Ecclesiastes Wibray

ECCLESIASTES R.N. Whybray Sheffield Academic Press Pour Didier Lance ton pain à la surface des eaux, car à la longue tu le retrouveras Copyright © 1989, 1997 Sheffield Academic Press Published by Sheffield Academic Press Ltd Mansion House 19 Kingfield Road Sheffield S11 9AS England British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library ISBN 1-85075-211-7 CONTENTS Preface Abbreviations Select List of Commentaries 1. Introduction 2. The Author and his Times 3. Language, Style and Structure 4. Place in the History of Thought 5. Qoheleth’s Characteristic Ideas

Transcript of Ecclesiastes Wibray

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R.N. WhybraySheffield Academic Press

     Pour Didier

Lance ton pain à la surface des eaux, car à la longue tu le retrouverasCopyright © 1989, 1997 Sheffield Academic Press

Published by Sheffield Academic Press LtdMansion House

19 Kingfield RoadSheffield S11 9AS

EnglandBritish Library Cataloguing in Publication DataA catalogue record for this book is available from the British LibraryISBN 1-85075-211-7

CONTENTSPrefaceAbbreviationsSelect List of Commentaries

1.     Introduction2.     The Author and his Times3.     Language, Style and Structure4.     Place in the History of Thought5.     Qoheleth’s Characteristic Ideas

Index of AuthorsPREFACE

In preparing this small volume I have been conscious that it has not been possible within the limitations of space imposed by the nature of the Old Testament Guides series to do justice either to every feature of Ecclesiastes or to the wide variety of scholarly opinion on the many problems which it raises. This is particularly true of the final chapter, where it has not been possible to do more than give a brief sketch of some current trends of interpretation. This book

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should be regarded as no more than an introduction, and, it is hoped, a stimulus to further reading, for which there is no substitute.

Biblical quotations have been taken in the main from the Revised Standard Version. This is always the case where a part of a verse has been identified by quoting its opening or closing words.

Biblical references are given in accordance with the numbering system used in the English versions. With regard to Ecclesiastes, it may be helpful to know that in chapter 5 of that book the verse numbers in the Hebrew text are one less than those in the English text, and that 5:1 in the latter appears as 4:17 in the Hebrew.

R.N. WhybrayEly, August 1988

ABBREVIATIONSANET     Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testement, 2nd edn, Princeton University Press,

1955.BETL     Bibliotheca Ephemeridum Theologicarum LovaniensiumBZAW     Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche WissenschaftCBQ     Catholic Biblical QuarterlyETL     Ephemerides Theologicae LovaniensesHUCA     Hebrew Union College AnnualJBL     Journal of Biblical LiteratureJJS     Journal of Jewish StudiesJNES     Journal of Near Eastern StudiesJQR     Jewish Quarterly ReviewJSOT     Journal for the Study of the Old TestamentJSS     Journal of Semitic StudiesJTS     Journal of Theological StudiesNF     Neue FolgeOBO     Orbis Biblicus et OrientalisPEQ     Palestine Exploration QuarterlyTR     Theologische RundschauVT     Vetus TestamentumVT Suppl     Supplements to Vetus TestamentumZAW     Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche WissenschaftZDPV     Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins

Select List of CommentariesG.A. Barton, The Book of Ecclesiastes (The International Critical Commentary), Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark,

1908. This commentary, constantly reprinted, is particularly strong on philological matters. In other respects it is seriously outdated and is not recommended to beginners.

J.L. Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes (The Old Testament Library), Philadelphia: Westminster Press; London: SCM Press, 1987. This is a solid, up-to-date commentary with a new translation, which interprets the book as the work of a pessimist and sceptic.

R. Davidson, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon (The Daily Study Bible), Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1986. Written primarily to commend the books to the Christian reader, these commentaries are nevertheless based on sound scholarly principles.

M.A. Eaton, Ecclesiastes (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries), Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983. A brief but scholarly commentary written from a somewhat conservative point of view.

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W.J. Fuerst, The Books of Ruth, Esther, Ecclesiastes, The Song of Songs, Lamentations (The Cambridge Bible Commentary on the New English Bible), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975. The commentary on Ecclesiastes is rather brief and sketchy.

C.D. Ginsburg, The Song of Songs and Coheleth (The Library of Biblical Studies), New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1970. Two separate commentaries have here been reprinted in one volume. That on Ecclesiastes was first published in 1861. Its Introduction is notable for a very complete (217-page) history of the interpretation of the book, invaluable especially for the early period.

R. Gordis, Koheleth—The Man and His World, 3rd edn, New York: Schocken Books, 1968. This is probably the best commentary on Ecclesiastes in English. The commentary itself assumes a knowledge of Hebrew, but the extensive Introduction, new translation and summaries of the contents of each section are invaluable and within the capabilities of any attentive reader.

E. Jones, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (Torch Bible Commentaries), London: SCM Press, 1961. A brief commentary suitable for beginners.

J.A. Loader, Ecclesiastes. A Practical Commentary, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1986. A sound, up-to-date commentary which, perhaps too insistently, attempts to find a consistent pattern of thought throughout the book.

G. Ogden, Qoheleth, Sheffield: JSOTJSOT Press, 1987. An excellent commentary which pays special attention to literary forms and key words. The book is given a positive interpretation.

E.H. Plumptre, Ecclesiastes, Or, The Preacher (The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1881. A solid commentary still worth consulting for its exegetical comment. It is noteworthy for its espousal of the view that Ecclesiastes is strongly influenced by Greek thought.

O.S. Rankin, The Book of Ecclesiastes: Introduction and Exegesis (The Interpreter’s Bible, vol. V), New York and Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1956. This brief commentary contains useful presentations of current scholarly opinions.

R.B.Y. Scott, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes (The Anchor Bible), Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1965. The commentary on Ecclesiastes is very sketchy. It consists of a new translation, a short introduction and very brief notes.

R.N. Whybray, Ecclesiastes (New Century Bible), Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1989.

Commentaries in foreign languagesK. Galling, Der Prediger (Handbuch zum Alten Testament), 2nd edn, Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1969. A

major commentary by an acknowledged master of the subject. The body of the book is held to consist of twenty-seven independent pericopes.

H.W. Hertzberg, Der Prediger (Kommentar zum Alten Testament), Gütersloh: Gerd Mohn, 1963. This commentary contains full and useful discussions of the text. The translation is somewhat free, but often illuminating.

R. Kroeber, Der Prediger, Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1963. This work consists of a substantial Introduction, notes on the Hebrew text and a running commentary. No overall plan to the book is recognized.

A. Lauha, Kohelet (Biblischer Kommentar, Altes Testament), Neukirchen: Neukirchener Verlag, 1978. A solid commentary but one which offers few surprises. It will rank among the major commentaries.

N. Lohfink, Kohelet (Die Neue Echter Bibel), Würzburg: Echter Verlag, 1980. Although brief, this commentary is written in an engagingly lively style. It abounds in fascinating new interpretations of many passages in the light of the political, economic and social background.

D. Lys, L’Ecclésiaste ou Que vaut la vie?, Paris: Letouzey & Ané, 1977. This volume, which ends at 4:3, is the first volume of a commentary not so far completed. The Hebrew text is rendered rather

JSOTJSOT Journal for the Study of the Old Testament

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eccentrically into French in an attempt to render the exact sense of the original. Minute attention is paid to the meaning of words and to the syntax.

W. Zimmerli, Das Buch des Predigers Salomo (Das Alte Testament Deutsch), 3rd edn, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1980. Zimmerli ranks with Galling as a major interpreter of Ecclesiastes. This commentary is specifically designed to be comprehensible to non-Hebraists.


ECCLESIASTES IS AT ONCE a strange book and a ‘modern’ one, at once enigmatic and curiously familiar. Its strangeness is partly due to its unexpectedness: it keeps strange company. Coming to it towards the end of a course of Old Testament study dominated by the great corpora of the Pentateuch and the historical books on the one hand and the prophetical books on the other, the student finds himself in a world suddenly grown quiet: the world of the scholar in his study or of the lecturer in his lecture-room, where the great issues of life and death can be discussed calmly and dispassionately and without fear of interruption. The world of the Old Testament is on the whole a turbulent world, a world of dramatic events and of equally dramatic denunciations; to enter the world of Qoheleth is to enter a strange, secret room tucked away, as it were, in a corner of some vast, echoing building.

It is true, of course, that in our modern Bibles Ecclesiastes is provided with some not altogether uncongenial companions, in a little section squeezed between the great narrative and legal complex of Genesis to Esther and the imposing block of Isaiah to Malachi. In this little section it is preceded by Job, Psalms and Proverbs and followed by the Song of Solomon. Traditionally these five books have been designated the ‘wisdom books’ of the Old Testament, though modern scholars now usually restrict that title to Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. But even within that group Ecclesiastes stands alone. There is nothing in it of the passion of Job and nothing of either the desperate complaints or the noble outpourings of praise which we find in the Psalms. There is equally nothing of the laconic dogmatism of Proverbs or of the tenderness of the Song of Solomon.

That Ecclesiastes is enigmatic even the most casual reader will soon discover for himself. Here we find a man detached from the world and yet intensely aware of it, setting down in writing his thoughts about human life ‘under the sun’ and giving his considered advice about the way in which it can best be lived. Yet from the very first his readers have been unable to agree about his basic attitude to life. St Jerome, on the one hand, spoke for many Jewish and Christian interpreters in seeing his book as a call to embrace the ascetic life in order to escape the vanities of this world. On the other hand, Jerome also tells us, ‘the Hebrews say that … this book ought to be obliterated, because it asserts that all the creatures of God are vain, and regards the whole as nothing, and prefers eating and drinking and transient pleasures before all things’.

This latter opinion was not typical of the early Jewish attitude towards the book; but it has often been reiterated since. One of the most recent commentators, Crenshaw, asserts that the book teaches that ‘life is profitless; totally absurd.… The world is meaningless. Virtue does not bring reward. The deity stands distant, abandoning humanity to chance and death’. Yet Ogden, whose commentary was published in the same year (1987), states that ‘The book’s thesis … is that life under God must be taken and enjoyed in all its mystery’. Two thousand

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years of interpretation, then, have utterly failed to solve the enigma. But in the enigma lies much of the book’s fascination.

But there is also a sense in which Ecclesiastes can be called ‘modern’. That is, it is concerned with a set of universal questions which are recognizably the same as those which still puzzle modern men and women, and which are here treated in a way somewhat similar to modern theological and philosophical discourse. They are questions which no thinking person can ultimately escape: questions about such matters as the purpose, if any, of human existence and whether the universe is governed by moral laws—questions to which, more than two thousand years later, and despite the efforts of many generations of philosophers and theologians, no answers have yet been found—and indeed it is doubtful whether one can even say that progress has been made.

And the way in which these matters are discussed in this book is very familiar to us. The discussion is completely open and uninhibited: here is no blind acceptance of traditional views, but a radical and ruthless testing of them in the light of reason and experience. In striking contrast with his predecessors, the author presents us with a picture of human society and of the ambitions, desires and motives of the individuals within it, not as they ought to be but as they are. God’s in his heaven; but all’s not right with the world.

Something of the same realism is to be found in the Book of Job; but Ecclesiastes is much more ‘modern’, and so more familiar to us than Job: it is in Ecclesiastes, not Job, that we find the subtleties of a genuine exploration of ideas in which one argument is weighed against another, not with the intention of showing one to be absolutely true and another absolutely false, but in order to assess how much truth there is in each; in order to present reality in its complexity rather than to press home an unqualified conclusion. Ecclesiastes is a book which invites the reader to eschew prejudice and passion and to think for himself. And this makes it a unique phenomenon within the Old Testament canon.

Further ReadingApart from the commentaries (see pp. 9–10), there are relatively few full-scale works entirely devoted to Ecclesiastes. The following more general works, however, contain useful treatments of the book as a whole:

J.L. Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction, Atlanta: John Knox Press; London: SCM Press, 1981, ch. 5.

M. Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism, London: SCM Press, 1974, vol. I, pp. 115–30; vol. II, pp. 77–88.G. von Rad, Wisdom in Israel, London: SCM Press, 1972, ch. 12.

An important German work which deals with most aspects of the book in the light of its general cultural and literary background is:

O. Loretz, Qohelet und der Alte Orient, Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 1964.


IN ENGLISH BIBLES, apart from very recent ones, the full title of the book is given as Ecclesiastes or The Preacher. Both parts of this title are ultimately translations of that found in Hebrew Bibles, which consists simply of one word: Qoheleth (qōhelet). This title is derived from the first verse of the book (1:1), which is a heading or colophon informing the reader who this Qoheleth was: he was the author of the book, or at least the speaker of the

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words which are contained in it (we may compare the opening words of Jeremiah and Amos, and also Prov. 30:1 and 31:1); and he was ‘the son of David, king in Jerusalem’. But no person of that name is known from other sources, and the name itself is a strange one. It therefore came to be supposed from very early times that Qoheleth is not the personal name of the author, but is rather a title or epithet applied to him, whether by himself or by others. Accordingly the Greek translation of the Old Testament (Septuagint) attempted a Greek rendering of it: Ecclesiastes. Later the Latin Vulgate retained this title. The English subtitle ‘The Preacher’, like the German ‘Der Prediger’, is yet another attempt to translate the word, rendering the unfamiliar ‘Ecclesiastes’ into the modern vernacular.

That ‘Qoheleth’ is not a personal name but some kind of title or epithet is generally agreed. This view is supported by the fact that in 12:8 (and probably also in 7:27) the word is preceded by the article: that is, ‘the Qoheleth’. But what does the word mean?

The word qōhelet appears to be derived from the verb qāhal, to gather or assemble; its form is that of an active participle, and it is clearly used, as is often the case, as a noun: ‘one who assembles’. But its use in connection with the author of the book is peculiar in that it is a feminine participle. This does not, however, mean that Qoheleth was a woman: the word is always construed with a masculine verb. The reason for the use of the feminine form must be sought elsewhere. In fact, this peculiarity is not difficult to account for. There is general agreement that the word qōhelet belongs to a small class of words denoting particular functions or professions. In Hebrew such abstract nouns are often feminine. But some of these words came also to be used as the titles of such functionaries, or even eventually as personal names (somewhat like Butcher, Taylor, etc. in English). An example of this is to be found in the similarly formed proper name Hassoperet in Ezra 2:55: here a term meaning ‘the scribal profession’ has become the name of a family. Naturally when these terms came to be used of male persons rather than of functions, they ceased to be regarded grammatically as feminine.

In the case of Qoheleth, the final development had not taken place. Qoheleth was not the proper name of the author. If it had been, it would have been impossible for the author of 1:1 to state that he was the son of David. It was probably a reference to his profession, or it may have been a nickname or pen-name. In any case, he was known as ‘the assembler’.

But whom, or what, did he assemble? Traditional interpretation, accepting as literal truth the statements in 1:1 and 1:12 that Qoheleth was a son of David and king over Israel in Jerusalem, found the answer to this question in the career of King Solomon. For although Solomon’s name appears nowhere in the book, he was the only one of David’s children who succeeded to the kingship; and, moreover, the author’s account of Qoheleth’s unparalleled wealth, luxury, power, magnificent buildings and wisdom in 2:1–10 clearly showed that Solomon was the author of the book. Solomon was, it was also noted, an ‘assembler’ or ‘collector’ of many things; he was also believed to be the ‘assembler’ or compiler of many proverbs; and it was also he who ‘assembled’ the leading men of Israel to witness the great service of dedication of the temple which he had built in Jerusalem (1 Kings 8).

It is now generally recognized that the tradition that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes cannot be correct. Everything about the book—its language, its mode of thought, its subject-matter—shows conclusively that it cannot have been written in the tenth century BC—the age of Solomon—but is in fact one of the very latest of the Old Testament books to be written. The evidence for this dating will be discussed in greater detail as the various aspects of the book are considered. Here it is necessary to indicate briefly only one piece of evidence, but one which is by itself totally conclusive: the language in which the book is written. Even the

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merest beginner in the study of Hebrew cannot fail to recognize that Qoheleth’s Hebrew is as different from the ‘classical’ Hebrew of the tenth to seventh centuries BC as is chalk from cheese. The following quotations from modern scholars make the position clear:If Ecclesiastes belongs to the time of Solomon the Hebrew language has no history (T.K. Cheyne).We could as easily believe that Chaucer is the author of [Dr Johnson’s] Rasselas as that Solomon wrote Coheleth (Ginsburg).

In fact, in terms of the history of the Hebrew language, Ecclesiastes bears all the marks of having been written in a transitional period between ‘classical’ biblical Hebrew and the post-biblical literature of the Mishnah (c. 200 AD, but containing earlier material). The implicit claim made by the author in the first two chapters to be King Solomon is a literary fiction of a kind not at all uncommon in the ancient world (we may compare, for example, the attribution of the entire legislation of the Pentateuch to Moses).

Some interpreters have suggested that Qoheleth was so called because he was an ‘assembler’, that is, an editor or collector, of wisdom literature. This might be supposed to fit rather well with what is said about him in 12:9, that hetaught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging proverbs with great care.But unfortunately the verb qāhal is elsewhere used only of assembling people, never of assembling things. It is of course possible that it is used here in an entirely exceptional sense, but the fact that it never occurs in this sense either in the Old Testament or in later Hebrew makes this unlikely.

Qoheleth, then, was known as a man who assembled people for some purpose or other. But for what purpose? It is conceivable that he did this as the holder of some high ecclesiastical or political office; but there is nothing in the book which suggests this. It is much more likely that his ‘gathering’ or ‘assembling’ of people had something to do with education, especially since the only direct information which we have about him (12:9) states that he was a teacher:Besides being wise, Qoheleth also taught the people knowledge.

