Westminster Theological Journal 37 (1974) 57-73.

         Copyright © 1974 by Westminster Theological Seminary, cited with permission.




                                AS SEEN IN HIS

                           RECURRING PHRASES


                                         H. CARL SHANK


WITHIN the scope of Old Testament ethical problems falls

the viewpoint of Qoheleth, or the Preacher, of Ecclesiastes.

A superficial reading of the book reveals a man who definitely has

a negative viewpoint of life in its many facets. If indeed the book

is a unity, composed by one wise man, then the theme of pessi-

mism or cynicism becomes a suggested option. But the ethical

questions arising from such an understanding of the book become

crucial. Can a thoroughly pessimistic view of life have any place

in the canonical books of Scripture? What exactly is the goal of

Qoheleth's ethics? Further, what does the God of Qoheleth

really have to do with his life and standards of conduct? Again,

does not the recurring theme of "there is nothing better for a man

than that he should eat and drink and make his soul enjoy good

in his labor" (cf. 2:24; 3:12,13, etc.) denote a sort of Epicurean





Of course the modern critics of the Bible have seized upon the

pessimism-cynicism suggestion with a vengeance. Morris Jastrow

has suggested that the book teaches an ethical cynicism, where,

in the face of no real goal to life, good humor is still to be main-

tained. 1 A popular view, held until recently, noted the phrase

"Vanity of vanities" and attempted to draw certain parallelisms

in thought and perspective between Qoheleth's notion of "vanity"

and Heraclitus's view that "all is flux".2 However, most critical


1 Cf. Morris Jastrow, A Gentle Cynic (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott,


2 Cf. Carl Knopf, "The Optimism of Ecclesiastes," Journal of Biblical

Literature, XLIX (1930), 195-199.





scholars today reject this argument as unconvincing. The recog-

nized modern critical writer, G. Von Rad, has related the book

to a supposed stage in Israel's religious evolution at which

"belief in Yahweh's action in history grew weak" and Ecclesiastes

"fell back on the cyclical way of thinking common to the East."3

D. Kidner comments that Von Rad's argument rests on "preca-

rious assumptions". Along with the questionable premise that

the thinking of the Ancient Near East was "cyclical", the dating

of the book still remains too much of an open question to make

definite conclusions concerning the strength of belief "in Yah-

weh's action in history".4

R. B. Y. Scott, in the Anchor Bible series, suggests the follow-

ing concerning Qoheleth's ethic:

His ethic has no relationship to divine commandments, for

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

and moderation before the inexplicable, on the acceptance of

what is fated and cannot be changed, and finally on grasping

firmly the only satisfaction open to man -the enjoyment of

being alive. The author is a rationalist, an agnostic, a skeptic,

a pessimist and a fatalist (the terms are not used pejora-

tively !).5

Scott adds that Qoheleth teaches "philosophical nihilism" and

has no real "religious" point of view. In response to such a

characterization of Qoheleth's ethics, we note that Scott, along

with Von Rad, assumes the non-Christian ethical construct of a

God, hidden behind an "impenetrable veil", and One who can

offer no clear revelation to Qoheleth. Qoheleth's "God" is the

Great Unknown of neo-orthodox theology.6 Qoheleth's wisdom

lay in "recognizing the limitations of human knowledge and


3 G. Von Rad, Old Testament Theology (New York: Harper and Row,

1962), p. 454.

4 Derek Kidner, "Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament," New

Perspectives on the Old Testament, ed. J. Barton Payne (Waco: Word

Books, 1970), p. 125.

5 R. B. Y. Scott, Qoheleth, in the Anchor Bible (New York: Double-

day, 1965), pp. 191-192.

6 This is substantially true of the view expressed in G. A. Buttrick, et

al. (eds.), The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. V (New York: Abingdon, -1956),

p. 22: "He (Qoheleth) does not doubt the existence and sovereignty of

God, but his God is absentee, lost in the distance, not only apparently

careless of mankind but at variance with it."



power"7 affirms Scott. Consequently, man cannot have an

absolute good in the universe; he must remain satisfied with the

relative good found in "relishing being alive".8 It does seem that

Scott relies upon some kind of Kantian noumenal-phenomenal

distinction at this point. At the very least, his scheme is based

upon a faith-knowledge dialectic where Qoheleth's faith (if he

possesses any) has nothing to do with his intellectual compre-

hension and explanation of the world about him.

