The Theology of Ecclesiastes
Since man is not able to discover the key to life by exploration, Qoheleth counsels him rather to enjoy life as a gift, in fear of the good and sovereign God.
Part 1: The Hebel World
“. . . Qoheleth deliberately chose a word with a calculated ambiguity; he skillfully employed it in a variety of contexts so that several associated meanings could be communicated without the use of synonyms. . . It must be emphasized that Qoheleth nowhere uses hebel pejoratively or with morally negative connotations. For Qoheleth hebel is a neutral term expressing brilliantly in its figurative nuances, the limitations of human activity and human wisdom” (R. Cover, “Hebel in Ecclesiastes,” Th.M thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1978, p.76.)
The Meaning of Hebel
Qoheleth consistently uses hebel with the nuance of “transient” of “fleeting” when he uses the term to describe man’s life (11:10; 6:12; 7:12; 9:9; 3:19).
Qoheleth uses hebel with the nuance of “perplexing” or “enigmatic” if occurrences upon earth which contradict the established moral order (6:2; 8:10; 8:14).
Qoheleth employs hebel often with the nuance of “futile,” “fruitless,” “unbeneficial.”
With reference to pleasure and wisdom, Qoheleth employs the hebel with the nuance of “profitless” (2:1; 2:15)
- With reference to events under the sun generally, to the laughter of fools and to bequesting one’s estate to an heir, Qoheleth employs hebel with the nuance of “profitless/futile” (1:2; 12:8; 2:19, 21, 23, 7:6).
- With reference to a stillborn child and to death, Qoheleth employs hebel in the sense of obscure or “unknown” (6:14; 11:8)
Qoheleth employs hebel in conjunction with re’uth ruach or ra’ayon ruach to denote a futile effort [(cf. Jn 3:8) 1:14; 2:11,17,26; 4:4, 16; 6:9]
. . . Here is the connection of hebel with Qoheleth’s characteristic formula re’uth ruach or ra’ayon ruach (1:14), which is to be rendered “feeding on wind” (Heb.) or “striving after wind” (Aram.). For in this combination hebel has its basic figurative meaning in the central passages, as in the royal statement of 1:12ff., with which the book originally opened. Prominence is thus given to the more intensive thought of breathing or striving for air, which symbolically undergirds statements about “vanity” (TDOT v3, p. 310).
Qoheleth employs hebel in contradistinction to yithron (profit) and tobh (good) and other terms which heighten the vividness of hebel.
- The absence of yithron for activity is “profitless.”
- The lack of tobh in activity is “unbeneficial.”
Among the words used in antithesis to hebhel, yithron, “profit, advantage, gain” plays a dominant role as a term meaning “that which counts or matters,” “that which results or issues from all our work.” It forces upon hebhel the special sense “that which does not count or matter, “null,” “vain,” “that which yields no results.” Along the same lines, we find other antithetical terms such as cheleq, “part, portion,” (2:10) . . . tobh, “good” (2:3, 6:9), yether, “profit, advantage” (6:11). On the other side the parallel words tsel, “shadow,” and ruach, “wind” (5:15, 16) emphasize the aspect of fleetingness or transitoriness, while the additional terms choli, “affliction” (6:2), and ra’ah, “evil” (2:12) make the meaning of hebhel even clearer. (TDOT, v3, p. 319)
Qoheleth’s goal is to find what is lastingly tobh (good) or gives abiding yithron (profit, advantage). However, in his quest he finds nothing permanent in man’s experience, hence his verdict—hebel. (E.g. 1:3, 2:3, 11, 3:19, 5:6)
Qoheleth’s observations about the hebel nature of existence fall into two categories: Those things concerning creation and the present order which confront him on every hand and cause him to perceive the hebel condition of the world, and all human endeavors by which a man seeks for “profit and good” but which ultimately mock his attempts.
Qoheleth reflects upon creation and the present order which cause men to realize their hebel nature. (H. Baker sees these observations as “the causes of futility.” However, the ultimate cause is found in the fall of man as recorded in Genesis 3 and the fact that God has subjected the creation to vanity as Paul observes in Romans 8:20. The observations of Qoheleth drive home to man vividly, the fallen state of creation, but they are not properly causes of futility.)
Qoheleth observes the cyclical patterns in nature and concludes that the meaning to life cannot be found in the created order (1:5-8).
Qoheleth then looks at man for progress in history and technology as possibly giving the key to life, but concludes that any apparent progress is only illusionary, and that this does not held the key to life (1:9-11).
Qoheleth ponders the fact that the righteous and the wicked both suffer the fate of death, and concludes that this is another example of hebel (2:14, cf. 8:14).
