How to read Ecclesiastes


Ecclesiastes comes to us from an editor ( 12:9-14) who has compiled the teachings and proverbs of an Israelite king who calls himself Qohelet ("assembler"), a title that alludes to his role as a teacher of wisdom in an assembly-presumably of God's people (12:9). A prologue (1:1 -11) sets forth the basic concern that drives Qohelet's whole enterprise, namely, the hebel (="breath,"vapor"; NIV "meaningless") nature of human life in a world that continues as it was before and after anyone's own life span. The book concludes with the words of the editor-compiler, who encourages contemplation of Qohelet's words as goads for the young, but also warns that there is a proper limit to such speculation (12:12)-and in the end he makes sure that all is placed within the ultimate setting of biblical wisdom: Fearing God by keeping his commandments gives meaning to human life.

The words of Qohelet himself are enclosed (1:2; 12:8) by the melancholy refrain: Hebel, hebel! says Qohelet; Hebel of hebel! Everything is hebel. The rest is an inquiry into how one should live in such a world, since reality isn't as neat as some expressions of traditional wisdom might lead one to think. And the structure of the book mirrors its content, for there is no immediately apparent order to it. What the author does is to play and replay certain themes, all the while moving toward his concluding advice to the young (11:9- 12:7): to enjoy life while they are young, but to do so remembering their Creator. If Qohelet's material can be divided into coherent subdivisions at all, they would seem to be 1:12-6:12 and 7:1- 12:7, the first playing and replaying Qohelet's primary concerns, the second, while keeping these themes alive, sounding much more like proverbial wisdom.


Traditionally, no other book in the Bible has been such a difficult read. This is because of (1) the somewhat rambling nature of many of Qohelet's observations-at least to the Western mind -(2) some strikingly antithetical statements existing together in the same book, and (3) the negative side of some of these statements, which seem so contradictory to the rest of the Bible. But if you try to read the book from the editor-compiler's perspective-that of a teacher of wisdom who, living before the full revelation of resurrection, recognized the value of Qohelet's assertion that life in the present world doesn't always add up-then you will be able to see that the final message of the book is not at all the hedonist or fatalist tract that some have made it out to be. Crucial to understanding this is to appreciate Qohelet's own context(s).

First, whatever else, Qohelet was written within Israel's Wisdom tradition, a tradition that was not trying to speak for God in the same way the prophets did, but one that was musing carefully on life in order to teach the young how to live well before God. And somewhat like the author of Job, but in contrast to the way some might mechanistically apply the book of Proverbs, Qohelet is convinced that the ways of the Creator are past finding out. Although he maintains a sturdy trust in God throughout (2:24;3:11-14; 5:7b, 19; 9:7) and believes God to be just (3:17; 8:12-13), he nonetheless finds the real world not nearly as predictable as, for example, Job,s ..comforters" do, who see a sure cause and effect to everything and thus represent a kind of "wisdom" that Qohelet is likewise reacting strongly against.

Four realities dominate Qohelet's overall perspective: (1) God is tho single indisputable reality, the Creator of all and the one from whom all life comes as gift (e.g. ,3:12-14), including its-for Qohelet-usually burdensome nature . (2) God's ways are not always, if ever, understandable (3:11; 8:17). (3) On the human side, what is "done under the sun" (2:17) simply is not tidy; indeed, much of it doesn't add up right at all, The way things should be (the righteous get the good the wicked got the bad) is not in fact the way things arc-at least not consistently in this present life. (4) The great equalizer is death, which happens to rich and poor, wise and foolish alike. Given Qohelet's lack of hope in a resurrection, then once you're dead that's it-without memory, forgotten, no matter what your life may once have meant (9:5-6). And it is this i reality that makes life seem hebel (a word that occurs thirty-seven times, just over half of its seventy-three OT occurrences).