Is indeed the goal of Qoheleth's ethics some deterministic yet

strangely "hidden" and silent Elohim-God, who barely resembles

Israel’s covenant Yahweh? Is Qoheleth's situation that of an

ethical dilemma arising from hopeless pessimism? Must we

finally agree with the non-Christian ethical view that since it is

hopeless and foolish to look for perfection in this world and

since, after all, God and man on Qoheleth's model are subject to

certain limitations it is best to seek to improve conditions to

some extent, at least? Must we conclude that man should enjoy

himself (2:24; etc.) and work with all his might (9:10), what-

ever God may say?




In response to critical views, evangelicals have attempted in

various ways to justify Qoheleth's seemingly negative attitude

about life. For the most part, they have recognized the distinc-

tively recurring phrases in Ecclesiastes.9 However, it seems to

me that they have not really dealt honestly with them.

Leupold analyzes the phrases "under the sun", "vanity of

vanities; all is vanity", and suggests that Qoheleth deliberately

concerns himself only with the things of this world. Revelation

and the world to come are, for the sake of argument, temporarily

ruled out. It is by this ''as if" technique that Leupold explains

Qoheleth's seemingly negative outlook on the world.10 Actually,


7 Scott, p. 206.

8 Ibid., p. 196.

9 There are six of these recurring phrases in the book of Ecclesiastes;

the phrases and Scriptural references are listed in this section.

10 This is especially apparent in H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Ecclesiastes

(Columbus: Wartburg Press, 1952), pp. 92-93.



however, Qoheleth really does "fear God and keep his com-


Even Hengstenberg, though he has some valid penetrating

remarks on the message of Ecclesiastes, points out that the theme,

or themes, are difficult to delineate. In fact the whole book,

including these recurring themes, is "unintelligible except on the

historical presupposition that the people of God was in a very

miserable condition at the time of its composition."11 The Per-

sians held dominion over the people of God. They were in a state

of deepest misery and had consequently fallen prey to vanity.

The radiant glory of Solomon's day was no more (1:12-18),

and this was a time of persecution.12 The date of composition was

either contemporaneous with or after the time of Malachi. Thus,

Qoheleth, in demonstrating the utter vanity of this life, would

enable the people to appreciate fully the "fear of God" and "what

a precious treasure man has in God".13 Yet, even if one accepts

a late, post-exilic dating and non-Solomonic authorship, both of

which are unsettled in scholars' minds, what about the seemingly

"obvious" tone of resignation demonstrated over and over again

in these phrases? Even on the historical construct of Hengsten-

berg and others they may still seem to portray Qoheleth as a

man of "questionable" or "confused" ethics.

The frankness of the introductory note to the Scofield Bible

concerning the recurring phrases and the entire book plays havoc

with conservative "glossing over" or "dressing up of" the thought

of Qoheleth.

This is the Book of man 'under the sun', reasoning about life;

it is the best man can do, with the knowledge that there is a

Holy God, and that He will bring everything into judgment

. . . Inspiration sets down accurately what passes, but the

conclusions and reasonings are, after all, man's.14

The spectre of pessimism once-more appears on the horizon of

Qoheleth's thought.

Although these conservative writers have different emphases


11 E. W. Hengstenberg, Commentary on Ecclesiastes (Philadelphia:

Smith, English, and Co., 1860), p. 45.

12 Ibid., pp. 2-16.

13 Ibid., p. 16.

14 Quoted in ]. Stafford Wright, "The Interpretation of Ecclesiastes,"

The Evangelical Quarterly (1946), pp. 20-21.



and methods of interpretation, they will all agree on one crucial

ethical area, namely the situational perspective of Qoheleth.

