697: SAGES #3: Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes)

Summary: “This Old Testament Wisdom book could lay claim to being the most atheistic book in the bible. The writer, known as the Proclaimer or Qoheleth, tells us that life is ‘all vanities’, and that the only sensible things to do are eat, drink and enjoy yourself, while you still can, as death comes to us all.”

This is part of the ‘Wisdom literature’ of the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament); the other books in this category being Job, Proverbs, Psalms, Ecclesiasticus, and the Wisdom of Solomon. These books are all relatively ‘this-worldly’, humanist, and secular. So, to quote Lloyd Geering “The sages dealt with the immediate issues of everyday life and rarely attempted to wrestle with ultimate questions.”

This post is my take on the book, which I have never read before. In spite of this, some verses were quite familiar as they have entered the mainstream mindset, e.g. “a time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot…..etc.” “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” “There is nothing new under the sun.” First I make a few general comments from a 21st century atheist perspective, then I quote those verses that struck me as being particularly interesting, amusing or just plain odd. This is a purely personal selection.

It would be a good idea to read this in conjunction with the Zingcreed post 155 (details below), and with the forthcoming post “Such is life!” which is a review of the book of the same name (details also below).

I used the New International Version of the bible.

Sentences in italics are my comments on verses.

General Comments:

  • There’s some good stuff in the 12 chapters of this book, some thought-provoking  comments on life in general.
  • Like the book of Proverbs, it seems to be advice to the young from an old guy who’s seen it all. He has a meandering style and he is a bit of a pessimist, but his basic message is pretty clear: use your wealth to provide enjoyment for yourself while you are still alive because you can’t take any of it with you.
  • The writer struggles to make sense of life and of the human condition. The fact that he is worried about what to do with his wealth and possessions indicates that he is writing for readers who belong to a weathy section of society, a section that has the leisure time to reflect on the meaning of life.
  • His work is a precursor to the modern Existentialist school of philosophy.
  • Qoheleth is controversial (in the Jewish context)  as well as contradictory, perplexing, and complex.

My three favourite verses:

  1. “I came to realise that the same fate overtakes them both (the wise man and the fool – ed.) Then I thought in my heart ‘The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise?’ For the wise man like the fool will not long be remembered; in days to come both will be forgotten. Like the fool, the wise man too must die.” (2:14-16)
    So much for the notions of heaven and hell! This writer obviously doesn’t think they’re of any consequence!
  2. “For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it. This is meaningless and a great misfortune.” (2:21)
    Tough titty!
  3. “A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This I see is from the hand of God, for this is his lot.” (2:24 & 5:18)
    By ‘drink’ I assume he means alcohol. If the whole bible is the divinely inspired word of God, how come preachers choose to ignore this particular verse?

Sound familiar:

  • Chapter 3 vv 1-8 is the words of a song by The Byrds, written by Pete Seeger in 1965, “Turn turn turn”: it’s the one that goes ‘there’s a time to kill, a time to heal…etc”.
  • The American group Kansas produced “Dust in the Wind” in 1977, also based on Ecclesiastes.
  • Chapter 9 v.11 is often quoted at English school kids  by visiting dignitaries e.g when prizes are to be awarded. It’s a kind of consolation prize for those who didn’t get a prize or win a  race:
    “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong,
    nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant,
    or favour to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.”  (9:11)
  • “Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again.” (11:1)
    I think this is used by missionaries today as a metaphor for converting the heathen by sending them bibles to read.
  • “Remember your creator in the days of your youth”. (12:1)

Amusing verses:

  • “I acquired men and women singers, and a harem as well – the delights of the heart of man.” (2:8)
    So, at least one of the men who wrote the bible had a harem, how many religious people know that?
  • “I saw that all labour and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbour.” (4:4)
    It’s called “Keeping up with the Jones’s”.
  • “Do not say ‘Why were the old days better than these?’ For it is not wise to ask such questions.” (7:10)
  • ” Do not pay attention to every word people say or you may hear your servant cursing you.” (7:21)
  • “Do not curse the rich in your bedroom, because a bird of the air may carry your words (and) report what you say.” (10:20) Paranoia?
  • “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” (12:12)
    No, studying books can open the mind. In “The Wire” one memorable line was “The most dangerous thing in America today is a nigger with a library card.” 

