Christian Scholars Review 17 (1987) 52-66

           Copyright © 1987 by Christian Scholar’s Review; cited with permission.


Qoheleth and the Problem

of Alienation


By N. Karl Haden


52    Paul Tillich begins "Part One: The Human Predicament" of The Eternal Now

with these words:


[Aloneness] is more true of man than of any other creature. He is not only alone; he also

knows that he is alone. Aware of what he is, he asks the question of his aloneness. He asks

why he is alone, and how he can triumph over his being alone. For this aloneness he

cannot endure. Neither can he escape it. It is his destiny to be alone and to be aware of it. 

Not even God can take this destiny away from him. ...This is the greatness and this is

the burden of man.1


As man questions his existence2 he appears only as a momentary and flickering

flame in a remote corner of the universe--a flame that wishes to ignite the

cosmos, but is all too quickly snuffed out. And no one seems to care--the

universe is impersonal and indifferent; the gods or God, if they exist, have

abandoned man as an unwanted child. Thus, the existence of humankind seems

transitory and purposeless. Rational man's struggle with aloneness is manifest

all the way from his microcosmic need for individual significance to his mac-

rocosmic aspirations projecting man as the measure of all things.

Within the wisdom movement of ancient Israel Qoheleth, the most radical

of the wisdom writers, wrestles with the problem of man's aloneness and man's

search to attain meaningful existence. Qoheleth confronts this problem both

with philosophical dexterity, and, of particular importance, with his own feel-

ings of estrangement. This sage of yesterday has much to say to modem man

regarding the experience which has become known as "alienation."3




The word "alienation" conveys the dilemma of a modern experience, yet

the term is muddled by its various connotations. In its multi-dimensional im-


Alienation as a characterization of human existence is generally thought of in connection

with modern society, and modern thought from Feuerbach and Marx to existentialism.

N. Karl Haden finds the essential characteristics of alienation in the ancient Hebrew sage

Qoheleth, and discovers in his writings a perspective which is both sustaining and chal-

lenging to contemporary believers. Mr. Haden is pursuing a doctorate in philosophy at the

University of Georgia.

Qoheleth and the Problem of Alienation                                               53


plications, alienation concerns both the individual and humanity; the nuances of

the term are thus philosophical, psychological, political, economic, sociological,

religious and ethical. Because of these various connotations, the first task at

hand is to arrive at a satisfactory understanding of "alienation" as the term will

be used within the study.

G. W. F. Hegel was the first to use Entfremdung (alienation) in a technical

and philosophical sense. Hegel, Ludwig Feurbach, and Karl Marx are the three

thinkers whose interpretations of alienation provide the basis for modem dis-

cussion.4 Alienation has also become a major concern of another school of

thinkers, the existentialists. F. H. Heinemann, the continental philosopher who

coined the term Existenzphilosophie in 1929, explains that the existentialists wish

to make man aware of the fact and problem of alienation; their aim is to liberate

him from estrangement.5 In recent scholarship various themes of existentialism

have been assigned to Qoheleth: rebellion against a solely rational approach to

problems of existence, an emphasis on the individual and the individual's expe-

rience, and a lack of meaning in human existence.6 The purpose of this study is

to consider Qoheleth's struggle with alienation and to discern his conclusions

about life within the framework of his world view.


Toward An Understanding of Alienation


When man questions the significance of life he begins on the basis of his

own existence; as he works his way into the macrocosm he can find only an

indifferent and impersonal universe. But this estrangement from nature is only

the beginning of the problem. Alienation is connected with human society, for


1Paul Tillich, The Eternal Now (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1963), pp. 15, 17.

2"existence," i.e., man's state of being.

3As far as I know, very little has been written on the theme of alienation in Qoheleth. One of the best

essays I have encountered which treats this theme to some extent is James Williams, "The Wisdom of

Koheleth (What Does It Profit a Man?)" in Studies in Ancient Israelite Wisdom, selected, with a Pro-

legomenon, by James L. Crenshaw (New York: Ktav Publishing House, Inc., 1976), pp. 375-389.

4This paper is not intended to be an analysis of the historical development of the term "alienation." For

those interested in the ideology surrounding "alienation," particularly in relation to Hegel, Feurbach,

and Marx, see the following: "Alienation" in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York: Macmillan

Publishing Company 1972), pp. 76 77; George A. Kendall, "Alienation and the Struggle for Existence:

Biblical and Ideological Views in Contrast," Thomist 47 (1983): 66-76; Lutz Musner, "Ein Versuch Die

Hegelkritik in Marxel1s Fruhschriften Als Entstehung Eines Sozialwissenschaftlichen Forschungsprogrammes

zu Deuten" Conceptus 15 (1981): 193-206; Mark C. Taylor, Journeys to Selfhood: Hegel and Kierkegaard

(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980): John Torrance, Estrangement, Alienation, and Exploitation:

 A Sociological Approach to Historical Materialism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977).

5Fredrick Heinemam, Existentialism and the Modern Predicament (New York: Harper and Row, 1958), p. 9.

6Some recent works dealing with existentialism, or existentialists, and Qoheleth are: Kenneth James,

"Ecclesiastes: Precursor of Existentialists," The Bible Today 22 (1984): 85-90; Francis W. Nichols,

"Samuel Beckett and Ecclesiastes on the Borders of Belief," Encounter 45.1 (1984): 11-22; C- B.

Peter, "In Defense of Existence: A Comparison Between Ecclesiastes and Albert Camus," Bangalore

 TheologicalForum 12 (1980): 26-13. Robert Gordis gives a very perceptive comparison between

modern existentialism and Qoheleth in "Koheleth and Modem Existentialism," Koheleth-The Man and

His World, A Study of Ecclesiastes (New York: Schocken, 1968).

