Abstract:The book of Ecclesiastes diagnoses humanity’s tendency to link the value of human life with permanent accomplishment in our work. As a wisdom text, Ecclesiastes warns its readers that this approach leads to hatred of life as we realize that, from an “under the sun” perspective, we gain nothing permanent in all our labor. The wisdom of the book of Ecclesiastes rather associates the value of human life and work in its status as a gift from God, irrespective of what we accomplish. Qohelet also explains why God has so disposed the present order of things that human beings labor much, but without permanent accomplishment. This article attempts to articulate Qohelet’s wisdom for living within the present age so that we can fully engage with and enjoy God’s gifts of life and work.
Ecclesiastes is hardly the first book a pastor would turn to for encouragement. The author does not obviously address the ministry of the gospel, and when he does address a subject, he seems to have difficulty finding anything positive to say beyond a recommendation to enjoy the present (e.g., 2:24). In spite of this, I believe that Ecclesiastes contains profound resources for those laboring in ministry. The central encouragement of this book for pastors is found in its disassociation of the value of work from the visible results of that work. Instead of assessing the worth of our ministries in terms of measureable results, Qohelet identifies the value of our work in its status as a gift from God.1 I believe this conclusion is highly counter-intuitive, under-appreciated in our own context, and has radical implications for our ability to endure and flourish in the rigors of full-time ministry.2
Qohelet’s route to this conclusion is, of course, anything but easy. He is not gentle with his readers; he consistently tries to puncture our illusions about our ability to control our lives. But it is only after we surrender these illusions that we can rejoice with him. I say this because each carpe diem passage in the book is joined without interruption to a passage describing life’s vanity:
- 2:15–21 with 2:24
- 3:9–11 with 3:12–13
- 3:16–21 with 3:22
- 5:1–16 with 5:17
- 8:10–14 with 8:15
- 9:1–6 with 9:7
Qohelet’s call to joy is, in other words, deliberately difficult to hear. Every time I have taught this book, in both undergraduate and graduate settings, at least one student has had a theological “allergic reaction” to the text: they have dug in their heels and insisted that the biblical book of Ecclesiastes cannot possibly say what it appears to be saying. Although I believe Ecclesiastes does cohere theologically with other OT wisdom books and the whole Bible, a reaction like this is understandable and even a good sign that the text has hit its mark.
It seems to me that Qohelet’s proverb in 7:3 applies as much to the method of his book as it does life as a whole:
טוֹב כַּעַס מִשְֹּחֹק כִּי בְרֹעַ פָּנִים יִיטַב לֵב
Better vexation than laughter,
for by sadness of face is the heart made glad. (7:3)3
Only after we have been truly vexed, only after we see our illusions for what they are and mourn their passing, only after we fully acknowledge our place in a creation subjected to frustration, only then can we rejoice. But those who do not join the wise in the house of mourning (7:4) will never grow out of that brittle, vulnerable joy that can turn to hatred of life when our expectations for our lives are disappointed (2:18). Jacques Ellul most appropriately says that, in reading Ecclesiastes, we are like the camel that must pass through the eye of the needle, taking nothing with us. Only when we pass through can the true adventure of life and ministry begin.4
We will focus primarily on the first three chapters of the book in this article. Qohelet gives us his thesis and basic conclusion about life in 1:2 and then narrates three searches he made as king in order to show how he reached this conclusion. In ch. 3, Qohelet echoes his thesis from ch. 1 but in a more positive way. Let us follow him through the eye of the needle.
1. “Vanity of Vanities”: Qohelet’s Motto (1:2–3)
The central claim Qohelet tries to convince us of is 1:2:
הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים אָמַר קֹהֶלֶת הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים הַכֹּל הָבֶל
Vanity of vanities, says Qohelet:
vanity of vanities, all is vanity. (1:2)
One does not have to read far in literature on Ecclesiastes to learn that the central word in this verse, הֶבֶל (hebel), has been translated in many different ways. In my opinion, the traditional rendering of “vanity” is best, but not in the sense of something being empty or insubstantial. Qohelet clearly does not think life is insubstantial or empty: nowhere else in the canon can you find a warmer recommendation to enjoy work and eating and drinking with your friends.