Qoheleth observes the common fate of man and beast as another example of hebel (3:19).
Qoheleth sees that the reordering of the present order is beyond man’s control (1:15, 7:13).
Qoheleth sees prevalent injustice in the world as another example of hebel (3:16, 4:1, 5:7, 8, 7:15).
Qoheleth also sees the moral order overturned in his experience and concludes that this is hebel (8:14).
Qoheleth laments that the profit from his labor will be left to another and is hence hebel (2:18).
Qoheleth sees the fact that the future after death is unknown (11:8).
Qoheleth observes all human endeavors by which a man seeks “profit” and “good” to give meaning to life, and concludes that they are all hebel (1:14, 12:8).
Qoheleth concludes that toil is hebel because it is motivated by greed, does not yield happiness, and is impermanent.
- Toil is hebel because it is motivated by the competitive desire of one man to get ahead of another. In trying to outstrip one’s neighbor, one forfeits rest and enjoyment of life (4:4-6).
- Toil is hebel because it is motivated by greed. A rich man continues to amass riches with no thought as to the reason why and consequently deprives himself of the enjoyment of them (4:8).
- The result of toil does not yield satisfaction, but days filled with pain and nights without sleep, due to worry (2:23, cf. 2:11), and is hence hebel.
- The fruit of a man’s labor cannot be enjoyed by him but must rather be left to another who did not labor for them and who may be undeserving. Hence, toil is hebel (2:18, 21).
- A minimum of effort to meet life’s basic needs is superior to advancement through toil (4:4-6).
Qoheleth concludes that wealth is hebel because it does not satisfy nor bring enjoyment, but rather brings anxiety (2:4-10, 4:17, 5:9).
- Wealth is hebel because it brings anxiety rather than fulfillment (5:10-11).
- Wealth is hebel because it can be easily lost through a rash vow, through oppression or through a bad investment (5:1-6, 5:8-9, 5:14).
- Wealth is hebel because rather than give satisfaction, it demands increased vigilance to keep it (5:12).
- Wealth is hebel because it brings misery (5:6).
- Wealth is hebel because a man may not enjoy it (2:26, 4:8).
- Wealth is hebel because it does not satisfy (5:9).
Qoheleth concludes that wisdom is hebel since, rather than give meaning to life, it gives only a temporary advantage.
- The pursuit of wisdom yields grief and is thus hebel (1:18).
- Wisdom is hebel because its advantages are seen in this life only (2:15).
- Wisdom doesn’t guarantee success since its advantage can be vitiated by various means. It is thus hebel (10:10).
- Wisdom’s advantage can be thwarted by unpredicted misfortune (9:11).
- Wisdom’s advantage can be thwarted by sin and folly (9:18, 10:5-7).
- Wisdom’s advantage can be thwarted by improper timing (10)8-11).
- Yet wisdom is not valueless. It has great relative advantage in this life.
- Wisdom is superior to folly since it illumines a man (2:14, cf. 8:1).
- Wisdom is superior to strength in that it can bring victory even against seemingly impossible odds (9:16, 18).
- Wisdom is superior to fame because fame is so fleeting (4:10-14).
- Wisdom has an advantage in averting calamity (9:14-18, 8:1-9).
- Wisdom has an advantage as a protection and in preserving life (7:12).
Qoheleth concludes that pleasure-seeking in its various forms is hebel because it ultimately accomplishes nothing (2:2).
- Sensual gratification, while pleasing for the moment, yields no lasting benefit (2:3, 8, 11).
- The pleasure derived from the accomplishment of ambitious undertakings is only temporary (2:4-6, 11).
- The pleasure derived from great wealth brings no lasting satisfaction (4:4-10,11).
- The pleasure derived by fools is of the briefest nature (7:6).
- Pleasure is hebel since it yields no yithron (profit, advantage) (2:11).
Qoheleth concludes that fame is hebel since it is short-lived, depending on the masses who have only the briefest memory (4:13-16).
SUMMARY. Qoheleth’s verdict on life, beginning to end, is that it is all hebel (1:2, 12:8). “But is this verdict true? This is what Koheleth examines for us, turning life over and over in his hands so that we see it from every angle. And he forces us to admit that it is vanity, emptiness, futility; yet not in the sense that it is not worth living. Koheleth’s use of the term ‘vanity’ describes something vastly greater than that. All life is vanity in this sense, that it is unable to give us the key to itself. The book is a record of a search for the key to life. It is an endeavor to give meaning to live, to see it as a whole and there is no key under the sun. Life has lost the key to itself. ‘Vanity of vanity, all is vanity.’ If you want the key you must go to the locksmith who made the lock. ‘God holds the key to all the unknown.’ And He will not give it to you. Since, then, you cannot get the key, you must trust the locksmith to open the doors.” (J. Stafford Wright, “The Interpretation of Ecclesiastes” in Classical Evangelical Essays in Old Testament Interpretation, Baker, 1972, p.140)
A Good and Sovereign God
The Name of God
Qoheleth uses the term Elohim to refer to God 40 times in the book. The use of this name for God looks at his role as the sovereign creator who is transcendent over his creation. Elohim is employed particularly to drive home the point of God’s universal providence and sovereignty over all creation, who is thus to be feared and worshipped.