Christian Scholar's Review                                                                                 54


with the movement of the masses to the swelling urban centers of the world,

man's estrangement from the natural realm becomes more acute. Since the

Industrial Revolution man has spent an increasing amount of time working with

machines. The estrangement brought on by technology has only intensified with

the modern computer age as individuals spend less time in reflecting and relat-

ing to other individuals, choosing instead a kinship with automata.

The depersonalization of man in society leads toward the apogee of aliena-

tion: self-alienation. William Barrett describes this condition as resulting from a

society that only requires man to perform his particular social function, identify-

ing the individual with the function and neglecting the other vital components

of humanness.7 Self-alienation characterizes the cleavage which separates the

individual as a dispensible component of the marketplace from the individual as

a human being with deep personal needs.

Heinemann offers an excellent definition of alienation which coincides with

our present concern:

The facts to which the term 'alienation' refers are, objectively, different kinds of dissocia-

tion, break or rupture between human beings and their objects, whether the latter be other

persons, or the natural world, or their own creations in art, science, and society; subjec-

tively, the corresponding states of disequilibrium, disturbance, strangeness and anxiety.8

Morton A. Kaplan conveys the same understanding in a different manner: alien-

ation occurs as the individual perceives that his status, his identifications, his

relationships, his style of life, and his work are not meaningfully correlated.9

Thus, alienation in our study is the individual's detachment from the universe at

large, from society, and from one's own self.10

There have been various solutions proposed to remedy man's alienation.

One school, believing that external changes have no effect, contends that indi-

vidual effort can enable mankind to overcome alienation. Psychoanalytical treat-

ment is seen as a viable means to the inward reform of the estranged person. A

second school, basing its solutions on the economic determinism of Marxism,

contends that the individual is the passive product of social organization and

that social organization is the product of economic organization, which in many

societies is determined by private property. Thus, the cure is thought to consist

in social transformation through the abolition of private property.11

In contrast to those who maintain that alienation has a certain remedy, many

existentialists have argued that the condition is permanent, that man cannot rid


7William Barrett, Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy (Garden City, New York: Doubleday

Anchor Books, 1962), p. 36.

8Heinemann, Existentialism, p. 9.

9Morton A. Kaplan, Alienation and Identification (New York: The Free Press, 1976), p. 119.

10The reader should note that here I am concerned primarily with the modem experience of alienation

as opposed to a "biblical alienation" due, for example, to man's depravity. A link between the modern

experience and the theological explanation will be discussed later in the paper.

11The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. "Alienation," by G. Petrovic (New York: Macmillan Publishing

Company, 1972), p. 80. The reader may also want to note G.A. Kendall's article, "Alienation and the,

Struggle for Existence." Kendall argues that the ideological understanding of alienation is destructive

and negates existence, p. 76.

Qoheleth and the Problem of Alienation                                                           55


himself by any means of this inherent quality. Man is necessarily self-alienated; it

is illusive to believe that he is capable of finding consistent personal meaning in an  As a "precursor of existentialists" Qoheleth's conclusion on

this matter is of particular interest.

Because man is alienated, life's occurrences often seem paradoxical. Para-

dox results from the projection of human insights, interpretations, values, and

actions into the universe. Existence becomes absurd. C. B. Peter explains:

Absurdity is the failure of the world to satisfy the human demand. There is a paradox and

contradiction between man's longing for clarity and the failure of logic to provide it, his

longing for eternal joy and his experience of agony, his longing for immortality and his

ending in death.13

Perhaps the greatest paradox is the concept of God. Good health and fortune

attest to the absolute goodness of God; evil and suffering call God's goodness

into question. Traditional theism, embodied in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam,

seems unable to reconcile its concept of God with the experience of man: if God

is immutable, how can he relate to individuals who constantly change? Why

should he even want to relate to man? If he is omnipotent and loving, why is

there pain and suffering? If he is omnipresent, why does he so often appear to

be deaf to the voices of his children?  Perhaps traditional theism has a fallacious

view of God, shackled by the proclivities of man; or perhaps traditional theism,

once divorced from dogmatic systematization, is right after all in its concept of

God, but man simply refuses to accept the consequences of this view.


Alienation in Qoheleth

I will now turn to consider Qoheleth in view of my premise that he grapples

for meaning which has been lost through alienation. Although the historical

context is different, the problems causing alienation as faced by Qoheleth are

universally human and timeless.

When Qoheleth considers the universe in which man finds himself, he

concludes that in the natural cycles of this world man has no significance. The

wind blows in the patterns it has always followed; the rivers flow to the sea, but

the sea is never full; "a generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth

remains forever" (1:4). Thus in the passing from generation to generation, man

is an isolated and minute fragment, quite dispensable to nature. Qoheleth con-

cludes that "all things are wearisome; man is not able to tell it" (1:8a). I suggest

that the dillema Qoheleth recognizes here, man's alienation from nature, is

because man can find no reference point in nature to give his life meaning. 

          Qoheleth experiences first hand the utter bankruptcy of the attempt to

understand life rationally: ". . . in much wisdom is much grief, and increasing

knowledge results in increasing pain" (1:18).14 If man could only discern the


12Ibid., p. 79.

13C.B. Peter, "In Defense of Existence," p. 37.

14The reference to man's reason has peculiar implications within the wisdom tradition. These implica-

tions, which concern practical wisdom for the ordering of life, will be noted later.

