Is Ecclesiastes about feelings?

How are we supposed to feel when we read Ecclesiastes?

I was asked whether the central message of the book of Ecclesiastes was “Pessimism”, or “Joy”. In other words, how are we supposed to feel when we read it? (Or perhaps, how did the author feel when it was put together?)

I don’t think we’re supposed to feel any emotion in particular: I don’t think the central message has anything to do with feelings. It has to do with the meaning of life. How we feel about that is our own choice.


The author himself states the central message of the book in very dispassionate terms:

Now all has been heard;

here is the conclusion of the matter:

Fear God and keep his commandments,

for this is the duty of all mankind.

For God will bring every deed into judgment,

including every hidden thing,

whether it is good or evil.

– Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

Perhaps the modern Christian is altogether too concerned with feelings…?

Summary

This paper attempts to discern the “central message” of the book of Ecclesiastes in terms of either “pessimism”, or “joy”, despite the fact that the answer has eluded scholarly consensus throughout the history of Christian thought.

Initially, thirteen modern scholars are arranged into three separate broad categories of thought with respect to the “pessimistic” or “joyful” nature of the book. This exercise demonstrates the stark divergence of contemporary views.

The text itself is then analysed using popular frameworks for understanding the author’s intention. Although there is value found in each one, they all are “unsatisfactory” as far as revealing the Central Message in terms of pathos.

Finally, the internal evidence of the document is used to reveal that the author does not intend to present a view that is emotionally provocative at all, but is engaged in a “dispassionate quest for irreducible truth”.

The paper concludes that emotional concepts such as “pessimism” and “joy”, while identifiable in the text within certain frames of reference, are actually subjective when found in the overall literary unit, having been brought to the work by the reader. The author, it is concluded, “did not set out to offer” either one.

Detail

How to find the Central Message

In exploring the “central message” of Ecclesiastes, this paper considers the intention of the author. After all, any message we discern that the author did not intend must not be the “central” one. Therefore we are seeking to determine whether the author intended a pessimistic, or a joyful reading of this work.

Who is the Author?

Carson says, “as far back as anyone can trace, Ecclesiastes has been ‘canonical’”,[1] but the authorship of Ecclesiastes is disputed. “Qoheleth” may be King Solomon (1:1), a dramatised fictional Solomon, or someone writing in the tradition of Solomon, for example.[2] There could be an early author “Qoheleth”, and one or more later redacting editors, as well. But for the purpose of this paper, any “central message” to the whole text that we have today will reflect the goal of the final publisher, irrespective of their identity, referred to as “the author” in this paper.

Determining the “central message” of the book of Ecclesiastes has been attempted by scholars throughout the ages of Christian thought, but with no clear consensus. In fact, LaSor observes that the book itself contains “warnings against our simple solutions.”[3]

Scholars’ Attempts to decide between Pessimism and Joy

In a basic survey of leading scholars with respect to “pessimism” and “joy”, three major schools of thought emerge, and there are differing emphases even within the categories:

Sceptical

Firstly, some have concluded that Ecclesiastes contains an essentially “sceptical” and “pessimistic” message because of either an apparent contempt for the human condition, or the absence of apparent meaning in life. Crenshaw says, “Qoheleth’s positive counsel contains little cause for exhilaration”.[4] Drane goes further with, “Ecclesiastes is essentially negative and sceptical”.[5] Murphy sees the work as “a guide to living faithfully in a world in which God is problematic”,[6] but R.B.Y. Scott (as cited by Shank) observes: “The author is a rationalist, an agnostic, a skeptic, a pessimist and a fatalist”.[7]

Positive, hopeful, joyous

Secondly, others conclude that Ecclesiastes is “positive”, “hopeful”, or “joyous” because the book does provide positive recommendations in the face of an otherwise incomprehensible life. Bright says that in Israel, “wisdom tradition [is]… a vehicle for describing the good life under the law”,[8] but Carson calls Ecclesiastes, “a reply to the unrelieved pessimism … [which] calls us to a life of faith and joy.”[9] Alexander sees it as “just cynicism and despair … [albeit] God can inject joy … [with] satisfaction not in life but in him”,[10] but Fee says the book is included “as a foil, i.e., as a contrast to … the rest of the Bible … The advice of 12:13 … points away from Ecclesiastes to the rest of scripture.”[11] Tenney sees that “There is a positive view of life … theology of contentment”,[12] but Dell says the author “has moments of optimism that contrast with his more pessimistic moments”.[13] Whybray contends that “Some of the texts which have often been held to express a totally pessimistic view can easily be shown to do nothing of the kind”.[14]

