Debate surrounds the interpretation of Ecclesiastes. Some early Jewish interpreters even suspected the canonicity of the book. It sometimes gives apparently contradictory advice. The book's author, who goes by the name "Qohelet" (translated in modern versions as "the Preacher" or "the Teacher"), can, on the one hand, say that he "hated life" ( 2:17 ), but, on the other, assert that a "live dog is better off than a dead lion" ( 9:4 ). Not infrequently, Ecclesiastes clashes with the teaching of other biblical books. For instance, while the Book of Proverbs advocates a total commitment to the way of wisdom, Qohelet says, "Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise" ( 7:16 ) and concludes that in the long run wisdom can get us no further than folly ( 2:12-16 ).
While, for these reasons, some Jewish interpreters turned away from Ecclesiastes, others justified its inclusion in the canon by straining its interpretation. The Targum to the book (Levine) is an instructive example. It, first of all, made explicit what the author skillfully and intentionally never stated, most notably the identification of Qohelet and Solomon. As all critical and many evangelical interpreters (notably Delitzsch and Young) have remarked, the two are not the same. Too many passages in the book could only be written by a nonroyal person ( 4:1-3 ; 5:8-9 ; 8:2-6 ). Nevertheless, the Targum makes the identification and this identification in part helped the religious communities accept the book. The same Targum stretched the interpretation of individual passages beyond all reason in order to turn Qohelet/Solomon into a teacher of pure orthodoxy. Thus, when Qohelet warns about the weariness of books, the Targum turns it into an exaltation of Torah study.
Early Christian interpretation took the same basic approach. It is noteworthy that the New Testament never directly quotes Ecclesiastes. The only mention of the book in the first centuries of the church is in the Shepherd of Hermas, and that book alluded to only the last two verses. It is in the third century that commentaries on Ecclesiastes are first attested.
These early Christian interpreters found theological meaning in the text through allegory. For instance, Qohelet's frequent refrain advocating his listeners to seek pleasure in eating and drinking is turned into an admonition to partake of the Lord's body and blood in communion. Ambrose finds a reference to the Trinity in the three-strand cord of 4:12.
The issue of the interpretation of Ecclesiastes continues to the present, with some commentaries arguing for an orthodox Teacher in the book who has a positive view of life. The theological contribution of the book, according to this approach, is its affirmation of the wisdom traditions of Proverbs and its encouragement of enjoying the little pleasures of the present life in the midst of a fallen world.
Such a view of the book, however, does not take into account the book's literary structure and treats certain, more negative aspects of the book, as secondary, or, if not, strains at the interpretation of individual words and passages to make it fit a preconceived idea of the function of the book.
On the contrary, the most natural reading of the book takes into account the presence of two speakers: Qohelet, who refers to himself in the first person in 1:12-12:7, and a second unnamed wise person, who describes Qohelet to his son ( 12:12 ) in the third person ( 1:1-11 ; 12:8-15 ). In effect, the speech of Qohelet is a quotation, which is framed by the words of the second speaker who is the narrator/author.
Qohelet's Theology (1:12-12:7). Qohelet is a wisdom teacher who struggles with the traditions of his people, including the normative traditions of a book like Proverbs. His most frequent refrain (and there are several of these) is "Meaningless, meaningless! All is meaningless!" He uses the term "meaningless" (hebel [l,b,h]) in well over twenty passages. The second wise person, in fact, introduces and concludes Qohelet's teaching with the refrain, as if to say, "This is Qohelet's basic conclusion."
Qohelet is not satisfied merely to state that everything is meaningless, but specifies a number of areas and shows why they have no value. For one thing, toil is meaningless. He gives a number of reasons why toil cannot give ultimate satisfaction. Someone might work hard and succeed, but then die and have to leave it all to someone who has not worked for it ( 2:17-23 ). Further, the motivation to work hard itself is evil because it springs from envy ( 4:4 ). What does Qohelet advocate in terms of toil? It is hard to say. On the one hand, he quotes a proverb to the effect that to cease work leads to destruction ( 4:5 ), but quickly follows this with a second proverb that encourages a tranquil lifestyle ( 4:6 ).
Qohelet also pronounces the world meaningless in light of the oppression he sees wherever he turns ( 4:1-3 ). The government itself is responsible for much of the suffering of the people ( 5:8-9 ). He is obviously moved by what he sees, but he never sees ways to soften the suffering of the oppressed or even to become one of the comforters that they lack ( 4:1 ). He never considers action (doubly surprising if he is actually a king), but seems resigned to it all: "Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what he has made crooked?" ( 7:13 ).
