Ecclesiastes is part of the wisdom literature of the Old Testament Scriptures. Unlike Proverbs, which is written entirely in Hebrew poetry or even the book of Job where the story unfolds through a series of speeches that wrestle with wisdom and the retribution of God – Ecclesiastes has its own unique set of issues that the author invites the reader in to contend with. As a whole, Ecclesiastes is an exploration into human existence coupled with the mundane cyclic humdrum of daily living and those occasional moments of joy and delight. However, a deeper reflection of the book will reveal first what temporal life under the sun looks like without God, which, then, should lead the reader to reflect just how precious life under the sun is with the eternal God in view. This paper will examine the contents of Ecclesiastes in order to discover and gain a deeper understanding of what the author was communicating. The paper will begin with a preliminary discussion on the book’s authorship, historical setting, and literary structure. After which, the paper will trace the author’s flow of thought through the entire book – in the sequence it is presented by the author (naturally, this will be the bulk of the paper). Theological elements will be revealed during the process, and the paper will pause to address them along the way. Following the exposition will be a section that directly addresses the main theological message of the author. It should be noted that scholars have devoted entire collections to Ecclesiastesand therefore, this paper is by no means exhaustive. That stated, it will aim to provide a thorough discussion on the main elements in the book. Lastly, the paper will conclude with a contemporary application that shows how Ecclesiastesis relevant to the modern Christian.
Ecclesiastes opens with an ascription that reads, “The words of the Preacher” (1:1a, English Standard Version). Notably, the term preacher is a translation of the original ancient Hebrew term Qohelet (קֹהֶלֶת), which occurs seven times in the book of Ecclesiastes (1:1-2, 12; 7:27; 12:8-10) and nowhere else in biblical literature.The term has been traditionally understood as Preacher, or speaker in assemblies; however, scholars have yet to arrive at a fully developed meaning on the Hebrew term.Interestingly, in v. 12:8, the term is preceded by a definite article, which supports the claim that Qohelet is intended to be a description and not a personal name.In this manner, then, the author “envisioned in this book is a teacher who has convened people in order to instruct them.”
The introductory ascription also includes, “the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (1:1b). From at least the time of Martin Luther and especially since the nineteenth century, the broad consensus among the majority of scholars have concluded that Solomon is not the Qohelet – even though the ascription would have the reader believe so.However, this is not to suggest that the Qohelet is being deceptive rather the intent was simply to adopt a Solomonic role “in order to explore different possible avenues as sources of meaning in life in the opening chapters of the book.”In other words, Qohelet was employing a literary device intended to get his audience into a perspective that would allow them to better grasp what was to follow.
Just as there is mystery surrounding the book’s authorship, the same is true for the book’s date and setting. Some have dated Ecclesiastes to the tenth century B.C. in the era of Solomon. One of the reasons given is that the linguistic similarities to Aramaic in the book reflect the close ties to Phoenicia and Syria that Solomon maintained during his reign.Another scholar has proposed a date prior to the eight century B.C. because of the absence of Hebrew vowel points in the texts.
Tremper Longman proposes a later date in the history of Israel. He has argued, along with other scholars, that the language and style used in Ecclesiastes leans more toward a late Hebrew and Aramaic date.However, in contrast, others have argued that the text was linguistically updated as it was copied – arguing that “the so-called late forms may not in fact have been original to the book but may reflect the updating of vocabulary and grammar by later scribes so their contemporaries could understand the book better.”
Beyond Longman’s proposal, there is a common position among scholars that place the date of Ecclesiastes during the Hellenistic period when Israel was under Ptolemaic control.The arguments for this position range from the great economic activity and social turmoil that may have supplied the backdrop for the author to the argument of autonomy of individual reason that was prevalent in Greek philosophy.Admittedly, this only adds to the mystery surrounding the book’s historical setting. Undoubtedly, the book was written in a specific time and place, but that has yet to be discovered.
In light of the above, what can be said is that the proposals for dating the book range from the time of Solomon to the Hellenistic period, which is a vast timeline. Broadly speaking, “the setting of the book appears to reflect a time of intellectual and theological crisis when the assumptions of traditional wisdom are being question and probed.”Indeed, this statement is suitable for many times but most of all for the probing questions of human-life that all experience to some degree. Until otherwise known, scholars must continue to be comfortable with the mystery that surrounds the book’s dating or at the very least, they must learn to live under the conditions of being uncomfortable until the precise date and author is made known.
