Previous | Next

Spring 2011 · Vol. 40 No. 1 · pp. 65–79 

Fighting Fire with Fire: Divine Nihilism in Ecclesiastes

Pierre Gilbert

Popular culture, as portrayed in movies and television, offers remarkably little of substance about the ultimate meaning of life. If, as Viktor Frankl writes in Man’s Search for Meaning, 1 what human beings need above all else is a reason to live, then one has to wonder why, in the face of this reality, popular culture generally remains relatively optimistic about human existence. I suspect it may be because few people think a reason for living must be objectively all-comprehensive and fundamental. In our culture any reason will do.

Qoheleth is a master of persuasion. His ultimate purpose is not to humiliate his opponents or merely to win an argument. His objective is to promote life.

While popular culture does exhibit an odd kind of naïve optimism about human existence, it appears that, at a structural level, it is essentially undergirded by a profound nihilism that remains undetected by most consumers, who either receive it uncritically or simply refuse to recognize it for what it is. Not that this nihilism receives unanimous assent; a significant (albeit apparently decreasing) segment of the population recognizes its presence and strives to resist it. 2 I am, however, proposing that the nihilistic underpinnings of popular culture—what Michael Medved simply calls “Hollywood” 3—are indeed assimilated by a growing number of individuals.

As Thomas Hibbs points out, nihilism does not represent an ideology that unabashedly privileges chaos and disorder. In Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from The Exorcist to Seinfeld, he defines it as “a simplification of human nature, a reduction of its complexity and range, and an abridgment of its aspirations.” 4

This is not to say that life according to “Hollywood” is completely devoid of meaning. Human life has significance but only within the overall frame of reference that is consistent with the relativistic smorgasbord of worldviews that is now typical of multiculturalism. Whether it is pleasure, family, culture, money, violence, work, the environment, etc., “Hollywood” offers a plethora of options all equally valid as long as they fit within the constraints of popular culture’s collapsed moral universe, which for the most part and structurally, excludes and is hostile to orthodox Christianity’s absolute truth claims relative to the centrality of the person of Jesus Christ and human destiny. 5

How do we break through to people who live in a culture that has become so extraordinarily efficient at deluding itself into believing that there really is no ultimate, overall, and universal significance to human existence? How do we communicate the urgency of a cure to a people convinced there really is no disease? How do we communicate the need for divine forgiveness in a culture in which the very notions of moral sin and guilt have become virtually meaningless, 6 and where the Christian faith is viewed as the least desirable religious option; the choice of the intolerant and the new Neanderthals among us?

It may not be as hopeless as it seems. In the strictest sense of the term, we are not dealing with a new problem. It is a grave error to believe that “modern” or “postmodern” Man is fundamentally different from ancient Man. With Jacques Ellul, I believe we are facing an issue that is structural to human nature. 7 In this essay, I will examine Qoheleth’s work, Ecclesiastes, a book written to address an audience that was very similar to our own in that it too had embraced its own brand of nihilism.


Duane Garrett identifies seven distinct positions relative to the purpose of the book. 8 Some scholars argue that Ecclesiastes proposes a pessimistic view of human existence where death ultimately cancels any apparent value life appears to offer. Far from being the preacher of doom, for others, Qoheleth must be viewed as the preacher of joy who believes it is best for human beings to rejoice even in the face of life’s difficulties. Some commentators suggest that Qoheleth represents a thinker, a philosopher perhaps, who is conflicted by the extreme and irresolvable tensions that human existence offers. For some, Ecclesiastes can be categorized as an apologetic work designed to demonstrate that life without God is pointless. Some scholars view the book as the product of the proto-existentialist, the work of a man who is wrestling with the absurdities of the world. Others yet propose that the book represents a wisdom dissertation intended to force the reader to face the inevitability of death and to live in the light of that ineluctable reality. Finally, some propose reading Ecclesiastes as a commentary on creation and the fall, and how weak and broken persons should live. 9

