Christian Scholars Review 17 (1987) 52-66
Copyright © 1987 by Christian Scholar’s Review; cited with permission.
Qoheleth and the Problem
By N. Karl Haden
52 Paul Tillich begins "Part One: The Human Predicament" of The Eternal Now
with these words:
[Aloneness] is more true of man than of any other creature. He is not only alone; he also
knows that he is alone. Aware of what he is, he asks the question of his aloneness. He asks
why he is alone, and how he can triumph over his being alone. For this aloneness he
cannot endure. Neither can he escape it. It is his destiny to be alone and to be aware of it.
Not even God can take this destiny away from him. ...This is the greatness and this is
the burden of man.1
As man questions his existence2 he appears only as a momentary and flickering
flame in a remote corner of the universe--a flame that wishes to ignite the
cosmos, but is all too quickly snuffed out. And no one seems to care--the
universe is impersonal and indifferent; the gods or God, if they exist, have
abandoned man as an unwanted child. Thus, the existence of humankind seems
transitory and purposeless. Rational man's struggle with aloneness is manifest
all the way from his microcosmic need for individual significance to his mac-
rocosmic aspirations projecting man as the measure of all things.
Within the wisdom movement of ancient Israel Qoheleth, the most radical
of the wisdom writers, wrestles with the problem of man's aloneness and man's
search to attain meaningful existence. Qoheleth confronts this problem both
with philosophical dexterity, and, of particular importance, with his own feel-
ings of estrangement. This sage of yesterday has much to say to modem man
regarding the experience which has become known as "alienation."3
The word "alienation" conveys the dilemma of a modern experience, yet
the term is muddled by its various connotations. In its multi-dimensional im-
Alienation as a characterization of human existence is generally thought of in connection
with modern society, and modern thought from Feuerbach and Marx to existentialism.
N. Karl Haden finds the essential characteristics of alienation in the ancient Hebrew sage
Qoheleth, and discovers in his writings a perspective which is both sustaining and chal-
lenging to contemporary believers. Mr. Haden is pursuing a doctorate in philosophy at the
Qoheleth and the Problem of Alienation 53
plications, alienation concerns both the individual and humanity; the nuances of
the term are thus philosophical, psychological, political, economic, sociological,
religious and ethical. Because of these various connotations, the first task at
hand is to arrive at a satisfactory understanding of "alienation" as the term will
be used within the study.
G. W. F. Hegel was the first to use Entfremdung (alienation) in a technical
and philosophical sense. Hegel, Ludwig Feurbach, and Karl Marx are the three
thinkers whose interpretations of alienation provide the basis for modem dis-
cussion.4 Alienation has also become a major concern of another school of
thinkers, the existentialists. F. H. Heinemann, the continental philosopher who
coined the term Existenzphilosophie in 1929, explains that the existentialists wish
to make man aware of the fact and problem of alienation; their aim is to liberate
him from estrangement.5 In recent scholarship various themes of existentialism
have been assigned to Qoheleth: rebellion against a solely rational approach to
problems of existence, an emphasis on the individual and the individual's expe-
rience, and a lack of meaning in human existence.6 The purpose of this study is
to consider Qoheleth's struggle with alienation and to discern his conclusions
about life within the framework of his world view.
Toward An Understanding of Alienation
When man questions the significance of life he begins on the basis of his
own existence; as he works his way into the macrocosm he can find only an
indifferent and impersonal universe. But this estrangement from nature is only
the beginning of the problem. Alienation is connected with human society, for
1Paul Tillich, The Eternal Now (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1963), pp. 15, 17.
2"existence," i.e., man's state of being.
3As far as I know, very little has been written on the theme of alienation in Qoheleth. One of the best
essays I have encountered which treats this theme to some extent is James Williams, "The Wisdom of
Koheleth (What Does It Profit a Man?)" in Studies in Ancient Israelite Wisdom, selected, with a Pro-
legomenon, by James L. Crenshaw (New York: Ktav Publishing House, Inc., 1976), pp. 375-389.
4This paper is not intended to be an analysis of the historical development of the term "alienation." For
those interested in the ideology surrounding "alienation," particularly in relation to Hegel, Feurbach,
Marx, see the following: "Alienation" in The Encyclopedia of
Publishing Company 1972), pp. 76 77; George A. Kendall, "Alienation and the Struggle for Existence:
Biblical and Ideological Views in Contrast," Thomist 47 (1983): 66-76; Lutz Musner, "Ein Versuch Die
Hegelkritik in Marxel1s Fruhschriften Als Entstehung Eines Sozialwissenschaftlichen Forschungsprogrammes
zu Deuten" Conceptus 15 (1981): 193-206; Mark C. Taylor, Journeys to Selfhood: Hegel and Kierkegaard
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980): John Torrance, Estrangement, Alienation, and Exploitation:
A Sociological Approach to Historical Materialism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977).
5Fredrick Heinemam, Existentialism and the Modern Predicament (New York: Harper and Row, 1958), p. 9.
6Some recent works dealing with existentialism, or existentialists, and Qoheleth are: Kenneth James,
"Ecclesiastes: Precursor of Existentialists," The Bible Today 22 (1984): 85-90; Francis W. Nichols,
"Samuel Beckett and Ecclesiastes on the Borders of Belief," Encounter 45.1 (1984): 11-22; C- B.
