Is Qoheleth Unorthodox?:
A Review Article
Tremper Longman, III, The Book of Ecclesiastes (New International Commentary on the Old Testament). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998, cloth, $35.00. ISBN: 0-8028-2366-1.
Longman's work on Ecclesiastes is one of numerous commentaries, monographs, and articles produced on this biblical book in the last decade. The author's interest in Ecclesiastes stems from his dissertation on fictional Akkadian royal autobiographies where he related Ecclesiastes to a subset of the Mesopotamian genre. This genre comparison and the stance that Ecclesiastes, except for the pious concluding remarks of the frame narrator, contains the confused, deity-criticizing, unorthodox reflections of Qoheleth constitute Longman's contribution to the interpretation of this puzzling text.
This volume is pleasantly formatted with few typos. It begins with discussion of introductory topics and bibliography, continues with the text and commentary where the material is divided into units containing a summary, translation with explanatory notes, commentary on individual verses, and, where applicable, chapter summaries, and ends with full indexes. Both introduction and commentary articulate opposing views on issues, with frequent reference to evidence of the versions and the history of interpretation, and present Longman's reasoning process for reaching his exegetical decisions. (Seow's new commentary on Ecclesiastes in the Anchor Bible series presents more and better weighed material from the versions, ancient near eastern texts, and biblical books.)
Longman goes with the consensus against Solomonic authorship, though the arguments he musters from within the text have been refuted and the support he garners from genre analysis is not conclusive. Although non-committal on dating of the book's Hebrew, he repeatedly cites with approval Frederick's monograph (Qoheleth's Language) which goes against the consensus by arguing for an exilic or earlier date.
Longman's proposal that the genre of Ecclesiastes is dependent on fictional Akkadian royal autobiography has not been completely accepted because of the monolithic manner in which he imposes it on the body of Ecclesiastes. The elements of the Akkadian genre are a short identification of the king (pseudonymous), extensive retelling of his exploits, and brief exhortations (in the cases where the third element consists of wisdom material). In Ecclesiastes there is a double identification of Qoheleth (1:12, 16) as king and sage, the account of his deeds is short and concerned with enlarging his personal estate rather than with political-military domination, and advice is interwoven throughout Qoheleth's reflections. Seow emphasizes the broader similarity to royal autobiographical texts from Mediterranean lands as well as Mesopotamian areas. He also perceives Qoheleth's rhetorically polemical use of a genre designed to exalt the king instead employed to demonstrate the futility of royal endeavors. Longman's genre analysis attempts to resolve uncertainty about Ecclesiastes's structure in a manner analogous to Deuteronomy where an ancient near eastern treaty pattern has been incorporated according to its parts into a narrative framework. In the case of Ecclesiastes, the narrative framework, the higher level genre, has closer similarities in format and content to Egyptian sapiential texts or to Nehemiah, the other Old Testament book with first person speech imbedded in a third person narrative. Even restricting discussion of genre to the body of Ecclesiastes, comparing genres is best done when the internal structure of each of the texts being compared is known. Unfortunately, for Ecclesiastes there is no consensus on its internal organization. Longman has brought relevant genre material to Ecclesiastes but has not been sensitive enough as to how it has been adapted, in part, because his analysis of the internal organization of the book rests solely on change of topic as one proceeds sequentially through the text without considering the author's construction of aesthetic symmetries to organize the text, a compositional technique characteristic of the ancient world. In fact, the book's symmetries indicate 1:3-11 begins Qoheleth's words, whereas Longman's genre comparison assigns the passage to the frame narrator since 1:12 contains the self-identification of Qoheleth, the king, with which ancient near eastern royal texts began.
Is Qoheleth Orthodox?
What is more important for readers of this journal interested in biblical-theological preaching is Longman's discussion of the theological message of Ecclesiastes. Since he understands the body of the text as the confused, unorthodox, God-criticizing reflections of Qoheleth, biblical-theological application is essentially limited to a brief, last paragraph. Is Longman's interpretation of Qoheleth as unorthodox warranted?
Ecclesiastes's negative assessment of earthly existence is encapsulated in the motto which frames Qoheleth's words, "all is vanity". The concrete base of the Hebrew hevel, "exhalation, breath, vapor, gas" developed abstract extensions such as "ephemeral, futile, useless" which were further stretched to "unreliable, deceitful", thus an appropriate word for "idol", something that is wrong, not the way it is supposed to be, "incongruent". The word even may have acquired the sense "frustrating", the emotional reaction to futility; this is a possible sense Paul employs in Rom. 8:20 with the word the Septuagint selected as its translation of hevel in Ecclesiastes. The challenge of Qoheleth's motto, "all is hevel" (the superlative hevel), is to discern one sense from these multiple options that is the identifying characteristic of life (6:12, 7:15, 9:9) and applicable to its almost forty occurrences in the book. A dictionary definition of "incongruous" seems appropriate, e.g., "not consistent with what is correct, proper, or logical". The English word chosen to convey this meaning will depend on the interpreter's epistemology. The existentialist's "absurd' is close. Longman rejects this choice because of modern philosophical overtones, but his "meaningless" also has problems. Qoheleth argues that what happens in life is part of God's beautiful design and is therefore meaningful in God's plan, even if not comprehended by the creature. Qoheleth's problem is not that reality is without meaning, or that he cannot figure out the total picture (a point he does make, 3:10-14, 7:25-29, 8:17), but that the way the world works does not match the way he thinks it should work; it is out of alignment, bent (1:15) by God (7:13). In modern slang Qoheleth's first and final words could be rendered "wicked wacky, everything is wacky".