These suggestions have weaknesses in two major areas. First, with the exception of the “apologetic” view, they fail to integrate fully the Hebrew wisdom paradigm. For instance, to assert that Ecclesiastes’ message is fundamentally cynical and pessimistic betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of Hebrew wisdom literature. 10 Ecclesiastes cannot be an exposition of nihilism as the most coherent philosophical choice in the face of the apparent absurdity of human existence. As I have explained elsewhere, 11 Hebrew wisdom is not simply about exploring knowledge. It is about persuading an audience, particularly younger people, of the superiority of Yahwism over alternative and competing religious systems. Second, most of the proposals either neglect to take into account the totality of the book as we have received it or fail to provide an explanation for its structure, its organization, and its various tonalities.


Any comprehensive hypothesis relative to the argument of Ecclesiastes must take at least three factors into account. First, this is Hebrew wisdom literature, and a legitimate proposal must integrate the polemical character of this genre. 12 While Hebrew wisdom does not use force or intimidation to impose its point of view, it does seek to persuade by engaging the reader in a vigorous process of reflection. 13

Second, the proposal must account for the two categories of seemingly contradictory statements found in the book. On the one hand, there are texts that appear to be explicitly nihilistic, as evidenced by the presence of the expression hevel (“vanity”)—used in Ecclesiastes over thirty-eight times—and the long list of life observations illustrating the utter absurdity of human existence. On the other hand, we have texts that explicitly affirm the significance of human existence. In this regard, I will attempt to demonstrate that the book’s abrupt dialectic structure is rhetorically motivated. It reflects an agenda that seeks to address an audience that has adopted a cynical view of faith in God and believes that ultimate significance can be found in human endeavors. Ecclesiastes’ thesis-antithesis movement thus reflects a two-pronged approach representing a concurrent process of deconstruction and reconstruction, respectively expressing a radical critique of life “under the sun” and the proposal of an alternative that re-centers human life within a divine perspective. 14

Finally, this hypothesis must also explain the presence of a third type of statement that is neither nihilistic nor explicitly points to some divine perspective, but simply represents common sense, self-evident wisdom observations.

In this paper, I will attempt to demonstrate how the various elements of the book are organized in order to maximize the rhetorical impact of Qoheleth’s message. I will survey those texts that offer a nihilistic view of human life and those that outline an optimistic perspective. I will then examine those texts I label as wisdom sayings. Following a brief synopsis in which I will outline the major elements of Ecclesiastes’ rhetorical strategy, I will conclude by highlighting, primarily for the benefit of preachers, 15 some principles that may contribute to the articulation of a strategy to address the nihilistic worldview of our own society and thus perhaps provide tools to help pierce the armor of self-delusion that Western culture has donned.


Right from the outset, Qoheleth unequivocally establishes the meaninglessness of human existence. In 1:1–2, the author summarizes his thesis with the declaration: “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” 17 The English translation does not quite do justice to the Hebrew. Depending on context, hevel can denote “nothingness,” “void,” “absurdity,” or “futility.” The use of the plural hevalim, which is an intensive form of hevel, in the expression “vanity of vanities,” and the presence of the encompassing “all is vanity” underline the complete and utter futility of human existence. 18

This opening statement seems designed to set the tone for the entire book. In 1:3–11, the author follows through with a rhetorical question that provides an initial proof of his statement of principle in verse 1: “What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?” (1:3). The obvious answer to this question is . . . nothing. In verses 4–11, life is described as an endless cyclical movement that ultimately leads nowhere. All human accomplishments are ultimately devoid of meaning, for in the long run, no one remembers them.

Qoheleth, however, provides a hint that his initial statement about the futility of human existence may not be as comprehensive as it first appears. In verse 3, he locates the sphere of nihilism “under the sun.” Garrett points out that this expression is comparable to “under heaven” (Exod. 7:24; 9:14; 17:14) and refers to life in this world. 19 To be more precise, in the context of Ecclesiastes, the expression refers to life as it appears or life outside the sphere of accountability to God. What this perspective is becomes clearer as the book unfolds.

