Volume 48 - Issue 2

Ecclesiastes in Context: Reclaiming Qoheleth’s Canonical Authority

By T. F. Leong


The book of Ecclesiastes is essentially a speech. Its profound message is needed today more than ever. Yet much recent Evangelical scholarship has accepted and assumed critical views of Qoheleth the speaker and his speech. This renders almost the entire book practically useless to Bible teachers and preachers. This article presents the teaching of Ecclesiastes on the meaning of life in the contexts of its ancient and the modern world. Its uncanny superiority over its ancient and modern counterparts corroborates the book’s own claim that Qoheleth’s speech is inspired by God and thus canonically authoritative for teaching and preaching.

Ecclesiastes has a meaningful message that speaks to even non-believers today and points them to Christ. For it addresses the question of the meaning of life in a way most satisfying to the human heart. Given the current state of unbelief and perceived meaninglessness of life in the modern world, Ecclesiastes is needed now more than ever. Its message is so contemporary that it seems as though it was written specifically for modern times!

Ecclesiastes is essentially a (written) speech. The speaker is introduced (in the third person) as the persona “Qoheleth,” usually translated “Preacher” or “Teacher” (1:1). The theme of the speech is “All is vanity” (1:2; 12:8) and the conclusion is that, because “all is vanity,” therefore “fear God and keep his commandments” (12:13).1 Properly understood, “all is vanity (profitless)” simply means everything we gain in this temporal world is ultimately profitless because we have to die and when we die, we cannot take anything with us—just as we came empty-handed, we will go empty-handed (5:15–16). So the theme of Ecclesiastes is realistic and not pessimistic as is often assumed.2

After Qoheleth has shown that “All is vanity” (1:2–12:8), and before he presents the conclusion (12:13–14), there is a third-person elaboration on him as the speaker (12:9–12). This elaboration, together with the third-person introduction of Qoheleth (1:1) and the three “says Qoheleth” (1:2; 7:27; 12:8), is either written by the author of Qoheleth’s speech himself or an editor often referred to as the “frame narrator.”3 Qoheleth is said to have (just) spoken “the most honest words of truth,”4 which are actually “given” by God the “one Shepherd,”5 which means Qoheleth’s words are inspired by God. Hence, “beyond these [words] my son beware,” that is, the words of Qoheleth are claimed to be canonical.6

However, mainstream biblical scholarship has taken for granted that Qoheleth’s speech is full of unorthodox and contradictory perspectives. In order to uphold this entrenched assumption, it has to disregard, dismiss, or distort the author’s (or editor’s) explicit claim that Qoheleth has spoken “the most honest words of truth.”7 Orthodox teaching is then said to be found only in the last two verses (12:13–14), which are assumed to have been appended by an orthodox editor as part of the “epilogue” (12:9–14) to counter and correct an unorthodox and inconsistent speaker—Qoheleth. This is clearly reflected in most of the commentaries on Ecclesiastes, which have rendered almost the entire book useless in terms of authoritative teaching.

This view of Ecclesiastes is not limited to critical biblical scholarship. A significant number of Evangelical scholars have adopted this view in their writings. Most prominent is Tremper Longman, who himself asks, “if Qohelet’s lengthy speech is pessimistic and out of sorts with the rest of the OT, why is it included in the canon?”8 His own answer: “Qohelet’s speech is a foil, a teaching device used by the second wise man [the orthodox ‘frame narrator’] in order to instruct his son (12:12) concerning the dangers of speculative, doubting wisdom in Israel [represented by Qoheleth].”9 Thus the book of Ecclesiastes taken as a whole is considered orthodox and canonical like other books in the canon though the speech of Qoheleth in itself is regarded as neither orthodox nor canonical.10 An Evangelical scholar would not deny that the book is canonical; the issue before us is the canonicity of the speech, which makes up almost the entire book. Needless to add, this has serious implications for the teaching and preaching of Ecclesiastes.

Jerry Shepherd adopts “Longman’s main thesis”11 that “Qohelet’s speech is a foil”12 in his commentary for Bible expositors. He himself asks, “Does it mean that it is wrong to preach a series of sermons from Ecclesiastes, since the only real word from God comes in the last few verses?”13 His own answer is “yes.”14 He then qualifies, the answer “perhaps … can also be ‘no’” only if the preacher bears in mind that “the speech of Qohelet in Ecclesiastes is not the word of God but is contained in a book that is God’s Word…. So, can individual passages from Ecclesiastes be preached without always being qualified by the epilogue and the larger canon of Scripture? Perhaps, but I believe the warrant for such preaching is fairly thin.”15

In other words, if one preaches through Ecclesiastes, one will have to preach against the words of Qoheleth! This renders Ecclesiastes practically useless to preachers as it makes no sense to preach against virtually an entire book of Scripture. Yet, Richard Belcher, who like Longman considers what we read in Qoheleth’s speech as “speculative wisdom,”16 seeks to guide preachers preach through Ecclesiastes by providing “Homiletical implications” throughout his commentary on Ecclesiastes. Meredith M. Kline, in his review of this commentary says, if one accepts the view that Qoheleth presents “deviant ‘speculative wisdom,’ which is corrected in the epilogue (12:9–14), Belcher’s commentary is an excellent resource.”17 Otherwise, “Belcher’s perspective on Ecclesiastes so pervades his commentary that it is counterproductive to wade through all his details in order to arrive at an appropriate expository sermon.”18

All this means, even without reviewing the works of other Evangelical scholars who have accepted and assumed that there are unorthodox and contradictory perspectives in Qoheleth’s speech, we can see that Evangelical scholarship itself has undermined Qoheleth’s canonical authority. Insofar as the message of Ecclesiastes is needed today more than ever, there is an urgent need to reclaim Qoheleth’s canonical authority. How then do we regain the confidence that Qoheleth’s speech is indeed what the book itself claims it to be: a piece of wisdom literature “given by one Shepherd”—God—and is therefore canonically authoritative for preaching and teaching?

