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Jack Hakimian

OT504: The Writings


11-5-07

Critical Analysis #3
Ecclesiastes 3

I. Content and Context

Summary of Argument

The overall argument of the book seems to be against conventional wisdom (Eccl 1:12, 13).1
Conventional wisdom was the understanding or philosophy of how the world works in relation to
successfully reaping rewards from Yahweh and having favor in society (Eccl 1:13).2 The author Qoheleth
seeks to test these traditional premises personally and through observation (Eccl 1:12-8). This is done by
examining all aspects of life, such as: foolishness to wisdom, from laziness to work, from righteousness to
wickedness. Yet nothing seems to bring fulfillment in and of itself.3 Through it all he never stops observing
and analyzing as an outside spectator if anything “under the sun” is worth fully investing in. Through his
personal experience and objective analysis he concludes that nothing brings real meaning and predictable
positive outcomes.4 In fact, the world is permanently crooked (Eccl 7:13) and grievous when you come to
realize it’s past, present and future injustices. The more wisdom (right behavior) and knowledge (right
understanding) a person gains, the more depressed they become as they see the contrast of ideals and actual
happenings in the real world (Eccl 1:18). This is a huge burden that God has laid upon people, therefore the
pursuit and application of wisdom, righteousness and hard work is meaningless and absurd in and of itself
(Eccl 3:10).

Place of the Assigned Text

This particular text falls in line with the overall pursuit of fulfillment Qoheleth is searching after. To
reinforce his premise that life is empty and absurd (hebel) he argues in this passage that no one can truly

1
Duncan Black MacDonald. 1933. The Hebrew Literary Genius: An Interpretation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press, 197.
2
Duncan Black MacDonald, 177.
3
Roland E Murphy. 2002. The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom
Literature. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing, 53-54.
4
Roland E Murphy, 53. Murphy writes, “When Qoheleth pronounces the verdict of vanity on life, nothing is excluded.
Life, in its totality, is utterly futile. This desperate judgment runs through the work, and it is not to be muted: all is
vanity”.

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understand what the future holds for them under the sun. Good and bad events are transitory and
unpredictable (Eccl 3:1-10). The real answer seems to lie in a person’s understanding that God makes all
events suitable (beautiful) in His time (Eccl 3:11). He is the only person who is immutable and provides
moments in time for humans to enjoy (Ecc 3:12-13. No human can change what God has been doing or will
do according to His Sovereign control (Eccl 3:14-15). When a person observes what appears to be God’s
absence in the face of injustice they should understand that Yahweh will hold the wicked and righteous
accountable at some point in time (Eccl 3:16-17).5 For now, God makes our existence mysterious and
difficult so that we can respect him and know that seeking worldly ambitions and profit only ends in futility
(Eccl 3:18-20). After establishing the premise of death, Qoheleth deduces that since all humans die, or return
to the dust, there must be the possibility of an afterlife. He raises the issue in question form: “Who knows if
the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth” (Eccl 3:21)? This
seems to be a question raised due the conflicting premise that God will judge the righteous and wicked (Eccl
3:17), despite the appearance that all ends with death (3 Eccl: 19, 20). There must be a judgment in what
appears to be an afterlife experience of an immaterial world of spirits.6 Maybe in the afterlife God will give
retribution (Eccl 3:17). But in the meanwhile as humans live on earth, they must do the best with the
uncontrollable circumstances that God has put them in. They should find happiness by enjoying God’s
providential gift of work in this life (Eccl 3:22a). Because, in reality, a person doesn’t know if the future will
blow in harsher or better days (Eccl 3:22b).7

II. Concerns of the Text

A. General Concerns

Central focus

The central focus of the text seems to be that humans cannot really understand the specifics (why,

how, when) of events occurring in time (Eccl 3:1-11), but must accept that life has cycles that brings

moments of pleasure in the simple things.8 When they try to live by conventional wisdom and control their

5
Roland E Murphy, 56.
6
Roland E Murphy, 46. If the date of Ecclesiastes is 300 B.C.E. and there was Hellenistic influence upon Qoheleth then
it’s possible to deduce that the author was wrestling with Aristotle’s metaphysical idea of the “immaterial” world. So,
he could be asking a rhetorical question that he himself answers in Ecclesiastes 12:7.
7
Daniel J Estes. 2005. Handbook On The Wisdom Books and Psalms. Grand Rapids,
Michigan: Baker Academic, 321.
8
The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, Electronic Database. Copyright (c) 1962 by Moody Press

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future they may come to realize that death, weeping, killing, war and hatred awaits them too (Eccl 3:1-11).9

He doesn’t negate traditional wisdom fully, he just questions its unconditional promise to protect and prosper

holistically.10God lays this burden of unpredictability and chance so that humans will realize that the fate of

an animal which is “death” is destined for them (Eccl 3:18-19). There is nothing humans can do to the

change how the world is and will continue to be, because God has so designed it that way (Eccl 3:14-15). So,

the best thing humans can do is appreciate the gift of simple pleasures that God has given to them and know

that He will hold people accountable for their actions, despite what seems to be a reality where there is no

ultimate justice (Eccl 3:16-17).

