There are statements in the book of Ecclesiastes that are negative (3:19–21; 9:1–2, 10) and there are statements that are positive (2:24–25; 9:7–9). The challenge is how these statements fit together in the same book. Some have understood the book as the perfect example of skepticism, but others have understood it as the perfect example of piety. There are also a variety of views of the authorship and date of the book. The purpose of this introduction is to briefly lay out the writer’s approach to the book and the reasons for it.1
The Identity of Qohelet
The main author of the work refers to himself by the term Qohelet, which is usually translated as Preacher (ESV, NASB) or Teacher (NIV). He is the author of the first-person autobiography (1:12–12:7), which describes his search to understand life and its meaning. The identity of Qohelet is debated. Most argue that Qohelet was not Solomon but that he assumed the literary persona of king Solomon in 1:13–2:26 in order to show that even someone as powerful as king Solomon was not able to find meaning in the things he pursued.2 The arguments against Solomonic authorship, however, are not insurmountable. The strongest arguments for Solomonic authorship are the statements in 1:1 and 1:12 where Qohelet is identified as “the son of David” who is “king over Israel in Jerusalem.” The phrase “son of David” always refers to a biological descendant of David in the Old Testament and the only son of David who was king over all Israel in Jerusalem was Solomon.3 If the royal identity of Qohelet only speaks to the first part of the book and is dropped after chapter 2, it is strange to identify Qohelet as the king in the superscription of the book.
The Presentation and Method of Qohelet
The book of Ecclesiastes is composed of a first-person autobiography (1:12–12:7) that is framed by third person narrative (1:1–11; 12:8–14). The purpose of 1:1–11 is to identify the author of the work and to present his words to give the reader an idea of the nature of the first-person account. The purpose of 12:8–14 is to evaluate the words and arguments of Qohelet for the benefit of his son (12:12). The fact that there is a third person intrusion (7:27) supports the view that someone is presenting the words of Qohelet as a warning to avoid speculative wisdom.4 Support for this view of Ecclesiastes includes the following points.
First, Qohelet examines life with an empirical method based on observation. He uses the Hebrew verb “I saw” nineteen times in the book as the basis of his reflections on life. Six times he uses the word “all” with this verb (1:14; 4:1; 4:4; 7:15; 8:9; 8:17), which emphasizes the comprehensive nature of his observations. His primary source of knowledge is what he sees happening in life.
Second, he limits himself to an earthly horizon. This is demonstrated by his use of the phrase “under the sun” and by the reality that he never brings God into the argument to solve the problem with which he is wrestling. In 9:1 the righteous and the wise are in the hand of God, which should bring comfort and security to them, but it does not really matter because what happens to them is no different than what happens to the wicked (9:2–6). Also, the theological reflection in 3:17 is not used to counter the anthropological reflection in 3:19–21 that humans have no real advantage over the beasts. In passage-after-passage negative statements end the discussion (see 2:26 and 8:12–14).
Focus on Futility
Third, a key word of the book is hebel. This word occurs in the motto of the book (1:2, 12:8) and is used to characterize many of the activities that Qohelet examines. The basic idea is “breath” (Isa 57:13), but it is understood metaphorically in reference to time as “fleeting” or in reference to meaning as incomprehensible (enigmatic, mysterious, unexplainable) or as describing the character of life as meaningless, futile (vanity), or senseless. The latter ideas of futile or senseless is the best way to understand hebel. This meaning fits its use outside of Ecclesiastes where it is used in parallel with what is false or deceitful (Prov 31:30; Jer 16:19; Zech 10:2) and what is futile or useless (Ps 62:10; Isa 30:7; 49:4). It also fits how Qohelet uses hebel in parallel with an activity that is futile (“chasing the wind,” see also Hos 12:1) and his description of various scenarios in life that do not fulfill their expectations, such as the prospering of the wicked and the suffering of the righteous.
Pursuit of Pleasure
Fourth, there is an important distinction in the book that puts the calls to enjoyment into perspective. A question is presented at the beginning of the book as to whether there is any profit (yitrôn) to labor (Ecc 1:3). Qohelet answers this question in 2:10–11 after a description of all his activities in the pursuit of pleasure. His answer is that there is no profit to his labor (2:11), but he recognizes some limited benefit to labor which he calls “my portion” (ḥēleq). This term is used in reference to many of the calls to enjoyment (3:22; 5:18; 9:9). If there is no profit, or real advantage, to labor, then the calls to enjoyment cannot be the answer that Qohelet is seeking to give meaning to life. It will be shown that the calls to enjoyment are a resigned conclusion, a limited benefit, in a life that does not work out the way one hopes.
Limitations of Wisdom
Finally, Qohelet does not give preference to wisdom as he investigates life. He does not judge folly from the standpoint of wisdom. Instead, his aim is to investigate both wisdom and folly to see where they will lead him (1:17). He does not affirm the doctrine of the two ways, as found in Psalm 1 and Proverbs 1–9, but calls it into question because he concludes that wisdom does not deliver on its promises (Ecc 2:12–17) and that the wicked receive what the righteous deserve (7:15–18). Speculative wisdom is the willingness to pursue the possible benefits of folly in order to compare them with the results of wisdom, which, to Qohelet, shows the limits of wisdom. This will have implications for how Qohelet uses the fear of God in the first-person autobiography.
A wise man presents the words of Qohelet (1:1–12:8) to warn his son (12:9–12) concerning how easy it is to live life with a cracked foundation of wisdom (speculative wisdom) that seeks to understand life on the basis of experience and does not privilege God’s wisdom over everything else (1:17; 7:15–18).
