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3. Ecclesiastes

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I. Introductory data.

The name of this book in the Hebrew is Qoheleth from the word qahal to call an assembly (the verb) or an assembly (the noun). (Note the similarity to Greek kaleo and English “call”). The LXX working from ekklesia translated it as Ecclesiastes or one who speaks to an assembly. The idea of the “preacher” is not so much the modern one, but refers to a teacher of disciples.

Tradition relates this book to Solomon, and the opening chapters (1:1, 12, 16) imply that he is the subject. When this is added to Solomon’s identification with wisdom literature in general, it is possible that Solomon was the author.1 But it could just as easily come from a later king. “Son of David” merely means descended from David (cf. Matt. 21:9).

We must keep in mind the place of wisdom literature in progressive revelation. The concept of the afterlife was ill-formed and dim. The emphasis was on this life, and blessing was viewed in terms of long life, full days, and gray hair. Sheol was a dim dark place where all went at death. It was unknown and unknowable. Only the NT revelation brings the light of Christ’s resurrection to bear on the problem of the afterlife (Heb. 2:14-15). The NT believer has hope as never before. The OT saint had hope beyond the grave, but it was circumscribed by the limits of his revelation. Consequently, the preacher’s message refers to this life. It would appear that Qoheleth is designed to counter a glib, unbridled optimism about life. We have seen that the proverbs are generalizations that teach what normally happens. However, there are always exceptions to the generalization. Qoheleth is dealing with the “buts” of life: the exceptions to the generalizations.

Qoheleth sounds pessimistic. He is often called a skeptic, but if that were true, life would be so futile it could only lead to suicide. On the contrary, he says: “Go then, eat your bread in happiness, and drink your wine with a cheerful heart; for God has already approved your works” (i.e., enjoy life) (9:7). Delitzsch aptly points out that while the book of Esther makes no direct mention of God, Ecclesiastes refers directly to God 37 times (there are also 38 references to “vanity”). “The Book of Qoheleth is, on the one side, a proof of the power of revealed religion which has grounded faith in God, the One God, the All‑wise Creator and Governor of the world, so deeply and firmly in the religious consciousness, that even the most dissonant and confused impressions of the present world are unable to shake it; and on the other side, it is a proof of the inadequacy of revealed religion in its O. T. form, since the discontent and the grief which the monotony, the confusion, and the misery of this earth occasion, remain thus long without a counterbalance, till the facts of the history of redemption shall have disclosed and unveiled the heavens above the earth.”2

Qoheleth argues that while wisdom teaching is correct, there are many exceptions to it. Normally, just living will produce long life and wicked living will produce shortened lives, but this is not always the case. Wisdom teaching says that there is a proper time for everything. Qoheleth says, “yes there is, but only God knows what that time is.” Consequently, since we do not know the future, we can only trust God for it and live the present with keen enjoyment even as we expect some calamities to take place. People are responsible to use well what God has given, e.g., wealth. The balanced life is the emphasis. Yet, God will ultimately judge everything, so we must be careful how we live.

Contribution to OT Theology. LaSor, et al. list the following contributions to OT theology:

A. Freedom of God and Limits of Wisdom.

1. People are limited by the way in which God has determined the events of their lives (1:5, 7:13).

2. Human creatures are limited by their inability to discover God’s ways. They know He controls their lives, but they cannot understand how or why (3:11).

B. Facing Life’s Realities.

1. Grace—2:24ff; 3:13 (God gives to man the ability to enjoy life).

2. Death—2:14f; 9:2f. Death is the great unifying force. It is inevitable and comes to all alike.

3. Enjoyment. Even though toil dominates Qoheleth’s thinking, he speaks often of joy or enjoyment—2:24f.; 3:12, 22; 5:18‑20; 7:14; 8:15; 9:7‑9; 11:8f.