Qoheleth is a man who, though he does fear God and stresses

the keeping of His commandments (12:13), looks at the world

about him from the standpoint of reason that has very little

relationship with his "blind faith" in the Creator. A distinct

dichotomy between faith and reason can be clearly seen in Leu-

pold, Delitzsch, and Scofield when they deal with the recurring

phrases. Even Hengstenberg does not totally escape this faith-

reason dialectic. He mentions that Qoheleth's pervasive use of

the name Elohim shows that "the problem before the writer

is considered from the point of view of Natural Theology

with the aid of experience, and of reason as purified by the Spirit

of God."15 Finally, Sierd Woudstra, who criticizes Leupold for

his nature-grace dichotomy in interpreting Qoheleth's thought,

falls into speaking of two concurrent lines of thought prevalent

in Qoheleth: "Koheleth is on the one hand dealing with life as

he observed it, while on the other hand he knew and was con-

vinced by faith that things were different."16

However, Woudstra here raises an important issue in the

interpretation of the ethical perspective of Qoheleth. If there does

exist a distinction here, that distinction is not between faith and

reason but between faith and sight, i.e. between "faith~' (that

comes from special revelation) and that revelation presently

available to any natural man as he perceives the creation about

him. Of course, such a distinction can be seen in the New Testa-

ment record (cf. Rom. 1:18-32; Acts 14: 15-17; Acts 17:22-

31). But, in what sense and to what degree is such a "distinc-

tion" relevant to Qoheleth?

To begin with, Qoheleth was not merely a theologian working

from the construct of "natural theology" who then attempted to

understand God's creation without the interpretative key of

special revelation. As we shall demonstrate later, he looked upon

life and the world from the perspective of an Old Testament

believer who had understood the reality of. the curse of God

placed upon life "under the sun" in Gen. 3. Hence, Qoheleth's


15 Hengstenberg, p. 26.

16 Sierd Woudstra, "Koheleth's Reflection Upon Life," (unpublished

Th. M. Thesis, Westminster Theological Seminary, 1959), p. 38. Notice

Woudstra's evaluation of Leupold on p. 106.



wisdom and knowledge of this world was not merely that of a

propositional and sense-experience sort. He approached the

world and the life-situation by presupposing a Creator God who

had indeed revealed Himself in creation, in the fall and in the

subsequent history of redemption. He stood in a culture which

knew Yahweh and the world about them in terms of direct

revelation given through the Law and the Prophets. Conse-

quently, his knowledge of anything must presuppose his knowl-

edge of God, which sprang from a proper attitude of the fear of

God. Thus, Qoheleth's “faith" and "sight" were not something

wholly distinct from and independent of each other (cf. below,

Phrase 4).

But also, they do not oppose one another in the book of Eccle-

siastes. The historical-redemptive antecedents of Qoheleth's sight-

perspective find their point of reference in the fall and curse of

Gen. 3. Intimations to such a reference-point are found in an

exposition of some of his recurring phrases and their contexts

(cf. below, Phrase 1, Phrase 4). Moreover, the twin-idea of all

men being "of dust" (3:20; 12:7) and "turning or returning

to dust again" (3:20)j"to the earth as it was" (12:7) when

they die, no doubt has its primary reference in Gen. 3: 19: "In

the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou return unto

the ground; for out of it wast thou taken; for dust thou art and

unto dust shalt thou return."17 Further, the consequences of

Qoheleth's sight-perspective merely drive him to acknowledge

that wisdom resides in fearing God and keeping His command-

ments (12:13). Consequently, any claim that Qoheleth's ethic

falls into the imperfect ethical thought of the Old Testament

and that we must therefore expect some sort of faith-reason, or

rather faith-sight, dichotomy cannot be maintained.

Yet, in another sense, since Qoheleth does refer back to the


17 Comparing the Hebrew of Gen. 3:19 with Ecc. 3:20 and 12:7 we

notice some interesting syntactic parallels:

rpfh-lx bw      (Ecc. 3:20)

     bVwt rpf-lx            (Gen. 3:19)

    Crxh-lx rpfh bwyv       (Ecc.12:7)

                   Hmdxh-lx (Gen. 3:19)

Hengstenberg maintains that the foundation of Ecc. 3:20 is found in

Gen. 3:19 (op. cit., p. 118) while allusion is made to Gen. 3:19 in Ecc.

12:7 (cf. p. 253.).



fall and the resultant curse, he like Paul in Acts 14 (cf. Acts 17

and also Rom. 1) makes a case that is largely restricted to that

revelation made available by the Creator God to all natural men

who live in the light of the fall. Qoheleth gives the natural man

an astoundingly lucid description of what he can behold in this

world and his life which should drive him to seek God and His

self-revelation in Jesus Christ. To demonstrate this we notice

two points.

First of all, to the Lycaonian Gentiles Paul and Barnabas in

Acts 14: 15ff. restrict their case to that revelation available to

these people in the Creator God (vs. 15) providentially giving

them "rains and fruitful seasons filling your hearts with food

and gladness." (vs. 17) F. F. Bruce suggests that the imagery

here is drawn from several Old Testament texts, one of which

Ecc. 9: 7 (cf. below, Phrase 5).18 This "gladness" was a gift

God to these Gentiles by which they should have discerned His

rule over them.19 It was therefore foolish and vain

them to attempt to perform that worship before Paul and

Barnabas which, by the light of even natural revelation alone,

belonged only to the Creator.