Rather, “vanity” means something like “failing to achieve its purpose” or “disappointing one’s expectations.” For instance, in 8:14, Qohelet calls הֶבֶל that the righteous suffer the fate of the wicked and that the wicked suffer the fate of the righteous. This situation is not insubstantial or meaningless or enigmatic; it is incongruous.5 It defies all reasonable expectation. Qohelet makes the same kind of complaint when he faces up to the fact that the death awaiting the fool also awaits him, a wise man (2:15). That two opposite kinds of lives would end in identical ways is, for Qohelet, disproportionate and absurd; and it makes his wisdom appear to be vain (at this stage in his journey, at least).6 The same note is struck when Qohelet points to the incongruity of his laboring for years to build his empire (2:4–9) only to leave it to someone else who might throw it away (2:19–21). Similarly, Qohelet bemoans how God sometimes gives wealth but does not allow the recipient to enjoy it (6:2; see further 3:19; 4:4, 8, 16; 5:9). הֶבֶל points to the incongruities, absurdities and irrational contradictions in life, things that are contrary to all reasonable expectation. This is the “vanity” that Qohelet laments.
Hardly anyone would disagree that our lives are subject to incongruities. But Qohelet insists that our lives are entirely incongruous—“vanity of vanities” is a superlative genitive—and that these incongruities cannot be quarantined to one part of our lives (“all is vanity”). As Michael Fox says, these inconsistencies “are intractable distortions . . . that warp the larger pattern rather than fading into it.”7
Qohelet’s question in the next verse is even more provocative. It summarizes the basic question he asked of life that drove him to the conclusion of 1:2.
מַה־יִתְרוֹן לָאָדָם בְּכָל־עֲמָלוֹ שֶׁיַּעֲמֹל תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ
What profit is there for man in all his labor
in which he labors under the sun? (1:3)
The word translated “profit” here (יִתְרוֹן) is derived from the verb יתר, which means “to be left over.” The noun יִתְרוֹן means either “profit” or “advantage.” It is as if Qohelet is asking, “At the end of the day, when all the gains and losses have been calculated against each other, what remains? What permanent gain do we have to show for all our years of scurrying around in our work?” The implied answer is nothing. We tell ourselves we are making a mark, making the world a better place, but the imprint of our lives is quickly washed away. It is simply a matter of time before any evidence that we lived on earth and worked is wiped away. This is the point of vv. 4–7: if the natural elements, which have existed so much longer than any human life, cannot produce any permanent change in the world, what makes us think we can? This is the ultimate הֶבֶל for Qohelet, the “vanity of vanities.” The amount of sweat and tears we put into our life’s work, when compared with the end result of that labor, could not be more incongruous.
Three qualifications immediately need to be made. First, in claiming that הֶבֶל infects all of life, Qohelet is not saying everything is bad. As mentioned above, Qohelet loves life. He insists only that these good things are inescapably subject to הֶבֶל. Second, Qohelet is not a cynic. He will never tell us to stop working entirely or stop expecting certain results from our work. He insists only that our expectations, however reasonable, will not always obtain. Similarly, Qohelet never says that obedience to God does not matter. He never recommends folly over wisdom or rebellion against God over the fear of the Lord, but he does labor to convince us that even wisdom and piety are not free from הֶבֶל.8 Third, Qohelet restricts his claims to what is under the sun, not above. Certainly God is not subject to הֶבֶל. This perhaps makes the implied answer to the question of 1:3 a little easier to stomach: Qohelet is claiming that, from an earthly perspective, it is a matter of time until we are forgotten and whatever impact our work had is erased.9 Of course, this naturally raises the question of the meaning and permanence of our work from an “above the sun” perspective. We will consider this question, but not yet, for doing so might unintentionally distract from the hard truths we need to learn from Qohelet.