Concerns of the Text

Firstly, the text is concerned with the question of pleasure. How do human beings find or achieve

pleasure? Ancient sages believed that there was a proper time for everything. If they devoted time to discover

this secret wisdom, they could then unfold the mysteries of life which in turn result in pleasure.11 Qoheleth

argues that no person can truly achieve this gift by conventional wisdom (Eccl 2:12), excessive self

righteousness (Eccl 7:15-18) or from hard word as the context of the passage demonstrates (Eccl 3:9).12

Different positive and negative circumstances are certain to come (Eccl 3:1-8) despite ones hard work (Eccl

3:16). The key to happiness is to find pleasure in Yahweh’s momentary gifts such as: food, drink and toil

(Eccl 3:13, 14, 22), because this kind of simplicity is what we where created for.13 For Qoheleth, work is a

pleasurable gift from God that is enjoyable in and of itself (Eccl 3:22). Work may reap bountiful benefits of

prosperity, or it may barely keep one sustained materially. These are outcomes that one cannot control. So,

9
Roland E Murphy, 55.
10
Roland E Murphy, 55. Murphy writes, “Hence it is a misreading to claim that Qoheleth jettisons wisdom per se (any
more than the Book of Job does).
11
Crenshaw, James L. 1987. Ecclesiastes: A Commentary. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 92.
12
William P Brown. 1996. Character In Crisis: A Fresh Approach to the Wisdom Literature of the
Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing, 137.
13
Rolf. Rendtorff. 1991. The Old Testament: An Introduction. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 266.

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the best thing to do is work with ones whole might (Eccl 9:10) and find pleasure in their employment (Eccl

3:22).14

Secondly, the text is concerned with the inconsistency of events in life. It argues that in this world

nothing stays consistent, but God’s ultimate work of making everything suitable in it’s time (Eccl 3:11) and

bringing humans to accountability (Eccl 3:17). Examples of change are: socially there is a “ time to embrace

and a time to refrain” (Eccl 3:5), politically there is a “a time for war and a time for peace” (Eccl 3:8),

emotionally there is a “a time to weep and a time to laugh” (Eccl 3:4 ), practically there is a “a time to keep

and a time to throw away” (Eccl 3:6), and existentially there is a “a time to be born and a time to die” (Eccl

3:2 ). Concerning the real purpose of an unpredictable world it is God who orchestrates beautiful outcomes

for the purpose of enjoyment (Eccl 3:11) and is Himself the only immutable (unchanging) object (3:14).15

Qoheleth views the world as having uncontrollable activities that passively and actively occur (Eccl 3:1-8),

which in turn cause humans to have a huge emotional burden and sense that their value is no greater than the

animals of the field (Ecc 3:18-21). 16 God has intentionally laid this burden of inconsistency and death on

humanity so that people would recognize that ultimate beauty comes from Him (Ecc 3:11), and fear Him

(Ecc 3:14). Concerning this fear, it is not speaking of respect, but one of mysterious awe.17 God could, at any

time, inflict upon you the sufferings of Job or divine wrath.18 His actions cannot be predicted or programmed

by human behavior, thoughts or prayers.19

B. Specific Concerns

Value of Human Life In Comparison To Animals

14
William P Brown, 138.
15
Roland E Murphy, 54. Murphy writes concerning the inconsistency of life’s events that: “God gives as God pleases,
and there is no consistency that Qoheleth can discover about this ‘giving’; it is mystery, rather than generosity”.
16
James L. Crenshaw, 24.
17
Roland E Murphy, 56.
18
Roland E Murphy, 56.
19
Roland E Murphy, 56.