Then, also, the theme of foolishness for unregenerate men not

recognizing the "power and divinity" of the God of the creation in

which they live and move is brought out clearly in Rom. 1: 18ff.20


18 Cf.  F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of Acts (Grand Rapids:

1954). The term for gladness (eu]frosu<nh) is used in the

of Ecc. 9: 7 and translates HmW. Other possible references to Old

Testament imagery for vs. 17 are Ps. 4:7 and Is. 25:6. At the very least,

the Apostles may be alluding to the passage in Ecc. 9:7.

19 "This eu]frosu<nh can also be gratefully understood as the gift of God

by which even the heathen may discern his providential rule, Acts 14:17."

(R. Bultmann, article on eu]frni<uw / eu]frosu<nh, Vol. II, TWNT, ed. G.

Kittel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), p. 774.

20 M. D. Hooker maintains that Paul in Rom. 1: 18-32 had the figure

of Adam in mind: "In these verses he deliberately described man's pre-

dicament in terms of the biblical narrative of Adam's fall. Not only does

the language of this section echo that of Gen. 1 :20-6 but the sequence of

events is reminiscent of the story of Adam in Gen. 1-3." (M. D. Hooker,

"A Further Note on Romans 1," NT Studies 13 (Jan., 1967), p. 181;

cf. also his "Adam in Romans 1," NT Studies 6 (1959-1960), pp 297-306).

C. K. Barrett develops this thesis in From First Adam to Last (London,

1962, pp. 17-19) and claims that the moral wickedness described in Rom.

1 is the direct result of the Fall.



These unrighteous acts of the Gentiles in the light of God's

natural revelation proceeded not from a mere deficiency in mental

capacity but from moral obtuseness, or foolishness (vs. 22).21

Again, F. F. Bruce points out that the term used by Paul for

"fool" probably refers back to the "fool" of the Old Testament

Wisdom Literature.22 Here we have a tie-in with Qoheleth's

exposition in Ecclesiastes. As natural men observe the creation

about them there are only two possible options for a philosophy

of life. One is to claim the "wisdom" of this world and thus

become fools in the sight of God. The other is to recognize the

stark reality of the picture Qoheleth paints for him and to heed

the command, "Fear God and keep His commandments" (cf.

below, Phrase 6). True wisdom resides in this alone.

Before we consider the recurring phrases, it is necessary to

make some preliminary remarks on the method of interpretation

of Qoheleth's ethic in these phrases. To begin with, we should

attempt to understand the book in the apparent way Qoheleth

has composed it. He has done so by using certain phrases which

occur over and over again throughout the twelve chapters. I

think that J. Stafford Wright has a valid hermeneutical principle

in mind when he suggests that examination of these recurring

phrases reveals, at the very least, Qoheleth's thought in the im-

mediate context of the book.23

Secondly, Qoheleth's directive in 12:13 and the remark in

vs. 14 skilfully summarizes and concludes his whole ethical


    Finally, Robert Haldane in his Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans

(Banner, 1960) notes that the wrath of God "was revealed when the

sentence of death was first pronounced, the earth cursed and man driven

out of the earthly paradise. . ." (P. 55).

   We might therefore be able to draw a redemptive-historical link between

the Fall/Curse, Qoheleth and Paul in Rom. 1 and hence in Acts 14 and 17.

21 Cf. F. F. Bruce, Epistle to the Romans, Tyndale Series (Grand

Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963). Calvin says that impiety here should be joined

to unrighteousness (Commentary on th'e Epistle of Paul the Apostle to

the Romans, p. 68).

22 Cf. F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Romans. He also notes that

parallels exist between later Israelite Wisdom Literature (c£.. Wisdom

12-14). Hooker (op. cit.) make a similar point in his exposition of this


23 Wright, op. cit., p. 22 has a rather uncritical way of suggesting this

hermeneutical principle. Nevertheless, I feel he has a valid principle in




stance.  Qoheleth's ethical integrity is grounded in the practice

of the fear of God along with the keeping of His commandments,

and however we analyze the rest of the book we must not con-

travene Qoheleth's own ethical conclusion.