Qoheleth's disconcerting appraisal of life hangs like a cloud over scholarly interpretation, obscuring the book's revelational light for the path of the godly. Does the futility of labor vexing Qoheleth comport with Paul's vision of work in the Lord not being in vain? Is Qoheleth's hating of life because the goal of wise and foolish alike is the grave compatible with Paul's rejoicing always? Does Qoheleth's picturing of God's indiscriminate treatment of wise and foolish, good and bad contradict the teaching of Moses and the prophets that righteous living is rewarded with blessing while riotous folly reaps a predictable punishment? These are significant, difficult questions. The answers are entwined in one's biblical theology.
Agreement exists on Qoheleth's messagelife is difficult, then you die. Consensus does not exist on how to integrate this depressing depression in the theological landscape with the exhilarating heights of redemption and resurrection.
Differing interpretational strategies can be compared by how they label Qoheleth's negative and positive poles. The negative refers to his assessment of life as wacky because skillful toil does not produce enduring profit while wisdom, which is better than folly, cannot deliver from death or fathom the divine plan behind the unpredictable inequities of existence. The positive refers to Qoheleth's advice to enjoy life's simple pleasures, the food, drink, family fun, and energy for labor that God provides. Do interpreters label the negative and positive as orthodox or unorthodox?
A torrent of critical scholars creates a Qoheleth in their image, cynical and critical of God, full of contradiction, and struggling with the latest crisis in the evolution of religious perception. For them Qoheleth was not a devout Israelite wrestling with God's ways and how to function in a stressful situation. He was a pagan Greek philosopher preaching "eat, drink, and be madly merry, then die." Qoheleth's negative and positive are unorthodox. This approach only leads pastors to preach the wrong message.
A river of evangelical scholars assigns Qoheleth's negative outlook to the first stage of an apologetic strategy. He, for argument's sake, pictured the godless outlook of an unbeliever as unsatisfying, and then painted the alternative life of joy that follows from a personal relation with God. Qoheleth's negative is unorthodox and his positive is orthodox. No contradiction with the Old Testament or the New Testament to worry about.
A rivulet of scholars tries to remove the negative by substituting for the more frequent sense of hevel, "futile, vanity" a possible translation of the Hebrew word, namely, 'transient, temporary'. Instead of being discouraging, Qoheleth's assessment becomes encouraging since the troubles of this age are momentary and thus are outweighed by the exhortations to joy which are seen as occupying the literary-structural and logical conclusions of the body of Ecclesiastes and which are consonant with the orthodox conclusion of the book that preaches fearing God and keeping his commandments. Qoheleth's negative is actually a positive and therefore orthodox and his positive is orthodox. The latter two approaches would have us preach a right message but from the wrong text!
Qoheleth's dark clouds are not so easily dissipated. Longman's solution is an amalgamation of the traditional critical and evangelical approaches to Ecclesiastes. The body of the book, the confused, God-criticizing reflections of Qoheleth, is unorthodox. According to Longman, Qoheleth's God is a distant, immoral tyrant. Thus, Qoheleth's assessment in 1:13 that his investigation of everything which is done under heaven is "an evil task that God has given to the human race to keep them occupied" is an attribution of moral evil to God (p. 80). The same sentiment is expressed in 2:17 by "I hated life, for the work that is done under the sun is evil to me" (p. 100), and in 7:13 by implying "God is the origin of imperfection"(p.191).
Longman finds further support for Qoheleth's religious disrespect by understanding "the fear of God" in the body of Ecclesiastes to have only the sense of fright before a cosmic bully, never the sense of reverent respect (pp. 36, 124). In Longman's interpretation, Qoheleth is unorthodox because Ecclesiastes is the only biblical book where God is depicted as solely transcendent and not also immanent, according to his understanding of 5:1 [English 5:2] "God is in heaven and you are on earth".
Ecclesiastes is nevertheless included in the canon because a pious editor attached an epilogue with veiled criticism of Qoheleth and a countering, concise, orthodox conclusion. Longman, like the critics, takes Qoheleth's negative and positive as unorthodox, but with the evangelicals takes the epilogue as orthodox. Not unexpectedly, this approach leaves Longman's commentary virtually devoid of material for the biblical theological preaching promoted by this journal. (Profit for preaching Ecclesiastes can be gleaned by discriminating use of commentaries taking the evangelical approach such as Eaton (Tyndale), Hubbard (Communicator's Commentary), and Keddie (Looking for the Good Life) which have been forged on the anvil of the pulpit.)
A stream of interpreters, across the theological spectrum, sees Qoheleth not as pagan or unorthodox (whether actually or for argument's sake) but as realistic. Qoheleth displays photographs of life's frustrations: human work with its incompleted projects or results dissipated by folly, oppression, acts of God, and death; human wisdom's benefits undermined by stupidity, abuse of power, divine inequities, and death. The nauseating newsreel of history develops as a replay of previous troubled times, the persistence of this present evil age, sin in wise and fool, good and bad; the acts and wisdom of God, inscrutably perplexing, an indiscriminating falling of favor and disfavor on bad and good, fool and wise alike. Qoheleth's counsel to be satisfied with the glimmers of joy God shines into the gloom of darkness under heaven is sane, serious, healthy advice and command. A realist's interpretation avoids the dangerous theology that a believer's joy eliminates the body blows and soul strikes of life, that the Spirit's protecting power wipes out life's storms, and that a believer's wisdom provides a comprehensive divine perspective that clarifies life's perplexities. (See Packer, Knowing God, 93-97.)
Realist interpreters understand Qoheleth's negative as well as his positive as orthodox but usually avoid explaining the theological issues that push other interpreters into understanding the negative aspect of the book's message as unorthodox. The interpretative challenge is how to fit Ecclesiastes into the biblical geography.
Under The Cloud
A crucial factor in identifying the place of Ecclesiastes in the Scriptures is a biblical-theological understanding of Qoheleth's framework centered on the phrase "under the sun". Critical scholars argue that this phrase was borrowed by Qoheleth from purportedly contemporary Greek philosophers. It not only referred to the visible environment in which human life functions but carried the world view baggage that what you see is all there is, the divine is non-existent or so deistically distant as not to matter, or what you see is what you get, the divine cannot be controlled. In either case, greedily gorge on gourmet goodies till gout gets you. Existentialists, materialists, and cosmogenesists, the current descendants in the evolution of pagan conceptualization, concur.