“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”
“The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”
— Ecclesiastes 1:2//12:8, 13–14 ESV
I. The Prologue: An Exploration of the Nature of the World (1:1–11)
II. Qohelet’s Search for Meaning Under the Sun (1:12–2:26)
A. The Failure of Wisdom (1:12–18)
B. The Failure of Pleasure (2:1–11)
C. The Failure of Wisdom in light of Folly and Death (2:12–17)
D. The Failure of the Results of Labor (2:18–23)
E. A Call to Enjoyment (2:24–26)
III. The Search for Understanding the Role of Human Beings: Does God Make Any Difference (3:1–22)?
A. Time and the Frustrating Work of God (3:1–15)
B. Reflections on Injustice: Man Has No Advantage Over Beasts (3:16–22)
IV. The Frustration of Unfulfilled Expectations (4:1–6:9)
A. The Frustration of Loneliness: The Need for Companionship (4:1–16)
B. Caution in Approaching God in Worship (5:1–7)
C. Unfulfilled Expectations Related to Wealth (5:8–6:9)
V. Human Knowledge is Limited: Who Knows What is Good (6:10–8:17)?
VI. Human Knowledge is Limited: The Uncertainty of the Future (9:1–10:20)
A. Uncertainty of People Living under the Cloud of Death (9:1–12)
B. Uncertainty of Insignificant Events with Significant Consequences (9:13–10:20)
VII. Living with the Uncertainty of the Future (11:1–12:8)
VIII. The Epilogue: An Evaluation of Qohelet’s Message (12:9–14)
The Prologue: An Exploration of the Nature of the World (1:1–11)
1:1–3 The Prologue is a third person introduction to Qohelet and his message. Along with 12:8–14 it makes up the third person frame of the first-person autobiography. It is composed of the superscription identifying the author (1:1), the motto of the book that uses the key word hebel in a superlative sense (1:2), the key question of the book (1:3), and an introductory poem (1:4–11). The focus here will be on the introductory poem because the other items have already been addressed (see introduction, above).
1:4–11 The point of the opening poem is that life is an endless wearisome cycle that does not go anywhere and does not accomplish anything. The futility of effort is demonstrated in the natural world (1:4–7) and the human world (1:8–11). Concerning the natural world, the rivers run into the sea, but the sea is never full, and the wind goes around and round and round. The participles stress that there is a lot of activity but nothing is accomplished. The verb in 1:5 (šō’ēf) can mean “longing” or “desire” (Ps 119:131; Job 7:2), but here the idea is a weary panting (Isa 42:14; Jer 2:25). The weariness of the human world is summed up in Ecclesiastes 1:8a, “all things are full of weariness,”5 followed by three negatives stressing a sense of dissatisfaction in speech, seeing, and hearing. These three activities are important to wisdom, but the emphasis is on the limitations of these activities: human words never achieve their purpose, and seeing and hearing also fall short of expectations. There is little hope that things will change because this is the way things have always been (1:9a). The end of 1:9 affirms that “there is nothing new under the sun.” History is not going anywhere because it is a paralyzing repetition of the past where people’s lives do not achieve fulfillment.
An “under the sun” view contrasts with other places in the OT where the rivers and winds are purposeful in doing God’s will (Ps 104:3–4) and there is a newness in history when God’s people are to sing a new song and look forward to a new covenant. Redemptive history is moving toward a goal that is fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
Qohelet's Search for Meaning Under the Sun (1:12–2:26)
Qohelet’s search is a response to the question of whether there is any profit to labor in Ecclesiastes 1:3, which he will answer in 2:11. Each division of this section focuses on an aspect of his search that fails to find meaning in life.
The Failure of Wisdom (1:12–18)
Qohelet gives a preliminary account of his search and states his conclusions. He sets forth the nature of his investigation as comprehensive: “all that is done under heaven” (1:13) and “all the works done under the sun” (1:14). The extensive use of the verb “to see” (“I saw”) shows his search is based on observation and the use of “under the sun” shows it is limited to this world. His investigation is also carried out by wisdom (1:13), which also becomes the object of his search (1:17).
Qohelet states several conclusions based on his search for wisdom. He views the work that God has given to humans negatively, calling it “a grievous task” (1:13). After viewing all the work done under the sun, he calls it all “senseless” (hebel) and chasing after the wind (1:14), with no hope that things will change (1:15). Even though Qohelet had great wisdom (1:16) and devoted himself to understand wisdom (1:17), his conclusion is that this pursuit is also a “chasing after the wind” because wisdom brings vexation and knowledge increases sorrow (1:18).
There are several surprising things about Qohelet’s investigation that might explain his negative conclusions about wisdom. He does not give wisdom a privileged position but wants to examine it along with “maddening folly” to see where each of these will lead him. Wisdom is not the answer to his quest because it leads to vexation (frustration over the way life works). Wisdom and knowledge increase the level of frustration because one sees better the problems of life and how impossible it is to solve them (see 2:12–17). Although Qohelet stands in the wisdom tradition and is called a wise man by profession (12:9), he no longer operates with the same foundation of wisdom as Proverbs 1:7. Herein lies the danger of speculative wisdom.
The Failure of Pleasure (2:1–11)
Qohelet investigates “pleasure” and the activities in life that bring pleasure. These activities include things that kings would be involved in and are called “labor.” He will give an answer to the question of Ecclesiastes 1:3 in this section. Qohelet gives an account in 2:3–8 of all the activities in which he tried to find pleasure. He gave up his body to wine and grabbed hold of folly to see what is good for people to do the few days of their lives. He built houses and planted vineyards. He made gardens and parks and planted in them fruit trees with pools of water to water the trees. He acquired a retinue of servants and a great number of herds and flocks. He accumulated silver and gold and procured male and female singers, along with many concubines. He pursued all that his heart desired and experienced great enjoyment from all his labor. He calls the enjoyment he received from labor “his portion” (2:10), but when he considers everything that he has accomplished, he concludes that there is no profit to his labor (2:11). He designates everything as “senseless” (hebel) and chasing the wind. His answer to the question of 1:3 is important for the rest of the book. The portion (ḥēleq) one should enjoy from labor will be associated with the calls to enjoyment, but they are not on the level of profit (yitrôn) because there is no profit to labor under the sun.