Despite these qualifications, we are only three verses into this challenging book, and already we are feeling the sting of the goads of the wise (12:11). It is natural, at this point, to ask how Qohelet reached such a radical conclusion. There is, after all, hardly anything comparable to Eccl 1:2–3 in the rest of Scripture or comparable ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature.10 As it turns out, Qohelet himself explains his journey to this position in 1:12–2:26 by narrating three investigations he made. Qohelet’s reflections on these searches are no easier to hear than his claims in 1:2–3. But it is necessary to follow him to the end so that we can receive that joy which, although still subject to הֶבֶל, is not ruined by it.
2. Qohelet’s Three Searches (1:12–18; 2:1–11, 12–26)
Qohelet’s first search is described in 1:12–13: it concerns “everything that is done under heaven,” i.e., Qohelet comprehensively examines human activity, institutions, and behavior. For such a broad search, the conclusion comes quickly: “I saw all the things that are done under the sun, and behold, everything is vanity [הֶבֶל] and chasing after the wind” (v. 14). The next verse gives Qohelet’s reason for this conclusion:
מְעֻוָּת לֹא־יוּכַל לִתְקֹן וְחֶסְרוֹן לֹא־יוּכַל לְהִמָּנוֹת
What is twisted cannot be straightened,
what is lacking cannot be counted. (1:15)
There is an irreducible twisting or disjointedness to life under the sun, which we cannot rectify—so Qohelet claims in the first clause of this verse. The second clause implies not just that we do not have all the pieces we need to put the whole picture together but that we do not even know how many pieces we are missing.
Reading Ecclesiastes can be a strange experience because one often wants to argue with the shocking things Qohelet says, but the more one engages with Qohelet’s argument, the more difficult it becomes to keep disagreeing. I doubt many of us drive to work in the morning consciously thinking that the next eight hours will be spent chasing the wind. But on the other hand, who can deny the disjointedness against which we struggle in our work and relationships? And surely each one of us has had those surreal moments when we face the profound limitations of our understanding of ourselves, our situation, and our world—and, further, that surreal sense that we cannot even identify what we are missing? But if that is the case, it becomes difficult to avoid Qohelet’s claim in v. 14. Given this twistedness, how can our work escape the contamination of הֶבֶל? Given the limits on our understanding and our ability to control our lives, how could it be otherwise? Our ambitions and goals will always outstrip what we can produce, and whatever we do produce will not last long. In an important sense, from an “under the sun” perspective, we are chasing the wind. And this is the case even though God himself has given us this work to do (v. 14). Unfortunate a business as it may be, everything done under the sun is given to man by God.
Things do not get better in the final three verses of the chapter, in which Qohelet reflects on his own investigation in vv. 12–15. After stating that he was in a position to make the sort of claims he did (vv. 16–17a), he calls his investigation yet one more act of wind-chasing (v. 17b). Qohelet’s recognition of vanity is itself subject to that vanity. Verse 18 gives the reason for this: as Qohelet increased in wisdom (v. 16), so the level of pain and stress and frustration in his life increased. When I teach Ecclesiastes, I tell my students that if their degree from Briercrest makes their lives easier, then the institution has failed them. Growth in wisdom necessitates deeper levels of pain because the twistedness, the disjointedness, the frustration of creation becomes all the more evident.