C. Preparation for the Gospel.

There is no explicit prophecy or even typology that refers to the Gospel, but “its realism in depicting the ironies of suffering and death helps explain the crucial importance of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Qoheleth’s insistence on the inscrutability of God’s ways underscores the magnificent breakthrough in divine and human communication which the Incarnation effected.”3

II. Outline of Ecclesiastes.

A. Introduction (1:1‑11).

1. The author is Qoheleth, the son of David, King in Jerusalem. This requires it to be a king and possibly Solomon. But the point is not to provide biography but a philosophy.

2. The main idea of the book is set out in verse 2 with the oft recurring phrase: “Vanity of Vanities.” This word is used 38 times in the book. It is intensive in 1:2; 12:7: “the most futile.”4 The word “God” appears 39 times in the book. “Under the sun” occurs 29 times.

3. The preacher begins to develop his theme: the repetitive nature of life (1:3‑11).

a. People come and go in the same way (1:3‑4).

b. Nature comes and goes (1:5‑7).

The sun (1:5).

The wind (1:6).

The rivers (1:7).

c. People are not able to comprehend all that transpires (1:8).

d. Nothing new occurs; all that is, was (1:9‑10).

e. Each new generation forgets what went on before (1:11).

B. The preacher provides a counterpoint to the teaching of wisdom by showing the exceptions to the general rule (1:12‑18).

1. His position allowed him to pursue wisdom (1:12).

2. His search showed him that life is full of futility (1:13‑16).

a. The crooked cannot be made straight (i.e., what God has done cannot be undone) (1:15).

b. Wisdom, though it is the result of fear of the Lord, brings pain because of the knowledge it provides (1:17‑18).

C. The preacher sets out to determine what would make life worthwhile (2:1‑26).

1. He discusses the process of the search (2:1‑11).

a. He tested pleasure, laughter, and wine (2:1‑3).

b. He tested building projects (2:4‑6).

c. He tested life through slaves and other experiences including concubines (2:7‑8).

d. He had more than anyone had before him—the result was futility (2:9‑11).

2. He evaluates what he has learned (2:12‑17).

a. He acknowledges that wisdom is better than foolishness (a standard wisdom teaching, of course) (2:12‑14).

b. Yet, he says, both the wise man and the fool must die and there is no memory of them (2:15‑16).

c. As a result, he is despondent about his life (2:17).

3. He draws a conclusion from his observations (2:18‑23).

a. Since he must leave the results of his labor to others, he hates it (2:18).

b. Even though he does not know whether his heir will be a fool or a wise man, the heir will control the fruit of Qoheleth’s labor and receive that for which he has not labored (2:19‑21).

c. The laborer has nothing to show for his labor (2:22‑23).

4. This brings him to his ultimate conclusion: to the theme of the book (2:24‑26).

a. A person must simply enjoy life as it is and not worry about it (2:24a).

b. The ability to enjoy life is a gift from God (2:24b‑26).

D. Qoheleth argues that God has a time for everything, but people do not know what that time is (3:1‑23).

1. He lists 14 pairs of opposites to show that there is a time for everything (3:1‑8).

2. He argues that in this lifetime, even though God has set eternity in the heart (a God consciousness?), man cannot find out God’s work (3:9‑11).

3. He concludes again that the only thing a person can do is enjoy the life God has given him (3:12‑13).

4. He argues strongly that God is responsible for the universe and everything in it (3:14‑15).

5. In spite of that fact, there is injustice and inequity in the world, but God will judge people ultimately (3:16‑17).

6. He concludes that God wants people to see their limitations; that they really are like the animal kingdom (3:18‑21).

a. Both people and animals die and go back to the dust (3:18‑20).

b. No one can actually prove that the breath (spirit) of a human goes up (to God) and that the breath of the animal goes down to the earth (3:21). (Does this not show that an idea existed of direction after death?)

7. He reiterates his earlier conclusion—that people must simply enjoy life and not worry that they cannot control events (3:22).

E. Qoheleth discusses again the pain and struggle in the world (4:1‑16).

1. Because there is so much inequity, he says it is better to be dead (4:1‑3).

2. He argues that skill and labor come about only because of rivalry (4:4).

3. He argues that the fool is a fool because he is not fulfilling his God‑given task of working and therefore enjoying life (4:5).