Qoheleth then proceeds to prove his thesis by systematically examining various aspects of human existence. In 1:12–18, the author states that wisdom and knowledge cannot provide any sense of satisfaction, for they generally produce sorrow and grief in those who cultivate them. By bestowing greater insight into the real nature of things, knowledge simply heightens our awareness of what is wrong with the world (see also 6:8–12).

In 2:1–11, Qoheleth highlights the futility of finding ultimate significance in the sensations that human existence has to offer. Whatever relative benefit pleasures may provide, they are of no value in terms of finding a foothold into ultimate reality. After briefly dealing with the futility of work in 2:4–6, the author returns to this theme in 2:17–23. In this passage, work is judged to provide no sense of enduring significance. Because humans are mortal, sooner or later everything they have accumulated and produced will go to someone else (see also 2:18–21 and 4:4–8).

In 3:1–8, Qoheleth moves to the relentlessness of history and the unavoidable reality of time and life cycles. This passage aims at leaving the reader with a sense of helplessness and utter vulnerability. All of existence is just an eternal wheel in which we enter and then exit without leaving a trace.

Those who seek ultimate meaning in the matrix of human interaction or in some measure of justice will be disappointed by the realization that there is little to justify such optimism. As Qoheleth points out in 3:16–22, not only do wickedness, violence, and injustice characterize human behavior, even the notion of divine justice appears elusive. Whether one lives justly or not seems to make no difference, as humans and animals suffer the same fate (see also 4:1–3; 7:15). 20

Some people find meaning and significance in political change. But in the big scheme of things, politics makes little difference (4:13–16). In 8:9–10, Qoheleth adds to the sense of absurdity associated with politics by pointing out that those who rule others end up doing more harm than good. 21

The promise of wealth is probably the most deceptive form of delusion. Those who have little are convinced money can bring a sense of satisfaction that they otherwise will never experience (5:10). Those who have a lot lust for more (5:12). In either case, not only does wealth not deliver on its promises, but those who are fortunate enough to amass great wealth tend to attract their fair share of human “leeches” (5:11). 22 In 5:13–17, Qoheleth expands further on the ultimate absurdity of amassing wealth by pointing out that none of it can be preserved for oneself. Our mortality ensures that we will never be able to keep any of the assets we accumulate (see also 6:1–2).

In 9:1–6, the author highlights the universal and systemic absence of meaning and significance in human existence. He underlines the moral randomness of the universe by pointing out the universality of death. Regardless of whether a person is righteous or wicked, good or evil, religiously faithful or not, death and oblivion catch up with everyone. This effectively nullifies everything human beings do, honorable or not. 23

Qoheleth’s conclusion is unavoidable and ultimately inescapable: Viewed from a certain perspective, human life is utterly and thoroughly meaningless. Not only does the author cover the whole range of human activities, he also, in a spiral-like pattern, revisits themes previously examined in order to reveal further their inherent absurdity. While his goal is to ensure that the reader is left with no way out, that is not, however, the whole story. 24


The book of Ecclesiastes is no existentialist essay, and Qoheleth is no Jean-Paul Sartre. There is, in fact, interspersed with the nihilistic passages we have examined, a remarkable number of texts that unexpectedly affirm the significance of human existence.

At first sight, these passages appear to contradict many of the statements Qoheleth makes about human existence and behavior. For instance, Qoheleth repeatedly exhorts his readers to enjoy eating, drinking, even work (2:24–26 26; 3:9–15; 5:18–20; 8:15–17). Note that Qoheleth does not merely counsel a cautious and tentative enjoyment of life. In 7:13–14 and 11:7–10, he advocates an enthusiastic embrace of all the good things life has to offer. Morality is not, as observed earlier, meaningless and pointless (see 1:2; 3:16–22; 4:1–3; 7:15; 9:1–6). On the contrary, human actions, words, commitments are endowed with critical significance (5:1–7; 8:11–14). Justice and ethics ultimately matter (8:11–14). In 11:1–6, he surprisingly urges his readers to live with confidence.