Regarding the author’s location, there have not been very many suggestions. In the nineteenth century, some scholars argued that Qohelet lived and wrote in Alexandria.Others have suggested that Qohelet lived in Phoenicia. However, many have placed Qohelet in Jerusalem for several reasons. On this, Lucas states that “there are references to local conditions such as the rain (Eccl. 11:3; 12:2), the changes of the wind (1:6; 11:4), the use of wells and cisterns for water storage (12:6) and the almond tree (12:5, which are in fact, not compatible with an Egyptian setting for the book but are characteristic of Judea. Most significantly there are the references to the temple and sacrifice (5:1; 9:2).” That said, even with this internal evidence within the book itself, it cannot be stated with certainty that Qohelet lived and wrote in Jerusalem; however, the internal evidence for Jerusalem does appear to have more validity than the other proposals.
The structure of Ecclesiastes is difficult to define, which is due to the fact that it lacks a clearly structured argument. Unsurprising, this has led many scholars to propose a diverse number of positions regarding the books literary structure. To avoid a lengthy discussion on the varying positions, and to move into the author’s flow of thought, there is a general agreement that “Ecclesiastes 1:1-3 and 12:8-14 form a prologue and epilogue that frame the body of the book.”Further, scholars have proposed that the book was crafted by several editors while others have leaned toward a literary unity, which presupposes one.That aside, there is a flow of thought that occurs throughout the book, which will now be discussed.
Commentary: Tracing Qohelet’s Thoughts
After the ascription of 1:1, Qohelet introduces the term הֶבֶל(hevel). The literal sense of הבלis “vapor” or “breath,” and it occurs thirty-eight times in the book.Further, English translations such as the KJV, NKJV, ESV and NRSV have translated the term as “vanity” whereas the NIV uses the term “meaningless.” That said, Richard Fuhr states that “הבלis more than simply a descriptive term, but it is a situation, or state of being, that takes on the significance of being a key motif in Qohelet’s thought.”Fuhr then adds, “there is no doubt that the term plays a major role developing the mood, if not the message, of the book.”Within, 1:2, Qohelet uses the term five times, and on the last one he presents his argument that “All is הבל.”
After stating his argument, Qohelet follows up by asking the question, “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (Eccl. 1:3, ESV). With this, there are two states of existence to consider: the eternal and the temporal. It is important to note that Qohelet’s argument considers only the temporal here (under the sun) and does not consider God’s eternal realm. Further, this is the looming question that should be on the forefront of the reader’s mind as Qohelet moves forward. That said, it is important to recognize two other keywords: gain and toil – as well as the phrase – under the sun. All of these will reappear as the text moves forward.
Qohelet follows the question by addressing human beings living underneath the cycles of nature (1:4-9). He mentions things such as the earth, sun, wind, and streams – all of which remain forever in their cycle while generations of human life come and go. He then connects human beings to the nature cycle with the idea that there is nothing new under the sun (1:10). In other words, as nature is caught up in a seemingly endless cycle – so is humanity. Within the same idea, Qohelet adds that even if someone thinks something is new – it is not – they have only forgotten what has been done before (1:9-11). Simply put, all that a person has accomplished will eventually be forgotten with each passing generation. Qohelet seems to be focusing on the idea of remembrance here. No doubt, the thought of being forgotten as if one has never existed is pessimistic to say the least.
In vv. 1:12-18 Qohelet takes on the role of King Solomon (ironically, a character who will be remembered), and with this, he points out that he has acquired great wisdom (1:16). This is not to be taken as a boastful statement rather its intended purpose is to properly set the reader’s perspective on the impression that Solomon, with all his wisdom, is fully capable of providing the answers about human life and purpose. Within this passage, Qohelet provides a summary of what he set out to do, “to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven,” (1:13) and what he has discovered, “all is vanity (הבל) and a striving after wind” (1:14). It is important to recognize that both the question and the הבלmotif that were presented in 1:2-3 are deeply imbedded in 1:12-18.
In chapter 2, Qohelet begins to reveal the details of his search for wisdom under heaven, and he begins with a “controlled” experiment in self-indulgence.It is vital that the reader pay careful attention to v. 3 where Qohelet writes, “my heart still guiding me with wisdom.” Without these words, it would be very easy to presume that the “King” engaged in a wild exploration of uninhibited self-gratifying pleasure; however, this is a deep pitfall that must be avoided. One scholar has rightfully pointed out that “it does not refer here to pleasures that are sinful and forbidden by God.”One must keep in view that Qoheleth does speak of God’s gift of gladness or joy, to which he does not sever from his experiment and therefore, his experiment kept “wise” living in view.This is a perspective that must be maintained while moving forward.
