BIBLIOTHECA SACRA 154 (July-September 1997): 297-319

               Copyright © 1997 by Dallas Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.



                 THE STRUCTURE AND UNITY

                        OF ECCLESIASTES



                                                   James S. Reitman


Perhaps no books of the Bible have had more potential to

disrupt complacency in the reader than the Wisdom books of Job

and Ec clesiastes, both of which touch centrally on the "seeming

inequalities of divine providence."1 However, while the argu-

ment of Job can be persuasively shown to have a cohesive literary

structure, dramatic progression, and resolution,2 Ecclesiastes

seems poorly connected and has led a number of commentators to

conclude that "in general no progression of thought from one sec-

tion to another s discernible."3 Adding to the difficulty of tracing


James S. Reitman is a physician at Wilford Hall Medical Center, Lackland Air

Force Base, San Antonio, Texas.


1 "The Scope and Plan of Ecclesiastes," Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review

29 (July 1857), 423-24, reprinted in Reflecting with Solomon: Selected Studies on

the Book of Ecclesiastes, ed. Roy B. Zuck [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994J, 119). "It is

most interesting to observe the harmony of the grand lessons inculcated by Job and

by Ecclesiastes. No two books could well be more unlike in their style and method

of discussion. The problem upon which they are engaged is one of the most perplex-

ing of human life. They approach it, too, from quarters the most diverse. And yet

the principles which underlie their solutions are identical" (ibid.). This thematic

affinity is also noted by J. Stafford Wright, "Introduction to Ecclesiastes,"

reprinted in Reflecting with Solomon, 167-68.

2 See Greg W. Parsons, "Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming the Book

of Job," Bibliotheca Sacra 151 (1994): 395-98. Cf. Greg W. Parsons, "The Structure

and Purpose of the Book of Job," Bibliotheca Sacra 138 (1981): 139-57 (reprinted in

Sitting with Job: Selected Studies on the Book of Job, ed. Roy B. Zuck [Grand I

Rapids: Baker, 1992, 7-33).

3 R. N. Whybray, Ecclesiastes, New Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids:

Eerdmans, 1989), 17. Roland Murphy discusses the marked variability of outlines

that have been proposed (Ecclesiastes, Word Biblical Commentary [Dallas, TX:

Word, 1992, xxxv-xli:, and Michael A. Eaton notes the tendency of most commenta-

tors to see "the Preacher's work as a string of unrelated meditations. A. G. Wright

lists twenty-three commentators who virtually abandon the task of seeking coher-

ence in the book. . . . this list could easily be enlarged" (Ecclesiastes, Tyndale Old

Testament Commentaries [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1983J, 48).

98                    BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / July-September 1997


the thread of Qoheleth's argument is the uniqueness of the He-

brew, which makes it difficult to trace the historical context of the


Of greater concern to the average reader, however, is the

book's generally cynical tone, which tends to pull the reader to-

ward despair throughout; this is only reinforced by the book's

main theme of futility ("vanity," KJV).5 Such ostensible nihilism

has made it difficult for many commentators to accept Ecclesi-

astes as establishing a positive pattern for living;6 in fact the ap-

parently contradictory reflections encountered in the argument

in both close (cf. 8:12-13) and remote (cf. 2:11; 4:1-3; 6:3--,6; and

7:1 with 9:4) contexts often seem more consistent with strains of

modern existentialism than with the theology of the rest of Scrip-

ture.7 The strength of these concerns has made all the more im-


4Eaton is typical in stating "that the linguistic data show that Ecclesiastes does

not fit into any known section of the history of the Hebrew language. . . .The lan-

uage . . . does not at present provide an 'adequate resource for dating"

(Ecclesiastes, 19). Whybray, however, claims that "Qoheleth's Hebrew has all the

J [larks of lateness," that is, third century B.C. (Ecclesiastes, 4). Fortunately, as with

t be Book of Job (Parsons, "Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming the Book

(f Job," 407-8), the timeless nature of the author's message may well leave the in-

terpretation largely uncompromised by uncertainty over the specific historical

context or immediate audience.

5The precise meaning of lb,h, ("vanity," KJV; lit., "breath") is widely debated

(Murphy, Ecclesiastes, lviii-lix). The frequently associated construction, "grasp-

ing for the wind," supports a sense of frantic but completely empty effort in life.

the translation "futility" is probably best, while recognizing that there are other

relevant nuances, especially "absurd" (ibid.), "frustrating," or "disappointing." Of

the thirty-seven or thirty-eight occurrences in Ecclesiastes (Murphy, Ecclesi-

astes, 89, n. 9b), twenty-nine are found in the first half plus the inclusion in 12:8,

"vanity of vanities" (cf. 1:2).

6 This is reviewed by Whybray, Ecclesiastes, 24-28, and Eaton, Ecclesiastes, 36-

40.  "The bulk of the book, everything but [the] two final verses, represents a bril-

ant, artful argument for the way one would look at life-if God did not playa di-

rect, intervening role in life and if there were no life after death. The view pre-

sented ought to leave you unsatisfied, for it is hardly the truth. It is the secular, fa-

talistic wisdom that a practical. . . atheism produces. When one relegates God to a

osition way out there away from us, irrelevant to our daily lives, then Ecclesiastes

the result. The book thus serves as a reverse apologetic for cynical wIsdom; it

( rives its readers to look further because the answers that the 'Teacher' of Ecclesi-

estes gives are so discouraging" (Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read

the Bible for All It's Worth [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993], 214, italics theirs).

However, C. Stephen Evans has outlined certain evangelical misconceptions

bout existentialism and has proposed some legitimate parallels between biblical

Christianity and certain aspects of existentialism (Existentialism: The Philosophy

of Despair and the Quest for Hope [Dallas, TX: Word, 1984]). For an outstanding

defense of such a view as applied to Ecclesiastes, see Ardel B. Canedy,

"Qoheleth-Enigmatic Pessimist or Godly Sage?" reprinted in Reflecting with

Solomon, 81-113.

The Structure and Unity of Ecclesiastes              299


perative the task of identifying a unified, coherent message in the

text, so that Whybray has issued the following challenge.

Since Ecclesiastes is evidently not a single systematic treatise in

which there is a progression from a set of premises to a logical

conclusion, it remains to be considered in what other sense it

might be, a unified composition. . . . It deals with a number of dis-

tinct, though related, topics. If it could be shown that these have

been an arranged in some kind of logical order by Qoheleth himself,

this would greatly assist the understanding of his thought.8


In reflecting on this challenge one should also weigh the in-

ternal claim that the author "pondered and sought out and set in

order" his "words of truth" from a reliable source (12:9-11, NKJV).

This is supported by Qoheleth's strategic insertion of hortatory

pericopae throughout the book, particularly his repeated appeals to

enjoyment and his injunctions to "fear God." Moreover, the

frequent mention of "good/goodness," "wisdom/wise" (fifty-one

times each) seems to offer an optimistic countercurrent to balance

the apparent nihilism that pervades most of the argument. The

reader is thus challenged to discover how the apparent contradic-

tions and the often juxtaposed cynical and optimistic reflections

might be reconciled by the book's literary composition, and to es-

tablish the basis for Qoheleth's apparent "attack on conventional


Is there a coherent argument woven into the textual design, or

is it a literary "patchwork quilt"10 composed of various random

reflections, aphorisms, and exhortations? This article seeks to

elucidate the book's distinctive literary structure and track the

author's reasoning by appealing to those elements of textual de-

sign that attest a coherent argument.11 To this end it is essential

to study the ways the author used key terms and phrases, or "con-

structions,"12 in order to get a sense of the semantic range em-.


8 Whybray, Ecclesiastes, 19.

9 Murphy, Ecclesiastes, lxi-lxiv; cf. lxii. Qoheleth's approach is actually co.n-

cerned with "the limit set to wisdom. As he points to the futility of all human life

'under the sun' wisdom too is shown to be inadequate. . . . Wisdom given by God,

acted out in the presence of God, is allowed; autonomous, self-sufficient wisdom as

a remedy to mm's plight 'under the sun' is disallowed" (Eaton, Ecclesiastes, 47).

Also see note 3tl.