Scholars now recognize that the phrase "under the sun" occurred in Semitic and non-Semitic texts centuries before the Greeks and that serious reflection on the issues Qoheleth struggled with had existed for millennia in the ancient near east. The phrase should have had disconcerting overtones when heard by Qoheleth's readers, not the innocuous geographical connotation of scientific description. Longman's attribution of the discomfort associated with the sun to its sweltering heat (p. 66) disregards the sun's shining on cold, windy, winter days. The phrase might have shaken an Egyptian who venerated the sun as the supreme deity or sent a shiver down the spine of a Mesopotamian who conceived of Shamash, the sun god, as judge of heaven and earth. For an Israelite of any period, however, Qoheleth's use of the phrase should have sent a tremor through his body setting knees knocking, innards agitating, and spirit fainting. "Under the sun" is not just communicating that humans dwell in a second floor apartment in a "three story universe"; they reside in a death row prison cell.
The phrase "under the sun" does not exist alone as marker of the boundaries of Qoheleth's world. It is part of an unbreakable three-ply cord of phrases distributed symmetrically through the book. In 1:13-14 "under the sun" is parallel to "under the heavens" (which only occurs in the first of the book's three sections), while in 8:16-17 (cf. 10:5-7) the phrase is parallel to "on the earth" (which only occurs in the third section and the book's center). Both of these associated phrases are ominous.
"Under the heavens" occurs primarily in biblical passages describing eschatological extermination. In Gen. 1:9 the phrase designates the sky, the region bounding the upper waters (clouds), a pre-Fall non-threatening description. But the next, post-Fall, use of the phrase in Gen. 6:17 conveys God's decision "to obliterate all flesh which has a living spirit from under the heavens", to bring on the judgment of the world that then was by water, a type of the eschatological judgment of the world that now is by fire (2 Pet. 3:3-7). The phrase also occurs in divine judicial decisions associated with Israel's conquest and contingent existence in Canaan, the promised land, the type of heaven. In Ex. 17:14 the Lord tells Moses he will "utterly wipe out the memory of Ameleq from under the heavens" and in Dt. 25:19 he commands Israel to do just that. In Dt. 7:24 God promises concerning the kings of Canaan that he will "eliminate their name from under the heavens." Even Israel, dwelling in the holy land, was subject to the terror of God for imitating the destruction-deserving behavior of the peoples they dispossessed (Dt. 2:25, 4:19). As for the golden-calf worshipers at Sinai, the Lord had "destroyed and utterly wiped out their name from under the heavens" (Dt. 9:14). Dt. 29:19 describes covenant curses coming on the presumptuous person so "YHWH wipes out his name from under the heavens." Though in the days of Jeroboam II the Lord had not said he would "wipe out the name of Israel from under the heavens" (2 Kings 14:27), later Dan. 9:12 describes covenantal curses at the destruction of Jerusalem as surpassing other divine judgments: "It has not been done under all the heavens as it has been done against Jerusalem." For the enemies of God's people who caused their destruction out of spite the author of Lamentations calls for God to pursue these enemies and "destroy them from under the heavens of YHWH" (Lam. 3:66).
Most of the Old Testament occurrences of "under the heavens" convey the idea of eschatological judgment. The flood that ended the world that then was by separating wicked and righteous was a type of the eschatological redemptive judgment at the Consummation. At the Conquest, the extermination of the Canaanites from the holy land was also typical of God's purifying of the heavens and earth at the Final Judgment.
Israel, itself, was not exempt from the ominous threat hanging over inhabitants of the sacred territory. Paul uses Flood imagery to describe Israel's experience. They went through the baptismal ordeal waters of the cloud above and the sea waters below (1 Cor. 10:1-2). In Paul's adaptation of the flood terminology "under the heavens" becomes "under the cloud", for the created rain clouds of Gen 1 and 6 were images of the Glory-Cloud which hovered over the waters at Creation (Gen. 1:2) and over Israel at the Exodus. The Glory-Cloud was the visible manifestation of the heavenly realm. Being under the throne-chariot cloud of God was to be under the judge and executioner of eschatological judgment. Prophetic portrayals announcing the Day of the Lord envision the darkness and storm associated with the onset of divine warfare at the exile and the end of history (Joel 2:2, Zeph. 1:15, Ezk. 30:3, Dan. 7:13), images associated with Jesus, the apocalyptic warrior, coming in the clouds of heaven (Mt. 24:30, 26:64, 1 Thes. 4:16-17, Rev 1:7, cf. 10:1, 14:14-16). To be "under the heavens" is to be under the threatened wrath of the holy judge, for the day of the Lord is the day of God's wrath (Rom. 2:5-11, Col. 3:6, 1 Thess. 1:10, Rev. 6:16-17, 11:18) when God will justly judge the righteous and the wicked, separating them by commendation or condemnation to blessing of heaven or curse of hell.
The horror of Consummation curse (the modern threat of holocaust from a nuclear mushroom cloud is insignificant in comparison) and its typical precursors at the Flood and Canaanite Conquest is depicted by imagery that is replicated in non-eschatological, non-typical situations. The ultimate divine wrath is intimated by less dangerous forms. While Paul describes people as objects of wrath, the final destruction, unless they become objects of mercy (Rom. 9:22-23; Eph. 2:3), he also says God's wrath is revealed from heaven in non-eschatological manifestations that leave all without excuse before the divine judge (Rom. 1:18-20). Sovereignly orchestrated thunder storms and human-caused disasters that are not acts of redemptive judgment saving God's holy people are merciful warnings designed to promote repentance. God also instituted the state whose leaders are to be instruments of God's wrath to punish evildoers (Rom. 13:4-5). God's favor and disfavor (Eccl. 9:1) descend on righteous and wicked alike (Mt. 5:43-48) promoting thankfulness for God's goodness and confession of man's badness.