The Failure of Wisdom in light of Folly and Death (2:12–17)
After Qohelet concludes that there is no profit to labor, he considers whether wisdom has any advantage over folly. Wisdom clearly has an advantage (yitrôn) over folly just as light has an advantage over darkness (2:13). Qohelet explains this by noting that the wise person is able to see where he is going, but the fool walks in darkness (2:14). Wisdom allows people to see the obstacles of life and to avoid them (Prov 22:3). The advantage that wisdom has over folly, however, is only a relative advantage, not an absolute advantage. The distinction between the wise and the fool breaks down because “the same fate happens to both of them” (Ecc 2:14), which means that the fate that comes to the fool will also overtake Qohelet (2:15). This fate is death, which destroys the advantage the wise has over the fool (2:16). Death makes no distinction between the wise and the fool in their lasting memory (Prov 10:7) or in the way they die. Wisdom is supposed to ensure long life (Prov 3:16–18; 13:14; 14:27), but many times it fails. Qohelet wonders, “So why then have I become very wise” (Ecc 2:15) and he concludes that he hates life because everything is senseless (hebel).
The Failure of the Results of Labor (2:18–23)
Qohelet examines the results of his labor and confirms the conclusion of 2:11 that there is no profit to labor. Some form of the word “labor” (‘āmāl) occurs nine times in this section. It can refer to the work itself or the results of the work. Qohelet wastes no time in giving his conclusion, “I hated all the results of my labor” (2:18). The problem is that a person will work hard all of his life to accumulate possessions, but when he dies there is no way to tell whether the person to whom the possessions are left will be a wise person or a fool. A fool can quickly destroy what a person has worked a lifetime to achieve. This raises the question whether labor and its results are worth the effort of the pain, frustration, and restlessness that accompanies labor. Such a scenario led Qohelet to despair (2:20), and three times he affirms that labor and its results are “senseless” (2:19, 21, 23).
A Call to Enjoyment (2:24–26)
There is general agreement that these verses offer some kind of conclusion or advice based on the argument in 1:11–2:23. Qohelet has argued that the work that God has given human beings is burdensome work (1:13). After reviewing all his labor, he concludes that there is no lasting profit to labor (1:11) or the results of labor (2:18–23). Part of the problem is that although wisdom is better than folly, it also brings vexation (1:18) when one realizes that there is no real difference in the outcome of the wise and the fool because death overtakes them both in the same way (2:15–16). Even though there is no profit to labor, Qohelet affirms that there is a “portion” (ḥēleq) from labor that should be enjoyed (2:10), a concept associated with the calls to enjoyment (3:22; 5:18; 9:9). The themes of labor and wisdom come together in 2:24–26. One should enjoy the immediate results of labor—eating and drinking—which come from the hand of God (2:24). The fact that God is mentioned does not mean this is an answer to Qohelet’s search for meaning. Qohelet’s view of God will become clear in the argument of the book, but even here God’s involvement does not solve anything. Qohelet states that God gives to a good person wisdom, knowledge, and pleasure, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering wealth to give to the good person (similar to Prov 13:22). The good person should be rewarded and the sinner’s wealth should be stored up for the righteous, but life does not work this way. So, he concludes, “This also is senseless and a chasing the wind” (Ecc 2:26).
Qohelet’s limited “under the sun” view, based on an investigation limited to observation which pursues both wisdom and folly, leads to negative conclusions. If someone as wise as Qohelet, who had it all at his fingertips, could not find meaning in his labor, then no one can. Meaning to life and satisfaction in labor comes as one begins with the true foundation of wisdom found in a reverence and submission to God (Prov 1:7) that allows one to see beyond the conflicting observations of life. In contrast to Qohelet, Christ had it all but gave up his position of glory to enter this sinful world as a human being to deliver us from the bondage of sin and the attitude that having it all brings fulfillment. As followers of Christ we give it all up now for his sake, knowing that one day we will receive it all in the new heavens and earth. Christ gives meaning and satisfaction to life and he ensures that our labor is not in vain (1 Cor 15:58).
Meaning to life and satisfaction in labor comes as one begins with the true foundation of wisdom found in a reverence and submission to God that allows one to see beyond the conflicting observations of life.
The Search for Understanding the Role of Human Beings: Does God Make Any Difference (3:1–22)?
God is more prominent in this chapter, being mentioned eight times. The question concerning the profit to labor is broadened to include the proper role of human beings in the world in relation to God. Does God make any difference to the answers already given concerning labor and its results? Although some see chapter 3 as positive toward God’s involvement in the world,6 frustration over labor and its results still dominate, and at the end of the chapter the role of humanity within creation is not settled because the future is uncertain.
Time and the Frustrating Work of God (3:1–15)
3:1–8 The first part of chapter 3 is a poem on time. The times listed, except for the first pair (“a time to be born and a time to die”) require human action to accomplish a desired result. For example, “a time to plant” is dependent on people understanding the right time to plant so the opportunity to plant is not lost. The poem describes the world as purposeful so that people can understand it in order to make wise decisions. Wisdom includes not only knowing the right time to act but acting at that time (Prov 15:23; 25:11).
