Monday, July 15, 2019

Schreiner on Ecclesiastes

The following is from Tom Schreiner's The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments, pp 300-312.


Waltke says, "The book of Ecclesiastes is the black sheep of the canon of biblical books. It is the delight of skeptics and the despair of saints."1 It is typical for scholars to read the message of the book in bleak terms, but Waltke rightly says that "the view that Qoheleth lost faith in God's justice and goodness depends on proof texting and not on interpreting the book holistically."2 If Proverbs focuses on the regularities of life, Ecclesiastes concentrates on the anomalies. I should add immediately that such a dichotomy between Proverbs and Ecclesiastes is too rigid, for Proverbs, as noted above, has often been interpreted simplistically. A careful reading of Proverbs demonstrates that Solomon and the other proverb writers were well aware that those who worked hard did not always get rich, that the poor were often victims of injustice, and that tragedies struck the righteous and not just the wicked. Nevertheless, the popular perception of Proverbs exists for a reason, for the book often emphasizes that good comes to those who do good. Ecclesiastes gazes at another dimension of reality and reflects on the irrationality and perverseness of life under the sun. Both Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are part of what is called Wisdom literature, but their profoundly different emphases demonstrate that wisdom cannot be captured by a simple formula. Wisdom perceives what ordinarily happens in life, and it attempts to discern and understand the mysteries and injustices of human existence. Ecclesiastes probes the latter. House rightly emphasizes that Ecclesiastes must be read as part of the canon, noting that apart from the canon a multiplicity of interpretations can be defended, from existentialism to pessimism.3

What is striking about Ecclesiastes, as we will see, is the recognition that the injustice and evil that characterize human existence seem to be senseless. Many have understood the book to contradict the message of the remainder of the OT. Typically, the OT forecasts hope and promise for the future, but, it is argued, Ecclesiastes offers no such hope. Instead, none of us know what is coming our way. Life is perplexing, maddening, frustrating, and ultimately inexplicable. I suggest, however, that such a reading of Ecclesiastes should be rejected.4 What I call the "despairing" interpretation spies out part of what the book teaches, and often it is defended by severing the conclusion of the book from the body. My purpose is not to excavate the history of the composition, for the goal here is to investigate Ecclesiastes as it has come down to us, to explain the final and canonical form of the text. The text as we have it does not contradict what the OT teaches elsewhere. Indeed, the conclusion of the book functions as the hermeneutical lens by which the whole of the book should be read: "The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil" (12:13–14). The theme of Ecclesiastes, then, accords with what we have seen in two other wisdom books: Job and Proverbs. The fundamental requirement is to fear God. It "is a dominant note of this book."5 Ecclesiastes does not depart from the God-centered perspective of Job and Proverbs but rather affirms it. The book does not counsel despair or teach that since life is meaningless under the sun our actions are inconsequential. As House remarks, there are "hints about the afterlife" in the book.6 Those who interpret Ecclesiastes nihilistically fail to reckon with the framework and perspective provided by the author. They detach the conclusion from the rest of the book, neglecting to see how the conclusion fits with what Ecclesiastes teaches elsewhere.

Ecclesiastes 12:13–14, in other words, is intended to sum up the message of the book. Fearing God is not an abstract reality; it leads to observing his commandments, to doing his will. Ecclesiastes should not be interpreted as if it undermines obedience. Indeed, a future judgment is envisioned where the actions of human beings are assessed, so that those who do good are rewarded and those who do evil are punished.7 The message of the book, then, is not that life is ultimately absurd and meaningless. Reverence for God is the primary responsibility of human beings, and whether or not one obeys God's commands does make a difference.8 Indeed, the focus on "commandments" brings Ecclesiastes into the circle of Torah piety9 and also fits with the teaching of Proverbs, where, as we saw, wisdom and Torah are compatible. Like Proverbs, Ecclesiastes sketches in what it looks like to live under Yahweh's reign. The absurdity of life is not due to events that lie outside God's control. As Roland Murphy says, even if mysterious, "everything happens because of the Lord's action. . . . God is portrayed as intimately involved in all that occurs."10 And as Daniel Fredericks notes, the Preacher presents "a sovereign, predetermining God who acts in ways fully calculated, yet not calculable."11 Since God is sovereign and wise, human beings must stand in awe of him and obey him.