(We may note here that this educational role of Qoheleth gives some colour to the modern title ‘The Preacher’, though this title was originally the result of a linguistic misapprehension. The translators of the Septuagint, thinking of the Old Testament word qāhāl, ‘congregation’ [connected with the verb qāhal], rendered qōhelet by ekklēsiastēs because in classical Greek this word means a member of a public assembly [ekklēsia]. But in the Christian Church, the word ekklēsia came to have the specialized meaning of ‘church’. Hence to Christians the word Ecclesiastes seemed to denote someone who performed the function of teacher, or preacher, in the Church. Qoheleth thus became the author of an ‘ecclesiastical’ or churchly body of teachings: hence the title ‘The Preacher’).

Whom, then, did Qoheleth teach, and what was his authority to do so? Unfortunately little is known of whatever educational system may have existed in Jerusalem before the time of Ben Sira, the author of Ecclesiasticus, in the early second century BC. Qoheleth probably lived somewhat before this time. Admittedly the existence of Hebrew literature dating from earlier times than his shows that there was a literate class in Israel; but we can only guess at the ways in which Israelites learned to read and write, and at the circles which produced and enjoyed literature. As in other hereditary professions, the professional expertise of the scribal class probably passed from father to son. But of Qoheleth it is said that he ‘taught the people’, and also that he was a ‘wise man’ (ḥākām), though the latter term does not necessarily mean a teacher at this period—Qoheleth himself frequently uses it in a much more general sense, as

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the opposite of a fool. However, some further indication of his activities may be gleaned from the fact that on one occasion (11:9) he specifically addresses ‘young men’.

We may conclude from this verse and from the admiring words of the epiloguist in 12:9–10 that Qoheleth was a man who had acquired a reputation for elegantly expressed comments on life which were regarded as constituting practical advice, and that it was by this purely personal authority that he gathered (qāhal) a youthful audience around him. Whether this instruction was purely informal or conducted in the context of some kind of educational institution we do not know. Nor can we know what was the general reaction to his teaching. Clearly he had a band of enthusiastic disciples; but there were almost certainly other groups in Jerusalem who objected strongly to his radical teaching (as was the case with the not wholly dissimilar Socrates). Some commentators see in the words of the socalled second epiloguist in 12:12 some hint of this opposition:My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

If Qoheleth’s teaching activity took place, as is most probable, about the middle of the third century BC, he lived in a time of increasing conflict among Jerusalem Jews between conservatives and radicals. But this is an obscure period in Jewish history about which we should like to know much more than we do. What evidence we have about the reception of his teaching appears contradictory—a sure sign that more was going on than we know about. On the one hand, the fact that his words were not only written down but preserved might seem to testify to the existence of a school of thought of which he was the founder or at least, in his time, the leader. Yet on the other hand the literature of the immediately succeeding period which has come down to us shows few signs of his influence.

I have suggested above that the third century BC is the most probable date for Qoheleth’s activity and for the composition of the book. This opinion is widely held among scholars, and has much to commend it. From the linguistic point of view any earlier period is improbable; and, as will be suggested in another chapter of this book, Qoheleth’s peculiar mode of thought, unique in the Old Testament, is difficult to account for except on the assumption of some Greek cultural influence, which would not have been so strong during the Persian period, but became dominant in Palestine as elsewhere after the conquests of Alexander the Great, and particularly with the intensive occupation of the country under the Ptolemies, especially Ptolemy II Philadelphus (282–246 BC). The Ptolemaic period in Palestine, which covers roughly the third century BC, was also a period of peace and of prosperity (for the upper classes); and this may be reflected in the book, in which neither warfare nor political unrest appears to be referred to as one of the causes or symptoms of the uncertainty of life which is one of Qoheleth’s main themes.

It is equally unlikely that the book was written as late as the second century BC, Such a late date appears to be ruled out by the fact that it was known to Ben Sira when he wrote his book, almost certainly not later than 180 BC, It is also significant that there is nothing in Ecclesiastes which might be taken to reflect the persecution of the Jews by Antiochus Epiphanes and the ensuing Maccabean Revolt in the 160s, or the polarization of the Jews into pro- and anti-Hellenists which had begun somewhat earlier. These momentous events could hardly have failed to mark Qoheleth’s thoughts about the precariousness of human life, had he written his book at that time. Finally, a fragment of Ecclesiastes found at Qumran shows that by the middle of the second century BC the book had already acquired the status of an important work, at any rate for this religious group.

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A third-century date undoubtedly fits the character of the book better than any other; and if we take this as a working hypothesis we find that Qoheleth’s choice of topics and his general attitude to life become easier to understand. His references to the absolute power of kings (e.g. 8:2–5; 10:20) may well reflect the firm, if not oppressive, administration of the Ptolemies. But even more significant is Qoheleth’s constant preoccupation with wealth and its acquisition (e.g. 4:7–8; 5:10–17; 10:19). This reflects the fact that the third century BC was the age of the entrepreneur, the age of the investor. It was a time when international trade underwent enormous expansion, when new methods of agriculture and manufacture were developed—a kind of industrial and economic revolution. It was, in consequence, an age of nouveaux riches, of speculators, of financial expertise, and equally of spectacular financial disasters. It was also an age when old ways of life and old traditions were being overturned.

Qoheleth’s teaching was evidently addressed primarily to the leisured young men who sought his advice on how they should live their lives, and also on the deeper problems of life: in particular, ‘Is it all worth while?’ This search is reflected in the questions which Qoheleth asks over and over again about the purpose of life, e.g.Who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow? (6:12)What gain has the worker from his toil? (3:9)It is a reasonable guess that these were questions which such young men—or some of them—were asking themselves. The same questions are being asked today, in not altogether dissimilar circumstances. It is against this background—that of the ‘rich young men’ of the third century BC—that we must see the activity of Qoheleth as thinker and teacher.

In what has been said so far it has been assumed that it was in Jerusalem that Qoheleth lived and taught. This opinion, which is, of course, not founded on the statements in 1:1 and 1:12 that he was ‘king in Jerusalem’, is that of the majority of recent scholars. Attempts have been made (e.g. by Plumptre, Humbert and Weiser) to demonstrate that his home was Alexandria, the great Hellenistic city of Egypt which was the home of many Jews at that time. It has been argued that certain topics—references to the king as someone with whom Qoheleth’s readers or pupils might come into personal contact (especially 8:2–4), a possible allusion to maritime trade (11:1–2)—and a supposed knowledge of Greek philosophy point in that direction. But none of these arguments is conclusive. ‘King’ may mean no more than a provincial governor, or alternatively the sayings about kings may be merely following a literary convention (cf., e.g., Prov. 16:14; 22:11; 25:6–7); international maritime trade—if 11:1–2 does in fact refer to that—flourished in Palestine as well as elsewhere in the third century BC, through the seaports of the eastern coast of the Mediterranean; and Qoheleth’s supposed familiarity with Greek philosophy—which is dubious: see pp. 51–55 below—could quite well have been a characteristic of a Palestinian Jew, especially of one who lived in such a cosmopolitan city as Jerusalem.

It has also been suggested, by M. Dahood and his followers, that the language of Ecclesiastes points to a Phoenician origin; but this opinion has not been generally accepted. In fact, the few scraps of incidental information which the book provides about its place of origin point unmistakably to Jerusalem and its immediate environs. There are, for example, references to local conditions, customs, flora and fauna—the rain (11:3; 12:2), the changes of the wind (1:6; 11:4), the use of wells and cisterns for storing water (12:6), the almond tree (12:5) etc.—which are incompatible with an Egyptian origin but characteristic of Palestine; but a more precise indication is found in the references to the Temple and to sacrifice (5:1;

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9:2). It is difficult to interpret these references in any other way than as assuming that the reader had ready access to the Jerusalem Temple (see Bishop, Hertzberg).

About the man Qoheleth we know nothing at all apart from what has already been said. It has frequently been supposed that he was an old man nearing the end of his life when he wrote the book. This notion is based on a number of supposed indications: on the fact that he addresses the ‘young man’ in 11:9; on the frequency with which he refers to death, a theme which reaches its culmination at the end of the book (12:1–7) with the striking description of old age and failing powers; and on the supposed air of gloom and disillusion pervading the book. But the notion has nothing to commend it. The address to the young man merely indicates that Qoheleth was a man of mature years when he taught or wrote—something which could in any case be deduced from the maturity of his thought and his evident ability to draw on a wide experience. There is no doubt that the mind which produced such thoughts was an unusually acute one unimpaired by age. The thoughts about death are not a sign of morbidity: rather, they form an essential element in a reasoned assessment of the value of human life, and draw attention to the importance of enjoying what one can; and this is also the point of the final chapter. Lastly, the view that the book is all gloom rests on a particular interpretation of Qoheleth’s thought which is by no means the only possible one (see Chapter 5 below).

It has also been alleged, on very flimsy evidence, that Qoheleth was that very rare phenomenon among the Jews of the Old Testament period, a bachelor, and even a misogynist. This notion is based mainly on a single very obscure passage, 7:23–29, which is certainly capable of being interpreted as expressing contempt or hatred of women in general, but is also capable of other interpretations. Against it has to be set the passage (9:7–10) in which Qoheleth includes the companionship of a beloved woman or wife among the pleasures of life. All these theories about the nature of the man Qoheleth are attempts to discover what we are in fact not told.

Qoheleth and the authorship of the bookThere is, however, another set of questions about Qoheleth which has been the subject of vigorous discussion since very early times. They concern the relationship between the man Qoheleth and the book as we now have it. Is the book a straightforward literary work written by Qoheleth, like a modern theological or philosophical treatise? Or, since Qoheleth was a teacher, is it possible that it is a transcript of lectures which he had previously delivered orally? Or is it, perhaps, an adaptation of those lectures for more literary purposes? Did he compile it from a series of written notes which he had previously made? Or was it compiled by an editor, or even by a succession of editors? Did such editors, if such there were, simply arrange and transcribe the material available to them, or did they add new material of their own? If so, were such additions merely minor ones? or were they substantial additions intended in some way to modify Qoheleth’s original teaching?

Such questions are not idle: they are of considerable importance for the interpretation of the book. Moreover, there is nothing intrinsically surprising about them. They are the sort of question which has been asked about the other books of the Old Testament, and with good reason; for investigation along these lines has shown quite clearly that most of the books of the Old Testament are the work not of one author but of many: they are compilations rather than monographs, in which various sources have been combined by editors and redactors. If Ecclesiastes were in fact the work of a single author, it would be a rarity in the Old Testament canon.

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There appear, at least at first sight, to be good reasons for supposing that Ecclesiastes is no exception: that Qoheleth cannot be the author of the whole book. It was already perceived by some early rabbinic writers that the book contains a number of apparently contradictory statements. For example, whereas some passages (e.g. 8:14; 9:1–2) assert that the righteous and the wicked share the same fate, others (e.g. 2:26; 3:17; 8:12–13) express confidence in God’s righteous and effective judgement. Sometimes, as in 8:12–13 and 8:14, such contradictory assertions are juxtaposed. On this basis it has been argued by many commentators that Qoheleth’s pessimistic and unorthodox teaching has been glossed by one or more orthodox redactors.

In fact it is indisputable that the book has been edited by someone other than Qoheleth. Both in the opening section (1:1–2 or possibly 1:1–3) and in the final section, the so-called ‘epilogue’ (12:9–14), and also in a clearly interpolated phrase in 7:27, he is referred to in the third person. 12:9–10 are obviously a comment on Qoheleth’s activity by one who admired him, and the final verses (12:11–14) are a collection of miscellaneous general remarks evidently tacked on to the end of the book. All this is self-evidently editorial work. The same is true of 12:8, which also refers to Qoheleth in the third person, and which is almost identical with 1:2. We may reasonably suppose that these two verses, 1:2 and 12:8, were at some stage inserted by an editor to summarize what he supposed to be the essential teaching of Qoheleth and to act as a frame enclosing his actual words. The ‘words of Qoheleth’ to which the heading in 1:1 refers, then, are to be found in 1:3 (or 4) to 12:7.

The phrase ‘The words of Qoheleth’ in 1:1 does not, of course, guarantee that the whole of this material comes from Qoheleth himself (cf. Amos 1:1 and Jer. 1:1). Indeed, some commentators of an earlier generation argued that a large part of the book consists of later additions made by a number of different persons. C. Siegfried in his commentary of 1898, following a hint given in 1894 by P. Haupt, who declared that ‘There is no author to the book of Ecclesiastes, at any rate not of the book in the form in which it has come down to us’, attributed more than half the book (some 117 verses) to a series of no less than nine different hands, each having a distinct theological viewpoint. Podechard in 1912 somewhat more modestly attributed large parts to two, or probably more, additional contributors. According to these scholars, the period immediately following the publication of the original book must indeed have been one of intense literary and editorial activity.

Such extravagant hypotheses have long since been abandoned. It should be remembered that the period when these scholars were active was the heyday of the source-criticism of the Pentateuch and the historical and prophetical books, one of the basic tenets of which concerned the question of consistency of thought: it was believed that what appeared to be contradictions of thought or viewpoint in a given piece of literature clearly proved that two or more different authors must have been at work in its production: no other explanation, such as muddled thinking or forgetfulness on the part of a single author, was conceivable, and no allowance was made for the possibility that ancient writers might have had different standards of consistency from those of nineteenth-century professors. The answer to all these questions about consistency took the form of the splitting up of the texts in question into separate ‘sources’ or ‘documents’ which were believed to have been subsequently combined or conflated by editors or redactors.

That there are inconsistencies of thought in the book is an opinion not to be rejected out of hand. But the theory of massive interpolations made in order to ‘correct’ Qoheleth’s theology is hardly a reasonable one. It is true that the ‘suspect’ verses are those which express pious or

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traditional beliefs which, at least at first sight, appear to contradict their more radical contexts: that God judges the wicked, or that life is essentially good, at any rate for the righteous. These are traditional, ‘orthodox’ beliefs which Qoheleth elsewhere questions or denies. But it must be asked what would have been the point of making such orthodox additions to a book of whose whole teaching one disapproved. If it was thought to be important to condemn Qoheleth’s teaching, it would surely have been better to suppress the book altogether, or, if that proved impossible, to write another book refuting his arguments.

Is it possible to account for these strange oppositions of thought on the hypothesis that Ecclesiastes is the work of one man only? Leaving aside the possibility that there may be a few minor additions, or glosses, such as are to be found in many other books of the Old Testament, many modern commentators now answer this question in the affirmative. In fact, a whole range of possible explanations has been put forward. These are not mutually exclusive.

To take these inconsistencies as evidence that Qoheleth was simply a confused thinker incapable of consistency would no doubt be a counsel of despair. Moreover, there is abundant evidence in the book that he was nothing of the kind. However, it is possible, especially if the book is a collection of separate pieces composed at different times, that some of them may be due to fluctuations of mood. We know nothing of the actual circumstances in which Qoheleth composed this or that passage. This hypothesis would, however, not account for those cases where the inconsistencies are found within a single passage.

Another possibility is that the book is a polemical work in which the author is engaged in a running dialogue with an imaginary opponent, whose words he quotes or summarizes in order to refute them. As is now widely recognized, the difficulties of many passages in the Old Testament are due to a failure by interpreters to recognize the presence in the text of quotations. Ancient authors did not have at their disposal the modern device of quotation marks, and they often did not indicate their use of quotations by other means available to them such as introductory phrases. They took it for granted that the reader would have no difficulty in recognizing that they were quoting, or in some cases, rephrasing, what other people had said, or might be imagined as saying.

There can be no doubt that Qoheleth did employ this device. Some of his quotations (e.g. 1:15; 1:18) can be clearly recognized by their poetical form and their resemblance to sayings in the book of Proverbs, which cause them to stand out in the context of a prose passage. Such quotations are sometimes used to confirm a point (e.g. 1:18). In other cases they are used as a basis for Qoheleth’s own critical comment (e.g. 2:14a, which is followed by the comment in 2:14b, which deprives it of much of its force). On this use of quotations see Gordis, commentary, pp. 95–108.

Another explanation which certainly has some validity is that these supposed contradictions are due to what may be called the dialectical character of Qoheleth’s thought. For him, reality is complex; and it is not possible to do justice to it either by emphasizing only one side of it, or by choosing a ‘middle way’ between the extremes. Reality has sometimes to be expressed in what one recent scholar (Loader) has called ‘polar opposites’ which apparently contradict one another. This is also one way of saying—and Qoheleth himself says this quite explicitly—that the whole truth is beyond our powers of comprehension. Qoheleth was not in fact the first Old Testament writer to express his thought in this way: cf., e.g., Prov. 26:4, 5.

This discussion does not answer all the questions about the authorship and composition of the book which were posed on pp. 22–23 above. Some of these will be discussed in the next

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chapter. But it should encourage the reader to take seriously the proposition that Ecclesiastes is substantially the work of one man, the man known as Qoheleth, and to attempt to interpret the complexities of its teaching on that basis.

Further ReadingThere are sections on most of the topics discussed in this chapter in the Introductions to the major commentaries.Education in Israel is discussed in:

R.N. Whybray, The Intellectual Tradition in the Old Testament (BZAWBZAW, 135), Berlin: De Gruyter, 1974Different views are, however, held by, e.g.