4. He argues that honest rest is better than striving in rivalry to succeed against others (4:6).

5. He argues that it is silly to work hard if you have no heir to receive the legacy (4:7‑9).

6. He uses a series of proverbs and shows the exceptions (4:9‑16).

a. Two are better than one—but it is bad if there is only one (4:9‑10).

b. Two warm one another—but a single person will be cold (4:11).

c. Two are strong as is a cord of three strands (4:12).

d. A poor, wise youth is better than an old foolish king (4:13‑16).

He was wise enough to rise from prison to the throne (4:14).

The second lad must be the lad spoken of above (4:15).

The crowds thronged to him at the beginning, but were later unhappy with him (4:16).

F. Qoheleth uses proverbs to urge care in worship (5:1‑7).

1. He urges precision in worship (sacrifice) (5:1). (James says “be not many teachers.”)

2. He urges care in speaking to God (5:2‑3). (Much thought should be given to spiritual communication.)

3. He says that vows should be made carefully and fulfilled when made (5:4‑5).

4. In fine he says that care and limits should be placed upon all religious activities, since God is going to hold us accountable for them (5:6‑7).

G. Qoheleth returns to his discussion of the vanity of life (5:8‑20).

1. Oppression and self-aggrandizement unfortunately are part of the system of human rule (yet, Qoheleth seems to imply that God is watching over them—to judge them) (5:8).

2. An agrarian system in which the king is identified with the earth rather than the despotic system of the normal ruler is better (5:9).

3. Lust for money will bring dissatisfaction (5:10‑12).

a. Money will not bring satisfaction to its seekers (5:10).

b. More money will bring more people to consume it (5:11).

c. Honest labor brings sweet sleep (5:12).

4. Hoarded riches will not bring satisfaction (5:13‑17).

a. Riches are hoarded to one’s own harm (5:13).

b. A bad investment can set him back to nothing (5:14‑15).

c. He is no better off than when he was born (5:16‑17).

5. The preacher comes to his now recurring conclusion: enjoy life and do not worry over it (5:18‑20).

a. God has given people the privilege of enjoying their work (5:18).

b. God has empowered them to eat from their wealth (5:19).

c. By keeping themselves busy and enjoying life, he will not fret over the brevity and difficulty of life (5:20).

H. Qoheleth speaks of the ignorance of what is to come after one dies (6:1‑12).

1. He addresses the problem of not being able to enjoy the results of one’s labor (6:1‑6).

a. Some men have plenty, but a stranger receives the man’s goods (6:1‑2). (Does this refer to pillaging by other nations?)

b. Some have many children, but nothing else and die in poverty. They are worse off than a miscarriage (6:3‑6).

2. He speaks of the futility of laboring hard to meet human needs, but the needs are never satisfied (6:7‑9).

3. He speaks again of the people’s ignorance of the future (6:10‑12).

a. Nothing is new, and man is limited. God is greater than man, therefore, man cannot argue with God (6:10‑11).

b. No one knows what is good for man. His life is like a shadow (6:12). (cf. 7:1.)

I. Qoheleth uses proverbs and their flip side to deal with the realities of life (7:1‑14).

Man’s limitations prevent him from explaining everything, and so wis-dom has its limits. Even so, there are some things better than others.

1. The reality of death (7:1‑4).

a. A good name is good—but death is a reality (7:1). (Because it ends life.)

b. To go to the house of mourning is better than that of feasting, because it reminds us of the reality of death (7:2).

c. Sorrow is better than laughter for it provokes serious thinking (joy should be tempered with seriousness) (7:3).

d. Intelligence requires sober thinking about death (7:4).

2. Wisdom is better than foolishness (7:5‑7).

a. Wisdom is better if for no other reason than that it is difficult to listen to fools (7:5‑6).

b. Wisdom brings mental anguish to the wise because he discerns oppression. The connection of this thought with bribery is difficult to see, unless it means that the wise man advises against such conduct, and when it is ignored, he is troubled (7:7).