Third, we must remember that Ecclesiastes appears in the

broader context of the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament.

That literature, though similar in some formal characteristics

with other Ancient Near East Wisdom Literature, cannot be

identified with it in its ethical perspective. Qoheleth's wisdom

has its foundation clearly laid in the fear of the Lord.

Finally, we must understand Qoheleth's ethical perspective in

the general context of the rest of the Old Testament and in the

light of the One who embodied this wisdom in the New Testa-

ment, even Jesus Christ. We affirm that Qoheleth does not

disagree with other Old Testament thought. Rather, he writes

in the context of the doctrines of the fall and man's sin. He does

not dispute their revelatory character and relevance to his

situation; he assumes their validity for his life and world view.

Also, he looks forward in hope to the New Testament in his

doctrine of the fear of the Lord and the coming judgment of

the secret thoughts of man.





1. Phrase 1: “All is vanity" or “This is vanity"

(1:2, 14; 2:1,11, 17, 26, 15, 19,21,23; 3:19;

4:4, 8, 7, 16; 5:7(6), 10(9); 6:2, 4, 9, 11, 12; 7:6, 15;

8:10, 14; 9:9; 11:8, 10; 12:8 repetition of 1:2)

This phrase is the most dominant and pervasive of all the

recurring phrases in Ecclesiastes. Hengstenberg disagrees with

those who would attempt to make this phrase the one theme of

the book since it does not sufficiently explicate some of the

other material in the book. Yet its dominance in Qoheleth's

thought renders it a key to the interpretation of life "under

the sun".

Woudstra states the main exegetical question concerning this

class of phrases well:

Is Koheleth only saying that man's accomplishments under

the sun are transitory in character, are devoid of any perma-



nence, or is he saying that human existence and everything

that goes with it is futile and meaningless?24

The latter, Leupold holds, gives the term hebel (lbh) a pessi-

mistic connotation not warranted by the facts.25 He claims that

the term refers to "that which is fleeting and transitory and also

suggests the partial futility of human effort."26 Woudstra, on the

other hand, opts for the latter description of hebel and denies

that this implies a pessimism that the critics would like to see


A thorough study of the word in the contexts mentioned above

reveals that the term takes on different connotations in different

contexts. Theophile Meek says that "in this short book, hebel

would seem to be used in at least five different senses: 'futile'

(most frequent, e.g., 1:2), 'empty' (e.g., 6:12), 'sorry' (e.g.,

6:4), 'senseless' (e.g., 8:14), and 'transient' (e.g., 11:10)."27 He

therefore proposes that the term takes on different meanings in

different contexts. With respect to other Old Testament litera-

ture, hebel can refer to that which is "unsubstantial, evanescent"

as far as a basis for religious trust is concerned (cl. Jer. 1:15;

51:18; 16:19). In Ps. 39:4ff, man is in a "turmoil over vanity"

(vs. 6), over the labor to attain breaths of wind. His "precious

things" cannot endure because they partake of the nature of


The power of Meek's suggestion in the immediate context of

Ecclesiastes lies in the fact that it seems to give the term the

flexibility of connotation that Qoheleth evidently employs in these

recurring phrases.28 Different "aspects" of the idea of vanity are

employed by Qoheleth to vividly illustrate the reality of the curse

of God placed upon the work of man after the Fall (cl. Gen.

3: 17-19). Therefore, an attempt to find a "static" meaning to

hebel in Ecclesiastes, as Woudstra and others do, fails to take

note of the richness of the concept as used by Qoheleth.

Those aspects which are available to every man, and from


24 Woudstra, p. 38.

25 Leupold, p. 41.

26 Ibid.

27 Theophile J. Meek, "Transplanting the Hebrew Bible," Journal of

Biblical Literature, 79 (1960), p. 331.

28 Note also the variability of connotations in the use of the term Mlf

in Ecclesiastes: 1:4; 3:11, 14; 9:6; 12:5.



which none can entirely escape, are a life and labor that are

wearisome (cf. Job. 7:3), filled often with sorrow and pain (cf.