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It seems that human life does have more value than animals based on an assumed immortality

Ecclesiastes 3:21.20 The rhetorical question asked, “Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the

spirit of the animal goes down into the earth” (Eccl 3:21), begs the question. If interpreted from Moseretic

text the verse is seen as a “corrective to the verses that precede it”.21 But, if taken from the earlier

manuscripts the question is interpreted as implying a negative answer. Basically, “No one knows if the spirit

of man ascends upward and that the breath of a best descends downward”!22 Other commentators who view

the question negatively (that there is no afterlife) base their interpretation on Qoheleth claims in the previous

verses 19-20 of chapter 3.23 Also, based on the following statement in chapter 3 verse 22 which implies that

there isn’t anything better to do than enjoy your work in the present life one should assume that Qoheleth

negates that humans can experience immortality.24 That is why the RSV interprets the verse “Who knows

whether the spirit of man goes upward” while the AV implies a belief on the author's part in some sort of

immortality.25 But, again if the date and time of this genre is during the Hellenistic period, traditional

Israelite perspective on death could be challenged as they are faced with a philosophy of an immaterial world

from which all material substances animate.26 My interpretation is that Qoheleth seems to observe an

ontological difference between humans and animals by even raising the question of existence after physical

death. Why would such a thought even enter into the framework of his thoughts, unless he is considering

that, outside of time, God judges the spirits who seem to have no retribution of judgment here in earth (Eccl

3:16-17). Lastly unless you view Ecclesiastes 12:7 as being inserted at a later date, Qoheleth clearly states

that upon death, “the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”27 If

we believe that Qoheleth posses any ability of coherence as a writer, he could vaguely be alluding in 3: 21

20
Daniel J Estes, 320. Estes states Leupold’s interpretation of 3:21 which claims, “Apparently, then this is a
corrective that is inserted against a misapprehension of the preceding verses”.
21
Daniel J Estes, 320.
22
Daniel J Estes, 320.
23
The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, Electronic Database. Copyright (c) 1962 by Moody Press
24
The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, Electronic Database. Copyright (c) 1962 by Moody Press
25
The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, Electronic Database. Copyright (c) 1962 by Moody Press
26
Roland E Murphy, 46.If the date of this book is 300 B.C.E. and there was Hellenistic influence then it is possible to
deduce that the author was wrestling with the idea of the “immaterial” and Aristotelian\Platonic worldview.
27
Daniel J Estes, 320.

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what he explicitly answers in 12:7 as his summary concluding thoughts. I have no reason to believe the

conclusion was inserted later by a redactor source that contradicts the original author’s thoughts.28

Also, in Ecclesiastes 3:11 Qoheleth claims that God has set “eternity” in the hearts of humans. This

word in the Hebrew is “olam”.29 The cognates of this word are in Arabic, Ugaritic, Moabite, Phoenician,

Akkadian, and Aramaic. This word appears in all periods and is utilized 440 times. In this passage it has the

basic meaning of, “not being limited to the present”.30 We live “above time” and think about the past, live in

the present and contemplate the future, even still God’s works remain a mystery.31 Compare humans with

animals the only similarity we have is the breathe of life and physical bodies of dust that return back to dust

(Eccl 3:19, 20).32 But, unlike animals we have a consciousness of God derived from a spirit which enables,

us like the passage claims, to transcend in our thoughts to the limitlessness of time, and yearn for something

more constant and harmonious.

Goal of Human Life

According to Qoheleth in this text the goal of human life is to find satisfaction in the simple gifts that

God has given to humans such as food, drink and toil (Eccl 3:13).33 Humans should accept the circumstances

God has put them in (Eccl 3:22) and not strive to understand issues that He has kept a mystery from them

(Eccl 3:11c). Humans cannot know what events will overtake them in the future, so they must live in the

moment and appreciate its peculiarities and transitioning pleasures (Eccl 3:22).34 This seems to be similar to

issues raised in the Egyptian teaching called the “Sufferer and A Soul In Egypt”. The sufferer argues for

relief from this painful existence by suicide, but the soul responds by calling the person “to stop conforming

28
Roland E Murphy, 52.
29
Vine's Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, Copyright (c)1985, Thomas Nelson Publishers
30
Vine's Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, Copyright (c)1985, Thomas Nelson Publishers
31
Vine's Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, Copyright (c)1985, Thomas Nelson Publishers
32
Daniel J Estes, 318.
33
Daniel J Estes, 318. Estes writes, “….life must be viewed and valued as gift from the hand of God”.
34
Daniel J Estes, 320.

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to society’s expectations and start enjoying life”.35 In comparison some have equated Qoheleth as

challenging the conventional wisdom that claims to be righteous, in the sense of following strict laws, will

result in definite success and personal prosperity. Rather, like the Suffer and a Soul, Qoheleth is a trial genre

comforting the audience who has experienced the inadequacy in pursing conventional wisdom as a means of

understanding God’s ways and the attainment of pleasurable results.36

Does God Judge Equitably In This World

It appears that God does not always judge equitably in this world.37 Qoheleth observes that the

justice system is perverted at times. Wicked people sit in places of authority as judges (Eccl 3:16). Even

though he does not appeal to an eschatological judgment, by using the imperfect construction yispot, based

on my interpretation of verse 3:21, which implies a possible afterlife sequence and the definitive view that

Yahweh will eventually judge all human actions as found in 3:17. I must conclude that God’s ultimate

judgment will take place in the next life. This seems to be consistent with Qoheleth’s thoughts in 12:7.

III. Hermeneutical Significance

A. General Reflections

Similarities & Differences To A Contemporary Concern

In our contemporary culture there is a deep concern on how to achieve “happiness” and

“fulfillment”. You can see evidence of that by the way people purchase self improvement books, like “The

Secret” that has been on the top best sellers list for over 40 weeks.38 This book is essentially a guide to use

the forces of the universe to attract “objects” that make you happy. In a world of “absurdity”, where

35
Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin. Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East.
Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 223,224.
36
Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin, 224.
37
Daniel J Estes, 317.
38
Best Sellers: Hardcover Advice. New York Times 2007 [cited. Available from
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/18/books/bestseller/1118besthardadvice.html.

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conventional wisdom doesn’t always make sense, Qoheleth seeks out the means to lasting enjoyment and

happiness.39 After searching out the answer through wisdom, pleasure, hard labor, and observation he

concludes that all human pursuits with the purpose of trying to achieve fulfillment end up in “vanity”

(1:12-2:23).40 Real happiness comes as a by-product of “fearing God” and accepting His providential care

and allotment in life (Eccl 3:12-13, 22). In fact pleasure is a gift of God and if one pleases Yahweh He

sometimes gives them the opportunity to experience wisdom, knowledge, and happiness (Eccl 2:24-26).41

In contrast to our culture that has a “works” mentality of achieving things, Qoheleth seems to argue that

“works” leads to the “chasing after the wind” (4:4), where “fearing God” and accepting His providential

care over your life will lead to moments of true happiness(3:12-15).

Application Challenges To Contemporary Context

The major challenge of applying this text to our contemporary context is the idea of God’s sovereign

control over every event that occurs in time (3:1-8). It is difficult to reconcile the fact that Qoheleth views

even bad situations as part of God intentional design and responsibility.42 This has been the great debate

between Armianism and Calvinism. Which really boils down to the question: “How far does God’s

Sovereign Control extend?” Does He control our will, as He controls all events in history and brings them

into conformity to His will (Eph 1:11-12)? Because if one views God as controlling everything, then He

becomes the author and coordinator of evil.43 If God’s control is limited, then He is not Sovereignly

controlling everything. The ancient sages of Israel tried to make sense of God’s unifying rule and how His

justice governs private lives well as the nation. Jacob Neusner claims Israel had basically three principle

responses that followed this “logical sequence”:44

1.can the individual be at all distinguished from all Israel?

39
William P Brown, 137.
40
James L. Crenshaw. 1981. Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction. Atlanta: John Knox Press,133.
41
James L. Crenshaw. 1981. Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction,136.
42
Daniel J Estes, 317.
43
James L. Crenshaw. 1981. Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction, 128.
44
Jacob Neusner. 1999. The Theology of the Oral Torah: Revealing the Justice of God. Montreal: McGill-Queens
University Press, 194.

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2.if not, then on what basis does the individual matter at all? and
3.can the same explanation that necessarily accounts for the condition of Israel sufficiently serve also for
that of Israelites, and if not, what further components does the encompassing rationalization of Israelite
existence require?

B. Specific Reflections

It appears that Qoheleth views all of life as pre-designed and orchestrated (3:1-8) by Yahweh. But, this

view becomes problematic when you consider that there is injustice and wickedness in this world and

Qoheleth is claiming that God controls these events (3:1-11; 7:17). 45 Maybe we need to consider that the

genre is reflective, poetic and empirical (natural observation) in nature, therefore Qoheleth is not developing

a systematic theology about the nature of God based on revelation. A poet’s personal reflection may appear

contradictory at times, because they are recording their observations and feelings without considering the

way others will interpret them.46 The propositions that God in the future will judge the actions of the wicked,

while in the present He orchestrates their actions seems contradictory and capricious.47 But, Qoheleth

maybe arguing against the classical view of wisdom held by the sages that felt, “overconfident about their

ability to affect their own destinies”.48 Sometimes to refute one truth a person goes way to the other extreme,

without considering the full implications. Another thing to consider is the historical context. If Solomon

authored the book, it gives the writing a later date in contrast to an earlier date of 400 to 200 B.C. You have

to consider the fact that Israel’s hadn’t fully developed a theology of theodicy as they would after the exile.49