Similarly, Qoheleth's world is one where "love and hate" from God come to all under the sun (9:1-6). His is not the consummation reality or its types where retribution theology prevails and good and bad are clearly and finally distinguished, God only loving the righteous and only hating the wicked. Qoheleth observes the opposite principle (8:14) evident in inequities (9:11) and in death's indiscriminating capturing all alike whether righteous or wicked (9:2-3), wise or fool (2:14-16). Qoheleth pictures the common curse, harbinger of the eschatological curse. He uses imagery for the common world which is applied elsewhere to the eschatological. Thus the prophetic imagery of the sun-darkening clouds of the Day of the Lord bringing the Judgment of second death is employed by Qoheleth in his portrayal of the onset of the first death (12:2). Similarly, theophanic prophetic imagery is imitated in natural thunderstorms. Paul's message of the wrath and goodness of God being revealed from heaven (Rom. 1:18-25) repeats the teaching of Elihu (Job 36:22-37:18) that perceives God's voice in natural phenomena that occur "under all the heavens" (Job 37:3). Elihu uses the phrase "under all the heavens" in a non-eschatological situation, referring to natural phenomena. The phrase, nevertheless, in context points to God behind the natural storm, a beautiful literary prelude to the appearance in theophanic storm of God, the judge Job clamored to encounter (Job 37:19-38:1).
Qoheleth employs the phrase "under the heavens" as Elihu did, with ominous overtones, e.g., under divine judicial oversight. Qoheleth does use "heavens" in multiple senses. In 10:20 he refers to a bird of the "air", but his other usages point to celestial regions. For an understanding of the three occurrences of "under the heavens" (1:13, 2:3, 3:1) Qoheleth's use of "heavens" in 5:1 [5:2] is key. In 5:1 Qoheleth cautions against verbosity before God with a reminder of one's place and status: "For God is in the heavens and you are on the earth." That 5:1 is a warning against offending God and evoking the divine wrath is reinforced by the symmetrically parallel reference to God in 5:5 [5:6] as being angry at your speech and possibly destroying your work. For Qoheleth, heaven is not just a boundary of the human environment, it is the realm of God, the Judge, whose "under the sun", earthly destructions are foreshadowing warnings of the wrath to come. Qoheleth is not depicting eschatological judgment. The penalty he envisions is destruction of earthly productions. But he does correlate heaven with the divine judge, so his use of "under the heavens" is ominous. Not surprisingly, he consistently associates the phrase with the common curse.
"Under the heavens" evokes the anger of the divine magistrate who imposed a curse on rebellious creatures at the Fall. 1:13-15 describes Qoheleth's project of investigating everything that happens under the heavens. Adam in the garden was engaged in this process, naming animals, learning about their relationship to him, to the garden environment, and to God. Post-Fall Qoheleth realizes this project has become a bad, impossible task God has given people because he has bent reality (1:15, 7:13). Therefore, all the things which happen under the sun (1:14), which God is behind (8:17), are "wacky and shepherding the wind" (uncontrollable). People are trying to solve the puzzle of God's pattern and plan (7:27-28) but they cannot because things are bent and missing (1:15).
The twistedness of reality frustrates Qoheleth. Is it a sign that the deity is a blundering Creator? Not for Qoheleth. Humans blundered. The resulting bludgeoning of human expectations and efforts "under the heavens" is a divine penalty.
The frame narrator of Ecclesiastes linked human perversity with the vanity resulting from the divine curse by intentionally positioning the phrase "said Qoheleth". The theological purpose of placing "said Qoheleth" in 7:27 was to tie the idea of human sin and unrighteousness (7:20-29) to the total futility(1:2, 12:8) experienced by the scheming creatures. Human machinations are responsible for death, the ultimate factor that frustrates Qoheleth by producing his world's wackiness where things are not the way they should be, righteous and wicked are not treated as we would expect (8:14, 10:5-7), and life is uncertain (9:1,11-12). The frame narrator's theological point was to connect the crookedness God imposed on reality to the crookedness of humanity that God had created "straight" ("upright", 7:29). People's perversity brought on the penalty which pervades the world "under the heavens".
Therefore, the phrase "under the heavens" in 2:3 is juxtaposed to the brevity of life. Subsequently, Qoheleth varies his terminology, "under the heavens the few days of their life" (2:3) to "under the sun the few days of their life which God has given them" (5:17 [5:18]), "the few days of their wacky life" (6:12), and "under the sun all your wacky days" (9:19). Earthly life is brief and wacky. God made it so, as Judge, in response to Adam-kind's behavior. Thus the final occurrence of "under the heavens" in 3:1 suggests God as the determiner of the appointed times, the one predestinating all events, including death (3:2). In Ecclesiastes, "under the heavens", as in other biblical texts, has an ominous aura.
Death plagues all Qoheleth's reflections. That the earthly experience of the death verdict of God is suggested by the phrase "under the heavens" is reinforced by its collocation with the phrase "on the earth". 12:7-8 connects "all is vanity" to the "dust returning on the earth", the equivalent of 3:20 "both (human and beast) are from the dust and both return to the dust". These pictures reflect Gen 3:17-19 where the ground from which Adam was taken is cursed and he is told "for you are dust and to the dust you will return." "On the earth" is the territory from which God wipes out humanity as God told Noah, "I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens" and "Seven days from now I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights, and I will wipe out from on the surface of the ground every living creature I have made." (Gen. 6:17, 7:19). Qoheleth's choice of terms comes from meditation on the trajectory of the curse in the world that then was from its initiation in Eden to its final implementation at the deluge. The monotonous refrain of the prediluvian genealogies, "and he died", was harbinger of the deluge's mass destruction. Qoheleth reflects the Genesis genealogies with his "one event for all", pointer to a future, final divine hate.