Job. 3: 10; Ps. 25: 18; 73:16)29 and will only end up in physical

at the very least. Also, Qoheleth tells us that this created

partakes of the character of "vanity" (cf. 7: 15 ; 9:9). Yet,

man's effort in this context is given to him as a gift of God

(3:13,14; 6:2). Therefore, natural man cannot claim that his

efforts are "meaningless" or that the situation in which he finds

himself forces him to sin, since God made labor a good gift. It

is the fear of God alone and the keeping of His commandments

which can give men the ability to enjoy this gift of labor. Yet,

Qoheleth's faith does not change the character of a created order

which now partakes of the character of vanity (cf. Rom. 8 and

below). Consequently, excruciating moral problems do exist for

Qoheleth because the ground after the curse brought on by the

becomes an occasion for temptation.


2. Phrase 2: "under the sun" (1:3, 9, 14; 2:11, 17, 18,

19, 20, 22; 3:16; 4:1, 3, 7, 15; 5:13, 18; 6:1, 5, 12; 8:9, 15, 17:

9:3, 6, 9, 11, 13; 10:5)

This second phrase forms the immediate context of a world

which has the constitution and course of "vanity". It has refer-

ence to the place where the toil of man occurs and is tantamount

to Crxh-lf (cf. 8:14, 16; 11:2). Notice that this phrase is unique

to Qoheleth.


3. Phrase 3: "striving after wind" ( 1:14;

2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 6; 6:9)

With the exception of 4:6 this expression is always joined

to the phrase containing the word "vanity". A man may deter-

mine or make up his mind to accomplish something eternally

significant in a creation subjected to vanity, yet no matter how

hard he tries Qoheleth tells him it will be a fruitless endeavor

(cf. 1: 14 and use of n'~'). A man in his toil "under the sun"

grasps after the wind and attains precious little for all his labor.


29 Even as early as Gen. 4:2 in the history of redemption Eve was

overcome by the discovery of the vanity of this earthly life. This is

expressed in the naming of  “Abel": hrer lbh-yhyvlbh.



4. Phrase 4:

(a) "I perceived" (1:17; 2:14; 3:22)

(b) "I said in my heart" (2:1, 15; 3:17, 18;


( c) "I gave my heart to consider" & vari-

ations (1:13, 17; 2:3; 7:25; 8:9, 16;


Most interpreters have more or less considered this class of

phrases as indicative of a thoroughgoing research activity, pri-

marily involving mental conception of various empirical facts.

Leupold maintains that these phrases merely indicate an experi-

ment of Qoheleth in rational thinking, thinking that, for the

time-being, is unaided by enlightened reason and revelation from

God.30 As noted above, Hengstenberg would disagree with Leu-

pold's conjecture and claim that this class of phrases demon-

strates Qoheleth's enlightened reason operating in the sphere of

natural theology. But again, revelation has very little to do with

Qoheleth's perception of this world of vanity.

However, we must maintain, contrary to the majority of

critical and conservative commentators, that Qoheleth's percep-

tion as indicated in this class of phrases refers to a knowledge

which is a "reflex-action" of his fear of God and which penetrates

to the essence of the meaning of what this world of vanity is all

about. Surely, Qoheleth does perceive the vanity "under the sun"

which does not exclude the intellectual element of knowledge of

these things. Yet that perception also includes a deep, spiritual

insight into the effects of the curse of God upon life and labor

"under the sun".

Two very common Hebrew words (hxr and fdy) are used to

denote the sight-action involved here. Commenting on 1:17,

Delitzsch notes that “. . . daath is knowledge penetrating into

into the depth of the essence of things, by which wisdom is

acquired and in which wisdom establishes itself."31 However, he

distinguishes between this "type" of knowing and the "intellec-

tual" experience recorded in verse 16 -"my heart hath seen

(MN1) wisdom and knowledge in fullness." "The seeing here


30 Leupold, p. 55.

31 Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes

(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970 reprint), p. 230.



ascribed to the heart is meant of intellectual observation and

apprehension. . ."32 As to fdy, Qoheleth uses it to refer to a

spiritual perception (cf., for example, 3: 12, 14; 8:5; 9:12:10: 14;

11:2,5). In 7:25f. notice that spiritual conception arising from

revelation, not from experimental data, intellectually found and

studied, accounts for the acknowledgment of the truth in vs. 29:

"God made man upright." Indeed, a man's own reasoning ability

functions in the context of vanity too (cf. 8: 16, 17) !

But, furthermore, the distinction which Delitzsch (and others)

makes between the hxr-seeing and the fdy-seeing cannot be

sustained either on general Christian-theistic anthropological

grounds or on specific exegetical grounds in Ecclesiastes.