The positive perspective offered in these passages is not arbitrary nor is it the result of an awkward editing process aimed at softening the nihilistic character of much of the book. This optimistic outlook is explicitly linked to the person of God. 27 According to Qoheleth, the world as we have it has been designed by God. We should not be surprised that we experience good and bad times (2:24–26; 3:9–15; 5:18–20; 7:13–14; 8:15–17). Justice, morality, ethics, words, actions, and commitments are profoundly significant, for humans are ultimately accountable to God (5:1–7; 8:11–14).

The injunction to have confidence in the future and to fully enjoy all the good things life has to offer within a framework of accountability to God (11:9b; 12:1, 6) takes root in the conviction that God is alive and works in creation (11:5). But Qoheleth is also very practical. Those who live out of fear seek to avoid all risks and eventually do nothing (11:1–6). In 11:7–10, his exhortation arises out of the reality that difficult times inevitably come; the window of opportunity for enjoying life is small (see also 12:1–7, 14).

What is going on with Qoheleth? On the one hand, the book proclaims the utter meaninglessness of human life. On the other, he unabashedly, surprisingly, and enthusiastically exhorts the reader to live life to the full and to enjoy all the good things the world has to offer. How can Qoheleth maintain such contrasting perspectives side by side without creating an antinomy? Is this simply Qoheleth’s strategy to resolve the cognitive dissonance inherent to the human need to find meaning and coherence in a world that is devoid of such? The conundrum presented by the apparent and inherent nihilistic nature of the universe is one of the central problems that has and continues to stump philosophers. In fact, for C. S. Lewis, this was a major factor in his own decision to embrace atheism as a young man. 28 Is Qoheleth just playing the kind of mind game parents play when they tell their five-year-old boy that his recently deceased grandfather continues to live in his heart?

The evidence suggests this is not the case. In fact, the author is very careful to locate the one and the other perspective in a well-defined framework. The problem is not with human existence in and of itself. It lies rather in the ideological context that frames human life. Life is utterly and ultimately insignificant for those who choose to position themselves “under the sun,” for they are condemned to exist within a plausibility structure that cannot offer their lives ultimate meaning.

In all those passages where the simplest aspects of human life are infused with meaning and significance, the rationale is linked to the existence of God as the one who ordered the world the way it is. The person who views the world and human existence as designed by God can henceforth find meaning, significance, and contentment in this life.

It would now appear that we have accounted for the various kinds of statements attested in the book, but that is not quite the case. There are a number of passages that neither parse the nihilistic character of human existence nor explicitly affirm it. These I simply label “miscellaneous wisdom sayings.”


As in the case of the nihilistic and optimistic passages, the miscellaneous wisdom sayings cover a wide array of topics and issues. In chapters 4 and 5, Qoheleth highlights laziness and poverty (4:5–6), the advantage of partnerships to withstand adversity and hardship (4:9–12), the necessity of government to avoid social chaos and anomic violence (5:8–9). In 7:1–12, the author mentions a number of basic self-evident truths: The benefit of a good reputation (v.1), the advantage of the funeral setting over the celebratory context to serve as a catalyst to stimulate serious reflection about life (vv. 2–4), the benefit of the wise man’s critique over the mindless chatter of fools (vv. 5–6), the dangers and pitfalls of political life (v. 7), the benefit of facing the end of a project rather than its beginning (v. 8), the virtues of self-control (v. 9), the futility of idealizing the past (v. 10), and the pragmatic benefits of acquiring wisdom (vv. 11–12), which Qoheleth develops further in 7:16–19; 8:1–8; 9:13–18; 10:2–4, 10–20. 30

Why does Qoheleth include such obvious wisdom sayings, and how do they contribute to his overall argument?