Perhaps most surprising of all is his attitude toward wisdom. If there was anything that should have appealed to a wise person in Israel, it would have been the value of his wisdom. For Qohelet, however, wisdom has only a limited, relative significance in comparison to folly. An examination of 2:12-16 illustrates his attitude. In the initial phase of his comparison between wisdom and folly, he sounds very similar to the teaching of Proverbs and concludes that "wisdom is better than folly" (v. 13). Wisdom allows a person to "get on" in the world (v. 14a). But this advantage is short-lived as Qohelet then contemplates the long run. Both the fool and the wise die, rendering void the benefits of wisdom (vv. 14b-16).
Qohelet's search for meaning leads him to consider many different areas of life on earth. He not only explores wisdom and toil; he also considers political power ( 4:13-16 ), riches, large families, and long life (5:8-6:12). In each of these areas, he encounters "meaninglessness" and expresses his frustration that life is the way it is. As we read his reflections, we are struck by two inescapable facts of human existence that are the source of his anguish: death and the inability to control and know the appropriate time.
In terms of the latter, it must be remembered that it was of crucial importance for a wise teacher to know the right time. The Book of Proverbs does not give a list of truths that are always, everywhere appropriate, but a series of principles that are to be applied at the right time. The wise speak the right word at the right time. They know the conditions under which they should answer a fool ( 26:5 ) and when they should refrain ( 26:4 ). Qohelet, as a wise man, knows that there are right times for certain activities: "There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven" ( 3:1 ). He also is fully aware that God "made everything beautiful in its time" ( 3:11 ). But he also understands that he cannot share God's knowledge. As a human being he can never be certain that this is the "right time, " and this lack of knowledge, this lack of certainty, frustrates him to the point that he thinks that life "under the sun" is meaningless. Humans cannot know what will happen to them next, during or after life, "No one knows what is coming who can tell him what will happen after him?" ( 10:14 ). "Since no man knows the future, who can tell him what is to come?" ( 8:7 ). This leaves humans at the mercy of "time and chance" ( 9:11 ). They cannot even know when they are going to die: "Moreover, no man knows when his hour will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so men are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them" ( 9:12 ).
But humans do know one thing for certain. They know that they will die. "For the living know that they will die" ( 9:5 ). And this knowledge frustrates Qohelet more than any other, so he reflected on it at great length.
We have already seen how death nullifies wisdom's advantage over folly ( 2:12-16 ). The same is true for hard work and the riches that come from work. Why bother working hard throughout life when at death it will go to some worthless person or even a person that you do not know ( 2:17-23 )? Death renders every status and achievement of this present life "meaningless."
Further, as far as Qohelet knows for certain, death is the end of the story. He is not drawing his hearers/readers to the edge of despair just so he can tell them about the bliss of an afterlife. According to the Preacher, "the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten." In the long run there is no difference between humans and animals, for "all go to me same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return" ( 3:20 ). Indeed, Qohelet's last words in the book are a sad and moving reflection upon death, describing a person's end using three image clusters: growing old and dying is like watching the storm clouds move in and ruin a sunny day ( 12:1-2 ); it is also like an unmaintained house, slowly falling apart ( 12:3-5 ); it is like a severed rope, a broken bowl, a shattered pitcher, and a ruined wheel ( 12:6 ). Life is valuable on the short run; the rope is silver after all, but it is completely ruined at death, when the process of creation is undone and the body turns to dust and the spirit returns to God. The fundamental unity of a person as established at creation ( Gen 2:7 ) is thereby reversed and undone. Qohelet has no hope that things will be "put right" after death.
What is the theological message of Qohelet's speech? Life is full of trouble and then you die.
Some interpreters attempt to mitigate this hard message by appealing to six passages that they interpret as offering a positive view toward life ( 2:24-26 ; 3:12-14 ; 3:22 ; 5:17-19 [Eng. 18-20]; 8:15 ; 9:7-10 ). In the first place, however, Qohelet only suggests a limited type of joy in these passages. Only three areas are specified eating, drinking, and work. Second, Qohelet's introduction to pleasure is hardly enthusiastic. For instance, in 2:24 he puts it this way: "A man can do nothing better than " He believes that this joy comes only from the hand of God, a situation that brings him no ultimate satisfaction (see 2:26 c; where he pronounces it "meaningless" ). Indeed, it is clear throughout the book that, although God grants enjoyment to some, Qohelet does not identify himself among the privileged few.
It is more in keeping with the book as a whole to understand these passages as they have been taken through much of the history of interpretation, that is, as a call to enjoy the day (carpe diem). In the darkness of a life that has no ultimate meaning, seize upon the temporal pleasures that lighten the burden.