The personal name of Israel’s covenant-keeping God does not appear in Ecclesiastes, not because, as some have suggested, that Israel had passed beyond the need for a narrow nationalistic deity, nor because Qoheleth was estranged from an intimate relationship with YHWH (Yahweh), but because of the universal nature of his subject (“all,” “under the sun”). With a subject of common application to all mankind, the use of God’s name YHWH in his special covenant role with Israel, is inappropriate. This same preference for Elohim over YHWH can be seen in other wisdom literature as well.
The Attributes of God
Qoheleth, contrary to the opinions of many of his interpreters, has a theology proper which is totally orthodox. He is neither cynic nor skeptic. His concept of God falls well within the bounds of Old Testament orthodoxy.
Qoheleth sees as basic to God’s nature, the fact that he is good. That is, that which disposes him to be kind, cordial, benevolent and full of good will toward men.
- Eating and drinking with enjoyment and seeing good in one’s labor are gifts from God (2:24-25, 3:13, 5:17, 18).
- Wisdom, knowledge and joy are gifts of God (2:26).
- Wealth and riches are God’s gifts (5:17,18).
- The enablement to enjoy riches is God’s gift (5:18,19)
- Life itself is a gift from God (5:17,18).
- Problematical is the sense of eternity which God has places in man’s heart. The fact that there is a further purpose in God placing this sense of eternity in man, probably means that it should not be seen as a free gift and an expression of God’s goodness (3:11).
Qoheleth sees God as the total sovereign over all of creation. By sovereignty of God it is meant that as creator of all things visible and invisible, God is the owner of all; and he, therefore, has absolute right to rule over all.
Qoheleth sees God as sovereign over time, in the sense that he foreordains a time for every event (3:1-14).
Qoheleth believes that God is sovereign over eternity since he places the longing for it is man (3:11).
Qoheleth believes that God is sovereign over all men whether wise, righteous, or sinner, and is recognized as such.
- The events concerning men are in the hand of God (9:1,2:26).
- Men recognize God as sovereign (5:1-3).
Qoheleth believes that God is sovereign over wealth and enjoyment (6:1-2,2:26).
Qoheleth believes that God is sovereign over both prosperity and adversity (7:14).
Qoheleth believes God is sovereign over all events (7:13,1:15, 3:1-14).
Qoheleth sees God a just and righteous.
- God rewards men on an ethical basis for both good and evil (8:12,13).
- God will judge men’s deeds (11:9,12:14, 3:16-18).
- God’s righteousness is seen in the fact that he created men morally upright (7:29).
- God punishes irreverence (5:4-6).
Qoheleth believes that God is eternal, since he places a sense of eternity in man, and that he judges all deeds (3:11, 12:14).
- God placed eternity in men’s hearts (3:11).
- The fact that God will judge all, implies that he is eternal (12:14).
Qoheleth understands that God is wise; that is, he attains his ends in a way that glorifies him most.
- He gives wisdom to men as a gift (2:26).
- He sovereignly appoints a time for everything (3:1-14).
- God’s works are beyond man’s comprehension (7:14, 8:17).
Qoheleth believes that God is immutable, his being and perfections are unchanging. He sees the results of God’s activities as immutable. The necessary inference is the, that God’s character is unchanging.
- God’s works are forever unchangeable in that nothing can be added or taken away from them (3:14).
- The world system is closed and has fixed, immutable order that man is unable to alter (7:13, cf. 1:15).
Qoheleth believes that God is omniscient.
- God has decreed all that has happened and will happen (3:11).
- He is the source of knowledge (2:26).
- God knows all things, whereas man does not (11:5).
- The fact that God will judge every work, implies omniscience (12:14).
Qoheleth sees that God is omnipotent. This attribute is closely tied with sovereignty and is also reflected by Qoheleth’s consistent use of Elohim.
- The use of ‘asah (made) reflects His power.
- God made everything appropriate (3:11)
- God made men upright (7:29).
- God is said to have made all things (11:5).
- The use of ma’eseh also reflects His power.