As to the latter consideration, we recognize the close tie

between hxr and fdy in 6:3-6. In verses 3 and 4 Qoheleth states

that even an "untimely birth" comes and goes in the context of

vanity just as a man who lives many years (vs. 3) lives in the

context of vanity. On that consideration there is no difference.

However, what is better about this "untimely birth" than the

long-lived man without a burial and without "his soul being

filled with good" is that at least this child "hath not seen the

sun nor known it" (fdy-xlv hx,r-xl wmw). A purely "intel-

lectual perception" of life under the sun and a deeper, spiritual

perception are brought so close together grammatically that they

are interdependent.

Secondly, in this class of phrases we have Qoheleth using the

term bl (kardi<a in LXX), "I said in my heart, etc.". While

Leupold relates all of th~se sayings to the realm of empirical

experiences, Qoheleth does not do so. Rather, Qoheleth employs

the bond that exists between religion and ethics which is found

the Wisdom Literature's concept of "heart". Yes, it is true

that the will, aims, principles, thoughts, and intellect of man are

found in the heart (cf. Provo 18:15; Job 8:10; Jer. 23:20;

11:20). Yet, also, the "heart" describes the whole person (Ps.


32 Delitzsch reasons thus: ". ..for all perception, whether it be medi-

ated by the organs of sense or not (as prophetic observing and contem-

plating), comprehends all, from mental discernment down to suffering,

which veils itself in unconsciousness, and the Scripture designates it as

seeing” (Ibid.) Much of this comment seems to proceed from his par-

ticular view of psychology, which tends to break up the psycho-physical

unity of man into artificial compartments.



22:26; Prov. 23:15f, etc.) and in it dwells the "fear of God"

(cf. Jer. 32: 40). How can Qoheleth, out of an ethic dominated

by the fear of God, look on the world solely from an intellectual,

empirical sense that is somehow to be distinctly differentiated

from "heart" consideration of the world? Surely, Qoheleth per-

ceives this world of vanity from the "unity and totality of the

inner life represented and expressed in the variety of intellectual

and spiritual gifts."33


5. Phrase 5: "There is nothing better for a man than that

he should eat and drink and make his soul

enjoy good in his labor" (2:24; 3:12, 13;

3:22; 8:15; 5:18, 19; 9:7, 9)

It has been claimed by the critics that Qoheleth here expressed

his "questionable ethic" by approving of some form of Epicure-

anism. However, the six occurrences of this phrase support

nothing of the sort. In His gracious wisdom God has given

Qoheleth the insight to a proper understanding of how man is

to labor in light of the curse. True, it is hard work, and the

ground does not easily give its riches to man. Yet man's attitude

in all his labor should be to rejoice in it (8: 15) and work with

all his might. This is what belongs to man in the context of

vanity (3:22).34 In the midst of life's confusion mankind receives

a call from God to rejoice. In this redemptive-historical "time of

ignorance" when God patiently "suffered all the nations to walk

in their own ways" (cf. Acts 14, 17) Qoheleth counsels all men

as to their labor before their Creator.

Therefore the readers are not led into some Epicurean work-

ethic or "to the desperate attempt. ..to snatch what they can

while there is still time."35 This toil cannot endure for eternity

since it takes place "under the sun". Hence, the ozm"se reader will

see that that which abides is the eternal work of God (3:11, 14,

15) and that all men must place their fear in Him alone (3: 14 ;

cf. 2:22-26) and not in their vanishing works done under the


33 Notice the article on ~«Q~((1 by Baumgarten and Behm in TWNT,

Vol. III, ed. G. Kittel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), pp. 609-610.

34 qlH man's due or his portion.

35 F. N. Jasper, "Ecclesiastes: A Note for Our Time," Interpreter, 21

(1967), p. 265.



sun. In this very practical situation there is truly "nothing

better" for a man to do than to rejoice in what God has prov-

identially given him (cf. I Sam. 27: 1) .


6. Phrase 6: Instances employing some variation of “fear

God" (5:7; 12:13; 3:14; 7:18; 8:12, 13)

If we ask ourselves why it is that Qoheleth possessed an un-

usually keen perception (cf. Phrase 4) of the actual condition

of man and his world (cf. Phrases 1-3) and yet understood his

role in that context of vanity (Phrase 5), we must reply that

Qoheleth practiced the fear of God. In that fear he found wisdom

and knowledge and hence could understand the fall and its effects

"under the sun" (Prov. 1:29; 2:5; 1:7; 9:10).

