From: Ecclesiastes and the Perpetual Paradoxes of Life Return to Home
By Roland H. Worth, Jr. © 2012
The Paradox of Happiness:
We Seek It This Side of Death
Yet So Many Things Can Destroy It
One of the founding documents of this nation gives as one of the inherent rights of mankind that of “the pursuit of happiness.” It has often been observed that the document speaks only of “pursuit.” Its authors recognized that that was the most that could be assured—the right to try to obtain it. Living in a society in which happiness is often viewed as an inherent and inalienable “right,” however, the frustration is multiplied when circumstances behind our control denies it to us.
The ancient author of Ecclesiastes grounds our pursuit of happiness not in some inalienable right but in something even more unquestionable: the certainty of death. Faced with the proverbial “grim reaper,” we can either curl up into a tight ball of furious rage and paranoia or grasp the happiness that comes our way with all the enthusiasm of the person who recognizes the total unpredictability of the future: Be cheerful whenever you can, for you have no idea when the grief will blind side you.
The Flow of the Argument
A. God wants us to learn the lesson of the reality of death: To enjoy life (-22)
B. But life can throw at us many hindrances to maintaining this frame of mind (4:1-5:9)
1. By being the victim of oppression (4:1-3)
2. By being the object of envy (4:4-6)
3. By being alone in the world (4:7-12)
4. By coming into prosperity too late in life to enjoy it (-16)
5. [Page 63] By substituting external religious form for knowledge based religious behavior (5:1-7)
6. By observing uncorrected oppression (5:8-9)
A. God Wants Us to Learn the Lesson
of the Reality of Death:
To Enjoy Life (-22)
In the previous chapters, the king has dealt with the frustrations of life to those who can see beyond the immediate horizon. Now he turns to perhaps the most galling aspect of the future of every one of us: so far as this life is concerned we are no better than the animals--we all die and return to the dust.
To a ruler, death is the ultimate frustration. With all the armed might at his command, with all the superb intellect he has to bring to the problem, with all the wealth that he can utilize to buy anything humanly available—none of that will keep him from that day when he becomes mute and his voice is permanently stilled.
This could be the basis of despair. Instead he turns it to an argument for work based contentment in the present world, “So I perceived that nothing is better than that a man should rejoice in his own works, for that is his heritage” (3:22a). You can’t see what will be done with that heritage (3:22b) but you can see the heritage itself. You’ve done your part in laying the foundation for a better future and you should rest content and proud and leave it to the next generation to worry how they plan on using it.
Polytheists recognized the need to live happily within the limits of their opportunities and abilities. The ancient Egyptian Song of the Harper wove together, within its own cultural perspective, the thought found in both our current text as well as 9:7-9,
Follow thy desire, as long as thou shalt live / Put Myrrh upon thy head and clothing of fine linen upon thee, / Being anointed with the genuine
[Page 64] marvels of the god’s property. / Set an increase to thy good things; / Let not thy heart flag. / Follow thy desire and thy good. / Fulfill thy needs upon earth, after the command of thy heart, / Until there come for thee that day of mourning.
The message of Ecclesiastes is one obviously applicable to the entire human race: we have no control over what people do after we have passed. We can’t take joy and pride in what they will build on the foundation we have laid. We can only take satisfaction in what we have prepared for ourselves and, indirectly, for them as well. We have done what we needed to do; now it is time for them to do likewise.
But what of we ourselves? If we are to enjoy life, that is one thing; but is there anything more to human existence than this temporal reality we are currently living within? The parallel with animals dying (-20) could lead to the conclusion that Qohelet was a strict materialist, that there was no life beyond this one. However argues that he saw a vital difference—at least a possible one—between other animals and the human one.
The traditional interpretation of as a direct assertion of the survival of death is rooted in the KJV’s rendering, “Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?” The New King James translates in that positive manner as well. In other words, the survival is certain; what is uncertain is our understanding of what “the spirit” is all about.
The ancient Septuagint (and the later Syriac, Targums, and Vulgate) shifted the positive rendering of the Hebrew significantly, turning this into conjecture rather than certainty. As the NKJV margin renders it, “Who knows whether the spirit . . . goes upward and whether . . . goes downward to the earth?” The bulk of translations have adopted such a rendering as this one in their main text.
It is not uncommon to argue that since this is a “who knows” statement, that in the Hebrew usage in Ecclesiastes it requires a negative answer, i.e., no one knows. To judge this assertion, the reader needs to examine the question as it is presented both here in as well as its other usages in , , and 8:1.
The grammar of the Hebrew text found in provides verbal clues that can be used to point in either direction, however. Perhaps most important, in 12:7 the author certainly expresses an affirmation of belief in such survival, so one would be surprised if he desires to leave any doubt in the current text.
Approached as an “open question,” however, the monarch still certainly knows of the belief in an afterlife, but has no basis on which to base a certain and definitive conclusion of his own. Taking him as guided by external inspiration of God, this would argue that it was not a matter that God was willing to answer directly even for him. Taking him as guided by purely human insight, it means that unaided reason could not answer the question definitively as to whether part of us survives death.
In either case, what could become a “gospel of despair” is averted. Qohelet is, by no means, an overflowing optimist! But he does cry out that even though there is so much pain and anguish that is unavoidable, yet joy can come; even within the confines of that which we know, we can accomplish much and we should find [Page 65] contentment within that fact. We have no control over what happens after we die. Leave that to God. Be happy for what you can do with this life. Over that we do have control—not absolute but adequate enough that we can find the basis of happiness.
B. But Life Can Throw at Us Many
Hindrances to Maintaining
This Frame of Mind
Solomon recognizes that not everyone can share in his earthly happiness—whether as king or as mere citizen. One might be the victim of oppression (4:1-3). The oppressor has raw coercion on his side and the victim may have no one to even offer comfort. In that case Solomon praised their death rather than their survival: this life could provide them no solace. Death had rescued them from it. Truth be told, even luckier was the person who was never born than the person who had escaped from such treatment by death (4:3): the unborn, at least, did not have to endure any of this at all (cf. Job -19).
Of course, oppression
can come in many forms. It can target
nations, conquered by foreign powers (think of the deportations by foreign
conquerors of ancient
Solomon sees a grim equity in oppression (4:1): “and look! The tears of the oppressed, but they have no comforter—On the side of their oppressors there is power, but they have no comforter.” One is abuser and one is abused but neither gains pleasure out of what is happening. Ellen F. Davis notes the irony in this and how both sides, in a sense, may be victims (although, of course, that does not in any way provide a moral sanction for the mistreatment),
Astonishingly, he makes no distinction between oppressor and oppressed. Slave and slave owner, prisoner and prison guard, battered woman and abusive man—both are to be pitied. . . . It is not enough to tell the oppressor to stop oppressing; in most cases, oppression does not
[Page 66] represent a conscious choice. Rather, mistreatment of others is a way one has learned to survive in a sick family, a sick political system, a sick economy. The real task for both prayer and pastoral ministry, is to break open the system and show a new way forward for both oppressor and oppressed.
Life could also be stripped of its joy by becoming the victim of envy (4:4-6). The mind frame of Qohelet has been clear: the successful person deserves respect. The envious person resents it and refuses to render the esteem that is deserved. True, such a “fool” destroys himself through his own laziness (4:5). He has eaten away his own flesh, so to speak, by refusing to grow or obtain the food necessary for survival. But the stings and barbs still hurt even when thrown by such irresponsible people.
Even admirable success can itself be purchased at too high a price, “Better a handful with quietness than both hands full, together with toil and grasping for the wind” (4:6). If you drive yourself to distraction, instead of succeeding you only torment yourself. And, unless you are wise in your plans, you land up looking like the fool who tries to grab and hold the wind. The apostle Paul sums up the needed mind-frame well, “Godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Timothy 6:6). Spirituality is fine, but unless one enjoys doing the “right thing” contentment is still lacking and we land up resenting the effort.
Both the Psalms (37:16-17) and Proverbs (-17; 17:1) speak of how the life of “getting by” can sometimes be far preferable than the life of abundance. Of course in a society in which most people are abundant and in which television floods the mind with pictures of healthy and prosperous individuals, a psychological burden is added that does not exist in places where communications are more limited. There you may envy a specific person but modern mass media encourages envy of a society and when circumstances (economic or personal) keep one from sharing in that “image” the envy/wanting can easily become destructive rage targeted at oneself or the surrounding community. Hence are borne revolutionary movements and hatred of industrialized societies by the unindustrialized.
Contentment in success can also be destroyed by having no one to share it with (4:7-12). We are social creatures. Our interactions with others add to our joy and happiness. Decades ago, I recognized that I did not need anyone. I was never so naïve, however, as to claim that I didn’t want anyone. You may live a life alone due to principle or necessity or bad luck, but there is still an inner part that cries out for the friendship and the comforting words of others.
In an extreme case, the person who is alone drives himself or herself to even greater exertion: “there is no end to all his labors” nor can he find contentment “with riches” that are gained. Such work fanatics (and there are many such, even among those who claim to be married) never seem to grasp there is no one to be benefited by their exhaustive labor (4:8). If there is literally no one else, as in the case of our text, there is no one to receive the gain when we die. Even if we are [Page 67] “married,” we have only a spouse who neither understands nor respects us for we have never spent enough time together for those bonds to be forged.