- Man is not able to alter the work of God (7:13).
- Man cannot discover the work of God (8:17).
Qoheleth believes God is transcendent. God is in heaven (5:1).
Qoheleth believes that God is inscrutable. Man cannot discover the work of God (3:11, 8:17).
The Works of God
God is seen by Qoheleth at work in creation
Qoheleth has a highly developed theology of creation, reflecting the opening chapters of Genesis (cf. Kaiser, p.36).
- Man is to live in companionship (Ecc. 4:9-12, 9:9, cf. Gen. 1:27).
- Knowledge has God-given limits (Ecc. 7:29, 8:11, 9:3 cf. Gen. 3:1-6).
- Life involves tiresome toil (Ecc. 1:3, 2:22, cf. Gen. 3:14-15).
- Death is inevitable for all mankind (Ecc.9:4-6, 11:8 cf. Gen. 3:19,21).
- Order and regularity in nature are God’s blessing (Ecc.3:11-12, cf. Gen. 8:21-9:17).
He speaks of man as being made of dust (Ecc.3:20, cf. Gen. 3:19).
Qoheleth sees God as the creator of man (Ecc. 12:1, 7:29).
Qoheleth sees God as the creator of all things (11:5).
God’s continuing work in the world is seen in providence
- God has ordained all men’s affairs (3:10-11).
- The years of a man’s life are from God’s providence (5:18).
- Adversity and prosperity are both from God’s providence (7:14).
- Enjoyment of life is due to God’s providence (2:24, 3:13, 5:19, 9:9).
God is seen at work in the world in judgment
- God will judge man according to His own time schedule (3:17, 11:9, 12:13-14).
- God will judge men on account of broken vows (5:6).
- God will judge every act of man (11:9, 12:14).
- God will judge sinners who deny God’s retribution (8:11-13). The fact of God’s judgment becomes the basis for Qoheleth’s exhortation to fear God.
Man Under the Sun
The terms for man
Adam (49 times) Qoheleth uses Adam generically for mankind. The term is universal and encompasses both male and female.
Ish (10 times) The term Ish is used specifically denoting an individual or man in contrast to a woman. (For a contrast in Qoheleth’s use of these two terms see 9:15).
The nature of man
The material aspect of man is termed basar (flesh).
Qoheleth uses the term basar as the practical equivalent of the body.
- The “flesh” experiences sensual pleasure in the stimulation of wine (2:3).
- The flesh is wearied by much study (12:12).
Qoheleth uses basar to refer to the person as a whole.
- A man’s speech can cause the “flesh” to sin, i.e. body or person as a whole—metonymy part for whole (5:5,6).
- It is the “flesh” which experiences pain. Again, here probably a metonymy is involved (11:10).
- Problematical is Ecc. 4:5, “the fool folds his hands and consumes his flesh.” Due to contextual considerations, this use of “flesh” should probably be understood in the sense of “meat,” rather than his own body.
The immaterial aspect of man is referred to as “spirit,” “soul” and “heart.”
Qoheleth’s use of ruach, “spirit,” and nephesh, “soul,” appear to overlap.
Nephesh is what results when basar is animated by ruach. This last comes from without, only Yahweh possess it in its fullness, since occasionally he can be identified with it. . . .Ruach ceases to be a power lent to man and becomes a psychological reality residing in man in a permanent manner, and like nephesh able to be the seat of faculties and desire. . . .In the latest texts there is a tendency to identify the two terms with ruach predominating. . . .In spite of the tendency to merge, there remains a perceptible difference. . . “the spirit is the motive power of the soul.” It does not mean the centre of the soul, but the strength emanating from it and in its turn reacting upon it. (Jacob, O.T. Theology, p. 161-162)
Qoheleth uses ruach (spirit) in both the sense of the seat of emotion, and the “breath of life.”
- Ruach (spirit) is used as a near synonym for nephesh.
- The spirit can be either patient or proud (7:8).
- The spirit is the place of violent emotion, particularly anger (7:9, 10:4).
- Ruach (spirit) is used as the animating life principle.
- Men are unable to discern a difference in the fate of the breath of a beast and breath of a man (3:19, 21).
- The ruach (spirit) is that which is given by God and returns to Him at death (12:7).
Problematical is whether Qoheleth believes in an afterlife. The fact that he even raises the question in 3:19-21 seems to indicate that he believes that man is not merely the highest of the beasts. The fact that he states explicitly that God will bring every deed into judgment, coupled with the fact that he explicitly denies that every deed is judged during this life, indicates that he believes in some kind of an afterlife, although he nowhere speculates upon its nature.