I suggest that the conclusion matches the truth of what is taught in the entire work.12 The book comes from "the Preacher" (12:9, 10; cf. 1:1, 2, 12; 7:27; 12:8),13 who probably is Solomon, for he is "the son of David, king in Jerusalem" (1:1; cf. 1:12).14 By referring to Solomon, the book is given authoritative status. 15 The riches, wisdom, and wives clearly point to Solomon (2:4–10), for he "surpassed all who were before in Jerusalem" (2:9). Indeed, no one will ever be richer or wiser than he: "For what can the man do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done" (2:12). In any case, the contents of the book derive from the Preacher's wisdom and knowledge (12:9), and what he wrote in the book were "words of truth" (12:10). What is collected here belongs to "the words of the wise" (12:11). "His sayings are not just pessimistic emotions, but designated as part of Israel's wisdom."16 The conclusion of Ecclesiastes does not repudiate the rest of the book; it is part of biblical wisdom. Since the book comes from God as the shepherd, the author "legitimates Ecclesiastes as divine wisdom and rules out any merely private interpretation."17 Understanding what the book teaches is part of what it means to fear God.18

The Futility of Life under the Sun

So what do we find in the remainder of the book? One of its major themes is the vanity and futility of human life.19 The word "vanity" (hebel) occurs thirty-seven times in the book, signifying the futility and meaninglessness of human existence. The slogan functions as an envelope for the book, both opening it (1:2) and closing it (12:8).20 The Preacher draws on creation here, and although the absurdity in the world is inexplicable at one level, at another level there is an explanation: the fall into sin described in Gen. 3.21 Another favorite expression to convey the absurdity of life is "striving after wind" (1:14; 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 6; 6:9), which often is parallel with "vanity."22 "Striving after wind" nicely pictures the futility of human life, for no one can grasp the wind.

Another key phrase in Ecclesiastes is "under the sun," which occurs twenty- nine times in the book. The phrase denotes life on earth—life in this world. Speaking of the dead (9:5), the author writes, "Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun" (9:6). It is clear from this text that "under the sun" refers to existence in this world. We are told that "there is nothing new under the sun" (1:9), that "everything . . . done under the sun . . . is vanity and striving after the wind" (1:14), and that, regarding toil, "there was nothing to be gained under the sun" (2:11; cf. 1:3).23 The phrase "under the sun," then, denotes a limited perspective in which life is considered from an earthly standpoint.24 It confirms "that the meaning of life cannot be ascertained solely through experience and observation."25 The latter is a mistake that one might make in reading Proverbs, although, as noted earlier, Proverbs itself does not teach such a mistaken view. Kathleen Farmer rightly suggests that the term implies "an interest in the question of the existence of some form of afterlife."26

Why is life vain? Solomon, as the Preacher, illustrates its vanity in a multitude of ways. For instance, the uselessness of human labor is contemplated (1:3–11). The fundamental structures of the world remain unchanged, and the cycle of nature repeats itself over and over, and hence there is nothing truly new in human existence. Toil is futile also because the fruit of one's toil is temporary, and one leaves riches to heirs who may end up being fools (2:18–19). Work brings "vexation," and "even in the night [one's] heart does not rest" because a laborer worries about profitability (2:23). Others work constantly, but they do not even have an heir, and they find no satisfaction in their wealth (cf. 6:7), never contemplating why they are working so hard (4:7–8).

Indeed, human toil and even "skill" derive from competition, from the desire to be approved for one's abilities, and hence labor has its roots in "envy" (4:4). But what a useless life it is for those who have "two hands full of toil" (4:6) and strive after the wind, since they will never obtain happiness by incessant labor. Ecclesiastes does not disagree with the emphasis in Proverbs on working hard, for a "fool" who refuses to work will end up in self-destruction (4:5), but a wise person achieves a balance of both work and relaxation (4:6) and does not fall prey to the illusion that work will bring joy. Still, life is full of absurdity and perplexity. A poor person who is wise may replace a foolish king, but the poor person who becomes king will be forgotten as well (4:13–16). Nothing done on earth lasts.

Vanity and striving after wind are also the portion of those who pursue pleasure to escape the meaninglessness of existence under the sun (2:1–12). Solomon becomes Exhibit A of such an approach to life because he had enough wealth to seek pleasure without limitation (2:11). There are only "a few days" of life "under heaven" (2:3), and one may seek to escape the emptiness of life through hedonism. Solomon did not forsake wisdom in pursuing pleasure (2:3). No, this was a pursuit of the joys of the flesh guided by discretion and informed by understanding. Solomon built majestic parks and gardens, had numerous slaves to do his bidding, enjoyed riches to an unparalleled degree, was entertained by the finest musicians and singers in Israel, indulged in the joys of sexual intercourse with countless women, and stimulated his pleasure with wine. In short, "Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil" (2:10). And yet the path of hedonism did not ultimately satisfy. The emptiness of life was not chased away by life's pleasures. Indeed, the absurdity of life was even more evident, for, after satisfying every desire of the heart, it was plain to him that pleasure does not remove the ennui of life.

If pleasure does not yield satisfaction, then perhaps the answer is to be found in wisdom—the ability to negotiate life with prudence and understanding. The Preacher affirms that wisdom is preferable to folly (2:13–14), agreeing here with the book of Proverbs. Fools have no idea where they are heading and live shrouded in moral darkness, but the wise consider what is ahead and live morally, and hence they may live longer than fools because of their insight (7:11–12; cf. 9:18; 10:10). As Murphy says, "Folly is never a viable option for Qoheleth."27 And yet there is still an emptiness and absurdity in life under the sun even for those who are wise. The wise perceive the meaninglessness of life under the sun and see more clearly than fools the sorrow and grief and frustration in human existence (1:13–18). The wise realize that "it is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with" (1:13), and that there are many things in life that cannot be amended or corrected (1:15). What's more, fools can undermine the labors of the wise in short order (10:1). Those who are wise realize that the advantage of being wise on earth is short-lived, for both the wise and fools die and are forgotten (2:15–17). Indeed, a wise person who is not rich or famous may because of his prudence rescue a city, and yet his work on behalf of the city may be completely forgotten (9:13–18).

One of the fundamental themes of Ecclesiastes is the irrationality of life under the sun. It is captured by 2:17: "So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind." The Preacher laments the injustice that marks human existence. Indeed, injustice thrives in places that are reputed to be places of righteousness (3:16). It is important to see here that the injustice under the sun during the present era does not rule out a final judgment,28 for the Preacher immediately says, "God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work" (3:17). Here the Preacher anticipates the conclusion to the entire work (12:13–14), demonstrating that the conclusion is in accord with what the book teaches elsewhere. Still, what the Preacher emphasizes in chapter 3 is the "insanity" of human life, for it is not perceptible that human beings have any advantage over animals (3:19–21; cf. 6:12). Both humans and animals return to the dust, signifying the futility of human existence (cf. 9:1–3).

No one can accuse the Preacher of gazing only at the sunny side of life. He considers the oppressed, who are filled with grief and find no comfort (4:1). Their oppressors are unrelenting because they enjoy power over the weak and disenfranchised (cf. 5:8–9). The Preacher concludes that it is better to be dead than alive, and never being born is the best of all (4:2–3). After all, we see those who are evil prosper because of their wickedness, while those who are righteous perish because of their righteousness (7:15; cf. 8:14). Life is unpredictable and unfair: "Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance hap- pen to them all. For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them" (9:11–12). No one can calculate the day of death, nor does one know whether tragedy or triumph is around the corner.

Human beings do not manage their lives; life manages them. The famous poem on time (3:1–8) emphasizes that human beings must respond to life as it occurs.29 We must plant during planting season, and we will cry at death and rejoice at birth. When it is a time for war we fight, and when it is a time for peace we celebrate. Human beings are fundamentally helpless to change the world. "Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked?" (7:13). The answer, of course, is "no one," for no one can unbend what God has bent. Indeed, "No man has power to retain the spirit, or power over the day of death" (8:8). The grim reaper comes, and we are powerless to stop it. As Leo Perdue says, "Denied the comprehensive knowledge of the cosmic and historical components of time and the course of divine events—in the past, present and future—humanity is trapped in an opaque, mysterious, and ambiguous present, unaware of what may or may not happen."30

The Preacher often contemplates the incongruity between wealth and happiness, for wealth seems to guarantee fulfillment but does not necessarily bring it: "He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity" (5:10). More money means more friends who consume one's substance; and wealth occupies the mind, depriving the rich of sleep (5:11–12). A person's assets can be lost suddenly "in a bad venture" (5:14), with hard-earned gains vanishing so that nothing is left for one's progeny, and thus all the labor is "for the wind" (5:16). Similarly, a person may be blessed with enormous affluence and yet fail to enjoy the for- tune amassed (6:1–2). The Preacher muses over how absurd life can be. One may have a hundred children and live a long life, but it is all for naught if one does not enjoy "life's good things" (6:3). A "stillborn child is better off than he" (6:3) because it finds rest immediately (6:5).

Sometimes the Preacher sounds as if he thinks that death is better than life, as was noted above (4:2–3; 6:3). We must recognize that the book is proverbial, and so maxims that celebrate death must be qualified by other statements elsewhere.31 We already saw in Proverbs the danger of overextending the meaning of any single proverb. The Preacher recognizes the wonder and beauty of life (more on this below): "But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun" (9:4–6). The Preacher communicates the preciousness of life, and yet its futility is also captured by the reality of death. We must not overinterpret what the Preacher says about death, as if he denies any future life. He speaks of life "under the sun," acknowledging that human beings have no glimpse into the future on the basis of their own wisdom.

Fearing God

One of the central themes of Ecclesiastes is that life is puzzling, perplexing, unpredictable, unjust, and maddening. There are no formulas that apply to every situation. Too often evil triumphs, and good languishes under the sun. The Preacher, however, does not leave readers with that message. Even though life is futile and a striving after wind, human beings should still fear God, for he will assess the life of each one. Nor is this message confined to the conclusion of the book.32 In the midst of musing on how maddening life is, the Preacher unexpectedly says, "Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him. But it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God" (8:12–13). Ultimately, one's fear of God will be rewarded, even though one cannot see how this is so during this futile life under the sun.33 Life is baffling and beyond human comprehension, but the mysteries of existence should not lead people to atheism, agnosticism, or despair. Instead, God's purpose is to humble human beings: "I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him" (3:14). Human beings must recognize that they are not masters of the universe. They cannot supplement what God has done or reverse what he has ordained. They are to acknowledge his greatness and fear him. The centrality of fearing God also emerges in 5:1–7, where the Preacher instructs his readers to be reverent before God and not to pour out words before him like a fool.

Part of what it means to fear God, according to the Preacher, is to be wise—a theme that resonates with what we find in Proverbs. Those who are wise realize that "two are better than one" (4:9) because there is help, warmth, and protection in numbers (4:10–12). Prudence manifests itself in industry, hard work, and planning (11:1–6). Once again the parallels with Proverbs are obvious, suggesting again that those who put Ecclesiastes and Proverbs in polarized camps overestimate the differences between them. Wisdom perceives the evil in human beings, recognizing that all are sinners, and hence does not take too seriously criticism by others (7:20–22, 25–29). Even though life is full of vanity, folly must be avoided (10:2–3, 12–16). In particular, a land is destined for disaster if the king is a fool (4:13; 5:9; 10:16), but that land is blessed that has a wise and just king (10:17).

The wise ruminate about the day of death often, for pondering the end of life provokes people to live wisely in the present (7:1–6). The book closes with an admonition to remember God as creator before senility sets in and one is unable to think clearly about life. There is the recognition that the spirit of human beings will "[return] to God who gave it" (12:7), and that a day of judgment is coming in which God will judge people for their actions (11:9).

Enjoying Life

Another central theme, one that punctuates the book of Ecclesiastes repeatedly, plays a significant role in the book. Thus far we have seen that human beings must fear God and obey him, even though life under the sun is futile, irrational, absurd, and meaningless. No one can chart out his or her life and predict how it will turn out under the sun. So what should one do in the meantime? The Preacher advises, "There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?" (2:24–25). The Preacher is not counseling readers here to live an unrestrained, hedonistic life; rather, he is saying that human beings must live one day at a time and enjoy each day for the pleasures it brings.34 This is not an isolated theme, for the Preacher revisits it in 3:11–13:35 "He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God's gift to man." God has so designed life that human beings see the glory and beauty of God in the world he created. But life in the world also eludes human comprehension, such that there is no evident pattern or plan in history. Vanity and futility and absurdity characterize human life. Instead of trying to figure out how everything fits together, human beings should take pleasure in God's gifts. There is a humility in accepting each day from God's hand and thanking him for the joys that he grants.36

Similarly, 3:16–22 is one of the bleakest passages in the book, emphasizing the vanity of life. But the Preacher again concludes by saying, "So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Who can bring him to see what will be after him?" (3:22). Life cannot be domesticated by human intelligence, and one should avoid trying to figure everything out, since answers to all of life's follies are not available. Instead, we should take one day at a time and enjoy life if it is good. The same theme emerges in 5:18–20. Despite the absurdity of life, if God grants joy in one's work, then one should not attempt to unravel the whys and wherefores of what happens on earth, since such is hidden from human beings. Instead, one should find joy in what God gives each day, giving thanks for the good things granted.37

The Preacher is scarcely saying, given the rest of the book, that every day is a good one in which one finds joy. This is clear from 7:14: "In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him." The Preacher's thesis is that when days are good, one should rejoice and enjoy life. But there are also days of adversity and trouble. God sovereignly stands behind both. He is king over all that happens, but he has structured history and human life so that human beings cannot unravel the secrets of existence. "Qohelet argues that God keeps us ignorant about the future in order to convince us that we cannot manipulate God in that way. That is the essence of what it means to ‘fear' God: to recognize that God's favor cannot be controlled by anything we humans do."38 Farmer rightly says that we have here a theology of grace.39

It is important to note how pervasively the Preacher summons the readers to enjoy life:

And I commend joy, for man has no good thing under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun. When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one's eyes see sleep, then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out. (8:15–17)

No one can discover or unearth God's plan by scrutinizing life "under the sun." During the limited span of human life, then, humans should fear God and rejoice in the good things that God has given them. As noted before, this is not a counsel of hedonism. Instead, it is a recognition of finiteness and a stance of humility and gratefulness. When one is blessed with good days, one should not be perturbed by trying to sort out the injustices of human existence.

Certainly we are not blind to the futility of life, nor is the Preacher saying that we are not grieved by sorrow. And yet we should also gratefully receive good gifts when they are given (cf. 9:7–9). When life is good, we should rejoice in it, acknowledging God's beneficence. The Preacher realizes that good days on earth are not forever. Young persons should remember their creator before days of decrepitude arrive (11:7–8; 12:1–8). The years of youth and vigor are to be enjoyed if possible, but the wise person recognizes that life is short, that fearing God is most important. Here the themes of Ecclesiastes are nicely tied together. Life is full of vanity and absurdity, and yet one should also find joy in good days when they come. In the midst of a life that exceeds human comprehension, God should be feared and trusted, for ultimately he will reward those who fear and obey him. Such fear of God is the path of wisdom, as also Job and Proverbs affirm.


Ecclesiastes is part of the wisdom tradition in Israel. The book is similar to Job in that it focuses on the vanity and absurdity of life. Life baffles us with its irrationality, unfairness, and capriciousness. The created world since the sin of Adam and Eve is full of thorns and thistles (Gen. 3:17–19). The world has been subjected to futility (Rom. 8:18–25). The Preacher emphasizes that there are no pleasures under the sun that finally satisfy, and there is no wisdom available that will unlock all of life's secrets. God rules over all, but much is hidden from the gaze of human beings. Still, Ecclesiastes fits with the wisdom tradition of both Job and Proverbs, for the Preacher's final advice is that human beings should fear God and keep his commands. Instead of attempting to unravel the puzzles of human existence by trying to discern why one thing happens rather than another, human beings must give themselves entirely to God. They must live under his lordship. And when God grants joy and food, then one should give thanks to him and enjoy his gifts. In other words, Ecclesiastes says take one day at a time and do not worry about tomorrow (cf. Matt. 6:25–34). Chapters 11–12, however, warn against a misunderstanding. The Preacher does not call for hedonism, for a day of judgment is impending, and hence the most important thing in life is to fear God.

How does Ecclesiastes relate to the NT? The NT acknowledges that we live in a fallen and frustrating world (see Rom. 8:18–25). The creation is subject to futility, but Jesus Christ has come and inaugurated the kingdom, with the promise that the fullness of the kingdom will arrive. A new creation has dawned and will be consummated. Human beings show their fear of God (see 2 Cor. 5:11–21) by being reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. Through Christ the new creation has arrived (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15), and "new heavens and a new earth" are coming "in which righteousness dwells" (2 Pet. 3:13).


1. Waltke, Old Testament Theology, 946.

2. Ibid., 953. Waltke provides a helpful survey of skeptical approaches (pp. 953–54). For a survey of a variety of interpretations, see Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, 271–77.

3. House, Old Testament Theology, 470–71. See also Farmer, Who Knows What Is Good?, 6.

4. For a reading that accords with what is argued here, see Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, 277–78; Schultz, "Ecclesiastes."

5. Waltke, Old Testament Theology, 959.

6. House, Old Testament Theology, 480.

7. See Childs, Old Testament as Scripture, 588.

8. See Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty, 207.

9. "Clearly no sharp distinction between wisdom and law was being suggested by the epilogue" (Childs, Old Testament as Scripture, 586).

10. Murphy, Ecclesiastes, lxvi. Murphy says that "determinism" is fitting if it "means the sovereign disposition of all things by the divinity. . . . But it is a determinism of an unusual kind because it does not exempt human beings from responsibility. Israel never engaged in any theoretical discussion concerning the reconciliation of these contraries. . . . The OT affirms equally determinism and human responsibility, or in other words, freedom of the will" (pp. lxvi–lxvii). I disagree with Murphy, though, when he says that there is no "personal relationship with God" in the book (p. lxviii).

11. Fredericks, Coping with Transience, 37. For the notion that the picture of God in Ecclesiastes coheres with OT theology, see De Jong, "God in the Book of Qohelet."

12. Some scholars think that the narrator who introduces and closes the book in the prologue and epilogue critiques what is found in the body of the book (see Longman, Book of Ecclesiastes, 31–39). But this view should be rejected. See the decisive arguments in Waltke, Old Testament Theology, 949–51. See also Farmer, Who Knows What Is Good?, 197.

13. In terms of structure, I agree with those who see Ecclesiastes as proverbial without a clear overall structure. See Childs, Old Testament as Scripture, 587.

14. Most modern scholars doubt that Solomon is the author. It is not my purpose here to defend Solomonic authorship, but for one such defense, see Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, 254–67. For another view, see Waltke, Old Testament Theology, 947–49. For a messianic reference, see Perrin, "Messianism in the Narrative Frame?"

15. So Childs, Old Testament as Scripture, 584.

16. Ibid., 585. Against Longman (Book of Ecclesiastes, 277–81), who argues that 12:9–12 does not commend the teaching of Qohelet. Murphy rightly says, "The laudatory tone of vv 9–11 is unmistakable. The warning of 12:13 is to be seen as an approval of ‘these'—namely the previous wisdom writing among which the book of Ecclesiastes is included" (Ecclesiastes, lxi). But against Murphy (p. 126), I believe that 12:13–14 coheres with the remainder of the book.

17. Childs, Old Testament as Scripture, 586.

18. "True wisdom will accept that our experience of a fallen world and the evil within is soon to pass. The book may then be read as a positive assessment of faith that is able to look beyond such limitations, and to conclude as it does that the duty of humankind is to fear God and to keep God's commandments" (Dumbrell, Faith of Israel, 285). See also Fredericks, Coping with Transience, 78–90.

19. A. Wright finds a careful structure in the book such that 1:12–6:9 stresses "the vanity of various human endeavors" and 6:10–11:6 "man's inability to understand the work of God" ("Riddle of the Sphinx," 324). According to Wright, 1:2–11 and 11:7–12:8 are two poems that introduce and conclude the book (pp. 333–34). See Wright's entire argument (pp. 313–34). See also idem, "Riddle of the Sphinx Revisited"; idem, "Additional Numerical Patterns in Qoheleth."

20. So also Dumbrell, Faith of Israel, 284; Waltke, Old Testament Theology, 955. The term hebel denotes the "absurdity" of life under the sun (Murphy, Ecclesiastes, lix; Waltke, Old Testament Theology, 956). When I use the term "irrational" with reference to Ecclesiastes, I am using it as a synonym of absurdity, not to convey the idea that life is ultimately without meaning (see Fox, Qohelet and His Contradictions, 29–51). Fredericks (Coping with Transience, 11–32) argues that the term hebel focuses on the transience of life (see also Perdue, Wisdom and Creation, 206–7), but such a definition, though partially true, does not fully account for the frustration that permeates the book. DeRouchie ("Shepherding Wind") argues that hebel means that life is an enigma. Caneday ("‘Everything Is Vapor'") believes it refers to that which is insubstantial, transient, and evil. Both DeRouchie and Caneday reject the translation of hebel as "meaningless" or "futility" because they believe that such a meaning supports the notion that the book is one of ultimate despair. Space does not permit a full discussion of the meaning of hebel here. I think that the context of the book indicates that hebel is a wide-ranging term, and that the notions of absurdity, futility, and meaninglessness are part of its meaning. Nevertheless, the author is not teaching that life is ultimately meaningless or futile. His point is that life under the sun is meaningless, futile, absurd, an enigma, and transient; that is, we cannot make sense of life by observing what takes place on earth. But it does not follow from this that Ecclesiastes is teaching that life itself is ultimately meaningless and absurd. His point is that we cannot discern a pattern from the events of history.

21. So B. Webb, Five Festal Garments, 104. See also Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, 278–79.

22. See Waltke, Old Testament Theology, 957.

23. His toil was "under the sun" (2:18), and "all the toils of my labor under the sun" (2:20). See also 2:22.

24. See Dumbrell, Faith of Israel, 288–89.

25. House, Old Testament Theology, 471.

26. Farmer, Who Knows What Is Good?, 206. She also says that there is an implication "that a distinction can be made between what happens (under the sun) and what happens elsewhere" (p. 206).

27. Murphy, Ecclesiastes, lxii.

28. See also Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, 272.

29. See Dumbrell, Faith of Israel, 289.

30. Perdue, Wisdom and Creation, 217.

31. Murphy (Ecclesiastes, lxvii) says that the sayings on the preferability of death are "very narrow cases."

32. Rightly Childs, Old Testament as Scripture, 586. See also Murphy, "Qoheleth and Theology?," 31–32.

33. See Waltke, Old Testament Theology, 961.

34. Rightly Waltke, Old Testament Theology, 961–63. See also Fredericks, Coping with Transience, 64–77; Whybray, "Qoheleth." Whybray rightly sees the emphasis on joy, but he exaggerates it. See the next note.

35. The theme of joy could be exaggerated and must be correlated with other themes in the book (so Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, 273), but Murphy goes too far in the other direction in saying that Qohelet offers only "resigned conclusions" ("Qoheleth and Theology?," 32).

36. The Preacher emphasizes that if one experiences joy, it is a gift of God (so Whybray, "Qoheleth," 88).

37. Longman (Book of Ecclesiastes, 168–69) argues that what Qohelet says about joy does not cohere well because of his contrary comments about joy in 7:4; 2:1–2, 10. Against Long- man, the comments about joy in chapter 2 and chapter 7 are directed against those who think that they can find fulfillment in pleasure, but this is quite distinct from what Qohelet teaches in 5:18–20 and the other passages about joy. The texts that counsel joy also affirm that no one under the sun can discern the meaning of life by observing the world. Suffering and absurdity characterize human existence. And yet in the midst of this fallen and crazy world there are days of joy—days when one enjoys one's work and food and marriage. Qohelet simply says, "Thank God for days like that. They are a gift, but they will not last forever." For an analysis of this theme, see Fox, Qohelet and His Contradictions, 53–77.

38. Farmer, Who Knows What Is Good?, 177. We should say that this is part of what it means to fear God rather than the essence of what fearing God means.

39. Ibid.


  1. Schreiner's work is some of the best work that's out these days.

    1. Very true! He's one of the best in his field.

      In fairness, as you know, he's not an OT scholar but a NT scholar. However I still thought his introduction to Ecclesiastes was a good overview and a popular level introduction which might be helpful for others to read.

  2. A new commentary on Ecclesiastes from a professor at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary:

    1. Thanks, Jeff! I'll take a look now. Hard to go wrong with Banner of Truth. :)