In 2:1–3, Qohelet makes a second, more restricted search, this time confining himself to what is good for human beings in whatever time they have (v. 3). It is as if Qohelet, soured by the world and its activity as a whole, turns to the finest and most noble things in life. His list of accomplishments in vv. 4–9 is truly impressive, but already in v. 1 Qohelet gives us advance notice that this second investigation terminates, as the first did, in vanity. We see why in vv. 10–11, where Qohelet reflects on his accomplishments. He begins positively by saying in v. 10 that he gave himself over to enjoying his work and that his heart rejoiced in all his labor. This is his portion or inheritance (חֵלֶק) from his life’s work. In one sense, Qohelet’s second search succeeded because he was able to “look upon good” (רְאֵה בְטוֹב), or, as most translations have it, “enjoy himself.” Note that Qohelet remains within himself in v. 10, speaking of his own involvement in his work. This perspective changes in v. 11: Qohelet stands back and considers his accomplishments in themselves. When he does this, his joy evaporates as he relegates all his work to הֶבֶל and wind-chasing (v. 11, without profit or permanent advantage (יִתְרוֹן again, strongly recalling 1:3). There seem to be two reasons for this conclusion. First, the amount of joy Qohelet received from his work was not enough in itself to redeem the years of toil it required. By analogy, I found my doctorate a satisfying experience, but the quality of that satisfaction is in no way adequate to the years of toil and late nights that it cost to produce a manuscript now collecting dust in the basement of a university library. The disproportion between effort and satisfaction in result is vanity, according to Qohelet’s use of the word. Second, to whatever extent the mention of “profit” or “advantage” recalls ch. 1, one must ask how long the achievements of vv. 4–9 will last. Qohelet has enjoyed his life’s work, but nothing permanent has been gained.
Qohelet retreats even further in vv. 12–23, turning to investigate wisdom and folly. (We should not forget both the practical and the moral/theological dimensions of these words in OT wisdom literature.)11 Qohelet’s conclusion is unambiguous and without qualification (v. 13): wisdom is better than folly and sin. In fact, Qohelet uses the word יִתְרוֹן again to describe the contrast between the two, implying that there is a permanent gain in wisdom, as absolute as the difference between light and darkness. The sorts of reservations Qohelet registers against all human activity (1:12–15) and satisfying accomplishment in work (2:1–11) are not applied here. But that does not mean that wisdom provides an escape from vanity because the same fate befalls both foolish and wise and both are forgotten forever in the grave (vv. 15–16). Lives completely different in their moral character end in exactly the same way. However wise one is, one dies just like a fool. In this sense, pursuing wisdom is pursuing the wind (v. 16).
Qohelet tells us his reaction to his discovery of the vanity of wisdom in vv. 17–23: he came to hate life (v. 17) and everything he worked for (v. 18). The incongruity between Qohelet’s vast labor and his leaving it to another who may squander it after his death turns the labor into something hateful for Qohelet (vv. 18–21). He cannot believe he spent so many years working for something that passes out of his hands so quickly (vv. 22–23). Then, without warning, Qohelet goes on to tell us there is nothing better for us to do than eat and drink and enjoy our work as from the hand of God (v. 24). Given what he has just said about hating life and despairing over his work, this verse feels abrupt. Has Qohelet given up? Is he being ironic? Or is Qohelet resignedly recommending pleasure because he is out of options, like a condemned man enjoying his last meal?
We are, at this point, at the center of the eye of the needle. In order to pass through, let us recall that Qohelet’s three searches are narrated to the reader as past events. Qohelet no longer hates life. He is telling us how he used to so that we can avoid his mistake. I cannot help but wonder if Qohelet demanded too much of life. After all, is giving your life’s work to another really a “great misfortune” (v. 21)? Surely that is a bit of an overreaction. In Qohelet’s three searches, he seems to be putting infinite demands on finite things, asking them to satisfy him in ways they were never intended to. We are not much different: we expect some permanent gain under the sun for our work (1:3) and then are bitterly disappointed when life fails our expectations. Qohelet is counseling us not to identify the value of our work with permanent and stable results that we can secure. The value of our work is rather found in its status as a gift directly from God. Life under the sun is subject to incongruities and flagrant inconsistencies that we will never understand, much less untangle. But we should enjoy life under the sun anyway for no other reason than that God gives it to us (vv. 25–26). Qohelet is telling us to avoid his mistake and avoid trying to manipulate our הֶבֶל-existences to achieve permanent results. Just enjoy what God gives you. In a profound paradox, the “recognition of the absurdity of human life requires nothing less and nothing more than exhausting every present moment as God’s gift.”12