3. He gives a series of practical wisdom teachings (7:8‑9).

a. End of a matter is better than the beginning (a good beginning is fine, but the obtaining of the goal is better) (7:8).

b. Patience is better than pride (7:8b).

c. Anger is devastating (7:9).

4. He gives a summary statement showing his theology (7:10‑14).

a. It is foolish to compare the present with the past (7:10).

b. Wisdom has its advantages (7:11‑12).

c. God is sovereign but inscrutable (7:13).

d. Enjoy prosperity while it exists but recognize that God is also the author of adversity. This keeps man humbly unaware of what will come after him (7:14).

J. Qoheleth speaks further on the limits of wisdom and the necessity of bal-ance (7:15‑29).

1. He says that wisdom has limits (7:15‑22).

a. Wisdom teaches that the righteous man lives long, and the sinner dies early—Qoheleth says he has seen the opposite (7:15).

The pursuit of wisdom and righteousness will not protect believers from vanity hevel. Yet, in the fear of God, one responds to His special revelation and submits to his general revelation, thus producing righteousness and wisdom.

b. Consequently, he argues that since wisdom does not guarantee long life, one should not overly exert himself in obtaining it (7:16).5

c. The corollary statement is to avoid wickedness lest it result in early death (7:17). (Perhaps he is arguing that one should shake himself loose from legalism, but not go to a life of license.)

d. Qoheleth’s final statement is that a wise person lives a balanced life (7:18).

e. Wisdom indeed strengthens a wise man more than ten rulers in a city, but even so, wise men sin. Therefore, even wise men must be listened to with care (7:19‑20).

f. In the same way one should avoid taking too seriously negative comments by his servants (especially when he himself may have spoken in the same way in a light moment) (7:21‑22).

2. Qoheleth says that he has searched out wisdom (7:23‑29).

a. He was unable to understand the past (7:23‑24).

b. He tested folly and foolishness (7:25).

c. His biggest disappointment was a woman of snares (7:26).

d. Few men (one in a thousand) are worthy, but he found no worthy women (7:27‑28).

e. God designed men to be upright, but they have sought out many ways not to be upright (7:29).

K. Qoheleth questions wisdom teaching in the matter of authority and when to do things (8:1‑9).

1. Wisdom is beneficial because it tells one when to make decisions about authority (8:1).

2. Qoheleth says to obey the king because he is in charge and will cause much trouble if there is disloyalty (8:2‑4).

3. Qoheleth deals with the other side of the proverb that there is a right time to do everything. No man controls the day of his death or anything else, so obey authority (8:5‑9).

L. Exceptions to wisdom ideas do not vitiate them (8:10‑15).

1. The wicked die and enter (tombs? perhaps read qevarim muba’arim קְבָרִים מוּבָאִים), but those who do justice (ken כֵּן) are forgotten (8:10‑11).

2. Sometimes sinners live long lives and righteous people do not (8:12‑14).

3. In light of this, Qoheleth commends a balanced enjoyed life (8:15).

4. He concludes with the statement that wise men have severe limits on what they can know (8:16‑17).

M. A common destiny for all demands a balanced life (9:1‑18).

1. No one knows his destiny (9:1).

2. Death awaits all as a common destiny (9:2‑6).

3. Therefore, enjoy life (God has approved enjoyment), for this is the reward (9:7‑10).

4. Victory is not to those of whom it is expected; so, balance is required (9:11‑13).

5. Wisdom is indeed beneficial, but the wise man often goes unrecognized (9:14‑17).

6. Furthermore, one sinner can do as much harm as one wise man, and it only takes a few flies to make perfume stink (9:18—10:1).