No comfort except in Christ

And thirdly, some scholars observe that the passage offers no comfort in the temporal world, but the modern Christian believer finds answers to each of Qoheleth’s “unanswered” questions through the later revelations in Christ. This view is held by LaSor, in that Ecclesiastes “helps explain the crucial importance of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection…”[15] and Fee says, “[a] Christian … from [that] perspective … should be all the more prepared to appreciate … life in the present”.[16] Longman’s overall view is also that, “Finally, Ecclesiastes is read in the light of the New Testament”,[17] and Chisholm says that the book “opens the door to the special revelation provided by God through the Incarnation and the gospel”.[18]

The trouble with using emotional language to characterise the document

Gordon Fee is actually represented in two of the three categories above, based on two separate pieces of work that he has published. Although his conclusions are not contradictory, their observation on the question of “pessimism or joy” varies with the context. Also, the range of contrasting views between eminent scholars implies that the “central message” is at least difficult to discern. Alternatively, “pessimism” and “joy” are not the distinguishing marks of such a message.

Testing the Scholars’ Hypotheses about Structure

In the absence of consensus from the scholars to guide the process we now engage directly with the text. It must be noted that, just as with the “central message”, there is also no consensus among scholars on any one “outline” for the book.[19] But as we only seek the “central message”, the text will be viewed using three commonly employed propositions about the author’s ultimate purpose: that the author intends to present “the juxtaposition of meaninglessness and faith”, or a “critique of other wisdom writings”, or a “Christological hope”.

Comparative: Negative statements introducing a message of hope?

Firstly, it is proposed that Qoheleth makes provocatively negative statements in order to reveal a deeper redemptive message. For example, the prologue is a negative sentiment, that life is “meaningless” (1:2), but the epilogue offers an ultimate observation about the human condition, “Fear God, and keep His commands, for this [is] the whole of man” (12:13 YLT). This gives a parenthetical “positive” flavour to the work.

To pursue that theme, we could similarly see 1:1 to 2:23 as the “negative” proposition that wisdom, pleasure, folly and toil are meaningless, and 2:24-25 as “redemptive” in that there is “satisfaction” and “enjoyment”, received “from the hand of God”. But Drane sees no such pattern, saying, “The author vacillates between these [whether life has any real meaning or not]”[20] and such a pattern does not so clearly present itself in most other parts of the book, so we cannot draw a “pessimism or joy” conclusion this way.

Polemical engagement with proverbial wisdom?

Secondly, suppose that “They [Job and Koheleth] quote one proverb and then register their disagreement by citing another diametrically opposed thereto.”[21] The passage 8:14 observes the antithesis of common proverbial teaching that God “rewards righteousness and punishes wickedness”, for example. But although such a critique of contemporary proverbs is evident in some parts (4:5 cf. 4:6, for example), this pattern is not always discernable in other parts of the text, so we cannot establish a “central message” from this approach either.

Christological Hope?

Thirdly, in order to view the text Christologically, the temporal, “under the sun” existence will be taken to be “meaningless”, as contrasted with meaning through faith in Christ.

According to this view of Ecclesiastes, there is no meaning to our temporal existence (1:2), and no reason to think there is anything beyond death either (3:21), except perhaps judgement (9:1). God is the source of anything good, but His favour is unpredictable (9:1) and He is unknowable (8:17). But Christologically we can see that, in Christ, there is now a life full of meaning (John 10:10), a clear understanding of what lies beyond death (John 3:18, 14:2-3), and an assurance that God makes Himself “knowable” (John 16:15).

The trouble with employing a Christological viewpoint, however, is that it is difficult to imagine that this was the author’s purpose when writing the piece. Although Ecclesiastes can be the source of joy for a Christian, its “central message” does not appear to be intentionally Christological since it offers no systematic messianic hope.

It is therefore unsatisfactory, although these elements exist, to suggest that the author was intending that any of these three propositions would be the basis of a “central message”.

What does the Author say?

Rather, Qoheleth openly declares that his intention is to “explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven” (1:12). The author reports that, in the end, Qoheleth “searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true” (12:10). Therefore the author is not recommending “pessimism”, or “joy”, but is documenting a quest for truth,[22] with which he finally is satisfied. He maintains an emotional detachment in most of the text except, perhaps, where giving advice. But as Crenshaw says: “The advice invariably occurs within contexts … which stress God’s control over human ability to enjoy life”,[23] and contain “little cause for exhilaration.”[24]

Our goal must therefore be found in 12:13-14, which is the ultimate piece of advice that the author is offering us, and therefore represents the “central message” that the author intended.

Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter:

Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole [duty][25] of man.

For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.  (12:13-14)

No hint of the author implying either “pessimism” or “joy” is detectible in this final declaration of complete human meaning (“the whole of man”) in God’s purposes for us, and since the author has not set out to promote one response or the other, the answer to the question “Is the central message of Ecclesiastes one of pessimism or joy?” will therefore depend entirely on the reader’s subjective response to the author’s proposition, that “the whole of man” is to “fear God and keep his commandments”. This interpretive license is evidenced in the fact of such a divergence of scholarly opinion.

Neither Pessimism nor Joy

In conclusion, the author did not set out to offer a central message of “pessimism”, nor of “joy”, but to record a dispassionate quest for irreducible truth. Therefore any of pessimism or joy that we encounter in the “central message” of the work is brought to it by the reader, not the author.

 

Bibliography

Alexander, David, and Pat Alexander. The Lion Handbook to the Bible. 3rd ed. Oxford: Lion, 1999.

Bright, John. A History of Israel. 4th ed, Westminster Aids to the Study of the Scriptures. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000.

Carson, D. A. New Bible Commentary. 4th ed. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.

Chisholm, Robert B., Jr. “Ambiguity in Ecclesiastes.” Bibliotheca sacra 166, no. 664 (2009): 501-02.

Crenshaw, James L. Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction. Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 1998.

Dell, Katharine J. “The Cycle of Life in Ecclesiastes.” Vetus Testamentum 59, no. 2 (2009): 181-89.

Drane, John William. Introducing the Old Testament. Tring: Lion, 1987.

Fee, Gordon D., and Douglas K. Stuart. How to Read the Bible Book by Book : A Guided Tour. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2002.

Fee, Gordon D., and Douglas K. Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth : A Guide to Understanding the Bible. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1993.

Gordis, Robert. “Quotations as a Literary Usage in Biblical, Oriental and Rabbinic Literature.” Hebrew Union College Annual 22 (1949): 157-219.

LaSor, William Sanford. Old Testament Survey : The Message, Form and Background of the Old Testament. 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K. ; Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1996.

Longman, Tremper, III. “Challenging the Idols of the Twenty-First Century: The Message of the Book of Ecclesiastes.” Stone-Campbell Journal 12, no. 2 (2009): 207-16.

Murphy, R., and E. Huwiler. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (Nibct). Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1999.

New International Bible Dictionary. Edited by Merrill C. Tenney and James Dixon Douglas. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1987.

Shank, H. Carl. “Qoheleth’s World and Life View as Seen in His Recurring Phrases.” Westminster Theological Journal 37, no. 1 (1974): 57-73.

Whybray, Roger N. “Qoheleth, Preacher of Joy.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, no. 23 (1982): 87-98.


[1] D. A. Carson, New Bible Commentary, 4th ed. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 610.
[2] “It is easier to say King Solomon did not write Ecclesiastes than who did” – William Sanford LaSor, Old Testament Survey : The Message, Form and Background of the Old Testament, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, U.K. ; Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1996), 500.
[3] Ibid., 497.
[4] James L. Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction (Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 1998), 128.
[5] John William Drane, Introducing the Old Testament (Tring: Lion, 1987), 103.
[6] R. Murphy and E. Huwiler, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (Nibct) (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1999), 175.
[7] H. Carl Shank, “Qoheleth’s World and Life View as Seen in His Recurring Phrases,” Westminster Theological Journal 37, no. 1 (1974): 58.
[8] Emphasis in the original text – John Bright, A History of Israel, 4th ed., Westminster Aids to the Study of the Scriptures (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 438.
[9] Carson, New Bible Commentary, 609-10.
[10] David Alexander and Pat Alexander, The Lion Handbook to the Bible, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Lion, 1999), 400.
[11] Gordon D. Fee and Douglas K. Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth : A Guide to Understanding the Bible, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1993), 214.
[12] New International Bible Dictionary, ed. Merrill C. Tenney and James Dixon Douglas (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1987), 291.
[13] Katharine J. Dell, “The Cycle of Life in Ecclesiastes,” Vetus Testamentum 59, no. 2 (2009): 182.
[14] Roger N. Whybray, “Qoheleth, Preacher of Joy,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, no. 23 (1982): 92.
[15] LaSor, Old Testament Survey : The Message, Form and Background of the Old Testament, 497.
[16] Gordon D. Fee and Douglas K. Stuart, How to Read the Bible Book by Book : A Guided Tour (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2002), 157.
[17] Tremper Longman, III, “Challenging the Idols of the Twenty-First Century: The Message of the Book of Ecclesiastes,” Stone-Campbell Journal 12, no. 2 (2009): 207.
[18] Robert B. Chisholm, Jr., “Ambiguity in Ecclesiastes,” Bibliotheca sacra 166, no. 664 (2009): 502.
[19] Typical of others, Carson finds some elements, but “any more rigid logic or reason for the order of sections cannot be found” – Carson, New Bible Commentary, 610.
[20] Drane, Introducing the Old Testament, 103.
[21] Robert Gordis, “Quotations as a Literary Usage in Biblical, Oriental and Rabbinic Literature,” Hebrew Union College Annual 22(1949): 207.
[22] “The understanding of wisdom as a search is singularly appropriate for Qoheleth.” – Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction, 116.
[23] Ibid., 128.
[24] Ibid., 128.
[25] The term “duty” is added by translators and is not in the Hebrew.

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