Back on point, beginning with 2:4, Qohelet mentions certain aesthetic accomplishments such as vineyards, gardens, parks and pools. He also mentions his many possessions and continues to emphasize his height of privilege until 2:11. All of this leads to one thought – success. Unarguably, Qohelet is extremely successful and privileged and being only an observer, it is easy to argue the point that if one were king (like Solomon) they would be happy as well. However, Qohelet dismantles this faulty notion by saying this too is הבל(2:11).
From 2:12-17, Qohelet engages the reader in a discussion on wisdom in contrast to folly and he begins with the observation that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly (2:13). At this point, it should be noted that Qohelet cherishes wisdom over folly. However, this is not the main idea rather the main idea in this section is the dismal fact that death happens to both the wise and the foolish (2:14-15). As a result, Qohelet reminds the reader that because of death, both the wise and the foolish will be forgotten (2:16) which has led him to having a disdain toward life itself (2:17).
Qohelet continues with the discussion on wisdom over folly, but in vv. 18-24 he involves the idea of toil. Estes notes that the dominant term in this paragraph is toil, “which occurs eleven times either as a noun or as a verb [and] can refer to the toil of human activity, or more likely it is used as a metonymy for the wealth or achievement that toil produces and that is left for an heir to enjoy.”To this toil, Qohelet states is also הבל(2:23) However, rather than dive completely into the depths of nihilism, Qohelet provides a hint of what he is getting at, “for apart from him [God] who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” (2:25). This is perhaps the vital theological point that Qohelet is making. With this, Qohelet employs his audience to consider both life with and without God. Of great significance, Qohelet’s theology points to God as the source of enjoyment in life and he is making it very clear at this point.
Moving forward, in chapter 3, Qohelet addresses the topic of time. Just as everything in nature has its cycle in time, which was addressed previously, every activity that human beings engage in has its place in time (vv. 2-8). Provan points out that Qohelet is using the literary figure of merismus, which involves the statement of polar extremes as a way of embracing everything that lies between them and is a frequent feature of ancient Near Eastern literature.A clear example of this is in v. 3:1 where Qohelet uses the extremes of birth and death. This line seems to act as the connecting bridge between the closing of chapter 2 with chapter 3.Regardless, the umbrella theme in this portion of text is time.
With the reader focused in on time, Qohelet introduces another theological perspective with the following, “he [God] has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (3:11). If anything is to be understood here it is the fact that time eludes all human beings under the sun, but the same cannot be said for God who is eternal. Further, what Qohelet is expressing here is God’s omniscience against the limited boundaries of human understanding. On this, Fuhr suggests that “Qohelet’s theological anthropology implies an inner-dependence between the sovereignty of God and the imposition of limitation upon humanity.”This interdependency is evident in 3:11. The key thought here is that no matter how much or how little time is allotted, human beings will never grasp the mind of God. That said, the wise thing for all humans to do is to except this theological perspective and, in the meantime, enjoy the gifts that God has chosen to bless us with (3:20-22).
Qohelet closes out chapter 3 by addressing injustice, which he will revisit in several different ways in the coming chapters. Here, he leans on the retribution principle, which is visited in depth throughout the book of Job. Qohelet acknowledges that God’s judgement is certain; however, the temporal conditions of life under the sun contain both justice and injustice. Nevertheless, for both, time eventually runs out. Qohelet carries this idea into chapter four and then brings it to a conclusion in 4:3.
In 4:4, Qohelet abruptly shifts the reader’s focus over to a very brief discussion on the vice of envy and then makes another sharp turn to address the topic of companionship (4:7-12) Reminiscent of Genesis 2:18, where God addresses Adam’s existence before Eve, Qohelet draws distinctions between being alone and having companionship. Here, he is quite explicit that companionship is more beneficial than seclusion. It is important to note that Qohelet is not addressing the topic of companionship for no reason rather he is still addressing the main question proposed at the introduction on what is there to gain from all the toil? Here, he answers, in part, that “two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil” (4:9).