Qoheleth uses nephesh as a near synonym for ruach, yet the nephesh seems to be joined more closely with the flesh than it the ruach.
- Nephesh (soul) is used of the seat of the intellect; a man tells his soul that his labor is good. (2:24)
- Nephesh (soul) is used of the intellectual faculty of man which seeks an explanation to a question (7:28).
- Nephesh (soul) is used of the appetital desires which can either be satisfied or suffer privation (6:2, 3, 7, 9).
Qoheleth uses heart as the seat of the intellect and the emotions.
- “Nephesh is the soul in the sum of its totality, such as it appears; the heart is the soul in its inner value. . . . The Israelites were able to observe that impressions and emotions coming from outside influenced the heart, retarding or accelerating its movement. They were also able to prove that life depended as much upon the heart as on the breath and thus were led to make the heart the source of life (Prov. 4:23). From that double assertion they made the heart. . .an organ both receptive and active, an idea which is perfectly suitable for the seat of knowledge.” (Jacob, O.T. Theology, p. 164)
- Heart is used in the sense of the organ of intellectual understanding as that which seeks, explores, investigates, applies itself to learn, know (1:13, 2:3, 22, 7:25, 8:6, 16, 9:1).
- Heart is used as the seat of emotions particularly joy (7:3, 9:7), and desire (11:9).
- The heart is used as the intellectual faculty which chooses good and evil. Specifically it denies retribution and thus makes the choice for moral evil (8:11, 9:3).
The condition of man “under the sun”
Qoheleth affirms the universality of sin among men (7:20, 7:29).
- The hearts of men are full of evil (9:3).
- The soul of man is avaricious (6:3).
- The mouth of men curses other men (7:22).
- A man may prolong his life by evil deeds (8:12,7:15).
- Evil deeds abound because of a lack of swift retribution (8:10).
- The sinner destroys much good (9:18).
- Man does have a moral choice about participating in evil (8:3, 11:10).
Qoheleth sees man as ignorant.
- He is ignorant of the work and plan of God (8:17, 3:11).
- He is ignorant of the life processes (11:5).
- He is ignorant of the future both in this life and after death (6:12, 7:14, 11:5, 3:20).
Qoheleth sees a man’s life as transient (1:4, 2:3, 6:12, 11:10).
Qoheleth concludes that man is compelled to seek for an answer to the meaning of life. It is a task which wearies him and causes him grief and is doomed to ultimate failure. The failure of the search seems to be designed by God to bring men to a point of trust. As Augustine said, “Thou hast made us for Thyself and the heart of man is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.”
- Man’s fate is the same as the beasts (3:19).
- Death is the common fate of all men (2:12-17).
- Death is a fate shared by man and beast (3:18-20).
- Death is the cessation of opportunities with regard to this life (9:5-6).
- The memory of the dead is forgotten (9:5).
Qoheleth does not express explicitly a belief in a hereafter. However, he hints that he does believe in some form of afterlife without making any comment upon its nature (cf. II. A. 3. above).
Qoheleth repeatedly admonishes men to “fear God” (3:14, 5:6, 8:12, 12:13). While not commanding a naked feeling of terror, the Old Testament admonition to fear God presupposed a sense of the awesome majesty of God and his holiness. The fear of the Lord involves a reverence and respect for God because of his greatness and an ordering of one’s life in light of this knowledge. (cf. ZPBE, sv. “fear,” and Payne, Theology of the Older Testament)
- One demonstrates his fear of God by obeying Him (12:13, 12:1).
- Fear of God produces reticence before Him (4:17-5:1).
- Fear of God impels one to fulfill vows to Him (5:3).
Qoheleth urges men to enjoy life as a gift from the hand of a good God rather than futilely pursue the key to life.
- Man cannot discover lasting “good” or “profit” (1:3, 2:3, 3:11).
- He should enjoy life as a gift from God (2:24, 3:12, 3:22, 5:17, 9:7-9).
- He should remember that enjoyment is a gift from God (3:25, 5:18,19).
- He should remember that failure to enjoy life is worse than never having lived (6:3).
Qoheleth’s advice to mankind is to order his life according to relative good.
- He should choose wisdom over folly (2:13).
- He should be satisfied rather than greedy (4:4-8).
- He should seek companionship over solitude (4:9-12)
- He should seek wisdom over fame (4:13-16).
Qoheleth expounds other “good” by which man should order his life (7:1-12).
“Because man’s existence is perforated with puzzles, the pieces of which he can never assemble, his only recourse is to attain a posture of faith toward his life under the sun and to live it to the hilt knowing that someday the puzzle will be assembled by the One who created it and who will judge every deed.” (Howard Baker, “Theology of Ecclesiastes”)