10 This is prec isely the question asked by Derek Kidner, The Wisdom of Proverbs,

Job, & Ecclesiastes (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1985), 106-10, and it must be

answered before one can arrive at a reasonable interpretation.

11 The hermeneutical approach promoted in this article is similar to that sug-

gested for the Book of Job by Parsons, "Guidelines for Understanding and Pro-

claiming the Book of Job."

12 The use of 'constructions" in this overview refers primarily to those terms and

300                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / July-September 1997


ployed by the author in each case-whether the use is "technical"

(referential in every case to one specific concept) or in fact more


Unfortunately many of the same Hebrew terms are often

rendered in different ways in English throughout the text, thus

obscuring the meaning. While some variation is attributable to

legitimate uncertainty over the historical linguistic context,

some recurring constructions that were obviously meant to denote

the same referent have been variably translated-even m the

same version of .the Bible--which is disconcerting for the reader

trying to determine the author's Intended sense.14

Qoheleth typically employed certain specific constructions as

opening and closing structural markers to help divide the argu-

ment into discrete paragraphic units (each with a unifying, co-

herent thought) and to assist the reader in recognizing and track-

ing the evolving trajectory of the argument. Pronounced changes

in the tone and emphasis of the author's reflections encountered

in the course of the "narrative" are also intended by the author to

be recognized as literary transitions even though they may pro-

voke reader confusion, or even disillusionment.15 This recogni-

tion is often facilitated in the course of the argument by the au-

thor's use of associated constructions that display textual clues or

"type traits" that enable the reader to identify variation in the au-

thor's expressive purpose.16


phrases whose "role in the text is so central to what the author is saying that the

author includes in the immediate contextual development what is needed to clarify

and to specify all that he intends" (Elliott E. Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics:

An Introduction [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990], 145; cr. 142).

13 See Grant R. Osborne's discussion of sense and reference, structural linguis-

tics, and guidelines for the study of key words in The Hermeneutical Spiral

(Downers Grove, ll..: InterVarsity, 1991),76-78,89-92.

14 Examples of mistranslation will be considered as the intended connections be-

tween recurring constructions are progressively elucidated in this article.

15 In narrative structure "speakers. ..must be interpreted in terms of who they

are, from what position they speak, and what they say. Some statements must be

viewed as having a negative contribution and other[s] . . . as contributing positively

to the message of the book. Such considerations are particularly important in the

interpretation of Job and Ecclesiastes" (Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics, 208).

16 "Expressive purpose" refers to the author's use of a particular literary style or

genre to express his message to the audience and is closely related to Johnson's use

of the term "type of meaning" (ibid., 87-96). The accurate determination of the au-

thor's expressive purpose depends first on the readers' accurate recognition (the

initial step in hermeneutics) of the "type-traits" or literary elements of the in-

tended "type of meaning" (ibid.). Inadequate attention to variation in expressive

purpose in the course of a book's argument may underlie some of the existing con-

fusion over the structure and unity of the book. For example recognition of the rad-

ical change in literary style and thematic emphasis from chapter 6 to chapter 7 is

The Structure and Unity of Ecclesiastes              301



Certain recurring terms emerge as literary keys to guide the

reader as the argument unfolds. The author recounted the find-

ings of reflective investigation into the significance of man's la-

bor (1:3, 13; 3:9-10; 7:25; 8:16) in view of the apparently meaning-

less events that seem to characterize life "under the sun."17

Specifically Qoheleth sought to find out what "profit" or "advan-

tage"18 there could possibly be to man's "labor ,"19 when it seems to

yield only “misery" ("adversity," "evil"20) for man all his life.

Against thif, background of misery the author scrutinized life for

any evidence of "goodness" or "good" that can give people a sense

of satisfaction or fulfillment.21 Qoheleth underscored the para-

doxical natl'.re of his observations of life by periodically juxtapos-

ing contrasting terms, such as "good[ness]" and "misery" (cf.

5:18-6:6; 7:14) or "advantage" and "futility" (or "misery") (cf.


important in discerning the pivotal change in expressive purpose in the second

half of the book (Hans Finzel, Opening the Book [Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1987], 115-16).

17 The phrase "under the sun" is a trademark of Qoheleth and is closely related to

the concept of futility. It occurs twenty-nine times and projects the perspective of

man alone, using his own wisdom and senses in the realm of "this world" alone. The

phrases "under heaven" (cf. esp. 1:13-14; 3:1) and "on earth" (cf. 5:2; 8:16) are proba-

bly synonymou s (Eaton, Ecclesiastes, 44).

18 Qoheleth used one Hebrew word group (rteyo/NOrt;yi/rtAOm, only in Eccles.) as the pri-

mary vehicle to convey the concept of some "advantage" or "point" to man's effort

(Whybray, Ecclesiastes, 36-37) in 1:3; 2:11; 3:9,19; 5:9,16; 6:8,11; 7:11,12; 10:10. (A

similar meaning is encountered in 5:11 with NOrw;Ki, "profit.") Qoheleth's use is not

entirely techm :al, however, as the word group occasionally means "excessively" or

"exceeds" (2:13 [twice], 15; 7:16 [ibid.]).

19 Qoheleth u ged two virtually interchangeable word groups for man's labor, "toil"

(lmAfA/lmefA thirty-four times) and "task" (hnAfA/NyAn;fi eight times, only in Eccles.), as illus-

trated by their parallel use in 2:22-23 and 3:9-10. The sense is that of man's striving

with great trouble and diminishing return, thus reflecting the same kind of "toil" (although

by a different Hebrew word) with which man was cursed in Genesis 3:17 (cf. Gen. 5:29).

20The Hebre hfArA is literally "evil" or "bad," but in Ecclesiastes it usually con-

notes misery or adversity (2:21; 5:13, 16; 6:1; 7:14; 8:6; 9:12; 10:5, 13; 11:10; 12:1), rather

than moral evil. Nonetheless a number of other words-derived from the same He-

brew root for evil (frA)--are encountered in Ecclesiastes with a predominantly

moral connotation. these are clustered predominantly in Ecclesiastes 7:15-9:3 (esp.

8:2-15), where Qoheleth discussed the nature and consequences of man's depravity.

21The word' goodness," hbAOF (4:8; 5:11, 18; 6:3, 6; 7:14; 9:18), connotes "satisfying

meaning" in all but 5:11 (where it means "material goods"). The verbs "to be satis-

fied" (fbaWA, 1:8; 4:8; 5:10; 6:3) and "to be full" ("79, 1:8; 6:7) are contextually linked to

hbAOF in 6:3 6- 7 and help to define the intended meaning; unfortunately the NASB

renders it “good things" in 6:3, 6. The related "good" or "better" (bOF) occurs as an

adjective or gerund forty-four times, usually, but not always, with a similar non-

moral existential connotation. Two other related words--"sweet" (hqAUtm;/qOtmA) in 5:12

and 11:7, and 'to be made good" (bFayA) in 7:3 and 11:9-ean be translated "satisfying"

and "to be edified," respectively.

302                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / July-September 1997


1:2-3; 2:11; 5:16; 6:11), as well as the contrasting experiences of

"light" and "darkness."22

Although people hope that their labor will produce works" of

abiding value, they cannot tell in this life under the sun whether

this is so, for ultimately these works find lasting meaning only

within the unfathomable "work" (same word) of God.23 Since an

individual cannot discover which efforts will be blessed with

meaning (11:5-6), present fulfillment can derive only from

one's God-given "portion" ("lot," "heritage").24 The reader is thus

repeatedly exhorted to enjoy his lot in life,25 even though

mankind lacks the innate capacity to be satisfied with this her-

itage (6:1-7).

Qoheleth's quest led him to explore the roots of this "existen-

tial inability," and he found that it is attributable to three natural )

limitations: man's inherent uncertainty, mortality, and deprav-

ity. The theme of uncertainty arises early, then predominates in

the second half of the book; it is best expressed in a series of

rhetorical questions concerning what will happen or what is truly

good in life ("Who knows. . . ?" or "Who can tell. . . ?"26) and

their declarative equivalents (man "does not know. . ." or "can-


22 Although "light" and "darkness" are often used as figures of life and death in

the Old Testament (Whybray, Ecclesiastes, 58), the figure "see light" (or "see the

sun") in Ecclesiastes connotes advantage or goodness in life, while experiencing

"darkness" reflects the adversity or misery so typically encountered in life. See

2:13-14; 5:17; 6:4--5; 7:11; 8:1; 11:7-8; 12:2.