At issue is what this word means for Qohelet, since it literally means "wisp of air" or "vapor." Most of the time he uses it as a metaphor for, the nature of human existence. But what metaphorical freight does it carry? A tradition that goes back to the Septuagint translates it

"emptiness" (cf. the KJV "vanity," that is, "in vain"), pointing to the "vaporous" nature of our human lives (along with its companion, "chasing after the wind"). Another tradition, followed by the NIV, goes for "meaningless." While either of these work fine in some instances, they do not help in others. In most cases the sense seems to be the passing/transitory or unsubstantial nature of things, like vapor itself. This seems especially to be its sense in the prologue, where human life, in contrast to the constancy and "oldness" of the world, evaporates very quickly. Moreover, the "vapor" that is our life is also elusive, lying outside our own control; it is like "chasing after the wind" (an ironic play on hebel = "wisp of air").

So what should one make of such a "vapor," these "few and hebel days" we pass through like a shadow (6:12; cf . 2:3; 5:18), especially in light of life's inequalities and for the one who lives apart from God ("the fool"), its utter meaninglessness? Qohelet's answer is not, as some have

accused him, "milk it for all you can, because you only go around once" (a misunderstanding of his repetition of the "eat and drink" theme, 2:24; 3:13; 5:18; 8:15; 9:7). Rather, his point seems to be that, even if one knows so little except the certainty of the grave, one should live life,

hebel as it usually is, as a gift from God. This is because, in the end joy and pleasure come not in "getting" (securing "profit" from what one does)-because that will evaporate-but in the journey itself, the life God has given. Death comes to all alike, but not all live alike; in such a world joy and satisfaction are to be found in living the rhythms of life without trying to be in control or to "make gain" of what is itself merely transitory.

Even read from this perspective, Qohelet's wisdom is not altogether comforting. But overall it is an orthodox book. If one misses any mention of the great events of Jewish history, that is quite in keeping with the Wisdom tradition, and if one feels squeamish about great but contradictory

realities being set side by side, that is probably because we too, like Job's "comforters," prefer things to be tidier than they are. But in the end even Qohelet does not leave the young dangling. One way is clearly to be preferred to the other, and the so-called contradictions serve to highlight that fact. The Christian believer, who now reads from the perspective of joyous hope in the resurrection and the certainty of divine judgment, should all the more be prepared to appreciate Qohelet's embracing of life in the present, despite its hebel nature.



Introduction to the Theme

After the heading, where Qohelet is identified as a Davidic king (yet purposely not named), verses 2- 11introduce the main themes of the book: Everything is like a vapor; nothing human is permanent or new. The basic question to be answered comes up front (v. 3): What, then, is the profit of human toil? The reason for this is verse 4: Human beings come and go, but the earth is permanent-which is then illustrated in several ways (w. 5-7), before concluding on the note of human finitude in the face of the massive reality of history (vv. 8-11).


Various Ways of Trying to Gain from Labor

From the perspective of his role as king (who should have profited most in life), Qohelet picks up the question from verse 3 about "gain/profit" from human toil. He starts with his special concern, namely, wisdom (1:1 2-18). Useful as it is, it only brings more sorrow, because one now understands the hebel nature of things. He then moves to the pursuit of pleasure (2:1-3) and the accumulation of wealth and possessions (2:4-11), but these too are ephemeral, and thus of no gain, since the same fate-death-overtakes all (2:12-16). The fact that one,s gain must be left to someone else spoils everything (2:17 -23)-unless one is prepared to make some adjustments, namely, to enjoy the gift of life as from God rather than to use it to make gain (2:24-26).


A Time for Everything

Qohelet now lyrically describes the nature of the reality that his reader should appreciate: The world God has made has its rhythms and seasons (w. 1-8) that put it outside the reach of profit (v. 9), but bring joy when one adjusts to it (w. 10-22). Note Qohelet's insistence that this is a gift from God (w. 11-14) and that he takes this position even though he lives in a world that has no certainty about the future of the individual (v. 21).At the same time, he returns to earlier themes (human wickedness; death as the great leveler).


Success, Oppression, and Solitariness

Picking up the theme of wickedness (3: 1 6-17), Qohelet notes that the desire for gain results in oppression of others, which is such a sorry sight for him that nonexistence would actually be better (4:1-3); labor and achievement (success), he goes on, spring from envy (vv. 4-6). Such striving is antineighbor and thus lonely (w. 7 -8);the better alternative is to live in community (vv. 9-12). Using an illustration from kingship (w. 13- 16), he concludes that poverty with wisdom is better than success with folly: The youthful "successor" to an old king eventually suffers the same fate as the one he succeeded.