B. Lang, ‘Schule und Unterricht im alten Israel’, La Sagesse de l’Ancien Testament, ed. M. Gilbert (BETLBETL 51), Gembloux: Duculot, 1979, pp. 186–201On the Hellenistic system of education later introduced in Jerusalem see:

Hengel, vol. I, pp. 65–82The dating of Ecclesiastes in the third century BC and Palestinian society at that time are discussed in:

E. Bickerman, Four Strange Books of the Bible, New York: Schocken Books, 1967Hengel, vol. I, pp. 1–57V. Tcherikover, Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews, 2nd edn, Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of

America; Jerusalem, The Magnes Press, 1961Reasons for a Palestinian setting for Ecclesiastes are given in:

E.F.F. Bishop, ‘A Pessimist in Palestine’, PEQPEQ 100, 1968, pp. 33–41H.W. Hertzberg, ‘Palästinische Bezüge im Buche Kohelet’, ZDPVZDPV 73, 1957, pp. 113–24

The view that Qoheleth was an inhabitant of Phoenicia is based mainly on linguistic grounds. Among the contributions to the discussion are:

M.J. Dahood, ‘The Phoenician Background of Qoheleth’, Biblica 47, 1966, pp. 264–82R. Gordis, ‘Was Koheleth a Phoenician?’, JBLJBL 74, 1955, pp. 103–14

On the use of quotations in Ecclesiastes and the Old Testament generally see:M.V. Fox, ‘The Identification of Quotations in Biblical Literature’, ZAWZAW 92, 1980, pp. 416–31Gordis, pp. 95–108R.N. Whybray, ‘The Identification and Use of Quotations in Ecclesiastes’, VT VT Suppl 32, 1981, pp. 435–51

Loader’s theory of polar opposites is discussed briefly in the Introduction to his commentary, and more fully in:

J.A. Loader, Polar Structures in the Book of Kohelet (BZAW 152), Berlin: De Gruyter, 1979


BZAWBZAW Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft

BETLBETL Bibliotheca Ephemeridum Theologicarum Lovaniensium

PEQPEQ Palestine Exploration Quarterly

ZDPVZDPV Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins

JBLJBL Journal of Biblical Literature

ZAWZAW Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft

VT VT Suppl Supplements to Vetus Testamentum

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QOHELETH’S HEBREW DIFFERS considerably from the ‘classical’ Hebrew of earlier periods, and indeed presents considerable difficulties to the student who has learned the language from the standard textbooks of ‘biblical Hebrew’. In many respects it is already close both in grammar and vocabulary to the ‘late’ or ‘post-biblical’ Hebrew of the early rabbinic period. One of the features which it shares with the language of that later time is its particularly frequent use of Aramaisms: that is, of the vocabulary and grammatical forms of the Aramaic language. Aramaic, a Semitic language in some ways similar to, but nevertheless quite distinct from, Hebrew, had already been used in the period of Persian rule as a lingua franca or common language among the diverse peoples of the empire, including the Jews. Among the Jews of Palestine and the surrounding regions it had gradually come more and more into common use, even to some extent superseding Hebrew as the common tongue. It may well have been the language with which Qoheleth was most at home. But by his time it had also, understandably, greatly influenced the Hebrew language itself.

So numerous are the Aramaisms in Ecclesiastes that some scholars (F.C. Burkitt, F. Zimmermann, C.C. Torrey, H.L. Ginsberg) concluded that the book was originally written in Aramaic, and that the text which is now extant in the Hebrew Bible is a translation into Hebrew from that original Aramaic work. That opinion was, however, contested by other scholars, notably Gordis, and appears now to have been abandoned. But the language of the book is particularly heavily influenced by Aramaic. This may suggest that Qoheleth, having chosen Hebrew as the appropriate medium for the composition of a work of this nature, was nevertheless unconsciously influenced in the writing of it by the more familiar Aramaic idiom (Gordis).

But neither this Aramaic influence nor the natural development of the Hebrew language itself in the course of time is entirely sufficient to account for the not infrequent obscurity of Qoheleth’s style. A different attempt to solve this problem was made by scholars who believed that his speech was affected by the influence of the Greek language; but this theory has been investigated in detail by Loretz and others, and there is now a general agreement among modern commentators that there is little or no evidence of this. The same is true of the theory of Albright and Dahood of an influence from Canaanite-Phoenician (see Whitley).

Many of the obscurities of Qoheleth’s style are probably due to the fact that the Hebrew language in its current stage of development was inadequate for the expression of ideas as complex or as abstract as those which he wished to convey. As far as is known from the extant literature, Hebrew had never before been used as a vehicle for quasi-philosophical notions. Comparison with the Book of Job well illustrates the point. There, although there are similarities of theme with those discussed by Qoheleth, the effects are gained by means of short, vivid sentences full of concrete images simply juxtaposed or joined with the simple conjunction ‘and’ (or ‘but’: the Hebrew prefix we does duty for both). This simple syntax is particularly suited to poetry, especially poetry of the Hebrew type; but even Hebrew prose of the classical period employs very few conjunctions and avoids subordinate clauses as much as possible.

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Qoheleth, on the other hand, writing for the most part in prose, especially when engaged in sustained argument, had, as has been said, a clear realization of the complexity of the world and its problems. He frequently wished, for example, to say that certain propositions had an element of truth, but a limited one: conflicting factors also needed to be taken into account. For such subtleties the Hebrew language was hardly an adequate vehicle. Qoheleth did his best to deal with this problem; but he cannot, as far as we can judge, be said to have been entirely successful. He used what syntactical devices were available to him, but often in new senses; and he appears also to have used quite novel ones, whose meaning is not always clear, at any rate to the modern reader. Consequently there are a good many passages in the book capable of more than one interpretation, and others where the stages in an argument are extremely difficult to follow. A comparison between different English translations will make this point clear.

Prose or poetry?It may seem surprising that there can be any doubt whether a book is written in prose or poetry. But Ecclesiastes is not the only Old Testament text concerning which it has been necessary to ask this question. The reason lies in the fact that our understanding of the characteristics of ancient Hebrew poetry is far from complete. From the formal point of view the poetry of the Old Testament as it is typically found in, for example, the Psalms, Job, the Song of Songs and some passages in the prophetical books mainly consists of combinations of short lines of roughly equal length arranged in pairs (occasionally in threes) and corresponding to one another in both sense and structure. On the basis of this model it is difficult to find poetry in most of Ecclesiastes, although the attempt has been made. But it is possible that there existed also, as in much modern verse, a freer poetical form with less regular yet more subtle rhythms of its own. The line between this kind of poetry, if it existed, and prose is extremely difficult to draw. (Some scholars prefer to speak in this connection of ‘elevated prose’.) There are, of course, other criteria which can be used for the identification of classical Hebrew poetry (see especially Watson, pp. 44–62); but the problem is far from a simple one.

Modern commentators are divided on the question whether Ecclesiastes is fundamentally a prose work or a poetical one. It is generally admitted that some passages (e.g. 1:4–11; 12:2–7) have poetical qualities; some of these, however may be quotations by Qoheleth of the work of others. Some isolated sayings like 1:15, 18 and several in 7:1–12 have the same poetical form as sayings in the Book of Proverbs. But some commentators (e.g. Lauha, Hertzberg, Loader) go further, maintaining that the book as a whole is ‘free’ poetry; Barton, Gordis and Zimmerli, on the other hand, see it as mainly prose, though with moments of poetical effusion. Podechard went as far as to say that the book is not only prose, but bad prose. Several commentators, no doubt wisely, express no opinion at all on the question.

These extreme differences of opinion confirm the fact that the criteria which we possess for the identification of poetry in the Old Testament are seriously inadequate. But it will hardly be denied that Qoheleth’s style is very variable. It swings from the surely utterly prosaic and (as Podechard would say) clumsy 4:13–16 or 6:1–6 to the lyricism of 4:1 or 12:2–7.

The literary formsEcclesiastes is at first sight an extremely daunting book. While it is clear that its prevailing tone is one of rational argument, the individual arguments are often complex and hard to follow. They can, however, often be broken down into smaller units; and the identification of

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these smaller units and an examination of the way in which they have been combined to form longer sections can often help to clarify particular problems of interpretation.

From the point of view of style and literary form, one of the most remarkable features of the book is the variety of its material. Equally notable is the way in which it combines the conventional with the unconventional and innovative.

In many cultures conventional wisdom is most commonly expressed in what might be called the short saying, which, whether by direct statement or by the use of analogies, metaphors, similes and the like, puts into a very few words ideas which are believed to be of universal validity and applicability (e.g. ‘A stitch in time saves nine’). Ancient Israel was no exception to this mode of expression. Short sayings of this kind appear sporadically in the historical and prophetical books of the Old Testament (e.g. 1 Kgs 20:11; Ezek. 16:44). Side by side with these brief prose sayings there also developed a rather more elaborate type: the poetical couplet, of which several hundred examples, each apparently quite independent of its neighbours, are to be found in the great collections of Prov. 10:1–22:16 and 25–29.

These two types of saying evidently expressed the conventional views of ordinary Israelites about many features of human life and society. It is not surprising, therefore, that Qoheleth, whose purpose was to subject conventional ideas to a close scrutiny and to offer to his readers the fruits of his own reflections on such subjects, should have incorporated a number of examples into his own work, whether quoting them in support of his own views or in order to refute or question their validity. In fact, both types of saying are represented in his book. Nor would it be surprising if some—though scarcely all—of these sayings were not quotations but were coined by Qoheleth himself along conventional stylistic lines in order to sum up either conventional ideas or ideas of his own in a conveniently succinct and memorable form. This he seems to have done; but it is often impossible to detect the pastiche.

All the main types of saying familiar from elsewhere in the Old Testament are represented in Ecclesiastes. ‘Two are better than one’ (4:9) and ‘A threefold cord is not quickly broken’ (4:12) are examples of the short popular saying in prose. The main types of saying in poetical couplet form are also represented, as may be seen from selected examples given in the following table:Synonymous couplets (in which the second line echoes the first): 1:15, 18 (omitting ‘For’); 7:7; 10:8, 9, 18; 11:4. Cf. Prov. 22:1; 26:27, 28; 29:22.Antithetical couplets (in which two opposites—human types, situations, lines of conduct etc.—are contrasted, with implicit approval of one of them): 2:14 (to ‘darkness’); 7:4. Cf. Prov. 10:1, 19.Non-parallel couplets (of which the second line continues and completes the thought of the first—sometimes known as ‘synthetic parallelism’); 4:5; 10:3, 15. Cf. Prov. 16:4, 5; 17:15; 19:3.Comparisons and similes in couplet form: 2:13 (from ‘wisdom’); 7:6 (omitting ‘For’), 12 (to ‘money’). Cf. Prov. 10:26; 11:22.Couplets declaring A to be preferable to B (so-called ‘better’-sayings): 4:6, 13 (to ‘king’); 6:9 (to ‘desire’); 7:2 (to ‘feasting’), 5; 9:17. Cf. Prov. 12:9; 15:16, 17; 16:19; 21:9; 27:5.

In addition to such brief statements (German Aussageworte) about aspects of life based on observation, Qoheleth also incorporated, or himself devised, short admonitions (German Mahnworte) in couplet form in which direct practical advice or warning is given in the imperative (or sometimes jussive) form about conduct to be pursued or avoided. This type of saying, which is not essentially different in intention from that of the Aussagewort but which by its imperative form makes explicit and definite the kind of advice which in the Aussagewort is only implicit and general, is another traditional form of speech. It is often

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supposed to have been specifically employed by teachers in the instruction of their pupils, but its origins are in fact obscure: other scholars (especially Gerstenberger) have supposed that it originated in regulations governing tribal society. It occurs fairly frequently in Proverbs (e.g. 14:7; 19:18; 20:13, 16; 27:1). In some cases the second line of the couplet consists of a ‘motive clause’—that is, it states a reason why the advice given in the first line should be followed.

In Ecclesiastes a number of such admonitions occur, mainly in groups or combined with other material: 5:1, 2, 4, 6, 7; 7:9, 10, 14, 16, 17, 21; 9:7, 8, 9, 10. There are, however, more isolated examples: 8:2, 3; 10:4, 20; 11:1, 2, 6. It is characteristic of Qoheleth that the motive-clauses tend to be expanded beyond the confines of the poetical couplet, the admonition itself being treated as a point of departure for further reflections not necessarily expressed in poetical form.

Another literary form employed by Qoheleth which was clearly borrowed from earlier instructional practice is the moral tale, in which the speaker or writer describes a scene which he claims to be based on personal observation or experience (‘I saw …’), and draws from it a moral which he presses upon the listener or reader. Prov. 7:6–27; 24:30–34 and Ps. 37:35–36 are good examples of this literary device. In Ecclesiastes, 4:13–16 and 9:13–16 are the clearest examples, together with the ‘Solomonic fiction’ of 1:12–2:26, which is by far the longest section of the book, and also the most extended example of its kind in the Old Testament.

4:13–16 and 9:13–16 are relatively simple stories which point a single moral and do not differ markedly from the examples in Psalms and Proverbs. 1:12–2:26, however, is of much greater complexity and well illustrates Qoheleth’s methods of composition. Basically it is a fictional account in the first person of Solomon’s great experiment in which he set himself ‘to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven’ (1:13)—a purpose which is transparently that of Qoheleth himself. But this is used as a starting-point not for drawing a single, simplistic moral, but for a complex series of reflections on the value of human wisdom and of the pursuit of pleasure which discusses these matters from every angle and draws distinctions between absolute and relative values. Indeed, so far-reaching is the discussion that commentators have disagreed about the extent of the fiction. It has been possible, for example, to maintain that by 2:11 the persona of ‘Solomon’ has been merged with that of the reflective Qoheleth himself, and that the ‘fiction’ ends there, 2:12–26 constituting a new section of the book, albeit on a similar theme.

The ‘Solomonic fiction’, then, goes beyond the bounds of the traditional moral story and has quite unique features. It has been suggested that it is based on the model of the self-laudatory royal inscription which was a feature of Mesopotamian monumental literature, or on somewhat similar self-praising accounts of the activities of highly placed persons found in Egyptian tombs and in some literary works (in the Old Testament, the ‘Nehemiah Memoirs’ in Neh. 1–7; 12:31–13:30 may be an example of something of the kind); but if so, the model is a somewhat remote one. The ‘Solomonic fiction’ is a device for making a critical exploration of the value of human achievement by positing a situation in which the opportunities are at their very greatest (that is, in the case of the legendary Solomon); and the treatment of the theme is entirely Qoheleth’s own.

But it is in his novel use of the short saying that Qoheleth’s originality of composition is most particularly marked. Some passages, admittedly, bear a superficial resemblance to the Book of Proverbs: thus 7:1–12 and 10:1–11:4 are collections of short sayings which have no common theme, but jump rapidly from one subject to another, making a succession of

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different points with no further comment or with only brief motive-clauses. Even here, however, the similarities with the collections in Proverbs are more apparent than real. Thematic arrangement, though not continuous, is not entirely lacking (it is to be found in 7:1–4; 10:8–11, 12–15); and some of the sentiments expressed (e.g. in 7:1–4; 10:19) bear the marks of Qoheleth’s own paradoxical mind.

In the rest of the book such short sayings, whether quoted from earlier sources or composed by Qoheleth himself, are treated quite differently. They are used as elements in longer sections in a variety of ways. They may occur at the beginning or the end of an argument, or in the middle. They may introduce a new subject, or they may sum up or confirm a preceding argument. They may be quoted for the purpose of showing their falsity or in order to qualify or modify them. Two sayings which wholly or partly contradict one another may be juxtaposed in order to show that the truth lies between two extremes. In many cases the contexts in which they are used gives them a meaning different from that which they originally had, or which they would have if they stood in isolation. And sometimes a saying may be quoted of which only half is relevant to the argument. A few examples will demonstrate this variety of usage.

1:13–18 is concerned with ‘Solomon’s’ plan to investigate ‘by wisdom all that is done under heaven’. In v. 14 he anticipates his conclusion. The saying quoted in v. 15, which may originally have referred to the futility of undertaking impossible tasks, is now used to confirm that conclusion: that it is impossible to make sense of, or to find good in, the world as it is. Similarly, at the end of the passage, the saying in v. 18, which may originally have been a warning by a teacher that education cannot be obtained without trouble and pain, now serves as a fitting conclusion to the whole passage, in which the value of the whole enterprise is questioned.

9:1–10 is a discussion of how human beings ought to live their lives in face of the knowledge that they will all die and suffer a common fate. In the course of the discussion the question is raised whether life is worth living at all; and at this point Qoheleth affirms that it is (v. 4, to ‘hope’). The saying in v. 4b is used simply to confirm that conclusion.

The saying in 2:14, however (to ‘darkness’), while used to confirm the praise of wisdom expressed in v. 13, is quoted only to be seriously qualified in the second half of the verse. Qoheleth does not completely deny its truth, but points out that conventional wisdom oversimplifies the matter. Wisdom indeed enables one to avoid many pitfalls in life, but is no protection against the inevitability of death.

In 4:5, 6 two conventional sayings are set one against the other. Verse 5 is a warning against the disastrous consequences of idleness, while the saying in v. 6 (to ‘toil’) points out that it is equally foolish to work harder than is necessary and so to deprive oneself of enjoyment: to be content with a modest income is more sensible than to strive constantly for more. Both these sentiments are commonplaces of conventional wisdom such as is found in Proverbs. The effect of their juxtaposition here is to demonstrate the inadequacy of aphorisms as guides to behaviour in a complex world, and to counsel caution and moderation.

The first half of 5:3 is obscure, and the relationship of the whole verse to its context equally so, until one realizes that Qoheleth has chosen it only for its second half, which neatly sums up and confirms the admonition expressed in v. 2.

5:10 (to ‘gain’) is an example of a saying prefixed to a new section (vv. 10–20). The subject is the deceitfulness of money. The saying appropriately introduces the theme by pointing to the root of the trouble: it is not wealth itself which is unsatisfactory, but an

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inordinate love of it. From this starting-point Qoheleth then proceeds to enumerate various ways in which wealth can deceive its possessors. 11:7 is another example of a saying introducing a new section.

3:1–15 is probably another example of Qoheleth’s use of quoted material; but in this case the quotation is not of a short saying but of a much more extended piece (vv. 1–8). Its original purpose is indicated by v. 1, which, as the following verses show, is intended to assert the principle that all human activity from birth to death depends for its success on its being conducted at the ‘right time’—that is, at specific moments inherent in a predetermined order of things. This principle is then exemplified (vv. 2–8) by the enumeration of a series of fourteen pairs of contrasting activities, each of which has its appropriate ‘time’. The first pair, birth and death, and the number fourteen—twice the perfect number, seven—attest a striving after completeness: the principle, it is implied, is applicable to, and embraces, all aspects of life. The implication of these verses taken by themselves is one common to much of the earlier wisdom literature, including the Book of Proverbs—that success in life will be achieved by those who are able to discern when the right time has come for whatever they have in mind to do (cf., e.g., Prov. 15:23; and see von Rad, Wisdom in Israel, pp. 138–44). (There is also discernible in the strict formal pattern of the passage and in the multiplication of the instances a drive, attested elsewhere in ancient Near Eastern literature, to compile comprehensive lists of phenomena [onomastica] in an attempt to understand and so eventually to master the mysteries of the universe. In the Old Testament, the lists of natural phenomena in Job 38–41 and in Psalm 104, and, on a small scale, the groupings of similar phenomena in Proverbs 30 attest a similar interest.)

Verses 9–15 constitute a kind of critical commentary by Qoheleth himself on this traditional piece of wisdom, turning it upside down. In v. 9 he poses his characteristic question: granted that there is a proper time for everything, so what? How can one profit from this fact? Qoheleth then proceeds to signify his agreement with the proposition, but at the same time draws a quite different conclusion from it than that which it most naturally implies: God, he says, indeed established the ‘times’, but not in order to enable man to know and profit by this. On the contrary, he has deliberately withheld the knowledge of them from man (v. 11). This assertion then leads on to further discussion (vv. 12–15).

Two other passages in the book may perhaps have been based to some extent on earlier models, but there is no way of proving this, since such models, if they existed, are no longer extant. These passages—1:4–11 and 12:1–7—have been placed, whether by Qoheleth himself or by an editor, respectively at the beginning and the end of the collection of Qoheleth’s words. Their somewhat poetical character contrasts sharply with Qoheleth’s normal style, but their themes are entirely consonant with Qoheleth’s teaching as a whole, and there is no reason to doubt that Qoheleth is their author.

Qoheleth’s style of argumentThe literary form most characteristic of Qoheleth is the sustained argument or ‘reflection’ in which he discusses specific problems. These arguments are set out in a personal style which is to be found nowhere else in the Old Testament. It is only in this book that the author throws aside the cloak of anonymity and comes on the scene, as it were, to conduct a discussion and to tell the reader what are his own thoughts about complex theological and philosophical problems. This personal style is not confined to the ‘Solomonic fiction’ of the first two chapters, where it might be said that the author is ‘hiding’ behind Solomon as in the book of Proverbs: the whole book is written in the first person singular, and its ‘I’ is clearly the author

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himself, whose identity was well known, even though his actual name remains hidden by the pen-name Qoheleth. There are, admittedly, some passages in which the word ‘I’ does not occur; but even a quick look at an English translation will reveal that it occurs more than sixty times in these twelve chapters; and in fact in the Hebrew there are many more verbs than this in the first person singular. That Qoheleth’s intention is to lay stress on himself as the author of these opinions is made particularly clear by the way in which the emphatic personal pronoun (ʿanî) frequently accompanies the verb. This emergence of the individual thinker who identifies himself and takes personal responsibility for his teaching is quite new in the history of Hebrew thought and characteristic of the Hellenistic age. (A few generations later Ben Sira, the author of Ecclesiasticus, was to identify himself even more clearly by ‘signing his name’, as it were, to his book [Ecclus 50:27].)

Qoheleth’s reflections follow no fixed pattern. They are, it is true, frequently punctuated by a variety of phrases in the first person which often mark stages in the argument: nātattî libbî, ‘I applied my mind’, rāʾîtî, ‘I saw’ or ‘observed’, ʾāmartî, ‘I said’, dibbartî ʾet-libbî, ‘I spoke in my mind’, that is, ‘I said to myself’ or ‘I considered’, yādaʿtî, ‘I know’ or ‘I came to the conclusion that …’, panîtî, ‘I turned (to consider)’, sabbōtî ‘I turned about’, šabtî ‘I turned (to see)’, māṣāʾtî, ‘I found’. But unfortunately most of these expressions seem to be more or less interchangeable in Qoheleth’s usage: they all mark new stages in his arguments, but he seems mainly to have chosen one or other at random rather than in order to indicate at which stage he has arrived. There seems to be no pattern or principle here which might help the reader to discover the precise direction or articulation of an argument.

Although the sequence of thought in Qoheleth’s reflections is often difficult to follow, they have one frequently occurring characteristic which, once recognized, makes the task somewhat easier. This is the stylistic device of the so-called Zwar-aber Aussage (there seems to be no equivalent for this in English)—that is, the argument (see Hertzberg, p. 30; Zimmerli, p. 126) in which Qoheleth first states a proposition—whether in his own words or in a quotation—with which he agrees as far as it goes and in general terms (zwar means ‘admittedly’ or ‘It is true that …’), but then (aber, ‘but’) proceeds to qualify it by another consideration which largely deprives it of its force. 2:14 and 3:11 are very simple examples of this. Other examples are more complex and so more difficult to recognize, e.g. 4:13–16. In some instances (e.g. 9:13–18) a problem—here the value of wisdom—is expounded by means of a whole series of alternating pros and cons, which at first seem confusing, but which are intended to bring home to the reader the complexity of the problem and the need to think it through rather than to accept without question the over-simple solution put forward by some neat, popular, conventional aphorism. The convoluted style of such passages matches the difficulty of the problem and the subtlety of Qoheleth’s approach to reality. Each reflection, however, needs to be studied separately and in its own right: a rigid stylistic pattern is not to be expected from Qoheleth, who is always concerned to make his readers see that reality is not as simple as they thought.

Many commentators believe that the Zwar-aber style of argument accounts for most, if not all, the supposed inconsistencies of thought in the book referred to in Chapter 2 above (pp. 23–26): in other words, not all the statements in the book are to be taken as expressing Qoheleth’s own views; some have been thrown up, as it were, in the course of the argument as a basis for discussion. The fact that Qoheleth often simply sets down contradictory statements side by side with no connecting particle to indicate the direction of his thought, and also fails to

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indicate clearly when he is quoting the views of others can be a source of misapprehension leading to theories of ‘corrections’ made by later hands.

Ellermeier, however (pp. 127–28) raises the question whether certain absolute contradictions such as appear to be found in 3:16–17 and 8:12–14 can be explained on this basis. On these passages he comments: ‘Either one believes in God’s judgment or one does not’. In such cases, he maintains, the theory of ‘correcting’ interpolations or glosses is the only possible solution. Against this point, however, it may be argued that Ellermeier, despite his extremely elaborate attempt to analyse and classify the various forms of argument used by Qoheleth, has failed to grasp the dialectical character of his thought (see Loader, 1979 and his commentary on these passages).

StructureEcclesiastes is evidently a very different kind of book from Proverbs. Qoheleth is not content to set down a series of lapidary statements or admonitions without further comment: except in a few passages he engages the reader in a genuine discussion of the various topics which he raises.

But does the book as a whole have a plan? If so, this does not take the form of a single continuous structured argument proceeding logically from an initial premise to a final conclusion. On this point there is general agreement. Such a logical scheme was unknown to the ancient Near Eastern and Israelite tradition (compare the apparently random arrangement of the material in Proverbs and the Near Eastern works collected in ANETANET, pp. 412–30); and in this respect at least Qoheleth remains within that tradition rather than the Greek one. If a plan is to be found in Ecclesiastes, then, it must be a much looser one: an arrangement of the various blocks of material in the book according to some logic which facilitates the comprehension of Qoheleth’s thought not just on individual topics but as a whole. This question is, however, unfortunately complicated by the fact that it is sometimes difficult to determine where one of these blocks of material ends and another begins.

There is certainly some element of deliberate arrangement in the book as it now stands in so far as the first and last sections—1:1–2 (or 1:1–3) and 12:8–14, commonly known as the prologue and epilogue—have been composed by an editor (or editors) in order to form a framework enclosing Qoheleth’s own words (for a somewhat different view see Fox). Whether it was Qoheleth himself or an editor who gave the remainder of the book its present form, however, there is not sufficient evidence to determine. (Some commentators have attributed some of the supposed additions to the body of the book to the authors of the Prologue and Epilogue.)

Further, within the body of the book (1:4–12:7), the first and last sections (1:4–11 and 12:1–7) have probably been placed in their present positions to form an appropriate introduction and conclusion to Qoheleth’s thoughts (each of these passages has a distinctive style, which adds plausibility to this view). In addition, there is some reason to suppose that the Solomonic fiction of 1:12–2:26 serves a thematic purpose as introducing most of the topics discussed in the material which follows. If these various hypotheses are accepted, the main problem of plan or structure is confined to the material in 3:1–11:10.

The structure of an unified literary work may manifest itself in either or both of two distinct but related ways: it may have a formal unity, and it may have a logical continuity. On

ANETANET Ancient Near Easten Texts Relating to the Old Testement, 2nd edn, Princeton University Press, 1955.

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the question whether, on either or both of these grounds, Ecclesiastes can be said to have a comprehensive structure, and if so, in what sense, both modern commentaries and those of earlier generations have evinced an astonishing variety of opinions. Only a few representative examples can be given here.

Some scholars have claimed to discover in the book a detailed, logical thematic structure consisting of a few main divisions each with its own theme, but related to one another, and each comprising a number of subdivisions also arranged in some sort of logical, thematic order. Thus Ginsberg divides the book into four sections: 1:2–2:26 (A); 3:1–4:3 (B); 4:4–6:9 (A′); 6:10–12:8 (B′). The theme of A is that ‘All is zero (hebel)’; that of B is that ‘All happenings are foreordained, but never fully foreseeable’. These two themes are linked together in 3:9–13, where the initial question ‘What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?’ (1:3) is repeated (3:9) and then answered (3:10–13); man gains nothing by it, because God has ordained things in that way. The two final sections, A′ and B′, are ‘pendants’ to A and B respectively. They take up again the themes already discussed in those earlier sections and draw out the consequences which follow from them.

But if we look closely at Ginsberg’s scheme we find that much of the material does not fit into it at all. In some cases he admits this: 5:1–9, for example, is described in a footnote as a ‘block of associative digressions’ which plays no part in his scheme. 9:17–10:19 is also similarly noted as ‘a block of associative digressions with some internal dislocations’. No explanation is given of these anomalies. Nor is it explained why, if 3:9–13 is the crucial passage which links parts A and B together, it stands not at the end of B but in the middle, leaving further considerations to be made in 3:14–4:3. But even more damaging to Ginsberg’s thesis is the fact that a number of extremely important themes, such as the value of wisdom, the proper attitude to be adopted towards work or toil, the inevitability of death and the advice to accept God’s gifts and enjoy life to the full, appear not just in one or two of his divisions, but throughout the book.

In fact, it is just these constant repetitions of the same theme which, while testifying to a unity of authorship, also point to a lack of literary unity. They give plausibility to the view that the book is made up of a number of originally quite separate pieces, each expressing the views of the same person—and often in very similar language—but which, when gathered subsequently into a collection of Qoheleth’s writings or reflections, show a marked degree of overlap, as collections of this kind commonly do.

The subjective character of such attempts to discover a comprehensive plan in the book is suggested by the fact that it is rare to find two scholars who agree about the nature of this plan. One recent example is that of Lohfink, who, asserting that the book is ‘systematically arranged’, divides it into seven sections under the headings 1. cosmology (1:4–11); 2. anthropology (1:12–3:15); 3. social critique I (3:16–4:16); 4. religious critique (5:1–7); 5. social critique II (5:8–6:10); 6. ideological critique (6:11–9:6); and 7. ethics (9:7–12:7). This thematic arrangement, he claims, is based on the model of the Greek diatribe. As with Ginsberg’s theory, it is difficult to avoid the impression that the material—apart from sections 1 and 4—has been forced into rigid, artificially contrived categories which are by no means wholly appropriate to much of it; that the supposed logical connections between the main sections are difficult to find; and that the frequent duplications of the same thoughts in different parts of the book have been ignored. A whole range of alternative theories of this kind could be cited.

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Other scholars who see the book as a closely-knit literary unity seek to obviate subjectivism by stressing its form rather than its thematic content. Thus Wright employs the methods of the ‘New Criticism’ school of literary critics—that is, he follows the principle that ‘The critic looks for repetitions of vocabulary and of grammatical terms and thus seeks to uncover what literary devices involving repetition the author may have used’ (p. 318; p. 250 in Crenshaw’s reprint). On that basis he finds that in Ecclesiastes ‘The key to [its] structure is to be found in three successive patterns of verbal repetition in 1:12–11:6’ (p. 313 [245]). The first of these is the phrase ‘(vanity and) striving after wind’, which occurs frequently in 1:12–6:9, but not subsequently. This phrase thus points to those chapters as constituting the first main section of the book and also acts as a concluding refrain which marks out each of its subdivisions. The other two main sections, determined on a similar basis, are 7:1–8:17 (with an introduction in 6:10–12) and 9:1–11:6. 1:4–11 and 11:7–12:7 are then seen as related thematically to the rest, stressing its two major themes: the denial of profit in toil and the invitation to enjoyment.

Wright is, then, not solely concerned with form. He maintains that the formal features which he has pointed out—for example, the ‘vanity’-formula—are not merely intended to make a pleasing formal pattern or to constitute some kind of mnemonic device, but to mark articulations in Qoheleth’s thought. Here, however, his analysis falls victim to the same kind of subjectivism as do those of Ginsberg, Lohfink and others: his formal patterns do not in fact convincingly correspond to the themes which he proposes as thematically characteristic of the various sections into which he has divided the book. For example, to maintain, as he does, that the common theme of 2:18–6:9 is ‘toil’ is to ignore large tracts of those chapters which are not concerned with toil at all.

Another proponent of the formal approach to the book is Rousseau. For him also, the main part of the book (1:4–11:10) consists of ‘cycles’ of material each marked out by a recurring ‘refrain’: that is, by a passage inviting the reader to enjoy life (2:24–26; 3:12–13; 3:22; 5:17–19; 8:15; 9:7–10; 11:7–10). Some of these are expressed in similar terms, and some of these phrases also recur inside the various sections of the book. The existence of this series of ‘refrains’ had already been noted by earlier scholars, and the possibility entertained that it might have something to do with the structure of the book; but it had seemed that no positive conclusion of that kind could be drawn (see, e.g., Whybray, 1982). Within each ‘cycle’ there is, according to Rousseau, an arrangement of the material on the basis of traditional oral or mnemonic techniques whereby individual ‘lines’, or stichoi, are connected with one another by a complex pattern of repeated words and phrases and other similar devices, to form a larger whole.

The principle of composition to which Rousseau has drawn attention may well have played a part in the composition of the individual sections of the book. But as a theory of the composition of the book as a whole his scheme is no more successful than those already considered. Rousseau recognizes the fact that form and theme cannot in the end be separated: a formal pattern running throughout the book is unlikely to have been worked out for itself alone; if it exists, it must have been intended to serve a thematic purpose. Yet when Rousseau attempts to define his seven cycles in terms of their themes, he is unable to do so convincingly, as is shown by the vagueness of the titles which he gives them: three of the seven cycles (4:1–5:19; 6:1–8:15; 9:11–11:10) are each given the same vague title ‘disappointments and exhortations’. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the theory of

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seven ‘cycles’—which are, incidentally of very uneven length, one of them consisting of only thirteen verses (3:1–13)—, though it at first seems promising, does not work.

In complete contrast to the views outlined above, many scholars since Delitzsch (1875) have denied that in Ecclesiastes there is any comprehensive plan or literary unity at all. Formerly this state of affairs could to a large extent be accounted for in terms of theories of composite authorship: any unity which the book might originally have possessed had been destroyed by the work of successive interpolators and glossators. But the fact that it is now generally attributed to a single author does not necessarily imply unity of composition: the material which it contains may have been composed at different times by Qoheleth as a series of independent pieces.

Gordis describes the book as a kind of cahier or note-book containing a collection of brief essays. One may perhaps find an analogy in Pascal’s Penseés, which consists of a large number of separate notes made by Pascal in preparation for the compilation of a work which he did not live to write, and which were published after his death in a single volume. Attempts have been made by successive editors to arrange these in a logical order, but without success: taken together, they give a valuable impression of the consistency and unity of thought of a great mind; but they have no literary unity at all. The analogy is not a complete one: we have no reason to suppose that Qoheleth intended to use the material in the book as the basis for the composition of a single, logically ordered, major work, and it is improbable that he did so intend; while, on the other hand, he may have regarded what he wrote not as mere notes or jottings, but as brief, finished, essays or discourses. Nevertheless, the theory that the material originated as separate, individual pieces does account for the fact that it so strongly resists all attempts to find in it a comprehensive development of thought. It also accounts for the frequent repetitions and duplications which are so characteristic of the book. This feature, regarded in this way, points rather to the literary disunity of the book than to its unity.

The theory of separate, self-contained pieces making up the book as it now exists was strongly advocated, among modern scholars, by Galling, who divided it into twenty-seven (in an earlier edition of his commentary, thirty-seven!) Sentenzen or aphorisms. Galling’s uncertainty about the number of these is significant. Almost every commentator since Galling has divided the book in a somewhat different way. The uncertainty, in a number of cases, about the point at which one section ends and another begins suggests that the view that there is no continuity at all in the book, and that the individual sections have been put together entirely at random needs some modification. It suggests that, at any rate in some parts of the book, there is some continuity which oversteps the boundaries of the individual sections (so, e.g., Zimmerli). And this is clearly the case. 5:10–6:9, for example, have the common general theme of riches, yet this theme is there handled in a number of different ways which strongly suggest that several shorter pieces have been subsequently put together. The same phenomenon occurs elsewhere in the book; however, Hertzberg’s attempt to apply this principle to the whole book, analysing it into twelve major sections each having a number of subsections, seems to other commentators to go beyond the evidence.

Probably we have to distinguish between original and subsequent connections, whether thematic or formal, between sections of the book. That is, connections, where they exist, may be an indication that when the editor (whether Qoheleth or another) arranged the material he did not do so entirely at random, but, like the editors of Pascal’s Pensées, did his best to create some kind of unity wherever possible. Only, as Loretz pointed out, ancient Near Eastern notions of logical relationships are very far removed from modern western ones.

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The majority of scholars now adopt a position somewhat along these lines: that is, that Ecclesiastes is not structurally an unified work, although in its present form it shows signs of an attempt to arrange its contents in some sort of order. Its unity is to be found rather in its being the product of a single mind than in a logical development of thought such as is to be found in a philosophical treatise. There is thus a sense in which the problem of plan or structure is of only secondary importance. A knowledge of such matters as the precise limits of each individual component section and the connections, if any, between consecutive parts—if certainty could be obtained on these matters—would certainly be useful for the detailed exegesis of the book and for the appreciation of minor nuances of meaning; but it is, fortunately, possible to grasp the essential elements of Qoheleth’s thought without such knowledge.

The divisions of the bookAll the commentators have in fact attempted to make an analysis of the divisions of the book in order, if nothing else, to facilitate detailed exegesis. But no two commentators divide it in exactly the same way. The following table, which can do no more than indicate some of the principal themes, is intended merely to provide one rough and ready way of approaching the book for the first time, and also to demonstrate how the themes recur over and over again but in different combinations. It makes no claim to be more authoritative than other ways of dividing the book which are to be found in the commentaries.

1:1 Title1:2–3 Prologue

1:4–11Like the natural phenomena, human life is essentially unchanging.

*1:12–2:26‘Solomon’ concludes from his experiment with wisdom and pleasure that one should accept joyfully the gifts which God gives.

3:1–15Since we cannot know how and when we should act to our best advantage, we should accept joyfully the gifts which God gives.

*3:16–22Life is often unjust, though God will not fail to judge our deeds. Since death is probably the end, we should accept joyfully the gifts which God gives.

4:1–3 For the oppressed, death or non-existence is preferable to life.*4:4–8 Work is good if not carried to excess.

4:9–12Co-operation is safer than going it alone, especially at times of danger.

*4:13–16Political power is fraught with dangers and uncertainties both for rulers and ruled.

5:1–7 In approaching God, caution is necessary.5:8–9 Injustice and oppression are inevitable in the political system.

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*5:10–20The possession of wealth is not always a blessing. We should accept joyfully the gifts which God gives.

*6:1–6Wealth cannot create happiness. Without happiness, death or non-existence is preferable to life.

*(6:7–9 Miscellaneous sayings)6:10–12 We are helpless before God.*(7:1–14 Miscellaneous sayings)7:15 We do not always get what we deserve.

7:16–18We should avoid self-righteousness and pretensions to wisdom, and fear God.

7:19 The superiority of wisdom.7:20–22 No-one is perfect.7:23–8:1 True wisdom is unattainable.8:2–9 We cannot know the future, but obedience is the best policy.

*8:10–15Life is often unjust, though God will not fail to judge our deeds. It is best to fear God and to accept joyfully the gifts which God gives.

8:16–17 We cannot know what God does in the world.

9:1–10Death levels all, so we should accept joyfully the gifts which God gives.

9:11–12We do not always get what we deserve, and do not know the future.

9:13–18 Wisdom is better than folly, but is often disregarded.(10:1–11:6 Miscellaneous sayings)

*11:7–12:7Advice to youth: enjoy the gifts which God gives while you can, before God brings life to an end.

12:8–14 Epilogue*It should be noted that in each of the sections marked with an asterisk (in addition to the Prologue and Epilogue) there is at least one occurrence of a phrase containing the word hebel (‘vanity’) such as ‘All (this) is (also) hebel (and a striving after wind)’. In 1:12–2:26 there are nine such occurrences. The weight to be given to this characteristic phrase varies, however, according to the contexts in which it appears. Including it in the above table on each occurrence would have given the impression that it dominates the entire book. This would have been to prejudge the question of its importance for an assessment of Qoheleth’s thought. See Chapter 5 below.

Further ReadingThe theory that Ecclesiastes was originally written in Aramaic was put forward by

F.C. Burkitt, ‘Is Ecclesiastes a Translation?’, JTSJTS 23 (1922), pp. 22–28F. Zimmermann, ‘The Aramaic Provenance of Qohelet’, JQRJQR 36 (1945/6), pp. 17–45C.C. Torrey, ‘The Question of the Original Language of Qoheleth’, JQR 39 (1948/9), pp. 151–60H.L. Ginsberg, Studies in Koheleth, New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1950

JTSJTS Journal of Theological Studies

JQRJQR Jewish Quarterly Review

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The theory was opposed convincingly byR. Gordis, ‘The Original Language of Qohelet’, JQR 37 (1946/7), pp. 67–84.—‘Koheleth—Hebrew or Aramaic?’, JBLJBL 71 (1952), pp. 93–109

and more briefly in his commentary, pp. 59–62. The same view is taken byC.F. Whitley, Koheleth. His Language and Thought, BZAWBZAW 148, Berlin: De Gruyter, 1979, pp. 106–10.

The question of Greek phraseology is discussed in Loretz, pp. 45–48R. Braun, Kohelet und die frühhellenistische Popularphilosophie, BZAW 130, Berlin: De Gruyter, 1973, pp.

44–56.An earlier treatment of the question in English is to be found in Barton, pp. 32–33.Canaanite-Phoenician linguistic influence was proposed by

W.F. Albright, ‘Canaanite-Phoenician Sources of Hebrew Wisdom’, VT VT Suppl 3, Leiden: Brill, 1955, pp. 1–15

M.J. Dahood, ‘Canaanite-Phoenician Influence in Qoheleth’, Biblica 33 (1952), pp. 30–52, 191–221The theory has been negatively assessed in Whitley, pp. 111–18A standard work on Hebrew poetry is

W.G.E. Watson, Classical Hebrew Poetry. A Guide to its Techniques (JSOTJSOT Suppl Series 26), Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1984Brief sections on Qoheleth’s style are to be found in most of the commentaries. The only detailed treatments are in German:

LoretzF. Ellermeier, Qohelet I/1, Herzberg am Harz: Verlag Erwin Jungfer, 1967

The second of the above named books is not recommended to beginners.Attempts to discover a comprehensive plan or structure in the book include

H.L. Ginsberg, ‘The Structure and Contents of the Book of Koheleth’, VT Suppl 3, 1955, pp. 138–49J.A. Loader, Polar Structures in the Book of Qohelet, BZAW 152, Berlin: De Gruyter, 1979F. Rousseau, ‘Structure de Qohélet i–4–11 et plan du livre’, VTVT 31 (1981), pp. 200–17A.G. Wright, ‘The Riddle of the Sphinx—The Structure of the Book of Qoheleth’, CBQCBQ 30 (1968), pp. 313–

34, reprinted in J.L. Crenshaw (ed.), Studies in Ancient Israelite Wisdom, New York: Ktav, 1976, pp. 245–66

Lohfink, pp. 5–6Another view of the composition of the book is that of

M.V. Fox, ‘Frame-narrative and Composition in the Book of Qohelet’, HUCAHUCA 48 (1977), pp. 83–106The view that the book has no comprehensive structure was taken by

K. Galling, ‘Kohelet-Studien’, ZAWZAW 50 (1932), pp. 276–99

JBLJBL Journal of Biblical Literature

BZAWBZAW Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft

VT VT Suppl Supplements to Vetus Testamentum

JSOTJSOT Journal for the Study of the Old Testament

VTVT Vetus Testamentum

CBQCBQ Catholic Biblical Quarterly

HUCAHUCA Hebrew Union College Annual

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—‘Stand und Aufgabe der Kohelet-Forschung’, TRTR NFNF 6 (1934), pp. 355–73The opinion of

W. Zimmerli, ‘Das Buch Kohelet—Traktat oder Sentenzensammlung?’, VT 24 (1974), pp. 221–230that in some parts of the book there are loose connections between one section and the next but no continuous plan has been followed by a number of commentators.


THE MARKEDLY PERSONAL STYLE of the book noted in the last chapter shows clearly that Qoheleth presented himself to his readers as an independent thinker, observing and reflecting on ‘all that is done under heaven’ (1:13) and making his own comments on it. This self-presentation, though similar in form to the ‘I’-style of the ‘moral tale’ (see p. 34 above), was with Qoheleth more than a mere stylistic device: the views which he expresses are his own, neither simply repeating or developing conventional views nor, on the other hand, simply opposing them as a matter of principle. As a thinker, he was his own man—though he was no dogmatist. His aim was to encourage his readers to think for themselves.

Nevertheless, it is important to be aware of his intellectual background. He would not have been able to attract and retain the attention of his readers if he had not chosen to discuss current issues which they could recognize as relevant to themselves, and it is therefore necessary for a proper understanding of his thought to know what these were. Further, however much his teaching was based on his own observations and reflections, he cannot, as a learned man and a Jew of liberal persuasion, have been unaware of the intellectual questions currently debated in the Hellenistic world; and it would be surprising if these had played no part at all in stimulating his critical faculties; it must, moreover, be admitted, to put the matter no higher, that they may, at least to some extent, have sown the seed of his own thinking, whether he was aware of this or not. At the same time it is obvious that his book could only have been written by a Jew well grounded in his own religious tradition.

Some scholars in their search for the origins of Qoheleth’s thought have tended to deny both Qoheleth’s essential Jewishness and his originality, arguing that he was not merely indirectly affected by the pagan culture with which he was surrounded, but that he actually derived most of his ideas from a knowledge of non-Jewish philosophical systems, or even directly from non-Jewish literary works. In considering this possibility, a note of caution is in order. Except in the case of exact quotation from a work of one author by another, it is extremely difficult to prove the existence of such influences. In the absence of such direct proof, chance is often the most probable explanation of coincidence of ideas, since human minds, confronted by similar problems, often run along similar or parallel lines. The likelihood of such purely chance parallels is particularly great if the pool of material available for comparison is very large. It would, for example, be surprising if the vast range of Greek

ZAWZAW Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft

TRTR Theologische Rundschau

NFNF Neue Folge

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literature did not contain some passages which called to mind some sayings of Qoheleth’s, especially since Greek poets and philosophers were frequently engaged in the criticism of traditional religious ideas and beliefs which were not totally dissimilar to those of Israel. Only if there were very striking verbal parallels, or if points of agreement of ideas between two writers were so numerous as to constitute a wholly identical pattern of thought would it be reasonable to suspect a direct connection between them. It is necessary to avoid what has been called ‘parallelomania’. On the other hand, it would be perfectly possible for a writer like Qoheleth to have picked up and used what might be called ‘floating ideas’, that is, notions which, originally derived from some particular source, had passed into everyday usage and had come to form part of popular ‘scientific’ jargon, as one might speak today of ‘complexes’ or ‘viruses’ without any real knowledge of what these terms mean.

The Question of Greek influenceThe fact that Qoheleth lived in a time of political domination by a Hellenistic state, the empire of the Ptolemies, has inevitably suggested to many scholars that, of all possible sources of external intellectual influence on his thought, that of Greece is the most probable. In fact the extent of the impact of Hellenism on the Jews of Palestine in the middle of the third century BC is difficult to assess. There is no doubt that a few generations later, in the first half of the second century, it was very marked: so much so that it produced a religious crisis which threatened to destroy Judaism itself, and forced Jews to take sides for or against it. It is tempting to try to fill in the very considerable blanks in our knowledge of the situation in the earlier, Ptolemaic period by assuming that the cultural Hellenization of educated Jews had begun quite early, proceeding hand in hand with the political and commercial changes which had resulted from the assumption of Greek rule.

The fact, which has already been noted, that recent discussion has shown that there is no evidence that Qoheleth was acquainted with the Greek language would seem to put the possibility of direct influence on him of the Greek philosophers in some doubt. However, a succession of critics has claimed to find, often in isolated phrases in the book but also with respect to some of Qoheleth’s more fundamental notions, dependence on a wide variety of Greek philosophies including Aristotelianism, Stoicism and Epicureanism, and even on other and earlier Greek writers. Plumptre, for example, wrote that ‘Koheleth turned to the literature and philosophy of Greece’, reading such writers as Sophocles, Theognis and Euripides, adding that ‘It was to the philosophy of Greece, as represented by the leading sects of Stoics and Epicureans, that he turned with most eagerness’. Plumptre, it is true, believed that Qoheleth lived in Alexandria and had access to the great library there.

The majority of recent scholars have dismissed such notions as improbable, on various grounds apart from the linguistic difficulty. The very fact that the supposed parallels with Greek literature are so varied, involving so many different periods, throws suspicion on the whole hypothesis. Plumptre’s picture of Qoheleth as an avid reader in the public library of all kinds of Greek literature who then wrote his book in an eclectic fashion, taking one thought from one writer and another from a quite different one, while wholly agreeing with none, is now seen to be fanciful. The result of such eclecticism would surely have been a third-rate work full of half-baked ideas and lacking all consistency of thought. His book is far from giving that impression: despite its difficulties, it possesses a certain unified attitude towards the world which is undoubtedly his own. Whatever similarities there may be to particular Greek philosophical ideas, none of the philosophical systems in question considered as a whole can be said to lie at the basis of his teaching, and indeed every one of them possesses

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important features which are quite at variance with his views. For a discussion of this question see Barton, pp. 32–43; Gordis, pp. 51–57; Loretz, pp. 48–54.

The opinion that Qoheleth was substantially dependent on Greek ideas still has its supporters. Thus Whitley continues to maintain that he was not only influenced by Epicureanism and Stoicism, but was also acquainted with a wide range of earlier Greek literature. But Whitley dates Ecclesiastes a century later than is generally believed to be the case, in the mid-second century BC, in a period when Greek culture had certainly become more widely disseminated among educated Jerusalem Jews than it had been a century earlier. There are, however, strong reasons for rejecting this late dating; and the fact that Qoheleth wrote in Hebrew, and in a Hebrew which shows no sign that he was acquainted with the Greek language, continues to be an obstacle to the theory of a close acquaintance with Greek literature.

Braun is another scholar who has recently argued for a strong influence of Greek thought on Qoheleth; but he puts forward his argument on a rather different basis. Rather than arguing for a direct acquaintance of Qoheleth with earlier Greek literature and philosophy, he points out that the Greek-speaking world of the third century BC was characterized by a certain kind of pessimistic ‘popular philosophy’ ultimately derived from earlier sources but having a character of its own. Ecclesiastes, he maintains, bears a close similarity to some of the literary products of this type of thought. However, it is not necessarily implied by this that Qoheleth was directly dependent on any particular one of such works. Rather, though writing from within the Jewish tradition, he was nevertheless acquainted with the popular ideas current in the Hellenistic world of his day of which such works are representative; he found them congenial to his own reflections on the world and human nature, and allowed them to influence his own thought and teaching.

To sum up the present state of the question: it would be foolish to deny that in some respects Ecclesiastes has the flavour of Greek rather than Jewish literature. It would indeed be surprising if he had been totally immune from the intellectual currents of his day. His approach to his task—in particular, his determination not to accept traditional beliefs and ideas unexamined, his personal style and his encouragement to individuals to think for themselves and not to be afraid of reaching unorthodox conclusions—is characteristic of the Hellenistic world and no doubt ultimately owes something to the example of the great Greek philosophers. But with regard to the actual substance of his teaching it is necessary to enquire whether the thoughts of this Jewish scholar, who addressed his compatriots in Hebrew, the language of his ancestors and of the whole Jewish religious tradition, cannot in fact rather be adequately accounted for in Jewish terms as a critique of that native tradition.

Babylonian and Egyptian influence?Before we pass on to a consideration of this question, however, two other theories of foreign influence on Qoheleth should be briefly noted. The publication of the Old Babylonian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh in 1902 quickly led to a widespread theory that Eccl. 9:7–9, in which Qoheleth recommends the enjoyment of the good things of life, was directly based on a passage from this ancient work (Tablet X iii 6–14; translation in ANETANET, p. 90). Barton even claimed that ‘in parts the Hebrew seems to be a translation of the Babylonian’ (p. 39). It is now widely recognized that this is at the very least an overstatement: the two passages are by

ANETANET Ancient Near Easten Texts Relating to the Old Testement, 2nd edn, Princeton University Press, 1955.

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no means exactly parallel. The fact that, as is now recognized, very similar passages are found in a number of different literatures, including Greek and Egyptian, has inclined recent scholars to the view that all these passages are probably simply independent expressions of a widespread human mood.

Recently Loretz has examined the question of Babylonian, or more correctly Mesopotamian, influence on Qoheleth on a much broader basis, claiming that there are significant parallels between Qoheleth’s thoughts and a number of major themes of certain types of Mesopotamian literature, especially with regard to such problems as theodicy, the rejection of the view that human conduct reaps its reward in this world, and the ephemeral character of human life. None of the proponents of the theory, however, has been able to find a convincing solution of the problem of the time-gap between the literatures in question or of the way in which Babylonian ideas could have reached Qoheleth while bypassing earlier Hebrew writers. In fact Loretz, whose main purpose seems to have been to show that Qoheleth’s thought belongs to the Semitic (that is, not to the Greek or Egyptian) world rather than to prove the direct influence on him of specific examples of Mesopotamian literature, admits that biblical parallels are in fact not entirely confined to Ecclesiastes but are found also elsewhere in other Old Testament books. In demonstrating that Qoheleth’s thought is basically Semitic, Loretz has, if nothing else, given strong support to those who maintain that there is no need to suppose that his intellectual background was fundamentally Greek or Egyptian.

Much of what has been said above about theories of Greek and Mesopotamian influences on Qoheleth is also true of theories of Egyptian influence. Two generations ago P. Humbert found parallels with Qoheleth’s phraseology and ideas in almost every period of Egyptian literature, concluding that he must have visited Egypt, learned the Egyptian language, and made himself familiar with its entire literary heritage. Such supposed parallel features included, among many others, such matters as the fiction of royal authorship, the personal style, a pessimistic attitude towards human life, caution about speaking too much in the temple (Eccl. 5:1–2) and numerous items of phraseology. More recent scholars have been very much more cautious about the significance and extent of these parallels, though Gemser and others have pointed out a limited number of interesting similarities between Ecclesiastes and certain very late Egyptian works.