Christian Scholar's Review                                                                     56


work of God, his divine plans and thoughts, then life could be patterned mean-

ingfully in accordance with God's ordained purpose. But God's work escapes

rational scrutiny:

When I gave my heart to know wisdom and to see the task which has been done on the

earth (even though one should never sleep day or night), and I saw every work of God, I

concluded that man cannot discover the work which has been done under the sun. Even

though man should seek laboriously he will not discover; and though the wise man should

say, 'I know,' he cannot discover (8:16, 17; cf. also 3:11; 6:10-12; 11:5).

Not knowing the plans of God leaves all men subject to fate and the "chanci-

ness" of existence (cf. 9:12).

The most severe confrontation with fate and chance comes in the form of

death. Death becomes the ultimate boundary situation in which one's desires

and choices conclusively elude him. Working within the mindset of Old Testa-

ment Judaism, Qoheleth asks if the end of human beings is any different than

the end of the beast. His conclusion: we cannot know (cf. 3:18-21). Qoheleth

maintains, ". ..this also is a grievous evil-exactly as a man is born, thus will

he die" (5:16a). He concludes that there is "no advantage to him who toils after

the wind" (5:16b). Poignantly, man is better off never to have been born (cf. 4:3;

6:3). The same fate awaits both the wise and the foolish: death is the great

equalizer (cf. 12:14-19; 3:2).15

Just as modem experience is filled with paradox, so Qoheleth observes

paradox in his context. Prosperity was not guaranteed by right living; many

wicked were found to be prosperous while the righteous were in poverty (cf.

7:15). Even the most likely to succeed are rendered unsuccessful by time and


...the race is not to the swift, and the battle is not to the warriors, and neither is bread to

the wise, nor wealth to the discerning, nor favor to men of ability; for time and chance

overtake them all (9:11).

Qoheleth observes that folly is set in many high places while rich men are in

humble places. He has seen slaves riding horses as if they were princes, and

princes walking as if they were slaves (cf. 10:5-7). In summation, life is not

always governed by the dictates of logic; rather, life is paradoxical.



Perhaps the greatest and most significant affinity between the modern di-

lemma of alienation and Qoheleth's experience is to be found in the word

"vanity" (hebel). The term is used no less than 37 times, and it conveys to the


15Walther Zimmerli notes that one of the major concerns of the wisdom tradition was the

avoidance of premature death via proper conduct. At one point Qoheleth seems to favor this

project (cf. 7:15, 17). But as Zimmerli argues, the admonition of 7:15, 17 "does not comprise

Qoheleth's completely radical consideration of death." In 2:15, 16 Qoheleth maintains that the

same fate awaits both the foolish and, the wise. Zimmerli suggests that the older sages are

concerned only with the "when" of death and" willfully ignore the "what." Contrary to the

tradition, Qoheleth focuses on the inevitability (the "what") of death. See Walther Zimmerli,

"Concerning the Structure of Old Testament Wisdom, in

Studies in Ancient Israelite Wisdom, pp. 191-193.


Qoheleth and the Problem of Alienation                             57

reader the feeling of meaninglessness, or—to use the modem term-absurdity.

The introduction, " 'vanity of vanities,' says Qoheleth, 'vanity of vanities! All is

vanity'" (1:2), which is repeated in the conclusion (12:8), provides the overall

inclusion of the work.16 James Williams notes that Qoheleth's constant use of

hebel is a rhetorical feature: Qoheleth questions the profit (yitron) of this life,

which evokes the response that there is no profit, and he concludes with "all is

hebel."17 George Castellino makes a similar suggestion about the literary pro-

cedure in Qoheleth:

...generally a theoretical statement in the form of a thesis about some offered the

reader, then the statement is validated or illustrated through expenence (at times in terms

of a proverb or a saying), and finally, a judgment is passed on the 'non-value,' 'vanity,' of

the experience in question.18

In the recent literary approach to Qoheleth, hebel, as a Leitmotiv, has played a

fundamental part in the analysis of the book.19

The basic definition of hebel is "wind" or "breath." Figuratively, hebel con-

veys the connotation of being unsubstantial and worthless, making the thing in

question unprofitable. Vanity parallels the conclusions evoked by alienation:

first, there is an inability to find fulfillment in toil, and thus man experiences the

failure to exercise freedom in relation to his own possessions (cf. 2:11, 19, 21, 23;

4:4, 8; 6:2); secondly, the relationship between sin and judgment, and right-

eousness and blessing is absent, and such anomalies of life are vanity; thirdly,

the brevity of life is vanity.20 C. B. Peter states that vanity includes four aspects

of existence: first, the changeless monotony which characterizes the affairs of

men and the course of nature; secondly, there is no profit or advantage (yitron)

in wisdom (cf. 116-18), pleasure (cf. 2:1-10), nor in toil (cf. 2:18-23); thirdly,

death ends all (cf 3:19-21; 9:2); and fourthly, God remains mysterious, and thus

man cannot understand the universe rationally (cf. 3:11; 8:17-9:1).21

The contrast between hebel and yitron is significant for the two concepts

represent an antithesis. K. Seybold suggests that hebel serves an evaluative pur-

pose with a "critico-polemic" intention. Qoheleth's observation that all human


16That 1:2 and 12:8 provide the overall inclusion is a generally accepted view. Addison Wright, "The

Riddle of the Sphinx: The Structure of the Book of Qoheleth," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 30

(1968): 314-320, considers the larger context of 1:2-11 and 11:7-12:8 to be poems which stand outside

of the main structure of the book. Wright gives a helpful survey of other views on the structure of

Qoheleth, including the new literary methods, and then makes his own analysis (see n. 19 below), p. 333.

17James Williams, "The Wisdom of Koheleth" p. 375. Williams notes that Walther Zimmerli suggested

this rhetorical feature in Die Weisheit des Predigers Salomo (Berlin, 1936), p. 24.