The curse on the race's first parents overshadowingly haunts humanity for Qoheleth. His framework is not primarily cosmographic, indicating the distancing of God; it pictures the threatening, immanent judgment of God.
The phrase "under the sun" acquires by association the connotations of "under the heavens" and "on the earth". "Under the sun" can be a benefit (4:15, 8:15, 11:7) but it is predominantly correlated with a realm where bad things happen, whether the evil of humans (4:2-3, 8:9, 10:5) or the imposition of God (1:13-15, cf. 7:13, 9:3,11). Both the oppression of people and the oppressiveness of the common curse sicken Qoheleth (5:12,15 [5:13,16], 6:2), and cause him to despair in toil (2:20) and to hate life (2:17). Qoheleth is weighed down by the common curse that foreshadows the eschatological curse.
Qoheleth may think of God in heaven as judge (3:17, 11:9), but that does not justify scholarly opinion that Qoheleth's God is not immanent as well as transcendent. For Longman and the majority of critical and evangelical scholars who believe Qoheleth's negativeness represents the unorthodoxy of an unbeliever, Qoheleth's God is distant and irrelevant, if not evil. This, however, is the standard pagan view that ascribes difficulties with the deity to ontological status rather than to covenantal rebellion. Actually, the problem is not that God is a capriciously selfish supreme being who meanly does not want to share his secrets with lesser creatures (Longman's interpretation of 3:10-14). The problem is that God is angry with a race created righteous that has forsaken him, driven God away with their moral stench, and drawn down the wrath of his displeasure.
When Qoheleth says in 5:1 [5:2] that "God is in the heavens and you are on the earth" he is not saying that God is distant, impersonal, and uncaring, totally transcendent and not immanent. In 4:17-5:6 [5:1-7] Qoheleth is warning against treating God too lightly or familiarly because God has, in fact, been extremely personal and caring! 4:17-5:6 is the architectural center of the book. Its extraordinary message is that the God whose ways the rest of the book describes as unpredictable, inscrutable, and uncontrollable has actually responded positively to a human request. The central topic of Ecclesiastes is the repaying of vows. In extreme circumstances a person had promised to do something for God if the deity would do a requested deed for the petitioner. Apparently God had granted the supplicant's wish, contrary to the indeterminate nature of his normal relationships with people. Qoheleth is warning that such an immanent and intimate acting of God on an individual's behalf should not be responded to as if God were a human who had done you a favor, whom you might unthinkingly and unthankfully take for granted. In 4:17-5:6 Qoheleth is exhorting against overfamiliarity with God in worship, prayer, and vowing. He is trying to maintain Jesus' balance of the Lord's prayer, "our Father who art in heaven"; the one who has been generously gracious is still a heavenly judge who recognizes the fool who treats Him as a fool. When Qoheleth commands "fear God" in 5:6 [5:7] he is ensuring that one is to be in awe of God for his power exercised for an individual's benefit as well as to be frightened at the judicial authority God will exercise justly. For Qoheleth, God is both transcendent and immanent and "fearing God" involves both reverence and fright. Qoheleth's admonition underlines the standard message of biblical wisdom literature that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.
In viewing Qoheleth as totally unorthodox, Longman is consistent in trying to portray God as a frightening, chaotically-acting tyrant. He explains Qoheleth's admonition in 3:10-14 to fear God whose work is beautiful from beginning to end, though unfathomable, as a warning to be afraid of the mean cosmic bully who will not share his secrets and spitefully burdens humanity with an impossible project. In addition, the ability to enjoy life which Qoheleth calls a gift of God (3:12-13) is suggested to be, at worst, pagan resignation before the impersonal abyss of history or, at best, an indication that Qoheleth has been unfairly treated by not being given this gift (pp. 122-123). Again, however, we cannot limit the meaning of "fear" for Qoheleth to the sense of "fright". 8:12-13 explicitly equates the non-fearer of God with the wicked implying the contrasted God-fearer is righteous, thus indicating that Qoheleth believed in the ultimate impartial retribution of God. He recognized a real distinction between righteous and wicked, God-fearer and non-fearer of God, and he used "fear" of God in the traditional biblical sense of "reverence". The argument in 8:10-14 depends on the reality of the distinction between righteous and wicked. If these categories were meaningless, then contrary evidence to the doctrine of retribution could not be presented.
Righteous and wicked can be equated with elect and reprobate. Qoheleth states that God will distinguish the two in judgment (3:17), yet the two categories are not treated as one would expect in this life (8:14) and both die. The implication is that the judicial separation must occur after death. Death blocks Qoheleth's vision and he cannot see the future (6:12); he is not granted prophetic vision with details of the Final Judgment. However, just as he knows God is in heaven, beyond the illumination of the sun, so he can affirm a judgment of God beyond "under the sun" time. The world can appear absurd or meaningless, to be contradictory or not make sense, only if it is assumed that the plan of history is beautiful (3:10-11) and perfect (3:14); God is just and will right wrongs (3:16-17). The just Judge cannot be escaped or legally manipulated. The introduction to Qoheleth's observation that God will judge human abuse of justice portrays God as analogous to the avenger of blood pursuing the wicked in righteous anger (3:15). Qoheleth ironically pictures the wicked fleeing futilely to God for shelter, since it is God who is chasing him. (Similar irony occurs in 8:6: "wickedness will not deliver its master".) The judicial interpretation of 3:15 is supported by the structurally parallel description in 6:10 of God as the judicial prosecutor who overpowers folly's legal maneuverings and vain multiplying of words (6:11, cf. 5:1-2, 5-6 [2-3, 6-7]), the self-condemning trait of the fool (10:12-14).
In 8:10-14 Qoheleth is describing different trends that happen under the sun. Behavior that does not evidence fear of God will tend to shorten life, presumably because of human judicial punishment, which, however, can malfunction (8:11) or because of the inherent detrimental side-effects of such behavior, which, however, may not quickly catch up with the sly, deceiving perpetrator (8:10). While human judgment can be fooled, divine judgment should not. Yet Qoheleth observes a conflicting trend, which frustrates him, that even God does not seem to treat good and bad as we would expect him to (8:12, 14). Qoheleth presents what he knows should be and the conflicting evidence he observes. He is describing how the real world works. Whether he is contradicting other Old Testament principles (perfect retribution) or forcing us to think through the compatibility of contrasting principles depends on our understanding of the principles of the Old Testament theocratic institution (on which see below).
For Qoheleth, God is not an inaccessible, random-event generating algorithm. He seems aloof because he is repelled by sinful scheming. He seems uncaring, showing "love and hate" to all (9:1,6) because he wants sinners to know that he is merciful as well as holy. Qoheleth describes God's common, indiscriminate misery and mercy that should lead all to repentance before the divine, exterminating wrath descends.
Longman recognizes the force of Qoheleth's negative, whose first and last words express the total vanity of earthly existence that ends in death (1:2-4, 12:1-8). The positive sounding counsels to enjoy life and fear God Longman takes as existential resignation and cynicism. The traditional evangelical view understands the positive as standard biblical orthodoxy that is seen as the logical conclusion of the book even if the negative message is predominant throughout Qoheleth's words. What is the theological issue that pushes Longman and evangelical exegetes to their interpretational positions, to understand the negative element in the book as unorthodox rather than as a realistic view of life? The theological problem is that then the critics' position has force: Qoheleth's observation that God treats righteous and wicked, fool and wise, alike seems to contradict other Old Testament teaching about blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience in this life. For critical scholars, the painful experience of the exile, the chosen covenant people undergoing the superlative sign of God's disfavor, precipitated a crisis in Israelite sapiential circles: God's ways are not consistent. Bad times brought out God's true nature. Israel's religious conceptions evolved with changing circumstances.
But this perspective misses the literary strategy of Ecclesiastes. Qoheleth's negative attitude was not the consequence of difficult times, of sighing for the good old days. Qoheleth's pessimism reflects the realization that the best of earthly times are pits of despair. The power and wisdom of humanity come to nothing, to doing nothing in the grave (9:10). Even in the glory days of Solomon, bad things happened to good people (and realist interpreters believe this is wisdom today's church members should take to heart lest false-hopes dashed undermine their faith).
The critics' evolutionary explanation will not do. But an explanation needs to be given that maintains that the negative as well as positive teaching of Qoheleth is orthodox and does not contradict Old Testament teaching about guaranteed sanctions or New Testament teaching about labor not being in vain.
Interpreters for millennia have understood that something transcending Qoheleth's dark world was implied, something above the sun, something heavenly. The Jewish solution was absorption in a Torah which preceded and transcended time. Christian solutions included ancient advice to try to escape this present evil age in a desert or monastery, neither of which proved to be heaven. Biblical-theological solutions lie in understanding the nature of heavenly intrusions into earthly reality. (The "intrusion" terminology and correlated covenant theology reflect Meredith G. Kline's Structure of Biblical Authority, Images of the Spirit, and Kingdom Prologue.)
In comparing Ecclesiastes with the Old Testament and the New Testament it is illegitimate to portray elements whose contexts do not correspond as contradictory. Qoheleth's teaching that labor is profitless contrasts with Paul's teaching that labor is not in vain, but the point is that they are referring to different kinds of labor. Qoheleth's teaching that God treats righteous and wicked alike contrasts with covenantal instruction that motivates obedience by indicating righteous and wicked will be treated differently; this contrast points to a significant contextual distinction.
Does Qoheleth Contradict Moses?
Qoheleth's world is not only geographical, confined to the earthly region, and judicial, hovered over by the wrath of God, but temporal, depicting the age of the reign of death, from the Fall to the defeat of this last enemy at the Consummation. Qoheleth describes the normal state of affairs during post-Fall human history.
Life is not predictable; the fast lose the race, the mighty lose the battle, the wise are not remunerated or honored but ignored or undermined (9:11-10:4). Life is not fair; judicial power is abused (3:16, 8:11), leaders mismanage (10:5-7), the wicked are praised (8:9-10), some are given wealth but cannot use it (5:13 , 6:1-2), and the oppressed are not comforted (4:1). God distributes mercy and misery to all, whether righteous or wicked (7:14-15, 9:1). Death conquers all, rich and poor, greedy and lazy, satisfied and dissatisfied, smart and stupid, strong and weak, bold and timid, God-fearer and God-hater (2:14-16, 9:11-12). Death is a common experience, shared, like birth, by all (7:1), because all are sinners (7:20, 29).
Qoheleth depicts the world of common grace and common curse described throughout scripture. He pictures the cycles of sun, wind, and water in the context of the abiding earth (1:4-7), thus reflecting the post-diluvian common grace promise of Gen. 8:22. Despite the common curse of death and pain of childbirth, men would multiply (Gen. 9:1, 7). Despite generations leaving the enduring earthly stage, others would come to take their place (Eccl. 1:4). Despite the curse on the ground (Gen. 3:17), labor in the field, though frustrating, would continue to yield food and drink to sustain and gladden life (Eccl. 2:24; 3:12, 22; 5:17-19 [18-20]; 8:15; 9:7-10) as seedtime and harvest continued (Gen. 8:22). The patriarchal families knew both barrenness and giving birth, famine in Canaan but abundance in Egypt. Non-theocratic Job, the righteous sufferer, illustrated the perplexities Qoheleth displays and held the same non-retribution theology. Paul's disaster-prone apostleship (1 Cor. 4; 2 Cor. 4, 6) surpassed the difficulties Qoheleth observed. It was still a world with blessing and cursing on crops, so the church needed instruction on benevolence so those blessed with full barns could support the family in Christ enduring hunger. The bible consistently paints a world of common bad and good, misery and mercy. Qoheleth fits the biblical mold.
Into the biblical universe of common pain and joy, God intervened with recreating, redemptive judgment, prodding a chosen people to dispossess, without showing mercy, the vile inhabitants of a territory God designated as his holy estate, a new garden of God, a temple that had to be cleansed and guarded by a priestly people. Not the real thing, not holy heaven, this kingdom was symbolically holy. Moses' masses, David's devotees, Jesus' jeerersthese were not totally heart-holy, as a whole or as individuals. All Israel was symbolically holy, but not all Israel was heart-holy. Israel was not post-consummation heaven with only righteous inhabitants. The garden of Israel had hypocritical weeds as well as holy fruit.
The retribution principle, however, did function in the theocracy. The theocracy anticipated the retribution principle of the Final Judgment when righteous and wicked, holy and profane, would be permanently separated. As the history of the judges illustrated, corporate disobedience led to corporate punishment; bad things happened to a bad nation. As the punished repented, God was merciful and blessing again followed obedience; good things happened to a good nation.
Simultaneously, at the individual level, Qoheleth's world existed. Sheol swallowed saint and societal stain. Elkannah had two wives; "Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none" (1 Sam. 1:2). Hannah, the righteous, knew the agony of barrenness. Her anguish may have been turned to laughter by the covenant Lord who thundered from heaven as Judge, guarding the feet of the faithful and separating them from the wicked, humbling the proud and honoring the humble. These reversals, however, indicate that within Israel God-fearers were barren, poor, needy, and unemployed, while the wicked were fruitful in womb and warehouse (1 Sam. 2:1-10). There was also wickedness in the place of righteousness (Eccl. 3:16)Eli's sons (1 Sam. 2:12-17). The divine redemptive deliverances within the theocracy, types of eschatological retribution, could only occur because of an underlying condition where things were not the way they should be, where expectations of justice were violated and frustrated. Thus, the Law had to make provision for the poor (Jesus said they would always inhabit the earth) and for accidental manslaughter. Similarly, Jesus had to argue that bad things did not always happen because of bad behavior; a tower falling and killing eighteen people was not an indication that they were more wicked than their compatriots (Lk. 13:4). Likewise, a man was not born blind because of his or his parents' sins (John 9:1-3). Jesus also taught Israel that God gave common blessings to the wicked (Mt. 5:43-48) and that the common curse was seen in earthly treasures being destroyed or stolen (Mt. 6:19), people being anxious about food and clothes, which, unlike those of Israel in the wilderness, wore out. Jesus knew "each day has enough troubles of its own" (Mt. 6:25-34).
In the history of Israel, the typical, corporate covenant community, symbolic of heaven's holiness with its retribution principle, overlay the normal post-Fall common grace and common curse reality.
Ecclesiastes's method of presentation also points to the simultaneous existence in the theocracy of the principles of retribution and unpredictable consequences, each applicable at the appropriate level. That is the purpose of the Solomonic identity of Qoheleth. Qoheleth is the king of Israel reigning in Jerusalem (1:1,12; 2:7, 9). The name "Qoheleth" is given to the Solomonic figure because Solomon "assembled" (Hebrew root qhl) the covenant community at the dedication of the temple (1 Kings 8:1-2, 14). In Ecclesiastes it is the theocratic king whose words are stripped of Israelite distinctives, such as the use of the covenant name of God, who teaches the people (12:9) how to live in a world where the retribution principle does not apply. Qoheleth depicts non-retribution for the individual with exhortation on how to live in a world governed by that principle. His advice was true for the Israelite in the theocracy as it was true for the patriarchs and as it is true for the new covenant believer. It is wisdom for the world, valid throughout history under the common curse. Qoheleth complements rather than contradicts Moses.
Does Qoheleth Contradict Paul?
The negative of Qoheleth is not the opposite of Paul's positive and Qoheleth's positive is not the positive of the New Testament. The evangelical interpretation of Ecclesiastes tries to read a New Testament understanding into Ecclesiastes. Since the New Testament teaches labor is not in vain for the believer while Qoheleth hates life because labor is profitless, the evangelical perspective thinks Qoheleth can only be presenting an unbeliever's perspective, whether that is construed as Qoheleth's personal philosophy or one that he presents for apologetic purposes in order to refute it. Then on the question of joy, the evangelical approach splits into two camps, the one that sees the joy as pagan resignation or the other that understands the joy as Paul's rejoicing always. Qoheleth's negative, however, should be viewed as a believer's perspective, while neither of the evangelical options on the topic of joy works.
Longman sides with the position that Qoheleth's joy is the resignation of pagan philosophy in the face of an inscrutable reality. The phrase "there is nothing better" is cast in a negative mold based on the overall gloomy context of the book; the best the unbelieving Qoheleth can hope for is some pleasure in a painful, chance-ordered world. But the passages promoting joy (2:24-26, 3:12,22; 5:17-19 [18-20]; 8:15; 9:7-10; 11:7-10) specify that the joy is a "gift of God" (3:13, 5:18 ), a "portion (allotted by God)" (3:22; 5:17 ; 9:9) or part of the life God gives (2:24-26; 8:15). To avoid the explicit textual ascription of human joy to God, Longman argues that the book's overall negative stance pushes the reader to take the joy not as the result of a divine blessing that enables one to enjoy the fruit of one's labors, but as a narcotic or anesthetic to block out of mind the futilities of life. Longman changes genuine joy into blocked pain and then surmises that because of Qoheleth's frequent venting of frustration he felt God had not granted him this gift and therefore he was unfairly treated (p. 123). But Qoheleth explicitly stated that he had joy in all his toil and that it was a portion he received (2:10). Also, Qoheleth frequently teaches that righteous and wicked, wise and fool are treated alike, so he could hardly complain of being treated unfairly. Unless, of course, he is inconsistent and contradictory. The question, however, is whether the enigmas are in Qoheleth's mind or in the brain of the interpreter. The text does not present the joys of life as medicine, as an unpleasantness to endure, but as a banquet of God.
At the same time, Qoheleth's joyful response to life's benefits is not identical with Paul's rejoicing always. Ecclesiastes and Paul both promote contentment in all circumstances. Qoheleth exhorts one to rejoice in response to good things experienced in the context of harsh circumstances. Paul's command to rejoice always promotes joy in response to bad things experienced, including persecution for righteousness' sake, for the cause of Christ. Qoheleth's joy is a natural human psychological, emotional response common in part to righteous and wicked alike. Paul's joy is only spiritually felt, a fruit of heavenly love (it too can be counterfeited (1 Cor. 13:3); a resigned undergoing of religious persecution is little different from resigned consuming of God's goodness). Paul does not contradict Qoheleth; they speak of different kinds of joy. Paul's joy should not be read into Qoheleth's joy as it often is in evangelical interpretations. Paul's is a heavenly joy; Qoheleth's is joy in earthly blessings.
Similarly, Paul's observation in 1 Cor. 15:58 that labor in the Lord is not in vain does not contradict Qoheleth's statements that all labor is vain; they are talking about different kinds of labor. Qoheleth is instructing about earthly culture, building physical buildings, even cathedrals. Paul refers to laboring in God's field or on God's building (1 Cor. 3:5-15; 2 Cor. 10:12-18). When he mentions his work not being in vain (1 Cor. 15:58; 1 Thes. 2:1, 3:5; Phil. 2:16) he is discussing the preaching of the gospel, the receiving of God's grace (2 Cor. 6:5; 1 Cor. 15:10). The Lord's work in 1 Cor. 15:58 that is not in vain because Christ has been raised from the dead is the preaching and resulting faith that would be in vain (vv. 14, 17) if Christ, in fact, had not been raised from the dead. For Paul, the gospel-proclaiming constructing of the heavenly people-temple is not profitless work. That Paul is reflecting on Ecclesiastes in 1 Cor. 15 is indicated by his use in v. 17 ("faith is not in vain") of a word whose root is that of the Septuagint translation of Qoheleth's "vanity" and by the conceptual context that the death which is responsible for Qoheleth's assessment of the futility of earthly work has been conquered by the resurrection of Christ so that the heavenly work of preaching is not useless. Qoheleth speaks of under-heaven human work which, despite the fact its accomplishment provides satisfaction or joy (2:10) and should be engaged in with total energy (9:10), is futile because the crowning achievement of human culture is not cathedrals, but the graveyards next to them. In contrast, Paul's work produces eternal results because it transforms part of the cemetery into a living temple. The believer knows the heavenly joy of participating in the building of God's celestial palace plus the earthly joy and simultaneous frustration of using skill to construct buildings for family and business, culture and cult which, however, will be destroyed with the earth and not needed in the new heavens and earth where God is the environment.
Qoheleth's thoughts structurally orbit around the topics of toil and wisdom. Skillful effort and wise behavior do not produce profit and human wisdom cannot penetrate God's plan. The citizens of Nazareth were amazed at Jesus' power and wisdom (Mt. 13:54), his miracles and revelations of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. They saw the potential for a Qoheleth-transcending earthly paradise, but desired life and truth without the way of the cross, without the defeat of death, Qoheleth's nemesis, in Christ, the wisdom and power of God (1 Cor 1:24). Christ crucified and resurrected meant Paul could endure exhaustion, suffering, and persecution in loving labor that would endure, unlike his dexterously woven tents that, useful and beautiful as they were, would unravel and disintegrate.
Paul emphasizes the "already" heavenly joy and labor of the believer, Qoheleth the still earthly joy and labor of the believer, both part of existence before the eschatological "not yet". Heavenly and earthly realities coexist in the believer's experience. Qoheleth and Paul complement rather than contradict each other.
Does Qoheleth Contradict The Frame-Narrator?
Ecclesiastes is not in the canon because of some pious comments in the last two verses and a warning to avoid the pagan philosophy of the bulk of the book. The last two verses repeat the teaching of the body of the book. Qoheleth's affirmation of a judgment beyond death, which agrees with the frame-narrator's final remark in 12:14, was discussed previously. In addition, in Qoheleth's structurally emphasized, prominent unit of 4:17-5:6 [5:1-7] he proclaims the message found in 12:12-14 where the frame-narrator, as an Israelite father, exhorts his son to fear God and keep his commandments. The same two imperatives frame the central passage of Ecclesiastes (4:17-5:6 [5:1-7]). 5:6 [5:7] concludes the unit with words and syntax identical to the phrase in 12:13, "fear God", the normal Hebrew word order being reversed to put "God" in emphatic position and to have the verb close the pericope. The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom that will keep one from acting like the fools portrayed in the preceding verses. 4:17 [5:1] begins "guard (the "keep" of 12:13) your feet when you go to the house of God"; self-examination in worship is pictured after the model of guarding the garden, one's conscience filling the role of cherubim guarding the holy paradise with the throne of God in its midst. Each of the other three units in the passage begins with commands regarding relating to God in speech, whether praying or vowing. The center of Ecclesiastes, concerned with vows, is almost a verbatim quote from parts of Deuteronomy 23:22-24 [21-23] where God regulates the observance of obligations individuals imposed on themselves when seeking God's favor in trying circumstances. The center of Qoheleth's literary architecture emphasizes fearing God and keeping stipulations governing personal relationship to him, even quoting the covenant to do so. The advice Qoheleth makes prominent by the common ancient compositional technique of symmetry, the frame narrator emphasizes in western rhetorical fashion by placing it at the conclusion of the book. Qoheleth and the frame narrator agree.
Qoheleth was orthodox. His words are profitable for building God's temple edifice, for edifying living stones in all ages. Qoheleth was wise, and the people still need to be taught his knowledge (12:9).
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