like to point out whether the artist is accurately quoting from the biblical text or just using squiggles (as they sometimes did). In this case, the text in the painting of the prophet Malachi is Latin and is from Malachi 3:1 “the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple, the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight” (Veniet ad templum sanctum suum dominator dominus quem vos queritis, et angelum testamenti quem vos vultis).
In many ways Ecclesiastes (aka Qoheleth) is difficult to understand, as it describes the musings of a cynical king who is struggling to find meaning in life. However, right at the end he seems to have found the answer to everything: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone” (12:13). That’s a nice, positive ending to the book. Except it’s not. I mean, it’s not the end. The writer spoils it all by adding “For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil” (12:14).
Then there is Lamentations which describes the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the subsequent desolation of the country. It’s a sad and mournful lament, as the name suggests, of a people being taken away into exile. The final chapter, however, takes a positive turn as the people acknowledge their failings and pray for God’s compassion on them. It has a more hopeful tone as they prayerfully envisage a return from exile: “Restore us to yourself, O LORD, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old” (5:21). Then it too adds a sombre note: “unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure” (5:22). The Hebrew in this final verse is difficult to translate and continues to perplex scholars. Some translations read it as a question, such as the RSV with “Or hast thou utterly rejected us? Art thou exceedingly angry with us?” As if in disbelief that after all that God has rejected his people, the JPS translation turns it around to read “Thou canst not have utterly rejected us, and be exceeding wroth against us.” The actual meaning of the Hebrew is enigmatic, but whatever it means it is an odd way to end the book.
I’ve written quite a bit before about Jonah, another one of the short ‘books’ in the book of “The Twelve Prophets” (the conclusion to Jonah was the subject of my PhD thesis). In Hebrew, and in all the ancient versions, it ends with a declaration by God that, despite their repentance, “I am not concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals” (4:11). At some point in time translators must have found this ending too perplexing for their liking and began translating it as a rhetorical question instead: “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city …?” This is similar to the way the JPS translators reversed the most likely meaning of the end of Lamentations because it was simply incredulous.
In the cases of the first four of these examples (Isaiah, Malachi, Lamentations and Ecclesiastes) there is a long-standing tradition in synagogues to read these books to the end and then to re-read the preceding verse to give it a positive ending. So then, for example, Lamentations ends with “Restore us to yourself, O LORD, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old” rather than the enigmatic ending about being rejected. Likewise, Isaiah ends with “all flesh shall come to worship before me, says the LORD” rather than with mounds of rotting bodies. Nothing is taken out, but these four books end instead on a positive note. But the question still remains as to why the writers spoiled their own endings in the first place.