"In Defense of Existence: A Comparison Between Ecclesiastes and Albert
TheologicalForum 12 (1980): 26-13. Robert Gordis gives a very perceptive comparison between
modern existentialism and Qoheleth in "Koheleth and Modem Existentialism," Koheleth-The Man and
His World, A Study of Ecclesiastes (New York: Schocken, 1968).
Christian Scholar's Review 54
with the movement of the masses to the swelling urban centers of the world,
man's estrangement from the natural realm becomes more acute. Since the
Industrial Revolution man has spent an increasing amount of time working with
machines. The estrangement brought on by technology has only intensified with
the modern computer age as individuals spend less time in reflecting and relat-
ing to other individuals, choosing instead a kinship with automata.
The depersonalization of man in society leads toward the apogee of aliena-
tion: self-alienation. William Barrett describes this condition as resulting from a
society that only requires man to perform his particular social function, identify-
ing the individual with the function and neglecting the other vital components
of humanness.7 Self-alienation characterizes the cleavage which separates the
individual as a dispensible component of the marketplace from the individual as
a human being with deep personal needs.
Heinemann offers an excellent definition of alienation which coincides with
our present concern:
The facts to which the term 'alienation' refers are, objectively, different kinds of dissocia-
tion, break or rupture between human beings and their objects, whether the latter be other
persons, or the natural world, or their own creations in art, science, and society; subjec-
tively, the corresponding states of disequilibrium, disturbance, strangeness and anxiety.8
Morton A. Kaplan conveys the same understanding in a different manner: alien-
ation occurs as the individual perceives that his status, his identifications, his
relationships, his style of life, and his work are not meaningfully correlated.9
Thus, alienation in our study is the individual's detachment from the universe at
large, from society, and from one's own self.10
There have been various solutions proposed to remedy man's alienation.
One school, believing that external changes have no effect, contends that indi-
vidual effort can enable mankind to overcome alienation. Psychoanalytical treat-
ment is seen as a viable means to the inward reform of the estranged person. A
second school, basing its solutions on the economic determinism of Marxism,
contends that the individual is the passive product of social organization and
that social organization is the product of economic organization, which in many
societies is determined by private property. Thus, the cure is thought to consist
in social transformation through the abolition of private property.11
In contrast to those who maintain that alienation has a certain remedy, many
existentialists have argued that the condition is permanent, that man cannot rid
7William Barrett, Irrational
Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy (
Anchor Books, 1962), p. 36.
8Heinemann, Existentialism, p. 9.
9Morton A. Kaplan, Alienation and Identification (New York: The Free Press, 1976), p. 119.
10The reader should note that here I am concerned primarily with the modem experience of alienation
as opposed to a "biblical alienation" due, for example, to man's depravity. A link between the modern
experience and the theological explanation will be discussed later in the paper.
11The Encyclopedia of
s.v. "Alienation," by G. Petrovic (
Company, 1972), p. 80. The reader may also want to note G.A. Kendall's article, "Alienation and the,
and negates existence, p. 76.
Qoheleth and the Problem of Alienation 55
himself by any means of this inherent quality. Man is necessarily self-alienated; it
is illusive to believe that he is capable of finding consistent personal meaning in an
impersonal.world.12 As a "precursor of existentialists" Qoheleth's conclusion on
this matter is of particular interest.
Because man is alienated, life's occurrences
often seem paradoxical.
dox results from the projection of human insights, interpretations, values, and
actions into the universe. Existence becomes absurd. C. B. Peter explains:
Absurdity is the failure of the world to satisfy the human demand. There is a paradox and
contradiction between man's longing for clarity and the failure of logic to provide it, his
longing for eternal joy and his experience of agony, his longing for immortality and his
ending in death.13
Perhaps the greatest paradox is the concept of God. Good health and fortune
attest to the absolute goodness of God; evil and suffering call God's goodness
into question. Traditional theism, embodied in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam,
seems unable to reconcile its concept of God with the experience of man: if God
is immutable, how can he relate to individuals who constantly change? Why
should he even want to relate to man? If he is omnipotent and loving, why is
there pain and suffering? If he is omnipresent, why does he so often appear to
be deaf to the voices of his children? Perhaps traditional theism has a fallacious
view of God, shackled by the proclivities of man; or perhaps traditional theism,
once divorced from dogmatic systematization, is right after all in its concept of
God, but man simply refuses to accept the consequences of this view.
Alienation in Qoheleth
I will now turn to consider Qoheleth in view of my premise that he grapples
for meaning which has been lost through alienation. Although the historical
context is different, the problems causing alienation as faced by Qoheleth are
universally human and timeless.
When Qoheleth considers the universe in which man finds himself, he
concludes that in the natural cycles of this world man has no significance. The
wind blows in the patterns it has always followed; the rivers flow to the sea, but
the sea is never full; "a generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth
remains forever" (1:4). Thus in the passing from generation to generation, man
is an isolated and minute fragment, quite dispensable to nature. Qoheleth con-
cludes that "all things are wearisome; man is not able to tell it" (1:8a). I suggest
that the dillema Qoheleth recognizes here, man's alienation from nature, is
because man can find no reference point in nature to give his life meaning.
Qoheleth experiences first hand the utter bankruptcy of the attempt to
understand life rationally: ". . . in much wisdom is much grief, and increasing
knowledge results in increasing pain" ().14 If man could only discern the
12Ibid., p. 79.
13C.B. Peter, "In Defense of Existence," p. 37.
14The reference to man's reason has peculiar implications within the wisdom tradition. These implica-
tions, which concern practical wisdom for the ordering of life, will be noted later.