Understood on its terms, Ecclesiastes is about making sense of life in light of the certainty of death and the uncertainties of life (3:1–15). It is the product of an investigation into human life based on Qoheleth’s personal experiences and observations. The investigation itself is “to inquire and to explore by wisdom everything that has been done under the heavens” (1:12). It is thus a comprehensive philosophical investigation to understand what human life everywhere in this world is all about. In other words, it is a quest for the meaning of life. This quest, which is so prominent in the modern world, is also evident in the ancient biblical world.

In view of the entrenched bias against the orthodoxy and consistency of Qoheleth’s speech, we will evaluate the book’s own claim to Qoheleth’s canonical authority by comparing and contrasting Ecclesiastes with two pieces of literature in the ancient biblical world with respect to their teachings on the meaning of life. The purpose is to consider the best wisdom on this issue that the ancient world of the Old Testament has to offer and then compare and contrast it with that of Qoheleth—does the outcome corroborate the book’s own claim that Qoheleth’s wisdom is “given” by God? If it does, we regain confidence in the claim and thus reclaim Qoheleth’s canonical authority.19 In view of this purpose, and also to do justice to the wisdom we find in the two pieces of non-biblical literature, we will not just summarize what each has to offer. For we need an adequately detailed survey of them so as to see how each grapples with the question of the meaning of life. This properly sets Ecclesiastes in the context of its intellectual milieu, which will then help us not only interpret but also appreciate and apply this marvellous wisdom book of the Bible.

1. Epic of Gilgamesh and the Meaning of Life

The most famous piece of literature from the ancient world of the Old Testament is the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh.20 This mythological tale recounts the deeds and adventures of the hero-king Gilgamesh. At the very peak of his power and popularity, his best friend Enkidu died. The reality of death haunted him. It sent him on a frantic chase after immortality. He was trying to escape the inevitable. Through the dramatic twists and turns of the story, the epic warns us that such an effort is futile.

The only humans known to have attained immortality were Utanapishtim and his wife, who survived the Flood and lived in a corner of the world. Gilgamesh was determined to find the secret from him. When he finally found this man, he was told that their immortality was obtained from the gods under unique and non-repeatable circumstances. So every other human is destined for death. “To see whether the gods might make an exception also in Gilgamesh’s case, Utanapishtim tests his ‘immortality potential,’ his ability to do without sleep.”21 He was to stay awake for six days and seven nights, and he failed. This was to help Gilgamesh accept his destiny.

Then as a consolation, he was told of the divine secret that at the bottom of the sea there was a plant that could rejuvenate anyone who ate of it. There is no indication that the plant would rejuvenate him to eternal youth, it could only “allow Gilgamesh to regain his lost youth”;22 it was just “a finite resource for rejuvenation.”23 Gilgamesh attached heavy stones to his feet so that he could sink down to get the plant. He got it! He said he would take it home to test it on an old man first before eating it himself. On his way back he found a cool inviting pool. He went in to bathe and left the plant with his clothes. A snake sneaked up to the plant and ate it. Then the snake shed its old skin to reveal a new one; the plant had given the snake the power to rejuvenate itself!

So Gilgamesh lost even the opportunity to become young again “to live life over with the advantage of his new wisdom.”24 Why did the ancient sage who composed the epic not let Gilgamesh go home with the plant? Certainly it is not because he needed to explain why snakes shed their skin. The obvious answer is that good literature, even fantastic literature, must interpret reality correctly. And the reality is that, as Qoheleth makes clear, we have one life to live and one chance to live it, wisely or foolishly (9:10). “The story of Gilgamesh’s quest then ends suddenly where it began, echoing the words [at the beginning] in homage to his achievement—the wall of Uruk.”25 This ending is open to different interpretations. A sensible one is that “a return to … the walls of Uruk which stand for all time as Gilgamesh’s lasting achievement” means that “Man may have to die, but what he does lives after him. There is a measure of immortality in achievement, the only immortality man can seek.”26

Throughout history people do seek this form of “immortality.” However, having recognized that the wise has an advantage over the fool in terms of temporal achievement, Qoheleth warns, “this also is vanity.” For “the wise dies just like the fool,” and “there is no lasting remembrance of the wise, just as with the fool, seeing that in the days to come both will have already been forgotten” (2:15–16). The fact that the Epic itself was once buried and then re-discovered by modern archeology—forgotten for 2500 years—proves the point.27 Ironically, Gilgamesh himself once admonished Enkidu, “Only the gods [live] forever under the sun. As for mankind, numbered are their days; whatever they achieve is but the wind.”28

How then should one come to terms with the reality of the vanity of life? In the Old Babylonian version of this story the answer was given to Gilgamesh by the tavern-keeper when he was searching for Utanapishtim:

Gilgamesh, where do you roam?
You will not find the eternal life you seek.
When the gods created mankind
They appointed death for mankind,
Kept eternal life in their own hands.
So, Gilgamesh, let your stomach be full,
Day and night enjoy yourself in every way,…
Appreciate the child who holds your hand,
Let your wife enjoy herself in your lap.
This is the work [of mankind].29