Qohelet closes out chapter 4 with a discussion that draws contrast between a wise youth and an old and foolish king (4:13). Admittedly, this section (vv. 14-16) is rather confusing and it seems that Qohelet is referring to a certain historical circumstance –or– he may be speaking allegorically. Regardless, some have proposed the biblical characters of Joseph or David, but regardless, there is much confusion surrounding this passage.That said, the passage appears to be tied into politics with a hint of injustice. Also, one cannot ignore the descriptive terms of the “wise” youth and the “old” and “foolish” king. Notwithstanding, Qohelet ends the chapter by restating his argument that “Surely, this also is vanity and a striving after wind” (4:16).
Qohelet begins chapter five with a warning to be cautious of one’s behavior as they approach God. The house of God, no doubt, draws the reader’s attention toward the temple; however, depending on when Qohelet was writing, it could be referring to the physical temple in Jerusalem -or- if the book is postexilic, like many presume, the house of God is a reference to any local worship site.That said, Qohelet emphasizes several important points between 5:1b and 5:7. Although not the first point, it is significant to note that Qohelet makes it clear that God is in heaven and human beings are on earth. With this, Qohelet provides the theological key to understanding this passage – that is, human beings must respect the distance between humanity and God and the fact that God is in heaven does not simply point out a location rather it implies that God rules over all things from heaven.Therefore, those who approach God must do so in reverence (fear of the Lord), which brings up the surrounding points of listening (שָׁמַע– Shama) over insincere and foolish sacrifices (v. 1), prayer (vv. 2-3) and honoring vows (vv. 4-7). Overall, the recognition that God is sovereign and that we are under His authority provides the umbrella theme of this passage.
With 5:8-9 Qohelet addresses the oppression that exists within the hierarchal structure where justice and righteousness should be. Government and political offices seem to be in view here and one interpretation suggests that “each ascending level of rule is more oppressive,” which paradoxically means that corruption occurs from top to bottom since the highest official has the most power.Notably, not all human beings are corrupt, but one cannot miss the fact that this is the third time Qohelet has addressed the issue of social injustice (3:16, 4:1). Regarding 5:9, there are several interpretations; however, there is scholarly consensus that this particular verse is perplexing – due to issues of syntax.
Qohelet gets straight to the point in vv. 10-11 by addressing his observations on the quest for wealth. The idea is that with the increase of wealth comes the increase of other things as well, which are not positive. Estes provides a contemporary illustration where a person purchases a house, and along with it comes increased expenses for maintenance, insurance, taxes, and furnishings.”Additionally, with wealth comes worry and unrest, but in contrast, it is the one who labors for a living and does not have a set focus on money and wealth who finds a deeper rest (v. 12).
In 5:13-17 Qohelet continues to discuss the concept of acquisition of riches; however, this time he combines two points together. First, he has observed that hoarding one’s riches is harmful to the one hoarding. Second, Qohelet has also seen wealth lost after being accumulated. Notably, aside from losing wealth “in a bad venture” (v. 14), no other explanation is given, which leaves the reader to accept the fact that it just happened. However, Qohelet may have combined these two points in order to show that no matter how much safety and comfort one tries to achieve through hoarding – life happens, and for whatever reason it can all disappear at any given moment. Besides, just as one enters the world with nothing the same is true for the exit. Simply put, no matter how much one accumulates, death will rob everyone of their riches.
Considering the above, in 5:18-20 Qohelet proposes that it is best to accept the things that God has given as gifts, and even more so, we are to enjoy them while we have them. As a reminder, this is a reoccurring theme that is knitted throughout the book. Granted, there is toil; however, in the midst of the toil enjoyment can be found. On this tension between toil and enjoyment, Fuhr states that “the relationship is not a simple one – just as joy can be received in the present as a gift from God or squandered for future loss in the excesses of hedonism, so too can toil be expended for fleeting gain or enjoyed in present satisfaction.”
With the arrival of 6:1, Qohelet shifts course and returns to a pessimistic perspective. While affirming that all enjoyment found in toil is a gift from God, Qohelet observes that some, although they have received God’s many blessings, He has not granted them the ability to enjoy them. The dilemma is that rather than enjoy what has been given to them, they are left to watching others enjoy their blessings. On this, Estes points out that “unless God gives the power to enjoy, no amount of material blessings under the sun will satisfy.”That said, the hovering point seems to be that if one cannot enjoy the things they have been given then what’s the point at even having those things? Even more so, the quest for more will not solve the dilemma (6:7-9). Therefore, it is better to control one’s desires and learn to find enjoyment with one’s current lot.
