Grace Theological Journal 7.1 (1986) 21-56

            Copyright © 1986 by Grace Theological Seminary; cited with permission.




                     ENIGMATIC PESSIMIST

                          OR GODLY SAGE?



                                              ARDEL B. CANEDAY


The enigmatic character and polarized structure of the book of

Qoheleth is not a defective quality but rather a deliberate literary

device of Hebrew thought patterns designed to reflect the paradoxical

and anomalous nature of this present world. The difficulty of inter-

preting (his book is proportionally related to one's own readiness

 to adopt Qoheleth's presupposition-that everything about this world

is marred by the tyranny of the curse which the Lord God placed

upon all creation. If one fails to recognize that this is a foundational,

presupposition from which Ecclesiastes operates, then one will fail

 to comprehend the message of the book, and bewilderment will



                                             *         *         *



       The book of Qoheleth,1 commonly known as Ecclesiastes, is per-

haps the most enigmatic of all the sacred writings. It is this qual-

ity which has been a source of sharp criticism. Virtually every aspect

of the book has come under the censure of critics-- its professed

authorship,2 its scope and design, its unity and coherence, its theo-

logical orthodoxy, and its claim to a place among the inspired writings.

        A superficial reading of Qoheleth may lead one to believe he is a

man with a decidedly negative view of life in its many facets. This

negative quality has been disproportionately magnified by liberal


1 Though the meaning of tl,h,qo continues to be much debated, the sense accepted

here is connected with the Hebrew verb for assembling (lhaqA), and its form suggests

some killed of office-bearer (the feminine ending). Qoheleth was one who assembled a

congregation for the purpose of addressing it, thus the Preacher. See H. C. Leupold,

Exposition of Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1966) 7.

2 The Solomonic authorship has been widely rejected by scholars, both critical

and conservative. Some noted conservatives opt for a post-exilic dating of the

book. See, e.g., E. W. Hengstenberg, Commentary on the Book of Ecclesiastes (reprint;




22                                Grace Theological Seminary


critics and conservatives alike. Understandably, then, Qoheleth has

become the delight of critics and the embarrassment of conservatives.

Embarrassment has led to greater perplexity about the book, and

perplexity has brought negligent disuse of this valuable book.

Certainly the viewpoint of Qoheleth upon the world and life

must be included in any discussion of OT ethical problems. If the

book is indeed a unity, the composition of a single wise man, what is

its theme? Is it pessimistic? Can a completely pessimistic view of life

be admitted a place in the canon of Holy Scripture? Does not the

recurring theme of "a man can do nothing better than to eat and

drink and find satisfaction in his work" (cf. 2:24; 3: 12, 13; etc.) sug-

gest an Epicurean influence? Perhaps Stoicism, too, has influenced

Qoheleth, for he claims, "All is vanity" (1: 2; etc.). What exactly is

Qoheleth's view of the world and of life? What was the source-of

his ethics? Is Qoheleth the record of a man's search for meaning gone

awry, ending in cynicism? Or, is it the book of a godly wise man who

gives orthodox counsel for directing one's path through the labyrinth

of life?




Modern critics have seized upon the alleged disunity of Qoheleth

and upon the presumed contradictions. This alleged antithetical char-

acter has led critics to disavow the single authorship of Qoheleth, to

discredit the theological expressions, to disclaim its ethics and view of

the world and of life, and to displace the book from its authority and

position as one of the writings of Holy Scripture.

Earlier critics, such as Tyler, postulated a late date (ca. 200 B.C.)3

for the book in order to accommodate the alleged influence of Greek

philosophical schools. Tyler sought to explain the discordance within)

Qoheleth in terms of conflicting influences from Epicureanism and

Stoicism.4 To Tyler the recognition of discontinuity and discordance


Minneapolis: James and Klock, 1977) 1-15 and E.J Young, An Introduction to the

Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952) 339-41. Young suggests that the

author, being post-exilic, placed his words into the mouth of Solomon, employing a

conventional literary device of his time (p.340). However, in favor of Solomonic

authorship see G. L. Archer, "The Linguistic Evidence for the Date of 'Ecclesiastes,'"

JETS 12 (1969) 167-81.

3 Thomas Tyler, Ecclesiastes (London: D. Nutt, 1899) 30-32.

4 Tyler (ibid., 54) states, "Our book possesses a remarkable antithetical character,

its contrasts not infrequently assuming the form of decided and obvious contradiction.

This antithetical character is especially marked in those two great thoughts of the

philosophical part of the book-the Stoic, ALL IS VANITY; and the Epicurean, EAT,







within Qoheleth is an assumed fact without need of proof. Hence, it is

of little consequence for Tyler to claim Greek philosophical influence

upon a late Hebrew writer, subject to the erosion of the ancient

Jewish faith.5

Tyler disallows any attempt to demonstrate a genuine continuity

in Qoheleth which would show that it has no real discordant or

antithetical character and especially no "obvious contradictions, as

for example, that between the Stoic and Epicurean. . . .”6


One might fancy that the author of Ecclesiastes intended that the con-

trarieties of this book should in some sort reflect and image forth the

chequered web of man's earthly condition, hopes alternating with fears,

joys succeeded by sorrows, life contrasting with death. It must not be

supposed, however, that we can find an adequate explanation in the

hypothesis that the author of Ecclesiastes arranged his materials in a

varied and artistic manner?7


The denial of an overall literary plan for Qoheleth and a dislike

for its ethical expression, which motivated Tyler's criticism,8 also

motivates other negative criticisms. Recent critics do not identify

Qoheleth’s philosophy as being derived from or influenced by Greek

schools.9 Yet, Qoheleth's literary method is still looked upon as a

"most serious defect."10 Assuming the accuracy of this assessment,

Jastrow seeks to recover the true and original words of a purely

secular Qoheleth by stripping away additions and corrections of later

pious redactors who sought to reclaim the book.11 In this manner he

essays to isolate the interpretation of pious commentators and the

maxims which were added to counterbalance the objectionable char-

acter of the book.12

Other critics represent the alleged discontinuities of Qoheleth in

varying manners. Siegfried divided the book among nine sources.13

Yet, none of the scholars who attempt to reconstruct the words of

Qoheleth by isolating redactors' statements demonstrate why the book


5Ibid., 33.

6Ibid., 54.


8See Ibid., 63-64 where Tyler concludes that tl,h,qo must be the personification of

Philosophy, a designation in which the speculations of several philosophers are


9See, e.g., R. B. Y. Scott, Qoheleth, (AB; New York: Doubleday, 1965), p. 197.

10Morris Jastrow, A Gentle Cynic (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1919) 124.

11Ibid., 197-242.

12Ibid., 245ff.

            13See the citation by George Barton, Ecclesiastes (ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark,

1971) 28.

24                                 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL


should have attracted such an effort on the part of pious interpolators

and sages to legitimatize it. It could have been easily suppressed or

dismissed. Gordis properly points out,


But that the book was subjected to thoroughgoing elaboration in

order to make it fit into the Biblical Canon is an assumption for

which no real analogy exists, indeed is contradicted by the history

of the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha after their composition.14


Recent critics recognize a basic unity in Qoheleth, abandon-

ing the assumption of widespread interpolation. Yet, Qoheleth

continues to be viewed negatively in its ethics and world and life

view. Scott sees both heterodoxy balanced by "unimpeachable ortho-

doxy.”15 Yet, it is the divergence from the orthodox which is empha-

sized. Scott states, "It denies some of the things on which the other

writers lay the greatest stress-notably that God has revealed himself

and his will to man, through his chosen nation."16 He adds further



In place of a religion of faith and hope and obedience, this writer

expresses a mood of disillusionment and proffers a philosophy of

resignation. His ethic has no relationship to divine commandments, for

there are none. It arises rather from the necessity of caution and mod-

eration before the inexplicable, on the acceptance of what is fated and

cannot be changed, and finally on grasping firmly the only satisfaction

open to man-the enjoyment of being alive. The author is a rationalist,

an agnostic, a skeptic, a pessimist, and a fatalist (the terms are not used



Even for Scott it was necessary for an orthodox interpreter to

affix the two closing verses (12:13,14) in order "to safeguard the faith

of the uncritical reader",18 and to assure Qoheleth a place in the


The critics, with unified voice, decry Qoheleth's ethics and his

world and life view as being opposed to that of the remainder of the

OT. He is perceived as a maverick among the sages who propounded

incompatible propositions.



In response to liberal critical views, several conservative scholars

have attempted to vindicate the apparently negative view of life in


14Robert Gordis, Koheleth (New York: Schocken, 1968) 71-72.

15Scott, Qoheleth, 191.


17Ibid., 191-92.

18Ibid., 194.

CANEDAY: QOHELETH: PESSIMIST OR SAGE?                      25


Qoheleth and have affirmed its rightful place in the canon of Holy

Scripture. Among evangelicals there is a general acknowledgment

that Qoheleth is the composition of one individual.19 However, many

evangelicals agree with liberal critical opinions concerning Qoheleth's

world and life view.

The Jewish conservative scholar Gordis assumes a negative char-

acter about Qoheleth's world and life view and seeks to alleviate some

of the tension of his polarized expressions. He resolves the alleged

dilemma of antithetical expressions in Qoheleth by accounting for

many of the “apparently pious sentiments” as quotations cited for the

purpose discussion.20 For example, Gordis claims that fdeOy (8:12) is

used by Qoheleth to introduce "a quotation of conventional cast

which he does not accept.”21 But the verb claimed to be introductory

appears n the middle of the portion it is claimed to mark off as a


Leupold, in laying out introductory principles for the interpreta-

tion of Qoheleth, states that the recurring phrase, “under the sun,”

indicates that Qoheleth deliberately restricted his observations and

explanations of human events to a human perspective. By this Leupold

means that Qoheleth, in his observations and reflections upon life,

assumed a position of complete neglect of revelation and the world to

come. He spoke from the perspective that God had not revealed

Himself, and, furthermore, that God is inaccessible.22 In actuality,

though, Qoheleth was a “true man of God who is offering invaluable

Counsel.”23 For Leupold, Qoheleth was a rationalistic apologist who

sought to lead his readers to true happiness by showing how miserable

life is “under the sun,” that is to say “apart from God.” He attempted

to direct men toward God by seeking to convince them rationalistically

of their despair apart from God.

The New Scofield Reference Bible extends Leupold's approach.


Ecclesiastes is the book of man "under the sun" reasoning about life.

The philosophy it sets forth, which makes no claim to revelation but

which inspiration records for our instruction, represents the world-view

of the wisest man, who knew that there is a holy God and that He will

bring everything into judgment.24


19This is true even of those who reject Solomonic authorship. Some have main-

tained that Solomon was the original author, but that at a later time, before the exile,

the book was edited and enriched (see Young, Introduction to OT, 340-41).