After the exile they would begin to view Yahweh not as the orchestrator of evil, but as someone who is

working in synchronization with other entities to accomplish His ultimate ends.50 “God does not tempt

45
Daniel J Estes, 309.
46
William Sanford Lasor, David Allan Hubbard, Fredric Wm. 1982. Old Testament Survey: The Message, Form,
and Background of the Old Testament. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing, 503.
47
Roland E Murphy, 52, 53.Murphy acknowledges that commentators have viewed the book as contradictory and
therefore come up with the theory that certain thoughts have been added. Murphy argues that the contradictions maybe
the fault of our interpretation and not the author. But, despite these realities we should take the book as a whole, and
acknowledges its tensions and extremely sharp statements.
48
William Sanford Lasor, David Allan Hubbard, Fredric Wm, 507.
49
J. M. Powis Smith. 1923. The Moral Life of the Hebrews. Chicago: The University of Chicago press, 279.
50
Norman C. Habel, Habel, Norman C. 1985. The Book of Job: A Commentary. Philadelphia: Westminster
Press,41. Habel writes, ” "Close links between sections of Job and Second Isaiah have been cited to argue for
locating the book of Job in a common period when similar ideas and forms were prevalent. "

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people with evil nor is He tempted by evil himself” as James a by-product of post exilic Judaism would state

(James 3:13-15). Rather evil springs from the hearts of his creatures and God uses that evil to accomplish his

beautiful results (Ecc 3:11). An example of this would be Job’s narrative. In his story we see that God, in

synchronization with Satan, is working out His purpose and Glory through Job, by engaging in a wager. In

the end God does not orchestrate and pre-design Satan’s intent or the three friends speeches, rather He uses

them for some intended purpose (James 5:10-11). Joseph’s story of betrayal by his brothers is another

example of the “two wills” working and yet God’s will prevailing. In the end God accomplishes His salvific

purpose for the community, despite the limited free actions of a few (Gen 50:19-20). When we consider the

complexity of Yahweh’s works, we must conclude that He is wiser than a person controlling pre-

programmed machines, due to His ability to work through self willed machines who some how fulfill His

ultimate ends. He get’s us from point A to point B and thus demonstrates His true Sovereignty, Wisdom, and

Power!

But, a last alternative could be that even in the face of suffering and evil, God somehow is still

demonstrating His justice and mercy upon creation.51 In order to reconcile the simplistic wisdom that

Yahweh controls all events, Israel reasoned that suffering is a means of paying “tribute to their (suffers)

strength and as a symbol of virtue”. Also, God is showing favor on the one who suffers, by showing that the

person is worthy of God’s attention and “special interest”.52 Lastly, suffering produces an extra measure of

favor from God and results in even more gifts (James 5:11).53 As hard as this may seem, these are just a few

ways people have reconciled the Sovereignty of a just God over a world that is filled with injustice, pain and

wickedness.

51
Jacob Neusner, 232.
52
Jacob Neusner, 232.
53
Jacob Neusner, 232.

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Bibliography

The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, Electronic Database. Copyright (c) 1962 by Moody Press. Place Published
(accessed.

Best Sellers: Hardcover Advice. New York Times 2007 [cited. Available from
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/18/books/bestseller/1118besthardadvice.html.

Brown, William P. 1996. Character In Crisis: A Fresh Approach to the Wisdom Literature of the Old
Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing.

Crenshaw, James L. 1981. Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction. Atlanta: John Knox Press.

———. 1987. Ecclesiastes: A Commentary. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

Estes, Daniel J. 2005. Handbook On The Wisdom Books and Psalms. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker
Academic.

Habel, Norman C. 1985. The Book of Job: A Commentary. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

Lasor, William Sanford , David Allan Hubbard, and Fredric Wm. Bush. 1982. Old Testament Survey: The
Message, Form, and Background of the Old Testament. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans
Publishing.

MacDonald, Duncan Black. 1933. The Hebrew Literary Genius: An Interpretation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press.

Matthews, Victor H. and Don C. Benjamin. Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient
Near East. Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press.

Murphy, Roland E. 2002. The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature Grand Rapids,
Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing.

Neusner, Jacob. 1999. The Theology of the Oral Torah: Revealing the Justice of God. Montreal: McGill-
Queens University Press.

Rendtorff, Rolf. 1991. The Old Testament: An Introduction. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Smith, J. M. Powis. 1923. The Moral Life of the Hebrews. Chicago: The University of Chicago press.

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