3:9–15 Qohelet reflects on the poem in light of the question from 1:3 whether there is any profit to labor, restated in 3:9. If wise people are able to understand the times and make good decisions, would there then be profit to human activity? He begins with an empirical observation (“I have seen”) in 3:10 about the task that God has given to human beings (see also 1:13), followed by two statements about God’s involvement in the world (3:11). The first statement is that God has made everything appropriate in its time. He understands how everything fits together because he made the world. The second statement is that God has put “a sense of totality” into human hearts. He has put a desire within the human heart to understand how the world works. The phrase “a sense of totality” translates a word that can also be translated “eternity” (‘ōlām). Human beings want to understand how the events of life fit together, including God’s role in those events, so that wise decisions can be made. A problem, however, is stated in 3:11b, “. . . people cannot discover the work that God does from beginning to end.” Even though God has put a desire in human beings to comprehend how everything fits together, it is an impossible task because people are not able to understand what God is doing in the world. This uncertainty of God’s activity makes it difficult for people to make proper decisions at the appropriate times.
Qohelet draws two conclusions from his observations. Each begins with “I perceived.” The first conclusion (3:12–13) is another call to enjoyment. Since there is no profit from human activity because people cannot understand what God is doing in the world, the best response is to enjoy the benefits from human activity. The second conclusion (3:14–15) asserts that what Qohelet has observed about life will not change because whatever God does will last forever.7
Reflections on Injustice: Man Has No Advantage Over Beasts (3:16–22)
Qohelet moves from a discussion of the inability of people to discover what God is doing in the world to the problem of injustice. Part of the reason for the uncertainty in the world is that injustice goes against one’s expectations for what should happen to the righteous and the wicked. Qohelet begins this section with an observation of the problem of injustice (3:16), followed by a theological reflection (“I said to myself”) concerning God’s judgement (3:17). Since there is a time for every activity, there must be a time for God to judge the righteous and the wicked. Qohelet also offers an anthropological reflection that human beings do not have any advantage over animals because the same fate awaits both of them (3:18–21). Both have the same breath, both die the same way, both go to the same place at death, both are from the dust, and both return to the dust. The import of the question “who knows” in 3:21 is that no one really knows whether the human breath of life ascends upward or the animal breath of life descends to the earth. People do not have any advantage over the animals.
Qohelet could have modified his anthropological reflection in light of his theological reflection, but he allows the statement that there is no difference between humans and animals in death to stand. He ends this section with a call to enjoyment. Because humans have no advantage over the animals, there is nothing better for someone than to enjoy the few benefits from labor because this is his portion (ḥēleq). Enjoyment of this portion is encouraged even though there is no profit from labor (2:10–11).
There are many who operate from a naturalistic viewpoint that affirm there is no difference between humans and animals. Without God, human beings lose their dignity. Psalm 49 sounds like Ecclesiastes 3:16–22, except that the prosperity of the wicked is explained in light of God’s power to ransom from death those who trust him.
There are many who operate from a naturalistic viewpoint that affirm there is no difference between humans and animals. Without God, human beings lose their dignity.
The Frustration of Unfulfilled Expectations (4:1–6:9)
This section covers several topics with the overarching theme of frustration because of unfulfilled expectations. The topics include political power (4:1–3, 13–16; 5:8–9), relationships connected to labor (4:4–12), one’s relationship to God (5:1–7), and one’s relationship to wealth (5:10–6:9).
The Frustration of Loneliness: The Need for Companionship (4:1–16)
4:1–3 The first passage of this section focuses on oppression that accompanies political power and its effect (4:1–3). The fact that no one comforts the oppressed means that no one comes to their aid. Qohelet does not encourage the oppressed to call to God for help because he is on their side (Pss 103:6; 146:7); rather, he concludes that to be dead is better than to be alive.
4:4–12 The common subject of this passage is labor. The motivation behind hard work is envy, and because it cannot be satisfied it leads to ceaseless work and sets people against each other. Laziness is not a solution because it also can lead to ruin (4:5), so one should pursue the course of moderation (4:6). Qohelet describes another futile example of labor: the lonely miser who works all the time, is never satisfied with the results of his labor and has no one with which to share the benefits of hard work (4:7–8). Qohelet responds by showing the benefits of companionship (4:9–12), which are some of the most positive verses in the book. He illustrates that “two are better than one” with several practical examples where being alone could be disastrous. This section does not end with a statement of futility but with a proverb that supports the idea of strength in companionship (4:12).
4:13–16 Although there is strength in numbers, the fleeting nature of political power is demonstrated in how popularity is fleeting (4:13–16). Although the details of the story are debated, the general idea is that someone from a lowly social position becomes king through wisdom, gathers to himself a large following, but his popularity is then easily lost to someone else. Wisdom ultimately fails because the popularity of the multitudes is fickle. Not only can political power be misused (4:1–3), it is also fleeting.
Proverbs 18:24 recognizes the difficulty of many companions but emphasizes the importance of one who sticks closer than a brother. A faithful companion who will not forsake you when danger comes and who will stick with you in the good and bad times is needed. The ultimate companion is Jesus Christ, who renounced his self-interest, put aside the wealth of glory, experienced the fickle crowds of his day who called for his crucifixion, and went willingly to the cross in demonstration of his love. He will never abandon the one who trusts in him.
The ultimate companion is Jesus Christ, who renounced his self-interest, put aside the wealth of glory, experienced the fickle crowds of his day who called for his crucifixion, and went willingly to the cross in demonstration of his love. He will never abandon the one who trusts in him.
Caution in Approaching God in Worship (5:1–7)
The main issue in this passage is how one should understand the intent of Qohelet’s admonitions. Many have understood this passage as a positive exhortation toward worship with the warning that people should approach God with reverence and not badger God with superfluous talk (as in Matt 6:7–8). Others argue that one must be cautious in approaching a distant God. It is difficult to solve this issue because the tone of Qohelet is not clear and one’s assumptions about the rest of the book are a factor. Qohelet’s basic attitude toward God is caution before God because it is difficult to figure out what God is doing in the world (Ecc 3:11, 14–15) and one cannot be sure how God will respond (see 9:1–2).
5:1–3 Caution before God in prayer at the temple is expressed by a comparison with fools who do not recognize that their sacrifices before God are unacceptable. One should approach God to listen (5:1), which requires restraint in speech; otherwise, the likelihood of saying something inappropriate or making unguarded comments increases. The reason one should be cautious before God is that “God is in heaven and you are on the earth” (5:2). Many words are bad because they are evidence that one is a fool (5:3). Qohelet lacks the passion that is found in many psalms when the psalmist pours out his heart to God (Pss 115; 89:46–51).
5:4–7 The topic of vows is addressed. No one is under any pressure to make a vow to God, but if a vow is made, it better be paid. Flimsy excuses risk the anger of God who might respond by destroying the work of your hands. This section ends with an admonition to “fear God.” Although it is easy to conclude that the fear of God in Ecclesiastes has the same meaning as the reverential awe that is the foundation of wisdom in Proverbs, Qohelet perceives God as distant and not a solution to the problems with which he is wrestling (see the comments on 3:17–20 and 9:1–2). The concepts associated with the fear of the LORD in Proverbs are questioned by Qohelet. In Proverbs 2:5 the fear of the LORD is associated with finding the knowledge of God, but Qohelet denies that humans can understand what God is doing in the world because his works are inscrutable (Ecc 3:11; 8:1, 17). In Proverbs 10:27 the fear of the LORD prolongs life, but Qohelet questions whether the life of the righteous is prolonged (Ecc 8:11–14; 9:1–6). In Proverbs 14:26 the fear of the LORD is associated with a strong confidence, but in many passages Qohelet does not express confidence in God. The covenant name of God, LORD (Yahweh) is frequently used in Proverbs, but only the generic name for God (Elohim) is used in Ecclesiastes. Qohelet takes a cautious view toward God because you cannot be sure how God might react. There are too many passages where God falls short of Qohelet’s expectations.
Unfilled Expectations Related to Wealth (5:8–6:9)
5:8–20 The theme of unfulfilled expectation continues in 5:8–9 where corrupt government officials watch out for each other instead of the interests of the people. People think that wealth will bring them satisfaction, but it also does not fulfill expectations (5:10–6:9). General dissatisfaction with wealth is covered in 5:10–17 by highlighting that when goods increase, so do expenses (those who consume them). The rich do not sleep well because there is too much to worry about and wealth can be easily lost. Qohelet’s advice in light of the dissatisfaction of wealth is to enjoy the portion you have (5:18–20). The word portion (ḥēleq) refers back to the conclusion of 2:10–11 that there is no profit (yitrôn) to labor, but a person should enjoy the limited benefit that comes from labor. This portion is good and is God’s gift; in fact, God gives a person the few days of life on this earth (5:18), wealth and the power to enjoy wealth (5:19), and the ability to accept one’s portion. These are given so that a person “will not greatly ponder the days of his life for God keeps him occupied with the pleasures of his heart” (5:20). In other words, God keeps people distracted so that they will not reflect on the miserable nature of life. If wealth does not satisfy, the only thing left is to enjoy what wealth produces, even if it is meant to distract people from the futility of life.
6:1–9 Qohelet closes this section by noting the tragedy when God gives someone wealth but does not give him the power to consume it, but instead someone else consumes it (6:1–9). Dissatisfaction with wealth means that the wise have no incentive to live a wise life because they have no advantage over the fool. The poor have no incentive to learn how to live if he is not satisfied when the basic needs of life are met. If the appetite can never be satisfied, then what one already possesses is better than what one desires but does not possess. But “even this is senseless and a chasing after wind,” a fitting conclusion to the inability of wealth to satisfy (6:9).
Wealth is an instrument that believers are to use for the benefit of ourselves, others, and for the glory of God.
Wealth is an instrument that believers are to use for the benefit of ourselves, others, and for the glory of God (1Cor 10:31). Everything created by God is good and is to be received with thanksgiving, made holy by the word of God and prayer (1Tim 4:4–5). Believers know that in the new heavens and earth they will be rich, and so are free now to use wealth for the glory of God.
Human Knowledge is Limited: Who Knows What is Good (6:10–8:17)?
Ecclesiastes 6:10–12 acts as a transition from the first part to the second part of the work. The two questions in 6:12 introduce the rest of the work. The first question, “Who knows what is good?” is addressed in 7:1–8:17. The second question, “Who can tell what will come in the future?” is addressed in 9:1–10:20. The dominant question in the first part of the work is whether there is profit to labor, but in the second part the dominant question is “who knows?” This question in Ecclesiastes is a closed question because no one really knows (see 3:21). Thus, Qohelet moves from pessimism to skepticism, which will challenge the achievement of wisdom.
7:1–14 The question “Who knows what is good?” is immediately addressed in this section, which is composed of proverbial sayings (7:1–12) followed by a conclusion (7:13–14). The word “good” (ṭôb) occurs eleven times in these verses, many times in the comparative sense of “better.” These “better than” sayings show the relative value of wisdom, a theme Qohelet developed earlier in 2:12–16. Many of the proverbs sound like the book of Proverbs (Ecc 7:5, 6, 7, 9), but other proverbs go against normal expectations. For example, 7:1a argues it is better to have a good reputation than to possess expensive ointment, which sounds very much like Proverbs 22:1, where a good name is better than riches; however, the second part of the proverb in Ecclesiastes 7:1b is rather shocking because it prefers death over life. In 7:1–3 the negative things in life are better than the happier things. Even though wisdom gives a person an advantage over the fool (7:5–8), the advantage is a limited advantage because, like money, it only gives temporary relief (7:10–12). The conclusion to this section (7:13–14) is that humans are not able to find what they are seeking because it is hard to understand the work of God in the world.
7:15–18 Part of the reason no one knows what is good (6:12) is that God makes both the good and bad days to keep people from knowing anything about their future (7:14). Ecclesiastes 7:15–18 draws implications for human behavior based on this lack of understanding God’s work. Qohelet observes in 7:15 that the wicked are living long lives but the righteous are perishing. Based on this troubling observation he gives advice in 7:16–18. If being righteous does not bring you the benefits you expect (7:15), then there is no reason to pursue righteousness or wisdom too much because they do not necessarily keep you from destruction (7:16). On the other hand, being too wicked or being a fool can bring great trouble into your life, even leading to a premature death (7:17). So, the best course of action is to hold onto both of them (righteousness and wickedness, wisdom and foolishness). The last clause of 7:18 should be translated “the one who fears God comes forth with both of them” (NAS). Qohelet has observed “under the sun” that righteousness does not deliver on its promises, and that wickedness can get someone into trouble, so why commit fully to either of them? If one cannot be sure how God will respond, the best approach is to be cautious before God.
7:19–22 A series of proverbs follows in 7:19–22 that continues the theme of the failure of righteousness and wisdom. Wisdom may have great value (7:19), but its value is easily undermined by sin (7:20–22), which throws into question wisdom itself (7:23–24). Even the sin of the righteous can hinder the benefits of wisdom. Qohelet ends these verses by acknowledging that wisdom escaped him because it is far off and very deep. So, he asks the question, “Who can find it?” Qohelet was dedicated to a comprehensive search to find the “sum of things” (ḥešbôn), an explanation of how the world works (7:25). His final conclusion (7:26–29) is that even though God made the first couple of humanity upright, that condition did not last very long because sin corrupted human beings. If this is the condition of humanity (Gen 6:5), it is not surprising that Qohelet has not been able to find very many humans who are upright. He found the woman who is a snare to be more bitter than death, which recalls the adulterous woman of Proverbs 6:26. Although he has found one man among a thousand, he has not found a woman among all these. Although this is a negative statement about women, it is also a negative statement about men. Humanity in general is corrupt with very few who are upright. If there are no upright women, then the positive statements about women in the book of Proverbs are called into question (Prov 18:22; 31:10).
8:1–9 Ecclesiastes 8:1–17 closes out this section on the limits of human knowledge by focusing on the arbitrary nature of both human and divine government. Chapter 8 is also framed by the question “who knows?” There are benefits to wisdom (8:1), but will a wise man be able to answer the question of who knows the explanation of things? Qohelet examines the nature of human government, focused on the king, in 8:2–9. He discusses how to act, or not act, in the presence of the king, which a wise man should know because there is a proper time for right action (8:6). But the ability to know the proper time for action is hindered by the power of the word of the king (8:4) and the uncertainty of the events of life itself (8:6–9).
8:10–17 Qohelet examines the nature of divine government in 8:10–17. He focuses again on the relationship between the righteous and the wicked to see whether he can understand how God governs the world. Qohelet observes that the wicked flourish and are praised because the sentence of justice against their wickedness is delayed (8:10–11). He responds by vacillating between traditional wisdom teaching that the wicked and the righteous will get what they deserve (8:12b–13) and what he observes in life that the righteous get what the wicked deserve and the wicked get what the righteous deserve (8:12a, 14). Here is another situation where the negative perspective (8:14) overrides the traditional view (8:12b–13). The advice Qohelet gives in 8:15 to this senseless situation is to enjoy the limited benefit of eating, drinking, and pleasure that comes from labor (see 2:10–11). The argument is concluded by highlighting the goal and intensity of his search (8:16), with the concluding observation concerning the work of God (8:17): human beings are not able to make sense of the events on the earth because they are not able to discover God’s work. His government of the world seems arbitrary because of how the righteous and wicked are treated. Even more stunning is the conclusion that not even a wise man can give an explanation. This conclusion answers the questions in 6:12 and 8:1, claiming that not even a wise man knows what is good because God’s ways are inscrutable (3:11; 7:28).
Qohelet absolutizes the problems of life so that he is not able to see what is good, but an “above the sun” view recognizes that even in the problems of life, God is able to accomplish his purposes.
Qohelet absolutizes the problems of life so that he is not able to see what is good, but an “above the sun” view recognizes that even in the problems of life, God is able to accomplish his purposes (Rom 8:28). Thus, we can know what is good because God is good. We do not have to fear the future because his good purposes will triumph.
Human Knowledge is Limited: The Uncertainty of the Future (9:1–10:20)
This section of Ecclesiastes takes up the second question of 6:12: “Who can tell what will be in the future?” Two topics are dealt with in this section: death (9:1–12) and consequences (9:13–10:20).
Uncertainty of People Living under the Cloud of Death (9:1–12)
9:1–3 He begins with what appears to be a positive statement that the righteous and the wise, and their works, are in the hand of God (9:1). In other places of the OT, the hand of God refers to the protection of divine power (Ps 10:12; Isa 50:2), a comforting thought because God can protect from all evil. For Qohelet, however, being in the hand of God does not offer protection because the righteous do not know whether love or hate awaits them. It does not matter if one lives a righteous life, such a person will suffer the same fate as the wicked (Ecc 9:2). Even a person in the hand of God cannot be sure of God’s favor or displeasure. The same destiny awaits everyone, whether good or evil. When people realize that they gain nothing by doing good, there is no longer a reason to live a righteous life. The end of 9:3 ends abruptly, “and afterwards––to the dead,” which reflects the suddenness of death in the midst of life. Premature death overtakes the righteous and the wicked because there is one fate for all with no distinction in the way one dies.
9:4–6 Qohelet then argues that life is only relatively better than death. The living possess hope and knowledge, but the knowledge they have undermines their hope. The dead do not know anything, but the living know they will die. The prospect of death means they will no longer be remembered and their opportunity to participate in the experiences of life are gone. They will never again have a “portion” (ḥēleq) in anything done under the sun.
9:7–10 The mention of “portion” in 9:6 anticipates the present call to enjoyment, which seems more positive than the other calls to enjoyment (2:24–26; 3:12, 22; 5:18; 8:15). Even though it is longer and imperatives are used, the horizon of death frames these verses (9:1–6 and 9:11–12). There is an emphasis on the senselessness of life (hebel occurs twice in 9:9), and the use of “portion” reminds people that Qohelet is referring to the limited enjoyment that comes from labor because there is no profit to labor (2:10–11). Thus, there is an urgency to Qohelet’s exhortations to fully enjoy the limited benefits of labor, which God approves, before death ends life’s activities. There is no mental or physical activity in death because the dead are not aware of anything (9:5).
9:11–12 Qohelet ends this section with an emphasis on the uncertainty of the future. Life does not turn out the way one would expect, including for the wise and those who have knowledge, because the events of life appear random (9:11). Life is full of unexpected outcomes because times of misfortune fall upon people suddenly, like fish caught in a net or birds in a snare (9:12). Thus, no one knows what the future may bring. Qohelet gives an answer to the question in 6:12 and explains why even the wise cannot understand the way life works.
Qohelet wrestles with the lack of distinction between the righteous and the wicked in light of the finality of death. Psalm 49 also wrestles with this but comes to a different conclusion: the wicked end up in the realm of the dead but the righteous are delivered from the power of death and are received by God (49:14–15). Difficult times of misfortune may come, but they do not have the last word, made even clearer by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Difficult times of misfortune may come, but they do not have the last word, made even clearer by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Uncertainty of Insignificant Events with Significant Consequences (9:13–10:20)
9:13–18 Qohelet presents a story concerning wisdom (9:13–15), followed by his reflections on the story (9:16–18). The story is that a poor wise man delivers a city from a powerful king, but no one remembers the poor wise man. This story illustrates the principle of 9:11 and is contrary to the expectations of Proverbs 10:7. Qohelet concludes that although wisdom can give a person a relative advantage in certain life situations, it cannot guarantee success. The reason wisdom only gives a relative advantage is that “one offender destroys much good” (Ecc 9:18). It just takes one person, one small mistake, to destroy the benefit of wisdom.
10:1–20 The proverbs of chapter 10 exemplify the conclusion of 9:18. Just as small dead flies can ruin anointment, so a little folly can ruin the value of wisdom (10:1). The proverbs in 10:2–4 show the benefit of wisdom over folly, but still a little folly can destroy much good (10:5–7). An inadvertent error by a ruler can cause great harm. The same point is made in 10:8–11: although wisdom can help a person avoid some of the accidental events in life, it has to be applied at the right time for there to be success. Something as small as missed timing can cause great damage (10:11). The proverbs of 10:12–15 deal primarily with the words of the fool. What starts out so small, just words and lips, progresses to speech characterized by evil delusions, and then labor marked by total incompetence. A competent ruler brings blessing, but woe to the land who has an inexperienced king who can do great damage (10:16–17). A little laziness can destroy the benefits of having money (10:18–19), and even a secret, negative thought about the king can do great harm (10:20).
A modern-day example of this principle would be how a small grain of sand can cause great pain if it gets into the eye. In Qohelet’s world, the grain of sand always lands in the eye! A broader perspective, however, understands that foolishness will not win the day because God is able to accomplish his purposes in the midst of the foolishness of life. The one who is the wisdom of God (1Cor 1:30; Col 2:3) appeared weak and was despised, but through his death and resurrection he won our victory. Although Satan can do great damage, we are reminded that “one little word shall fell him” (from the hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”). Just one word from Jesus Christ will defeat all the powers of foolishness and darkness. The future is certain because of the victory of Christ.
The one who is the wisdom of God appeared weak and was despised, but through his death and resurrection he won our victory.
Living with the Uncertainty of the Future (11:1–12:8)
In this section imperatives exhort people how they are to live even though the future is uncertain and very dark. The use of imperatives (11:1, 2, 6, 9, 10; 12:1) and the common theme of the future bind this section together.
11:1–6 Even if the future is unpredictable, people should take action. Although there are a variety of views of what Qohelet wants people to do in 11:1–2, the use of “bread” and “portion” connects these verses to the calls to enjoyment. Qohelet is not just encouraging people to enjoy the limited benefits from labor (the portion), but he is encouraging people to use these limited benefits in a way that would ensure their future use. Giving to others is a way to ensure that if disaster strikes and the portion is destroyed, others will be willing to help. There are many things in life that could keep a person from taking action, such as things beyond human control (11:3), things beyond human knowledge (11:5), and things which might cause a person to be overly cautious in finding the right time (11:4). Instead of caution, a person should be involved in a variety of activities because there is no way to know which activity will prosper (11:6). In other words, avoid “the paralysis of analysis” and make use of every opportunity even if the future is uncertain. For those who believe that God holds the future in his hands, there is even more reason for confident action.
11:7–12:8 Finally, Qohelet exhorts people to enjoy life before the dark days come (11:7–12:8). It is good to be alive because life has its good moments which should be enjoyed before the dark days come (11:7–8). Young people are exhorted to enjoy life while young by pursuing a path that their heart desires and to follow what they can see with their eyes (11:9–10). This advice contradicts Numbers 15:39 and goes against the advice to young people in Proverbs. There is a clear admonition in Numbers not to follow one’s heart and eyes because it can lead away from God. In Proverbs the young should let their eyes observe the way of wisdom (Prov 23:26). The warning at the end of Ecclesiastes 11:9 concerning God’s judgement is not positive because the pattern in this section is encouraging the enjoyment of life followed by warnings about the future. Qohelet’s focus throughout his work has been on this life and whether the righteous and the wicked will receive what they deserve. In light of the uncertainty of God’s action in the world, his warning is that God may bring a young person to judgment. Thus, enjoy the period of youth because it too is hebel (11:10).
Ecclesiastes 12:1 is the final exhortation in the first-person discourse (1:12–12:8). Young people are urged to “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth.” This seems like a positive exhortation, but the pattern of this section places such exhortations in the context of warnings about the future. There is a limited time to enjoy the Creator, just as there is a limited time to enjoy life. The Creator should be remembered because the dark days of death are already on the horizon. Perhaps Qohelet mentions the Creator because young people should not get too carried away in following the desires of their hearts. God as Creator fits with his distant view of God and that there has been little hope of life after death in 1:11–12:8. In the final description of death in 12:7, he affirms that the spirit returns to God who gave it, which is different than his statement in 3:21, but if this is a glimmer of hope of life after death, it is overwhelmed by the darkness and permanence of death in 12:2–6, as well as by the concluding hebel refrain (12:8). Here again Qohelet had an opportunity to bring God in to give a different perspective, but he fails to do so, as in other parts of 1:11–12:8 (cf. 3:19; 9:1–2).
The Epilogue: An Evaluation of Qohelet’s Message (12:9–14)
12:9–11 The shift from first person to third person signals a new speaker who comments on the work of Qohelet. The use of “my son” shows that the words of Qohelet are presented as instruction and warning to others concerning the dangers of speculative wisdom. Qohelet is called a wise man because he is engaged in wisdom activities, such as teaching, editing proverbs, and seeking to discover how the world works and ways to express it. Although the translation and interpretation of 12:10 are debated, the NAS expresses one option: “The Preacher sought to find delightful words and to write words of truth correctly.” Although Qohelet sought to do these two things, his own words confirm that he did not succeed in his quest (7:23, 28 and 8:1, 16–17). The pursuit of wisdom can be very painful (12:11).
12:12–14 The final section gives a warning against speculative wisdom and points to what is most important as the foundation of life. The warning is that the pursuit of wisdom can become a consuming task of much study and many books which never arrives at the foundation of truth. In 12:13–14 the real foundation of wisdom is given. The phrase “fear God” agrees with Proverbs 1:7 because the commandments of God are mentioned and the judgment of God moves to a future judgment that is comprehensive. Thus, the most important response for anyone is to fear God and live in a way that is pleasing to him.
If the answer is so simple, why struggle through the difficult arguments of Ecclesiastes 1:11–12:8? In wisdom literature the process of struggling through problems is not insignificant. The author of Psalm 73 struggles with the prosperity of the wicked and it affects him in ways that are very similar to Qohelet. The psalmist almost stumbles from the path (Ps 73:1), he wonders if it has been useless to live a life of purity before God (Ps 73:13), he talks about the wearisome task of trying to understand life (Ps 73:16), and he specifically states that if he had continued down this path, he would have betrayed God’s people by teaching falsehood (Ps 73:16). This is the danger of speculative wisdom: the problems of life can so dominate people’s thinking that they move away from the foundation of wisdom. The change comes when the psalmist has a renewed vision of God (Ps 73:17). In Ecclesiastes we are brought back to the true foundation of wisdom (Ecc 12:13–14). Qohelet’s struggle gives a true assessment of a fallen world that is subjected to futility. The Hebrew word hebel is translated in the Greek OT by the word mataiotēs, which Paul uses in Romans 8:18–25 to describe a creation eagerly awaiting freedom from bondage. The good news is that futility will not have the last word because Jesus has destroyed sin, the curse of death, and the futility of life in his death and resurrection. We are able to see beyond the earthly horizon of this world to the glory of the new heavens and earth where we will receive the fullness of salvation. Even so, come quickly, LORD, Amen.
Endnotes & Permissions
1. For further explanation see Richard P. Belcher, Jr., Ecclesiastes: A Mentor Commentary (Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus, 2017). For a more positive approach to the book see Graham S. Ogden, Qoheleth (2nd ed.; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2007).
2. Tremper Longman III, The Book of Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 22.
4. If Solomon is the author, the “under the sun” view of Ecclesiastes 1:12–12:8 can be explained by setting his writing in the context of 1 Kings 11, where his wives turn his heart away from the LORD. If such a wise man as Solomon can go astray, the danger of speculative wisdom is a warning to all of us (Belcher, Ecclesiastes, 63–67).
All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are the author’s own translation.
All Is Vanity
1:1 The words of the Preacher,1 the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
2 Vanity2 of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
3 What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
4 A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
5 The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens3 to the place where it rises.
6 The wind blows to the south
and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
7 All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
8 All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
9 What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
11 There is no remembrance of former things,4
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things5 yet to be
among those who come after.
The Vanity of Wisdom
12 I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 And I applied my heart6 to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 14 I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity7 and a striving after wind.8
15 What is crooked cannot be made straight,
and what is lacking cannot be counted.
16 I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” 17 And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind.
18 For in much wisdom is much vexation,
and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.