Christian Scholar's Review 56
work of God, his divine plans and thoughts, then life could be patterned mean-
ingfully in accordance with God's ordained purpose. But God's work escapes
When I gave my heart to know wisdom and to see the task which has been done on the
earth (even though one should never sleep day or night), and I saw every work of God, I
concluded that man cannot discover the work which has been done under the sun. Even
though man should seek laboriously he will not discover; and though the wise man should
say, 'I know,' he cannot discover (8:16, 17; cf. also ; -12; 11:5).
Not knowing the plans of God leaves all men subject to fate and the "chanci-
ness" of existence (cf. ).
The most severe confrontation with fate and chance comes in the form of
death. Death becomes the ultimate boundary situation in which one's desires
and choices conclusively elude him. Working within the mindset of Old Testa-
ment Judaism, Qoheleth asks if the end of human beings is any different than
the end of the beast. His conclusion: we cannot know (cf. -21). Qoheleth
maintains, ". ..this also is a grievous evil-exactly as a man is born, thus will
he die" (5:16a). He concludes that there is "no advantage to him who toils after
the wind" (5:16b). Poignantly, man is better off never to have been born (cf. 4:3;
6:3). The same fate awaits both the wise and the foolish: death is the great
equalizer (cf. -19; 3:2).15
Just as modem experience is filled with paradox, so Qoheleth observes
paradox in his context. Prosperity was not guaranteed by right living; many
wicked were found to be prosperous while the righteous were in poverty (cf.
). Even the most likely to succeed are rendered unsuccessful by time and
...the race is not to the swift, and the battle is not to the warriors, and neither is bread to
the wise, nor wealth to the discerning, nor favor to men of ability; for time and chance
overtake them all ().
Qoheleth observes that folly is set in many high places while rich men are in
humble places. He has seen slaves riding horses as if they were princes, and
princes walking as if they were slaves (cf. 10:5-7). In summation, life is not
always governed by the dictates of logic; rather, life is paradoxical.
Perhaps the greatest and most significant affinity between the modern di-
lemma of alienation and Qoheleth's experience is to be found in the word
"vanity" (hebel). The term is used no less than 37 times, and it conveys to the
15Walther Zimmerli notes that one of the major concerns of the wisdom tradition was the
avoidance of premature death via proper conduct. At one point Qoheleth seems to favor this
project (cf. , 17). But as Zimmerli argues, the admonition of , 17 "does not comprise
Qoheleth's completely radical consideration of death." In 2:15, 16 Qoheleth maintains that the
same fate awaits both the foolish and, the wise. Zimmerli suggests that the older sages are
concerned only with the "when" of death and" willfully ignore the "what." Contrary to the
tradition, Qoheleth focuses on the inevitability (the "what") of death. See Walther Zimmerli,
"Concerning the Structure of Old Testament Wisdom, in
Studies in Ancient Israelite Wisdom, pp. 191-193.
Qoheleth and the Problem of Alienation 57
reader the feeling of meaninglessness, or—to use the modem term-absurdity.
The introduction, " 'vanity of vanities,' says Qoheleth, 'vanity of vanities! All is
vanity'" (1:2), which is repeated in the conclusion (12:8), provides the overall
inclusion of the work.16 James Williams notes that Qoheleth's constant use of
hebel is a rhetorical feature: Qoheleth questions the profit (yitron) of this life,
which evokes the response that there is no profit, and he concludes with "all is
hebel."17 George Castellino makes a similar suggestion about the literary pro-
cedure in Qoheleth:
...generally a theoretical statement in the form of a thesis about some point.is offered the
reader, then the statement is validated or illustrated through expenence (at times in terms
of a proverb or a saying), and finally, a judgment is passed on the 'non-value,' 'vanity,' of
the experience in question.18
In the recent literary approach to Qoheleth, hebel, as a Leitmotiv, has played a
fundamental part in the analysis of the book.19
The basic definition of hebel is "wind" or "breath." Figuratively, hebel con-
veys the connotation of being unsubstantial and worthless, making the thing in
question unprofitable. Vanity parallels the conclusions evoked by alienation:
first, there is an inability to find fulfillment in toil, and thus man experiences the
failure to exercise freedom in relation to his own possessions (cf. , 19, 21, 23;
4:4, 8; 6:2); secondly, the relationship between sin and judgment, and right-
eousness and blessing is absent, and such anomalies of life are vanity; thirdly,
the brevity of life is vanity.20 C. B. Peter states that vanity includes four aspects
of existence: first, the changeless monotony which characterizes the affairs of
men and the course of nature; secondly, there is no profit or advantage (yitron)
in wisdom (cf. 116-18), pleasure (cf. 2:1-10), nor in toil (cf. -23); thirdly,
death ends all (cf -21; 9:2); and fourthly, God remains mysterious, and thus
man cannot understand the universe rationally (cf. ; -9:1).21
The contrast between hebel and yitron is significant for the two concepts
represent an antithesis. K. Seybold suggests that hebel serves an evaluative pur-
pose with a "critico-polemic" intention. Qoheleth's observation that all human
16That 1:2 and 12:8 provide the overall inclusion is a generally accepted view. Addison Wright, "The
Riddle of the Sphinx: The Structure of the Book of Qoheleth," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 30
(1968): 314-320, considers the larger context of 1:2-11 and 11:7-12:8 to be poems which stand outside
of the main structure of the book. Wright gives a helpful survey of other views on the structure of
Qoheleth, including the new literary methods, and then makes his own analysis (see n. 19 below), p. 333.
