Qoheleth continues much as we might expect. However, he abandons the royal persona as he continues his lamentations. And we finally see some new points in the next couple sections, which are insightful albeit depressing. We will proceed with a quick review of what we have seen and then look at the next two units: Ecc 3:16-4:3 and Ecc 4:4-16.
There are two voices in the book – the frame narrator who speaks at the beginning and end and the voice of Qoheleth. Qoheleth is the pseudonym for the wisdom teacher who associates himself with Solomon for the first few chapters of the book. Qoheleth is negative, even pessimistic about life because of the reality of death. Qoheleth looks at the pattern of creation and sees the seasons and everything else as showing that nothing changes – a generation goes, a generation comes.
The frame narrator does not dispute Qoheleth’s main point, but he does challenge Qoheleth on saying that “the whole duty of man” is to eat and drink and take pleasure in his work. Qoheleth says that we should just resign ourselves to reality and eat and drink and take pleasure in our work. But he refuses to do so himself. Qoheleth sees that in the end there is no payoff for anything and everything we do. Ecclesiastes 3:1-15 with its beautiful song is nothing new – just Qoheleth continuing his lament.
Enns identifies the next unit of Qoheleth’s teaching as Ecclesiastes 3:16-4:3 marked by the two ”I saw” clauses (Ecc 3:16, 4:4). He notes again that there is no such thing as a self-contained unit in the book, but this section of text does add ”its own distinct contribution to the flow of Qoheleth’s argument.” Qoheleth’s lament has to do now with God’s justice.
Qoheleth gives us a glimpse of hope saying, ”I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked” but this is then followed by the familiar words of ”for there is a time for every matter and for every work.” In other words, there are times and seasons of justice and injustice and God appoints those times and seasons. Thus God is to blame and nothing changes.
Thus Qoheleth argues that God is testing (? the meaning of the word is unclear, but whatever it means it is not good) the children of man so that they can see that they are no better than the animals. This in stark contrast to Genesis 1-2. But the reason that man is no better than the animals is death. ”They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for הַכֹּ֖ל הָֽבֶל׃ ” (Ecc 3:19). [Hebrew = everything is absurd/meaningless/nothing].
Before continuing it is worth noting as Enns does that Qoheleth uses alliteration at the end of verse 18: שְׁהֶם־בְּהֵמָ֥ה הֵ֖מָּה לָהֶֽם׃ Qoheleth uses alliteration ”that audibly communicates what he is saying conceptually – what goes around comes around, and there is nothing at all humanity can do about it” (to quote Enns).
But again the reason that animals and humans are no different as far as Qoheleth is concerned is DEATH. We have seen that Qoheleth is arguing that death the wise and the fool both suffer death, which relativizes any payoff one might get in this life for doing/speaking wisdom. Now we can say that death relativizes humans and animals. Enns puts it this way: “Death even levels the playing field between humanity and animals. As v. 19 makes clear, both share the same fate, one dies like the other, both have ‘one breath,’ there is no advantage [same root as yitron] for humans over animals, for (predictably) ‘everything is absurd.’”
Ecclesiastes 3:20: ”All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes downward into the earth?” The only reason for Qoheleth to make the comment about where a person’s spirit goes is that some at the time thought their spirit went to be with God at death. This comforted them. But Qoheleth refuses to be comforted because there was no way for him to know. Of course, Qoheleth would not have found it comforting even if he did know – nothing short of the immediate final resurrection of the body can answer Qoheleth’s lament.
This is followed by a shorter statement of resignation to reality – ”So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Who can bring him to see what will be after him?” (Ecc 3:22). The ”after him” could refer to his death (what will happen next? where will his spirit go?) or it could be making a point we have already heard – what will happen on earth after he has died.
As Qoheleth continues we are not surprised to see that Qoheleth refuses to be comforted. He again uses the phrase, ”under the sun” – meaning everywhere among the living. The complaint about oppression suggests that Qoheleth has abandoned his royal position for the rest of the book – after all, the king has the power of the sword and can right oppression but Qoheleth laments his inability to do so.
”And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive” (Ecc 4:2). Note the redundancy in both clauses. Here Qoheleth is being quite ironic – he is finding his only comfort in death – or at least it is better than still being alive. But then Qoheleth takes this lament to a whole new level, when we thought it could get no worse: ”But better than both is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun” (Ecc 4:3). This word evil, as with all words we are tempted to give a moral meaning in Ecclesiastes, is not being used that way. Qoheleth would include death as the main ”evil” deed. Remember that Qoheleth is angry with God who does all of these ”evil” deeds. And Qoheleth is uttering these laments as an Israelite within the faith. This last lament that Qoheleth utters is not unlike that of Job (cf. Job 3:1ff).
Ecclesiastes 4:4 then shifts topics, but not tone. In fact, Qoheleth finally gives us a new idea. Qoheleth appears to be saying that jealousy or envy leads people to do their skillful works and toil.
גַּם־זֶ֥ה הֶ֖בֶל וּרְע֥וּת רֽוּחַ׃ [Hebrew = also this is absurd/meaningless and a striving after wind]
Qoheleth would not have us become a fool to avoid this road of envy. “The fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh.” This would be what happens when people are slothful.
Rather than going to such extremes, Qoheleth argues for all things in moderation: ”Better is a handful [i.e., one handful] of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind” (Ecc 4:6). Enns says that this principle of ”moderation amid extremes” appears to be a ”coping technique” in the face of the absurdity of life. People go through life developing coping mechanisms so that they will not have to think about death – all Qoheleth can do is think about death so he is trying to cope with the absurdity of it all.
וְשַׁ֧בְתִּי אֲנִ֛י וָאֶרְאֶ֥ה הֶ֖בֶל תַּ֥חַת הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ׃ [Hebrew = And again (literally, and I turned/returned) and I saw, absurdity/meaninglessness under the sun]
Having already lamented that the reason we toil is out of envy of others, Qoheleth now laments how much worse it is when we are alone: “One person who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, ‘For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?’ גַּם־זֶ֥ה הֶ֛בֶל וְעִנְיַ֥ן רָ֖ע הֽוּא׃ [Hebrew = also this is absurd/meaningless and an “evil” (again not used in a moral sense hence translations might say unhappy or miserable) preoccupation]
Qoheleth continues, “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” This bit about the threefold cord almost certainly was a well-known ANE proverb – it is a picture of the advantage of two compared to one. But all of this is in the context of the financial benefit of partnership.
The theme of poverty and riches continues as Qoheleth says, ”Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice. For he went from prison to the throne, though in his own kingdom he had been born poor. I saw all the living who move about under the sun, along with that youth who was to stand in the king’s place. There was no end of all the people, all of whom he led. Yet those who come later will not rejoice in him. כִּֽי־גַם־זֶ֥ה הֶ֖בֶל וְרַעְי֥וֹן רֽוּחַ׃ [Hebrew = for also this is absurd and a striving after wind]
Qoheleth is now lamenting kingship. The reason for the lament is that one day the king will die and another person will take his place and this keeps on going. And to make matters worse it appears that it is saying that people’s loyalties change. It is an absurd institution. Longman says that the old foolish king of v.13 is replaced by the young wise king of v.13/14, and then the next young king was quite popular, but in the end ”people did not like even him.” No doubt Qoheleth would find the whole practice of politics today just as lamentable or even moreso.
By now we surely must be appreciating the way that this climax of wisdom literature falls short of the wisdom of Jesus. Qoheleth demonstrates for us the limits of this wisdom and why we need Jesus.