18George R. Castellino, "Qohelet and His Wisdom," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 30 (1968): 18f.

19For recent discussions on the structure of Qoheleth, especially to his use of hebel, see Castellino, J.A.

Loader, Polar Structures in the Book of Quohelet, BZAW 152 (Berlin: Walter de Gryuter, 1979), and

Addison G. Wright's three related articles: "The Riddle of the Sphinx: The Structure of the Book of

Qoheleth," The Cathollic Biblical Quarterly 30 (1968): 314-320; 'The Riddle of the Sphinx Revisited:

Numerical Patterns in the Book of Qoheleth," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 42 (1980): 38-51;

"Additional Numerical Patterns in Qoheleth," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 45 (1983): 32-43.

20Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, edited by Laird R. Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr.,

and Bruce K. Walkte, s. v. "hebel," by Victor P. Hamilton (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), p. 205.

21Peter, "In Defense of Existence," pp. 29-31.

Christian Scholar's Review                                                                     58


activity is vanity stands in opposition to the wisdom tradition's quest for yitron

in life.22 Seybold concludes:

...thus hebhel serves as 'destructive judgement,' a devaluation of the system of norms

established by traditional wisdom, a polemic against its sensible value regulations, a

defamation of the wisdom ideal of life.23

I maintain that Qoheleth's observations and experiences are testimonies to

what has become known as alienation. He is unable to find significance in

nature, in his achievements, with reason, or even in seeking out the plans of

God. But the study is yet incomplete, for Qoheleth's response must be exam-

ined. In order to comprehend his response properly, we must establish his

context as a sage and ascertain the roots of alienation for Qoheleth. Perhaps the

crux of alienation for Qoheleth is estrangement from God.24


The Goal of the Wisdom Tradition

James Crenshaw argues that, in his view, the "fundamental link" between

the quest of Israel's sages and modem man is the search for divine presence.25  I

suggest that failure in this enterprise is the major contributor to the dilemma of

alienation. The primary difference between Qoheleth and the other sages is

Qoheleth's recognition of how romantic and fanciful the venture to insure God's,

favor, and thereby guarantee the good life, had become. To arrive at Qoheleth's

concept of God -his conclusion on the divine presence--we will establish first

the goal or purpose of the tradition; then we will probe Qoheleth's conclusions

in contrast to the tradition.

Walther Zimmerli proposes that the basic question of the wise may be

expressed as: "'How do I as man secure my existence?'"26 The school of

wisdom represented in Proverbs held the belief that a divine moral order exist-

ed, an order which rewarded the wise and the good and punished the foolish

and the wicked (cf. Prov 3:3: 10:3; 14:11; 22:4).27 The same presupposition is

apparent in the book of Job. Although it was championed by Job's friends, Job

himself severely questioned the doctrine of retribution. Job was a righteous

man, yet he suffered excruciating physical pain and untold emotional distress.


22 Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament," edited by G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren,

vol. 3: gillulim-haras, trans. by John T. Willis and Geoffery W. Bromiley, s. v. "hebhel," by K. Seybold

 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), p. 319. Williams draws a similar conclusion: for Qoheleth there is no

profit (yitron) in this life, but there is a portion (heleq). Experiencing this portion brings joy to life. See

pp. 384-389.

23 Ibid., p. 320.

24 In "The Riddle of the Sphinx," Wright concludes that the idea of the impossibility of discovering

God's work is the theme of the book, and it is built on the vanity motif, p. 266.

25 James L. Crenshaw, "In Search of Divine Presence," Review and Expositor 74 (1977): 366.

26Zimmerli, "Concerning the Structure of Old Testament Wisdom," p. 190.

27 R. B. Y. Scott, The Way of Wisdom in the Old Testament (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company,

1971), p. 10.

Qoheleth and the Problem of Alienation                                                           59


Crenshaw maintains that the three friends had a rational and predictable deity;

one who was enslaved by a greater principle-justice.28

What then is the basis for this trust in an order that insures retribution? Von

Rad explains that the basis of trust may be seen not in terms of trusting in God,

...but to something apparently quite different, namely the reality and the evidence of

the order which controls the whole of life, much as this appears in the act-consequence

relationship....In it however, Yahweh himself was at work in so far as he defended

goodness and resisted evil.29

How does this affect the concept of God? Von Rad continues:

If this experiential reality could only be approached, from the point of view of acquiring

knowledge of it, from the direction of knowledge of God, then knowledge of the world

could, in turn, also consolidate knowledge of God. The statement that the fear of God is

the beginning of wisdom could even be turned around, to the effect that knowledge and

experience lead to the fear of God.30

For the sages the discovery of this fundamental order meant the ability to coordi-

nate life in the most advantageous manner. What then is the goal of the wisdom

tradition? Crenshaw states this goal in one word-life.31 The sages sought to

master life in order to attain the best that life could offer: health, honour, longev-

ity, prosperity--all leading to a sense of security. This sense of security is anti-

thetical to alienation; this desire to master life, which can be achieved only at the

expense of enslaving the deity to a greater principle, causes Qoheleth to become

a revolutionary within the wisdom movement. Experience does not affirm any

such law of the universe; in fact, life often seems subject to the arbitrariness of


Are there parallels to the experience of modern man as he desires to master

life? The passion for affluence and personal security characterizes contemporary

Western society. It is apparent all the way from the beer commercial panning the

"yuppies" in a bar and espousing the philosophy that "you are in charge"--

conveying to the viewer or listener the message of autonomous bliss--to the

trend of many religious organizations, pray "this way. .." and God will grant

your requests. Presumably, God does not want his people to suffer--or be poor

(thus, enslaving God to formulas designed to meet the whims of man). Man

longs to be more than man, but existentially he is unable to shed his bonds of

mortality. In his failure to escape his own finitude, modem man, like the sage of

old, experiences alienation.


‘Olam in Man's Heart

For Qoheleth the venture for the mastery of life failed because of a false

premise about God. That God exists and rules the world is a major assumption


28Crenshaw, "In Search of Divine Presence," p. 360.

29Gerhard von Rad, Wisdom in Israel (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1972), pp. 191, 192.

30Ibid., p. 194.

31James L. Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom, An Introduction (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981), p. 62.

Christian Scholar's Review                                                                                 60   


of Qoheleth, as with the older teachers; but Qoheleth introduces a new dilem-

ma: the activity of the divine is beyond man's comprehension, and therefore

man cannot adapt himself to any fundamental order ordained by God. Should

man despair? Is there absolute alienation from God? In response to these ques-

tions our first concern will be Qoheleth's theology, which is unorthodox in

comparison with the tradition, and secondly his theological conclusions and

their practical applications.

Recent scholarship has been quick to point out agnosticism, skepticism,

nihilism and various other negative themes within the book of Qoheleth.

Crenshaw has described Qoheleth's God as "stingy," and as one who concealed

all important knowledge that would enable the sages to act in accordance with

his plan and timing.32 Von Rad states that for Qoheleth man cannot discern

what has been decreed by God in any given set of circumstances. The dilemma is

not the adversities of life but rather the insurmountable barrier blocking man's

attainment of knowledge.33 Scott considers the philosophy of Qoheleth agnostic

and fatalistic.34 Thus, some conclude that Qoheleth conceives of God as a re-

mote and indifferent being; God is omnipotent to be sure, but He is also arbi-

trary. Man is left without recourse with such a God; man can only submit (cf.

6:10, 7:14).

Much of the scholarship deducing Qoheleth as a philosopher chasing after

meaning in life, and not finding significant meaning, can be traced to the ex-

egesis of 3:11:


He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also set ‘olam in their heart, yet so

that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end.


Chapter 3, verse 11 proves to be the most pivotal and perhaps the most debated

verse in the book of Qoheleth. ‘Olam has various renderings: forever, ever,

everlasting, evermore, perpetual, old, ancient, world. The Septuagint translates

the word as aion. Allan Macrae suggests that ‘olam is derived from ‘alam,

meaning "to hide" and pointing to the distant future or to the distant past.35

Scott translates ‘olam in 3:11 as "an enigma," thereby signifying the root

meaning as "that which is hidden."36 Gordis proposes that "love of the world" is Qoheleth's

intention in using the term.37 Within the context of Chapter 3, there is nearly

unanimous agreement that the contrast is between fixed time (‘et) and ‘olam. In

3:1 Qoheleth states: "There is an appointed time (‘et) for everything. And there is

a time (‘et) for every event under heaven." He then delineates such appointed


32Crenshaw, "In Search of Divine Presence," p. 36.

33von Rad, Wisdom in Israel, p. 230.

34Scott, The Way of Wisdom, p. 170.

35Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, s. v. "'olam," by Allan A. Macrae, pp. 672-673.

36R.B.Y. Scott, The Anchor Bible: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, edited by William Foxwell Albright and David

Noel Freeman (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1965), p. 221.

37Gordis, Koheleth, pp. 231, 232.

Qoheleth and the Problem of Alienation                                               61


times (again, ‘et) in verses 2-8. God has ordained a proper time (‘et) for every-

thing, but as Roland Murphy comments,


God runs things off at his own time, and man is not geared to this scheme because of the

timeless <’olam> in his heart. Hence, he cannot discover 'the work God has done'--a

limitation that earlier sages failed to appreciate.38


I agree with James Williams, that however the word is translated, the im-

plication is that ‘olam lies at the center of existence. ‘Olam is the component

which makes the human species distinctive; ‘olam provides a link with God, yet

God's work remains mysterious.39 Williams suggests that ‘olam is the reason

for the "unhealable alienation of man from his world."40 It is at least the source of

man's deepest yearning for meaning.

Williams contrasts two recent responses to the function of ‘olam as the

primary cause of alienation.41 The position credited to H. Gese is that alienation

is overcome in the world-context through the fear of God; thus, alienation is

replaced by openness to the world as man thankfully receives the good times in

life as a gift from God. The individual will accept the bad times in accord with

God's purposes, and he will recognize "that it is only his inability to understand

the ‘olam that brings him to his existential impasse."42 Williams disagrees with

this position, and he deduces a contrary view from H.H. Schmid: the gifts of

God are arbitrary; fear of God and accepting his gifts in life do not provide a

sufficient explanation to man's estrangement.43

Williams identifies ‘olam as the antithesis of hebel (vanity), and he

also con-tends that ‘olam is the basic cause of human striving. He argues:


God puts the ‘olam in men's hearts, he wills that they fear him-and they could not fear

him if they were unaware of the ‘olam, which is the 'divine' dimension. Yet justice and

righteousness cannot be observed in the world, and oppression cannot be rectified by final

judgement or a release of the spirit to a heavenly reaIm.44


In accord with the position he attributes to Schmid, Williams maintains that

Qoheleth's fear of God is due to his discontent over the hebel of life, and his

yearning for knowledge of the ‘olam which would make the course of life appar-


38Roland E. Murphy, "Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth)," in Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Raymond E.

.Brown, S.S., Joesph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., and Roland E. Murphy, O. Carm., (Englewood Cliffs, New

Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968), p. 536.

39Williams, "The Wisdom of Koheleth," p. 378.

40Ibid., pp. 378-379.

41H. Gese, "Die Krise der Weisheit bei Koheleth," in Les Sagesses des Proche-Orient Ancien (Paris, 1963);

and H.H. Schmid, Wesen und Geschichte der Weisheit, BZAW 101, G. Fohrer, ed. (Berlin, 1966).

42Williams, "The Wisdom of Koheleth," p. 377.

43Ibid., pp. 378, 380. H. L. Ginsberg suggests the same: "For Koheleth regards God as the absolute and

arbitrary [his emphasis] master of destiny." Human merit does not matter, for God's actions toward

man are unpredictable. See H. L. Ginsberg, "The Structure and Contents of the Book of Koheleth,"

Vetus Testamentum Supplement 3 (1955): 147. As will soon be apparent, I do not think that the emphasis

falls on the arbitrariness of God, but rather on man's interpretation of God and His actions.

44Ibid., p. 380.

Christian Scholar's Review                                                                     62


ent to him and allow true wisdom. Williams concedes that the wise and the

foolish are "in the same boat."45 In what follows, I tend to side with the oppos-

ing conclusion, that is, Qoheleth's response to God in fear and submission is a

life-affirming alternative to estrangement.

I believe that Francis Nichols' explanation provides insight into man's di-

lemma over 'olam, God, and alienation: in 3:11 Qoheleth is struggling with life's

significance in the historical or world context. Empirically, man cannot verify

God's control over history, yet faith says that God is directing man's drama. In

spite of the conclusion of experience -vanity of vanities- man continues to

strive.46 Although man seemingly has no reference point for meaning in his

experience of nature, society, or within himself, he yearns for significance.

Why? As Kenneth James explains, there is a level of meaning known only to

God, but God has placed an element of this meaning, ‘olam, in man's heart. This

component within man's being draws him to profound contact with life.47


Qoheleth's Concept of God

Israel's God was Yahweh, the God who spoke at Sinai, and the God to

which Israel was bound in the covenant relationship. The older sages based

their wisdom on the experience of Yahweh, but Qoheleth chooses the more

common name "Elohim" to relate his theistic perspective. Within the Old Testa-

ment, Elohim signifies God as: creator (cf. Isa 45:18; Jonah 1:9); savior (cf. Gen

17:8; Exod 3:6; Isa 45:21); the sovereign (cf. Ps 57:2; Isa 54:5; Jer 32:27); the

God of heaven (cf. Gen 24:7); and the supreme God above all gods (cf. Deut 10:17; Ps

136:2). Often the name "Yahweh" occurs in the same context with "Elohim,"

but such is not the case in Qoheleth.48

There can be no doubt that Qoheleth was familiar with the various concepts

surrounding the name "Elohim"; I suggest that Qoheleth adopts the less per-

sonal name to convey his thinking more precisely. Helmer Ringgren points out

that "Elohim" is often used instead of "Yahweh" with the intent of exalting

Yahweh as God absolutely-the transcendent God.49 Along with transcendence

comes a measure of abstractness; God as Elohim transcends the rationality of

humankind. As a Hebrew, and thus a monotheist, Qoheleth knows Yahweh to

be the one true God, but perhaps Qoheleth's experience fails to affirm the

45Ibid. Despite this conclusion, Williams deduces a positive message from Qoheleth, see n. 22.

46Nichols, "Samuel Beckett and Ecclesiastes," p. 16. .

47Kenneth W. James, "Ecclesiastes: Precursor of Existentialists," p. 89. By now the question has possi-

bly arisen: is ‘olam the imago dei? Perhaps, for there seem to be parallels. But to assert ‘olam as the imago

dei seems unwise in the face of the ambiguity surrounding ‘olam and its use in 3:11.

48My purposes within the confines of this paper do not entail an examination of source criticism

regarding Old Testament names of God. If the reader is interested in source criticism, Ringgren offers a

good starting point in vol. 1 of the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, s. v. "'elohim." Also see

James L. Crenshaw, "Qoheleth in Current Research," Hebrew Annual Review 7 (1983): 44, for a recent

bibliography on the question: "Was Qoheleth the guardian of authentic Yahwism or did he circle

around biblical faith, remaining on the outermost fringes?"

49Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, s. v. "'elohim" by Helmer Riggren, p. 284.

Qoheleth and the Problem of Alienation                                               63


intimate personal involvement claimed by Israel in the prior centuries. For     

Qoheleth, Elohim is God, but Elohim is girded with mystery.

Compared to other Old Testament writings, the motif of God's hiddenness

is intensified by Qoheleth; some have even referred to it as skepticism.50

Qoheleth recognizes that discerning God's activity in life cannot be accom-

plished through the normal process of the wisdom tradition, that is, by means of

observation; thus, the failure to obtain satisfying answers is not because God is

increasingly inaccessable, but because man's methods are suspect. Qoheleth

concludes that the sage, by reason and wisdom, cannot discover the work of

God, no matter how diligent he may be (cf. 8:16, 17). Furthermore, man cannot

discover the activity of God "who makes all things" (11:5). And experientially

man does not know his future or what awaits him (cf. 9:1). Perhaps Qoheleth is

focusing attention on what John Hick has called "epistemic distance," that is,

man exists in a world in which God is not "immediately and overwhelmingly"

apparent.51 The question yet to be answered is whether Qoheleth perceives man

as ultimately and totally alienated from God.

Crenshaw points out a major consideration at this point:


The careful reader will have noted that Qoheleth seems to know far more about God than

his theology of divine mystery allows. In truth, he frequently makes assertations about

God's will and activity despite the protestations about God's hiddenness.52


I suggest that apparent inconsistencies in Qoheleth' s concept of God are instead

components of a viable theocentric world view. God is concealed and conceals,

but this enigma is not absolute-God is not an unknown variable. Qoheleth

knows that his God is the Creator of the cosmos and sovereign over his creation:

Who can change God's work? (cf. 7:13); God is responsible for both prosperity

and adversity (cf. 7:14); wise men and their deeds are subject to God (cf. 9:1);

"everything that God does will remain forever" and is perfect (3:14). Man must

accept the element of mystery that separates him from God, but man cannot

discount what can be known about Elohim.

For Qoheleth God grows more personal as the sovereign Lord becomes the

judge of every man: "God will judge both the righteous man and the wicked

man, for a time for every matter and for every deed is there" (3:17; cf. 5:8; 9:1;

11:9; 12:14). As a Jew, Qoheleth had been taught from the rich tradition of the

Torah and the Prophets; judgment implies a standard. Final execution of justice


50 Cf. Samuel E. Balentine, The Hidden God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 167; Gordis,

Koheleth, pp. 128-132; R. H. Pfeiffer, "The Peculiar Scepticism of Ecclesiastes," Journal of Biblical Liter-

 ature 53 (1954): 100-,109; Klopfenstein, M. A., "Die Skepsis des Qohelet," Theologische Zeitschrift 28

(1972): 97-109; James L. Crenshaw, "The Birth of Skepticism in Ancient Israel," in The Divine Helmsman,

edited by James L. Crenshaw and S. Sandmel (New York, 1980), pp. 1-19. Balentine notes the follow-

ing differences between the "psalms of lament" and Qoheleth: first, in Qoheleth the issue is not so

much God's hiddenness, as in the psalms, but rather the hiddenness "of the interpretation of events";

and secondly, while in the psalms God bears the burden of responsibility, Qoheleth believes the

problem to be man's failure and thus man's responsibility, p. 169.

5l John Hick, Evil and the God of Love (Cleveland: Collins World, 1968), p. 373.

52Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom, p. 139.

Christian Scholar's Review                                                                                 64


is in the hand of God (cf. 9:1; 11:9); and perhaps, even for Qoheleth, the acts of

men will be measured against God's commandments (cf. 12:13).53 Man must

understand, however, that this standard cannot be used to manipulate God.

God can be known as sovereign creator and as judge, but the dominant

theme regarding the person of God is found in Qoheleth's continuous reference

to God as the source of joy. Qoheleth has identified alienation from nature, from

society, from human achievements, and to a degree, from God. But in the face of

this estrangement, he asserts that man should be happy! As the individual

approaches the common occurrences of daily life, he is to enjoy them. For

Qoheleth, God is the source of this enjoyment; he is the rewarder of man.

In the mundane toil of life, the very toil that can lead to alienation, man is to

enjoy his labor as a gift from God (cf. 2:24,25; 3:12). The good and fitting in life

 is to eat and drink and enjoy the few years of life, "for he will not often consider

the years of his life, because God keeps him occupied with the gladness of his

heart" (5:20, cf. also 8:15; 9:7). Von Rad notes that although God's dealings are

often shrouded with ambiguity, Qoheleth recognizes one sure "lot" in life di-

rected toward good. Von Rad adds, "Here for the first time, Qoheleth is aware

that he is in accord with a divine purpose; here he sees himself face to face with a

beneficient God. . ." (cf. 2:24; 9:7-9).54

In 2:26 Qoheleth notes that to the good person God has given wisdom,

knowledge and joy; thus, Qoheleth does not totally discount the value of

wisdom and knowledge, only the direction the pursuit for understanding had

taken (cf. 7:15-18; 10:10; 12:9-12). Qoheleth certainly recognizes the limits of

wisdom, but in seeing its merits, he is mindful that the source is God.55 There-

fore, God is the origin of experiential significance and of all theoretical under-

standing leading to meaningful existence.


53Today most scholars agree that the epilogue is the product of a redactor, perhaps one of Qoheleth's

students. In all three of Wright's articles (see n. 19), he argues that the main structure of the book is

independent of the epilogue. Cf. also Williams, "The Wisdom of Koheleth,” pp. 382, 389; Gerald T.

Sheppard, "The Epilogue to Qoheleth As Theological Commentary,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 39

(1977): 182-189; Gerald H. Wilson, "'The Words of the Wise': The Intent and Significance of Qohelet

12:9-14," Journal of Biblical Literature 103.2 (1984): 175-192. Michael V. Fox in "Frame-Narrative and

Composition in the Book of Qohelet,” Hebrew Union College Annual 48 (1977): 83-106 proposes that the

entire book is product of an epilogist. As a frame-narrative, the book takes on a whole new concept of

unity; the "frame-narrator" relates the story and teachings of Qoheleth the sage, p. 91. The epilogue is

a type of epic situation, i.e., it is didactic as in the father-son instruction, p. 99. Fox contends that the

epilogue reinforces Qoheleth's teachings: Qoheleth advises fear of God (5:6; 7:18), and he warns of

divine judgment (2:26; 3:17; 8:12b-13), "even though he sometimes denies its working." And although

Qoheleth does not mention explicitly obedience to God's commandments, "that requirement could be

inferred from 5:3-5:” p. 103. I admit, in accord with Fox, that the epilogue does admonish in a more

dogmatic fashion than the rest of the book; nevertheless, there is no reason to suppose the epilogue

contradicts Qoheleth's main teaching.

54 von Rad, Wisdom in Israel, p. 231.

55 In Koheleth Gordis states:"Koheleth, a son of Israel, reared on the words of the Torah, the Prophets,

and the Sages, could notdoubt the reality of God for an instant. For him, the existence of the world was

 tantamount to the existence of God....It was on the question of God's relation to men that Koheleth parted

company with the conventional teachers of his time. ...There was not a shred of proof that God wished

to reveal the true Hokmah, the secret of life, to men," p. 122.