17James Williams, "The Wisdom of Koheleth" p. 375. Williams notes that Walther Zimmerli suggested
rhetorical feature in Die Weisheit des Predigers Salomo (
18George R. Castellino, "Qohelet and His Wisdom," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 30 (1968): 18f.
19For recent discussions on the structure of Qoheleth, especially to his use of hebel, see Castellino, J.A.
Loader, Polar Structures in the Book of Quohelet, BZAW 152 (Berlin: Walter de Gryuter, 1979), and
Addison G. Wright's three related articles: "The Riddle of the Sphinx: The Structure of the Book of
Qoheleth," The Cathollic Biblical Quarterly 30 (1968): 314-320; 'The Riddle of the Sphinx Revisited:
Numerical Patterns in the Book of Qoheleth," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 42 (1980): 38-51;
"Additional Numerical Patterns in Qoheleth," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 45 (1983): 32-43.
20Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, edited by Laird R. Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr.,
and Bruce K. Walkte, s. v. "hebel," by Victor P. Hamilton (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), p. 205.
21Peter, "In Defense of Existence," pp. 29-31.
Christian Scholar's Review 58
activity is vanity stands in opposition to the wisdom tradition's quest for yitron
in life.22 Seybold concludes:
...thus hebhel serves as 'destructive judgement,' a devaluation of the system of norms
established by traditional wisdom, a polemic against its sensible value regulations, a
defamation of the wisdom ideal of life.23
I maintain that Qoheleth's observations and experiences are testimonies to
what has become known as alienation. He is unable to find significance in
nature, in his achievements, with reason, or even in seeking out the plans of
God. But the study is yet incomplete, for Qoheleth's response must be exam-
ined. In order to comprehend his response properly, we must establish his
context as a sage and ascertain the roots of alienation for Qoheleth. Perhaps the
crux of alienation for Qoheleth is estrangement from God.24
The Goal of the Wisdom Tradition
James Crenshaw argues that, in his view, the "fundamental link" between
suggest that failure in this enterprise is the major contributor to the dilemma of
alienation. The primary difference between Qoheleth and the other sages is
Qoheleth's recognition of how romantic and fanciful the venture to insure God's,
favor, and thereby guarantee the good life, had become. To arrive at Qoheleth's
concept of God -his conclusion on the divine presence--we will establish first
the goal or purpose of the tradition; then we will probe Qoheleth's conclusions
in contrast to the tradition.
Walther Zimmerli proposes that the basic question of the wise may be
expressed as: "'How do I as man secure my existence?'"26 The school of
wisdom represented in Proverbs held the belief that a divine moral order exist-
ed, an order which rewarded the wise and the good and punished the foolish
and the wicked (cf. Prov 3:3: 10:3; ; 22:4).27 The same presupposition is
apparent in the book of Job. Although it was championed by Job's friends, Job
himself severely questioned the doctrine of retribution. Job was a righteous
man, yet he suffered excruciating physical pain and untold emotional distress.
22 Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament," edited by G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren,
vol. 3: gillulim-haras, trans. by John T. Willis and Geoffery W. Bromiley, s. v. "hebhel," by K. Seybold
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), p. 319. Williams draws a similar conclusion: for Qoheleth there is no
profit (yitron) in this life, but there is a portion (heleq). Experiencing this portion brings joy to life. See
23 Ibid., p. 320.
24 In "The Riddle of the Sphinx," Wright concludes that the idea of the impossibility of discovering
God's work is the theme of the book, and it is built on the vanity motif, p. 266.
25 James L. Crenshaw, "In Search of Divine Presence," Review and Expositor 74 (1977): 366.
26Zimmerli, "Concerning the Structure of Old Testament Wisdom," p. 190.
27 R. B. Y. Scott, The Way of Wisdom in
the Old Testament (
1971), p. 10.
Qoheleth and the Problem of Alienation 59
Crenshaw maintains that the three friends had a rational and predictable deity;
one who was enslaved by a greater principle-justice.28
What then is the basis for this trust in an order that insures retribution? Von
Rad explains that the basis of trust may be seen not in terms of trusting in God,
...but to something apparently quite different, namely the reality and the evidence of
the order which controls the whole of life, much as this appears in the act-consequence
relationship....In it however, Yahweh himself was at work in so far as he defended
goodness and resisted evil.29
How does this affect the concept of God? Von Rad continues:
If this experiential reality could only be approached, from the point of view of acquiring
knowledge of it, from the direction of knowledge of God, then knowledge of the world
could, in turn, also consolidate knowledge of God. The statement that the fear of God is
the beginning of wisdom could even be turned around, to the effect that knowledge and
experience lead to the fear of God.30
For the sages the discovery of this fundamental order meant the ability to coordi-
nate life in the most advantageous manner. What then is the goal of the wisdom
tradition? Crenshaw states this goal in one word-life.31 The sages sought to
master life in order to attain the best that life could offer: health, honour, longev-
ity, prosperity--all leading to a sense of security. This sense of security is anti-
thetical to alienation; this desire to master life, which can be achieved only at the
expense of enslaving the deity to a greater principle, causes Qoheleth to become
a revolutionary within the wisdom movement. Experience does not affirm any
such law of the universe; in fact, life often seems subject to the arbitrariness of
Are there parallels to the experience of modern man as he desires to master
life? The passion for affluence and personal security characterizes contemporary
Western society. It is apparent all the way from the beer commercial panning the
"yuppies" in a bar and espousing the philosophy that "you are in charge"--
conveying to the viewer or listener the message of autonomous bliss--to the
trend of many religious organizations, pray "this way. .." and God will grant
your requests. Presumably, God does not want his people to suffer--or be poor
(thus, enslaving God to formulas designed to meet the whims of man). Man
longs to be more than man, but existentially he is unable to shed his bonds of
mortality. In his failure to escape his own finitude, modem man, like the sage of
old, experiences alienation.