N. Qoheleth gives a series of proverbs to illustrate his last point (10:2‑20).

1. Wise men know the direction of good, but the fool is always lost (10:2‑3).

2. Tact in dealing with even an angry ruler will bring good results (10:4).

3. The social order sometimes is upside down (10:5‑7).

4. Misconduct will often lead to self-hurt (10:8‑9).

5. Sharp tools are more productive! (10:10‑11).

6. Fools and unnecessary words go together (10:12‑15).

7. A land with a youth for a king and lazy prince is in trouble, and the converse is true (10:16‑17).

8. Laziness creates many problems (10:18).

9. Pleasant things are nice, but they cost money (10:19).

10. Keeping one’s own counsel is the safest approach (10:20).

O. Qoheleth says that since we do not know what the future holds, we should be diligent to do good (11:1‑10).

1. Cast bread on many waters, divide your portion, sow your seed (11:1,2,6).

2. The reason is that we do not know the future (11:4, 5, 6b).

3. Enjoy life to the fullest and expect bad days (11:8).

4. Rejoice in youth and recognize that God will judge you for your conduct (11:9‑10).

P. The Creator is to be remembered in youth while the opportunity exists (12:1‑8).

1. Youth is urged to enjoy God while he is able (12:1‑5).

a. Before the time of difficulty (evil) (12:1).

b. Before the body wastes away (12:2‑5).

Watchmen—eyes (Delitzsch says “arms”).

Mighty men—shoulders or legs.



Doors—mouth (jaws).

Grinding mill—noises.


2. Youth is urged to enjoy God before death (12:6‑8).

a. The silver cord, golden bowl, pitcher, and wheel represent life (12:6).

b. The mortal body will return to the earth, and the spirit will return to the God who gave it (12:7).

c. All is transient (12:8).

Q. Qoheleth concludes his discourse (12:9‑14).

1. Qoheleth accomplished much in the sphere of wisdom (12:9‑10).

2. Qoheleth warns his students to pay attention (12:11‑12).

3. Qoheleth concludes with the teaching that it is proper to fear God, keep his commandments, and recognize that we must all be judged by Him (12:13‑14).

Structure/synthesis of Ecclesiastes

Heading (1:1‑2).

Introduction to the problem (1:3‑11).

ROUND ONE—God/man and use of human resources (1:3—2:23).

Inquiry into the problem (1:12‑2:23).

Wisdom (1:12‑18).

Pleasure (2:1‑11).

Wisdom better but results same (2:12‑17).

Results of Wisdom/work are beyond human control (2:18‑23).

Conclusion (2:24‑26).

“There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and tell himself that his labor is good. This also I have seen, that it is from the hand of God. For who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him? For to a person who is good in His sight He has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, while to the sinner He has given the task of gathering and collecting so that he may give to the one who is good in God’s sight. This too is vanity and striving after wind.”

ROUND TWO—God/man and predictable events (3:1-22).

Major premise: God has sovereignly appointed a time for everything (3:1‑8).

Minor premise: Man has no profit in his toil, for he cannot discern God’s time even though he has eternity in his heart (3:9‑11).

Conclusion (3:12‑13).

“I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and to do good in one’s lifetime; moreover, that every man who eats and drinks sees good in all his labor—it is the gift of God.”

Sub-major premise: God is involved sovereignly in the events of history so that men should fear Him. Inequity will someday be set right (3:14‑18).

Sub-minor premise: Man should recognize his utter dependence on God and his human limitation (3:19‑21).

Sub-Conclusion (3:22).

“And I have seen that nothing is better than that man should be happy in his activities, for that is his lot. For who will bring him to see what will occur after him?”

ROUND THREE (4:1—5:17).

He gives a series of proverbs and observations to warn people to be careful and to point up the futility and temporality of life (4:1—5:17).

Conclusion (5:18‑20).

“Here is what I have seen to be good and fitting; to eat, to drink and enjoy oneself in all one’s labor in which he toils under the sun during the few years of his life which God has given him; for this is his reward. Furthermore, as for every man to whom God has given riches and wealth, He has also empowered him to eat from them and to receive his reward and rejoice in his labor; this is the gift of God. For he will not often consider the years of his life, because God keeps him occupied with the gladness of his heart.”

ROUND FOUR—Limitations of Wisdom (6:1—9:1).

Conclusion (8:15).

“So I commended pleasure, for there is nothing good for a man under the sun except to eat and to drink and to be merry, and this will stand by him in his toils throughout the days of his life which God has given him under the sun.”

Major conclusion to this point in the book (8:16—9:1).

“When I gave my heart to know wisdom and to see the task which has been done on the earth (even though one should never sleep day or night), and I saw every work of God, I concluded that man cannot discover the work which has been done under the sun. Even though man should seek laboriously, he will not discover; and though the wise man should say, “I know,’ he cannot discover. For I have taken all this to my heart and explain it that righteous men, wise men, and their deeds are in the hand of God. Man does not know whether it will be love or hatred; anything awaits him.”

ROUND FIVE (9:2—11:10).

Major premise: All people have the same fate (death) (9:2‑6).

Death is the great leveler. God deals with man in his arrogance to show him he is no better than animals.

Conclusion (9:7‑10).

“Go then, eat your bread in happiness, and drink your wine with a cheerful heart; for God has already approved your works. Let your clothes be white all the time, and let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the woman whom you love all the days of your fleeting life which He has given to you under the sun; for this is your reward in life, and in your toil in which you have labored under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, verily, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or wisdom in Sheol where you are going.”

Major premise: Not ability but time and “chance” determine outcome (9:11—11:4).

Second major conclusion (1:5‑6).

“Just as you do not know the path of the wind and how bones are formed in the womb of the pregnant woman, so you do not know the activity of God who makes all things. Sow your seed in the morning, and do not be idle in the evening, for you do not know whether morning or evening sowing will succeed, or whether both of them alike will be good.”


Life is fleeting, enjoy your life while you are young and recognize your responsibility to God as you enjoy it. There are many dark days ahead; bear them in mind as you enjoy the happy days. The Creator should be remembered while you are young, for the time will come for old age and a return of the spirit to God who gave it. The ne plus ultra word is “Fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil” (12:13‑14). There is nothing worthwhile apart from the fear of God. Ecclesiastes, however good, is an inadequate philosophy of life. The new dispensation also says, “lay hold of life heartily” (Col. 3:17), but there is an eternal motivation that Qoheleth did not have.

More Thoughts on Ecclesiastes

God’s sovereignty:

God does things in the world that cannot be changed. “What is crooked cannot be straightened, and what is lacking cannot be counted” (1:15 with 7:13).

The idea that there is a time appointed for everything (3:1-8) implies that God is sovereignly in control of the events of this life. This idea is taken up in 9:1 when he says that “righteous men, wise men, and their deeds are in the hand of God.” A similar idea is found in 11:5 where God’s work is beyond man’s knowledge.

God’s work in the lives of people (3:9-11) as well as the fact that God’s work will remain forever (3:14) and that nothing can be added or subtracted from it, indicates that God is sovereign.

God has the ability to “empower” men to enjoy life and by implication to restrict them from enjoying it. Hence, he controls the destiny of people (6:2).

God’s inscrutability, if not sovereignty, is taught when Qoheleth says that man cannot discover the work of God which He has done under the sun (8:17).

Many of the things listed here can also be subsumed under “man’s limitation,” but the implication is that God is so controlling the events of this life (under the sun) that man’s limitation is a natural result.

Man’s limitation

Whatever profit, advantage (yether יֶתֶר) means, the implication of 1:3 and other verses like it is that man is limited in his ability to enjoy life. Related to this is the inability of man to comprehend the vast creation of God (1:8). This sounds a bit like Job who is silenced when challenged to do this very thing.