Qoheleth and the Problem of Alienation                                                           65


The Divine Mandate                                                                                              

Time and time again Qoheleth identifies man's proper response to Elohim

as fear: the sovereign God has worked in his perfect ways so that men should

fear him (ct. 3:14); God is holy and exalted. When entering his house and

making vows, be respectful and serious-minded, not lighthearted (cf. 5:1-7).

Wisdom and righteousness are the results of fearing God (cf. 7:18). Even though

the wicked may seem to prosper and lengthen their days, still, Qoheleth main-

tains, it will be better for those who fear God-and fear God openly (cf. 8:12, 13).

The epilogue, which concurs with the main body of the book, admonishes the

reader to "fear God and keep his commandments, because this applies to every

person” (12:13).56

            What exactly is this divine imperative of fear? Is it an attitude of terror?

Commenting on the occurrence in 3:14, Murphy states,


Fear of God means walking under a heaven that is mysteriously closed, walking without

the assurance that lightning might not suddenly shoot out and strike you as you go-

every step relying upon the free gift of God, but with every step also summoned to suffer

the riddle and oppression that God can inflict.57


But for Qoheleth fear of God is much more than dread evoked by uncertainty.

Fear of God is willful submission to the Divine and to his plans. Such fear

implies a trust in God in spite of multiplied perplexities; it includes not only an

emotional state, but conduct that is pleasing to God. Thus, amid the vanity of

life there is a proper ethical code, there can be wisdom and knowledge, and

there can be significant existence. Fear of God is the disposition that combines

the components of mystery, vanity, and limited knowledge to result in mean-

ingful existence.



Common experience seems to invite skepticism, agnosticism, and even

Atheism.  Qoheleth recognizes the proneness toward doubt and abdication;

man's limitations are the innate qualities that pilot him toward alienation. The

self-appointed station as the measure of all things continually eludes man; thus,

he is destined to this insatiable desire for something more. Why? As Gordis



Man is a creature whose reach is always greater than his grasp, with a boundless imagina-

tion weaving hopes and desires far beyond the capacity of his brief earth-bound existence

to fulfill.58


56Sheppard, "The Epilogue to Qoheleth,"argues that the admonition "fear God and keep his com-

mandments" has no parallel in the body of Qoheleth, p.187. In view of 3:14; 5:7; 7:18; 8:12, in addition

 to n. 53 above, I find Sheppard's position implausible. In contrast, Wilson, "The Words of the Wise,"

suggests that the epilogist selected the phrase because it does reflect the content of Qoheleth, p. 178.

He states furthermore that there is "sufficient evidence" to support the thesis that the epilogue is

meant to link Qoheleth together with Proverbs. The epilogue could therefore serve as a "canonical

key to the interpretation or both,” pp. 179, 191, 192.

57Murphy, Jerome Biblical Commentary, p. 536.

58Gordis, Koheleth, pp. 130-131.

Christian Scholar's Review                                                                                 66


Qoheleth offers hope in teaching that although limitations are inescapable, they

do not necessitate a renunciation of meaningful existence. The rupture between

most modern existentialists and Qoheleth occurs precisely at the recognition of a

higher level of meaning: for the existentialist, meaning escapes man because there

is no reference point outside of humanity to give life meaning; for Qoheleth,

meaning may be elusive and cause the feeling of hebel, but nevertheless, meaning

exists because God exists.59

Qoheleth's conclusions are relevant for the modern religious experience,

but the meaning of Qoheleth's unconventional words is often muddled by the

attempt to interpret him solely from a New Testament perspective. Harvey Cox

argues that "the biblical doctrine of God's hiddenness stands at the center of the;

doctrine of God."60  God's hiddenness does not mean absolute alienation from

the "wholly other"; instead the inscrutability of God entails that God is revealed

only in the way, and to the degree, that he desires. Qoheleth is fully aware of the

divine dimension which remains beyond the mind of man; his awareness of this

higher level is far more acute than the understanding of the older sages. The

failure to accept this exalted view of the Divine results in deeper alienation, for

when God is not responsive to the theist's dogmatism and doctrinaire formulas,

the theist feels cut off from the source of meaningful existence.

The proper rejoinder to alienation for modern theism is found within the

problem itself: theology must elucidate the difference between the Creator and

the creature. George Kendall, commenting on the biblical account of the Fall,

makes the perspicacious observation that the effort of man to abolish his crea-

tureliness is the source of the schism between creature and Creator.61  I agree

with Kendall: man must reaffirm creaturehood, for it is the negation of his

limitations as a creature which leads him toward deeper alienation and struggle

in life.62  Qoheleth's affirmation of creaturehood is apparent in his exhortation to

enjoy life as the gift of God. Underlying the affirmative approach to life must be

a trust in God's divine plan, despite the daily uncertainties of life. Hence, mod-

ern theology must reckon man as man, and be reconciled to God as the majestic,

self-existent, self-revealing, and often mysterious Absolute of the universe. Dog-

ma must not be defended to the exclusion of the truth-the truth that the

unequivocal meaning of this existence rests beyond mortal man.


59There is a higher level of meaning, that is, there is a level of meaning known only to God.

When God serves as the reference point-or the hub of existence for the individual-one finds

equanimity in the belief that although he does not have all the answers, God does. It is this

abandonment, faith, that allows joy to radiate from the higher level into the mundane life of mortal man.

60Harvey Cox, The Secular City (New York, 1965), quoted in Gordis, Koheleth, pp. 120-121.

61 Kendall, "Alienation and the Struggle for Existence," p. 67.

62 Ibid., p. 69.


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