Other topics:

  • “As for men… they are like the animals….the same fate awaits them both; as one dies so does the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal….all come from dust  and to dust all return. Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?” (3:18-21)
    How very true; spoken like a real humanist. We are all the products of evolution.
  • “Two are better than one. if one falls down, his friend can help him up…..though one can be overpowered, two can defend themselves.” (4:9-12)
  • “Better a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king.” (4:13)
    Move over, make way for the next generation!
  • “If you see the poor oppressed in a district and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things, for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still. The increase  from the land is taken by all; the king himself profits from the fields.” (5:8-9)
    Time for a peasants’ revolt; not an “option for the poor” as the Catholic church in Latin America called it in the 1970s, but an obligation to the poor.
  • “Naked a man comes from his mother’s womb, and as he comes so he departs. He takes nothing from his labour that he can carry in his hand.” (5:15)
  • “The man who fears God will avoid all extremes.” (7:18)
    Or “Moderation in all things” as one of the ancient Greek philosophers put it. There are said to be Egyptian and Persian influences at work in  Ecclesiastes too.
  • “I find more bitter than death the woman who is a snare, whose heart is a trap and whose hands are chains. I found not one upright woman (among thousands).” (7:26 & 28)
    The same old sexist claptrap we found in the book of Proverbs. These are the documents of a patriarchal society.
  • “Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart……Enjoy life with your wife whom you love all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun.” (9:7-9)
    Yes, wine it is. Just opened a lovely Saint Emilion yesterday, one of my favourite Bordeaux wines.
  • “The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools.” (9:17)
  • “As dead flies give perfume a bad smell so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honour.” (10:1)
  • “If a man is lazy, the rafters sag; if his hands are idle, the house leaks.” (10:18)
  • ” …wine makes life merry, but money is the answer for everything.” (10:19)
    That’s not what he said earlier. 
  • ” As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in the mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God.” (11:5)
    Well, actually…see the Zingcreed post on Secularisation, (details below.)

The experts say:

Qoheleth is not a name but a title. It is a Hebrew word meaning ‘preacher’ or ‘proclaimer’. The author wrote as if he was Solomon, and indeed the only reason the Jews kept the book in the canon is because they (falsely) believed this to be the case. So while the book is called Ecclesiastes, the author is called Qoheleth.
250 BCE
What is Wisdom?
“Wisdom is the mental and emotional skill to respond most fruitfully to what life throws at us and to make the right choices.” (Geering)
There is an absence of such great themes as Israel’s destiny, the house of David, or the expectation of divine intervention. This is a book at odds with much else in the bible. It has been almost totally ignored by theologians and its teaching is not referred to in any doctrinal statements of the church. Indeed it openly questions that God rules the universe in a loving way. The book’s mere existence shows that the bible is a collection of books of human origin.

Wisdom philosophy is situated among  streams of classical hellenistic (i.e. Greek) philosophy such as Stoicism, Epicureanism, Sophism, Skepticism, and Hedonism. (Coogan)

What does the writer mean by ”God”? It is merely a symbolic term for the cosmic order, rather like saying ‘Fate’ or ‘Mother Nature’. (Geering)

Sakenfeld says “Ecclesiastes begins and ends with a statement that everything is vanity. The sage does not try to do away with this reality. Rather the author presents an alternative way of looking at it. The futility of human efforts should no longer lead to vexation of the spirit, but to joy and enjoyment instead. The author establishes that joy is a gift from God that enables humankind to deal with the reality of vanity. The sevenfold emphasis on enjoyment is a message for those who view religious piety more as an exercise of asceticism than social concern and genuine love, in short, those who see enjoyment as  contrary to the biblical faith. The book’s critical tone toward established religious positions is sobering. Ecclesiastes manages to see the divine in the everyday realities of life. However absurd life may appear, God inspires joy of the heart.”

I have not quoted Borg, a most accessible expert, whose chapter on the Wisdom books complements what is written here. I really recommend you see his book and read it alongside my own few words:
Borg, Marcus “Reading the bible again for the first time. Taking the bible seriously but not literally” HarperOne (2001) Chapter 7; p. 161.


(i) Coogan, M.D. “Oxford Encyclopedia of the books of the bible” OUP (2011)
(ii) Sakenfeld, K.D. “New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the bible” vol 2 Abingdon Press (2007)
(iii) Geering, Lloyd “Such is Life! A close encounter with Ecclesiastes” Polebridge Press (2009)

Related Zingcreed posts:
(i) 155: Jesus was a sage, not a priest, prophet or king
(ii) 233: Sages #1: Solomon (The book of Proverbs)
(iii) 273: Sages #2: Epicurus
(iv)  236: The Psalms – What a load of sycophantic paranoia!
(v) 648: Secularisation for Dummies
(vi) 718: Book Review LLOYD GEERING “SUCH IS LIFE!” by Peter Turner


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