While Qoheleth appears to be using a dialectical approach in which he contrasts the absurdity of life “under the sun” to life within God’s purview, the strategy is not quite as straightforward as readers might expect. 31 The ideological choices men and women make are not always the result of well-reasoned processes. A broad array of factors, emotional and other, always comes into play. Qoheleth deals with this epistemological conundrum in two ways. First, besides demonstrating the utter meaninglessness of life “under the sun,” Qoheleth himself uses a heavy dose of cynicism against the very worldview the cynics so enthusiastically endorse. Second, he knows perfectly well that cynics will not embrace an ideological alternative simply because it is demonstrably better. Human nature is such that logic and reason will often be inadequate in terms of effecting an ideological reorientation that represents a fundamental paradigm shift. Sometimes, a bridge has to be built between the one position and the other. The more contrasting the options and the more radical the choice, the more imperative it becomes to offer such a bridge.

Qoheleth is a master of persuasion. His ultimate purpose is not to humiliate his opponents or merely to win an argument. His objective is to promote life. Qoheleth’s strategy goes beyond offering a choice between two radically opposed options. The author of Ecclesiastes proposes a way to facilitate the transition from meaninglessness to significance by inserting throughout his work a number of sayings that address the self-evident value of wisdom in everyday life and the equally self-evident liability of folly. These passages cannot be simply labeled as “under the sun” or “under God.” They are there simply to show the absolute advantage of wisdom over folly. Day to day wisdom becomes the road to considering life under God.

Qoheleth’s strategy is brilliant. Even if the reader agrees with the premise that life lived within the parameters of a flat horizon is indeed meaningless, providing no ultimate design for human existence, the reality is that there are still attitudes and actions that make sense and are intrinsically good. All things considered, wisdom is indeed superior to folly. Once this is granted, the reader is now faced with the obligation to consider the question that logically must follow. If human existence is indeed utterly absurd, how can there be rays of significance here and there? There must be an ultimate source of wisdom that is beyond and above human experience. This source is God himself.

In addition to offering an epistemological bridge to help the reluctant cynic move in God’s direction, the book of Ecclesiastes offers another rhetorical incentive. Since Qoheleth undermines every dimension of human existence, even those we would instinctively consider to be good, one might expect a vision of life under God to be characterized by strict asceticism.

While Qoheleth presents life “under the sun” as absurd, he does not present a dualistic view of life that opposes the physical (life “under the sun”) to the spiritual (life under God). Eventually, he recovers all the good things human existence offers and infuses them with significance by “dragging” them all into the divine sphere. 32

This strategy accomplishes two things. First, it infuses all of life, the mundane and the sacred alike, with real meaning thus moving the reader away from asceticism. Second, by bringing every good thing life has to offer under the divine perspective, Qoheleth creates a new bridge to help those considering a spiritual reorientation. But this time, this bridge stretches from God into the cynic’s direction. Qoheleth wishes to leave no doubt about the positive outcome of a paradigm shift towards God. In fact, in chapter 11, the author offers a preview into what life under God promises. While moving away from life “under the sun” does entail living in a broader framework of accountability to God, it does not intimate any potential loss whatsoever. In addition to infusing all of life with meaning, living under God also enables those who choose that option to derive a greater sense of enjoyment and satisfaction from all the good things this world has to offer without obsessively attempting to hang on to them. It also frees them to look towards the future, knowing that the one who is the source of all that is good is waiting to receive them into his presence. But for those who live simply and exclusively “under the sun,” the inability to hold on to all the things they cherish will produce frustration, resentment, meaninglessness, anger, despair, and envy. In time, as Qoheleth states, whatever truth, whatever unified field theory these cynics have embraced, will prove to be futile.


Whether “Hollywood” reflects society or whether society is slowly being shaped by “Hollywood” is for others to debate. What seems clear to me is that we live in a society that is increasingly characterized by nihilism. One would assume this would be fertile ground for the gospel. As we can all attest, it is not. In fact, the present ideological ethos in which we find ourselves makes it very difficult to proclaim the Good News. The unified field theories that Western men and women embrace, whether they be money, sex, environmentalism, political ideologies, and so on, are located within a flat horizon that locates humanity at the center of life and is fundamentally hostile to being informed by orthodox Christianity.