20Gordis, Koheleth, 174.

21 Ibid ,283; cf. 287.

22Leupold, Ecclesiastes, 28; cf. 42-43.

23Ibid., 30.

24C.I Scofield, ed., New Scofield Reference Bible (New York: Oxford University,

1967) 696. This interpretive approach virtually abandons Qoheleth to the grasp of

26                                GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL


Both Leupold and the New Scofield Reference Bible have mis-

understood Qoheleth's use of his phrase "under the sun," He did not

employ it to restrict his perspective to common ground with natural

man. He was no mere philosopher who, working from a system of

“natural theology,” sought to understand God's creation without the

interpretive revelation of the Creator. The phrase “under the sun” is

not a restriction upon the manner of Qoheleth's reflections, but it

circumscribes the sphere of those things which he observed in con-

trast to that sphere in which God's reign knows no opposition. The

expression, "under the sun," therefore, speaks of the earth upon which

man dwells as does Qoheleth's phrase, “all that is done under heaven”

(cf. 1:13, 14; etc.).

An older commentator, Moses Stuart, energetically tried to vin-

dicate Qoheleth from charges of impiety, However, he too accepts the

charge that Qoheleth's book contains blatant contradictions and

several impious conclusions. Nevertheless, Stuart acquits the author

by suggesting that those objectionable portions must be understood

in the same way as the "objectors" who appear in the apostle Paul's

letters.25 Stuart characterizes the book as a replaying of the struggle

through which Qoheleth's mind had passed when he set himself on


liberal critics, for one wonders how such an espousal of worldly wisdom could possibly

hold any valid claim to canonicity, This approach agrees that Qoheleth hopelessly

contradicts himself, but such contradiction is accounted for by a not-so-lucid device of

separating revelation from inspiration. See, e.g., the note on 9: 10 concerning Qoheleth's

characterization of the dead: “This statement is no more a divine revelation concerning

the state of the dead than any other conclusion of the Preacher” (1:1), No one would

quote 9:2 as a divine revelation. These reasonings of man apart from revelation are set

down by inspiration just as the words of Satan (Gen 3:4; Job 2:4-5; etc.) are recorded.

But that life and consciousness continue between death and resurrection is directly

affirmed in Scripture…” (p. 702). Such an approach vitiates the whole character of

Qoheleth's book. If one isolates 9: 10 from the context of Qoheleth's burden, one may

argue that Qoheleth did not believe in the conscious existence of the dead. But to assert

such a conclusion goes far beyond Qoheleth's intention. Qoheleth does not concern

himself with the state of man after death. He addresses the matter of death from the

vantage point of things done “under the sun,” i.e., the realm of the living (see 9:3, 6, 9).

His purpose is to celebrate life, for as long as man has breath he has influence and

activity in all “the things done under the sun” (9:6). But once a man dies, he no longer

has anything to do with the activities of man "under the sun" (9: 10). It is the same

perspective that King Hezekiah held in his prayer to the Lord who spared his life. “For

the grave [sheol] cannot praise you, death cannot sing your praise; those who go down

to the pit cannot hope for your faithfulness. The living, the living-they praise you, as

I am doing today; fathers tell their children about your faithfulness” (Isa 38: 18-19). In

the same way Qoheleth only seeks to urge men to the full enjoyment of life now, “for it

is now that God favors what you do" (9:7), for "anyone who is among the living has

hope” (9:4).

25Moses Stuart, A Commentary on Ecclesiastes, ed. and rev. by D. C. Robbins

(Boston: Dreper and Halladay, 1880) 36-39.



the course of philosophical inquiry. Along this course it does not

matter that doubts and improper conclusions "had passed through

the author's mind, for they had greatly perplexed and disturbed him.

The passing through his mind does not stamp them with the authority

of opinions settled, deliberate, and final.”26

Hengstenberg also succumbs to the claim that Qoheleth wrote

several contradictions and antithetical assertions in expressing his

ethics and world and life view. However, Hengstenberg seeks to vin-

dicate Qoheleth from the charge of self-contradiction by means of a

different approach. For him an understanding of the historical milieu

out of which the book of Qoheleth arose is absolutely necessary. He

states, “This book is unintelligible except on the historical presuppose-

tion that the people of God was [sic] in a very miserable condition at

the time of its composition.”27 He claims that the book was composed

in post-exilic days (contemporary with or slightly later than Malachi)28

when the Persians held dominion over God's people. They were in a

most miserable condition, slaves in their own land. Heathens ruled

over them. Degradation, injustice, and misery ruled everywhere. The

glorious splendor of Solomon's days had long passed and the Jews

were now in a time of persecution.29

With this understanding of the times of Qoheleth, Hengstenberg

finds it easy to take the various apparently contradictory or impious

expressions and place them into the mouths of tyrannized impious

Jews. Qoheleth only quotes them as reflecting the popular sentiment

of the times. So, Hengstenberg says, “Vanity of vanities was the

universal cry: alas! on what evil days have we fallen! They said to one

another, 'How is it that the former days were better than these?”

Ecclesiastes vii. 10.”30

Hengstenberg's method of interpretation is observed in his re-

marks upon Qoh 9:5-7. Of Qoheleth's words, "the dead know noth-

ing” (9:5), he says,


Such is the language of natural reason, to those whose eye all seems

dark and gloomy that lies beyond the present scene, because it fails in

this work to discern the traces of divine retribution. The Spirit says on

the contrary: “the spirit returns to God who gave it.”31


26Ibid., 39. He states further, “It only shows what embarrassments the writer had

remove, what perplexities to contend with. The question is not, whether this or that occupied

his mind, which he has recognized in his writing, but whether this or that was adopted

by him, and made up a part of his settled and ultimate opinion” (pp. 39-40).

27Hengstenberg, Ecclesiastes, 45.


29Ibid., 2-16.

30lbid., 45,

31lbid., 212.

28                                 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL


Hengstenberg then explains in his comments on 9:7 that Qoheleth

had spoken in vv 1-6 ''as the representative of the then prevailing

spirit of the people," but in v 7 he takes up the cause of God “to

oppose the popular views and feelings.”32

Hengstenberg, along with many evangelicals, has followed many

liberal scholars in dating the book late based upon internal evidence.

The external evidence for Solomonic authorship has been almost uni-

versally rejected by scholars.33 Along with an appeal to its language,34

scholars cite the condition of Qoheleth's times as an argument against

Solomonic or early authorship.35 As widely accepted as this argument

may be, it seems to be begging the question. If, indeed, Qoheleth

must be understood as post-exilic in order to interpret it and to make

it’s meaning intelligible, then what continuing value does it have for

God's people? Certainly, it can be argued that it is useful for “men in

hard times and when under affliction; but Qoheleth's perspective is

not so restricted. He touches upon virtually every conceivable condi-

tion of life, and his verdict upon it all is the same, whether prosperous

or poor, wise or foolish, industrious or slothful, whether times are

good or bad (cf. 7:13, 14). Qoheleth was not provincial in his world

view; he set out to explore “all that is done under heaven” (1:13). He

states with sincerity and not exaggeration, “then I saw all that God

has done. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun” (8:12).

The nature of the book itself argues against Hengstenberg and

others who would find internal historical evidence to place it dur-

ing the post-exilic Persian domain over Palestine. The book defies

such attempts. The book presents a world and life view which is

in accord with the rest of Scripture. It does not occupy itself with

local phenomena such as Hengstenberg claims. Quite to the contrary,

it depicts life which is universally true throughout all of earth's his-

tory since the fall of man in the garden. The book deals with things

which are common among men everywhere without a necessary con-

nection to a particular historical milieu. An element common to many

conservative scholars is their assessment of Qoheleth's ethics and world

and life view. For them, Qoheleth was a man who, though he feared

God, looked upon the world around him from the vantage point of a

"reason" that had little to do with his faith in the Creator. They see a



33See, e.g., the arguments of Christian D. Ginsburg, Coheleth (London:

Longmans, Green, Longmans, and Roberts, 1861) 245ff.

34See Archer, "Linguistic Evidence for the Date of 'Ecclesiastes,'" 167-81

for a technical defense of Solomonic authorship.

35See Ginsburg, Coheleth, p. 249; Stuart, Ecclesiastes, pp. 38-39.



dichotomy between faith and reason.36 This view hinders the grasping

of Qoheleth's true world and life view.

One final trend among some conservative scholars must be

addressed. This is the trend to differentiate between “appearance” and

“reality.” One says of Qoheleth's world and life view, “There is much

that superficially viewed, has the appearance of disordered confusion.

But that this is the real state of the case is here emphatically denied.”37

Again concerning the theme of the book, it is asserted


The problem really discussed is the seeming inequalities of divine

providence. These are reconciled with the justice of God, as they are in

the book of Job reconciled with his mercy and goodness.38


These comments fall into a dichotomous pattern because they

refer to Qoheleth’s observations of the world as things he only judged

to be “apparent.” Sierd Woudstra clearly expressed this perspective:

Koheleth is on the one hand dealing with life as he observed it, while

on the other hand he knew and was convinced by faith that things

were different.”39

Shank astutely observes,


Woudstra here raises an important issue in the interpretation of

Qoheleth. If there does exist a distinction here, that distinction is not

between faith and reason, but between faith and sight, i.e. between

“faith” (that comes from special revelation) and that revelation pres-

ently available to any natural man as he perceives the creation about

him… But, in what sense and to what degree is such a “distinction”

relevant to Qoheleth?40


Qoheleth did not look upon the world from the perspective of a

tabula rasa. Nor was his observation of creation and “all that God

has done” (8:17) conducted upon the foundation of “natural theology.” 

His reflections upon this world and life are not the aimless ramblings

and superficial remarks of one given to "sense-experience theology.”


36Cf. H. Carl Shank, “Qoheleth's World and Life View As Seen in His Recurring

Phrases,” WTJ 37 (1974) 61. Hengstenberg (Ecclesiastes, 26) states, “The problem a

before the writer is considered from the point of view of Natural Theology with the aid

of experience, and of reason as purified by the Spirit of God.”

37See the article attributed to Greene, "The Scope and Plan of the Book of

Ecclesiastes,” Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 29 (1857) 422.

38Ibid.. 423-34. Cf. Walter Kaiser, Jr., Ecclesiastes (Chicago: Moody, 1979) 17.

39Sierd Woudstra, "Koheleth's Reflection upon Life" (unpublished Th.M. thesis;

Westminster Theological Seminary, 1959) 58. He criticized Leupold for his nature/grace

a dichotomy (p. 106). But see Woudstra's attempt to Christianize Qoheleth (pp.91ff.,esp.

pp. 99-101).

40Shank, "Qoheleth's World and Life View," 61.

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Rather, Qoheleth's whole approach was governed by foundational

presuppositions: his firm beliefs that God had revealed Himself

through the biblical themes of creation, the fall of man, and the ensu-

ing history of redemption; and that God had cursed man and the

earth so pervasively that nothing was left untouched by evil.

Qoheleth lived among a people who knew the Lord God and

his relationship to the world through the special revelation of the

Torah. Therefore, his knowledge of the world and of life was regu-

lated by his antecedent knowledge of God, the one whom he feared.

This being true, Qoheleth's "faith" and "sight" were not two entirely

distinct and independent modes of observation.

"Faith" and sight" do not oppose one another in Qoheleth. His

“sight”41 (his perception of this world and life) is his "faith" put into

operation to consider "all that God has done under the sun" from the

orientation of his firm belief in the fall and the curse of man as

recorded in Genesis 3. He looked upon the world and all of life from

the vantage point of a genuine OT believer who well understood not

only the reality of the curse of God placed upon life "under the sun,"

but also its pervasive effect upon everything "under heaven." It is just

such a world and life that Qoheleth depicts in vivid terms.




Thus far it has been the burden of this paper to suggest that it is

the assumed antithetical character and presumed contradictions which

have hindered correct interpretation of Qoheleth. Many commentators

suggest that more than one mind was operative in the composition

of the book. Even some evangelicals portray Qoheleth as a combina-

tion of at least two divergent philosophies or perspectives: natural

reason devoid of special revelation and orthodox affirmations of faith

(though they be few). It is the thesis of this article that Qoheleth's

enigmatic character cannot be resolved by following either of these

two conventional lines of interpretation. The enigmatic character and

polarized structure of the book is not a defective quality reflecting

opposing and contradictory philosophies. On the contrary, the book's

antithetical character is a deliberate literary device set in Hebrew

thought patterns designed to reflect the paradoxical and anomalous

nature of the world which Qoheleth observed. The difficulty of inter-

preting this book and of understanding its message is proportionally

related to one's own readiness to acknowledge the true nature of this

world-a world in bondage to the tyranny of the curse placed by God


41Cf. Ibid., 68-70, where Shank astutely discusses Qoheleth's phraseology, "I




upon all creation (cf. Rom 8:20ff.). If one fails to recognize this foun-

dational presupposition of Qoheleth, then he will fail to comprehend

the message of the book.


Qoheleth's Arrangement


Many scholars have contended that Qoheleth has no cohesive

plan or design. Long ago Delitzsch stated:


A gradual development, a progressive demonstration, is wanting, and

so far the grouping together of parts is not fully carried out; the con-

nection n of the thoughts is more frequently determined by that which is

external and accidental, and not infrequently an incongruous element

is introduced into the connected course of kindred matters . . . . All

attempts to show, in the whole, not only oneness of spirit, but also a

genetic progress, an all-embracing plan, and an organic connection,

have hitherto failed, and must fail.42


Hengstenberg follows suit:


A connected and orderly argument, an elaborate arrangement of parts,

is as little to be looked for here as in the special portion of the Book of

Proverbs which begins with chapter X., or as in the alphabetical Psalms.43


Surely such assertions are extreme) for even a cursory reading of

Qoheleth should convince anyone that its character is quite differ-

ent from the book of Proverbs.44 With the book of Proverbs one can

select at random a single verse or two and observe a complete unity

of thought in them that may not have any real connection with what

precedes or follows. Yet this does not hinder interpretation of its

meaning. However, Qoheleth is not at all so 'characterized. “It is

useless to take a text and ask 'What does that mean?' unless we have

in our minds some scheme for the whole book into which that text


42Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes, trans.

M. G. Easton (reprint in Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by C. F. Keil and

Franz Delitzsch; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950) 188.

43Hengstenberg, Ecclesiastes, 15. He continues to say, "Such matters of plan

and connection have been thrust into the book by interpreters who were incapable of

passing out of 'I heir own circle of ideas, as by degrees became evident from the fact

that not one of these arrangements gained anything like general recognition, but that

on the contrary each remained the sole property of its originator and of his slavish followers."

Concerning the theme of the book, he writes, "It is quite misleading to represent the work

as occupied with a single narrow theme… A superficial glance at its contents will amply

show that they are of far too rich and varied a nature to be comprehended under one

single theme" (p. 16).

44See Stuart, Ecclesiastes, 28ff.

32                                GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL


must fit.”45 The book of Proverbs may be read at several sittings,

disconnected and randomly without disrupting one's understanding

of its isolated parts. However, Qoheleth is like the book of Job;

it must be read with great attentiveness given to its design and

scope, for apart from the context of the complete book, any isolated

portion will be wrongly interpreted. It is precisely because this prin-

ciple has not been observed that so many contradictory interpreta-

tions have been spawned. When detached from the overall design of

the book, anyone of Qoheleth's refrains or expressions may be given

extremely negative interpretations. So it is that his recurring phrase,

"Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is mean-

ingless" has been dealt with as the exasperated outburst of a cynical

pessimist. Qoheleth's repeated, "A man can do nothing better than to

eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work" has been segregated

from his theme and corrupted to become the slogan of the indulgent

Epicurean sensualist, "Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow

we die!"46 "So I hated life, because the work that is done under the

sun was grievous to me" (2:17) is ascribed to a slothful pessimist.

Examples of "decontextualized" misinterpretations of Qoheleth could

be multiplied many times. But these serve to illustrate how his words

in various portions have been isolated from one another so that when

they are retrieved and placed back together, one is left only with a

mutilated Qoheleth. With such a method, no two pieces fit together.

Is it any wonder that critics and conservatives alike hear so many

strange and contradictory voices in Qoheleth?

However, the solution to determining Qoheleth's arrangement

and design is not to go to the other extreme. One states,


There is clear and consistent plan in the book of in

fact of the most strictly logical and methodical kind. Not only is the

argument well conducted, conclusive and complete, but its various

points are so admirably disposed, its divisions so regular, and its differ-

ent parts so conformed in structure as to give evidence that the whole

was carefully considered and well digested before it was put together .47


One must keep in mind that these are the words of one who wrote at

a time prior to the present resurgence of interest in Hebrew studies,

which has brought with it a heightened sensitivity to the many pecu-

liarities of the language and its literature. Recent studies of Qoheleth


45Cf. J. Stafford Wright, "The Interpretation of Ecclesiastes," in Classical Evan-

gelical Essays on Old Testament Interpretation, ed. by Walter Kaiser, Jr. (Grand

Rapids: Baker, 1973) 136.

46See F. C. Thompson, ed., The New Chain-Reference Bible, 4th ed.(Indianapolis:

B. B. Kirkbridge, 1964) 199 in the section “A Complete System of Biblical Studies."

47[Greene]. "The Scope and Plan of Ecclesiastes," 427.

CANEDAY: QOHELETH: PESSIMIST OR SAGE?                      33


have shown a much greater appreciation for the qualities of Hebrew

literature and its thought patterns which find their matrix in the Near

Eastern and not the Western mind.48

Nevertheless, the structure of Qoheleth remains elusive. Once its

scheme is traced out, it must still be acknowledged that the progres-

sion of its argument is not readily detectable. In many respects the

book defies the Western mind that looks for clear breaks in thought

around which it may be outlined. Like I John, its contours are fluid.

 Its boundaries are obscure. It is characterized by reiteration and

recurring phrases. It is cyclical as it traverses a course around its sub-

ject. As the apostle John treated the life, which is in union with Christ,

he chose a spiral course for considering the manifold character of

fellowship in the life of Christ.49 The subject is of such magnitude that

a glance at it from one perspective will not suffice. So it is with

Qoheleth. His subject, too, is immense. A single gaze upon the world

and upon life from a remote vantage point could never do justice to

its multiform character.

Altllough Qoheleth's arrangement is difficult to determine, cer-

tain structural devices do come to light. Setting aside the book's title

(1:1), eplgram (1:2; 12:8), and the epilogue (12:9-14), one finds that

Qoheletl1 begins and ends with a poem. The first poem is on the

endless round of events in which man forever comes up short in his

laborious toil (1:3-11). The book ends with another poem in which

Qoheleth calls upon men to enjoy life while they yet have breath, for

if death does not cut one off in mid-life, old age will deteriorate one's

satisfaction with life and still death will finally wrench the spirit from

the body (11:7-12:7).  It is these two poems which set the tone and

direction of Qoheleth's reflections upon life. Focusing upon the in-

scrutability of divine providence, Qoheleth guides his readers to

acknowledge the meaninglessness of events under the sun. He directs

the reader's focus away from an attempt to understand providence

and toward enjoyment of life as the gift from God. "Enjoyment of

life, not a search for meaning, should be man's guiding principle.50

There is much to commend Addison Wright's view of the struc-

ture of Qoheleth which he suggests in his provocative study.51 He tries



48See J. A. Loader, Polar Structures in the Book of Qohelet (Berlin: Walter

de Gruyter, 1979).

49Cf. Donald Burdick, The Epistle of John (Chicago: Moody, 1970) 14-15; Robert

Law, The Tests of Life (reprint; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1968) 1-24.

50Robert Johnston, "'Confessions of a Workaholic:' A Reappraisal of Qoheleth,"

CBQ 38 11976) 12-18. See also his study in The Christian at Play (Grand Rapids:

Eerdmans, 1983) 95-102.

51Addison G. Wright, "The Riddle of the Sphinx: The Structure of the Book of

Qoheleth,” CBQ 30 (1968) 313-34.

34                                GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL


to demonstrate that there is a break between 6:9 and 6:10. The first

half of the book (1:12-6:9) is characterized by the verbal pattern "all

is vanity and a chase after wind." The cessation of this phrase at 6:9

signals a major break in the book.52 The lines following this (6:10-12)

form a transition to a different verbal pattern which is carried out

throughout the remainder of the book. These verses introduce two

themes which are developed in what follows: (1) what is good for

man during his lifetime? and (2) who can tell man what will come

after him?53 Wright points out that chapters 7 and 8 are structured

around the first of these themes. It is developed in four sections with

each marked by the verb xcAmA.54 The second motif expressed in 6:12 is

developed in 9:1-11:6. The end of each unit is marked with the verb

fdayA or the noun tfaDa.55 Though one may not agree with all the details

of Wright's analysis, there are grammatical indicators which suggest

his general divisions.

The structural development of the book can be summarized as

follows. The title (1:1) and the poem (1:3-11) set the tone and direc-

tion of Qoheleth's reflections by focusing upon the fruitlessness of

man's toil in contrast to the incessant endurance of the earth. The

first major section (1:12-6:9) shows that man's toil is vanity and "a

chase after wind." The second half of the book (after the transition of

6:10-11) develops two themes: "what is good for man" (7:1-8:17) and

"man does not know what will come after him" (9:1-11 :6). The poem

on youth and old age (11:7-12:8) and the epilogue (12:9-14) conclude

Qoheleth's considerations. 56  However, this structural pattern does not

deny that there is an overlapping of themes between sections. For

example, the inability of man to comprehend life's meaning and his

failure to see what will happen after he is gone first appears in 3:11

and 3:22. Though 1:12-6:9 can be characterized as Qoheleth's investi-

gation of life and 7:1-11:6 (after the transition of 6:10-11) as his

conclusions, there is an intermingling of both in each portion. It is

this fact that prohibits any rigid outline of the book.


Qoheleth Interpreted: The Prologue

Qoheleth knew the great expanse of the subject he was about to

undertake, so he prepared his plan of investigation accordingly. He

says, "I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is

done under heaven" (1:13, italics added). His inquiry into the mean-

ing of life and his examination of the character of this world were not


52Ibid., 322-23.

53Ibid., 322.

54Ibid., 323.

55Ibid., 324.

56Ibid., 325.

CANEDAY: QOHELETH: PESSIMIST OR SAGE?                      35


restricted to provincial peculiarities, nor was his reflection narrowly

conceived. He deliberately opened up his observation to the whole

world and to events common among men universally. This he did in

accordance with wisdom,57 a wisdom guided by preestablished beliefs

which show themselves throughout his discourse.

Qoheleth bursts upon his reader with his concise and vigorous

exclamatilion: "'Meaningless! Meaningless!' says the Preacher, 'Utterly

meaningless! Everything is meaningless'"(1:2). The intensity of the

expression could hardly be exceeded. With such brilliance the book


Now when the preacher gives prominence to words of such

strength and to an expression so captivating, one would suppose that

there would be little need to look further for the theme which the

book seeks to develop and to prove. However, it has not so impressed

some scholars. Hengstenberg claims,


It is quite misleading to represent the work as occupied with a single

narrow theme. . . .A superficial glance at its contents will amply show

that they are of far too rich and varied a nature to be comprehended

under one such single theme.58


But Qoheleth puts his arresting expression concerning meaninglessness

in the position that a book of this nature would normally place its

theme.  Furthermore, the phrase, "everything is meaningless" (with its

variations),59 is the most dominant and pervasive of all Qoheleth's

recurring phrases in the book. Also, as the book opens, so it closes

with an exclamation of meaninglessness (see 12:8). Therefore, it seems

advisable to adopt 1:2 as the theme which Qoheleth seeks to prove

throughout the entirety of the book.

Phrases with the word lbh appear no less than 30 times. Of this

class of phrases, Woudstra well states the main exegetical question,

"Is Koheleth only saying that man's accomplishments under the

sun are transitory in character, are devoid of any permanence, or

he saying that human existence and everything that goes with it

futile and meaningless?60 This latter sense of lbh is rejected by

Leupold as "a pessimistic meaning...that is not warranted by facts”61

He Qoheleth. He avows that the word can only refer in Qoheleth to


57Cf. Stuart's discussion of "wisdom" (Ecclesiastes, 50ff.) where he points out that,

for Qoheleth, the contrast between wisdom and folly is not equivalent to the Proverbs'

use where wisdom is piety and folly is wickedness. In Qoheleth, wisdom bears the sense

of sagacity and folly, the lack of it.

58Hengtenberg, Ecclesiastes, 16.

59Cf.l: 14;2:1, 11, 15, 17, 19,21,23,26;3:19;4:4,7,8, 16;5:7, 10;6:2,4,9, 11,

12, 7:6, 15;10, 14; 9:9; 11:8, 10; 12:8.

60Woudstra, "Koheleth's Reflection upon Life," 38.

61Leupold, Ecclesiastes, 41.

36                    GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL


"that which is fleeting and transitory, and also suggests the partial

futility of human efforts.”62 On the other hand, Woudstra defends the

latter sense of lbh and denies that it implies pessimism.63

One should not be too hasty to translate lbh with a single word

as do most translations.64 The word lbh, meaning "vapor" or "breath,"

is employed figuratively of anything that is "evanescent, unsubstantial,

worthless, vanity.65 The particular sense of the word must be derived

from its usage in any particular context. It is employed as a designa-

tion for false gods (Deut 32:21; 1 Kgs 16:13, 26; 2 Kgs 17:15; Jer 2:5;

8:19; 10:8, 15; Jonah 2:9; Ps 31:6). The term lbh also represents the

exasperated sentiments of individuals.66 Job complains about the

brevity and uncertainty of his life; it is an exasperation to him

(Job 7: 16).67 The use of lbh in Ps 39:5, 6 is similar to its use in


You have made my days a mere handbreadth, the span of my years is

nothing before you. Each man's life is but a breath. Man is a mere

phantom as he goes to and fro; He bustles about, but only in vain; he

heaps up wealth, not knowing who will get it.68

The majority of the uses of lbh in the OT appear in Qoheleth,

yet even here the word is more flexible than most translations would

suggest. There are four general categories into which Qoheleth's use

of lbh can be placed. First, there are passages in which the word

expresses "meaninglessness" in the most general sense. Among these,

1:2 and 12:8 are the most prominent, for they summarize the whole

book in compressed form. Other passages in this category are 2:1, 26;

4:16; 5:7, 10; 6:4; 7:6; 9:9. Second, the author employs lbh to express

his vexations arising from the laboriousness of his work and his

inability to control the disposition of his possessions when he departs

from the earth (2:11,17,19,21,23; 4:4, 7, 8; 6:2). Third, the expres-

sion is used of Qoheleth's frustration over the delay of retribution.

Retribution, adequate, appropriate, and final does not take place in

the present world. The connection between wickedness and condemna-

tion, righteousness and deliverance is not direct and obvious but

shrouded and often turned upside down (2:15; 6:9; 7:15; 8:10, 14).

Finally, lbh is employed by Qoheleth to vent his deepest vexation


62Ibid. Italics added.

63Woudstra, "Koheleth's Reflection upon Life," 38.

64KJV, "vanity"; NASB, "vanity"; NIV, "meaninglessness."


66Por example, Isa 49:4. The servant Israel says, "I have labored in vain [qyri],

have spent my strength for nothing [UhTo] and vanity [lb,h,]."

67Cf. Job 7:16 with Qoh 2:17.

68NIV, Qoh 5:16-17.


CANEDAY: QOHELETH: PESSIMIST OR SAGE?                      37


with this present world-his lament over the brevity of life and the

severity of death (3: 19; 6: 12; II :8, 10; cf. 12:8 following the graphic

portrayal of death). The quality of life is "empty" and "vacuous" and

its quantity is entirely "transitory" and "fleeting.69  How appropriate,

then, is lbh with its many nuances to express the nature of this world

and life in it!

Shank sums up well Qoheleth's employment of lbh:

Different "aspects" of the idea of vanity are employed by Qoheleth to

vividly illustrate the reality of the curse of God placed upon the work

of man after the Fall (cf. Gen. 3:17-19). Therefore, an attempt to find

a "static" meaning to hebel in Ecclesiastes...fails to take note of the

richness of the concept as used by Qoheleth.70

Indeed, Qoheleth does announce his theme in 1:2.  It is not

narrowly conceived nor is it too singular. The theme of evanescence,

unsubstantiality, meaninglessness, vanity is carefully carried through

the whole book as a weaver threads his theme color throughout his

fabric. It is sufficiently broad in its formulation, for it accurately

summarizes the full contents of Qoheleth (if one does not restrict the

word lbh to a rigid or static meaning).

What the Preacher states with pithy conciseness in 1:2, he restates

in further summary form before he begins the body of his work. This

he does in 1:3-11 in the form of a compendium. The opening poem

serves as an abstract which compresses the essence of the book into a

brief introduction.

The Preacher first asks, "What does man gain from all his

labor at which he toils under the sun?" (1:3). Qoheleth clearly indi-

cates by his question the inquiry that led to his announced verdict

of evanescence and meaninglessness (1:2). The query expresses in

typical Hebrew concreteness the quest for the meaning and purpose

of life in this present world. This often escapes the occidental mind

in which points the question in more abstract terms. Qoheleth's fondness

for the book of Genesis71 throughout his work influenced how he

framed his question. As scholars have observed, wisdom literature in

the OT is "within the framework of a theology of creation.”72 Thus,

one can understand why Qoheleth structured his inquiry based upon

man's divinely appointed occupation within creation (cf. Gen 2:5, 15)


69Cf. Victor Hamilton, "hebel" in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament,

vol.1, R, Laird Harris, Gleason L.Archer, Bruce K.Waltke (Chicago:Moody,

1980) 204-5.

70 Shank:, "Qoheleth's World and Life View," 66.

71See Charles C. Forman, "Koheleth's Use of Genesis," JSS 5 (1960) 256-63.

72Walter Zimmerli, "The Place and Limit of the Wisdom in the Framework of

 the Old Testament Theology," SJT 17 (1964) 148.

38                    GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL


rather than ask abstractly, "What is the meaning of life?" His interest

is not economical but truly philosophical; it does not concern pecu-

niary profits but life's purpose and meaning.

Qoheleth states his conclusion (1:2); then he asks the question to

which his conclusion is the answer (1:3). He then turns to prove his

conclusion about this world and man's part in it by means of the

poem in 1:4-11. This introductory poem serves as a compendium in

which the message of the book is summarized. Qoheleth seeks to

establish his conclusion of 1:2 by rehearsing the inflexible cyclical

nature of the world and its enduring character in contrast to transi-

tory and evanescent man. He declares, "Generations come and gener-

ations go, but the earth remains forever" (1:4). The earth, methodically

plodding along in its routine course, does not skip a beat of its

rhythm to celebrate a man's. birth nor to mourn his death.

This rhythmic uniformity of seasons and events forms the con-

text within which man dwells. It provides stability so that much of his

life becomes routine; there are not shocking surprises everyday. Man

can depend upon the recurrence of the daily appearance of the sun.

As it sets in the westerly sky in the evening, so it shall rise in the east

the next morning (1:5). Man has come to recognize the course of the

wind which brings warmth or cold. It, too, is cyclical. Daily the winds

change their direction bringing a variety of weather conditions (1:6).

Man does not need to fear that the seas will swallow up the land, for

though the rivers and streams all flow into the ocean, the sea does not

overrun its boundaries. The waters dissipate and return as rain upon

the land to keep the rivers flowing to the sea (1:7).

Times and seasons are a blessing to man, for God promised a

regularity and uniformity upon which man could depend. "As long as

the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and

winter, day and night will never cease" (Gen 8:22). However, this

blessing which gives man some measure of predictability about life

becomes wearisome to him. Uniformity and repetition breeds monot-

ony in this cursed world. Regularity has an eroding effect; it wears

man down. So it is that Qoheleth declares, "All things are wearisome,

more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, or the ear

its fill of hearing" (1:8).

Man comes to expect the recurrence of events. Even in man's

brief existence upon the earth, he comes to learn that even those few

things that may occur only once in his lifetime are not new (1:9). The

joy of discovery is dampened by earth's stubborn uniformity. As one

excitedly exclaims, "Look! This is something new," the excitement

quickly fades with the realization that, "It was here before our


Uniformity; regularity; methodical, orderly recurrence; cyclical,

rhythmic routine; these are all descriptive of the world which Qoheleth

CANEDAY: QOHELETH: PESSIMIST OR SAGE?                      39


observed. But there is an intruder which interrupts man's part in the

profound cycle of events. It is the culprit which transforms the beauty

of uniformity into a monotonous machine which mercilessly carries

the sons of Adam through the corridors of time into oblivion (1: 11).

It is the curse which has put a blight upon everything. Nothing has

escaped its clutching grasp. Surely, God's providential directing of the

affairs of :his world is carried out with uniform precision and beauty, I

yet the curse hides the full character of the one who governs the


Such is the broad, sweeping picture that Qoheleth portrays in his

compendium (1 :3-11). The stage, with its backdrop and props, obsti-

nately endures as earth's systems methodically press on with no

apparent direction, for everything about it repeats itself. Much to the

grief of the actors, they themselves have no such permanence. "Genera-

tions come and generations go, but the earth remains.forever" (1:4).

To add insult to injury, even the product of their work falters with

them (1:3), so they become forgotten men (1:11). Such is the scene

which stirs Qoheleth with vexation to announce with startling bold-

ness, "'Meaningless! Meaningless!' says the Preacher, 'Utterly mean-

ingless! Everything is meaningless'" (1:2).

It is Qoheleth's prologue which sets the theme, the tone and the

movement of the whole book with its incessant repetition. The book

takes on the shape of the world as it imitates the cadence of creation

by the use of its many recurring phrases and themes. Not only has

Qohelettl captured with words the pointlessness of man's life of labor

in a world which outlasts him, uninterrupted by man's coming and

going, but he also leads his reader to sense the incessant rhythm of

the world by his own calculated refrains. It is precisely this recurrent

character of Qoheleth with its polarized structure which should aid

the reader to a proper interpretation of the book. Rather, it has

become the chief point of criticism and dispute.


Qoheleth Interpreted: The Recurring Themes


As Qoheleth develops his world and life view it is imperative to

observe his pattern. He sets before the reader motifs and themes, all

calculated to support his verdict announced in 1:2. Qoheleth's argu-

ment will be considered under four headings: 1) polarity of themes,

2) theology of creation, 3) elusiveness of meaning, and 4) celebra-

tion of life.


Polarity of Themes

The antithetical character of Qoheleth is not to be resolved by

 positing contradictory thought patterns within Qoheleth himself, nor

40                                GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL


by appealing to the voices of presumed editors, redactors, and glos-

sators as the liberal critics do. Rather the polarity of structure and

expression found in the book reproduces the character of this world.

As the world which Qoheleth observed is characterized by its cease-

less recurrent cycles and paradoxes of birth and death, war and peace,

and the like (cf. 3:1-8), giving it an enigmatic quality, so Qoheleth

reproduces its pattern in literary form, repeatedly turning back upon

himself to reiterate and restate themes and observations upon various

subjects which support his verdict.73 This he does by casting his work

into a polarized structural form as illustrated by 3:1-9.74 Just as there

is no place "under the sun" to find a tranquil resting place devoid of

life's vexations where the movement of this world ceases to erode the

strength and vitality of man, so Qoheleth's composition does not

permit its readers to settle their minds with contentment upon a par-

ticular portion of his book. There is always tension as various obser-

vations and reflections upon life are juxtaposed in polarity. He hates

life (2:17), yet he commends its enjoyment (2:24ff.). Death (7:Iff.) and

life (9:4ff.) hold prominency in Qoheleth's polarized expressions. On

the one hand he can say, "The day of death is better than the day

of birth" (7:1) and on the other "a live dog is better off than a

dead lion" (9:4). Illustrative of this polarized character of Qoheleth,

7: 16, 17 stand out: "Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise-

why destroy yourself? Do not be overwicked, and do not be a

fool-why die before your time?" It is these paradoxical observations

and expressions which characterize the book and cause such great

difficulty for so many exegetes. The tension cast by Qoheleth's obser-

vations and reflections is unrelenting.

Qoheleth involves the whole reader in an incessant movement of

thought as he carefully weaves his various strands of thread into a

multiform fabric, fully reflecting this world and life in it. His literary

image reflects the harsh realities of this present world as he places

side by side contradictory elements to portray the twisted, disjointed

and disfigured form of this world (see 1:15; 7:13). Man as observer is

not exempted from the tension. His emotional and mental involve-

ment in the contradictions of this world create a complexity of

thought, motives and desires. Qoheleth was a man torn by the pres-

ence of evil and vexed by the ravages of injustice, oppression and

death. He compels his reader to confront this diverse nature of this

paradoxical world in which evil has supplanted the good. In this


73See Shank, "Qoheleth's World and Life View," 57-73 for an excellent study of

Qoheleth's recurring phrases.

74Cf. Loader, Polar Structures in the Book of Qohelet, 29ff.

CANEDAY: QOHELETH: PESSIMIST OR SAGE?                      41


world wickedness drives out justice (3:16). Oppression replaces char-

ity (4:1ff.). Everything is marked by twisting and incompleteness

(I: 15). In the place of sweet labor (which was man's original allot-

ment), the sweat of the brow embitters one's work with the brine of

wearisome and laborious toil which is fruitless (cf. Gen 3:17-19; with

Qoh 2:11, 17f., etc.).

The world which Qoheleth observed is cursed; it is disjointed; it

is upside down. Death and decay dominate. The appointment of

every man has become the grave. As a man is born, so he must die

(3:1).  He comes into a world naked and leaves stripped of all the

of profits from his labors (5:15-17). He leaves his wealth to be squan-

dered by one who has not worked for it (2:17-21), or it falls into the

hands of a stranger by some misfortune (6:1-2). But the greatest evil

of all is the fact that death is no respecter of persons (9:3). It comes

upon men so haphazardly, often leaving the wicked to live long in

their wickedness (7:15).

In this paradoxical world no man knows what shall befall him-

whether love or hate (9:1), good or evil (7:14), prosperity or destruction

(11:6). An adequate and appropriate retribution is absent from this

present world. The connection between wickedness and condemnation,

righteousness and reward is hidden and apparently non-existent (cf.

2:15; 6:9; 7:15; 8:10,14). It is upon this subject that Qoheleth's polar-

ized expressions have caused his readers to become most disconcerted

and unsettled. For on the one hand he complains that wickedness has

driven out justice in the place where one would expect to find equity

(3: 16). Yet, he quickly offsets the present scene with an expression of

confidence that "God will bring to judgment both the righteous and

the wicked, for there will be a time for every activity, a time for every

deed" 3:17). Qoheleth vents his grief that sentences for crimes are not

quickly executed (8:11). Yet, he again expresses confidence that the

final day will bring justice where it is now absent (8: 12-13). But

immediately Qoheleth turns the reader back to view the paradox that

vexes him most: "There is something else meaningless that occurs on

earth: righteous men who get what the wicked deserve, and wicked

men who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say is meaning-

less (8:14).

Herein lies the chief source of Qoheleth's dilemma; divine provi-

dence in this present world disproportionately distributes deserts-the

this wicked prosper and the righteous flounder (cf. Job 21:4-33; Ps 73:4-

12; Jer 12:1-4). The almighty God who rules this world hides himself

behind a frowning providence. It seldom appears that the benevolent

God who created the universe has control of his own creation. It

rarely seems that a rational and moral being gives motion to the

world. Even the beauty of uniformity plagues man's thoughts about

42                                GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL


God. Uniformity becomes motonony in the present cursed world, for

it is precisely upon the basis of the world's disjointed regularity that

men scoff at God and his promises (see Mal 2:17; 3:14-15; 2 Pet 3:3-

7). The present world order becomes the occasion for wicked men to

jeer God and for righteous men to vex their souls that divine justice is

so long delayed. It is precisely this character of the world which gives

rise for the need of patient endurance on the part of the righteous as

they await the fulfillment of God's promises of justice and deliverance

(cf. 2 Pet 3:8-13, 15).


Theology of Creation


The Preacher's occasion and purpose for writing his book is

found in his opening question: "What does man gain from all his labor

at which he toils under the sun?" (1:3). He asks this question re-

peatedly (2:22; 3:9). This may seem to be a rather narrowly conceived

question for setting the theme of Qoheleth which is broad in its discus-

sions and investigations. It has been stated earlier that Qoheleth's

interests were not merely to investigate the measure of profits gained

from labor, but the inquiry expresses tangibly man's quest to know

the meaning and purpose of life. The entire book of Qoheleth is a

reflection upon life in this world in order to search out its meaning.

The theme question found in 1:3 is conceived in terms of man's

original divine mandate to work in paradise and to subdue the earth

by ruling over it as king (Gen 2:5, 15; 1 :28). The creation motif holds

a significant place in the formulation of Qoheleth's thoughts. He

acknowledges, as does the Genesis account, that man was made from

the dust of the ground and will return to it (Qoh 12:7; 3:20; cf. Gen 2:7;

3:19); that man was designed to live in companionship (Qoh 4:9-12;

9:9; cf. Gen 1:27; 2:21-25); that man is bent toward sin (Qoh 7:29;

8:11; 9:3; cf. Gen 3:1-13); that human knowledge is derived and has

God-given limitations (Qoh 8:7; 10: 14; cf. Gen 2: 17); and that God is

sovereign over all (Qoh 3:10-13; cf. Gen 1:28-30; 3:5). ..

Johnston observes, "Perhaps most importantly, Ecclesiastes and

Genesis exhibit substantial agreement as to the central focus of the

creation motif-that life is to be celebrated as a 'good' creation of

God.”75 But the problem that exists for Qoheleth is the intrusion of

sin and God's curse upon all creation and, in particular, upon man.

When God created man, his design was that man till the soil as an

extension of God's hand to carryon the work which God had made

(Gen 2:4-7). Man's purpose, then, was to work upon the earth, an

earth which yielded readily to the hands of Adam to produce only


75 Johnston, "'Confessions of a Workaholic,'" p. 22.

CANEDAY: QOHELETH: PESSIMIST OR SAGE?                      43


those things which "were pleasing to the eye and good for food" (cf.

Gen 2:9). But the curse of God came upon man and his environment

because of Adam's rebellion. It changed the scene drastically so that

no longer would man's work be pleasureable. Instead it is character-

ized by laboriousness and pain and yields a meagerly disproportion-

ate return for the energy expended (Gen 3:17-19). Thorns and thistles

grow where once beautiful and luscious produce sprang forth. Man

was made to eke out a living under adverse conditions. His whole life

became involved with this effort. Thus, the real question of the mean-

ing of life is the query Qoheleth asks: "What does man gain from all

his labor at which he toils under the sun?" What does man have left

when all his painful and wearisome toil is complete? What goal is

there" for a life which is so consumed with such endless and exhaust-

ing drudgery? If there is meaning to life, where is it concealed?

It is Qoheleth's orientation to the Scriptural account of creation

which forms his presuppositional basis for a world and life view. He

recognized a great disparity between his world and that which came

directly from the creative hand of God; the curse had intruded to

disrupt the harmony of creation. The evil that Qoheleth observed

"under the sun" was not inherent in nor of the essence of creation,

but was externally imposed. The curse of Gen 3: 17ff. becomes in

Qoheleth's language disjointedness and discontinuity or kinks and

gaps which are irrevocable (1: 15) because they have been imposed by

God (7:13). By the curse God subjected creation to the frustration of

bondage and decay (cf. Rom 8:19-21), creating the enigma which

bewilder! men. The world has been turned upside down, so that it

bears little resemblance to the pristine paradise that it once was. For

Qoheleth. then, the world was neither what it once was nor what it

will be therefore he designed his book, not to "wrest some form of

order from chaos”76 or to master life, but to bring men to acknowl-

edge that this world and life in it is marked by aimlessness, enigma,

and tyranny. Qoheleth upholds the creational design to celebrate life

as a divine gift which is to be enjoyed as good, something to be cher-

ished reverently and something in which man delights continually. 77

This, per haps, is the greatest enigma in Qoheleth--his bold assertion

of the meaninglessness of life "under the sun" and his resolute affirma-

tion that life is to be celebrated joyfully. The fact that he unequivocably

maintained both is not proof that Qoheleth was a double-minded

man-secular and religious. He was not a pessimist who saw nothing

better than to indulge the flesh. He was a godly sage who could

affirm both the aimlessness of life "under the sun" and the enjoyment


76G. van Rad, Old Testament Theology, vol. 1, trans. D. M. G. Stalker (New

York: Harper and Row, 1962) 420.

44                                GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL


of life precisely because he believed in the God who cursed his crea-

tion on account of man's rebellion, but who was in the process,

throughout earth's history, of redeeming man and creation, liberating

them from the bondage to decay to which they had been subjected

(cf. Rom 8:19-21). Because Qoheleth was a man of faith, he held this

perspective, for it was through his faith in the God who revealed him-

self that Qoheleth knew what the world once was and what it will be

again. It was because of this orientation that so many enigmatic and

antithetical considerations and observations are held in proper ten-

sion within his mind and within his book.


Elusiveness of Meaning


The identification of 1:3 as the theme question, the question of

life's meaning, is confirmed by the book itself. In 3:9-11 Qoheleth

reveals the breadth of the question. It was no mere economic question

about one's wealth, but it was a philosophical inquiry about life's

meaning and purpose. After a poetically structured recitation of the

divine appointment of affairs which touch every man in this cursed

world (3: 1-8), Qoheleth breaks forth with his thematic question,

"What does the worker gain from his toil?" (3:9). The relentless tide

of events described by Qoheleth is reminiscent of the cosmological

cycle earlier recited (1:4-11). It is precisely to such unalterable and

rhythmic recurrence of events "under the sun" that the Preacher

affixes his question of meaning (1:3 before the poem in 1:4-11; 3:9

after the poem in 3: 1-8). Man is part of the cyclical flux of time and

circumstance "under the sun." He both inflicts adversity and suffering

upon others and is victimized by the incessant recurrence of events.

Man struggles for life and meaning in an environment that taunts him

with its paradoxes: birth and death, weeping and laughter, love and

hate, war and peace, and the like. Such a relentless and inflexible

cycle of events extends beyond the grasp of man's control and under-

standing. Qoheleth never suggests that a man should resign himself

passively and put forth no "effort to avert the times and the circum-

stances.78 Yet, his purpose is not to aid his reader to search for order

so as to master life.79 Von Rad is misguiding when he offers the fol-

lowing wisdom literature's intention: "There was surely only one goal,

to wrest from the chaos of events some kind of order in which man

was not continually at the mercy of the incalculable.80


77 Cf. Johnston, "'Confessions of a Workaholic,'" 22-23.

78 See the improper conclusion of Louis Goldberg, Ecclesiastes (Grand

Rapids:Zondervan, 1983) 64.

79 Cf. Johnston, "'Confessions of a Workaholic,'" 26-27.

80 G. von Rad, Wisdom in Israel, trans. J. D. Martin (New York: Abingdon, 1972) 316.

CANEDAY: QOHELETH: PESSIMIST OR SAGE?                      45


Though Qoheleth surely is not a passive victim of the cruelties

of the endless rounds of this life, neither does his focus become the

task of mastering life, straining to "wrest some form of order from

chaos.”81 Rather, his entire concentration is on how one directs his

life through the labyrinth of this meaningless life; it is guidance and

counsel to his readers to enjoy life in spite of the inscrutable and

enigmatic world in which they live.

On the one hand, precisely where one might expect pessimistic

resignation from Qoheleth, the notion is resisted. On the other hand,

he does not counsel his readers to search for order in an attempt to

manipulate life. It is his burden to show from his consideration of

life's limits and enigmas the futility of man's attempt to understand

the whole of life and thus to master it. He counsels his readers to

replace false and illusory hopes of understanding providence (thereby

manipulating life) with a well-established, joyful confidence that crea-

tion is God's gift.82

One may be puzzled about the connection between the question

of 3:9 and the statement of 3:10. However, if one remembers that the

inquiry of 3:9 is not economic but the basic question of life's mean-

ing, the connection is clear. If every event in this cursed world has its

appointed time (depending not upon human influence but upon the

determination and providence of God), "what does the worker gain

from his toil" (3:9)? What purpose and meaning does life hold? In

response to his inquiry, Qoheleth says, "I have seen the burden God

has laid on men" (3:10).83 What is this burden (vyAn;fihA)? Hengstenberg

refers it back to the moil and toil of v 9 “to which men subject them-

selves in that they desire, and yet are unable to effect anything,

because everything comes to pass as it has been fixed and predeter-

mined by God.”84  However, the inquiry of v 9 is not so restricted but

is a philosophic question relative to the basic meaning and purpose of

life. It does not merely have in view moil and toil. Rather, it encom-

passes the whole of life's activity in a cursed world where labor and

life is subjected to drudgingly irksome and fruitless efforts. Thus, the

burden spoken of in v 10 is not to be identified as simply the moil and

toil in which men are occupied.

The quest in v 9 is linked with v 11 through v 10. The burden

(vyAn;fihA) is comprised of this: "He has made everything beautiful in its

time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot

fathom what God has done from beginning to end" (3:11). To express

the fact that God has made everything beautiful in its time, Qoheleth


81 von Rad, Old Testament Theology, vol. 1,421.

82 Johnston, "'Confessions of a Workaholic,'" 26.

83 See Kaiser, Ecclesiastes, 53-54 concerning the singular MdAxAhA yneb;li.

84 Hellgstenberg, Ecclesiastes, 104.


46                    GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL


uses hp,yA as a synonym for bOF. Yet, the beauty can hardly be that

goodness which the Lord God observed in the work of his hands at

the beginning (cf. Gen 1:31, etc.), for creation's subjugation to bond-

age and decay had not yet come. But after the fall, God's creation was

pervasively marred by the curse as is seen in the paradoxes of human

affairs listed by Qoheleth (3:1-8). The beauty of which the Preacher

speaks consists in this, that what occurs among men comes to pass at

its appointed time as a constituent portion of the whole of God's

work among men.85

Not only has God ordered the affairs of all creation beautifully,

he also has put MlAfohA-tx, in the hearts of men (MBAliB;). The suffix in

MBAliB; refers to the MdAxAHA in v 10. How is MlAfohA to be understood? Some

older commentators attempted to translate the word in the sense of

the Arabic ‘lam as 'knowledge' or 'understanding.’86 With this inter-

pretation, rw,xE lyiB;mi is translated "without which," so that the sense

of the text is: "He has also set knowledge in the hearts of men,

without which they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning

to end.”87

This exegetical course is rejected by most commentators.88 Appar-

ently Luther took MlAfohA-tx, to mean "the world," "the desire after the

knowledge of the world," or "worldly mindedness.”89 However, it

seems best to follow the lead of Delitzsch and others who take MlAfohA

as "eternity.”90

The "eternity" which God has put into the hearts of men is a

certain inquisitiveness and yearning after purpose. It is a compulsive

drive, a deep-seated desire to appreciate order and beauty, arising

because man is made in the image of God. It is an impulse to press

beyond the limits which the present world circumscribes about man

in order to escape the bondage which holds him in the incessant cycle

of the seasons and in order to console his anxious mind with meaning

and purpose.91 It is man's desperate attempt to make sense out of

what seems senseless and meaningless. Yet, MlAfohA must not be restricted

to this, but also must include a residual knowledge of God's eternal

power and divine nature which God has placed in every man (cf.


85 Cf. Delitzsch, Ecclesiastes, 259.

86 Cf. Stuart, Ecclesiastes, 174-75. But see Delitzsch's response to this, Eccle-

siastes, 260.

87 Stuart's strained conclusions on 3:11 are inconsistent with his comments on 8:17.

See Stuart, Ecclesiastes, 173-74 and 308.

88 See Delitzsch, Ecclesiastes, 260.

89 Attributed to Luther by Delitzsch, Ecclesiastes, 260.

90 Ibid.,261.

91 Ibid.

CANEDAY: QOHELETH: PESSIMIST OR SAGE?                      47


Rom 1:19),92 for it is this knowledge which gives man his sense that

there is purpose and meaning (though it entirely eludes him).

This compulsive desire to appreciate the beauty, symmetry and

order of creation shows itself differently at various levels. Aesthetically

man seeks to appreciate creation's beauty as he imitates his creator by

fashioning beauty with his own hands. Philosophically man pursues

knowledge of the universe to know its character, composition and

 meaning. Theologically man seeks to discern creation's purpose and

destiny. Since man has this craving for meaning, a deep-seated in-

quisitiveness and capacity to learn how everything in this world fits

together, he seeks to integrate his experience into a meaningful whole.

He yearns to connect the various pieces of his experience to see each

portion in the context of the whole of his life. He desperately desires

to have a meaningful understanding of the world and of life to give

him direction and mastery. He is like Qoheleth who sought to add

"one thing to another to discover the scheme of things" (7:27).

Herein then is the task or burden which God has laid upon the

sons of Adam: the search for meaning in a disjointed and topsy-turvy

world. It is not a burden because man is a creature who has only

limited and derived knowledge. It is a heavy and frustrating burden

because man's quest for meaning is now performed in a cursed world

wherein inexplicable paradox dominates-there is birth and death,

hate as well as love, and more war than peace fills the earth. It is this

kind of world, uniform yet twisted and marked by gaps, which

Qoheleth explored and declared to be meaningless.

In spite of the fact that God has "made everything beautiful in its

time" (an orderly arrangement even of chaos), and despite the cer-

tainty that "He also has set eternity in the hearts of men," Qoheleth

declares, “yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning

to end" (3:11c). This incapacity of man is emphasized repeatedly by

Qoheleth to establish the meaninglessness which he announced at the

beginning as his theme. The inability to discover God's purposes and

design from events and experiences is an essential thread which

Qoheleth weaves into the fabric of his work. The elusiveness of mean-

ing becomes the dominant motif in 6:12-11:6. Man is reminded that

he "cannot discover anything about his future" (7:14; cf. 3:22) because

God has made both good and evil to befall men quite haphazardly. Is

proof needed for the inscrutable ways of God? Qoheleth declares, "In

this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: a righteous

man perishing in his righteousness, and a wicked man living long in

his wickedness" (7:15). The tyrannies and the benevolences in this


92 Otto Zockler, Ecclesiastes, trans. William Wells, in vol. 5, Commentary

on the Scripture, ed. by J. P. Lange (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1960) 67.

48                    GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL


world, both caused by God, come upon men with disparity and

inequity, for "righteous men get what the wicked deserve and the

wicked get what the righteous deserve" (8:14). God has not revealed

to men the secrets of the purposes which move his actions (cf.

Deut 29:29).

Man's limitation and fractional knowledge, as he seeks to "add

one thing to another to discover the scheme of things" (cf. 7:27), is

emphasized in 8:7-8a: "Since no man knows the future, who can tell

him what is to come? No man has power over the wind to contain it;

so no one has power over the day of his death." The disproportionate

allotment of God's providence ruins men's illusory hopes of master-

ing life and discovering the divine meaning and purpose for life's

experiences and events. "There is something else meaningless that

occurs on earth: righteous men get what the wicked deserve and

wicked men get what the righteous deserve" (8:14). Who would chal-

lenge Qoheleth? He is right! The incongruities and paradoxes that

baffled Qoheleth bewilder every man. It is this disharmony and

absurdity that compelled Qoheleth to impart to his readers a realistic



When I applied my mind to know wisdom and to observe man's labor

on earth-his eyes not seeing sleep day or night-then I saw all that

God has done. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun.

Despite all his efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its mean-

ing. Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend

it [8:16-17].


Celebration of Life


It is precisely in the contexts where Qoheleth magnifies and

emphasizes man's bewilderment that so many scholars have failed to

understand Qoheleth. His candid and realistic confessions followed

by counsel have brought severe criticism. On the one hand, he is

accused of pessimism for his acknowledgement of the elusiveness of

meaning and, on the other hand, he is said to be orthodox because of

his counsel to sane living (see 12:13-14). At some places his counsel is

viewed as grossly defective. Delitzsch asserts, "If Koheleth had known

of a future life . . . he would have reached a better ultimatum.”94

Delitzsch is referring to 3:12-14:


I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do

good while they live. That every man may eat and drink, and find


93 Cf. 9:1-3,11-12.

94 Delitzsch, Ecclesiastes, 262. In contrast to the negative interpretation by Delitzsch,

see R. N. Whybray, "Qoheleth, Preacher of Joy," JSOT 23 (1982) 87-98.

CANEDAY: QOHELETH: PESSIMIST OR SAGE?                      49


satisfaction in all his toil-this is the gift of God. I know that every-

thing God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and

nothing taken from it. God does it, so men will revere him.


Now wherein lies the shortcoming of Qoheleth's counsel? He

urges men to do good (bOF) and to be glad (HaOmW;li). The enjoyment to

be derived from life is coordinate with obedience to divine command-

ments.95 This is how men are to conduct themselves as long as they

are living (vyy.AHaB;). Furthermore, that which a man may eat or drink or

find satisfying in his toil is confessed as "the gift of God." Above all,

Qoheleth acknowledges that what God does, though it may be per-

plexing to man, he does "so men will fear him" (3:14). How could

Qoheleth be more orthodox? Is not this the counsel of one who

considers the eternal, the future existence of man? If Qoheleth did not

believe in the resurrection, why would he counsel men to behave

obediently, fearing God? What is there to fear, if it is not God's

judgment of resurrected men?

Qoheleth's world and life view was not fashioned according to a

natural theology restricted to the affairs of men "under the sun." If

that were the case, he would have counseled his readers to revelry,

for he saw in this world that it is the wicked who live long (7:15;

8:14). He does not envy the way of the ungodly as Asaph began to

do, nearly to his own destruction (cf. Ps 73:3-17). If Qoheleth had no

belief in final retribution--the demise of the wicked and the reward-

ing of the righteous-- his counsel would have been, "Let us eat and

drink, for tomorrow we die" (see I Cor 15:32), the very philosophy of

which he is often accused. Qoheleth does not yield to pessimism and

despair, nor to an ascetic withdrawal, nor to an anasthetic desensitized

denial of evil. Instead, from the recognition that what the righteous

and wicked receive is inverse to their deserts (8:14), he moves directly

to his holy counsel: "So I commend the enjoyment of life, because

nothing is better for man under the sun than to eat and drink and be

glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life

God has given him under the sun" (8:15).

Qoheleth 's perspective upon the incongruities of this life is the

same as Job's who said of the wicked: "Their prosperity is not in

their own hands, so I stand aloof from the counsel of the wicked"

(Job 21:16). Qoheleth says,


Although a wicked man commits a hundred crimes and still lives a

long time, I know that it will go better with God-fearing men, who

are reverent before God. Yet because the wicked do not fear God,


95 See Delitzsch, Ecclesiastes, 262 concerning a discussion of Qoheleth's use of bOF in 3:12.

50                    GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL


it will not go well with them, and their days will not lengthen like a

shadow [8:12-13].96


Qoheleth formed his world and life view with divine creation and

divine retribution in mind. This creator-retributor perspective gives

Qoheleth equilibrium and stability to dwell in a world subjected to

the curse of God. The creation motif serves as the source of Qoheleth's

counsel to celebrate life with joy, for it is a good creation of God. The

eschatological judgment motif is behind his caution to behave obe-

diently in view of the divine retribution which will reward the righ-

teous and condemn the wicked. This counsel is gracefully harmonized

by Qoheleth in his admonition to the young man:


Be happy young man, while you are young, and let your heart give you

joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and

whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will

bring you to judgment. So then, banish anxiety from your heart and

cast off the troubles of your body, for youth and vigor are meaning-

less [11:9-10].


The joy and freedom of following one's desires is not to be

dampened by knowledge of coming judgment but only controlled.

This is not counsel to indulgent and indecent conduct but to freedom

and joyful celebration of God's good gift of life, tempered by the

knowledge that the God who created life also holds men accountable

to revere him. The free pursuit of the heart's desires and whatever the

eyes see is to be done within the moral boundaries of God's com-

mandments (see 12:13). Qoheleth's counsel encourages one to cele-

brate life, unshackled from a search for the meaning of life.


Qoheleth Interpreted: The Epilogue


Upon concluding his graphic poem on aging and death, Qoheleth

closes the body of his book with the theme with which he began:

"'Meaningless! Meaningless!' says the Preacher. 'Everything is mean-

ingless!'" (12:8; cf. 1:2). But the verdict is not the final word that

Qoheleth has for his readers. Instead, he leaves them with a closing

word of counsel on how to behave in a world that is aimless and

(meaningless as the result of the Creator's curse upon it. That counsel

is not in the least out of character with the theme of the book. He

concludes, "Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the

matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole


96 See Michael Eaton, Ecclesiastes (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries;

Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1983) 41-42. His comments are appropriate against those

who presume an interpolated contradiction in these verses.

CANEDAY: QOHELETH: PESSIMIST OR SAGE?                      51


duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including

every hidden thing whether it is good or evil" (12:13-14).

Qoheleth, throughout his book, had repeatedly raised the motif

of eschatological judgment to motivate obedient behavior despite the

fact that rotters advance in prosperity and live long in this world

while the righteous flounder in their struggles and succumb early to

the curse of death (cf. 3:16, 17; 5:4-7; 8:11-14; 11:9). The final

judgment serves as a chief orientation to which Qoheleth directs his

readers to steer them through the labyrinths of this meaningless life.

The fear of God who shall judge men is to temper and regulate man's

ethical actions and decisions throughout his sojourning here. And so

it is appropriate that Qoheleth sums up the duty of man: "Fear God

and keep his commandments" (12:13; cf. 3:14; 5:7; 7:18; and 8:12-13

three times).

Fearing God is motivated by the fact that "God will bring every

deed into judgment." These two great themes, fearing God and an

appointed time for divine judgment, serve as integral elements in the

development of Qoheleth's world and life view. They were not mere

addendas to a series of unconnected discursive sayings and affirma-

tions.  Rather, the conclusion serves as the knot which secures the

ethical threads carefully woven into the fabric of the work. Qoheleth

asserts this to be the case, for he says, "Now all has been heard; here

is the conclusion of the matter" (12:13a).

Consistent with his counsel throughout the book, Qoheleth does

not permit his reader to despair even though "everything is meaning-

less." He counsels men to fear God and to obey him because there is a

time for judgment when they will give account of their conduct and

secrets, whether they be good or evil. These last words can hardly be

taken in a crippling manner. Qoheleth did not design his words

concerning the all-searching eye of God (v 14) to inhibit human

enjoyment and behavior nor to cast his readers into introspective

questioning of motives. Rather, knowledge of divine judgment should

regulate one's conduct with a prospective gaze of expectation toward

the day when justice shall eradicate all inequity, when divine mercy

shall purge out all oppression, when the righteous shall flourish as the

wicked are cut off (cf. 3:16-17; 8:12-14).