23 The word "work" (~~) occurs twenty-one times and is distinguished from the

words "task" or "toil" in. that it refers to achievement of lasting significance (8:17;

9:7, 10; 11:5). Together with the essentially synonymous "works" (Mh,ydebAfE) in 9:1, it is

the key construction of 8:16-9:10. When it is used in reference to God, it connotes

His sovereign design (cf. 3:11; 8:17; 11:5). A closely related sense emerges with the

construction "hand of God" (2:24; 9:1), which seems to establish the connection of

sovereign purpose between the works of God and man. This same connection is

seen in the Book of Job, where references to the "hand of God" imply His sovereign

prerogative in relation to man's work (Job 14:15; 34:19; cf. 1:10b; Ps. 90:16-17).

24 Man's "lot" or "portion" ql,He) is mentioned eight times (2:10, 21; 3:22; 5:18, 19; 9:6,

9; 11:2) and bears the sense of man's "heritage" or "share" from God in this life. Man

can in fact be satisfied with meaning if he accepts his "lot" and exercises proper

stewardship over what God has given him. Closely related is "inheritance" (hlAHEni);

its only occurrence in Ecclesiastes is in the pivotal verse 7:11.

2) The "enjoyment" pericopae are 2:24-26; 3:12-13; 3:22; 5:18-20; 8:15; 9:7-10; and

11:7-10, and each features the occurrence of either hHAm;Wi ("gladness," "joy"; 2:26; 5:20;

9:7) or HmaWA ("be happy," "rejoice"; 3:12, 22:5:19; 8:15; 11:8,9); see also m ("enjoyment")

in 2:25. A similar sense is conveyed by "see good[ness]" (2:1; 5:18; 6:6) and "see life"


26 These questions are encountered in 2:19; 3:21; 6:12a; 8:1; and in 6:12b; 8:7; 10:14,

respectively. Analogous constructions occur in 7:24 ("Who can find out?") and 3:22

("Who can bring him to see?").

The Structure and Unity of Ecclesiastes              303


not find. ..'27). If one can never "know" or "find" what is poten-

tially meaningful in life, he or she can never be completely sure

of being on t he path to experience such meaning.

The second natural limitation to fulfillment in one's labor is

mortality. The author frequently referred to death directly,28 but

the sense of mortality is also projected indirectly by Qoheleth's

equally freq[uent allusions to the limited number of "days" one

has to live,29 and by the implications of Qoheleth's familiar,

metaphor-laden portrayal of progressive debilitation and death

in 12:1-7, People have precious little "time" to find meaning in

life and enjoy it before their "time” is up.30

The third and most devastating limitation is man's deprav-

ity. Although broached in 2:26, the topic of sin is not developed

until the second half of the book.31 Any advantage a person might

gain through wisdom is quickly destroyed by the innate propen-

sity to sin, which is both extensive (manifest throughout the hu-

man race: 7:20, 27-29) and intensive (corrupting every aspect of

man’s being, 7:16-18, 20-21; 8:11; 9:3). The destructiveness of

sin is most commonly depicted in Ecclesiastes as "folly."32 The

negative moral implications of the concept of "folly" are most ex-


27 These are encountered in 5:1; 8:7; 9:1, 5,12; 10:15; 11:2,5 [twice], 6; and in 3:11;

7:14,28 [twice]; 8:17 [three times], respectively. The Hebrew words here for "know"

(fdayA) and "find out" or "discover" (xcAmA) express (in the negative) the disappointing

failure of the author's attempt to "seek" , 1:13; 7:25; 8:17) or "search out"

(rUt, 1:13; 2:3; 7 25) the meaning of things.

28 The concept of death is most often communicated by the Hebrew word-groups

tUm/tvAmA ("die,""dead," "death"; 2:16; 3:2,19; 4:2; 5:16; 7:1,17,26; 8:8; 9:3-5) and hrAqA/hr,q;mi

("befall," "fate" , alluding in every case to the inevitable outcome of death (cf. 2:14-

15; 3:19 [three times]; 9:2, 3, 11).

29 Cf. 2:16, 23; 5:17, 18, 20; 7:10; 8:13, 15; 9:9; 11:1,8, 9; 12:1.

30 "Time" (tfe in Ecclesiastes often (thirty-one times in chap. 3, twice in 8:5-6)

refers to the inevitable outworking of God's sovereign, preordained purposes and

adds the nuance of inscrutability to the relationship between God's purposes and

man's "opportunity" for true meaning in life. It also denotes the appointed yet un-

predictable timing of man's ultimate "fate" in 7:17 and 9:11-12 (three times).

31 The Hebrew for "sin"/'sinner" (xFeOH/xFAHA) occurs five of its seven times (2:26; 5:6;

7:20, 26; 8:12; 9:2, 18) in the second half of Ecclesiastes in close context with those

words for "evil" with a predominantly moral connotation, and helps convey the

sense of man's accountability for evil in 8:2-13.

32 The concept of "folly" in Ecclesiastes is represented by two virtually inter-

changeable word groups. The principal word for "fool," "lysiK; (sixteen times), is the

one most commonly encountered in the wisdom literature; "the related ls,K, ("folly,"

"foolishness") occurs in 7:25. The other word group, "lkAsA/kl,s,/tUlk;si, is almost exclu-

sive to Ecclesiastes, occurring thirteen times. Whybray plausibly attributes such

dual use to Qoheleth's selective quotation of ancient proverbs (R. N. Whybray, "The

Identification, and Use of Quotations in Ecclesiastes" (reprinted in Reflecting with

Solomon, 185-99).

304                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / July-September 1997


plicitly developed in 7:15-29 and in chapter 10, in which a series

of proverbs or aphorisms portray folly as imprudent and pre-

sumptuous self-gratification.33 Qoheleth clearly intended to

identify the folly he depicted with sin (7:20; 9:18) but he first had to

establish that people in their own strength are incapable of enjoy-

ing "goodness" in life (1:12-6:12)-only then would the reader

likely be motivated to examine the evidence for his own depravity

(7:15-29) and accept his accountability before God for the conse-

quences of his depravity (8:1-15).

These three inherent limitations to fulfillment in the search

for meaning lead ultimately in life to varying degrees of frustra-

tion or "vexation."34 In response to such vexation people charac-

teristically redouble their efforts to "see goodness" by attempting

to forge their own meaning in life (4:4-6: 12). This disposition of

radical self-determination is symbolized in Ecclesiastes by the

imagery of grasping envy (4:4-6; cf. 6:9), presumptuous

"dreams" (5:3, 7), "vows" (5:4-6), and "many words" (5:2-3, 7;

6:11) before God.35 Such selfish ambition explains in turn the ob-

served ubiquity of injustice and the oppression of those with less

power in life (4:1-3; 5:8; cf. 3:16).36 What begins as the oppres-


33The chapter's preceding "topic sentence" (9:18) summarizes its unifying theme,

wisdom's severe vulnerability to folly. See Graham S. Ogden, "Variations on the

Theme of Wisdom's Strength and Vulnerability-Ecclesiastes 9:17-10:20"

(reprinted in Reflecting with Solomon, 331-40).

34 The word "vexation" (sfaKa) appears seven times (1:18; 2:23; 5:17; 7:3, 9 [twice];

11:10) and projects the idea of grief, anger, and frustration generated by the misery

and disillusionment to which life is prone (cf. 5:16-17). While vexation may lead

positively to true mourning (7:2-4), it can also become entrenched and lead to bit-

terness of soul (7:9-10; 11:10). Most translations render the word variably: "grief,"

"sorrow," "anger" (NKJV); "grief," "vexation," "sorrow," "anger" (NASB); "grief,"

"sorrow," "frustration," "provocation," "anger," "anxiety" (NIV). The present writer

believes a more technical use is intended, especially in recalling the sense of 5: 17

in 7:3, 9, and 11:10.