With respect to ethics, Qoheleth found the fear of the Lord

the foundation of his faith and practice in a world in which

human wisdom is limited. His keeness of insight and exceeding

fruitfulness of thought was ensured by his fear of God. That

fear also ensured the integration of the theoretical and the prac-

tical in Qoheleth's perception of this world subjected to vanity.

Indeed, we have noted this in the examination of the fourth class

of recurring phrases. Therefore Qoheleth's God was not some

"hidden" Great Unknown who did not have very much to do

with his ethical point of view. Rather, Qoheleth found that all

of our knowing and applying of personal ethics must be related

to humble faith in the Creator God.

Since he knew that worship takes place in the presence of the

living God Qoheleth could stress the fear of Him against the

foolish multitude of form-ritualism that was then prevalent within

the Temple (5: 1-7). Further, since he knew that all our labor

partook of the character of "vanity" he had to affirm that, instead

of attempting either to frustrate God's purposes or to add to

them, we should rather submit ourselves to them, in reverence

to our God (3:13ff.).

Finally, Qoheleth joined the "keeping of God's command-

ments" to the general imperative "Fear God" (12: 13) to indicate

to men that their ethical standard must be the revealed Word of

God. Of course, Qoheleth knew that men will attempt to hide

their works from the searching eye of God, yet he nails his

hearers to this truth of "fearing God" by pointing to the truth

of the coming judgment of God (12:14). Certainly, many evil



things are done in this context of vanity which are hid to men's

eyes, yet God will reveal them all at a future judgment day to

take place in the coming Messianic Age (cf. Mal. 3:5) .

How do we relate the ethical situation and conclusions of

Qoheleth to that of the believer today? New Testament evidence

in Rom. 8:18-22 tells us plainly that a state of "vanity"36 now

exists and that it had a beginning and will have an end. Before

its beginning recorded in the curse of Gen. 3 stands a God and

a  kti<sij without vanity, and at its end stands the hope of a "new

heavens and a new earth" no longer under that curse. The com-

ing of the Messiah and the subsequent Age of the Spirit have

brought freedom from that curse and from the effects of vanity

only in principle; the full realization of that liberation awaits

the Second Advent. Indeed, the Messiah came into this world of

vanity and took upon Himself the labor ('amal) of a cursed

world. We read in Isaiah 53:11 that the Suffering Servant "shall

see the fruits of the travail ('amal) of his soul and be satisfied."

Therefore, in contradiction to Qoheleth who stood in an age of

the history of redemption among wise and foolish men, both of

whom could never overcome the inevitable fact of death, Christ

came and conquered death for the believer. The New Testament

believer lives in the present light of Christ who has come and

who has delivered us from the bondage of sin and death.

However, until he comes again, we live in the stark reality of

the suffering which characterizes a world under the curse (Rom.

8:18). How then shall we view life and labor today? We may

regard Qoheleth's thoughts on life and labor as developed from

his recurring phrases as a normative pattern of experience to be

applied by way of analogy37 to our situation today. Qoheleth's

analysis functions as a vivid reminder for the natural man of

the reality of the curse. For the believer Qoheleth's ethic re-

mains meaningful since it finds the present situation rooted


36 Notice Paul's use of the term mataio<thj for "vanity", which is

same term used in the LXX rendering of Ecclesiastes for this word.

37 The principle of analogy is a hermeneutical principle used in the

interpretation of the Old Testament in light of the New. It refers to the

embodiment of a certain principle of redemptive truth which can con-

stantly recur in the history of redemption. Although it may probably

more fully developed in the New Testament, there is no inherent demand

in analogy for fulfillment in an anti-type.



in the past declaration of the curse of God upon the creation

"under the sun" and moving toward the future renewal of

the cosmic order in the hopeful certainty of God's just Judg-

ment of the innermost thoughts of men at the Second Advent



Wilmington, Delaware


38 Since the judgment spoken of in 12: 14 cannot take place now before

men since the hidden things are not able to be seen by men, Qoheleth

refers to a future judgment. Further, the primary objective reference of

Fpwm (kri<sei) is to the Day of Judgment recorded in the New Testament

(cf. Rom. 2:16; I Cor. 4:5; I Tim. 5:24, 25).


This material is cited with gracious permission from:

            Westminster Theological Seminary

            Chestnut Hill

            Philadelphia,  PA   19118


Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu