Theology of Ecclesiates: A proposal





Introduction 1

I. Leitwort: hebel 1

II. His system of Thought 4

A. Created World: Order 4

B. Dilemma of Meaning 5

C. Celebration of Life: despite of dilemma 6

D. The Fear of God: "Heavenly Mandate" 7

Conclusion 8

Bibliography 9

Appendix 11

Introduction 11

A. Thematic Unity 11

B. Literary Unity 12

Endnote 12





Here I thanks the two Rabbis (Prof. Benno Gross and Rabbi Helen Freeman), who I meet at a Jewish-Christian dialogue conference, have inspired me on several new ideas and strengthened my search for God's will in the OT wisdom tradition too. Thanks for their sharing and I am looking forward for more Jewish-Christian Dialogue. I hope my love for the Jewish People, and the Love for Tanak (OT Bible) will grow as I learn His Word deeper, with our Jewish partners hand in hand.



This article refutes the position that takes Ecclesiastes (= Qoheleth ) as a biblical failure or non-biblical faith. I will evaluate the theological emphasis on this book by analyzing his "system" of thought. A four-points system is sugggested: Created World: Order , Dilemma of Meaning , Celebration of Life: despite of dilemma , The Fear of God: "Heavenly Mandate". Hence, it will vindicate Qoheleth as a Godly sage, rather than Enigmatic Pessimist.



As Caneday states "the book of Qoheleth, commonly known as Ecclesiates, is perhaps the most enigmatic of all the sacred writings. It is this quality which has been a source of sharp criticism. Virtually every aspect of the book has come under the censure of critics -- its professed authorship, its scope and design, its unity and coherence, its theological orthodoxy, and its claim to a place among the inspired writings."

It was included into the Hebrew canon, after lots of controversy. Its canonicity was at first disputed, according to the Mishnah (Yadaim 3:5; Eduyot 5:3). However, Hillel's attitude prevailed over the usually conservative Shammaite contingency, who objected to the book. Akiba accepted Qoheleth's canonicity at the second century, and Qoheleth appears in the list drawn up by Melito, bishop of Sardis about 190 C.E., but in the 5th century a Catholic theologian, Theodore of Mopsuestia, first raised objection to its sacred character. Eaton reminds us that "rabbinical discussions revolve not around whether Ecclesiastes was canonical, but why it was." In fact, its unorthodox outlook is usually the center of controversy.


I. Leitwort: hebel

In 1:13, he reflects on the life in the whole world and to the events among common men universally. 1:2 "everything is meaningless (hebel)" is the theme which Qoheleth seeks to prove throughout the entirety of the book. The meaning of hebel is most important, but it is very difficult to grasp the meaning of this word:

Hebel appears no less than 30 times. Of these phrases, Leupold advocates that the author stress the man's accomplishments are transitory; while Woudstra insists that Qoheleth wants to show human existence in transitory life is futile, but denies that it implies pessimism. Many scholars have tried to translate hebel with a single word. For example, "transitory", "fleeting", "incomprehensible", "incongruous", "absurdity", "evanescent, unsubstantial, worthless, vanity" are some of the suggestions. Caneday argues that "the particular sense of the word must be derived from its usage in any particular context." After studying the usage in other OT books, he turns to Qoheleth and suggests that the author uses it with some nuances. Fox, on the contrary, refutes the nuances; and said "however, most of these seem to fit some contexts; in fact, in some contexts several quite different renderings seem to work. On the other hand, we cannot say that the word hebel is a bundle of all the qualities denoted by these renderings." Nevertheless, "we should distinguish the qualities that evoke the particular hebel-judgments (ephemerality, inequity, inefficacy, futility, nonsense) from the meaning of hebel." He advocates "absurdity" as the most comprehensive choice. As Fox confesses, no single translation fits all the contexts, I think his proposal is a close guess, but some nuances may be accepted within a certain "boundary". This word has a denotation of irrationality of the events (as opposed to author's expectation), and offers an emotional disgust towards this outcomes. Hence, Qoheleth has lamented the failure of wisdom, and astonishes at the sovereignty of Jahve.

Polarity of Themes in this book has puzzled many scholars; but the thought of Qoheleth is indisputably polar. Whether it is a treatise or collection is still a controversy. (Please refers to the appendix on thematic and literary unity). Caneday suggests that the author "reproduces the character of this world." , rather than treats it theoretically. Hence, the polarity reflects this world, rather than of author's position.

Hereafter I will discuss his system of thought by suggesting four points:

1) Like the other Wisdom Literature, he believes in the "Order"; especially the Hebrews believe God has created the world. This starts the search for meaning and conformity to the order. (But in Qoheleth's eye, this order is not a reductionist principle.)

2) But daily experience justifies that a search for meaning in life is a futile struggle. The world is cursed, and God has set a limit on human knowledge; thus man cannot know God, by man's methods. He refutes the common belief on order, knowability of God, and Israelite's privilege of special knowledge from God.

3) Though in this mundane world, the hebel (absurdity) reigns, but God will give joy and wealth to men, according to His will, not by man's wish or actions. Hence, the action-consequence belief (retribution in this world) is disproved and God's sovereignty is re-affirmed.

4) Finally, "the fear of God" is still an important mandate for man, despite the uncertainty of outcomes in this world. For God will judge men, one day, unexpected by men.

This analysis will be substantiated by the following discussion.

II. His system of Thought

A. Created World: Order

"Qoheleth's fondness for the book of Genesis throughout his work influenced how he framed his question. As scholars have observed, wisdom literature in the OT is 'within the framework of a theology of creation.' " Hence, the God of Qoheleth is NOT an Urhebergott (a god of origins) as some scholars propose, but He is the Creator, who lays the order of the world. Wisdom is a long tradition inside the Bible, but have long been ignored by scholars. In fact, some Rabbis has suggested to translate Gen 1:1 Bereshit as "with Wisdom" by citing Prov 8:22. The wisdom tradition is connected with creation of God, but since the world is cursed and demands God's salvation. Creation is by no means unconnected to salvation of God, like some scholars insisted.

To Qoheleth, the world is cursed; it is upside down; and death is no respecter of persons (9:3). But he starts from a Theology of Creation. 1:3 relates to the original divine mandate to work in paradise (Gen 2:5;,15; 1:28). Good creation is cursed. Therefore, absurdity is an obvious consequence. (He rebuts the belief of "undistorted universal order".

"He was a godly sage who could affirm both the aimlessness of life 'under the sun' and the enjoyment of life precisely because he believed in the God who cursed his creation on account of man's rebellion, but who was in the process, throughout earth's history, of redeeming man and creation, liberating them from the bondage to decay to which they had been subjected (cf Rom 8:19-21)." Cursed situation makes man in a dilemma of seeking for meaning, but ineffectual is his effort.

B. Dilemma of Meaning

It is a philosophical inquiry about life's meaning or purpose. Traditional sages seek advantage in life through rational thought and virtuous deeds. They assume that the world is in good order, and knowledge on this order is available to the wise. Besides, the wise man who conforms to "the order" will experience good things, while the one against it will suffer. Qoheleth strives to justify this rationality of existence, but he fails. In terms of human thought in general, many similarities can be found in other cultures. For example, Sumerian (eg the Epic of Gilgamesh), Babylonian, Greek, Egyptian, Chinese, and modern French (like Camus) philosophy, show the disruption of "the order", taking the world as absurd, and some even take death as the only real value. This wide range of parallels do not imply Qoheleth was consciously or unconsciously influenced by these cultures; but indicates that similar human situations are likely to produce similar reflections.

God's will is still unknown, despite of man's struggle. God imposes limits upon human knowledge. Qoheleth "very nearly accuses God of teasing human beings by giving them a valuable yearning for the hidden realities of life but rendering men and women incapable of discovering precious truth."This is a dominant motif in 6:12-11:6. After the fruitless searching for the 'world order', "he counsels his readers to replace false and illusory hopes of understanding providence (thereby manipulating life) with a well-established, joyful confidence that creation is God's gift." This leads to the third theological motif.

C. Celebration of Life: despite of dilemma

"Qoheleth's perspective upon the incongruities of this life is the same as Job's who said of the wicked.." However, He says pleasure is "good" (2:24; 3:12, 22; 5:17; 8:15), man's "portion"(2:10; 5:17; 9:9), favored by God (9:7), and a gift of God (2:24, 26; 3:13; 5:18). The reasons given by Qoheleth relate to 1) unjust distribution of rewards, 2) human ignorance, 3) death. Pleasure is a gift of God.(2:25; 3:13; 5:18; 9:7)

Lohfink has advocated a new interpretation on 5:19, which

implies God reveals himself by the joy of the heart. This interpretation prevents to take God as "an absolutely veiled an unrecognizable God." Ogden, joining force to this, advocates that 11:7-12:8 focus on "the call to enjoyment and concurrent reflection on the inevitable future of humanity in death, is indeed the central theme of the book. Qoheleth, on this estimate, is not a simple hedonist, but one, who from a standpoint of faith wishes to confront directly the reality of human existence and to offer the most consistent and sagacious advice on how to cope with the problems of life." However, it must be admitted that Lohfink's view is too optimistic, and his interpretation needs more support. Besides, Qoheleth's admonish men to be attentive to the fear of God, without expecting the good rewards in this life. It is a challenge to believe in Elohim, without seeing his mighty hand by our eyes.