35The figure "many words" in 5:2-3, 7 projects the presumption of a person an-

nouncing to God (5:1-3) his self-determined ambitions ("dreams," 5:3) without any

consideration of God's intended purposes for him. He attempts to manipulate God

with "vows" (5:4-6) to "guarantee" that God will bless his ambitions, but only risks

destroying the results of his work (5:6c-7). The same presumption is recalled with

the reappearance of "many words" in 6:11.

36The word group "oppress/oppression/oppressed" (qwafA/qw,fo/MyqiUwfE) appears five

times in Ecclesiastes (4:1 [three times]; 5:8; 7:7). Those who oppress others (4:1-3)

in their attempts to find meaning only aggravate the futility already manifest

"under the sun" (chaps. 1-3). Although this perceived injustice initially led Qo-

heleth to investigate further the selfish ambition that generates such oppression

(4:4-6; cf. 3:16), his attention ultimately shifted (7:7) to man's response to oppres-

sion, just as Elihu redirected the focus in Job 35:9 from God's justice to Job

"victim's complex" (cf. 10:3). This connection in Ecclesiastes 7:7 is completely

overlooked by the NIV's rendering of "extortion" rather than "oppression."

The Structure and Unity of Ecclesiastes                 305


sion of others, however, ultimately returns to the heart of the op-

pressor himself instead of enjoying satisfaction, a self-deter-

mined individual multiplies fruitless strife and alienation to-

ward others (4:7-16; cf. 4:4) and only ends up suffering material

loss, physical sickness, and vexation himself (5:10-17; 7:9-10),

even to the point of despair (6:3-6; cf. 4:2-3).37

Qoheleth's answer to such self-consuming vexation is to tout

the life-giving advantage of true "wisdom."38 Yet if God gives

such wisdom only "to a person who is good in His sight" (2:26; cf.

9:1)39 and man's depravity extends to all, how can anyone be

"good in His sight" and thereby gain wisdom's advantage? To

compound this existential dilemma, man is ultimately held ac-

countable as a steward of God's sovereign purposes, as conveyed

by the concept of "time and judgment" (8:5-6): God puts people on

notice that there is a "time for every purpose" (3:1, 17; 8:6),40 and

"there is . . . , judgment" (8:6; cf. 3:17)41 of the willful evil that sub-

verts such stewardship (8:2-8), even though the evidence for such


37Although the word "despair" (wxayA) occurs only once in Ecclesiastes (2:20) and

once in Job (6:20, it is a key concept in both books, as developed more fully in figu-

rative imagery. Just as in Job's classic soliloquy of despair (Job 3), the dynamic of

despair is epitomized in Ecclesiastes 4:2-3 with Qoheleth's praise of death or

nonexistence, and in 6:3-6 with the imagery of "darkness."

38The concept of wisdom" (MkAHA/hmAk;HA) is prevalent throughout the book, appearing

fifty-one times. However, it appears twice as frequently in the second half (7:1-

12:14), where th a focus is on wisdom's advantage in bringing "life" (7:11-12, 19; 8:1;

9:15a, 16a, 17a, 18a; 10:10c) and how this advantage is seriously jeopardized by the

consequences of man's "sin" or "folly."

39The description or "good" in 2:26 conveys a moral or ethical sense (as also in 3:12;

7:20, 26b; 9:2 [twice]; 12:14). The connection here between moral "goodness" and

true wisdom anticipates the otherwise cryptic association of "the righteous and the

wise" in 7:16-18and 9:1.

40 The phrase implies the notion of man's opportune participation in God's

sovereign purposes. Though virtually the same construction is found in 3: 1, 17, and.

8:6, neither the NKJV nor the NASB seem to recognize the connection in 8:6 in Qo-

heleth's use of Cp,He, and translate it "matter" or "delight," instead of "purpose."

While the Hebrew Cp,He (or CpaHA) does connote "pleasure" or "delight" in 5:4; 8:3; and

12:1 and "matter" in 5:8, the clear sense in 3:1, 17 and 8:6 is that of "purpose"--

specifically, God's sovereign, creative purpose. This is made plain in the context of

3:1 and 17, where the thrice-encountered phrase "God does. . ." is found (3:11, 14) in

close connection with the terms lKo ("everything," "whatever") and MlAfo ("eternity," "forever").

41 The word-group "judge/judgment" (FpawA/FpAw;mi) in all its occurrences in Ecclesi-

astes (3:16-17; 8:5-6; 11:9; 12:14) conveys the sense of man's ultimate accountability

under sovereign authority (3:15,"God requires an account of what is past," NKJV).

Again, given the same associated construction in both 3:16-17 and 8:5--6 ("time. . .

for every purpose"), the word FpAw;mi in the latter instance is clearly intended to

convey the same sense of accountability to exercise proper stewardship as in 3:16-

17. The NASB is thus again misleading: While the FpAw;mi word group is appropriately

translated as justice" and "judge" in 3:16 and 17, respectively, it is inexplicably

rendered "procedure" in the comparable construction, 8:5-6.

306                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / July-September 1997


judgment may not be apparent "under the sun" (3:16; 7:15; 8:11-

12a, 14; 9:2, 11-12).

Given all the futile consequences of selfish ambition, as well

as one's accountability for the resulting failure in stewardship,

Qoheleth proposed that people replace selfish ambition with the

fear of God42 as the only viable means of fulfilling their steward-

ship and finding lasting meaning in life. The fear of God en-

ables people to acknowledge and accept full accountability for sin

and for proper stewardship of their "portion" from God-only the

sinner who "fears before God" can "escape" the futility of radical

self-determination and enlist the advantage of wisdom to become

a fruitful steward.43 Unfortunately most people are not convinced

of the utter disadvantage of selfish ambition and therefore do not

relinquish this strategy in the search for meaning, so that they

might then fear God and realize wisdom's advantage.

So what moves a person to forsake a disposition of radical

self-determination and fear God in the sense intended by Qo-

heleth? Ironically the only crisis capable of displacing self-de-

termined commitment is the very unassuaged vexation that ul-

timately leads to despair. Man has two basic choices in response

to such vexation. He can stubbornly cling to self-determination

(6:10-11) and reap the distilled bitterness of entrenched vexation

(5:16-17; 7:9-10), or he can begin to reap the advantage of wisdom

(7:11-12) by fully engaging in the painful but edifying process of

authentic "mourning" (7:1-4).44 Mourning entails an honest and


42 The "fear of God" is mentioned seven times in Ecclesiastes (3:14; 5:7; 7:18; 8:12-

13 [three times]; 12:13, each in connection with some aspect of man's accountability

before God. It is described in Ecclesiastes 7:13-14 and perhaps best defined as pa-

tient submission to God's sovereign prerogative of judging the works of man and

appropriating them to His own inscrutable purposes.

43 See Wayne A. Brindle, "Righteousness and Wickedness in Ecclesiastes 7:15-

18," reprinted in Reflecting with Solomon, 301-13). Although man may strive to be

"righteous" or "wise" in his own eyes (7:16-17), only the fear of God enables man to

be truly righteous and wise ("good in God's sight," 2:26) and "escape" the destruc-

tive consequences of sin or folly (7:18, 26; 8:12b-13). Thus "righteous men, wise men,

and their deeds are in the hand of God" (9:1; 2:24), so that their works are "already

approved" (9:7b). This helps explain Qoheleth's apparent ambivalence toward wis-

dom: Wisdom as the source of meaning can never ultimately satisfy (the focus of

the first half of Qoheleth's argument; cf. 2:12-23), whereas wisdom constrained by

the fear of God as the path to meaning confers great advantage (the focus of the sec-

ond half of the argument). The process thus accords fully with the refrain, "The

fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Job 28:28; Prov. 1:7; 2:3-5; 3:5-7; 9:10; Ps.


44 The word "mourning" (lb,xe) appears only twice in the argument within the main

transition (7:2, 4) and delivers a crucial challenge to the reader who has thus far

identified with Qoheleth: Given the deleterious effect of "oppression” on wisdom

(7:7), her benefits cannot be appropriated without enduring the difficult transition

The Structure and Unity of Ecclesiastes                 307


patient willingness, first to admit powerlessness to avert suffer-

ing or forge meaning in life, and then to submit to God's

sovereign purposes and accept ultimate accountability for

stewardship before God (7:13-14).45



Although an understanding of Qoheleth's use of terms is neces-

sary to grasp his intended meaning, is this sufficient for the

reader to arrive at the distinctive message and purpose of the

book? Given the questions over the book's unity, distinctive He-

brew, authorship, historical context, mood and tone, and apparent

internal contradictions, it is virtually impossible to adduce a co-

herent, logically consistent message and grasp the author's in-

tended purpose without also considering the author's textual de-

sign in the development of the argument. Variations in textual

composition provide essential clues to the expressive purpose of

any given observation, exhortation, or emotive reflection in the

text. As evidence is "iteratively" adduced from the text to clarify

the contribution of less obvious constructions to the author's ex-

pressie pupose, the readers' grasp of the author's intended

meaning in a given text progressively emerges.46 Even the


of authentic mourning (7:4-5). This existential struggle of transition is graphically

depicted in the psalms of lament. The laments "express all the difficult emotions

Iwe experience today-anger, fear, jealousy, despair, shame, and contempt. . . .

[B]ecause [David's] vision moves from suffering to God, there is [a] change of mood

. . . from pain to joy" (Dan B. Allender and Tremper Longman III, The Cry of the

Soul [Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1994], 245-46). Without patiently traversing this

"emotional gauntlet," man only becomes further entrenched in vexation.

45 The problem with self-determination as a committed disposition in life is that

it requires a sustained denial of man's total inability to manipulate life and control

Ithe outcome. Though conscience should testify otherwise (cf. 3:10-15), many people

refuse to ac knowledge or accept their accountability as stewards. of a heritage be-

stowed by a sovereign God. But "God does not tolerate manipulation of the truth to

escape from struggle. He longs for faith that struggles and rests in His goodness

Thus the psalmist's only recourse is to appeal to God for help and wait with

confidence that He will turn sorrow into joy" (ibid., 247). By honestly confronting

one's natural limitations, mourning acknowledges failure of self and opens one's

heart to God as the only Source of wisdom and life. Whereas the self-determined

attempt to enjoy life is doomed to futility (2:1; 6:2), such enjoyment becomes possible

when accepted in complete dependence on God (5:18; 9:9).

46 Johnson emphasizes the role of "type logic" in drawing out an author's intended

meaning in the "associated constructions" of the text (Expository Hermeneutics,

142-54). The conclusions presented herein are the products of the iterative appli-

cation of such "type logic" to the diagnostic "dilemmas" the text presents. As Os-

borne describes the process, "I am ...spiralling nearer and nearer to the text's in-

tended meaning as I refine my hypotheses and allow the text to continue to chal-

lenge and correct . . . alternative interpretations. . . . The preliminary understand-

ing derived from the inductive study and the in-depth understanding unlocked

through research interact and correct one another as we make final decisions re-

308                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / July-September 1997


book's apparently contradictory assertions can be reconciled by

paying careful attention to textual design.

The book's dominant genre of "reflection" is established by

the author's characteristic use of constructions such as "I have

seen," "I said in my heart," and "I applied my heart."47 However

it is the moral evolution of Qoheleth's reflection that most inform~

the argument: For Qoheleth, the heart is the seat of conscience-

one's reflection over the events he observes "under the sun" can

thus be considered moral insofar as it reflects with brutal honesty

in the "mirror" of conscience.48

Qoheleth's emotionally charged and seemingly nihilistic re-

flections on life as it appears "under the sun" in the first half of

the argument (cf. 2:17; 4:1-3; 6:3-6) are designed to jolt the self-

determined reader into openly acknowledging life's deepest dis-

appointments. By contrast, the apparently more optimistic con-

clusions he subsequently reached after considering the "hand of

God" (9:1-10; cf. 2:24) are designed to reassure the reader who

fears God that, though he cannot presently discover the ultimate

meaning of his work, there is still hope for such meaning.

The author employed certain characteristic opening and

closing constructions to delineate the paragraphic units of the text

and thereby facilitate the reader's understanding of each succes-

sive phase of the argument. The closing markers are more read-

ily distinguished: The three major sections in 1:12-7:14 are each

closed by some variation of the same rhetorical question.49 The

familiar phrase "This is vanity and grasping for the wind" also

serves as a closing marker for smaller paragraphic units in the


garding the original intended message of the text ...the inductive and deductive

sides together to understand the 'meaning' of the text" (The Hermeneutical Spiral,

6, 14; cf. Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics, 76, fig. 5.1). Though the present writer

has examined Qoheleth's use of terms before tracing the book's textual design, in

practice the semantic and structural type-traits are mutually informing through-

out the process of "drawing out" the author's intended meaning.

47 The type-traits of "reflection" in Ecclesiastes (Murphy, Ecclesiastes, xxxi-

xxxii. H. Carl Shank, "Qoheleth's World and Life View," reprinted in Reflecting

with Solomon, 76-77) are characterized by the frequent mention of deliberative ac-

tivity in the "heart" (forty-one times in Ecclesiastes, often translated as "mind").

48 While conscience is intended to hold man accountable for "heart" awareness of

God's sovereign influence in life (3:11b, 14), the heart all too often countenances

evil (8:11; 9:3). As Qoheleth's reflection evolved throughout the argument, his con-

clusions bore witness to the progressive influence of the fear of God on this "heart"

awareness (Shank, ibid., 77; and Caneday, "Qoheleth-Enigmatic Pessimist or

Godly Sage?” 104-5).

49 The recurring assertion is that man cannot tell "what will happen after him"

(3:22b; 6:12b; 7:14c).

The Structure and Unity of Ecclesiastes                 309


first half of the book,50 Finally the arrangement of the "enjoy-

ment" pericopae appears to contribute to the literary structure.51 In

the first half of the book they function as "oases of optimism" that

balance and conclude the preceding reflections on futility and

give the reader a seminal hope for meaning until the second half

of the argument, where they function more as natural closing


Typical opening constructions include affirmations of intent

(1:3, 13: 3: 9) and some of the constructions indicative of reflec-

tion, including "I have seen" (3:16; 5:18; 7:15, 23; 8:9; 9:13), “I

said in my heart" (1:16; 2:1; 8:16), and "I returned and saw [or

considered]" (4:1, 7; 9:11).53 Distinguishing which of these are

intended to function as true "openers" is facilitated when they are

immediately preceded by a recognized closing construction, but

in other instances further textual evidence must be adduced to

support viewing them as such.

Such opening constructions are apparently absent from some

paragraphs, which must then be recognized by noting significant

transitions in thematic emphasis or literarystyle.54 Given this

highly versatile use of literary markers, how confidently can one

justify the divisions proposed in the outline (see the Appendix)?

This article suggests that the texts before and after each of these

transitions cohere independently and that they contribute in logi-

cal order to the progression of the argument.


50 Murphy, Ecclesiastes, 21. The phrase occurs eight times (1:14, 17; 2:11, 17, 26;

4:4, 16; 6:9); however, it is often followed by short "sayings" that seem unrelated to

the subsequent material (1:15,18; 4:5-6; 6:10-11). Osborne notes that a wisdom pas-

sage "often concludes with a pithy statement that Childs calls a 'summary ap-

praisal'" (The Hermeneutical Spiral, 196). These were probably aphorisms bor-

rowed by Qoheleth (Whybray, "The Identification and Use of Quotations in Ecclesi-

astes") and used to substantiate why the preceding observation should be consid-

ered "futility."

51Murphy Ecclesiastes, 25.

52Two aplarent exceptions are 5:18-20 and 11:7-10. However, they may still be

viewed as "=losers," in that they mark the passages they initiate as ending the

book's two D lajor sections.

53Although the construction "I returned and saw" predictably initiates a new unit

of thought (4:l [7]; 9:11), the others do not necessarily do so. "It is clear that. . . any

one of these literary devices is as liable to occur in the middle of an argument as at

the beginning. . . . They certainly cannot be regarded as a consistent system of

markers" (Whybray, Ecclesiastes, 47).

54 Notably challenging are the transitions at 7:1,9:13; 10:1; 11:1; and 11:7. For 7:1

and 10:1 the preceding verses provide important "hinges" to the major themes that

characterize the subsequent paragraphic units: The question in 6:12a, "Who knows

what is gold . . ?" introduces 7:1-14, with its sequential comparisons of what is

"better" (Murphy, Ecclesiastes, 62). Similarly the series of proverbs and word pic-

tures in chapter 10 is introduced in 9:18, and 11:7-10 may follow "good" in 11:6.

310                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / July-September 1997



The overall literary structure is essentially symmetrical. The

prologue (1:1-11) and epilogue (12:8-14) refer to Qoheleth in the

third person, whereas the main text (1:12-12:7) is essentially a

first-person monologue by Qoheleth, with the exception of 7:27.55

The construction "vanity of vanities" in 1:2 and 12:8 initiates

and sets apart the associated text of the prologue and epilogue, thus

"enclosing" the body of the argument in 1:12-12:7.56 The emerg-

ing argument consists of two movements of reflection which can

be seen to complement each other, once the literary transition

linking them is understood.

Further textual evidence can be adduced to show that the ar-

gument of the book makes a notable shift after 6:12.57 The repeti-

tion of the figure "many words" just prior to this point (6:11a)

brings to a climax the preceding emphasis on selfish ambition.58

This in turn provides the literary point of departure for exploring

the roots of such "contention" (6:10c, NKJV) in the subsequent expo-

sition of man's depravity (7:15-29). Culminating here as well is

a series of rhetorical questions (5:11, 16; 6:8, 11b), each of which

asserts the lack of any "advantage" to such a self-determined

disposition.59 In this way the textual design further supports Qo-

heleth's overriding expressive purpose in the first half of the ar-

gument: to portray man's cumulative vexation and despair over

the futility of a self-determined quest for meaning.

Following a brief transition in the argument (7:1-14) a sepa-

rate and distinct expressive purpose emerges in the second half of


55The reemergence of the editor or author at 7:27 is the subject of much debate

(Whybray, Ecclesiastes, 126). The present writer holds that this literary device is

intended to underscore the main result of Qoheleth's honest reflection: Nothing

explains man's utter inability and vexation more definitively than his own deprav-

ity and folly (7:26b-29).

56Murphy, Ecclesiastes, xxxiii, xxxix-xli.

57Although the text of 6:10-11 seems to dangle between two closing construc-

tions--the one noted at 6:12, and the other at 6:9-the pericope 6:10-12 should be

viewed as both a "summary appraisal" for 5:1-6:9 (cf. note 50) and an introduction to

the transitional passage, 7:1-14.

58The New American Standard Bible captures the repetition in 6:11 of "many

words" (cf. 5:2-3, 7), which thereby forms an inclusio around 5:1-6:11. See Addison

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

reprinted in Reflecting with Solomon, 59. The passage (5:1-6:11) is related to the

preceding text by showing how the human oppression and alienation depicted in

4:1-16 is the result of man's selfish ambition and presumption before God.

59Though the similarity of these rhetorical questions is difficult to recognize in

the New King James Version, it is brought out well in the New American Standard

Bible, which appropriately translates "advantage" in each case.

The Structure and Unity of Ecclesiastes                 311


the book. Without understanding the textual design and purpose

of. the transitional passage, however, the reader can overlook or

misinterpret the expressive purpose of Qoheleth's reflections and

the evolving tone and thematic content that characterize the sec-

ond half of the argument. A gradual change in the prevailing

mood emerges, moving from the pessimism or nihilism of the

first half (:,.:12-6:12) to a cautious optimism. The prevailing

themes of futility and self-determination give way to the devel-

opment of ti:1e newly Introduced theme of the true advantage of

wisdom (7:11-12) and its relationship to .man's accountability

and the fear of God (3:14-15). At the same time the previously en-

countered darker themes of man's depravity (evil, sin, folly), un-

certainty, and mortality are explored more deeply with a view to

shepherding this advantage wisely.



Structurally the transitional passage is distinguished from the

foregoing and following text by its use of chiastic parallelism60

and the repetition of key thematic words, "good/better" (eleven

times);. "wise/wisdom" (six times); "heart" (five times); "fool(s)"

(four times, "vexation" (three times); "mourning" (twice); "ad-

vantage" (twice); and "oppression" or "adversity" (once each).

The repetition of "vexation" and "better" seems to look back to the

rhetorical question asked at the close of the previous section

(6:12a; cf. 5: 17),61 while the themes of "wisdom," the "heart," "ad-

vantage," and the "fool" look forward by highlighting the impor-

tance of the benefits of wisdom and moral reflection to an effec-

tive stewardship, responsive to God's sovereign prerogatives

(7:15-12:7, (:f. 7:13-14). The closing marker (7:14c) then repeats

in declarative form. the assertion. of the rhetorical questions that

closed the two previous larger units.62

Consisting simply of a series of wise proverbs that describe

what is "better,"63 the passage provides the occasion for a reorien-

tation of Qoheleth's (and the readers') perspective toward wisdom.

It contrasts the vantage point of self-determined man portrayed so

well in the first half of the argument with a "better" perspective


60Chiastic parallel (a:b / b':a') can be seen in the relationship of groups of verses

as follows: a = 7:1-4 (“wisdom"); b = 7:5-7 ("folly"); b' = 7:8-10 ("folly"); and a' = 7:11-

14 ("wisdom"). Delineation of the more detailed Hebrew parallelism and rhyme ob-

servable within each of these groups is beyond the scope of the present article. See

Eaton, Ecclesiastes, 108-13; Murphy, Ecclesiastes, 61-62; and Whybray, Ecclesi-

astes 112-19.

61 Murphy, Ecclesiastes, 62.

62 Whybray, Ecclesiastes, 112.

63 Eaton, Ecclesiastes, 108-13.

312                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA I/ July-September 1997


involving the wisdom of mourning and patience. To this point in

the argument Qoheleth's expressive purpose has been to portray in

his reflections the progressively frustrating results of a self-de-

termined strategy to find the meaning of things (1:3; 3:9) by ap-

plying unparalleled human wisdom (1:12-18). Thoroughly dis-

couraged by this cumulative "vexation," Qoheleth now reflected

again on the inevitable mortality and oppression that character-

ize human existence and discovered a "better" side to wisdom, an

advantage that is fully achieved only after authentic mourning

(7:1-7) and is sustained through adversity only by means of pa-

tient confidence (7:8-14).

Wisdom confers life-giving advantage (7:11-12) on those

who wisely choose to mourn and confidently endure adversity in

response to life's vexation (7:3, 9, 13, 14). Such wisdom is

grounded in the fear of God, which justified Qoheleth's renewed

hope for meaning in the second half of the argument.64 The au-

thor's exposition of this advantage is leavened with caution, how-

ever, as wisdom's benefits are then found to be subject to the pit-

falls of man's inherent depravity, uncertainty, and mortality. By

systematically alerting the reader to the ways in which wisdom's

advantage may be jeopardized by the corrosive effects of each of

these influences the author intends to equip the reader for opti-

mum stewardship of his "heritage" from God.




Once the structural and thematic relationship between the two

main parts of Qoheleth's argument is recognized, it becomes fea-

sible to distinguish subordinate literary transitions within each

major section. The first half (1:12-6:12) consists of two large sub-

sections that are distinguished from each other by a substantive

transition in textual design and expressive purpose beginning at

4:1. The two subsections are concluded by virtually identical

closing markers (3:22b; 6:12b) and linked by a transitional peri-

cope (4:1-6) delineated by the repetition of an opening construc-

tion.65 While both sections feature the themes of futility and vexa-


64The second half of the argument is immediately preceded by the book's most

succinct description of the fear of God (7:13-14), which in turn plays an increasing

role in Qoheleth's reflections, as he proceeded to develop the concept of "wisdom's

advantage" (7:11-12).

65Although Whybray asserts that 4:1-3 is unrelated to the surrounding text

(Ecclesiastes, 81), it is in fact contextually related to 4:4-6 by the repeated opening

marker in 4:1 and 4:7. In effect the selfish ambition portrayed in 4:4-6 explains the

unjust oppression observed in 4:1-3; in this way the transitional pericope 4:1-6 sets

The Structure and Unity of Ecclesiastes                 313


tion, there is a change in emphasis from the futile search for the

significance of man’s striving in life (1:12-3:22) to the vexing

outcomes chat result from selfish ambition (4:1-6:12). The disil-

lusionment that attends these outcomes is characterized in this

second section by the author's expansion on the subthemes of op-

pression of others) and presumption (upon God), as well as hu-

mankind’s inherent inability to be satisfied with goodness.66

Additional, less prominent transitions can be recognized

within the first half of the argument. Within the first subsection

(1:12-3:22) the transition at 3:1 is heralded by the intrusion of the

enjoyment, pericope at 2:24-26,67 as well as the obviously different

literary type trait that emerges in 3:1-8. Notwithstanding this

abrupt stylistic change, however, the unity of the entire section is

maintained by the repeated affirmation of intent in 3:9-10 (cf.