Qohelet closes out chapter 6 by revisiting one of his basic themes, that is, “events have been preordained and humans cannot change them.”Of course, God is the source of all of this and Qohelet does not shy away from His sovereign determinism; however, this does not negate the role of human responsibility.That said, 6:10-12 does seem to lean toward God’s meticulous providence.
In 7:1-14 Qohelet makes the argument that “perceived problems may not be as bad as they appear.”In order to make his points clear, he uses the “proverbial form of traditional wisdom in a way that calls into question the assumption that wisdom leads only to life, and folly leads only to death.One point of interest is within vv. 2-6. Although the tone is quite somber, Qohelet appears to be addressing the notion that when a person enters into deep reflection upon things such as death, then “once death is accepted, then one can begin to live genuinely, without delusions about what can and cannot be done in one’s life and lifetime.”That said, this does touch on the topic of spiritual formation through reflection.
In 7:15-24, Qohelet promotes a practical way of living by suggesting a middle way. He is rather clear that the extremes should not be visited, and one should not be overly righteous nor overly wicked. It is rather odd that he even suggests entertaining anything wicked; however, he resolves this by saying “the one who fears God shall come out from both of them” (7:18). Therefore, it is in the fear of God where the proper boundaries of living are placed.
Qohelet enters into a discussion in 7:25-29 that has raised eyebrows for some interpreters. Depending on how this passage is interpreted, the view toward a certain type of woman is negative. There are several proposals on how to interpret this passage; however, Provan attempts to clear the air by stating the following:
Our neighbors are women as well as men. This means that we must consider carefully how to handle a passage like Ecclesiastes 7:26-28 in the context of the whole Christian Bible, which knows that all human beings are made in the image of God and redeemed equally in Christ. It is, of course, true that some women set out to entrap and enslave a man (v. 26), but there is no reason, biblically or experientially, to think that they are greater in number than those men who set out to entrap and enslave a woman.
Notably, Provan may be avoiding the topic to which Qohelet is apparently comfortable addressing; however, this is no reason to miss the point that all should avoid the pitfalls of temptation by seeking out the wisdom of God and living in fear of God.
With an abrupt turn in thought, in 8:1-9 Qohelet sets the focus on living under the authority of the king; however, the overall section suggests that “the wise person submits to the structure that God has imbedded in his created order.”The proper approach to interpreting the idea in this passage resides within Israelite culture. Estes, points out that “it is evident from texts such as Ps. 89:19-21 that God has vested authority in the king, so if one is wise and fears God, then that person is bound to submit to the king’s authority as the mediated expression of God’s order.”Therefore, the king here sits “under” the authority of God’s sovereign reign.
Again, Qohelet revisits the theme of injustice beginning in 8:10. There are some interpretive issues surrounding the ancient text; but we are not left empty handed on its meaning. To the point: “The wicked may indeed die, but even then, they are buried and praised in the city where they did their evil deeds and religious posturing. It is the fact that the wicked continue to receive the praise owed to the righteous.”Qohelet clearly sees this as an injustice and to this he states is also הֶבֶל(v. 14). With 8:15, Qohelet returns to the motif that “man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful.” However, this time, he emphasizes the point that he commends joy.
In 8:16a Qohelet reminds the reader of his pursuit to know wisdom. In addition, he adds that he has observed the seemingly endless activities that the people are caught up in. On this Graham Ogden states, “presumably people are so preoccupied with their business that they never have the chance to sleep or rest properly.”That said, the chapter closes with a clear distinction between God and man that “in spite of hard labor, no one may figure what God is up to in the universe.”Although, this may appear to frustrate Qohelet, his perspective is correct that only God knows and not just that – God knows all things. The closing thought here is the acknowledgement of God’s omniscience.
Qohelet begins chapter 9 with a clear view of God’s sovereignty, which has been a vital motif throughout Ecclesiastes. Everything, according to Qohelet, whether living or dying, righteous or wicked is under the sovereign control of God. That said, it is important that the reader understand how Qohelet is using the anthropomorphic phrase, “the hand of God” in v. 2. Estes provides the clearest explanation, “Although some have suggested that the ‘hand of God’ refers to God’s protective care, as in Ps. 31:5, the next two verses in the passage make it clear that the hand of God ‘is not a consoling thought or a sign of predilection; it merely designates divine power, from which there is no escape.’”Further, God’s sovereignty means that human-beings are limited in both their knowledge and ability to fully understand God. This suggests a relational tension between God and human beings, of which Qohelet has wrestled and is proposing that others come to terms with in chapter 9. On this, Fuhr states that “Throughout the book of Qohelet one finds cosmological tension between the infinite Creator and his finite creation, and this relationship between the two forms a primary area of inquiry for the reflective sage.”
Underneath the umbrella of God’s sovereignty, Qohelet, in 9:3-6, discusses life and death, but not before he emphasizes the inevitable fate that all living things share – that is, death. To Qohelet, life is preferable, which he expresses in this section. Notably, Qohelet is not implying that human-beings should go about their “living” while doing their best to ignore the inevitable outcome of death rather Qohelet views living with an eye on death. Although, some may take this as pure nihilism, especially when lifting this out of its context – it is not. It must be remembered that Qohelet affirms that there is joy to be had in life, and joy is where he turns his attention to next.
The theme of 9:7-10 is given in v. 7, “Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.” The reader must be careful not to misinterpret what Qohelet is saying here. This is not a command to go and live life however one sees fit rather it is a life lived out in conformity to His will and character. That said, while there is life that God has blessed us with, it is a life to be enjoyed.
In 9:11-12, Qohelet builds everything around his observation that “time and chance happen to them all” (9:11). Estes proposes that with this passage, Qohelet is, once again, calling into question the assumptions of traditional wisdom.In short, “life, says Qohelet, is inscrutable, because it is not always predictable.However, the reader must keep in mind that where life is unpredictable and without guarantees – the opposite is true for God.
In 9:13-16, Qohelet turns his thoughts elsewhere to revisit the topic of wisdom. He does this by telling a quick narrative about a “great” king who attacked a “little” city. The contrast between things that are great and things that are little or few within this passage is obvious. The climax of the narrative occurs when a poor wise man saves the city from the “great” king’s attack. Clearly, it is wisdom that is the hero in this story; however, Qohelet makes the point that “no one remembered that poor man” (9:15). On this, Longman proposes that Qohelet is making the clear point that “Wisdom is fine in the short run, but meaningless in the long run.”What Longman seems to be saying is that even this great act of wisdom will eventually be forgotten. This mirrors Qohelet’s point in 1:11. However, Estes sees the main point differently and suggests that in this case, “wisdom is seen as valuable, even though it is not always recognized or rewarded.”Estes basically states the same thing as Longman; however, his proposal more aptly expresses the value of wisdom, regardless if it is forgotten. That said, Qohelet closes out chapter 9 with two acknowledgements. One, that wisdom is better and all the more preferable, and two – wisdom can be undermined by only a small amount of folly.
Qohelet continues his discussion on wisdom in chapter 10, and just as he employed the proverbial form in 7:1-14, he does the same with 10:1-20. Lucas has proposed that this collection of proverbs (9:17-10:15) is “loosely held together by the subject of wisdom and folly [and that] the statement in 10:1b seems to sum up the general theme of 9:17-10:4, that a little of a bad thing (folly) can spoil quite a lot of a good thing (wisdom).”Overall, the emphasis is that wisdom can be undermined by folly, which is carried over from 9:16. Additionally, it must be remembered that Qohelet understands wisdom as something to be upheld and cherished and he never recommends folly.
With 10:4-7, Qohelet revisits his observations on injustice. Interestingly, in vv. 6-7 Qohelet’s perception of the world is inversed, “in which the incompetent are in positions of power and influence, whereas the elite are in lowly positions.”Admittedly, Qohelet paints a confusing image here, to which Provan clarifies by stating that Qohelet is objecting to the “social upheaval in which those ill-equipped for government are elevated to high positions above those with wisdom and experience.”
With 10:8-11 Qohelet continues with the proverbial format and addresses the unfairness of life due to unpredictable occurrences. The proverbs of 10:12-15 shifts the focus over to the talk of fools. In this section, it is clear that Qohelet exalts the wise man’s speech, which wins him favor over the many words of the foolish.
Lastly, chapter 10 closes out with its focus on order in society. Estes states the overarching theme of 10:16-20, “When the leaders are disciplined rather than self-indulgent in their eating and drinking, they are able to serve the nation with propriety.”Although, it appears that Qohelet changes course in v. 18 where he addresses neglect and laziness, these too are related to order in society in a way that “both in buildings and in government, neglect leads to collapse.”In other words, an ordered society requires work.
Beginning in 11:1, “Qohelet endeavors to construct some basic principles for the wise life.”Of course, this is all in light of what he has learned through his observations of life under the sun, and what follows is his advice on “how the wise person should function within the context of the enigmas of temporal existence.”In vv. 1-2, Qohelet discusses the element of risk. Here, he seems to be stating that although there are things in life that cannot be discerned, there will always be some element of risk involved. Consequently, this should not keep a person from living their life. Moving forward, in 11:3-5, he discusses that in life there are things that are predictable – such as when a cloud is full of rain – it will most likely rain. However, this should not mean that every situation is predictable. Regardless of whether a situation is predictable or not, and regardless of the risk involved – a person must live their life.
Once again, in 11:5 Qohelet revisits the distinction between God and human beings. As a reminder, human beings are limited whereas God is not. The point here is clear, “you do not know the work of God who makes everything” (11:5). Notably, in this verse, Qohelet understands God as the giver of life, the one who determines all things, and the creator of everything. All of these things are consistent motifs within Ecclesiastes, and all of Qohelet’s thinking stems from his theology. This is evident in the fact that wherever God is not in view, life under the sun quickly declines into what many would call nihilism. Back on point, with the understanding that God knows all and we simply do not – Qohelet, in 11:6, stresses the importance of work. Estes states it best, “Our part consists in merely doing our duty and letting God take care of the outcome.”
Qohelet concludes chapter 11 with a reflection and instructions on youth, old age and death. With all aspects of life in mind, Provan points out that Qohelet’s advice here is “broadly similar to that in 9:7-10: Live life in the context of the reality of death.”It should be clear, from our reading of Ecclesiastes up to this point that Qohelet is not encouraging the young man of 11:9 to engage in a life of hedonism; rather he is exhorting a “life lived out joyfully in the world God has made and governs.”
With 12:1-8, Qohelet brings everything to a close. He begins with the call to “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth” (12:1). Interestingly, Estes points out that with this exhortation, “Qohelet abandons the view of life under the sun, in which only temporal, human existence is considered.”This is a vital point, especially when one considers that at the onset of the book, Qohelet set out to discover advantage under the sun, which was a temporal quest that did little to consider God and His eternity. It should be no surprise, then, that Qohelet has discovered what he most likely knew all along – that without God all is hevel – הבל. Further, with the exhortation “to remember,” it is for the purpose “of revolutionizing their lives, bringing them into conformity with God’s eternal and sovereign plan.”Lastly, while reading from 12:1 to 12:8, it is easy to see how Qohelet traces life from young to old and then ultimately to dust. That said, Qohelet does not leave the reader with the idea that everything ends in dust rather he states that “the spirit returns to God who gave it” (12:7).
Ecclesiastes 12:9-14 contains the epilogue of the book and scholars have proposed that it has been composed by someone other than Qohelet, of whom some refer to as the frame narrator.Notably, “it contains information about Qohelet (vv.9-10), a brief evaluation of his work (vv. 11-12) and a final admonition to the reader to ‘fear God and keep his commandments’ (vv.13-14).”
It goes without saying that within the book of Ecclesiastes, Qohelet addresses many theological topics – some of which are God’s sovereignty; God’s omniscience (seen in His ultimate wisdom); God’s divine determinism; God as creator; God as judge; and of course – the God who blesses. Moreover, it should be clear from the above exposition that everything Qohelet teaches stems out of his theology. That said, there does appear to be one theological message that is threaded throughout the entire fabric of Ecclesiastes, which is stated in the epilogue, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (12:13). Of course, this is a response to all that Qohelet has written, but the idea of “fearing God” carries the theological weight of the entire book. In the theological sense, to fear God means that the person acknowledges all who God is (sovereign, creator, judge, etc.) and then lives in light of that acknowledgement – by keeping His commandments. This is not without its rewards, for Qohelet sees God as the One who enables human beings to eat, drink and find enjoyment in work (2:24-25). On this, Provan states “there is pleasure here, to be sure, and enjoyment of the good things of life, but it is pleasure received from God’s hand and joy expressed in his presence.”Further, this provides an explanation to Qohelet’s question, “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (1:3).
Lastly, Ecclesiastes is a very deep and complicated book. It is complicated for the simple reason that it addresses life – and life is complicated. This is evident in the portions where Qohelet challenges the traditional wisdom-teachings of his day. Further, some approach the book from a pessimistic posture whereas others take more of an optimistic posture; and to them – the theme of הבלis balanced by the theme that joy is both possible and good.Hopefully, it has been clear that this paper has taken the optimistic posture. To close, there is joy in life, and that joy can be discovered most fully under the authority of the Trinitarian God.