The admonition that one is to have enjoyment of life because “numbered are their days” (the certainty of death) and thus “whatever they achieve is but the wind” (All is vanity) is a sub-theme and key teaching of Ecclesiastes (2:24–26; 3:12–13, 22; 5:18–20; 8:15; 9:7–9; 11:7–10). Qoheleth says that enjoyment of life “is what I have seen to be good and appropriate (or fitting)” (5:18)—it is the sensible and realistic response to the certainty of death. It has been argued that since Qoheleth’s admonition to enjoy life with one’s spouse (9:7–9) is so similar to that of the tavern-keeper not only in terms of content, but even “the sequence of details is, in fact, identical in the two texts…, [it] cannot be a coincidence.”30 Thus, it is supposed, the author of Ecclesiastes must have borrowed it from this Mesopotamian source.31

For our purpose it does not matter whether this is true. Actually, in a world prior to modern consumerism, such a realistic response to the vanity of life would be widely considered “common sense.” For if we all have to die and leave everything behind, the sensible thing to do is to enjoy what we have and enjoy life with those we love. In fact, the Egyptian Harper’s Song gives a similar answer on how to come to terms with the certainty of death:

One generation passes, another stays behind—
such has it been since the men of ancient times….
There is no return for them
to explain their present state of being,
To say how it is with them,
to gentle our hearts
until we hasten to the place where they have gone….
So spend your days joyfully
and do not be weary with living!
No man takes his things with him,
and none who go can come back again.32

Hence the realistic response to the vanity of life as taught in Ecclesiastes is well represented in the ancient biblical world. This should temper the tendency today to read Ecclesiastes as a pessimistic book. And unlike the Mesopotamian and Egyptian counterparts, Qoheleth’s admonition to enjoy life is much more nuanced. Qoheleth qualifies that the enjoyment of life he is talking about is a by-product of fearing God. It comes “from the hand God” to those who “please him” (2:25–26) by doing “what is (morally) good in their lifetime” (3:12), that is, “fear him (and keep his commandments)” (3:14b; 12:13b). Without the fear of God, the Mesopotamian and Egyptian admonitions to have enjoyment can easily turn into Greek hedonism—the pursuit of pleasure as a goal in life.

It is one thing to have pleasure but another to have enjoyment—pleasure that satisfies the whole person. The reason the fear of God is needed to have the kind of enjoyment that Qoheleth has in mind is that it requires one to have a carefree disposition (5:19–20; 11:9–10). For how can one have enjoyment when one is full of cares? And to have a carefree disposition one must not be covetous, never satisfied with what one already has but always wanting more (6:7–9). A covetous heart, which by definition cannot be satisfied, in and of itself already robs one of the carefreeness needed to have enjoyment. For it is a restless heart, what more when it leads to telling lies, committing theft, adultery or even murder? How then can there be true enjoyment—pleasure that satisfies the whole person? And the only way to overcome covetousness is through fearing God, who alone watches what is in the heart.

2. Dialogue of Pessimism and the Meaning of Life

A different response to the certainty of death is found in the Mesopotamian Dialogue of Pessimism. As its name given by modern scholars indicates, it seems to present a pessimistic response to the vanity of life. It is an imaginary dialogue between a master and his slave. The master says to his slave that he plans to do something, and the slave promptly supports him by pointing out the merits of doing it. Then the master changes his mind and says he will not do such a thing, and the slave equally promptly supports him by pointing out the demerits of doing it. This goes on for ten rounds with different things that the master says he plans to do, only to change his mind as soon as his slave replies.33 Overall, it is humorous.

In the first round, the master says he wants to pay a visit to the palace. In agreement, the slave highlights a possible positive outcome: being shown favor by the king. When the master changes his mind, the slave then highlights a possible negative outcome: being given an assignment that brings suffering. In the ninth round, in response to the master’s plan to make loans as a creditor, the slave replies, “The man who makes loans—his grain [principal] remains his grain and the interest is in addition.” What then could be the negative outcome of doing that? “Making loans is as [easy] as making love, but repaying them is as hard as bearing a child. They will use up your loan and keep complaining about you without stopping and will make you lose your interest as well.”34

This juxtaposition of positive and negative outcomes parallels the juxtaposition of positive and negative events, or outcomes in life, in Qoheleth’s second poem: “There is … a time to be born, and a time to die; / … a time to weep, and a time to laugh; / … a time for war, and a time for peace” (3:1–8). In both cases, no one knows ahead of time whether it will be a positive or a negative outcome or event that awaits him (8:17–9:1). Thus both Qoheleth and the author of the Dialogue reflect on the meaning of life in light of the uncertainties of life.