Man’s ignorance of life is set out in 3:11 (“yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end”), in 7:14 (“So that man may not discover anything that will be after him”) and in 7:24 (“What has been remote and exceedingly mysterious. Who can discover it?”), and 8:17 “Even though man should seek laboriously, he will not discover; and though the wise man should say, ‘I know,’ he cannot discover.” A concluding statement is made about man’s ignorance of life in 9:1, “righteous men, wise men, and their deeds are in the hand of God. Man does not know whether it will be love or hatred; anything awaits him.” His ignorance extends to the time events will transpire: 8:7-8 “If no one knows what will happen, who can tell him when it will happen?” This same sentiment is echoed in 11:5-6 where the ways of God cannot be anticipated or known. Unexpected and unhappy things happen beyond one’s control according to 9:12.

One’s inability to control the events of his life is graphically stated in 9:11: “the race is not to the swift, and the battle is not to the warriors, and neither is bread to the wise, nor wealth to the discerning, nor favor to men of ability; for time and chance (peg‘a פֶּגַע) overtake them all.” This inability is also expressed in 6:2 where God allows a foreigner to eat the wealthy man’s goods.

In tones reminiscent of Job, Qoheleth states (without complaining as Job does) that one cannot dispute with God in 6:12 (“for he cannot dispute with him who is stronger than he is”).

Above all, man’s limitation is illustrated in the matter of life and death. They have only a few days under the sun (2:3); death levels any attempts to climb in life (3:19-20); one leaves life naked just as he entered it (5:16).

Limits of Wisdom

In his opening unit, Qoheleth uses the word “wisdom” five times to say that he used wisdom in the sense of special ability to accomplish something without producing answers to the riddle of life (1:13-18). Furthermore, all the wealth gained by wise actions is eaten up (6:7-9). By wise action, one should be able to learn what life is all about, but Qoheleth says that all his efforts only led him to the conclusion that the wise man cannot really say, “I know” (8:17). The fool and the wise man suffer the same fate, even though “wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness” (2:12-14), and the wise man cannot control what happens to the stuff he accumulated by wisdom after he is gone (2:19-21).

At the same time, it is important to understand that Qoheleth does not deny the importance and primary place of wisdom. He says that a “poor but wise lad is better than an old and foolish king who no longer knows how to receive instruction” (4:13). “Wisdom,” he says, “strengthens a wise man more than ten rulers who are in a city” (7:19), even so, no one is perfect (7:20). Wisdom is good because it allows a person to understand a matter (8:1); a poor wise man was able to deliver a city from the siege of a great king, and so wisdom is better than strength (9:13-18), but the poor wise man was soon forgotten (9:15). Proverbs extolling the virtues of wisdom are found at 10:10-12 and 7:5-7, 11-12. Finally, “the words of the wise are like goads, and masters of these collections are like well-driven nails; they are given by one shepherd” (12:11). That the concept of wisdom is important to Qoheleth is indicated by the fact that ḥokmah (חָכְמָה) and ḥakam (חָכַם) appear some 59 times. Other key terms are “God” Elohim (אֲלהִים) (39 x’s); “vanity” hevel (הֶבֶל) (38 x’s) “under the sun” taḥeth haššemesh (תַחַת הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ) (30 x’s); “fear” yare’ (יָרֵא) (6 x’s).

Teaching about death

Death for Qoheleth is the linchpin of his argument. In spite of the advantages of wisdom in this life, the wise and the fool die alike (2:16); worse yet, both humans and animals die alike. They all go to the same place (3:19-20; 6:6). The phrase “Who knows that the breath of man ascends upward and the breath of the beast descends downward to the earth?” is taken by Eaton6 to mean “who knows the spirit of man which ascends upward?” In other words, the agnosticism is about the breath/spirit, not whether it goes up or not. He bases this on the clearly positive note in 12:7 where the spirit returns to God who gave it. Either way, he is arguing that we are abysmally ignorant about death. Death is humbling, for after entering the world naked and striving to become “something,” man dies and leaves the world naked (5:15-16). Not only does death humiliate us, we cannot even predict when it will come about (8:8). Because of the bitterness of oppression, Qoheleth congratulates the dead more than the living (4:1-2).

What happens to a man after he dies under the sun is unknown (6:12). The phrase “under the sun” appears some 30 times in the book and should indicate to us that Qoheleth is limiting his discussion to what is observable. He does not enter into the discussion of the afterlife (which he apparently believes in according to 12:7), he is only concerned with this life. Experientially, one cannot know what is beyond the grave. In this sense he can say that a living dog is better than a dead lion (9:4), and that no one knows anything in death. There is no activity or planning or wisdom in Sheol (9:10).

The concluding statement in the book (if 12:9-14 is an addendum by the author) speaks of the process of ageing and dying, culminating with a return of the body to dust and the spirit to God. The young person is admonished to remember his creator while he is young, for these declining days will come quickly enough.

Responsibility to God

In spite of the argument often made about the negative tone and “this worldliness” of Qoheleth, it is instructive to see his attitude about human responsibility toward God. The clearest statements are found in 3:17-18: “God will judge both the righteous man and the wicked man.” This may indeed be in this life (as the rest of the verse may indicate), but man is responsible for his actions to God, nevertheless; 11:9: “Ye know that God will bring you to judgment for all these things”; finally, the last verse in the book says: “For God will bring every act to judgment.” Ecc. 3:15 is difficult, but the NIV renders it: “Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before; and God will call the past to account.”

Implications of accountability come from the idea that man cannot eat or have enjoyment without God (2:25); that God has given a task to man (3:9); that offerings and vows made to God must be carried out properly (5:1-2, 4-7; 8:2); that labor is a gift from God (5:18; 6:2); and that God will reward those who fear him (8:12).

The importance of trusting and rejoicing

Much of what we have discussed of Qoheleth’s philosophy to this point can be justly characterized as negative and pessimistic. It comes from the musings of one who has carefully observed life from the perspective of wisdom and has become frustrated with the apparent contradictions to the teaching to wisdom. The tension between his faith in the ultimate outworking of wisdom teaching versus the painful observations of violations of that teaching are illustrated in 8:12-13. His experience tells him that sinners do not always die young nor do righteous people always live to an old age, but his faith tells him that “it will be well for those who fear God, who fear Him openly.”

His faith in God gives him the confidence to go on living in spite of the conundrums of life. More even than mere living, he is to rejoice in the life that God has given him. It will contain both good and bad, but he wants to rejoice in the good and be prepared to endure the bad. It seems to me that the “rejoice” sections fit into the cycles of the book as well. The passages are 2:24-26; 3:12-13; 3:22; 5:18-20; 8:15; 9:7-9; 11:8-9.

Given our ignorance about the future (let alone the afterlife), our confidence in the sovereignty of God, and the limitations of man and his wisdom, it is best to trust God for what is going to happen and to live a balanced life. (Is this the meaning of not being excessively righteous, overly wise, or excessively wicked or a fool? (7:16-17). This then is the message of the book, we cannot control our lives, only God does that. We cannot know everything, only God is omniscient. We cannot determine when we will die or what will happen to us, all that is in the hands of almighty God. What are we left with, discouragement and despair? Not at all “Whatever your hand finds to do, verily, do it with all your might” (9:10 with Col. 3:17, 23). Progressive revelation brings hope unthought-of in the Old Testament, but the teaching of Qoheleth is just as relevant today as it was then. Even with our additional information, the things he speaks of “under the sun” are as inaccessible to us today as they were to him. Consequently, we can learn much about trusting and rejoicing.

1See Gleason Archer, A Survey of OT Introduction, for a discussion of the authorship.

2Keil and Delitzsch, Job in Commentary on the Old Testament, p. 184.

3LaSor, et al., Old Testament Survey, p. 599.

4See ““Vanity’ It Certainly is not,” The Bible Translator 38:3 [1987] 301-07. He argues for the meaning of “frustration.”

5If “excessively righteous” means “overly scrupulous,” then “excessively wicked” probably means “not to be careless in conduct.”

6M. A. Eaton, Ecclesiastes in Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Downers Grove: IVP, 1983, pp. 87-88.

Related Topics: Introductions, Arguments, Outlines, Teaching the Bible

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