The life that Qohelet examines is not much different than the lives many of us live out today. Most seek meaning, and even more so – the hope is to discover that life is not הבל. So then, what is meaning for the modern person living in the post-modern world where everything is subjectively askew? To ask it differently: what does Qohelet have to offer today?
First, and most obvious, Christian readers have the vantage point of reading all that Qohelet has to say through the lens of Jesus Christ. This allows Christian readers to put their faith beyond “life under the sun” and toward the promise of eternal life in Jesus Christ. Further, it opens up the window for a more optimistic reading of the book.
Second, it is not difficult to apply Qohelet’s ancient world to our world today. This is because his world was not much different than ours. Throughout the book, Qohelet takes a look at his world and sees people caught up in faulty pursuits. He observes how people constantly look for enjoyment in temporary things that will not last. Likewise, people are caught up doing the same things today. As a response, Christians are encouraged to seek out their joy in Christ (1 Pet. 8-9). Additionally, Christ tells us to build up our treasures in heaven and there – our hearts shall be (Matt. 6:20). As for toil, Qohelet does acknowledge that there can be joy in toil; however, he also addresses the struggle that so many endure. Christ also speaks to these burdens in life by saying, “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:30). These are only a few of many examples.
Lastly, Qohelet’s perspective of life under the sun can help shape our view and understanding of the world around us. Qohelet pondered on many things to which he had no answer, which is significant. Ultimately, Qohelet was exhorting a theological truth that God knows and we simply do not. This points out one vital distinction that although we are made in the image of God and share some of His likeness – He is God and we are not. That said, the take-away here is that the sooner we submit to the authority of God – the sooner we will begin to enjoy all that He has bestowed upon us. To close, then, the message appears to be the same, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Eccl. 12:13). – ἀμὴν.
Estes, Daniel J. Handbook on the Wisdom Books and Psalms. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005.
Fuhr, Richard Alan, Jr. An Analysis of the Inter-Dependency of the Prominent Motifs Within the Book of Qohelet. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, 2013.
Harris, R. Laird, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Chicago, IL: Moody Publisher, ©1980.
Longman, Tremper III. The Book of Ecclesiastes: The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1998.
Lucas, Eernes C. Exploring the Old Testament: A Guide to the Psalms & Wisdom Literature. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003.
Provan, Iain. Ecclesiastes/Song of Songs: The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001.
. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago, IL: 60610, Moody Publishers, 1980), 790. . Ibid. . Daniel J. Estes, Handbook on the Wisdom Books and Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 271. . Ibid. . Eernest C. Lucas, Exploring the Old Testament: A Guide to the Psalms & Wisdom Literature, vol. 3 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 146. . Lucas, 146-7. . Estes, 273. . Tremper Longman, The Book of Ecclesiastes: The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1998), 10. . Ibid. . Estes, 374. . Estes, 374. . Ibid., 275. . Lucas, 148. . Lucas, 152. . Estes, 277-8.. Ibid., 146. . Richard Alan Fuhr JR., An Analysis of the Inter-Dependency of the Prominent Motifs Within the Book of Qohelet (New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, 2013), 29. . Ibid. . Estes, 298. . Ibid.. Ibid. . Estes, 304. . Iain Provan, Ecclesiastes/Song of Songs: The NIV Application Commentary: From Biblical Text . . . to Contemporary Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 87. . Ibid., 87. . Fuhr, 102. . Estes, 325-6. . Longman, 150. . Estes, 327. . Ibid., 329. . Estes, 331. . Fuhr, 147. . Estes, 335. . Lucas, 156. . Fuhr, 186. . Estes, 340. . Ibid. . Ibid., 341. . Provan, 157. . Estes, 351. . Ibid. . Ibid., 353. . Longman, 222. . Ibid., 223. . Estes, 357. . Fuhr, 96. . Estes, 361. . Ibid. . Longman, 235. . Estes, 362. . Lucas, 158. . Estes, 364. . Ibid., 365. . Provan, 196-7. . Estes, 367. . Ibid.. Estes, 368. . Ibid. . Estes, 371. . Provan, 207. . Ibid., 212. . Estes. 373. . Ibid.. Longman, 274. . Lucas, 159. . Provan, 37. . Estes, 283.