1:3, 13) and a consistency throughout of the theme of the elusive

significance of human labor (1:14, 17; 2:11, 15, 19; 3:11c, 21, 22c),

whether this significance is sought in the visible realm "under

the sun" (1:12-2:23) or within the transcendent realm of God's

sovereign purposes (3:1-22).

The transitions in the second subsection (4: 1-6: 12) are dic-

tated by mother change in type trait at 5:168 and another enjoy-

ment peicope at 5:18.69 However, there is a consistent exposition

throughout of the deleterious effects of selfish ambition, whether

manifested as relational alienation (4:7-16), the erosion of mate-

rial accumulation in life (5:1-17), or the impossibility of satisfy-

ling one's soul apart from God (5: 18-6: 12). While 5:8 may seem to

initiate ~mother major transition,70 it is probably only a minor


the stage (cf. 4:7, "Then I  returned. . .") for the expand~ exposition of selfish ambi-

tion in 4:7-6:12.

66 These themes are not emphasized at all in the first section (1:12-3:22); note es-

pecially the distribution of constructions representing oppression, presumption,

and satisfaction or fulfillment. (See notes 21, 35, 36.)

67 Given the closing construction in 2:26, the pericope 2:24-26 belongs to the pre-

vious section (1:12-2:23); yet it also serves as the transition to the next section by in-

troducing the concept of the sovereign purposes of God, a prominent theme in 3:1-


68Qoheleth abruptly shifts from the proverbial "better" sayings of 4:7-16-unified

by the motif of "the second" (Murphy, Ecclesiastes, 41)--to the genre of direct ex-

hortation in 5:1-17.

69 The construction "Here is what I have seen" (5:18) seems to initiate a conclusory

thought rather than conclude the previous reflection. The pericope of 5:18-20 prop-

erly belongs to the passage that follows because of the unmistakable repetition of

several constructions in 5:18-6:6: "God has given riches and wealth. . . [and] power

to eat of it” in 5:19 and 6:2; "see goodness" in 5:18 and 6:6 (Whybray, Ecclesiastes,

102, 106); and "the days of his life [or years]" in 5:18, 20; and 6:3.

70So according to Eaton, Ecclesiastes, 90, 100.

314                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / July-September 1997


one. The coherence of 5:1-17 is grounded in the recognition that

both 5:1-7 and 5:8-17 describe the material consequences of self-

ish ambition directed against God (5:1-6a) and others (5:8-9).71

These consequences are summarized (5:6b- 7) and then particu-

larized in the case of the king himself (5:10-17) just as in 4:13-


The literary infrastructure of the second half of Qoheleth's

argument (7:15-12:7) is widely debated. While several commen-

tators are persuaded that it is primarily dictated by constructions

such as "cannot find" and "know" or "do not know"73--and these

constructions do predominate in the second half of the book--the

present writer agrees with Ogden's criticism "that man's inabil-

ity to know his future is an idea implicit in the earlier chapters of

the book."74 If it is correct to identify "wisdom's advantage" as the

unifying theme of 7:15-12:7, then it should be possible to demon-

strate that each of the transitions in this phase of the argument

introduces some new wrinkle in Qoheleth's reflections on wis-

dom's advantage.

A major structural transition can be recognized at 9:11, as

suggested by the immediately preceding "enjoyment" pericope

(9:7-10) and by the reappearance of the opening marker "I re-

turned and saw." Although 9:11-12 may seem to be contextually

isolated, it logically introduces the material that follows (9:13-

12:7).75 The governing theme of "wisdom's advantage" is rein-


71While the difficulty of translating 5:9 has been duly noted (Murphy, Ecclesi-

astes, 46, n. 8a; Whybray, Ecclesiastes, 97-98; Eaton, Ecclesiastes, 101-102), it is

best viewed as the logical conclusion of 5:8. The notion of unjust advantage reintro-

duced in 5:8a (cf. 4:1-3) is observed to "trickle up" (5:8b) all the way to the king

(5:9)-the ultimate "pyramid" scheme. A reasonably "unforced" translation of 5:9

might therefore read, "Indeed, the ultimate [or overall] advantage of the land is

this: A king is served by the field."

72In other words even royal ambition and advantages eventually erode completely

(5:9-17). This parallels the thrust of 4:13-16, which shows that the initial advantage

of ascending the throne is inevitably eroded by the oppression and alienation that

characterize ambitious rule.

73See Murphy, Ecclesiastes, 81-82, 89; Wright, "The Riddle of the Sphinx," 55;

and Donald R. Glenn, "Ecclesiastes," in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Old

Testament, ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1985),996-


74Ogden, "Variations on the Theme of Wisdom's Vulnerability," 332. In fact, such

constructions are prominent enough to serve as closing markers (3:22b; 6:12b; 7:14c)

ror the three main sections that make up 1:12-7:14. See note 49.

75Murphy's attempt to associate 9:11-12 with the preceding material is uncon-

vincing (Ecclesiastes, 88-95). Both Eaton (Ecclesiastes, 129-30) and Whybray

Ecclesiastes, 145-46) recognize the overwhelming need to find a major transition

The Structure and Unity of Ecclesiastes                 315


troduced in 9:11-12 by the contrast between nullified natural ad-

vantage an the previously described advantage of true wisdom

(7.11-12). Whereas the preceding exposition of human depravity

(7:15-29) was undertaken with the intent of convincing the

reader that it is impossible on one's own to gain wisdom's true

advantage 17:15-9:10), Qoheleth then "returned" (9:11a; cf. 4:1, 7)

to remind the "convinced" reader that natural advantage is nul-

lified by "time and chance" (9:11-12).

This caveat in turn facilitates the recognition of the flow of

Qoheleth's thought from 9:11 through 12:7.76 Notwithstanding the

familiar in1t;erpretive difficulties of chapter 10,77 the author's ex-

position of the vulnerability of wisdom's advantage in 9:11-10:20

is to prepare the reader who fears God to preserve this fragile ad-

vantage. Should wisdom's advantage be forfeited, it would be

foolish indeed to return to man's natural advantage (9:11-12).

Only by vigilantly maintaining wisdom's advantage in the face

of inherent depravity (9:13-10:20), uncertainty (11:1-6), and

mortality (11:7-12:7), can God's steward ultimately realize wis-

dom's inheritance (cf. 7:11).

As in the first half of Qoheleth's argument, several less

prominent yet important transitions can also be recognized; these I

occur at 8: L, 16; and 11:1, 7. Having introduced wisdom's advan-

tage as the governing theme of the argument's second half (7:11-

12) and having exposed man's innate depravity as the major ob-

stacle to realizing this advantage (7:15-29), Qoheleth then posed

the obvious dilemma confronting the reader who has followed the

argument thus far (8:1).78 Given the devastating effect of sin on


at 9:11. Whybray's outline leaves 9:11-12 unrelated to either the preceding or fol-

lowing material (Ecclesiastes, 145-46), just as he does with 4:1-3. Eaton aligns 9:11-

12 with the following text by asserting that "the verses introduce the themes of wis-

dom and its limits, as well as counterbalancing vv. 7-10. The wise man must not be

so taken up with the contented life as to forget life's frustrations; for these do not

disappear when the wise man is assured of God's approval" (Ecclesiastes, 130).

76 The absence of clear-cut opening markers between 9:13 and 12:7 supports view-

ing the entire section as a major cohesive unit. The minor transitions at 9:13; 10:1;

and 11:1, 7 are dictated by more subtle changes in type trait and theme.

77 Ogden reviews the notorious difficulty "of determining some thematic ar-

rangement of the material" in Ecclesiastes 9-10 and offers a plausible solution

("Variations on the Theme of Wisdom's Strength and Vulnerability," 331-35). His

five-fold division of thought units within chapter 10 (ibid., 336-40) is to be com-

mended for its exegetical clarity and its consistency with Qoheleth's emphasis on

the vulnerability of wisdom's advantage in 9:13-11:6.

78 The question asked by Qoheleth at 8: 1 is a logical question to pose in response to

the demoralizing conclusion of the previous subsection (7:15-29). By conveying in

effect the hot lest realization that for a person truly to benefit from wisdom requires

some efficacious way to overcome the inevitable consequences of his depravity, this

question leaf is directly to 8:2-15, which describes one's liability to God s Judgment

for evil done.

316                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / July-September 1997


wisdom, who can possibly appropriate wisdom's life-giving bene-

fits? As this dilemma is only compounded by liability to judg-

ment for one's sin (8:2-8), it then becomes clear why a person's

only hope to benefit from wisdom is to fear before God (8:9-15).

Following the enjoyment pericope at 8:14-15, Qoheleth's re-

flection in 8:16-17 concerning the inscrutability of God's "work"

should be recognized as another transition. By acknowledging

that the advantage of wisdom is sourced in the inscrutable realm

of the "work of God" (8:16-17)-and therefore not to be sought

"under the sun"--Qoheleth set the stage for the message of 9:1-10:

Wisdom's advantage is retained by the "righteous and the wise"

who are in "the hand of God" and thus have the hope of "finding"

the ultimate meaning of their works within the "work of God."

The transition at 11:1 is marked by a shift to a sustained ex-

hortation that continues through 12:7. Wisdom's advantage can

be realized in the face of uncertainty only by the expeditious in-

vestment of labor and resources when the opportunity presents it-

self (11:1-6). Regarding the minor transition at 11:7, the case has

already been made that 11:7-10 should be viewed as an enjoy-

ment peri cope that initiates the conclusion of the argument. The

prevailing theme of wisdom's advantage is reintroduced with the

imagery of light and darkness in 11:7-8, which recalls similar

imagery in 7:11 and 8:1b, also intended to reflect the benefits of

wisdom. The coherence and unity of 11:7-12:779 is then estab-

lished by the repetition of several associated constructions within

the passage80 which collectively underscore the importance of

early and opportune appropriation of wisdom's benefits to maxi-

mize fruitful stewardship of one's "portion" from God before de-

bility and death ensue.



The approach to the literary composition of Ecclesiastes presented

in this art.icle establishes the unity and coherence of Qoheleth's

message as both consistent with human experience and compati-

ble with the truth revealed in the rest of Scripture. The message

can be summarized as follows: Aided even with unprecedented

human wisdom (cf. 1:13, 16), self-determined individuals are

79See Murphy, Ecclesiastes, 114-15.

80The repeated constructions include "remember" (11:8 and 12:1), "vanity" (11:8c;

10c; and 12:8), "the days of darkness" (11:8b), "the difficult days" (12:1), and "before"


The Structure and Unity of Ecclesiastes                 317


incapable of finding or forging lasting meaning “under the sun”

(1:12-6:12). However, wisdom may still yield a meaningful "m-

heritance," if one is willing to endure the transformation of au-

thentic mourning (7:1-:-14). But to realize this inheritance fully,

one must learn that wisdom’s benefits are precluded by depravity

(7:15-29)  made possible in the face of Judgment only through

the fear of God (8:1-15). These benefits find their source only in

the inscrutable "work of God" (8:16-9:10), are preserved by moral

vigilance (!.:11-10:20), and are finally realized by opportune

stewardship of a person's God-given "portion" (11:1-12:7).

This approach also supports a unified effective purpose or in-

tended response to the message81 that addresses the needs of all

humankind. This message and purpose are articulated by the fol-

lowing three-part summary statement that reflects the author's

(a) chosen expressive purpose or type of meaning; (b) intended

message for his audience; and (c) intended effective purpose (or

application of his message) for the reader:

By reflecting on his futile search for any advantage to hu-

man labor "under the sun," the author exposes man's existential

inability-tracing it to his inherent uncertainty, depravity, and

mortality--and consequently locates the only hope for meaning

in patient submission to God's sovereign (though inscrutable)

purposes, so that the reader might despair of self-determination,

mourn his own inability, and accept his "portion" from God,

thereby enabling him to enjoy the advantage of wisdom as an ac-

countable steward of the "work of God."



I. Thematic Prologue: What Profit Has a Man? (1:1-11)

II. Man’s Futile Search for Meaning "under the Sun" (1:12-


A. Man's Futile Search for Satisfaction in Achievement


1. Introduction: Qoheleth's Futile Quest (1:12-18)

2. The Futile Pursuit of Pleasure (2:1-11)

3. The Futile Pursuit of Wisdom (2: 12-17)

4. The Futility of All Toil "under the Sun" (2:18-23)


81The author's "effective" purpose (in contrast to "expressive" purpose) is de-

fined as the "effect" intended by the author for his message to produce in the heart

of the reader. See Roy B. Zuck, "Application in Biblical Hermeneutics and Exposi-

tion," in Walvoord: A Tribute, ed. Donald K. Campbell (Chicago: Moody, 1982)! 15-

38; Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, 344-47; and Johnson, Expository

Hermeneutics, 215-64.

318                 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / July--September 1997


5. Hope for Meaning from the Hand of God (2:24-26)

B. Man's Futile Attempt to Discern God's Purpose (3:1-22)

1. All Life's Events Reflect Purpose (3:1-8)

2. God's Inscrutable Purpose for Man's Labor (3:9-15)

3. Man's Inscrutable Destiny in God's Plan (3:16-22)

III. The Futility of Selfish Ambition (4:1-6:12)

A. The Pervasive Tyranny of Selfish Ambition (4:1-16)

1. Unjust Oppression: First Sign of Selfish Ambition


2. Bitter Alienation: Ambition's Ultimate "Harvest"


B. The Costly Presumption behind Selfish Ambition (5: 1-


1. Man's Ultimate Loss in Presuming on God (5:1-7)

2. The Cumulative Cost of Presuming on Others


C. No Ultimate Advantage to Selfish Ambition (5:18-6:12)

1. The Utter Despair of an Unsatisfied Soul (5:18-


2. The Ultimate Inability of the Self-Determined Soul


IV. Despair as a Turning Point to Wisdom (7:1-14)

A. Authentic Mourning Is Better than Unfounded Opti-

mism (7:1-7)

1. The Wisdom of Authentic Mourning (7:1-4)

2. The Folly of Appeasing Despair (7:5-7)

B. Patient Confidence Is Better than Angry Pride (7:8-14)

1. The Folly of Angry Pride (7:8-10) -

2. Wisdom's Ultimate Advantage (7:11-14)

V. The True Path to Wisdom: The Fear of God (7:15-9:10)

A. Total Depravity: Man's Greatest Obstacle to Wisdom


1. Man's Hopelessly Inadequate Righteousness


2. Depravity Exposed in the Search for Wisdom


B. The Fear of God: Man's Only Hope in Judgment (8:1-15)

The Structure and Unity of Ecclesiastes                 319


1. Wisdom's Advantage in the Face of Judgment


2. Man's Only Hope: To Fear before God (8:9-15)

C. The Work of God: Man's Ultimate Source of Meaning


1. Man's Uncertain Role in God's Inscrutable Plan


2. Man's Hope for Meaning in His "Portion" from

God (9:3-10)

VI. Shepherding Wisdom for the Work of God (9:11-12:7)

A. Wisdom's Vulnerability: The Need for Moral Vigi-

lance (9:11-10:20)

1. Time and Chance: "Natural" Advantage Nulli-

fied (9:11-12)

2. Wisdom's Advantage Dismissed by Fools (9:13-18)

3. Wisdom's Advantage Forfeited by Folly (10:1-20)

B. Opportune Stewardship amid Life's Adversity (11:7-12:7)

1. Expeditious Stewardship in the Face of Uncer-

tainty (11:1-6)

2. Early Stewardship in the Face of Mortality (11:7-


VII. Epilogue: Qoheleth's Moral Authority (12:8-14)

A. Qoheleth's Teaching-The Reliable Word of God (12:8-12

B. The Purpose of God's Word (12:13-14)


This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Dallas Theological Seminary

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            Dallas, TX   75204  

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