Qoheleth's World and Life View Summarized


As Qoheleth made his thorough investigation (1:13) of all that is

done under heaven, he was governed by basic presuppositional beliefs

which use expressed throughout his work. These presuppositions

largely arise out of his knowledge of God's revelation of himself in

Genesis 1-11. Foundational to his philosophical pursuit of meaning

is his firm recognition that the world with all its systems, and man in

52                                GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL


particular as actor, operate under the curse of God. This he expresses

in terms of things twisted and things lacking (1:15). The presence

of evil is not to be attributed to the essence of creation but as a foreign

element imposed upon it, for "Who can straighten what he [God] has

made crooked?" (7:13). Furthermore, God did not capriciously impose

this curse, but "God made mankind upright, but men have gone in

search of many schemes" (7:29). Thus, it is the curse which accounts

for the inequity, the tyranny, the oppression, the disparity of provi-

dence, and especially for the presence of death and its haphazard

encroachment without respect to men's characters (cf. 9: 1-3).

This basic presuppositional belief that the world is not what it

was originally nor what it will be finally governs Qoheleth's ethical

world and life view. This is due to the fact that the transformation of

the world is not accomplished by some evolutionary process inherent

within creation itself, but by the God who created the universe and

also subjected it to its present frustration under the curse and who

will finally liberate it (cf. Rom 8:19-21).

For Qoheleth, then, there is a second and much more ultimate

presupposition which regulates all his observations of this evil world

and his wise counsel on how to live in it. The entire book rests solidly

upon the assumption that the Lord God of Israel is the Creator and

Governor of all things. He is the Creator who set all things into

motion (12:1; 11:5). He is the Sovereign who governs all that he has

created. He does not merely permit or allow the present suffering and

evil in the world. Qoheleth acknowledges that it is God who causes

both the good and the bad to befall men irrespective of their char-

acters (7:14-15). It is God who gives a man wealth and yet may not

give him the enjoyment of it, an evil which is vexing to men (6:1-2).

Though it is God who gives both the good and the evil, he is not to be

charged with doing evil; he is only to be feared precisely because of

all that he does among men (3:14).

God is also perceived by Qoheleth as Incomprehensible Wisdom,

for the creator/creature distinction, aggravated by the curse, hides

God behind a frowning providence which hinders man from discover-

ing life's meaning in this cursed world (3:11; 7:13-14; 8:16-17; 11:3-6).

Man's knowledge of what God does as he observes the world is frac-

tional and frustrated by the perplexing paradoxes. It is precisely this

fact, namely, that almighty God has hidden his full character behind

a disparate providence, that necessitates his special revelation.97


97 Shank ("Qoheleth's World and Life View," 68) astutely states, "We must main-

tain, contrary to the majority of critical and conservative commentators, that Qoheleth's

perception . . .refers to a knowledge which is a 'reflex-action' of his fear of God and

which penetrates to the essence of the meaning of what this world of vanity is all

about. . . .That perception also includes a deep, spiritual insight into the affects of the

curse of God upon life and labor 'under the sun.'"

CANEDAY: QOHELETH: PESSIMIST OR SAGE?                      53


The antithetical quality of Qoheleth must be understood within

this framework. The proposal of liberal critics that the oscillations of

thought and expression are to be attributed either to a dialogue

between two or more speakers or the result of glossators and redactors

must be rejected.98 Furthermore, the proposed solution of many

conservative scholars also must be laid aside. The suggestion that

Qoheleth s book is indicative of a man who wavers between secular

and religious perspectives, oscillating to and fro, filled with doubts

and perplexities, yet finally arising above them, has no true corre-

spondence to the nature of Qoheleth. Even the attempt to resolve

the paradoxical nature of the book by suggesting that the evils and

inequities, of which the Preacher complains, are only an "apparent

anomaly”99 must be disallowed.

The paradoxical expressions and antithetical observations of

God's disparate providence do not find their explanation from some

internal struggle in Qoheleth between faith and reason. Nor are they

resolved by postulating that they are the result of a dichotomy between

sacred and secular perspectives. Rather, Qoheleth reflects the real

world in its present state which is in conflict with the way it once was

and the way it will be again. It is the curse, causing the twisting and

incompleteness (1:15) of all things, that accounts for the dilemma

which confronts man. Qoheleth hides no evil nor does he seek to deny

it as merely apparent. He confronts the reality of evil and seeks to

bring his readers to do the same. Yet, on the other hand, Qoheleth

maintains an unwavering belief in the God who created and who will

judge all men. For after all is said and done, it is God who has

arranged the world as it is so that men will fear him (3:14).

Qoheleth does not shrink from acknowledging that it is God

who has made both the good times and the bad (7:14). Yet, he

never resorts to a fatalism which encourages either pious passivity or

Epicurean indulgence. He takes the pathway of wisdom. The fact that

God has inscrutably arranged this world under the perplexity and

frustration of the curse, caused Qoheleth to declare, "Therefore, a

man cannot discover anything about his future" (7:14b). Man is not

to busy himself with the inscrutable. He is not to become occupied

with trying to determine which course it is that is divinely chosen for


Qoheleth makes it clear that it is futile to seek to determine from

the course of providential events whether or not divine approval rests

upon one's amoral decisions, however great or small they may be.


98 Cf. Eaton, Ecclesiastes, 37-39.

99 See [Greene], "The Scope and Plan of Ecclesiastes," 424. This view is too

 much dominated by presuming that the final retribution cuts its line now with

vividness. See also ibid. 424-25. Cf. Kaiser, Ecclesiastes, 17.

54                    GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL


Searching divine providence to determine one's course of action is not

piety, but folly which leads to inactivity and failure. For "whoever

watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the clouds will not

reap" (11:4). The mystery of providence is unfathomable and in-

scrutable (11:5). "No one can comprehend what goes on under the

sun. Despite all his efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its

meaning. Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot really com-

prehend it" (8:17). Trying to discern providence will drive one mad,

for it presumes that God's providence bears a direct and invariable

correspondence to the events among men. Such misguided efforts

cause men to turn upon God in bitterness or berate themselves when

evil days befall them, thinking that suffering is always caused by par-

ticular sins.

Qoheleth counsels against "providence reading, "for those who

follow such a course fail to succeed at anything (11:4). Instead, since

no man can know which endeavors will prove fruitful, the proper

approach to life is to give oneself to the responsibilities at hand with

freedom and diligence, and to await the course of events to determine

one's success (11:6). All the days a man is given ought to be enjoyed

(11:8), for "it is now that God favors what you do" (9:7b). Life is a

divine gift to be enjoyed to its maximum as long as there is breath in

the nostrils, for "even a live dog is better off than a dead lion" (9:4).

Life is an endowment to be presently celebrated in the presence of the

Creator (12:1). The enjoyment of life is to be the dominant motif of

one's existence upon this earth, not the mercenary fixation of a miserly

workman who hoards his earnings to satisfy his soul when he retires

from his labors. The days of trouble come too quickly and unpre-

dictably upon men eroding their pleasure and enjoyment (12:1-2).

This perspective upon life is not sensual; it is realistic. It is governed

by the fact that this world is cursed, and the ultimate curse is death

(9:1,3). Death is not something to be desired as a release from the

prison of the body (as in Neoplatonism), for it wrenches man away

from the environment in which he was designed to dwell (cf. Ps 115:16-

17). Death is no friend but an enemy which violently tears a man

apart, severing the spirit from the body (12:7). This is the perspective

that the whole Bible takes upon death (cf. Isa 38:10-20; 2 Cor 5:1-5).

For Qoheleth, then, two opposing realities serve to motivate his

expressions in 9:5-10: (1) the curse of death comes to every man, and

(2) the gift of life is man's to be enjoyed to its fullest "all the days of

this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun" (9:9). His

whole description of the dead in 9:5-6 is defined carefully by him—

"never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the

sun " (9:6b). His interest is not to describe theologically the state of

the dead (as Jehovah's Witnesses might contend), but he portrays the

CANEDAY: QOHELETH: PESSIMIST OR SAGE?                      55


dead in relation to this world; they have nothing more to do with

it. It is for this reason that Qoheleth so often reiterates his celebration

of life:


Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful

heart, for it is now that God favors what you do. Always be clothed in

white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife,

whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given

you under the sun--all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in

life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. Whatever your hand

finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are

going, there is neither working nor planting nor knowledge nor wis-

dom [9:7-10].




Qoheleth was no enigmatic pessimist. He was not a man who

recorded the battle of tormenting and conflicting thoughts that raged

inside his own mind as he oscillated between orthodox piety and

indulgent secularism. Qoheleth was a godly sage. He was a righteous

man regulated by his knowledge of and devout fear of the God of

Israel. It is precisely because he was a God-fearing man that Qoheleth

was capable of giving expression to such paradoxical and anomalous

matters without denying the presence of evil in this world or without

destroying his belief in God. Qoheleth records a godly man's reflec-

tions upon a cursed world subjected by God to vanity and frustration.

It is the character of such a world which accounts for the polarized

expression) and paradoxical observations in his book. It is precisely

what one scholar dogmatically denied: "That the author of Ecclesiastes

intended that the contrarities of his book should . . .reflect and image

forth the chequered web of man's earthly condition, hopes alternating

with fears, joys succeeded by sorrows, life contrasting with death."100

What Paul asserts in a few words in Rom 8:19-21, Qoheleth

investigates at length. Where Paul spoke generally, the Preacher

descended to uncover the particulars. Though Paul had the privilege

of knowing that Christ will restore all things and even now, in

principle, has begun to do so (cf. 1 Cor 15:54-57), both he and

Qoheleth share one biblical assessment of the character of this world

and of life in it since the fall. It is cursed! It is disjointed! It is upside

down! It is in bondage to decay! It. is meaningless! It needs to be


What Qoheleth saw obscurely in the coming day of final retribu-

tion, the apostle Paul makes clear: "creation itself will be liberated


100 Tyler, Ecclesiastes, 54.

56                                GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL


from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of

the children of God" (Rom 8:21). It is for the final redemption of

God's people that creation awaits, for then will it be set free from

what is now twisted and lacking (Qoh 1:15).


This material is cited with gracious permission from:

            Grace Theological Seminary

            200 Seminary Dr.

            Winona Lake,  IN   46590   


Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: