Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth) - The Skeptic?


Ecclesiastes is the Greco-Latin form of the Hebrew Qoheleth.

Both “names” have to do with a congregation (qahal, ecclesia).

Qoheleth also belongs to the category of wisdom literature.

Wisdom texts reflect on the nature of the world and the God who created and controls it, and on the place of humans in this divine creation.

The sages based their observations on:

1. Their own experience;

2. That of other sages before them;

3. Sometimes also on divine revelation.

But in all cases, the wisdom has God as its ultimate source.

In the case of Qoheleth (Koheleth), the wisdom is presented as experiential.

The “author”

He is described as “David’s son” (Ecc 1:1; cf. Ecc 1:12) - probably referring to Solomon.

More information about him can be found in Ecc 12:9-10 - probably provided by one of his disciples.

Did he formed some kind of school?

The “author”

A date between 6th century to 2nd century BC is generally suggested for the writing of the book.

So, either in Persian period or Hellenistic period.

There are some troublesome statements on the book (Ecc 3:9-12; 6:1-12; chapter 7).

The book

The twelve chapters cover different topics.

The cycles of natural order;

The amassing of wealth in property and other forms;

The opposing forces that govern life;

The book

Friendship - very helpful in life’s uncertainties;

The virtues and difficulties of human authority;

The nature of folly and the possibilities of limitations of wisdom;

The enjoyment in life;

The terrors of old age.

The book

But, the book does not have a clear structure.

The topics can be repeated with new perspective that can even contradict each other (chapter Ecc 8; Ecc 9:1-12; chapter Ecc 10).

Thus, it is not easy to read it and it can be confusing.

Certain themes

1. Futility Ecc 1:2 - Ecc 12:8.

It means the inability of humans to make sense of the world around them.

Humans are unable to see a coherent pattern, a plan to their lives and to nature.

The traditional doctrine of reward and punishment for the good and the wicked does not appear to work, at least in this life.

Certain themes

2. Death.

Death is the only one thing that is clear for Qoheleth.

It is the final point in each one’s action.

All have to die - humans, animals, and other organism.

If there is any survival beyond death, either physically or in terms of memory and influence, humans cannot know this, and so cannot rely on it.

Certain themes

3. Enjoyment.

Humans are to enjoy their toil (life) while they are alive.

4. Individual rewards and punishment have no enduring significance because they are canceled out by death and cannot be passed to future generations (Ecc 2:21).

5. Wisdom is most effective when it is used to clarify its own limits.

Qoheleth does not deny that God is in control and has a coherent pattern of activity that will bring every creature to account.

But, human attempts at discerning it fails again and again.

Two summaries

1 - “All is vanity” (Ecc 12:8; 1:3)

2 - “Fear God and keep his commandments” (Ecc 12:13) - apparently added by an editor (Ecc 12:9-14).


Hebrew “hevel” means “vapor”, “breath” - something that does not last long.

“Vanity of vanities” is the superlative like (“song of songs”).

So vanity of life includes everything - life, in its totality, is futile.


His experiments in pleasure yields nothing (Ecc 2:1-11);

His toils and its fruits give no enduring satisfaction (Ecc 2:18-23);

Riches also turn out to be a failure (Ecc 5:9-16; Ecc 6:1-6);

Even wisdom, which he resolutely aspired to but failed to attain (Ecc 7:23-24), is not satisfying: “Why then should I be wise?” Ecc 2:15)


But, his arguments are not always convincing.

For example, he “hates” the fruits of his labor because he has to leave them to another who has not toiled for them (Ecc 2:19-21).

And his successor might turn out to be a fool - like the son of Solomon - Rehoboam (see Sir 47:23).

But, do we only work for ourselves? Do we not find a joy in it that someone will continue our work and mission?


The question that he asks is:

“How is it that the wise man dies as well as the fool”? (Ecc 2:16)

Death casts its shadow over all his thoughts (Ecc 3:19-20; Ecc 4:3; 8:8; Ecc 9:3-6, 10-12; Ecc 11:8-12:7).

There is also “time and a blow” - which means ‘time of calamity’ that can happen to all - the evil time (Ecc 9:11-12).

Finally, there is this phrase - “who knows?” (Ecc 3:21; 6:12) - pointing to the futility of knowing things.


Thus, the human situation is bleak and that is why he “hated” life (Ecc 2:17).

But, again, is he right being such a pessimist regarding human life?


There are many references to joy in life (Ecc 2:10; 24; Ecc 3:12, 22; Ecc 5:17-18; 8:15; Ecc 9:7-9; 11:7-10).

So, there is nothing better than - enjoyment, eating and drinking.

Pay attention to “nothing better than”. The phrase still indicates a negative look at life.


Life is futile, but lessen this futility - or forget about it for a moment - people can turn to little joys that life (God) can offer (Ecc 5:18; 8:15).

But, even while commanding joy as a remedy for futility of life, he reminds that death comes after life (Ecc 11:8-11; 9:10).

So, even in joy we should remember death and judgment.


Qohelet was considered to be a wise man and a teacher of wisdom (Ecc 12:9).

But, he himself admits that he did not attain wisdom he sought (Ecc 7:23-24) and he rejected many of the claims of the sages (Ecc 8:17).

He also challenges traditional wisdom (Ecc 1:18; 2:13-15; Ecc 9:16-17).


But, he does not advocate folly as an option in life (Ecc 7:5).

A little folly can spoil wisdom (Ecc 10:1).

Too much talking is a sign of being a fool (Ecc 5:1-2; 10:12-14) - “Let your words be few” (Ecc 5:2).

Fear of God

Ecc 12:13 - “fear God and keep his commandments”.

Apparently, Qohelet did not say it.

The words belong to the editor.

Ecc 3:14 - “God has done it, so that people fear before him”.

Here “fear” of God means “fear” of the greatness of God and His mysterious nature and design.

Live in the “fear God” because you do not know what he has prepared for you.

Fear of God

Ecc 5:5-6 - “fear God” to avoid sin.

Ecc 7:18 - “the one who fears God” chooses the middle way? - the verse is unclear in the context of Ecc 7:15-18.

Ecc 8:12b - it will be well for those who “fear God” - traditional understanding of the virtue of the fear of God.

But again, some scholars question whether here Qohelet speaks for himself or quotes the sages whom he does not necessarily agree with.

The treatment of the just and the wicked

A just God prospers the good and punishes the evil - traditional view. Otherwise, where is the divine justice?

But Qohelet questions it (Ecc 4:1-3; 7:15; Ecc 8:5-11).

See Ecc 7:15

Ecc 8:11 - because justice does not come immediately, the people are emboldened to do evil (see Ecc 8:12).

Qohelet does not deny God’s judgement (Ecc 8:13), but for him it is a mystery (Ecc 3:11; 11:5).


God for Qohelet is mostly the Creator (Ecc 3:11 - Gen 1:1-2:4).

But humans cannot understand his works (Ecc 8:17).

The divine action remains a mystery (Ecc 11:5). See Ecc 5:1.

But, there is nothing here about the tradition of Israel.


He gives life (Ecc :15).

He placed eternity in our hearts (Ecc 3:11).

He gives wisdom and knowledge (Ecc 2:26).

The pleasures of life are also his gift (Ecc 3:13; 2:24).

He gives riches and glory (Ecc 6:2).


The book of Qohelet in the Jewish bible ends with the verse Ecc 9:13 being repeated after Ecc 9:14.

Despite, all the challenges that Qohelet presents to his readers, this statement captures the essence of wisdom.


It is true that part of this instruction - “to keep God’s commandment” - does not appear as such elsewhere in the book, but the other part - “fear God” does (Ecc 3:14; 5:6; Ecc 7:18; 8:12-13).

Qohelet also makes statement about God’s judgement (Ecc 3:17; cf. Ecc 3:15; 11:9).

Just because human inquiry leads nowhere, in proving a system of reward and punishment, it does not mean that there is no such system.

There always remains a possibility that God in some way does call everyone and everything to account (see 2 Cor 5:10).