This unit begins and ends with a note about wisdom: ”Who is like the wise? And who knows the interpretation of a thing? A man’s wisdom makes his face shine, and the hardness of his face is changed” (Ecc 8:1); ”When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one’s eyes see sleep, then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find out” (Ecc 8:16-17). We are not at all surprised to read first a upbeat appraisal of wisdom in the first verse but then at the end of the passage to be back to Qoheleth’s characteristic pessimism regarding wisdom. The reason for this shift within this unit is as Enns puts it, ”a capricious and unjust king – and an equally capricious and unjust God behind him.” Indeed, Qoheleth here says similar things to what we have seen before regarding oaths to God. Once again this section shows us that Qoheleth has abandoned his royal persona. The basic idea with both the king and God is that you should make your appeal quickly and then get out of the way because they will do what they want to do anyway. Qoheleth laments especially that the wicked got a proper burial (Ecc 8:10). The issue – the king allowed it.
Notice in this section the mentions of death and burial (Ecc 8:8, 10, 12/13). No surprise that death rears its ugly head. Also notice that Qoheleth makes some hopeful comments briefly – Ecc 8:12-13 (dashed with Ecc 8:14). And he makes a statement of resignation to reality: ”And I commend joy, for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil…” (Ecc 8:15). He also uses some of the major vocabulary we have learned to see like task, vanity/absurdity/meaninglessness, etc. Wisdom may therefore have some temporary benefit sometimes but in the long run the king/God make it useless.
The theme of the next unit is all about death. In fact, here we see why the ‘resignation to reality’ passages are so worthless – death. When Qoheleth says that he has examined ”how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God” this too is not a positive statement. Indeed, we have seen that his major lament is that God is in control of these things. He complains that man does not know what will happen (it is in the hand of God) and yet in the end it matters not because there is death. In other words, no matter how obedient and faithful you are to God as an Israelite you will still die like everyone else! He also says in this section that the only advantage that the living have over the dead is that the living know they will die whereas the dead know nothing (they are dead!).
Remember as well that in this saying ”a living dog is better than a dead lion” that dogs were not pets in Israel but instead were considered unclean. Qoheleth, for all of these reasons, is not really saying that it is better to be alive than dead here. Ecc 9:7-10 are one more of Qoheleth’s resignation to reality ‘encouragements.’ ”Go, eat your bread with joy and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion/lot in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going” (Ecc 9:7-10).
However, this effort at resignation to reality will get you nowhere really. ”Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them” (Ecc 9:11-12).
Enns (unlike Longman, for example) views Ecc 9:13-10:20 as one unit wherein the themes regarding wisdom and folly and the king are not discussed in any logical progression. Yet Enns attempts to outline the unit. He explains: ”What seems to provide coherence to this section is the notion of the value yet unreliability of wisdom and the role of power/leadership in securing (or not) the wise rhythms of life.”
Again like in much of the Writings the question is: ”How useful is wisdom?” Thus Enns says Ecc 9:13-16 is about how ”wisdom has relative value over an attacking king: it works even though the wise man will be forgotten, despised, and unheeded.” And then ”Wisdom has value but it is easily spoiled” (his emphasis, Ecc 9:17-10:3). Next, ”Beware of the king’s anger; respond gently, especially since I have seen society’s rhythms turned over under his watch” (Ecc 10:4-11). Another section on ”the relative value of wisdom” follows (Ecc 10:12-15), with a ”closing word” re: kings and wisdom (Ecc 10:16-20). And while you will find additional interesting ways that Qoheleth makes his argument – the conclusion is the same. You cannot rely on wisdom or kingship.
The final unit of Qoheleth’s monologue begins by noting the ”unpredictability and uncertainty of human behavior” as Enns puts it. This is the point of Ecc 11:1-6. Then Ecc 11:7-12:7 returns to our now favorite subject: death. Ecc 11:1 begins with the famous line, ”Cast your bread upon the waters…” by which Qoheleth may very well simply mean that you should give generously without worrying about what will come because you cannot take it with you. These verses then express a sort of resignation to reality. For example, ”In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good” (Ecc 11:6). Thus here Qoheleth is telling us to burn the candle at both ends since you do not know which one will be key. This is just the way things are and you are best off trying to take every possible advantage.
But it is not long then before Qoheleth is talking about death. At first he sounds kinda positive (Ecc 11:7) but the closer we look the more negative we will see the point he is making. Qoheleth mentions ”judgment” but remember that for Qoheleth this does not refer to something after death. The entire section ending on this note: ”the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Ecc 12:7).
The last part of the book returns us then to the frame narrator. First, he reminds us of the summary of Qoheleth’s thought:
הֲבֵ֧ל הֲבָלִ֛ים אָמַ֥ר הַקּוֹהֶ֖לֶת הַכֹּ֥ל הָֽבֶל׃
Then the frame narrator calls Qoheleth wise and even establishes that Qoheleth was known for wisdom beyond this particular monologue.
He also says that Qoheleth ”sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth” (Ecc 12:10). Enns explains the line about goads saying, ”It does not matter that these words are difficult to swallow” and ”sometimes wisdom hurts.”
Yet the frame narrator sees it as pointless to continue Qoheleth’s quest any farther (as if that were possible) – just making observations about how life is absurd has to come to an end at some point. Thus Enns argues that the frame narrator does not criticize Qoheleth for doing this – he only warns his son not to continue to do this any further beyond this. In other words, do not even try to one-up Qoheleth. Regarding the line opening ”the end of the matter,” Enns says, ”It is not to discredit Qohelet as some jumbled and heterodox thinker; neither is it to idolize him and follow in his footsteps.”
As we have seen ”all the man” is to ”fear God and keep His commandments.” This is the first mention of the commandments in the entire book. But the response of the father to this picture of how life is absurd is to tell his son, ”fear God and keep His commandments.” As Enns says, in this epilogue ”Qohelet is both affirmed and relativized; he is praised as sage, yet the son is told that the answer is beyond what the sage has written.”
And the book concludes, ”For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecc 12:14). Given the limited text written by the frame narrator we are not clear whether he believes in a final judgment after this life or not. However, either way he is saying that no matter how things might look God will not miss anything. One could explore just how much this verse also clashes with Qoheleth’s view of God.