D. The Fear of God: "Heavenly Mandate"

Qoheleth doesn't use the typical wisdom phrase, "fear the Lord/God."; but uses the verbal form, to fear God, which has its own nuances in the Bible. Murphy states: "it is commonly accepted that the basic meaning indicates the attitude of mortals before the numinous, before the unknown and fearsome divinity -the kind of reaction of the Israelites at Sinai, of Moses or Isaiah at their call. The use of this concept in Qoheleth is not as extreme, but it approaches such a view." In 3:1-14, Qoheleth depicts God intending to produce fear among human being. In these typical determinism (the "times" determined by God), men cannot fathom the act of God. Such fear is intensified by Qoheleth's recognition that whatever good may come to men according to divine pleasure. (i.e.arbitrarily). Though without enough evidences, the overall impression is that Qoheleth judges the god-fearer favourably. I proposes that some seemingly unfavourable sayings may be a criticism to "the pious" who hold mechanical view between an action and its result: a good deed begets a good result and an evil deed begets an evil result.We may conclude that Qoheleth doesn't advocate a God's protective presence for worshippers, but reverence before Him is emphasized. Qoheleth summons us to do our best to fear Jahve (Yahweh), even though we may not be in a favourable situation, or facing uncertain future, we have the "heavenly mandate" to continually believe in der Gott Abrahams (God of Abraham ). "For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil." (Qoh 12:14 NIV)


Qoheleth has showed that searching for the perfect retaliation order in this cursed world is a vain attempt, and is not confirmed by our experience. The tension between futile life and unknowability of God (source of man's meaning) is unsolvable by any man's wisdom or effort. On the contrary, this limit imposed by God and the God-given joy and wealth are the evidences of God's supremacy. Hence, men should be fearful of the Lord "and keep his commandments" (Qoh 12:13), without trying to manipulate our life and God. For Elohim will bring judgment on us! (Qoh 12:14)


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Thematic and Literary Unity can serve as a basis for the search for the theological emphasis of Qoheleth, but due to the size and scope of this article, I am forced to put these discussion to appendix.

A. Thematic Unity

Internal contradictions have troubled the Tannaim and brought the book's sacred status into dispute. (b. Shab. 30b). This discussion seems be unsettled and left to the Amoraim. But the existence of an orthodox framework in the book, in Qoh 1:3 and 12:13, is sufficient to neutralize the book's internal contradictoriness, and affirms the canon status.

Scholars have developed several ways to deal with the problems:

(1) Harmonization: They reconcile apparently conflicting statements by showing that the author uses words differently or deal with different matters. For example Ibn Ezra uses four principles in attempting to eliminate all the apparent contradictions in Qoheleth. Loader's analysis resembles the Hegel's dialectic approach, and shows the poles, but the positive-negative schema often results in forced interpretations.

(2) Additions: Some scholars, like Barton, McNeile, and James Crenshaw identify some of the opposed statements as additions by a second party. This approach faces several difficulties: Firstly, The proposed redactor allows the "skeptic" who is unorthodox to have the last word, eg. 2:12-16; 3:17; 8:5-7; 8:10-14. Secondly, the skeptical and pessimistic character of the book remains obvious; hence, he fails to achieve his mission to correct the unorthodox theology of this book. Finally, the excising passages as later additions does not result in consistency.

Liberal Critics, like Tyler postulated a later date (ca. 200 B.C.) to accommodate the alleged influence of Greek philosophical schools. He rejected genuine continuity in Qoheleth. Siegfried followed his line suggesting nine sources in it. Hengstenberg placed this book in post-exilic days, and take the impious expressions as spoken from the tyrannized impious Jews.

(3) Quotations: Gordis proposes that Qoheleth quotes traditional Wisdom in order to refute it. Fox has strived to find 3 forms of virtual quotation marking. But this quotation hypothesis in itself cannot determine what the ideas Qoheleth rejects.

Obviously, the previous attempts have failed to settle the contradictions. Recent critics recognize a basic unity in Qoheleth, abandoning the assumption of widespread interpolation. Scholars, like Caneday argues that: "the book's antithetical character is a deliberate literary device set in Hebrew thought patterns designed to reflect the paradoxical and anomalous nature of the world which Qoheleth observed."

B. Literary Unity

No cohesive plan or design, suggested by Delitzsch and Hengstenberg, is an extreme position. Qoheleth is like the book of Job, in which referring context of the complete book is a basic must. On the other extreme, The advocation for a clear and consistent plan is also in vain. Its style is not like Western mind. Progress of its arguments is not readily detectable. Like I John its contours are fluid. Its boundaries are obscure. It is characterized by reiteration and recurring phrases. Though a clear-out picture cannot be found, but some structural devices do come to light: For example,

a. book's title (1:1), epigram (1:2; 12:8), and epilogue (12:9-14).

b. Qoheleth begins and ends with a poem.

c. Analysis :



(due to the problems of conversion, the endnotes are lost.)