For many, the search for meaning and significance has, for all practical purposes, ended. This is not to say that everyone embraces the same plausibility structure or has reached the conclusion of their search for a reason to live. The point, however, is that men and women go about this endeavor within a shared secular epistemological framework. The general worldview most people embrace offers no possibility to take all of reality into account. Life “under the sun” cannot integrate death and oblivion. Western culture stubbornly refuses to come to terms with this truth. The demise of Western civilization, as heralded by the lowest birth rates ever seen in history, represents the clearest evidence that something is terribly wrong.

What we observe in our society is not new. The Hebrew wisdom writers were confronted by an audience that was not altogether different from our own. Civilizations may come and go, but human nature remains constant. I do not have the space to articulate all of the implications that Qoheleth’s discourse may entail for preachers, but let me outline a few ideas. 33

First, preachers must make every effort to become thoroughly familiar with the worldviews that are predominant in their environment.

Second, preachers must ensure they focus on the most critical issues facing their contemporaries. The preacher’s main responsibility is not to extol some politically correct ideology du jour, political or otherwise. For instance, there are too many preachers who conflate the gospel and environmentalism or the gospel and social activism, and structurally allow the latter to overwhelm the former in their discourse. 34

Third, like Qoheleth, preachers need to develop a brutally lucid discourse on the nihilism that permeates our culture. They must entertain no illusions about its predominance and its insidious influence. Contemporary preachers must also learn to highlight its inherent pitfalls: epistemological, moral, ethical, and existential. In other words, they must become masters at showing the fundamental futility and absurdity of the nihilistic worldview(s) our society embraces.

Fourth, preachers, in step with Qoheleth, must learn to present the Christian alternative as persuasively and effectively as possible. The Christian faith, as authors like C. S. Lewis and more recently Tim Keller have shown, 35 is by far the most dynamic, creative, life-giving discourse ever articulated. Millions can testify to the life-transforming reality of their encounter with Christ. Christianity can indeed look like a bowl of dust, but that is not a problem so much with the Christian faith as it is with some preachers who carelessly present it as such.

Fifth, preachers, like Qoheleth, cannot simply offer the alternative and let the dice fall where they may. Their goal is not merely to win an argument or overwhelm the audience. Their primary objective is to win their listeners. Preachers must therefore create bridges to enable those who entertain delusions about life and may even cultivate some degree of hostility towards the Christian faith to take the risk of questioning their most basic assumptions about human existence and move towards the person of Christ.