The Theology of the Book as a Whole. Qohelet's pessimistic theology is not the concluding voice in the book. A second voice is heard in the book at the beginning ( 1:1-11 ) and at the end ( 12:8-15 ), placing a frame around Qohelet's speech and providing the perspective through which we should read his opinions. Many interpreters have acknowledged this function of the epilogue, although different explanations have been provided (for instance, 1:12-12:7 is the speech of Solomon as a young man and 12:8-15 ; contains his reflections late in life ). When the structure of the book is taken into account, then we can understand how this rather unorthodox teacher can stand in the canon.
An analogy with the Book of Job further clarifies the situation. The Book of Job, in the main, is constructed of a dialogue between Job and his three friends, a conversation that is concluded with Elihu's monologue. While each of these speakers presents a perspective that in some respects conforms to normative biblical teaching, none of them offers the final perspective. This perspective comes only at the end when God speaks from the whirlwind. It is the Yahweh speeches that provide the prism through which the rest of the book must be understood just as the second wise teacher's epilogue provides a hermeneutical grid for the Book of Ecclesiastes.
What does this normative voice tell the reader? In the first place, the second unnamed wise teacher gives a cautious approval to Qohelet's words ( 12:9-10 ), and indeed, as we think about what Qohelet says, we can see that he does accurately describe the situation on the earth apart from God ("under the sun"). To use language from elsewhere in the Bible, Qohelet aptly describes the frustrations of life in a postfall world, a world suffering under the curse of the covenant. As a matter of fact, the one allusion to Ecclesiastes in the New Testament confirms the truth of his insight. In Romans 8:18-22 Paul explains why the world seems so meaningless to us: "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God."
The world was subjected to frustration, the Greek word used in the Septuagint to translate "meaningless" (hebel [l,b,h]) in Ecclesiastes. It is no wonder that Qohelet failed in his search for meaning under the sun. It simply is not there.
The epilogist, however, is not satisfied with Qohelet's conclusions. He registers criticism of Qohelet's conclusions in 12:11, 12 (obscured in the NIV by its debatable translation and capitalization of "shepherd, " which is more probably a reference to human teachers). He tells his son that the words of the wise are like "goads" and "firmly implanted nails, " both images of pain if nothing else. He warns him "of them" (not of "anything in addition to them"). And although the translation of verses 9-12 of the epilogue may be disputed, no one doubts the last two verses of the epilogue turn for the first time to a clear and ringing statement of the right way to go:
Now all has been heard; br here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the whole duty of man.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.
In a short compass, the shaping voice of the Book of Ecclesiastes affirms the major tenets of Old Testament religion. It advocates a "right relationship" with God (fear God) that manifests itself in an obedient lifestyle (keep his commandments) and cites the coming judgment as a motive. In this way, Qohelet affirms the Pentateuch, Wisdom, and Prophets. Here we have the gospel in a nutshell in Old Testament language.
From a New Testament Perspective. The message of the book in its Old Testament context continues to have force today. We are to "fear God, " obey his commandments, and look for the coming judgment. But from our New Testament perspective we can see how Jesus Christ allows us to transcend the meaningless of the postfall world.
Indeed, Jesus Christ subjected himself to the meaningless of the world under covenant curse so we might live meaningful lives. We may observe in the Gospel accounts how Jesus moved from one meaningless situation to another. When he was born, the inn had no room and he was born in the manger where the animals lived. John tells us that he, the Word of God, was born in the world, but the world "did not recognize him" (1:10).
Jesus felt the full effects of the covenant curse. This may be seen clearly toward the end of his earthly ministry. While enjoying brief popularity after the triumphal entry, he was rejected by humanity in stages. First the crowds abandoned him, then the broader circle of his disciples left him. The Gospel narratives pay special attention to Peter and Judas: one denied him and the other rejected him. But the climax of his experience of the postfall world comes when he is hanging on the cross and his Father abandons him, so that he cries: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" ( Mark 15:34 ).
Christians read this and rejoice because they know that Jesus suffered the world under curse in order to release them from the meaninglessness of the fall. Thus, all the areas that Qohelet struggled with (work, riches, wisdom) may be properly enjoyed and are imbued with meaning. After all, Jesus Christ did away with the one thing that bothered Qohelet the most death. Jesus Christ subjected himself to the curse of death ( Gal 3:13 ) that we might be released from that curse and find meaning in him.
Tremper Longman III
Bibliography. F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 6; M. V. Fox, HUCA 48 (1977): 83-106; idem, Qohelet and His Contradictions; J. Jarick, Gregory Thaumaturgos' Paraphrase of Ecclesiastes; E. Levine, The Aramaic Version of Qohelet; T. Longman III, Ecclesiastes; W. Kaiser, Ecclesiastes: Total Life; G. S. Ogden, Qohelet; R. N. Whybray, Ecclesiastes; S. Woudstra, Koheleth's Reflections upon Life; E. J. Young, Introduction to the Old Testament.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Ecclesiastes, Theology of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".