And like Qoheleth, the Mesopotamian author also reflects on the meaning of life in light of the certainty of death. For in the tenth round the master says he plans to perform a public benefit for his country. The slave supports him, effectively saying, “Marduk [the supreme deity of the Babylonian pantheon] keeps account of good works and he will compensate them.”35 So there is reward for good works, if not in this life, then in the next life. When the master changes his mind, the slave replies:

“Do not perform, sir, do not perform.
Go up on to the ancient ruin heaps and walk about;
See the skulls of high and low.
Which is the malefactor, and which is the benefactor?”36

He is not contradicting what he has just said about Marduk as a rewarder of good works. As in the other rounds, he is simply highlighting a parallel point of view, one that now supports the master’s change of mind. In this case, the observation is that we all die regardless of whether we have done good works or not. The skulls on the ruin heaps belong to both malefactors and benefactors and we cannot distinguish them. So as far as we can observe, in the long run it makes no difference whether we do good works or not, which implies a pessimistic view of life if what he says about Marduk as a rewarder of good works is not taken into consideration. With this, the master runs out of ideas as to what else he plans to do. Nothing seems good to do. So finally, he says,

“Slave, listen to me.” “Here I am, sir, here I am.”
“What, then, is good?”
“To have my neck and your neck broken
And to be thrown into the river is good.
‘Who is so tall as to ascend to the heavens?
Who is so broad as to compass the underworld?’”
“No, slave, I will kill you and send you first.”
“And my master would certainly not outlive me by even three days.”37

What are we to make of this piece of Babylonian literature? The author treats a serious subject in a non-serious way. Assyriologist Jean Bottéro has presented a sensible interpretation of this intriguing piece of literature. Recognizing that this dialogue serves “a critical and humorous purpose,” Bottéro says, “it is also clear that the general direction impressed upon the dialogue has been deliberately oriented towards concerns that are very serious and of great importance: those of the value of human activity and of the meaning of life itself.”38 And since it presents the very serious subject with humor, “those who stress the ‘pessimism’ of our Dialogue are mistaken to take it, I would not say seriously, because it is serious, but literally, at least by interpreting its conclusions as a call for voluntary death as the only refuge from the universal absurdity and absence of all meaning in the world and in life.”39

As for the slave’s reply to the master’s question “What, then, is good?” the reference to the heavens and the underworld (the entire universe) is to say that “the universe is larger than him, indeed too large for him. That is an indirect way of saying that no one in this world can answer the question of the meaning of human life, because man, as he is, is unable to comprehend … the universe and its functioning.”40 We need to read this in light of the author’s own reference to the god Marduk as a rewarder of good works and the religious tradition of ancient Mesopotamia: “only the gods, masters of the universe … are able to answer the innumerable and unsolvable questions that we ask about the universe.”41 Thus by pointing out so poignantly that no human can answer that question, the author points his audience to “a religious feeling of transcendence as the only way to escape the universal confusion.”42

Therefore, “By doing this and by giving divine transcendence as the only answer to the problem raised by his work—in a very original way, moreover—our author stays in a tradition of essential religious thought in ancient Mesopotamia.”43 Thus the author was not a pessimist. So when the slave says what is good is to have both his and his master’s necks broken and be thrown into the river—indeed a pessimistic response—we need to read it in light of his own explanation: no one, except the gods, knows what is good. Hence he is only presenting the logical conclusion based on human experience and reason alone, with the qualification that only the gods really have the answer.

This means, in all seriousness, he is saying what is “good” is suicide—it is the sensible option—if and only if the reality of divine transcendence is taken out of the picture. As indicated above in the slave’s two parallel replies to doing good works, a pessimistic view of life is already hinted at if what is said about Marduk (divine transcendence) is not taken into consideration. The response of the master that he will kill his slave first and then himself (within three days, his slave assures him) then drives home this point. So the message is very serious though presented in a non-serious way.

We need to understand Ecclesiastes in its ancient context before we apply it to our modern context. The above survey on the quest of the meaning of life in the ancient biblical world reveals that there were two basic human responses to the certainty of death and thus the vanity of life. In view of the reality that one will leave this world empty-handed, one should enjoy one’s life. And since no human could answer the question “What, then, is good?” no one could answer the question, “What is the meaning of life?” except the gods or God. Hence the need for the sense of divine transcendence. We already saw that Qoheleth’s admonition to have enjoyment of life as a realistic response to vanity is much more nuanced than that of his non-biblical counterparts. We now turn to Qoheleth’s response to the question, “What, then, is good?”

Qoheleth actually undertook an elaborate experiment to find out “what is good … to do” (2:3). And his conclusion is that there is nothing good except to have enjoyment (2:24; 3:12, 22; 8:15). This is because to know what is really good to do, we must be able to look into the future, even beyond our lifetime, in order to see the long-term outcome of what we now do. And no one knows what will happen in this world after he is gone (3:22) and so no one knows what is good to do in one’s lifetime (6:12). For even within our lifetime, we have witnessed the truth that an event or outcome considered “bad” may turn out to be a blessing in disguise; likewise, something considered “good” may turn out to be a curse in disguise. Thus, because of the uncertainties of life, we do not know what is good to do; only God, who holds the uncertain future, knows that.

This means the only thing we can know is good to do is something considered good that is not affected by what happens in the future; there is nothing like this except to have enjoyment. And it is considered “good” because in view of the inevitability of death, it is the sensible or meaningful thing to do and it gives us a good time. This is not to say that enjoyment is the ultimate good. We have already seen that Qoheleth teaches that there can be no true enjoyment of life without a carefree disposition. And there can be no carefree disposition without the fear of God, which involves a sense of divine transcendence. So what is “good”—to have enjoyment—is ultimately to fear God as enjoyment is only a by-product of fearing God. Hence Qoheleth integrates the two natural human responses to the vanity of life represented in the ancient biblical world into fearing God.

He also spells out that the certainty of death and the uncertainties of life, which result in “all is vanity,” are in fact intended by God to goad humanity to fear him and keep his commandments (3:14b; 12:11, 13). This means they are intended by God to help humanity not only to cultivate the sense of divine transcendence but also to respond appropriately to the transcendent Divine: fear him. And the by-product is the carefree disposition needed to enjoy life, the only good allotted humanity with regard to the things they work for in this temporal world (3:22; 5:18; 9:9). Hence Qoheleth shows how even the unpleasant reality we have to face—the certainty of death and the uncertainties of life—is designed to serve a good and meaningful purpose.