  1. Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, rev. ed. (New York: Pocket, 1984 [1946]).
  2. This might include, for instance, people who have made a conscious and deliberate commitment to the Christian faith.
  3. Michael Medved, Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values (New York: HarperCollins, 1992).
  4. Thomas H. Hibbs, Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from The Exorcist to Seinfeld (Dallas, TX: Spence, 1999), 7.
  5. There is fundamentally nothing new here. In that respect, “Hollywood” is the oldest religion in the world. As the apostle Paul states in Colossians 1:21, hostility towards the living God is intrinsic to human nature. Culture, for the most part, will simply express this default position. It should not surprise us (see John 7:7 and 15:18).
  6. This is a problem C. S. Lewis addressed at some length in The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1940), 48–62.
  7. See Jacques Ellul, The New Demons, tr. by C. Edward Hopkin (New York: Seabury, 1975), 44–45.
  8. Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1993), 271–79. For further details on the history of interpretation, see Murphy, Ecclesiastes, xlviii–lvi; Eric S. Christianson, Ecclesiastes Through the Centuries, Blackwell Bible Commentaries (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007), 17–86; Craig G. Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2009), 21–100.
  9. In a similar vein, Douglas B. Miller proposes that the book was written for those who struggle with the difficulties of life and who search for meaning and purpose. “He [Qohelet] understands those who are disappointed with God, whether pondering in silence or crying out in pain; whether covertly cynical or unafraid to vent their anger openly to God” (Douglas B. Miller, Ecclesiastes, Believers Church Bible Commentary [Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2010], 18).
  10. Two notable representatives of this view are R. B. Y. Scott, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, Anchor Bible, vol. 18 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965) and J. L. Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes, Old Testament Library (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1987).
  11. See Pierre Gilbert, “The Case of the Venus Flytrap: The Argument of the Book of Job,” in The Old Testament in the Life of God’s People. Essays in Honor of Elmer A. Martens, ed. Jon Isaak (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2009), 176–77.
  12. Ecclesiastes is not, as too many readers wrongly perceive, about the intellectual struggles of its author (for a recent example, see Ethan Dor-Shav, “Ecclesiastes, Fleeting and Timeless, Part I,” Jewish Biblical Quarterly 36 [2008]: 211–21; “Ecclesiastes, Fleeting and Timeless, Part II,” Jewish Biblical Quarterly 37 [2009]: 17–23). The main focus of the book, as is consistent with Hebrew wisdom, is on persuading the reader to consider faith in God (see also W. H. U. Anderson, Qoheleth and Its Pessimistic Theology: Hermeneutical Struggles in Wisdom Literature, Mellen Biblical Press Series, vol. 54 [Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1997]; Roy B. Zuck, “God and Man in Ecclesiastes,” Bibliotheca Sacra 148 [1991]: 46–56; Peter Craigie, Biblical Wisdom in the Modern World II. Ecclesiastes,” Crux 16 [1980]: 8–10).
  13. For instance, the book of Job uses the universality of pain, particularly the shocking reality of underserved suffering as a rhetorical “trap” to force the reader to identify fully with Job (Gilbert, “The Case of the Venus Flytrap,” 173–92). W. P. Brown hints at a similar idea in Ecclesiastes, Interpretation (Louisville, KY: John Knox, 1989), 17–18.
  14. For a similar view, see Michael V. Fox, A Time to Tear Down and a Time to Build Up: A Rereading of Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 140.
  15. While the meaning of the Hebrew word for Qoheleth is far from being clear, the English rendering, “preacher,” has received broad assent due to the influence of Jerome and Luther (see Roland E. Murphy, Ecclesiastes, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 23A (Dallas, TX: Word, 1992), xx.
  16. See 1:1–2; 1:3–11; 1:12–18; 2:1–11; 2:12–23; 3:1–8; 3:16–22; 4:1–3; 4:4; 4:7–8; 4:13–16; 5:10–11; 5:12; 5:13–17; 6:1–12; 7:15; 8:9–10; 9:1–6; 9:11–12; 10:1; 10:5–7; 10:8–9; 12:8.
  17. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), 1989.
  18. M.V. Fox, “The Meaning of Hebel for Qohelet,” Journal of Biblical Literature 105 (1986): 409–27; Murphy, Ecclesiastes, 3–4; K. Seybold, “lbh hebhel; lbh habhal,” TDOT, vol. 3, 313–20; W.E. Staples, “The ‘Vanity’ of Ecclesiastes,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 2 (1943): 95–104; Douglas B. Miller, Symbol and Rhetoric in Ecclesiastes: The Place of Hebel in Qoheleth’s Work (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2002).
  19. See Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, 284.
  20. While the Hebrew text presents a number of theological and textual difficulties, particularly so in verses 17, 18 and 22, this does not affect the overall intent of this passage (see Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, 304–305; Murphy, Ecclesiastes, 30, 36–37).
