The biblical book Ecclesiastes has been called an “amazingly contradictory book” (Zimmermann xii). Contemporary Christians, looking for comfortable certainties, sometimes find it easy to reduce the meaning of Ecclesiastes to the summary of the last two verses, as if the rest of the book were mere obfuscation or willful cynicism: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for that is the duty of everyone. For God will call all our deeds to judgement, all that is hidden, be it good or bad” (Ecc. 12:13-14, New Jerusalem Translation). This final advice seems easily reconciled with the rest of the Scripture, conveniently attuned to an optimistic viewpoint. Ironically, this emphasis on the end of the text ignores Qoheleth’s own warnings about the pitfalls of teleological thinking. (See Daniel Taylor’s book, The Myth of Certainty.) The potency of Ecclesiastes cannot be distilled into proverb form; the text is not a riddle to be solved but a process unfolding a series of reversals and contradictions to reveal a way of being – a way of faith. Qoheleth consistently challenges the expectations of a pious Jew (or Christian) on a series of subjects: work and achievement; justice; death; joy; and wisdom. Since hope and despair are woven throughout the entire book, rather than taking the neat resolution (“fear God”) as a starting point and working backwards to defuse any pesky problems the text raises, it is more respectful to the text as written to begin by acknowledging its key contradictions and examining the tensions they create.
Qoheleth’s first words in the text declare the futility of all human endeavors (1:2-3). “What a wearisome task God has given humanity to keep us busy! I have seen everything that is done under the sun: how futile it all is, mere chasing after the wind” (1:13-14), he declares. Qoheleth seems to suggest that nothing human beings can do is worthwhile: “There is nothing to be gained under the sun” (2:6). Yet this broad and sweeping declaration of futility is undermined by other statements that offer consolation: Qoheleth says that he found pleasure in his hard work (2:10); he says that there is happiness to be found in hard work and achievement and, furthermore, this happiness is a gift from God (2:24); he admonishes the hearer to work hard because work is an honor reserved for the living (8:10). How can a God-sanctioned (God-given!) happiness be found in a futile activity? Qoheleth poses the seeming contradictions which raise the question, but the reader must tolerate the uncertainty and continue reading critically without a direct answer.
Qoheleth does not content himself with questioning the ultimate value of work and achievement; he moves on to question God’s justice. “Again I observe under the sun: crime is where justice should be, the criminal is where the upright should be” (3:16). Whereas the Psalmist can declare with confidence that “Now I am old, but ever since my youth I never saw an upright person abandoned, or the descendants of the upright forced to beg their bread” (Ps. 37:25), Qoheleth’s response is “Balderdash! Where have you been?” “In my futile life, I have seen everything: the upright person perishing in uprightness and the wicked person surviving in wickedness.” (7:15). A Job may suffer while a Pol Pot will die comfortably of old age — to fail to acknowledge the fact is to cherish a blind faith lacking in explanatory power, offering no comfort in the face of life experience. And yet Qoheleth has the gall later to say: “But this too I know, that there is good in store for people who fear God, because they fear him, but there is no good in store for the wicked because he does not fear God, and so, like a shadow, he will not prolong his days” (8:12). These contrasting statements cannot be reconciled by saying God’s justice is meted out in the after-life; the only after-life Qoheleth acknowledges is the shadowy-state of Sheol (9:10). So, what is this “good” that God will give the righteous if they cannot count on long life, prosperity, health, or heaven? Once again, Qoheleth is not forthcoming with an answer to his paradox. Instead, he poses more problems.
Like an ancient deconstructionist (as Dr. Jim Brenneman likes to say) , Qoheleth seems to gleefully affront his readers’ expectations by priveleging the usually unpriveleged poles of established conceptual binary oppositions. Of joy and sadness, he priveleges sadness: “Better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting; for to this end everyone comes, let the living take this to heart. Better sadness than laughter: a joyful heart may be concealed behind sad looks. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, the heart of fools in the house of gaiety” (7:2-4). Of life and death, he priveleges death: “So, rather than the living who still have lives to live, I congratulate the dead who have already met death; happier than both of these are those who are yet unborn and have not seen the evil things that are done under the sun” (4:2-3). His modus operandi, as Eugene Peterson points out, is “nay-saying,’ but not in the sense that his message is bleak or depressing, but that it contradicts common assumptions in an effort to probe deeper into the truth that lies beyond simplistic formulas (“The Pastoral Work of Nay-Saying: Ecclesiastes” from Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work). When Qoheleth declares that joy is better than sadness, he does not mean always and in every circumstance. When he says that death is better than life, he is certainly not advocating suicide or even morbidity. Rather he blatantly contradicts his earlier statements to say “I praise joy” (8:15) and “there is hope for someone still linked to the rest of the living: better be a live dog than a dead lion” (9:4). Contradiction does not seem to bother Qoheleth; but his tolerance for ambiguity is not a sign of pyschological instability as Frank Zimmerman claims. There is no reason to conclude from the text that Qoheleth was “gripped and overpowered” by “complex neuroses” that he tried to “ameliorate through a series of compulsive actions intended to drain off the pressure and the drives that surged within him” (The Inner World of Qohelet xiii).
Far from being the compulsive work of a madman, Ecclesiastes is a subtle and probing tome on the nature of human wisdom. (The tendency to ignore the book, or to explain it away as a work of mental instability, is arguably itself a sign of a “compulsive” rationalism.) So what is wisdom? As in every instance examined so far, Qoheleth’s direct observations on the nature of wisdom are double-edged. At times he seems to deny even the value of wisdom: “What advantage has the wise over the fool?” he asks rhetorically, suggesting that perhaps there is no advantage to wisdom (6:8). At any rate, he says, wisdom is an imperfect guide to life and a fallible predictor of the future. “And who knows what is best for someone during life, during the days of futile life which are spent like a shadow? Who can tell anyone what will happen after him under the sun?” (6:11). Qoheleth even cautions against the danger of being too wise: “do not make yourself unduly wise: why should you destroy yourself?” (7:16). Even a tiny bit of human stupidity or sinfulness can undo the good done by great wisdom (9:18). And yet he also says that “wisdom bestows life on those who possess her” (7:12); it is “as good as a legacy, profitable to those who enjoy the sun” (7:11). Profitable or unprofitable — still, the question remains, What is wisdom?
Qoheleth purports to be a wisdom teacher; as a wisdom teacher, it is his paradoxical and perplexing method of instruction that provides the best clue into his view of wisdom. He shows that achievement is futile, but happiness in work is a gift from God; God is just, but human beings cannot understand how this is so; joy is a gift from God, but sadness and mourning are indications of profound understanding; life can be so horrible that death seems more appealing, yet life is preferable; and finally, wisdom is worth possessing, but it is not always profitable. All of these statements of “wisdom” place ideas in tension with one another. Through this purposefully created tension, Qoheleth stretches his audience’s capacity for paradox and ambiguity because humans are too narrow and limited to comfortably contain true wisdom. Human wisdom is provisional and weak, yet it is not to be dismissed or discounted. Only by holding these two ideas in supsension – wisdom’s value and its limitations – can a person be truly wise.
Only after allowing Qoheleth to disturb us by overturning our expectations can we truly begin to understand what it means to “fear God and keep his commandments.” After all, the book of Proverbs practically begins with the saying that “The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of knowledge; fools spurn wisdom and discipline” (Proverbs 1:7). The pious Jew (or Christian) is more than eager to affirm the truth of this saying, but Ecclesiastes does not bring us to this observation until the very end of the book, forcing the reader to earn this conclusion.
We sometimes think that we can control God by reasoning him into a corner, but Ecclesiastes attacks this assumption. Human wisdom will never get the better of God: “I have scrutinised God’s whole creation: you cannot get to the bottom of everything taking place under the sun; you may wear yourself out in the search, but you will never find it. Not even a sage can get to the bottom of it, even if he says that he has done so.” (8:16-17). Human wisdom is provisional, and the power it gives to determine events and shape outcomes is very limited. In fact, often the human search for wisdom is driven by a desire to make reality predicatable. This insistence on predictability is rooted in our human desire to be in control of our lives. Instead of surrendering to God’s will, we want to make deals with God: if I work hard, I will enjoy the fruits of my labor; if I am righteous and just, I will be rewarded with prosperity and health; if I seek to understand God’s word, I will be better able to control my environment. Qoheleth points out that these deals are bogus; God has not covenanted with us to keep these deals. I should work hard, I should be righteous, I should study God’s word, but I do not contractually obligate God to fulfill my plans or desires by doing these things. In this sense everything is futile: there are no guarantees in this life. Everything good, as Qoheleth says again and again, is a gift from God.
Expressing a sentiment that Qoheleth would have shared, T. S. Eliot writes in his poem “East Coker” that “the only wisdom we can hope to acquire / Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless” (Collected Poems 185). However, this is not the end of Qoheleth’s wisdom. Humility before God is right and proper, but surrender to God is the essential next step. When we consider the end of our efforts, we can never be certain it will be what we hoped. In fact, Ecclesiastes seems to suggest that it will most likely not be what we hoped. We must learn to tolerate a high degree of uncertainty and disappointment. (Again, I recommend Daniel Taylor’s book on this subject). We have some hard lessons to learn: we don’t know what we don’t know; we often don’t even know what we want. When we recognize this fact, we see that the way of faith is absolutely necessary, and that faith is surrender to God and complete trust in him – not trust that he will do what we want him to do, but trust that he is in control. The way of faith surrenders speculation and ambition to God.
Cast your bread upon the water, eventually you will recover it. . .keep watching the wind and you will never sow, keep staring at the clouds and you will never reap. . . You do not understand how the wind blows, or how the embryo grows in a woman’s womb: no more can you understand the work of God, the Creator of all. In the morning, sow your seed, until evening, do not cease from labour, for of any two things you do not know which will succeed, or which of the two is the better. (Ecclesiastes 11:1-6)
Kierkegaard called this process learning to be content to be a human being, a lesson that only follows when we learn to let God be God. Eastern mystics advocate an ungrasping, detached attitude towards existence and an intense presence, wakefulness, mindfulness to experience. Ecclesiastes is the Judeo-Christian answer: Qoheleth’s words also point the way to a more intensely present-oriented existence, but this is a form of wakefulness achieved only when we allow our finiteness to point us towards God in gratitude and surrender.
— Joel Michael Short
Eliot, T. S. Collected Poems: 1909-1962. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1963.
Kierkegaard, Soren. Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits. Princeton, Princeton U. P., 1993.
The New Jerusalem Bible, The. New York: Doubleday, 1999.
Peterson, Eugene. Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980.
Taylor, Daniel. The Myth of Certainty: The Reflective Christian and the Risk of Commitment. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1986.
Zimmermann, Frank. The Inner World of Qohelet. New York: KTAV Publishing, 1973.
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