Even from the utilitarian standpoint, friendships are useful, Qohelet points out. The reward for their work is greater (4:9). They can help each other in time of need such as when one falls (). The road system of the land was ill developed, with the lanes narrow, ill-maintained, and offering unexpected pitfalls to the person who was not alert. Even closer to home (such as when in the fields working), one might injure oneself and be in urgent need of assistance, which would only be available if someone were there to help.
They can even keep each other warm in the cold (). For this very reason, it was common for both farmers and Bedouins to lie next to each other when remaining overnight in the fields, perhaps covering themselves with their shared outer garments—creating a kind of double-layered “blanket” to increase the warmth. Travelers caught between towns and away from lodging would similarly be benefited by the presence of a fellow traveler.
They can also stand, united, against a powerful foe when either, alone, would be destroyed (). Numbers would provide them strength and even superiority. There is significance not so much in the number cited (“three” versus the “two” in the previous verse) as in the fact that the needed extra resources are now available. “Team work” is the modern expression to describe the phenomena of how a united group (even a small one) can accomplish far more than an individual standing alone.
That is true in the family context and even
in the political one, where no one individual can successfully carry the entire
load of leadership: Moses needed help in
Yet another obstacle to contentment is coming into prosperity too late in life to enjoy it (-16). In such a case poverty and youth is far preferable. (Think along the lines of “If you can’t enjoy it, forget about it.”) He illustrates this by a king who has spent time in jail (presumably a prisoner) and who comes to power only when so advanced in age that he is no longer willing to listen to the advice he needs. (Alternatively, that he had been deposed and restored to power only after he had lost has youthful skills in governance.) Even his own people will be happy when he is dead ().
Instead of a temporarily deposed king being under consideration, others interpret the text to mean that the youthful prisoner came to power in place of the elderly foolish monarch (i.e., he overthrew him), but even this man who has “rescued” the nation will ultimately be scorned. The collective memory is all too short in the rush of life. It becomes “what have you done for me recently,” rather than “without you we would not be where we are today.”
Perhaps this text was especially in Martin Luther’s mind when he recommended that all governing officials should read and meditate upon the personal relevance of Ecclesiastes, “This book should especially be read by new [Page 68] rulers, who have their heads swollen with opinions and want to rule the world according to their own plans and require everything to toe the mark. But such people should first learn to know the world, that is, to know that it is unjust, stubborn, disobedient, malicious, and, in short, ungrateful.”
Michael Kelley suggests that we should look at the matter from the standpoint of the people rather than that of the official: they inevitably demand more than can be obtained and yet repeatedly fall for the propaganda that if they just obtain or elect a “different” leader then all their hopes will become reality. Barring the element of election, revolutions in all ages (even in the strictest monarchies) harness public support in much the same manner—by promising “reforms” that will benefit the nation and its inhabitants. “Each generation longs for a political messiah to usher in paradise.” And it virtually inevitably discovers a secular antichrist rather than redeemer.
Satisfaction can similarly be destroyed by the person who substitutes external religious form for knowledge based spiritual behavior (5:1-7). Qohelet begins this section with a blast at empty ritualism, “Walk prudently when you go to the house of God; and draw near to hear rather than to give the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they do evil” (5:1).
Just as in polytheism, these people defined religion in terms of religious practice rather than in terms of learning and self-betterment. Their sacrifices could be wrong (either in substance or intent) because they did not bother “to hear” the truth. In a similar manner their very lifestyle could be wrong because they lacked the knowledge of the Scriptures so that they could have the right manner of life.
In the New Testament, James spoke of the need to be “swift to hear” and contrasted this with being “slow to speak” and being “slow to wrath” (James ). The idea is to get your facts right first before you venture an opinion (= “slow to speak”) or expressing indignation (= “slow to wrath”). How many troubles arise because people do not do that! But it also involves making sure that our understanding of God’s will is right as well (James 1:22-25) before venturing an assertive opinion of what we believe it teaches and before we become indignant when someone disagrees with that opinion.
In Ecclesiastes 5:1 the idea is also one of letting God’s word have the impact on our lives it should. Physical sacrifice of animals was pivotal to the religious system in those days and it was easy to substitute going through the right outward form and offering the ceremonially “right” sacrifices in place of carrying out God’s will in everyday life.
People often acted (and still do) as if we could compensate for our moral failures by faithfully observing the formal “ritual” side of our religion. The prophet Hosea was building upon this social reality when he quotes God as saying, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings” (6:6). If one had to choose between character and ritualism one was to choose character; in truth, the full religious life had plenty of room for both. Likewise today.
The person who has studiously ignored the accumulation of religious knowledge falls into the trap of promising more in his religion than he needs to or, [Page 69] perhaps, even should (5:2-5). He or she pours out endless words of praise and commitment to God without the words being more than superficial (5:2-3). Just as a person dreams on a multitude of subjects, such a person gushes out voluminous intentions and commitments in a disjointed and unconnected manner. He or she promises and vows to God whatever strikes the “spiritual” fancy or discomfort of the movement.
And when recognition dawns that too much has been promised the temptation is overwhelming to eat one’s own words. “It will cost too much!” “Take too much time!”
Or the temptation will arise when too much time has passed between pledge and fulfillment: “In time of trouble a person may sincerely mean to keep his vow, but when times become better, the frail human frequently forgets the pledge he made during his suffering; in the fat years, he forgets the lean years.” In such cases, it is better not to promise anything than to promise too much, including that which can only be fulfilled so far in the future that we can not realistically be confident of carrying out our promise (5:4-5).
The behavior makes a person feel guilty (justifiably!) and destroys the sought for contentment. “Such irresponsibility,” suggests Elsa Tamez, “shows a lack of seriousness about God, about oneself, and about the reason for which one makes a vow.” And if all one is doing is making empty pledges to impress others, the evil is, if anything, even worse.
They were to do what they promised and not one iota less. The Psalmist wrote that he himself had lived by this standard (66:13-15). Indeed, it was part of the very Old Testament provision regulating vows (Numbers 30:1-2; Deuteronomy -23). Neither Ecclesiastes nor the Torah demanded that vows be made; both shared the conviction that if they were made, one must fulfill the commitment. There was always the danger of rash, unthought out promises. Hence vows were a serious business where outbursts of enthusiasm had to be tempered with thought and prudence—a mistake that Jephthah learned the hard way (Judges -40).
The mouth causes one to sin (5:6) by virtue of promises that go unfulfilled. One “dreams” and brags with “many words” of what is going to be done—and does nothing. Instead of such folly, one should “fear (= respect) God” and keep one’s mouth shut (5:7). Tremper Longman suggests that the logic is that, “Dreams are out of touch with reality, and so, argues Qohelet, are many words in a cultic setting.”
Finally joy can be destroyed by observing uncorrected oppression (5:8-9). Yet here there is the clear possibility of relief. The oppressor thinks he is getting away with something. Perhaps so. But there are also multiple safety factors built in to the system as well: multi echelons of higher authorities over them (5:8). The chicanery may go undetected at some levels but the multiplicity of them argues that not every one will miss them.
Finally, there is the king himself, who recognizes that the prosperity of the country is based on its agriculture (5:9). Hence even the monarch has built in self-interest to suppress injustices inflicted on his farming population—the vast bulk of the population until the industrial age.
[Page 70] The belief is common that the text indicates that all subordinate levels of the government machinery is involved in chicanery of one sort or another or covers it up for the lower levels. One commentator goes so far as to describe it as “a conspiracy among public officials, both administrators and tax collectors, to bilk the people and line their own pockets. . . .” In brief, Qohelet is describing a “corrupt system” of government.
In our judgment this negative reading of the text (universal government corruption or toleration for it) is inferior to our approach that bureaucracy has the potential (and is designed) for self-correction. Whether the author be Solomon or merely an adept sage writing for the economic class that staffs government operations, such a personality is far more likely to speak of government’s self-correcting potential than its inevitably corrupt and uncorrectable nature.
The text viewed from the standpoint of the author. Kings don’t like to admit they can die (-22). Of what value is kingship if you can’t keep it? Yet even the vainest is ultimately faced to make that grim admission.
In his litany of six things that can destroy contentment, he begins (4:1-3) and ends (5:8-9) with oppression. The first time it is simply that one may suffer unjustly. The last time is that there are power structures built into the political system to root out such things.
As monarch, this was at least under his partial control. He could bring happiness (at least to some extent) by preventing injustice to others. (The New Testament also recognizes this obligation of government to carry out constructive and beneficial policies for its people—Romans 13:1-4). In dealing with petty ante abusers of power Solomon is dealing with the kind of cases he and his subordinates had to face time and again.
The remaining four items in the list of destroyers of contentment are ones over which his government had no control. You can’t outlaw envy. You can’t outlaw loneliness. You can’t outlaw religious formalism. These are things that political power can only touch the outward edges of.
Yet even Solomon in his power faced at least the first two of these, though in a different form than most people. As an incredibly wealthy monarch he was envied (4:4-6). Although none was powerful enough to take it away from him, he could see it in people’s eyes and smell it on their breath. And if they were close kin, there must have been more than a few who were convinced that they “deserved it” far more than he.
There were times when he must have felt an astute “aloneness” as well--even in his world of immense wealth and power (4:7-12). A ruler can have all the advisers he wants to hire. He can have so many that it makes it even harder to make a decision! But the final decision must be his. There is no one that can share that responsibility or do it for him.
[Page 71] In one sense the people were proud of their king and would mourn his passing (). But his successors would look back upon him (resentfully?) as representing a pinnacle they could never climb. And the people? Although they enjoyed the distant reflected glory of Solomon, his vast wealth, to a large extent, came out of the taxes and service they provided. And that was a high price indeed. They would not speak out against his memory but a part within them likely breathed a sigh of relief at the possibility that the economic burdens would be lightened.
Harder to tie in with Solomon is the concern over substituting external religious form for knowledge based religious behavior (5:1-7). Yet was not even this a major temptation for a successful monarch? To impress others by one’s spiritual largesse was fully in accord with one’s position, but at what point does pure volume overwhelm the sincerity? Furthermore, to carry out all the vows might well prove itself unwieldy. Even the wealthiest have their limits of time, commitment, and fervor.
The text viewed from our standpoint. If all the warnings of what could destroy contentment in life were valid even for a monarch, their relevance to the remainder of the population is even more obvious. Stripped of the resources a king enjoys, often without an abundance of either wealth or friendships, the line between preserving one’s status and self-respect and plummeting into despair is a slim one indeed. Often it depends solely upon continued employment by corporations that would happily sacrifice us for their “bottom line” profits and to whom we are mere tiny cogs easily replaced by someone newer, with lesser education, and lower wages.
Unless of course they ship our jobs off abroad and deny all of our fellow citizens even the token benefit of the company being considered “American.” Which is of scant comfort trying to find a job that will keep one’s head above water. If we can find such a job at all.
The fact that it used to be that a family could modestly prosper on one paycheck alone while now it virtually requires two, tells the story of the degradation of prosperity in a single sentence. With the Great Recession still rolling on in everything but official recognition, the latest 2012 statistics I’ve seen give the average work hours for those who have a job as about 34 hours. Not even a full work week for them!
And if such misfortune comes our way we suffer not only through lack of money alone, but also the loss of self-respect and self-image. Life becomes something to be survived rather than lived. And we become mere numbers on the casualty list of modern economic life. Qohelet would have understood the anguish all too well.
 Fredericks, n. 2, p. 47, argues that through the negative answer is required in 2:19, that such a response is not necessarily the case in the other two texts.
 See Kidner, n. 4, p. 43. For textual indications that Solomon accepted an affirmative answer to the question, see Eaton, 88-89, and Kaiser, 70.
 Ellen F. Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes,
and the Song of Songs, in the Westminster Bible Companion series (
 Cf. Leiman, 83.
 Odeberg, 41.
 Kidwell, 100.
 Tamez, n. 44, p. 164.
 Murphy, 42.
 Eaton, 94.
 Cf. Murphy, 42.
 Kidner, 50.
 Garrett, 309: Note his comments on the grammar of the context as to how many people are involved in becoming king. On the ambiguity of the grammar, also see Longman, 146.
 Fleming, 696; Leupold, 113-114; and Rylaarsdam, 111. Some take the reference to be to Jeroboam, who returned from exile after Solomon’s death to take power over ten tribes (Kidwell, 105): He was either poor literally (because of having little money with him or having had to spend it to maintain himself) or poor in comparison with whoever sat on the throne. For Joseph as a possible example of the imprisoned poor man who rises to regal circles and then is later forgotten, see Loader, 55.
 As quoted by
 Cf. Leiman, 96.
 Ibid., 97.
 Tamez, 77.
 Cf. Johnson, 108.
 Perry, 103, stressing the verbal similarity between Ecclesiastes and the Deuteronomy text.
 Fuerst, 122.
 Longman, 155. His view that Qohelet desires to replace “familiarity” with “fear” (155) is, however, unlikely: verbose and unmeant words reveal disrespect rather than familiarity.
 For example, Fox, Qohelet, 213; Hubbard, 136-137; and Johnson, 109. Whybray, Ecclesiastes (Century), 97, though embracing such an approach, concedes that the Hebrew permits the text to be used in either this sense or the one we suggest.
 Kelley, 100.
 Schultz, 591.