Let us try to sketch more concretely what living this paradox day by day actually looks like. We all enjoy things we do not deserve, and each one of us lacks things we might legitimately expect to have. This incongruity is inescapable. Qohelet’s counsel to us is not to try to figure out why this is so, as if from survivor’s guilt. We are rather to enjoy our lives as a gift from on high, almost—if you will excuse the phrase—as if they come out of nowhere. Enjoy your work or a vacation from it, and don’t look beyond it. Don’t try to understand how you might keep the life you have or how it may be taken from you. Accept it for what it is: a good, vain thing.13 God wants us to enjoy life without forgetting that such enjoyment is colored by הֶבֶל, remembering that our God-given enjoyment of life does not unlock life’s secret or give us a way out of הֶבֶל.14
Furthermore, do not set your hopes on leaving a permanent mark on the world (or your denomination) through your work, or you will burn out.15 Only God knows the end result of your work, not you. Just enjoy working on what is at hand.16 Minister to others with everything you have (9:10) without worrying about the end result or being envious (4:4) of the pastor down the road who has a bigger church and more money at his disposal and flashier services, but who is not very spiritually minded (this, too, is הֶבֶל). God has apportioned all manner of absurdities under the sun. Leave the results of your work with God and keep your eye on the plow in front of you. Since God has placed mastery outside of our reach, simply enjoy each good thing as it comes.17 It is our illusion of mastery—and our identification of the value of our work (and our lives) with this mastery—from which Qohelet seeks to deliver us.
This is the path to true engagement with life colored by vanity. In Jacques Ellul’s striking words, “In order to be prepared to hope in what does not deceive, we must first lose hope in everything that deceives.”18 As a seminary professor with an incurably bookish bent, I personally find it deeply liberating to disconnect the value of my teaching and writing from visible results. It is a relief to me to admit that I cannot produce the results I want in my students; that is God’s work. With regard to publishing, it has been my observation that paradigms in OT studies last around 50 years; articles published in the 1960s and 1970s are already beginning to look like antiques. Soon my work will be an antique as well. If I set my hopes on making a visible impact on the state of professional biblical studies, I may very well become so frustrated that I start to hate the work. This is true even if I succeed, for (if I am honest) I will have to admit that my influence will fade quickly. Qohelet liberates me from that despair to enjoy each day of teaching, simply and as nothing else than a gift. And God’s word becomes rich and sharp in a way it never would if my only goal were to be an influential professional scholar.
It would be easy to translate these reflections for someone pastoring full-time: instead of worrying about how big your church is compared to others or how impressive the services are or how many compliments you receive, enjoy the counseling appointment you have this afternoon or the half-hour you have carved out for sermon preparation. God himself is giving these gifts directly to you, and he does not give them to everyone.
An additional aspect of Qohelet’s most paradoxical way of encouraging us is seen in 9:7–10, a passage very similar to 2:24–26. In this later passage, Qohelet again tells us to enjoy our lives and our work to the hilt, “for God has already approved of your work” (כִּי כְבָר רָצָה הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת־מַעֲשֶֹיךָ, v. 7). The word “already” is most striking. I take Qohelet to be saying that before we achieve what we want in our work (if we ever do), God is already smiling on us. God is pleased with us irrespective of what we do or do not accomplish. To use a somewhat different framework, God is pleased with our lives irrespective of our works. God simply smiles and gives us these gifts. That is the value of our work: the status as gifts according to grace, not visible results we can give back to God.
3. “A Time for Everything”: God’s Purpose in the Frustration of Creation (3:1–15)
So far, we have focused on Qohelet’s understanding of הֶבֶל and the paradoxical way in which הֶבֶל puts us in a position most securely to rejoice in God’s gift of life and work. But we have not said much about God’s involvement in his frustrated creation. Qohelet addresses this question in a most interesting way in 3:1–15.
Qohelet begins with the beautiful poem in vv. 1–8. These lines echo, at a number of levels, the language and imagery of 1:3–11, but in a more positive way: instead of the wind wearily blowing past one more generation that cannot produce anything new, we now see an appropriate time for everything. An order emerges in which God makes everything beautiful in its time (v. 11). Even if Qohelet is not retracting his thesis about הֶבֶל in these verses, the gloom and pressure of chs. 1–2 is lifting.
Qohelet goes further in v. 11 by claiming that God has put עוֹלָם in our hearts. The word generally refers to a very long time, whether past or future;19 sometimes it shades into “timelessness” and is best translated as “everlasting” or “for all time” (e.g., Eccl 12:5; Isa 40:28). This is, of course, something of a strange thing to say. The translation of the word and the sense of the line have been taken in very different ways.20 I think “eternity” best captures the sense, although I am not entirely happy with that rendering because it may call to the mind of Western readers certain philosophical ideas not present in the OT. Nevertheless, the contrast with specific times in the immediately preceding clause indicates that Qohelet is thinking of something beyond time.21 The first clause in v. 11 obviously recalls the times for appropriate action in vv. 1–8. As a result, both the first clause of v. 11 and vv. 1–8 form a context for understanding the claim that God has put עוֹלָם in the heart of man. I take Qohelet to be saying that, as we move through those differing seasons of our lives that God has appointed for us (vv. 1–8), we sometimes get a hint of a far greater order of which individual seasons are only a small part. We are struck by what the missionary and martyr Jim Elliot, quoting Wordsworth, called that “sense of something far more deeply interfused.”22 We who are bound in time grope after some comprehensive, “above the sun” view of reality, outside of time. Qohelet is saying that God has put this impulse within us (v. 11a)—and not only that but that God simultaneously frustrates this impulse and prevents our grasping comprehensively God’s work in the world and his ordering of human time (v. 11b).23 Under divine provocation, we continually reach for something God himself has blocked off. Because of this, there is nothing better for us than to accept our place in time and enjoy our works and lives, for this is a gift directly from God (vv. 12–13).
But why has God done this? Qohelet answers in v. 14: so that we might fear before him. This is not cowering before an inscrutable dictator. In OT wisdom literature, “the fear of the Lord” is a summary statement for a relationship with God (among many references, see Prov 1:7; Job 1:1). In other words, God has put eternity in our hearts but bound us within time, all in order to drive us to himself. He is at work in all of human history (3:11; 7:13–15; 8:17), but in such a way that we cannot change anything he does (v. 14) or even understand what he is doing, regardless of our yearning to do so (v. 11). We are aware of something beyond time that God prevents us from finding so that, bereft of any bird’s-eye view of reality, bereft of any comprehensive, consistent grasp of the whole, we turn to God in love, reverence, and obedience. This is God’s purpose in subjecting his creation to הֶבֶל. Denied any kind of God-like mastery over or even understanding of our lives, we can turn to God as God and not just someone to give us what we want.
Qohelet makes a final tantalizing claim in v. 15: “God will seek what is pursued.” Again, it is not entirely clear what this means. Many take the clause negatively in the sense that God keeps the useless round of events on its ever-circling course.24 Seow more plausibly understands the clause to mean that, while humans have no permanent gain from all their labor, God seeks the things we lose. God takes care of the things we cannot hold on to.25 But if so, do we ever see them again? This brings us to the subject of God’s judgment of all things and the conclusion of this article.
4. Conclusion: God’s Approving Judgment
Qohelet mostly restricts his claims to life under the sun, but the book of Ecclesiastes as a whole does not: the spirit returns to God who gave it (12:7), and the book ends by affirming that God will bring everything into judgment, good or evil (12:14). This implies that the smallest details of this absurd, fleeting, warped, good existence matter to God and will be evaluated in the eschaton.26 Speaking from a broader biblical perspective, we can say that that final day will manifest the true character of each one’s work (1 Cor 3:13–15), and what was absurd and without any permanent gain under the sun will be shown to have eternal value, through the working of the Holy Spirit. Because of this, we can labor and minister now in ignorant hope, eagerly awaiting that day when the sun falls from the heavens (2 Pet 3:10), creation is made new, and our great Savior comes to reward those who once labored in vain but will then enter into the joy of their master (Matt 25:21).27