‘Olam in Man's Heart
For Qoheleth the venture for the mastery of life failed because of a false
premise about God. That God exists and rules the world is a major assumption
28Crenshaw, "In Search of Divine Presence," p. 360.
29Gerhard von Rad, Wisdom in Israel (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1972), pp. 191, 192.
30Ibid., p. 194.
31James L. Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom, An Introduction (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981), p. 62.
Christian Scholar's Review 60
of Qoheleth, as with the older teachers; but Qoheleth introduces a new dilem-
ma: the activity of the divine is beyond man's comprehension, and therefore
man cannot adapt himself to any fundamental order ordained by God. Should
man despair? Is there absolute alienation from God? In response to these ques-
tions our first concern will be Qoheleth's theology, which is unorthodox in
comparison with the tradition, and secondly his theological conclusions and
their practical applications.
Recent scholarship has been quick to point out agnosticism, skepticism,
nihilism and various other negative themes within the book of Qoheleth.
Crenshaw has described Qoheleth's God as "stingy," and as one who concealed
all important knowledge that would enable the sages to act in accordance with
his plan and timing.32 Von Rad states that for Qoheleth man cannot discern
what has been decreed by God in any given set of circumstances. The dilemma is
not the adversities of life but rather the insurmountable barrier blocking man's
attainment of knowledge.33 Scott considers the philosophy of Qoheleth agnostic
and fatalistic.34 Thus, some conclude that Qoheleth conceives of God as a re-
mote and indifferent being; God is omnipotent to be sure, but He is also arbi-
trary. Man is left without recourse with such a God; man can only submit (cf.
Much of the scholarship deducing Qoheleth as a philosopher chasing after
meaning in life, and not finding significant meaning, can be traced to the ex-
egesis of :
He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also set ‘olam in their heart, yet so
that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end.
Chapter 3, verse 11 proves to be the most pivotal and perhaps the most debated
verse in the book of Qoheleth. ‘Olam has various renderings: forever, ever,
everlasting, evermore, perpetual, old, ancient, world. The Septuagint translates
the word as aion. Allan Macrae suggests that ‘olam is derived from ‘alam,
meaning "to hide" and pointing to the distant future or to the distant past.35
Scott translates ‘olam in 3:11 as "an enigma," thereby signifying the root
meaning as "that which is hidden."36 Gordis proposes that "love of the world" is Qoheleth's
intention in using the term.37 Within the context of Chapter 3, there is nearly
unanimous agreement that the contrast is between fixed time (‘et) and ‘olam. In
3:1 Qoheleth states: "There is an appointed time (‘et) for everything. And there is
a time (‘et) for every event under heaven." He then delineates such appointed
32Crenshaw, "In Search of Divine Presence," p. 36.
33von Rad, Wisdom
34Scott, The Way of Wisdom, p. 170.
35Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, s. v. "'olam," by Allan A. Macrae, pp. 672-673.
36R.B.Y. Scott, The Anchor Bible: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, edited by William Foxwell Albright and David
Noel Freeman (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1965), p. 221.
37Gordis, Koheleth, pp. 231, 232.
Qoheleth and the Problem of Alienation 61
times (again, ‘et) in verses 2-8. God has ordained a proper time (‘et) for every-
thing, but as Roland Murphy comments,
God runs things off at his own time, and man is not geared to this scheme because of the
timeless <’olam> in his heart. Hence, he cannot discover 'the work God has done'--a
limitation that earlier sages failed to appreciate.38
I agree with James Williams, that however the word is translated, the im-
plication is that ‘olam lies at the center of existence. ‘Olam is the component
which makes the human species distinctive; ‘olam provides a link with God, yet
God's work remains mysterious.39 Williams suggests that ‘olam is the reason
for the "unhealable alienation of man from his world."40 It is at least the source of
man's deepest yearning for meaning.
Williams contrasts two recent responses to the function of ‘olam as the
primary cause of alienation.41 The position credited to H. Gese is that alienation
is overcome in the world-context through the fear of God; thus, alienation is
replaced by openness to the world as man thankfully receives the good times in
life as a gift from God. The individual will accept the bad times in accord with
God's purposes, and he will recognize "that it is only his inability to understand
the ‘olam that brings him to his existential impasse."42 Williams disagrees with
this position, and he deduces a contrary view from H.H. Schmid: the gifts of
God are arbitrary; fear of God and accepting his gifts in life do not provide a
sufficient explanation to man's estrangement.43
Williams identifies ‘olam as the antithesis of hebel (vanity), and he
also con-tends that ‘olam is the basic cause of human striving. He argues:
God puts the ‘olam in men's hearts, he wills that they fear him-and they could not fear
him if they were unaware of the ‘olam, which is the 'divine' dimension. Yet justice and
righteousness cannot be observed in the world, and oppression cannot be rectified by final
judgement or a release of the spirit to a heavenly reaIm.44
In accord with the position he attributes to Schmid, Williams maintains that
Qoheleth's fear of God is due to his discontent over the hebel of life, and his
yearning for knowledge of the ‘olam which would make the course of life appar-
38Roland E. Murphy, "Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth)," in Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Raymond E.
.Brown, S.S., Joesph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., and Roland E. Murphy, O. Carm., (Englewood Cliffs, New
39Williams, "The Wisdom of Koheleth," p. 378.
40Ibid., pp. 378-379.
"Die Krise der Weisheit bei Koheleth," in Les Sagesses des
Proche-Orient Ancien (
H.H. Schmid, Wesen und Geschichte der Weisheit, BZAW 101, G. Fohrer, ed.
42Williams, "The Wisdom of Koheleth," p. 377.
43Ibid., pp. 378, 380. H. L. Ginsberg suggests the same: "For Koheleth regards God as the absolute and
arbitrary [his emphasis] master of destiny." Human merit does not matter, for God's actions toward
man are unpredictable. See H. L. Ginsberg, "The Structure and Contents of the Book of Koheleth,"
Vetus Testamentum Supplement 3 (1955): 147. As will soon be apparent, I do not think that the emphasis
falls on the arbitrariness of God, but rather on man's interpretation of God and His actions.
44Ibid., p. 380.
Christian Scholar's Review 62
ent to him and allow true wisdom. Williams concedes that the wise and the
foolish are "in the same boat."45 In what follows, I tend to side with the oppos-
ing conclusion, that is, Qoheleth's response to God in fear and submission is a
life-affirming alternative to estrangement.
I believe that Francis Nichols' explanation provides insight into man's di-
lemma over 'olam, God, and alienation: in Qoheleth is struggling with life's
significance in the historical or world context. Empirically, man cannot verify
God's control over history, yet faith says that God is directing man's drama. In
spite of the conclusion of experience -vanity of vanities- man continues to
strive.46 Although man seemingly has no reference point for meaning in his
experience of nature, society, or within himself, he yearns for significance.
Why? As Kenneth James explains, there is a level of meaning known only to
God, but God has placed an element of this meaning, ‘olam, in man's heart. This
component within man's being draws him to profound contact with life.47
Qoheleth's Concept of God
their wisdom on the experience of Yahweh, but Qoheleth chooses the more
common name "Elohim" to relate his theistic perspective. Within the Old Testa-
ment, Elohim signifies God as: creator (cf. Isa 45:18; Jonah 1:9); savior (cf. Gen
17:8; Exod 3:6; Isa 45:21); the sovereign (cf. Ps 57:2; Isa 54:5; Jer 32:27); the
God of heaven (cf. Gen 24:7); and the supreme God above all gods (cf. Deut ; Ps
136:2). Often the name "Yahweh" occurs in the same context with "Elohim,"
but such is not the case in Qoheleth.48
There can be no doubt that Qoheleth was familiar with the various concepts
surrounding the name "Elohim"; I suggest that Qoheleth adopts the less per-
sonal name to convey his thinking more precisely. Helmer Ringgren points out
that "Elohim" is often used instead of "Yahweh" with the intent of exalting
Yahweh as God absolutely-the transcendent God.49 Along with transcendence
comes a measure of abstractness; God as Elohim transcends the rationality of
humankind. As a Hebrew, and thus a monotheist, Qoheleth knows Yahweh to
be the one true God, but perhaps Qoheleth's experience fails to affirm the
45Ibid. Despite this conclusion, Williams deduces a positive message from Qoheleth, see n. 22.
46Nichols, "Samuel Beckett and Ecclesiastes," p. 16. .
47Kenneth W. James, "Ecclesiastes: Precursor of Existentialists," p. 89. By now the question has possi-
bly arisen: is ‘olam the imago dei? Perhaps, for there seem to be parallels. But to assert ‘olam as the imago
dei seems unwise in the face of the ambiguity surrounding ‘olam and its use in 3:11.
48My purposes within the confines of this paper do not entail an examination of source criticism
regarding Old Testament names of God. If the reader is interested in source criticism, Ringgren offers a
good starting point in vol. 1 of the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, s. v. "'elohim." Also see
James L. Crenshaw, "Qoheleth in Current Research," Hebrew Annual Review 7 (1983): 44, for a recent
bibliography on the question: "Was Qoheleth the guardian of authentic Yahwism or did he circle
around biblical faith, remaining on the outermost fringes?"
49Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, s. v. "'elohim" by Helmer Riggren, p. 284.
Qoheleth and the Problem of Alienation 63
personal involvement claimed by
Qoheleth, Elohim is God, but Elohim is girded with mystery.
Compared to other Old Testament writings, the motif of God's hiddenness
is intensified by Qoheleth; some have even referred to it as skepticism.50
Qoheleth recognizes that discerning God's activity in life cannot be accom-
plished through the normal process of the wisdom tradition, that is, by means of
observation; thus, the failure to obtain satisfying answers is not because God is
increasingly inaccessable, but because man's methods are suspect. Qoheleth
concludes that the sage, by reason and wisdom, cannot discover the work of
God, no matter how diligent he may be (cf. , 17). Furthermore, man cannot
discover the activity of God "who makes all things" (11:5). And experientially
man does not know his future or what awaits him (cf. 9:1). Perhaps Qoheleth is
focusing attention on what John Hick has called "epistemic distance," that is,
man exists in a world in which God is not "immediately and overwhelmingly"
apparent.51 The question yet to be answered is whether Qoheleth perceives man
as ultimately and totally alienated from God.
Crenshaw points out a major consideration at this point:
The careful reader will have noted that Qoheleth seems to know far more about God than
his theology of divine mystery allows. In truth, he frequently makes assertations about
God's will and activity despite the protestations about God's hiddenness.52
I suggest that apparent inconsistencies in Qoheleth' s concept of God are instead
components of a viable theocentric world view. God is concealed and conceals,
but this enigma is not absolute-God is not an unknown variable. Qoheleth
knows that his God is the Creator of the cosmos and sovereign over his creation:
Who can change God's work? (cf. ); God is responsible for both prosperity
and adversity (cf. ); wise men and their deeds are subject to God (cf. 9:1);
"everything that God does will remain forever" and is perfect (). Man must
accept the element of mystery that separates him from God, but man cannot
discount what can be known about Elohim.
For Qoheleth God grows more personal as the sovereign Lord becomes the
judge of every man: "God will judge both the righteous man and the wicked
man, for a time for every matter and for every deed is there" (; cf. 5:8; 9:1;
11:9; 12:14). As a Jew, Qoheleth had been taught from the rich tradition of the
Torah and the Prophets; judgment implies a standard. Final execution of justice
50 Cf. Samuel
Koheleth, pp. 128-132; R. H. Pfeiffer, "The Peculiar Scepticism of Ecclesiastes," Journal of Biblical Liter-
ature 53 (1954): 100-,109; Klopfenstein, M. A., "Die Skepsis des Qohelet," Theologische Zeitschrift 28
97-109; James L. Crenshaw, "The Birth of Skepticism in Ancient
edited by James L. Crenshaw and S. Sandmel (New York, 1980), pp. 1-19. Balentine notes the follow-
ing differences between the "psalms of lament" and Qoheleth: first, in Qoheleth the issue is not so
much God's hiddenness, as in the psalms, but rather the hiddenness "of the interpretation of events";
and secondly, while in the psalms God bears the burden of responsibility, Qoheleth believes the
problem to be man's failure and thus man's responsibility, p. 169.
5l John Hick, Evil and the God of Love (Cleveland: Collins World, 1968), p. 373.
52Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom, p. 139.
Christian Scholar's Review 64
is in the hand of God (cf. 9:1; 11:9); and perhaps, even for Qoheleth, the acts of
men will be measured against God's commandments (cf. ).53 Man must
understand, however, that this standard cannot be used to manipulate God.
God can be known as sovereign creator and as judge, but the dominant
theme regarding the person of God is found in Qoheleth's continuous reference
to God as the source of joy. Qoheleth has identified alienation from nature, from
society, from human achievements, and to a degree, from God. But in the face of
this estrangement, he asserts that man should be happy! As the individual
approaches the common occurrences of daily life, he is to enjoy them. For
Qoheleth, God is the source of this enjoyment; he is the rewarder of man.
In the mundane toil of life, the very toil that can lead to alienation, man is to
enjoy his labor as a gift from God (cf. ,25; ). The good and fitting in life
is to eat and drink and enjoy the few years of life, "for he will not often consider
the years of his life, because God keeps him occupied with the gladness of his
heart" (, cf. also ; 9:7). Von Rad notes that although God's dealings are
often shrouded with ambiguity, Qoheleth recognizes one sure "lot" in life di-
rected toward good. Von Rad adds, "Here for the first time, Qoheleth is aware
that he is in accord with a divine purpose; here he sees himself face to face with a
beneficient God. . ." (cf. ; 9:7-9).54
In Qoheleth notes that to the good person God has given wisdom,
knowledge and joy; thus, Qoheleth does not totally discount the value of
wisdom and knowledge, only the direction the pursuit for understanding had
taken (cf. -18; ; 12:9-12). Qoheleth certainly recognizes the limits of
wisdom, but in seeing its merits, he is mindful that the source is God.55 There-
fore, God is the origin of experiential significance and of all theoretical under-
standing leading to meaningful existence.
53Today most scholars agree that the epilogue is the product of a redactor, perhaps one of Qoheleth's
students. In all three of Wright's articles (see n. 19), he argues that the main structure of the book is
independent of the epilogue. Cf. also Williams, "The Wisdom of Koheleth,” pp. 382, 389; Gerald T.
Sheppard, "The Epilogue to Qoheleth As Theological Commentary,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 39
(1977): 182-189; Gerald H. Wilson, "'The Words of the Wise': The Intent and Significance of Qohelet
12:9-14," Journal of Biblical Literature 103.2 (1984): 175-192. Michael V. Fox in "Frame-Narrative and
Composition in the Book of Qohelet,” Hebrew Union College Annual 48 (1977): 83-106 proposes that the
entire book is product of an epilogist. As a frame-narrative, the book takes on a whole new concept of
unity; the "frame-narrator" relates the story and teachings of Qoheleth the sage, p. 91. The epilogue is
a type of epic situation, i.e., it is didactic as in the father-son instruction, p. 99. Fox contends that the
epilogue reinforces Qoheleth's teachings: Qoheleth advises fear of God (5:6; ), and he warns of
divine judgment (; ; 8:12b-13), "even though he sometimes denies its working." And although
Qoheleth does not mention explicitly obedience to God's commandments, "that requirement could be
inferred from 5:3-5:” p. 103. I admit, in accord with Fox, that the epilogue does admonish in a more
dogmatic fashion than the rest of the book; nevertheless, there is no reason to suppose the epilogue
contradicts Qoheleth's main teaching.
54 von Rad, Wisdom in Israel, p. 231.
55 In Koheleth
Gordis states:"Koheleth, a son of
and the Sages, could notdoubt the reality of God for an instant. For him, the existence of the world was
tantamount to the existence of God....It was on the question of God's relation to men that Koheleth parted
company with the conventional teachers of his time. ...There was not a shred of proof that God wished
to reveal the true Hokmah, the secret of life, to men," p. 122.
Qoheleth and the Problem of Alienation 65
The Divine Mandate
Time and time again Qoheleth identifies man's proper response to Elohim
as fear: the sovereign God has worked in his perfect ways so that men should
fear him (ct. ); God is holy and exalted. When entering his house and
making vows, be respectful and serious-minded, not lighthearted (cf. 5:1-7).
Wisdom and righteousness are the results of fearing God (cf. ). Even though
the wicked may seem to prosper and lengthen their days, still, Qoheleth main-
tains, it will be better for those who fear God-and fear God openly (cf. , 13).
The epilogue, which concurs with the main body of the book, admonishes the
reader to "fear God and keep his commandments, because this applies to every
What exactly is this divine imperative of fear? Is it an attitude of terror?
Commenting on the occurrence in , Murphy states,
Fear of God means walking under a heaven that is mysteriously closed, walking without
the assurance that lightning might not suddenly shoot out and strike you as you go-
every step relying upon the free gift of God, but with every step also summoned to suffer
the riddle and oppression that God can inflict.57
But for Qoheleth fear of God is much more than dread evoked by uncertainty.
Fear of God is willful submission to the Divine and to his plans. Such fear
implies a trust in God in spite of multiplied perplexities; it includes not only an
emotional state, but conduct that is pleasing to God. Thus, amid the vanity of
life there is a proper ethical code, there can be wisdom and knowledge, and
there can be significant existence. Fear of God is the disposition that combines
the components of mystery, vanity, and limited knowledge to result in mean-
Common experience seems to invite skepticism, agnosticism, and even
Atheism. Qoheleth recognizes the proneness toward doubt and abdication;
man's limitations are the innate qualities that pilot him toward alienation. The
self-appointed station as the measure of all things continually eludes man; thus,
he is destined to this insatiable desire for something more. Why? As Gordis
Man is a creature whose reach is always greater than his grasp, with a boundless imagina-
tion weaving hopes and desires far beyond the capacity of his brief earth-bound existence
56Sheppard, "The Epilogue to Qoheleth,"argues that the admonition "fear God and keep his com-
mandments" has no parallel in the body of Qoheleth, p.187. In view of ; 5:7; ; 8:12, in addition
to n. 53 above, I find Sheppard's position implausible. In contrast, Wilson, "The Words of the Wise,"
suggests that the epilogist selected the phrase because it does reflect the content of Qoheleth, p. 178.
He states furthermore that there is "sufficient evidence" to support the thesis that the epilogue is
meant to link Qoheleth together with Proverbs. The epilogue could therefore serve as a "canonical
key to the interpretation or both,” pp. 179, 191, 192.
57Murphy, Jerome Biblical Commentary, p. 536.
58Gordis, Koheleth, pp. 130-131.
Christian Scholar's Review 66
Qoheleth offers hope in teaching that although limitations are inescapable, they
do not necessitate a renunciation of meaningful existence. The rupture between
most modern existentialists and Qoheleth occurs precisely at the recognition of a
higher level of meaning: for the existentialist, meaning escapes man because there
is no reference point outside of humanity to give life meaning; for Qoheleth,
meaning may be elusive and cause the feeling of hebel, but nevertheless, meaning
exists because God exists.59
Qoheleth's conclusions are relevant for the modern religious experience,
but the meaning of Qoheleth's unconventional words is often muddled by the
attempt to interpret him solely from a New Testament perspective. Harvey Cox
argues that "the biblical doctrine of God's hiddenness stands at the center of the;
doctrine of God."60 God's hiddenness does not mean absolute alienation from
the "wholly other"; instead the inscrutability of God entails that God is revealed
only in the way, and to the degree, that he desires. Qoheleth is fully aware of the
divine dimension which remains beyond the mind of man; his awareness of this
higher level is far more acute than the understanding of the older sages. The
failure to accept this exalted view of the Divine results in deeper alienation, for
when God is not responsive to the theist's dogmatism and doctrinaire formulas,
the theist feels cut off from the source of meaningful existence.
The proper rejoinder to alienation for modern theism is found within the
problem itself: theology must elucidate the difference between the Creator and
the creature. George Kendall, commenting on the biblical account of the Fall,
makes the perspicacious observation that the effort of man to abolish his crea-
tureliness is the source of the schism between creature and Creator.61 I agree
limitations as a creature which leads him toward deeper alienation and struggle
in life.62 Qoheleth's affirmation of creaturehood is apparent in his exhortation to
enjoy life as the gift of God. Underlying the affirmative approach to life must be
a trust in God's divine plan, despite the daily uncertainties of life. Hence, mod-
ern theology must reckon man as man, and be reconciled to God as the majestic,
self-existent, self-revealing, and often mysterious Absolute of the universe. Dog-
ma must not be defended to the exclusion of the truth-the truth that the
unequivocal meaning of this existence rests beyond mortal man.
59There is a higher level of meaning, that is, there is a level of meaning known only to God.
When God serves as the reference point-or the hub of existence for the individual-one finds
equanimity in the belief that although he does not have all the answers, God does. It is this
abandonment, faith, that allows joy to radiate from the higher level into the mundane life of mortal man.
60Harvey Cox, The Secular City (New York, 1965), quoted in Gordis, Koheleth, pp. 120-121.
62 Ibid., p. 69.
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