Loretz and Whitley in particular have examined this question and reached negative conclusions. Not only are most of the supposed parallels imprecise and matched equally by parallels from other parts of the ancient Near East and from Greece; but it is also recognized that it is extremely improbable that Qoheleth, even if he visited or even resided in Egypt, could have mastered not only the Egyptian spoken in his day but also the very different earlier forms of the language sufficiently well to have read extensively in its literature—much more improbable, in fact, than that he should have been familiar with the Greek cultural heritage, which was, by his time, dominant in Hellenistic Egypt as it was in other parts of the Hellenistic world. It is true that literary works continued to be written in Egyptian and in the Egyptian manner as late as the third century BC and even much later; but a recent study by M. Lichtheim of the Egyptian wisdom literature of the Graeco-Roman period has argued convincingly that these late Egyptian writers may have been themselves indebted to their non-Egyptian counterparts rather than the other way round. She concluded from her examination of these works that they had ‘absorbed many elements of non-Egyptian origin, for their authors had been acquainted with, and influenced by, currents of international wisdom literatures, Near Eastern and Greek, which flowed through the internationalized cultures of the Hellenistic

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world’ (p. X). It may be felt that this comment on the general merging of once independent cultural properties into something of a common pool, which was so characteristic of Hellenism, tends to relativize, if not to undermine, the whole concept of specific ‘influences’ on Qoheleth.

Qoheleth and the Wisdom TraditionDespite the lack of evidence that Qoheleth was familiar with specific non-Jewish literary works, the idea has persisted that he is to be understood as heir to a widespread international ‘wisdom tradition’, which had flourished in Egypt and Mesopotamia from very ancient times, and of which the ‘wisdom books’ of the Old Testament—that is, Proverbs and Job as well as his own book—were products. This idea is taken for granted, even though in a somewhat modified form, in many modern treatments of these books—e.g. H.H. Schmid, Wesen und Geschichte der Weisheit; Scott, The Way of Wisdom, ch. 2; Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom, chs. 1 and 2; Blenkinsopp, Wisdom and Law in the Old Testament, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983, ch. 1. Some authorities on the extra-biblical literature commonly labelled ‘wisdom literature’, have, however, expressed scepticism about the concept of a ‘wisdom tradition’ of this kind (W.G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960, pp. 1–2; H. Brunner, ‘Die Weisheitsliteratur’, Handbuch der Orientalistik I/2, Ägyptologie, Leiden: Brill, 1952, pp. 90–110). That Qoheleth was concerned with some of the same problems of human life as were the authors of some of the Babylonian and Egyptian works in question need not be disputed. But, as has been suggested above, it may be more reasonable to suppose that we have to do here with parallelism of thought and expression than with dependence.

Foreign connections apart, however, the question remains whether it can be convincingly argued that Qoheleth was a ‘wisdom writer’ in the sense that he belonged to an exclusive guild of ‘wise men’ which had preserved its corporate identity throughout the centuries since the time of the early Judean monarchy. There seems to be no concerete evidence for this. Indeed, with regard to the theory of an esoteric wisdom tradition in Israel, it has been argued recently that too much reliance has been placed in the past on the significance of the frequent occurrence of the words ḥākām, ‘wise’ and ḥokmāh, ‘wisdom’ in the three books of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes and of the use by all of them of the proverb form (only really frequent in Proverbs). It is not at all certain that the authors of these books would have seen themselves as belonging to a single class distinct from all other Israelites, except in the sense that they were all educated men (Whybray, The Intellectual Tradition, especially ch. 3). No direct links have been convincingly shown to exist between the three books, which are very different from one another in important respects, and there are time-gaps between them which remain unfilled by the existence of other works of a similar type.

If the above considerations are valid, the placing of Qoheleth within the narrow confines of a ‘wisdom tradition’ may prove to be a false move which conduces to a misunderstanding of Qoheleth’s position in the history of thought. It may be more fruitful to regard him as an independent thinker who set himself to make a critical examination, not just of a distinct ‘wisdom tradition’, but of his own native religious tradition as a whole—that is, of the main religious tradition enshrined in the Jewish scriptures. There is ample evidence of this.

Qoheleth and the Old Testament TraditionEcclesiastes is not, of course, a compendium of Jewish theology. Qoheleth was not concerned either to express his approval of, or to dispute, every belief traditionally held by the Jewish people. Neither does he refer in his book to more than a very restricted range of Old Testament

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literature. We may assume that much of what he passes over in silence—notably the whole Israelite historical tradition and the concept of Israel as a people uniquely chosen by God—he took for granted. In this he was by no means unique among the writers of the Old Testament: these aspects of traditional belief are also passed over in silence not only in Proverbs and Job, but also in many of the Psalms. Like these, he was concerned with the individual: with the limitations and frustrations, but also with the possibilities open to individual men and women—that is, with the universal situation common to all members of the human race set to live in the world by an omnipotent and omniscient God who keeps them in ignorance of what he has in store for them, except for the knowledge of their mortality. This was the problem with which he was concerned; he was not bound to comment on the whole range of religious belief common to himself and his readers.

Nevertheless the range of theological topics alluded to in the book, in which Qoheleth shows himself to be entirely at one with traditional Jewish belief, is impressive. Like all his fellow-Jews, he assumed without question that there is one God who created the world (3:11) and has sovereign power over it (3:14; 6:10; 7:13; 9:1; 11:5), a God who is wholly transcendent (5:2), exalted above and different in nature from his creatures (6:10). The world which he created was a good world (3:11). Man was created from the dust (3:20) and animated by his creator with breath (3:19). He is, however, a weak creature (6:10). It is through his own fault that his nature has become corrupted (7:29; 8:9). So the world is now beset with evil (4:3; 9:3), hardship, frustration and injustice (2:11; 3:16; 4:1). Man must die, and, like the animals, revert to the dust (3:19–20; 12:7). He survives only in the shadowy and joyless state of Sheol (9:5–6): there is, as far as can be known, no real life after death (3:21). Yet human life, while it lasts, is a gift of God (3:13; 5:19), and should be lived to the full (9:10) and, as far as possible, with enjoyment (2:24; 9:7–10; 11:7–10), for that is God’s intention (3:13; 5:19). That it is man’s duty to worship this God is also taken for granted (5:1).

On all these matters Qoheleth’s teaching is clearly dependent on, and in accordance with, the Old Testament tradition. In some respects, admittedly, there are parallels with other traditions of the Semitic world. But taken as a whole this is good, plain Jewish doctrine and not derived from elsewhere. The Old Testament parallels are obvious.

When we pass to those aspects of Qoheleth’s teaching which appear to differ from or contradict traditional Jewish belief, it is important to ask whether these can be satisfactorily accounted for as part of an inner-Jewish discussion which took the Old Testament tradition as its starting-point, or whether his radicalism is something entirely novel, totally unrelated to that tradition. Is Qoheleth, in other words, as von Rad maintained, ‘an outsider completely free of tradition’, whose book is no more than ‘a sceptical note on the tradition of the wise men’?

This latter judgment has recently been questioned. It has been argued that we need to view the Jewish religious tradition reflected in the Old Testament as being considerably more diverse than it was previously thought to be, and as having embraced a radical element from a quite early time. In this perspective the radicalism of Qoheleth would appear not as something quite new and outlandish, but as a development of earlier doubts about the purposes of God and dissatisfaction about the human condition which had already been voiced from time to time in opposition to the main, mainly optimistic, stream of Jewish religious tradition. Two recent books which develop this view are R. Davidson, The Courage to Doubt: Exploring an Old Testament Theme, and J.L. Crenshaw, A Whirlpool of Torment: Israelite Traditions of God as an Oppressive Presence. These titles are significant. Both of these works include chapters on Ecclesiastes, but as only one among several Old Testament books in which such

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critical attitudes are expressed, so putting Qoheleth fairly and squarely within the orbit of Old Testament thought.

The question whether Qoheleth can rightly be described as a sceptic will be discussed in the next chapter, where an attempt will be made to give a more detailed account of his thought. Here it is sufficient to note that, if he was a sceptic, this was a scepticism not about the existence or the power of God, but about God’s justice, and about the worth of human life. Davidson in the book referred to above has pointed to passages in Genesis, certain psalms, Jeremiah and elsewhere in the Old Testament—quite apart from Job—where scepticism about God’s righteousness is expressed; Crenshaw has similarly indicated Old Testament passages in which God is seen as an ‘oppressive presence’—for example, the story of the ‘sacrifice’ of Isaac, which, he suggests, depicts a God apparently indifferent to the torment which he has deliberately inflicted on his faithful servant Abraham. If Qoheleth did indeed dare, at least implicitly, to question God and to make him the direct cause of human misery, he was, according to these scholars, in good Israelite company.

It has frequently been suggested that Qoheleth was particularly influenced by his reading of Gen. 1–11. There are, for example, possible reminiscences of Gen. 1 in Eccl. 3:11, and of Gen. 2:7 in Eccl. 3:19–20. Moreover, the pattern of human sin, corruption and punishment which we find in Gen. 3–11 may lie behind such passages as Eccl. 7:29. But perhaps even more striking is the similarity between the depiction of the fallen state of man in Gen. 3–11 and Qoheleth’s picture of humanity as he knew it. In Gen. 3:23 man is cast out of the Garden of Eden to live a life of hardship in separation from God; and in the story of the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1–9) God throws confusion into the human race, creating a situation in which harmony and mutual understanding become impossible. The two pictures—that of Gen. 1–11 and of Qoheleth—have much in common; and it is perhaps significant that these chapters of Genesis are concerned, like Qoheleth, not, like most of the Old Testament, with Israel, but with humanity as a whole. Qoheleth’s predilection—if such is the case—for Gen. 1–11 would illustrate this eclectic attitude towards the Hebrew scriptures.

These and other examples which could be given of Qoheleth’s preoccupation with certain aspects of the Jewish religious tradition, together with his silence about others, give some indication of his general purpose. They suggest that Qoheleth is to be seen as a thinker whose aim was to re-interpret the Jewish faith for his own time, bringing it into line with the truth about the world as he saw it, rather than as an iconoclast who simply wished to throw doubt upon its validity and to leave it in ruins or to put something else in its place, and who, even at his most radical—and, as we shall see, there is no doubt that he was extremely radical—wished to preserve what he perceived to be true in it while attacking and exposing what was false.

Further ReadingThe question of foreign influence on Qoheleth is discussed in most of the commentaries. See especially Plumptre, Barton and Gordis, and also Loretz, Whitley and Braun. A recent contribution to the discussion of Babylonian parallels is

J. de Savignac, ‘La sagesse du Qôhéléth et l’Epopée de Gilgamesh’, VT 28 (1978), pp. 318–23.The classic exposition of the theory of Egyptian influence is

P. Humbert, Recherches sur les sources égyptiennes de la littérature sapientiale d’Israël, Neuchâtel, 1929A recent assessment of late Egyptian wisdom literature and its relationship to other wisdom literatures is

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M. Lichtheim, Late Egyptian Wisdom Literature in the International Context. A Study of Demotic Instructions, OBOOBO 52, Freiburg, Switzerland and Göttingen: the University of Freiburg and Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1983The idea of wisdom as an international phenomenon is expounded in many general works on Israel’s wisdom literature, including

R.B.Y. Scott, The Way of Wisdom, New York and London: Macmillan, 1971J.L. Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction, London and Atlanta: SCM Press and John Knox

Press, 1981The view that Qoheleth was particularly influenced by his reading of Gen. 1–11 is most fully expounded in

C.C. Forman, ‘Koheleth’s Use of Genesis’, JSSJSS 5 (1960), pp. 256–63On Qoheleth’s relationship to the Old Testament tradition see Gordis, pp. 43–51

R.N. Whybray, ‘Conservatisme et radicalisme dans Qohelet’, Sagesse et Religion. Colloque de Strasbourg (octobre 1976), Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1979, pp. 65–81


THE LITERARY CHARACTER of Ecclesiastes—a series of reflections on particular subjects, not always in agreement with one another or even internally logically consistent—makes it extremely difficult to discover what, if any, was the central proposition which Qoheleth wished to put to his readers. To write a definitive and generally accepted account of his thought is, indeed, an impossible task. Many scholars have attempted to do so, but the very number and variety of these attempts speak for themselves. To look for complete consistency in Qoheleth’s writings is to look for something which is not to be found, for he himself confessed his own failure to arrive at the truth, and in fact asserted that it is impossible for the human mind to do so:Man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out; even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out (8:17),for it is God’s will that he should not do so (3:11; 7:14).

Nevertheless the book is the record of the reflections upon life of one man. Even though he failed to find clearcut solutions to the problems which troubled him, his very choice of questions to discuss and his manner of discussing them may be expected to shed light on at least some of his basic attitudes.

A common way of approaching this question is to take certain words and phrases which are constantly repeated throughout the book as expressing Qoheleth’s basic attitude to life. Of these the most frequent is the word hebel. If we disregard its six occurrences in the Prologue and Epilogue, this word occurs no less than twenty-eight times in this book, but only thirty-four times in the whole of the rest of the Old Testament. It is found in every chapter except ch. 10—though not in every section of the book (see the Table on pp. 46–47—and most frequently in such phrases as ‘All is/this is (also) hebel’, sometimes followed by ‘and a striving after wind’. It is clearly a key word. Unfortunately it is not entirely clear what

OBOOBO Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis

JSSJSS Journal of Semitic Studies

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Qoheleth meant by it: ‘vanity’, ‘nothingness’, ‘worthlessness’, ‘futility’, ‘absurdity’, ‘mystery’, ‘impermanence’ are only a few of the ways in which it has been translated. It is also disputed whether when Qoheleth—as distinct from the authors of the Prologue and Epilogue—used the phrase ‘all is hebel’ (1:14; 2:11, 17; 3:19) he was making a statement about everything which exists, or whether he was referring to some particular aspect of life which was, in his opinion, ‘wholly hebel’. But there can be no doubt that he characterized a great many particular situations in life in this way, and that hebel, whatever its precise meaning for him, denoted something which was fundamentally unsatisfactory and was the cause of a sense of deep frustration.

Against this negative estimate of the human situation, however, must be set another frequent theme: that of the enjoyment of life. In a series of passages running throughout the book (2:24; 3:12–13, 22; 5:18; 8:15; 9:7–9; 11:9–12:7) the reader is encouraged to enjoy life to the full. These seven passages clearly form a series; and, in the book as it is now arranged, it is a series which is marked by a steady increase in emphasis (see Whybray, 1982). Although they are not verbally identical, these passages to a large extent employ a common phraseology. ‘There is nothing better for a man’, ‘eat and drink’, ‘find enjoyment’ and ‘This is … from the hand of God’, phrases which occur in 2:24, all recur in virtually the same form in the next five passages. Another common feature is the insistence that all enjoyment comes as a gift from God. Further, the word ṭôb, ‘good, better’, and often ‘enjoyment’, is a key word in all except the last of these passages. This final passage, which now stands in a key position at the end of the book, is a very emphatic piece of advice to the young to make the most of life before the inevitable advent of old age and death, when God will take back his gift of life. It is noteworthy that Qoheleth’s words conclude with a reminder to the reader of this gift of God (12:7).

One of the main problems of the book is whether these apparently contradictory attitudes towards life represented by hebel and joy can be reconciled, and, if so, how: was Qoheleth, to put the matter simply, an optimist, a pessimist, or something between the two? Which of these two themes had precedence over the other in his thought? Those who stress the negative attitude represented by the sayings about hebel interpret the recommendations to enjoy life as the expression of a hedonism born from despair: that is, because life is cruel, frustrating and without hope for either the present or the future, and because death comes to everyone and often without warning, one should snatch at every opportunity for pleasure which presents itself. Such an attitude is not without parallels in the history of mankind. But it has been pointed out in objection to this interpretation of Qoheleth’s philosophy of life firstly that passages like 2:1–11 and 7:2–6 show that Qoheleth in fact deprecated the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake and rated it as mere folly, and secondly that in emphasizing so strongly that all true enjoyment comes from God as his gift, he was implicitly affirming that life does have some positive qualities after all: that God has not simply abandoned his creatures to despair.

The argument has been pursued with numerous variations. For example, on the one hand it has been maintained that Qoheleth’s use of the term hebel was not intended to cover the whole of life, but only some aspects of it; or, alternatively, that the term as used by him does not necessarily have a negative connotation but means no more than ‘mystery’ or ‘impermanence’. On the other, texts like 1:13; 2:17, 23; 4:2–3; 6:3–5 have been adduced as proof that life was hateful to him and death or non-existence preferable—though these are difficult to reconcile with 9:4 and 11:7, which attest to his love of life! The difficult phrase

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rendered by RSV and other versions by ‘striving after wind’ has been interpreted in various ways for the light that it might shed on the meaning of hebel, with which it is associated and perhaps equated in several passages. These arguments and counter-arguments can hardly by themselves lead to any definite conclusion about the matter, unless it is to bring out the complexity—and perhaps the inconsistency—of Qoheleth’s thought. What is required if any clear picture is to emerge is an investigation of the contexts in which Qoheleth used the phrases and made the generalized comments referred to in the previous paragraphs: in other words, an examination of his treatment of concrete themes.

Even the examination of these themes, however, is hardly a simple matter. Each theme—wisdom, death, wealth, work, justice and the rest—was seen by Qoheleth as involving complex issues which could not be properly dealt with by a simple comment. Moreover, each of them was in some way relevant to, and impinged upon, the others, so that Qoheleth was rarely able to discuss one of them without reference to those others. It was this complexity of issues which led him to adopt the ‘Zwar-aber’ style referred to on p. 39 above.

In considering these topics it is important to bear in mind that Qoheleth was often commenting on and criticizing generally accepted notions. A number of scholars—Gese, Hengel, Lauha and Kaiser among others—have written of a ‘crisis’ of wisdom, or of religion, discernible in Qoheleth’s teaching: in other words, they see his teaching as marking a crucial turning-point in the history of the Jewish faith. It is certainly true that Qoheleth discerned that certain features of what had been up to his time a commonly accepted system of religious belief and morals had to some extent at least lost their validity and needed reappraisal in the light of the changed conditions of the Hellenistic world. His teaching thus presupposes the existence and tenacity of those beliefs, which accordingly constitute the starting-point for the expression of his own convictions.

WisdomThe word wisdom (ḥokmāh) has a number of somewhat different connotations in the Old Testament. But behind them all is the idea of the possession of knowledge: a practical knowledge which confers the ability to achieve success. It was by wisdom that God created the world (Prov. 3:19), and it was through the possession of wisdom in the form of a knowledge of God’s laws that Israel was to become the envy of the other nations (Deut. 4:5–8). On the human level, the book of Proverbs emphasizes again and again that wisdom is the key to success.

That human wisdom was a gift from God was taken for granted; but the relationship between divine and human wisdom was a question about which there was no agreed opinion. On the one hand it was recognized, for example in Prov. 21:30, that ‘No wisdom, no understanding, no counsel, can prevail against Yahweh’: that is, that human wisdom cannot stand on its own; that it is quite useless unless it is backed by God. In Proverbs 8, the divine Wisdom is actually pictured as offering herself to men. Elsewhere the subordination of human wisdom to God is expressed by equating it with obedience to God’s will (Job 28:28); but on the other hand this verse appears to contradict entirely the teaching of the previous poem (28:1–27), which denies that wisdom is given to man at all: all those skills which are elsewhere called ‘wisdom’ are undeserving of the name; and the only true wisdom is the exclusive possession of God, who keeps it hidden away (vv. 23–27).

For Qoheleth, human wisdom was a gift of God (2:26); and, although he never specifically used the terms ‘wise’ and ‘wisdom’ in speaking of God, there can be no doubt that he believed that God possessed in an absolute degree that attribute which is elsewhere so called. But

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between God’s absolute knowledge and man’s puny efforts to possess such knowledge there was a complete gulf; and this was unbridgeable. God had deliberately kept man in ignorance of the things which he needed to know if he was to live securely and plan his life successfully (3:11; 8:16–17). Qoheleth does not deny that human wisdom has some practical value (2:13–14; 7:11; 9:16–18; 10:2, 12), and he frequently follows the older tradition in contrasting the wise man with the fool. But at every point there is, to use his own image, a ‘fly in the ointment’ (10:1) which frustrates the wise man’s purpose or renders it ineffective.

Qoheleth believed that man’s attempts to order his life by exercising his God-given wisdom were frustrated by the limitations which God had imposed upon that wisdom: in particular, that he had kept him ignorant of the appropriate times for action. As in the world of nature, where even the birds know the proper time for migration (Jer. 8:7), and the crops duly ripen at the proper season (Job 5:26), so, it was generally believed, human success depends on a knowledge of this ‘proper time’. Such knowledge was believed to be, at least to some extent, accessible to man. The farmer knows when to plough and when to sow his seed (Isa. 28:24–26); and history itself is full of examples of successful men who knew when to bide their time and when to act, as is illustrated by the story of the rise of David to power (1 Sam. 19–2 Sam. 5), and in the portrayal of other men who destroyed themselves by taking action at the wrong time (Adonijah, 1 Kgs 1; 2:13–25; Josiah, 2 Kgs 23:29–30). The book of Proverbs stresses the value of knowing when to speak (15:23) and when to keep silent (13:3; 17:27), when to act and when to refrain from action (13:16; 14:8, 17). Although it is recognized in a few of these proverbs that we cannot be certain of the future (27:1) and that our destiny is ultimately hidden in the purpose of God (20:24), there is in the book of Proverbs as a whole an overwhelming assumption that the wise man is able by exercizing his wisdom to avoid the pitfalls of life and confidently to exploit situations to his own advantage.

Qoheleth fully accepted the idea of the ‘right time’. The book begins (1:4–11) with an illustration from nature, in which the natural phenomena are seen as ceaselessly performing their proper functions (cf. Gen. 8:22). 3:1–8, which begins with the statement that ‘for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven’, and proceeds to illustrate this statement with a catalogue of contrasting pairs of possible activities each of which (apart from the first) indicates a need to make choices, is probably a quotation from some older source; but there is every reason to suppose that Qoheleth agreed with it. However, his own initial comment on it (‘What gain has the worker from his toil?’, v. 9), together with his subsequent reflections on it (vv. 10ff.), expresses a fundamental disagreement with the traditional view that the wise man is able to discern these times and profit by this knowledge: it is impossible, he says, for men to make use of the way in which the world has been organized, because God has deliberately withheld the knowledge of it, and nothing can alter what God has decided.

Two comments may be made about this. First, as has been seen, the recognition that we cannot know what the future will bring and cannot therefore make effective plans was not entirely new. What Qoheleth has done is to bring this thought into prominence for the first time and to emphasize it so strongly that the whole assessment of the value of human wisdom is thereby radically changed. Secondly, it should be noted that in practice Qoheleth shrank from a completely deterministic view of life. If all human action is futile because God holds all the cards, it would follow logically that there is no point in giving practical advice. Yet Qoheleth does recommend certain courses of action as if it were possible to change the course of events: the book contains many admonitions, both positive and negative. Thus he gives

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advice, much in the manner of Proverbs, on the most prudent way to behave before rulers (8:2–6), even stating (or is this ironical?) that in such circumstances ‘the mind of a wise man will know the time and way’ (8:5). He even applies the same principle to dealings with God himself (5:1–6; 7:16–17), apparently in the belief that God’s intentions can be influenced by human behaviour. These apparent contradictions suggest that he was wrestling with the familiar tension between free will and determinism, a tension which also appears in some other Old Testament texts.

DeathQoheleth’s assessment of human wisdom as ultimately valueless, despite its limited successes in particular cases, is closely connected with his preoccupation with human mortality. It is not that he has a morbid fear of death, or that he reproaches God for limiting the span of human life. When he says that ‘all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again’ (3:20) and that there will come a time when ‘the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it’ (12:7), he is merely repeating the traditional view of the matter; and the same is true of his statement that ‘there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going’ (9:10). His reflections on the brevity of human life do not take the form of a bitter lament like that of the author of Psalm 90, who (vv. 5–10) saw human mortality as a consequence of God’s anger. This is noteworthy in view of his evident familiarity with Genesis 3, which he might reasonably have interpreted in that way. His phrase ‘return to God who gave it’ is more in line with the purely factual or ‘neutral’ statement in Ps. 104:29 that ‘When thou takest away their breath they die and return to their dust’.

In his statements about death, Qoheleth’s concern is rather to point out that it makes nonsense of all human pretensions. This argument can be clearly seen in 2:13–16, where the discussion of the value of wisdom, punctuated with argument and counter-argument, reaches the conclusion that ‘of the wise man as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise man dies just like the fool!’ Here we can also see the intense individualism of Qoheleth: the idea that the achievements of individuals might benefit future generations after their death never occurs to him—an ironical fact when one considers that it is Solomon who is supposedly speaking here, and also that Qoheleth himself has not after all been forgotten after 2000 years. It seems that for Qoheleth wisdom was, like everything else, an entirely personal possession, valuable, if at all, only to its possessor; and it died with him.

Qoheleth had similar views about the effect of mortality on material possessions, which were for him closely associated with wisdom, for it was by ‘wisdom and knowledge and skill’ that they had been acquired (2:21). The rich man whose ‘predicament’ is described in 2:18–23 is, typically, a self-made man who owes nothing to his predecessors, and who laments not that he will have to die some day, but that he cannot take his money with him. There is no thought here of the benefit which wealth may confer on his heirs: ten to one they will not, in any case, inherit his wisdom, and will foolishly contrive to lose all that he has left them. Here is a point at which Qoheleth departs radically from traditional Israelite ideas: for him, society seems to consist (4:9–12 is the only exception) of solitary individuals—a reflection, perhaps, of the age in which he lived. It is not death which appalls him, but the waste of individual talent and enterprise which death brings about.

It was this thought of death as a waste that impelled Qoheleth to value life above all else, despite its very evident frustrations, miseries and uncertainties. That this is so is clearly stated in 9:1–6. Here, having listed some of the latter—uncertainty about one’s future, the unfairness

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of a world in which rewards are unjustly distributed, and the evil which exists in the hearts of men—he states his reason for thinking that it is nevertheless far better to be alive than dead: even the despised dog while it lives and breathes has the advantage over the dead lion, because ‘where there’s life, there’s hope’ (v. 4). Even to know that one will die is better than to know nothing at all, like the dead. The dead have nothing: no satisfaction, no place in the memory of others, no passions, and, finally and emphatically, ‘no more for ever any share in all that is done under the sun’ (vv. 5–6). Death is here represented not as something terrible in itself, but as the negation of all that is worth while. There is in this passage an immensely strong natural instinct for life in all its variety, an instinct which also appears clearly in the ejaculation ‘Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to behold the sun’, with its succeeding comment: ‘For if a man live many years, let him rejoice in them all; and let him remember that the days of darkness will be many’ (11:7–8).

It is in this context that we should consider two passages which appear to express a directly contrary view: 4:1–3 and 6:1–6. In these two passages Qoheleth states that non-existence—whether of the dead, the unborn or the stillborn—is preferable to life. But these statements refer to particular cases: in 4:1–3 that of persons who are subjected to the lifelong misery of oppression by cruel and powerful oppressors; and in 6:1–6, on the other hand, that of persons who possess every material benefit, but who for one reason or another (the situation is not entirely clear) are unable to derive any enjoyment from their wealth. The two cases, very different though they appear to be, have one thing in common: a total inability to find pleasure in life. In one sense these passages contradict what Qoheleth has said elsewhere about life as preferable to death despite all its miseries: he now admits that there are exceptions to this. On the other hand, it may be argued that these examples reinforce his positive view of life. These are terrible exceptions: the cases of people who, exceptionally, have no hope (compare 9:4), for whom therefore non-existence would indeed be preferable to life because none of the qualities of life is available to them. However inconsistent Qoheleth may be judged to be on this matter, it should be borne in mind that his remarks here, unlike those expressed in the passages previously considered, are not general remarks, but are made in relation to concrete and particular cases.

WealthIn the ideal world portrayed in the stories of the patriarchs in the book of Genesis, wealth was a reward bestowed by God on persons who had deserved his favour. Reality, however, was very different. In the denunciations of society uttered by the prophets, the rich are singled out again and again as persons who have obtained their wealth by illegal and dishonest means, and who use the power that wealth gives to pervert justice and to oppress the poor (e.g. Isa. 5:8; 10:1–2; Amos 2:6–7; 4:1; 8:4–6). In the book of Proverbs the two pictures stand side by side (contrast, e.g., 10:22 with 10:2), and this is also true of the book of Psalms.

Qoheleth’s comments about wealth are not so much opposed to either of these pictures as unrelated to them. The social scene had changed, though not for the better (4:1). The power conferred by money was even more apparent (10:19). But Qoheleth’s concern was not so much with the moral issues involved as with the real value of money as a source of happiness and contentment to those who possess it. ‘Solomon’s’ experiment (2:1–11) is intended to show that even the most wealthy man on earth derives no lasting satisfaction from his wealth. In 5:10–17 Qoheleth lists some of the ways in which wealth becomes a burden rather than a source of enjoyment: the rich are never content with what they have, but are consumed by a restless desire for more (v. 10); their position involves them in so many additional expenses

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and calls upon their money that their wealth becomes an illusion: ‘what gain has their owner but to see them with his eyes?’ (v. 11); their worries keep them awake at night, in contrast with the simple labourer who sleeps well and free from care (v. 12); and indeed there is always the possibility that they may lose their wealth and be reduced to penury (vv. 13–15). Finally, death will put an end to their wealth and separate them from it for ever (vv. 15–17).

The point of this extended passage is clearly to be seen in the verses which immediately follow it (18–20). Wealth is not in itself evil. It is, indeed, a gift of God. Only he can give the power to enjoy it. True contentment is to be found in the acceptance of these facts. These verses pick up the themes of the previous ones in order to show how the wealthy man can avoid the disadvantages of his wealth. The man who simply accepts this gift from God will be able to ‘eat and drink’—that is, enjoy his wealth: he will enjoy his work rather than be tormented by worry; he will ‘accept his lot’ rather than be dissatisfied with it and plan constantly to get more; he will be filled with a God-given joy in his heart which will save him from worrying about the inevitable approach of death.

WorkThis term (it occurs in three forms, the noun ʿāmāl, the verb ʿāmal and the adjective ʿāmēl, ‘one who works’) is regularly translated in RSV and other versions by ‘toil’, which has a somewhat negative connotation as something intrinsically unpleasant. The choice of this translation is probably due to the fact that elsewhere in the Old Testament ʿāmāl mainly has such negative meanings as ‘trouble, sorrow, misfortune, evil’. It is, however, clear from the contexts in which it is used that in Ecclesiastes, as in late Hebrew in general, it usually simply means ‘work’, although occasionally, as in 2:18, it appears to mean the result of work, that is, the material wealth gained through work. The word occurs very frequently in the book, and thus has the status of a key word.

At first sight it would seem that in different passages Qoheleth expresses two quite different views about the value of work. On the one hand he asks ‘What gain has the worker from his toil?’—a question which is equivalent to a categorical denial that work has anything to be said in its favour, a view supported by other passages, where it is associated with pain and vexation (2:22–23) or with deprivation of pleasure (4:8). On the other hand, several passages (2:24; 3:13; 5:18–19; 8:15; 9:9) speak of work as something to be enjoyed, using phrases like ‘There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil’ (2:24). In fact, however, Qoheleth’s attitude towards work is similar to his attitude towards wealth. The passages in which work is regarded as a misfortune are almost all concerned with overwork: with the frantic attempt to gain more and more wealth at the expense of peace, enjoyment and even health which characterised the society in which he lived (2:22–23; 4:6–8; 5:16–17), while those which speak of work as enjoyable count it among God’s gifts. Once again Qoheleth is advocating the quiet acceptance of whatever God gives to man. It is significant that he cites the saying ‘Better is a handful of quietness than two handfuls of toil’, which he glosses with the comment ‘and a striving after wind’ (4:6), and that he contrasts the undisturbed sleep of the labourer (hāʿōbēd) with the sleeplessness of the rich (5:12).

The divine justiceIt is especially with regard to Qoheleth’s teaching about the relationship between human conduct and its reward that many scholars, including those mentioned on p. 66 above, have spoken of a ‘crisis of wisdom’ or a ‘crisis of religion’. In other words, it has been maintained that in denying that there is any connection between the two, Qoheleth for the first time broke

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completely with the traditional view that we get what we deserve in this life. This denial, it is argued, severs the relationship between God and man which was an essential element of Jewish religious belief.

Two questions arise here: whether Qoheleth did unequivocally assert that God never intervenes in human affairs on the side of righteousness, and how far, if so, this teaching was revolutionary.

To take the second question first; despite a general confidence, expressed in many parts of the Old Testament, that the righteous will triumph and prosper because God defends the right, and that the wicked will come to a bad end, the questioning of this belief is by no means lacking. It appears particularly frequently in the psalms of lamentation, and it is a principal theme of the book of Job. Another example is found in the story of Abraham’s dialogue with God over the fate of the righteous minority in Sodom, when Abraham boldly challenged God: ‘Wilt thou indeed destroy the righteous with the wicked?.… Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ (Gen. 18:23–25). In that case God was persuaded to change his mind. Elsewhere the problem is ‘solved’ in other ways: either by a pious expression of confidence that the present situation will ultimately be reversed, or, more profoundly, by the conviction that fellowship with God far outweighs the mere suffering of injustice (Ps. 73:21–26), or with the recognition that God’s justice is too mysterious for man to be able to challenge it (Job). But there can be no doubt that the question remained a very real one which demanded some sort of answer, particularly in times of national misfortune or oppression. Qoheleth’s raising of it, therefore, was neither new nor unexpected.

With regard to Qoheleth’s own position, the statement that ‘time and chance happen to them all’ (9:11) was once thought to be the expression of a doctrine of an impersonal fate controlling the fates of human beings, comparable to the Greek notion of moira. But in fact there is no reason to suppose that the word rendered by ‘chance’ here (pegaʿ), a rare word which occurs in only one other passage in the Old Testament (1 Kgs 5:4 [Heb. 18]), has this connotation. It means no more than ‘what happens’. The ‘time’ with which it is associated here is clearly the ‘time’ which God himself ‘has appointed … for every matter’, but which, as the following verse (12) states, ‘man does not know’, because God has hidden this knowledge from him (see 3:11). There is, then, no reason to suppose either that ‘chance’ here is an impersonal force independent of God, or that Qoheleth intended to identify God with such an impersonal force.

The real question is whether this hidden control of the ‘times’ by God is based on what man perceives as ‘justice’, or whether it operates entirely at random, irrespective of man’s deserts. To this question the book, taken as a whole, does not give an unequivocal answer: in fact, so contradictory do Qoheleth’s statements on the subject seem to be that, as we have seen (pp. 23, 39–40 above), some scholars have cut the Gordian knot and denied some of them to Qoheleth altogether.

Qoheleth was very aware of the existence of human injustice and oppression in the world, and refers to this in several passages (3:16; 4:1; 7:15; 8:9–14). (He also refers, as we have seen, to the annihilating power of death as a ‘vanity and striving after wind’, which, by making no distinctions between the relative merits of individuals can make life itself hateful—at least in the case of ‘Solomon’ [2:12–17]; but this is a separate matter.) This recognition that the world is not as it should be, which Qoheleth regarded as a situation for which God is not responsible, but which is the result of human corruption (7:29), is of course a truism. The crucial question is whether there is any sign that God is concerned about this and takes action

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to put it right. But such cases of extreme injustice are in any case only part of the problem. The fundamental question is whether in general there is any correlation between merit and reward.

Qoheleth appears to give a number of different answers to this question. In 9:2 he asserts that God makes no distinction between the righteous and the wicked, the good man and the sinner; but the verses which follow suggest that here he is talking about the levelling effect of death rather than about what happens in life. 9:11–12, however, make an equally unequivocal statement, apparently about success, or the lack of it, in life, in which unexpected misfortune may fall on any person. God is even, by implication, compared with a fowler or a fisherman, who snares creatures in his ‘evil net’. 7:15 and 8:14 both assert that the righteous may suffer the fate deserved by the wicked, and vice versa; but in both cases there is a qualification: the use of the phrase ‘There is’ suggests that this is not always the case. Nevertheless, the implication is that divine justice cannot be relied on; there is here, it may be suggested, a random element in the allocation of rewards.

On the other hand there are several passages in the book in which Qoheleth states that God will distinguish between the righteous and the wicked, and reward them as they deserve. Of these, 3:16–17 and 8:10–13 are the clearest examples. 3:17 states that ‘God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for he has appointed a time for every matter, and every work’. This verse occurs, rather incongruously, as it may seem to us, before a statement that in death all suffer the same fate. 8:11 is concerned with the fact that often it seems that the wicked escape punishment, because the punishment is delayed. But vv. 12–13 express a confident belief that in the end ‘it will be well with those who fear God …; but it will not be well with the wicked’, who will not be permitted to ‘prolong his days’. This passage also, however, presents serious difficulties: firstly, in v. 12a it is stated that the habitual sinner does prolong his life, whereas v. 13 states that he will not; and secondly, the positive statement about God’s punishment of the wicked in v. 13 is immediately followed by a lament (‘There is a vanity …’) that the righteous and the wicked at least sometimes receive the opposite treatment to that which they deserve!

In the passages which assert that ‘God will judge’ both wicked and righteous, and that ‘it will be well’ with the righteous and ‘not well’ with the wicked, nothing is said about the time or the manner in which God will exercise his judgement. In view of what Qoheleth says elsewhere about the state of man after death (e.g. 9:10) it is unlikely that he believed that this righting of wrong will occur otherwise than in this life. Rather, he is here echoing the traditional view expressed many times in the Psalms (e.g. Ps. 37) and by the friends of Job (e.g. Job 20) that although the wicked appear to flourish with impunity, punishment is only delayed: ultimately, at some unspecified time, the tables will be turned, and both the wicked and the righteous will receive the rewards due to them.

Various attempts have been made to account for these seemingly quite contradictory statements. It has been supposed that the ‘orthodox’ statements have been added by a later editor; or that they are expressions of traditional views quoted by Qoheleth himself which he then refutes; or even that, rightly understood, they are not contradictory at all (compare, e.g., the commentaries of Gordis, Loader, Ogden and Crenshaw on 3:16–17 and 8:10–13). It may be best to conclude that Qoheleth found it impossible to reconcile his own observations of life with the traditional belief that the God who rules men’s lives is righteous; and that he made no attempt to reconcile the two but set them down side by side. Indeed, he can hardly have been expected to have solved the problem intellectually, for the question ‘How can I believe in a

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good God when there is so much misery and injustice in the world?’ is one which no rational argument has yet been able to answer. It is a perennial question which remains with us today. There is, indeed, another kind of answer: the answer of faith, in which man’s inability to discern God’s purposes is recognized, but at the same time a deeper sense of joy in God’s presence makes pain, suffering and injustice an irrelevance. This appears to have been the answer of the author of the poem of Job, and possibly of Psalm 73. How Qoheleth understood the relationship between man and God must now be considered further.

God and manThe question of divine justice apart, Qoheleth says little about this relationship which was not based on common Jewish belief, but he is nevertheless untypical in that he stresses certain aspects of it to the exclusion of others. The Jewish faith holds two sides of that relationship in tension. In the Old Testament God is represented as, on the one hand, wholly other than man, holy and mysterious; and his purposes are fundamentally beyond human comprehension. Yet he is also depicted as one who in some degree at least draws near to man and even discloses his plans to those whom he chooses. Even in those parts of the book of Proverbs in which God appears mainly in the remote role of one who sees men’s deeds and judges them, and in which nothing is said about the possibility of man’s knowing him, there are traces of something which might be called an intimate relationship: God, for example, ‘loves’ the person who pursues righteousness (Prov. 15:9). Such language is not to be found in Ecclesiastes. For Qoheleth, God (unlike Proverbs, he does not use the word Yahweh with its associations with the intimate relationship between God and Israel) is represented above all as an all-powerful and remote monarch who may easily take offence: ‘God is in heaven, and you upon earth’ (5:2); ‘Why should God be angry at your voice, and destroy the work of your hands?’ (5:6). Elsewhere he says: ‘It is known what man is, and that he is not able to dispute with one stronger than he’ (6:10). God’s actions and decisions are immutable, admitting of no argument.

On the other hand, Qoheleth takes it for granted that his readers will worship God in the temple (5:1–6). This passage has been variously assessed. The predominating note is one of caution in approaching the God who ‘is in heaven’ while ‘you are on earth’, who ‘has no pleasure in fools’, and who may ‘be angry at your voice’. This cautious attitude may be an expression of the religious awe in the presence of the mysterious and holy God which is characteristic of the Israelite approach to worship: the awareness that God is ‘a devouring fire, a jealous God’ (Deut. 4:24). But the traditional attitude towards worship also includes an element of joy in the presence of God: the two elements are, as it were, held in tension. It is perhaps characteristic of Qoheleth that he mentions only the element of holy fear.

However this may be, everything that Qoheleth actually says about the proper attitude to worship can be paralleled elsewhere in the Old Testament. He uses the technical term ‘draw near’ (qārab) of the act of worship; he takes it for granted that God hears prayer; and the phrase ‘draw near to listen’ (v. 1) presumably implies that the individual worshipper expects to receive some instruction from God, whether directly as an answer to prayer or through the medium of the temple priests. Some degree of communication between God and man is thus presupposed.

The statement that ‘to draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools’ (v. 1) is certainly not a condemnation of sacrifice as such or a dismissal of it as worthless (the point made in 9:2 is quite different). We may compare Samuel’s words in 1 Sam. 15:22 that ‘to obey is better than sacrifice’, the saying in Proverbs that ‘the sacrifice of the wicked is an

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abomination to Yahweh, but the prayer of the righteous is his delight’ (Prov. 15:8; cf. 21:3, 27), and also a similar saying in the Egyptian Instruction for King Merikare, a text which at the same time strongly stresses the importance of cultic duties (ANETANET, p. 417). The ‘fools’ who ‘do not know that they are doing evil’ in offering their sacrifices may be persons who stupidly imagine, contrary to the clear teaching of the Old Testament (e.g. Num. 15:27–31; Isa. 1:10–17) that the offering of sacrifice will automatically cover their sins and put them right with God. Qoheleth is equally orthodox about the practice of making voluntary vows to God to be performed when requests are granted (vv. 4–5): in fact, these verses are clearly dependent on Deut. 23:21–23, and even contain verbal echoes of that passage.

There is, then, a certain ambiguity about Qoheleth’s attitude towards worship. The very fact that Qoheleth devoted an entire section of his book to this subject shows that he did not consider it to be an irrelevance; and from the fact that he contented himself with pointing out that it is foolish to undertake it carelessly it does not necessarily follow that he regarded God as hostile to those who approach him: we do not know what unexpressed assumptions about it he may have shared with his readers, about which he thought it unnecessary to speak. On the other hand, the fact that he speaks only of the negative aspect of worship may be significant. (For a critical assessment of this passage see Perdue, pp. 178–88.)

Another aspect of Qoheleth’s understanding of the relationship between God and man which has been very differently assessed is that of the fear of God. Although the words translated by the word ‘fear’ (the verb yārēʾ, the noun yirʾāh‚ the adjective yārēʾ, ‘fearing’) are used frequently in the Old Testament in their literal sense when their object is other than God, in the latter case they have generally lost much of that literal sense and acquired a number of much milder meanings: awe, reverence, honour, obedience, piety towards God. But many scholars have maintained that Qoheleth’s concept of the fear of God was different from these: that he regarded God as literally terrifying, and advised his readers to treat him as such. If this interpretation is correct, it would confirm the view based on other aspects of Qoheleth’s teaching, that his view of the relationship between God and man was one which excluded any positive and satisfying form of communication.

The number of passages in which Qoheleth speaks of the fear of God is small: 3:14; 5:7; 7:18; 8:12–13‚ 8:12–13 is a clear statement: those who fear God are contrasted with the ‘sinner’ who ‘does evil’ habitually. In the other passages the meaning is less clear. In 5:7 the phrase ‘but do you fear God’ has no intelligible immediate context: it stands at the conclusion of a section, and the words which precede it (the earlier part of the verse) hardly make sense in the Hebrew, and are actually omitted by the NEB as meaningless. But if the advice to fear God is the conclusion to the whole section (from 5:1), then it would seem that Qoheleth equates the fear of God with the avoidance of the foolish behaviour warned against there, and perhaps, more specifically, with the avoidance of conduct likely to cause God’s anger (v. 6). Similarly in 7:18, where also the context (vv. 15–18) presents difficulties of interpretation, the phrase ‘he who fears God shall come forth from them all’ appears to refer to the person who avoids the self-destructive conduct described in vv. 16–17.

From this survey of passages we may perhaps conclude that the fear of God is recommended by Qoheleth as the avoidance of behaviour which would arouse God’s anger; but it is less clear that his understanding of the notion, though it is here presented mainly

ANETANET Ancient Near Easten Texts Relating to the Old Testement, 2nd edn, Princeton University Press, 1955.

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negatively, is necessarily basically different from its meaning elsewhere in the Old Testament. It is difficult—except, perhaps, on the basis of a negative assessment of Qoheleth’s view of God derived from elsewhere in the book—to demonstrate that he believed that man’s attitude towards him should be simply based on terror.

One of the most frequent verbs used by Qoheleth to describe God’s relationship to men is the verb ‘to give’ (twelve times). God gives to man the gift of life, though in the end he takes it back (12:7). To those who please him he gives wisdom, knowledge and joy (2:26), and also wealth, possessions and the power to enjoy them (5:19; 6:2). Not all his gifts, however, are pleasant ones. He has given (RSV ‘put’) the mysterious ʿōlām (RSV ‘eternity’) into man’s heart. Whatever this word means, it is given to all men and women (hāʾādām) so that they will remain in ignorance of his purposes (3:11). He has also given men ‘an unhappy business … to be busy with’ (1:13; cf. 3:10—but see below). Finally, to the sinner he gives ‘the work of gathering and heaping’ (2:26), evidently in contrast with ‘wisdom and knowledge and joy’; and there are also people to whom he gives wealth and possessions, but does not at the same time give them the power to enjoy them (6:2).

These gifts of God can be divided into four main categories. First, there is the gift of life itself, referred to four times (5:18; 8:15; 9:9; 12:7). Secondly there is the limitation imposed upon men: ignorance of God’s purposes (3:11), which does not, however, prevent us from our desire to be busy (3:10). Thirdly, there are the good gifts which God gives to those who please him; and fourthly, there are the unpleasant gifts that he gives to those who do not. (1:13, which refers to the ‘unhappy business that God has given to the sons of men to be busy with’ is probably not a general comment on the whole of man’s existence in the world, but refers to ‘Solomon’s’ self-appointed task, mentioned earlier in the verse, to ‘search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven’.)

Qoheleth never directly speaks of God’s gifts as deserving man’s gratitude. He simply states as a fact that God is the source of everything which pertains to man, including life itself. This frequent talk about God as giver is intended to emphasize that the relationship between God and man is one of total sovereignty and total dependence. Not only are we nothing apart from him; we are dependent on him at every moment, because he has seen to it that we are and remain ignorant of his purposes for us, and ignorant, for the most part, of what will please him. It would seem, then, that we cannot elevate the notion of God’s gift as such into a cause for rejoicing.

Nevertheless, as has already been observed (p. 64), joy, or enjoyment, is a recurring theme in the book. The seven passages which urge the reader to make the most of life are, it may be thought, too numerous and too insistent to be dismissed as simply expressions of despair or resignation. It has been argued that each of them constitutes a kind of counterpoise to some major aspect of the ‘vanity’ or futility of life: the ‘vanity’ of human toil and effort (2:20–26); of our ignorance of the future (3:10–15); of the finality of death (3:16–22); of the pursuit of wealth (5:10–20); of the unfairness of life (8:14–15); of death as obliterating all thought and activity (9:7–10); of the inexorable advent of old age and death (11:7–12:7) (Whybray, 1982).

It may be significant that in several of these passages there is specific reference to God’s gift, either of joy or of life itself. Indeed, no less than eight of the twelve references to God as giver in the book occur in these passages. For some interpreters Qoheleth’s encouragement to his readers to enjoy life to the fullest extent possible is the key to the whole book: such enjoyment is the very purpose for which God created man. So Gordis writes:

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For Koheleth, joy is God’s categorical imperative for man, not in any anemic or spiritualised sense, but rather as a full-blooded and tangible experience, expressing itself in the play of the body and the activity of the mind, the contemplation of nature and the pleasures of love. Since he insists that the pursuit of happiness with which man has been endowed by the Creator is an inescapable sacred duty, it follows that it must be an inalienable right (Commentary, p. 129).

This, it may be thought, is an extreme view for which the evidence is not to be found in the text. The statements that there is nothing better for man than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil are not in fact presented as a ‘divine imperative’, but only as Qoheleth’s personal opinion; and against this opinion must be set other opinions of his which are of a much more negative kind. His reflections on wisdom, death, wealth, work and justice all show that the possibility of enjoying life is something which, by God’s own doing, has been totally denied, often without apparent cause, to some and arbitrarily conferred on others, while all are subjected to frustrations which severely hinder the unrestricted experience of joyful existence which Gordis represents as commanded by God. Yet at the same time it is true that joy, as distinct from mere hedonistic self-indulgence, is a theme to which Qoheleth returned again and again. Owing to the lack of continuity between the various distinct pensées of which the book is composed, it will probably always be impossible to determine with certainty where the balance of his thought lies.

Qoheleth as theologianQoheleth’s teaching has been assessed in many different ways. In this book the attempt has been made to do justice to these conflicting views. It is, perhaps, permissible to end with a personal view. One way of approaching his thought is to see him as a theologian, or perhaps even as an apologist who was trying to find a way of reconciling the Jewish faith which he had inherited with the world as he knew it: a ‘modern’ world which was undergoing rapid change. The traditional beliefs of Judaism had to be ‘brought up to date’ at certain points; and Qoheleth radically questioned their traditional formulation when he judged it necessary to do so. But in putting forth his ideas he was not intending to prepare a new generation of apostates; rather he was seeking to equip his pupils to be Jewish believers in a world where there were many religions and philosophies claiming to possess the truth: to provide them with the means to argue the case for Judaism. And, at the same time, he was seeking truth for himself. His book contains no fully thought-out philosophical or theological system; it contains many apparent contradictions and unsolved problems. But it is perhaps the most fascinating book in the Old Testament.

Further ReadingApart from the commentaries, all of which discuss Qoheleth’s leading ideas, general assessments are to be found in

G.R. Castellino, ‘Qoheleth and His Wisdom’, CBQCBQ 30 (1968), pp. 15–28H. Gese, ‘The Crisis of Wisdom in Koheleth’, Theodicy in the Old Testament, ed. J.L. Crenshaw, Philadelphia:

Fortress Press and London: SPCK, 1983, pp. 141–53Hengel, vol. I, pp. 115–28R.K. Johnston, ‘ “Confessions of a Workaholic”: A Reappraisal of Qohelet’, CBQ 38 (1976), pp. 14–28O. Kaiser, ‘Die Sinnkrise bei Kohelet’, Der Mensch unter dem Schicksal (BZAWBZAW 161), Berlin: De Gruyter,

1985, pp. 91–109

CBQCBQ Catholic Biblical Quarterly

BZAWBZAW Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft

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A. Lauha, ‘Die Krise des religiösen Glaubens bei Kohelet’, (VT SupplVT Suppl. 3 (1955), pp. 183–91J.A. Loader, Polar Structures, pp. 117–33R.E. Murphy, ‘The Pensées of Coheleth’, CBQ 17 (1955), pp. 184–94R.H. Pfeiffer, ‘The Peculiar Skepticism of Ecclesiastes’, JBLJBL 53 (1934), pp. 100–109Von Rad, pp. 226–37

Treatments of particular words and topics include:M.V. Fox, ‘The Meaning of Hebel for Qohelet’, JBL 105 (1986), pp. 409–27L. Gorssen, ‘La cohérence de la conception de Dieu dans l’Ecclésiaste’, ETLETL 46 (1970), pp. 282–324H.G. Mitchell, ‘ “Work” in Ecclesiastes’, JBL 32 (1913), pp. 123–38L.G. Perdue, Wisdom and Cult, SBL Dissertation Series 30, Missoula: Scholars Press, 1977E. Pfeiffer, ‘Die Gottesfurcht im Buche Kohelet’, Gottes Wort und Gottes Land, ed. H. Graf Reventlow,

Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1965, pp. 133–58C.W. Reines, ‘Koheleth on Wisdom and Wealth’, JJSJJS 5 (1954), pp. 80–84W.E. Staples, ‘The “Vanity” of Eclesiastes’, JNESJNES 2 (1943), pp. 95–104 (and two other word studies in

JNES 4 [1945], pp. 87–96 and JNES 24 [1965], pp. 110–12)R.N. Whybray, ‘Qoheleth, Preacher of Joy’, JSOTJSOT 23 (1982), pp. 87–98

VT SupplVT Supplements to Vetus Testamentum

JBLJBL Journal of Biblical Literature

ETLETL Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses

JJSJJS Journal of Jewish Studies

JNESJNES Journal of Near Eastern Studies

JSOTJSOT Journal for the Study of the Old Testament