  21. The NRSV’s “to the other’s hurt” in verse 9, should read “to their hurt” (see Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, 328; Murphy, Ecclesiastes, 80, 87).
  22. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, 314.
  23. A similar theme is developed in 9:11–12, where Qoheleth reminds the reader that there is not necessarily a direct correlation between good intentions, skills, planning, intelligence, on the one hand, and success, on the other. In many cases, success or failure will depend on such factors as luck and good fortune.
  24. Derek Kidner adopts a similar view of the nihilistic passages in A Time to Mourn, and a Time to Dance, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity, 1976), 13–20.
  25. See 2:24–26; 3:9–15; 5:1–7; 5:18–20; 7:13–14; 8:11–17; 9:7–10; 11:1–6; 11:7–10; 12:1–7; 12:9–14.
  26. The declaration at the end of verse 26: “This also is vanity and a chasing after wind,” reflects the arbitrary character of this outcome from the “sinner’s” perspective (contra Murphy, who sees this statement as referring to the arbitrary character of God’s action in general [Ecclesiastes, 27]).
  27. The book of Ecclesiastes consistently uses Elohim to refer to God (forty times). Yahweh does not appear even once. This may have something to do with Qoheleth’s purpose, which is to compare two ways in which to structure the world. The use of Elohim rather than Yahweh may therefore be due to the author’s desire to emphasize God’s role as creator of the universe, i.e., the one who orders the structure of the universe and its mechanisms.
  28. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 1–3.
  29. See 4:5–6; 4:9–12; 5:8–9; 7:1–12; 7:16–29; 8:1–8; 9:13–18; 10:2–4; 10:10–20.
  30. In 7:16–29, Qoheleth speaks of the benefits of moderation in all things (vv.16–18), the importance of humility in terms of assessing one’s character (v. 20) and one’s ability to gain wisdom (vv. 24–25), discretion (vv. 21–22), the inherent dangers of the deceptive woman (v. 26), and the flawed character of human nature (vv. 27–29). In 8:1–8, the author provides advice regarding one’s dealings with those in authority (see also 10:2–4). In 9:13–18 and 10:10–20, Qoheleth offers a series of very practical and self-evident truths that relate to the usefulness of wisdom in the political sphere (see Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, 335–36). Wisdom avoids inefficiencies and gives foresight (10:10–11). Whereas the wise advisors gain favor (10:12), the fools steer towards self-destruction and madness, completely oblivious to their own pride and folly (10:12b–15). Wise leaders benefit a country (9:13–18; 10:16–17). Qoheleth ends chapter 10 by pointing out a number of self-evident truths relative to the dangers of sloth, the need for adequate financial resources to enjoy life, and the judiciousness of exercising prudence when one is angry at those in power (vv. 18–20).
  31. Just the fact that the book is not organized in a simple proposition/counter-proposition model is a hint to the author’s rhetorical sophistication. The book of Job appears to adopt an equally surprising approach relative to its own agenda, which is ideological idolatry. For more details, see Gilbert, “The Case of the Venus Flytrap,” 186–91.
  32. See particularly 11:7–19.
  33. For further perspectives on how Ecclesiastes can be used in preaching, see Greg W. Parsons, “Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming the Book of Ecclesiastes, Part I,” Bibliotheca Sacra 160 (2003): 159–73; “Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming the Book of Ecclesiastes, Part II,” Bibliotheca Sacra 160 (2003): 283–304.
  34. For instance, environmentalism, as distinct from environmental science, is an ideology that has virtually attained the status of religion. In fact, sometimes I wonder if radical environmentalism may not represent a new manifestation of pantheism and humanity’s perennial tendency to embrace that age-old religion whenever Christianity disappears from public discourse. (On this issue, see C.S. Lewis, Miracles [New York: McMillan, 1947], 101.) This not to say that environmental issues should not concern Christians. It is a matter of priority. It is not the preacher’s primary mandate to draw attention to environmental issues; there are powerful voices in our society that do just that. Because the church is entrusted with a unique message relative to human existence, it becomes the preacher’s foremost responsibility to address the issues most critical to the human condition: sin, redemption, eternal destiny, etc. Every time preachers major on minors, it is the world and the church that suffer.
  35. See Tim Keller, The Reason for God. Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Riverhead, 2008).
Pierre Gilbert holds a PhD from the Université de Montréal. He is an Associate Professor of Old Testament and Theology at Canadian Mennonite University and Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary. He is the author of Demons, Lies & Shadows (2008).

Previous | Next