In other words, Qoheleth provides the answer to the quest for the meaning of life in a way that builds on two basic ideas that would strike a responsive chord in the human heart. This answer is so much more nuanced and insightful than the corresponding wisdom in the Mesopotamian counterparts, and is so God-centered that it gives the impression that the answer could not have been purely the work of the natural human mind. At the least, this casts serious doubts on Longman’s claim that Qoheleth’s speech presents “speculative, doubting wisdom.” Now Longman himself recognizes that the speech is about the meaning of life.44 Does such a nuanced and insightful God-centered teaching on the meaning of life look like “speculative, doubting wisdom”? And we have so far not presented fully Qoheleth’s wisdom on the meaning of life.

3. Camus on the Meaning of Life

To better appreciate the relevance of the Dialogue of Pessimism for today, and how this relates to the canonicity of Qoheleth’s speech in Ecclesiastes, we now compare and contrast it with its modern counterpart: The Myth of Sisyphus by Nobel Prize-winning existentialist Albert Camus. Like the Dialogue, Camus’s essay addresses the issue of suicide and the meaning of life; unlike the Dialogue, divine transcendence is taken out of the picture. In this essay, “The certainty of our death becomes part of a larger theme: life has no meaning.”45

This is how Camus begins his essay: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy…. I therefore conclude that the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions.”46 He claims that life is “absurd” because it is meaningless and goes so far as to affirm that for “[a]ll healthy men having thought of their own suicide, it can be seen … that there is a direct connection between this feeling [of absurdity] and the longing for death.”47 However Camus qualifies, “One kills oneself because life is not worth living, that is certainly a truth …. But does that insult to existence [suicide] … come from the fact that it has no meaning? Does its absurdity require one to escape it through hope or suicide?”48

To appreciate Camus’s answer to this question, we first take a closer look at why he says life is absurd. “The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.”49 It is impossible to even know that “this world has a meaning that transcends it.” Thus life is absurd because the world is unresponsive (silent) to the human need for meaning, the need to have “a purpose to his life”50 and to perceive coherence (“unity” and “rational” order) in this world.51 In other words, “I know what man wants [meaning]” and “I know what the world offers him [meaninglessness]”52—it is absurd to be offered the exact opposite of what we need or want.

According to Camus, in recognizing that life is absurd, the consequence should neither be hope, especially hope in God,53 nor suicide. What then should it be? What is the point of living? “Living is keeping the absurd alive. Keeping it alive is, above all, contemplating it.”54 In keeping the absurd alive by contemplating it, “Thus I draw from the absurd three consequences which are my revolt, my freedom and my passion. By the mere activity of consciousness I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death—and I refuse suicide.”55 This is a profound statement with far-reaching implications. What does it mean?

This “rule of life,” in refusing suicide while rejecting divine transcendence, involves “revolt,” “freedom,” and “passion.”56 It is a “revolt” because it refuses the invitation to death even though this means having to constantly face the conflict between what we need (meaning) and what we get (meaninglessness). And yet living a meaningless life spells “freedom” because to the extent to which we “imagined a purpose” to our life (given by God), we adapted ourselves to the demands of a purpose and became a slave.57 “But what does life mean in such a universe? Nothing else for the moment but indifference to the future and a desire to use up everything that is given,” that is, live in the present moment to the fullest measure (quantity) with “passion” though it “is tantamount to substituting the quantity of experiences for the quality.”58 This sounds like a form of Greek hedonism.59

Camus’s reflection on suicide and the absurdity of life led him to conclude, “It was previously a question of finding out whether or not life had to have a meaning to be lived. It now becomes clear on the contrary that it will be lived all the better if it has no meaning.”60 In fact he says the “revolt [refusing suicide and keeping the absurd alive] gives life its value.”61 Hence he considers such an absurd life as having “value” and thus worth living! This is the outcome of Camus reflecting on the meaning of life, just like in the Dialogue, but with divine transcendence taken out of the picture. Such a reflection is precisely what the Dialogue warns against!

4. Qoheleth on the Meaning of Life

We have seen Camus claim that life is absurd because the world is unresponsive to the human need for meaning—that is, the need to have “a purpose to his life” and to perceive “unity” and “rational” order in this world. Thus, even an atheist recognizes that to experience the meaning of life, one needs to have a worthwhile purpose to live for as well as to be able to perceive coherence in life—that is, to see how every aspect of life, especially the unpleasant ones, cohere with the purpose of life. As can already be surmised from what is presented above, Qoheleth teaches that to experience the meaning of life we need to fear God and keep his commandments, for it is the worthwhile purpose to live for because it is God’s purpose for humanity (12:13b). Since Camus says to have a purpose to life is to become a slave, he could not have imagined how liberating and meaningful it can be to fear God and keep his commandments.

And as already noted, the unpleasant reality that death is certain while life is uncertain is designed to goad us to fear God and keep his commandments—that is, to live out the worthwhile purpose (12:11, 13b). For “God so works [even through this unpleasant reality] that men (people) should fear him” (3:14b). Thus, even the unpleasant reality coheres with the worthwhile purpose. This helps us perceive coherence in this world and in human life despite the unpleasant reality. Qoheleth highlights the most enigmatic aspect of the uncertainties of life (3:1–8): the reality of “innocent” or undeserved suffering in this world (7:15–8:15). How then can undeserved suffering cohere with the, or any, worthwhile purpose of life?