On Approaching God

Qohelet breaks into his litany against gain and oppression by urging a proper stance toward the worship of God-being a listener whose speech is brief and correct, as one who stands in awe of God.


Wealth and Oppression

Returning to the theme of oppression and the quest for and hoarding of wealth, Qohelet focuses now on the love of money itself (5:8- 13); in the same vein, he ponders wealth that is lost through misfortune, thus leaving no inheritance (5 :14-17; cf . 1Tim 6:6-10, where Paul reflects on this passage), before returning again to God-given contentment (Eccl 5: 18-20). Then, typically, Qohelet acknowledges how few have received this gift (6:1-2), the example of which-in that culture-is the enormously blessed man who does not receive proper burial (6:3-6), the madness of which is summed up in verse 7 . The first half of the book is then summarized in 6:8-12.


The Advantage of Wisdom

In 12:9 Qohelet is called a collector of proverbs; here at last is such a collection-of "better than" proverbs that echo previous concerns. Note how he steers a middle path regarding wisdom, neither idolizing nor hating it, but living in full light of it, since even in our transient existence, wisdom is better than folly-and this includes embracing the reality of death (vv. 2-4). At the heart of things is the contentment argued for earlier (w. 7 -24). But even if wisdom per se is still elusive (vv. 23-25), some wise things can be learned such as the need to avoid the woman who sets a snare (v. 26; cf. Prov 2:16-19; 5:1-23) and the reality that human beings have gone astray, despite how they were created (vv. 27 -29).


Dealing with a Unjust World

Note how Qohelet "explains" the question of verse 1 as referring to the wise man in the king's court (vv. 2-6), who will withdraw rather than confront the king. This observation is then applied to the wise person, who cannot change things as they are (vv. 7-8). In verses 9-15, he returns to the theme of wickedness and injustice, insisting that it is better to fear God and enjoy the life he has given, but concluding on the enigma of life (vv. 16-17).


Living in the Face of Death

Note how many previous themes are picked up once again: the certainty of death for all (vv. 1-0); that meaning lies in enjoying whatever life God has given (w. 7 -10), even though the outcome is unpredictable and often unpleasant (w. 11-12).


The Way of Wisdom

Here Qohelet once more ponders the advantages of the way of wisdom over against folly; note especially the repetition of "better than" in 9:13-18, while most of chapter 10 reaffirms this with a collection of proverbial material, especially on how to survive bad government.


On Not Understanding the Ways of God

Once more Qohelet returns to a former theme, this time emphasizing our lack of control of the times, based on our limited understanding (vv. 1-6), and concluding on the reality of life as bittersweet (vv. 7-.8).


A final Word to the Young

Having repeatedly advocated the enjoyment of this brief life to the extent possible and while it lasts, Qohelet concludes by focusing on the young man (the wise man's son, 12:12). The brevity of youth gives him an even shorter time in which to make the most of his opportunities. He is thus urged to live life to the full (11: 9-10) in light of the slow but steady intrusion of death into life as people age (12:l-7).This is what it means to "remember your Creator" (12:1, 6).Note how verse g serves to enclose the whole book ( 1:2): Life is transitory and elusive.


Epilogue: Qohelet As a Wise Man

The compiler, whose voice was heard previously in 1:1-2and 7:27 , now adds an epilogue, highlighting the value of Qohelet's arguments but summarizing his own orthodox perspective in verses 13- 14 (cf. Qohelet's in 8:12-13). Qohelet's musing, are quite true; life,s emptiness without the fear of God and keeping his commandments should impel the truly wise to think on these "Just the right words" (12: 10).

The book of Ecclesiastes fits into the biblical story as a constant reminder of the brevity of human life in light of eternity, emphasizing our need to fear God white also paving the way for the greater revelation of our certain resurrection through Jesus Christ.