As Job’s debate with his three friends shows, human wisdom is totally at a loss when it comes to resolving the enigma of undeserved suffering. This is why we have ignored non-biblical literature from the ancient (and the modern) world that addresses this enigma.62 The book of Job spells out that such wisdom has to come from God and is to be humbly received by a God-fearing heart (Job 28:20–24, 28). Ecclesiastes with the help of Job has provided an answer to this enigma that is satisfying to a God-fearing heart. Ecclesiastes teaches that God so works, including through undeserved suffering, that people should and would fear him. Job clarifies that to fear God is to “fear God for nothing” (Job 1:9). This means God so works that people should fear him for nothing in return, whether health or wealth, or both. This is what it means to truly fear God.

Given fallen human nature, if God were to guarantee that those who “fear” him would be spared adversities, there would hardly be any who would truly fear God. To “fear” God for something amounts to “fearing” God out of a covetous heart, which cannot be carefree and thus cannot have true enjoyment of life. So God has to allow, as in the case of Job, undeserved suffering so that people would truly fear God. Job, who did indeed fear God for nothing, has been such an encouragement and comfort to believers.

No human wisdom could or would come up with this answer. Yet Ecclesiastes with the help of Job has given this very answer to meet the human need for meaning, which is, to have a worthwhile purpose to live for and to be able to perceive coherence in life, including how even undeserved suffering coheres with the worthwhile purpose. Camus correctly claims that this answer cannot be found in this world. It has to be “given” by God, whose existence he has ruled out. And Camus’s “wisdom” in The Myth of Sisyphus is found to be inferior to even its ancient Mesopotamian counterpart in terms of helping us make sense of life in such a way that our conscience accepts that such a life is worth living. The inferiority of Camus’s reflection is precisely due to what is presupposed in modern thought: the ruling out of divine transcendence or the existence of God.

Certainly not every thinker or philosopher who has ruled out God would accept that life has to be meaningless or absurd in view of the reality of death and the vanity of life. For instance, philosopher Paul Edwards in his classic essay on the meaning and value of human life valiantly sought to defend that life can still be meaningful without God.63 However even this classic attempt to find meaning in life without God fails at even the theoretical level, let alone at the practical level. For Edwards claims that one’s life “had meaning if we knew that he devoted himself to a cause [he considered worthwhile]” even if his life only “seemed worthwhile to him” but actually “was not worthwhile.”64 When one’s life is actually not worth living measured by standards acceptable to human conscience, whatever “meaning” one can find in such a life is superficial if not illusive. It is inconceivable that the human heart could be satisfied with such a “meaning.” Edwards’s theory is more like a desperate philosophical attempt to circumvent the implications of Camus’s reflection on the meaning of life, which is consistent with the presupposition that God does not exist.

This is not to say that if one does not believe in God, one can find no meaning in life at all. There is still room for a meaning in life for such a person provided that his life is considered “worth living” measured by standards acceptable to human conscience.65 But Edwards’s philosophical solution to meaning in life apart from God involves a scheme that requires the postulation that one’s life can still be meaningful even if it is not worth living (as long as it “seemed worthwhile to him”). In any case, as philosopher Keith Ward puts it, “A human life can have meaning without an objective purpose, value, or pattern. We can construct our own values and purposes in a [supposedly] morally patternless world…. But if a set of religious beliefs is true, those who do not accept it, however meaningful their lives may seem to be, will indeed have missed the meaning of life.”66

5. Conclusion

Even in this brief exposition on a complex issue, we can already see that the answer to the quest for the meaning of life provided by Qoheleth in the book of Ecclesiastes is uncannily superior to what we find in both its ancient and modern counterparts. It is safe to say Qoheleth’s wisdom is on a different paradigm altogether. And Job testifies that such wisdom has to come from God. Hence it makes so much sense to conclude, unless we have already ruled out the existence of God, that the teaching of Ecclesiastes on the meaning of life corroborates its own claim that the words of Qoheleth are “given by one Shepherd”—inspired by God and thus canonical. So even if the author of Ecclesiastes did indeed borrow materials from non-biblical sources, monotheistic revelation would have informed and shaped his choice and use of the materials, as well as supplemented them in his writing of Qoheleth’s speech. There is no better explanation. As to whether there are actually unorthodox and contradictory perspectives in the speech, it is a matter of how we read it.67 There is no basis to question the biblical claim that Qoheleth’s profound speech is in itself canonical.68

This, together with the corresponding claim that Qoheleth has spoken “the most honest words of truth,” should anchor our interpretation of Ecclesiastes. The overall argument—because “All is vanity,” therefore “Fear God”—should guide our reading of the speech. In other words, in reading through the speech we are to look out for clues as to how Qoheleth develops his argument from the theme “All is vanity” to the conclusion “Fear God and keep his commandments.”69 And since the theme and sub-themes are repeated throughout the speech, we need to pay attention to how in each repetition the argument develops and moves forward. We need to recognize that the argument moves forward in a cyclical and not linear manner. Otherwise, we will not likely follow Qoheleth’s (cyclical) flow of thought, let alone see coherence and consistency in his speech.

All this means that when reading a text in Ecclesiastes, if we come to the conclusion that what it says is unorthodox or contradictory to what we read in other biblical texts, whether outside of or within Ecclesiastes, we have not understood it. For the author (or editor) of Ecclesiastes has explicitly asserted that Qoheleth’s speech is truthful and canonical, implicitly warning us not to read it as though it were otherwise. Why should we assume that we have understood Qoheleth’s speech better than the author (or editor) of Ecclesiastes himself? Iain Provan has wisely cautioned that Ecclesiastes “is a book that grapples with reality, and reality is complex. Should the words of a wise man about reality not be difficult to simplify? … Yet commentator after commentator has agonized over the book as if it, rather than they, had a problem, because it is resistant to linear, systematic treatment.”70

[1] It is beyond the scope of this article to defend this reading of Ecclesiastes; for our purpose here, there is no need to do so. It cannot be disputed that the theme is “All is vanity”; what is disputed is whether the Hebrew word should be translated “vanity.” And there is general agreement that the conclusion is “Fear God and keep his commandments”; the basic disagreement is whether these are the words of Qoheleth himself or that of an editor. So this reading of Ecclesiastes should not be controversial. And our purpose here is to compare and contrast the teaching of Ecclesiastes on the meaning of life based on this reading of the book with what we find in two relevant pieces of Mesopotamian literature. We shall see that in so doing, this reading of Ecclesiastes makes very good sense. For the teaching of Ecclesiastes on the meaning of life based on this reading matches and surpasses those of the Mesopotamian counterparts in a rather meaningful way—it speaks convincingly about and persuasively to the human condition. It is unlikely this teaching is the outcome of a misreading of a canonical book.

[2] Therefore it is unnecessary, as is often done by evangelicals, to tamper with the plain meaning of “under the sun” in order to limit the supposed pessimism of “all is vanity” to non-believers only. This changes the meaning of the book as well as robs believers of a meaningful message—since the realism of “all is vanity” is true of even believers, it makes so much sense for them to obey the command of Jesus to lay up for themselves treasures in heaven rather than on earth. The meaning of “under the sun”—this temporal world as opposed to the hereafter—is plain from Ecclesiastes itself: one who is not yet born is one “who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun” (4:3); the living are those “who walk under the sun” (4:15); and the dead are those “who no longer have a share in all that is done under the sun” (9:6).

[3] Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (Nashville: Broadman, 1993), 262–64.

[4] Michael V. Fox, A Time to Tear Down and a Time to Build Up: A Rereading of Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 349; cf. James L. Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes: A Commentary, OTL (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987), 191.

[5] Jason S. DeRouchie, “Shepherding Wind and One Wise Shepherd: Grasping for Breath in Ecclesiastes,” SBJT 15.3 (2011): 12–15; cf. R. N. Whybray, Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 172.

[6] Choon-Leong Seow, Ecclesiastes: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, AB 18C (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 388; cf. Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes, 191.

[7] For an elaborate exegetical defense that 12:9–12 explicitly affirms the inspiration and canonicity of Qoheleth’s speech (1:2–12:8), see T. F. Leong, Our Reason for Being: An Exposition of Ecclesiastes on the Meaning of Life (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2022), 159–67.

[8] Tremper Longman III, The Book of Ecclesiastes, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 38.

[9] Longman, Ecclesiastes, 38.

[10] Longman uses the unorthodox speeches in the canonical book of Job as an analogy to justify the inclusion of the supposedly unorthodox speech of Qoheleth in the canon (Longman, Ecclesiastes, 37, 38). However, the unorthodox speeches of Job’s three friends are in an ongoing dialogue addressing Job and vice-versa like in a debate whereas the speech of Qoheleth is a standalone monologue addressing the reader like in a sermon.

[11] Jerry E. Shepherd, “Ecclesiastes,” in Proverbs–Isaiah, ed. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, revised ed., EBC 6 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 258.

[12] Shepherd, “Ecclesiastes,” 257.

[13] Shepherd, “Ecclesiastes,” 269.

[14] Shepherd, “Ecclesiastes,” 269.

[15] Shepherd, “Ecclesiastes,” 269–70.

[16] Richard P. Belcher Jr., Ecclesiastes: A Mentor Commentary (Fearn: Christian Focus, 2017), 63–67.

[17] Meredith M. Kline, “Ecclesiastes: Musings of an Unfaithful Solomon? A Review Article,” 2019,

[18] Kline, “Ecclesiastes.”

[19] The goal of the comparative study we are about to undertake is not to prove, but to corroborate the claim, that the words of Qoheleth are inspired by God and hence canonical. Our confidence in the canonicity of Qoheleth’s speech lies ultimately in the book’s own claim. If we reject this claim, we reject the book of Ecclesiastes itself as canonical, and not just the speech of Qoheleth. Why then is the book canonized? Evangelical scholars like Longman, who accepts the book but not the speech as canonical, will have to read 12:9–12 against its grain to deny that it affirms the inspiration and canonicity of the words of Qoheleth (cf. footnote 7).

[20] David Damrosch, The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2007).

[21] Maureen Gallery Kovacs, The Epic of Gilgamesh (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989), 96.

[22] Kovacs, Epic of Gilgamesh, 96.

[23] A. R. George, The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts, Volume I (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 523.

[24] Kovacs, Epic of Gilgamesh, 96.

[25] Kovacs, Epic of Gilgamesh, 96.

[26] Thorkild Jacobsen, The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976), 208.

[27] Cf. Damrosch, The Buried Book, 194.

[28] James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 79.

[29] Stephanie Dalley, ed., trans., Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others, Revised Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 150, 153.

[30] Nili Samet, “The Gilgamesh Epic and the Book of Qohelet: A New Look,” Bib 96 (2015): 378–79.

[31] Samet, “The Gilgamesh Epic,” 379.

[32] John L Foster, trans., Ancient Egyptian Literature: An Anthology (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001), 179–80.

[33] Cf. Jean Bottéro, Mesopotamia: Writing, Reasoning, and the Gods, trans. Zainab Bahrani and Marc Van De Mieroop (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 253–56.

[34] Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 601.

[35] Bottéro, Mesopotamia, 256.

[36] W. G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature, reprint ed. (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1996), 149.

[37] Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature, 149.

[38] Bottéro, Mesopotamia, 260.

[39] Bottéro, Mesopotamia, 260.

[40] Bottéro, Mesopotamia, 263.

[41] Bottéro, Mesopotamia, 263.

[42] Bottéro, Mesopotamia, 265.

[43] Bottéro, Mesopotamia, 267.

[44] Longman, Ecclesiastes, 77, 111, 176.

[45] Ronald Aronson, “Camus the Unbeliever: Living Without God,” in Situating Existentialism: Key Texts in Context, ed. Jonathan Judaken and Robert Bernascon (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 266.

[46] Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, trans. Justin O’ Brien (Hannondsworth: Penguin, 1979), 11–12.

[47] Camus, Myth of Sisyphus, 13.

[48] Camus, Myth of Sisyphus, 15–16.

[49] Camus, Myth of Sisyphus, 31–32.

[50] Camus, Myth of Sisyphus, 57.

[51] Camus, Myth of Sisyphus, 51.

[52] Camus, Myth of Sisyphus, 34.

[53] Camus, Myth of Sisyphus, 41.

[54] Camus, Myth of Sisyphus, 53.

[55] Camus, Myth of Sisyphus, 62.

[56] Camus, Myth of Sisyphus, 32–50.

[57] Camus, Myth of Sisyphus, 57.

[58] Camus, Myth of Sisyphus, 59.

[59] In fact, the first example Camus presents as an “absurd man”—one who lives successfully with the absurd—is Don Juan (Camus, Myth of Sisyphus, 66–73). “Don Juan is a character that appears in numerous works of literature and art (e.g. opera) and is best known for his unrivalled powers of seduction. He moves from woman to woman without hesitation, living a ‘quantitative’ life that Camus sees as befitting someone who is aware of the absurd” (

[60] Camus, Myth of Sisyphus, 53.

[61] Camus, Myth of Sisyphus, 54.

[62] It is well-known that ancient Greek, followed by modern, philosophy (“wisdom”) goes so far as to use suffering in general, let alone undeserved suffering, to argue that God does not exist.

[63] Paul Edwards, “Life, Meaning and Value of,” in Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Donald M. Borchert, 2nd ed. (Detroit: Macmillan, 2005) 5:345–58.

[64] Edwards, “Meaning of Life,” 351, 353 (italics original).

[65] Cf. Edwards, “Meaning of Life,” 353.

[66] Keith Ward, “Religion and the Question of Meaning,” in The Meaning of Life in the World Religions, eds. Joseph Runzo and Nancy M. Martin, (Oxford: Oneworld, 2000), 29–30.

[67] For a substantial discussion on reading Ecclesiastes on its own terms, see Leong, Our Reason for Being, 6–14, 231–41. What follows is a concise summary.

[68] Like Longman, Peter Enns accepts and assumes there are unorthodox and contradictory perspectives in Qoheleth’s speech (Peter Enns, Ecclesiastes [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011], 2, 16). Unlike Longman, Enns affirms that according to 12:10, “the written words of Qohelet are ‘words of truth’ and have an ‘upright’ quality to them. And … we can conclude only that the frame narrator is making a very positive evaluation of Qohelet’s wisdom” (Enns, Ecclesiastes, 112; cf. Longman, Ecclesiastes, 278). This means even though there are unorthodox and contradictory perspectives in Qoheleth’s speech, the (inspired) frame narrator still considers it inspired by God and thus canonical! If Enns’s interpretation of Ecclesiastes is correct, we will need to rethink the very nature of Scripture inspired by God—both Old and New Testaments (Enns, Ecclesiastes, 194–201). For it then provides the “biblical” basis to claim that inspired Scripture can accommodate (not in the sense that it merely records as in the book of Job) unorthodox and contradictory perspectives. So the question of whether there are indeed unorthodox and contradictory perspectives in Qoheleth’s speech has far-reaching implications for not only Ecclesiastes but also the Bible as a whole.

[69] It matters then which Bible translation one uses. A translation that renders the theme as “Everything is meaningless,” though it strikes a responsive chord in the heart of many people today, changes the meaning of not only the Hebrew word but also the entire book. “All is vanity,” in the sense that everything is ultimately profitless because we have to die and leave everything behind, need not be “meaningless.” It is “meaningless” to people whose life is given to laying up treasures on earth because in light of this reality, what they are doing is indeed meaningless; so “All is vanity” still gets the message across to them. In contrast, to those who are committed to follow Jesus, “All is vanity” is very meaningful because it helps set their heart free to obey Jesus to lay up treasures in heaven!

[70] Iain W. Provan, Ecclesiastes/Song of Songs (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 33–34 (italics added).

T. F. Leong

T. F. Leong used to teach Hebrew and Old Testament studies at the East Asia School of Theology in Singapore and is the author of Our Reason for Being: An Exposition of Ecclesiastes on the Meaning of Life.

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