Understanding Ecclesiastes: Life in a Frustratingly Enigmatic World, Part 2

Read Part 1.

In part 1 of this series, I began to develop an alternative to negative renderings of hebel (AV, “vanity”). In part 2, I will explain three reasons why hebel would be better understood as “frustratingly enigmatic.” Then I will conclude by looking at some implications of the use of hebel in Ecclesiastes.

Evidence for understanding hebel as “frusratingly enigmatic”

(1) The phrase “chasing after wind” (r’ut ruah) serves as a qualifying element to hebel. Ecclesiastes1:14 is an example, where “chasing after wind” complements hebel. The phrase also occurs in Ecclesiastes 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 6; 6:9. The expression indicates something that is beyond man’s control. As Carl Shank observed, “A man may determine or make up his mind to accomplish something eternally significant in a creation subjected to vanity, yet no matter how hard he tries Qohelet tells him it will be a fruitless endeavor. A man in his toil ‘under the sun’ grasps after the wind and attains precious little for all his labor” (“Qoheleth’s World and Life View As Seen in His Recurring Phrases,” Westminster Theological Journal 37 [Fall 1974]: 67). Thus, the concept of “chasing after wind” supports our contention that the semantic range of hebel includes a cognitive sense (for other complementary phrases, see Ogden, Qoheleth, pp. 24–25).

(2) If life has no value, how can we harmonize this with Qohelet’s positive exhortations about life? At climactic points in this work, Qohelet advises us to enjoy God’s gifts (Eccles. 2:24; 3:12, 22; 5:18; 8:15; 9:7–10). These gifts include food, drink, work, wealth, possessions, marital relationship, and youth. In addition, though wisdom is not the panacea for all of life’s adversities, Qohelet commended it as a solution to many of life’s problems (Eccles. 2:13; 4:13; 7:11–12, 19; 9:13–18). These positive exhortations certainly suggest that life has some value.

(3) In Ecclesiastes Qohelet recounts his quest for meaning and purpose in life. The very nature of this quest was to gain understanding into what gives life meaning. It was not a haphazard search but a thorough quest that took into account the range of activities occurring “under the sun.” Rather than expressing a perspective limited to “natural theology” as Leupold would suggest (Ecclesiastes, pp. 42–43), this prepositional phrase denotes the place where these activities occurred, “on the earth” (Shank, p. 67).

The epistemological nature of this search is emphasized in passages such as 1:13 where Qohelet set his heart/mind (leb) to seek and explore, by his divinely given gift of wisdom, all that been done upon the earth. The comprehensive, earthly aim of the search is further emphasized by Qohelet’s observations. He observed all of man’s works in 1:14, wisdom and understanding in 1:16, madness and folly in 2:12, injustice in the halls of justice in 3:16, labor produced by rivalry in 4:4, riches hurting the one who possesses them in 5:13, one whom God has not enabled to enjoy his wealth in 6:1–2, retribution violating a strict cause and effect relationship in 7:15, unexpected victors in 9:11, inappropriate leadership in 10:7, and people dying in 12:3.

The cognitive sense of hebel is also stressed in 6:1–11:6, which revolves around finite man’s inability to understand God’s work. In 7:1–8:17, Qohelet punctuates this unit with “not discover” and “who can discover” in Ecclesiastes 7:14, 24, 28 (twice), and 8:17 (three times). In 9:1–11:6 Qohelet emphasizes “do not know” and “no knowledge” in Ecclesiastes 9:1, 5, 10, 12; 10:14, 15; 11:2, 5–6 (three times). All of this suggests that the use of hebel in Ecclesiastes relates to the issue of man’s frustrating inability to comprehend the activities in his earthly sphere of existence.

Therefore, hebel is an appropriate term to encapsulate Qohelet’s frustrating and puzzling search for meaning and purpose in life. The use of this term in the sentence “all is hebel,” as used in 1:2 and 12:8, sets the parameters for its use in all of Ecclesiastes. In every case where Qohelet evaluates life with this catchword, we should translate it in a consistent manner with this understanding. We might translate 1:2 in this fashion: “Most frustratingly enigmatic, says Qohelet, most frustratingly enigmatic, all is frustratingly enigmatic.” Consequently, Qohelet’s subject is the frustratingly enigmatic nature of all the facets of this life. Does the subject of Ecclesiastes have any significance for us?

Implications from the use of hebel in Ecclesiastes

Like Qohelet’s world, our post-modern age is frustratingly enigmatic. We might be tempted to respond to this type of world with pessimism, existentialism, or secularism. However, Qohelet presents an eternally significant alternative. He responds by exhorting us to judiciously enjoy the basic gifts of life and to embrace a theocentric perspective on life.

(1) Enjoyment of life

The enjoyment-of-life motif has been one of the most misunderstood portions of Ecclesiastes. In commenting on the pessimistic worldview of Ecclesiastes, Scofield also expresses his negative understanding of the carpe diem passages: “The student should notice that it is not at all the will of God which is developed, but that of man ‘under the sun’ forming his own code. It is, therefore, as idle to quote such passages as ii.24, iii.22, etc., as expressions of the divine will as it would be to apply Job ii.4, 5 or Gen. iii.4. The constant repetition of such expressions as ‘I perceived,’ ‘I said in my heart,’ ‘then I saw,’ etc., sufficiently indicate that here the Holy Spirit is showing us the workings of man’s own wisdom and his reaction in weariness and disgust” (C. I. Scofield, The Scofield Bible Correspondence School, vol. 1 [Los Angeles: Bible Institute of Los Angeles, 1907], p. 111). Other commentators take a similar approach (e.g., Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes, p. 28).

I am convinced that these passages do not lead to this skeptical conclusion when taken in their contexts. When considered in light of death, Qohelet found no satisfaction in wisdom, pleasure, and toil (Eccles. 1:12–2:23). Everything that he labored to accumulate would be left to someone after him. In light of this situation he recommends in Ecclesiastes 2:24–26 that as God enables us, we should enjoy our food, drink, and work. He further affirms that God also gives wisdom, understanding, and joy to those who please Him.

We find a more elaborate exhortation celebrating life in Ecclesiastes 9:7–10. In this context, Qohelet affirms that both the righteous and the wicked are in the hands of God and neither knows whether love or hate will occur in their future. All men share the same destiny of death. This being the case, he commends joy while we are alive, for the activities of this life will not take place in Sheol. In 9:7–10 he commends eating and drinking with a joyful heart, the enjoyment of fine clothes, perfume, and our wives. He further advises that we labor diligently and astutely.

In various carpe diem passages, the celebration-of-life motif is predicated on the good pleasure of God. Does this sound like the remarks of a skeptic advocating unbridled hedonism? Does it not sound like someone who had a high view of God?

(2) A theocentric view of life

Having searched for meaning and purpose in the gifts of life and, subsequently, realizing that this quest had been foolishly misdirected, Qohelet finds the answer in the incomprehensible God. Besides exhorting a judicious enjoyment of life along with the other carpe diem passages (for a list see above), Ecclesiastes 2:24–25 and 9:7–10 reflect a theocentric perspective on life. The refrain from 3:12–14 illustrates this outlook as well: “I know that there is nothing better for men than that they rejoice and do well in life; and also that every man should eat and drink and find satisfaction in all his labor—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does this so that men should fear Him” (author’s translation).

This passage teaches that God may enable men to be happy, prosper, enjoy their food and drink, and find satisfaction in their work. The context of this refrain is a description of Qohelet’s ability to see the beauty of God’s ordered arrangement of life, yet he is grieved by his inability to comprehend how the details of God’s plan are being accomplished (Eccles. 3:11). In light of this frustration, he recommends that we enjoy the basic elements of life that God has given us. With our limited capacity for knowledge, our author urges us to be content with what we do possess. In v. 14 he is convinced that nothing can change God’s work and that the consequence of this is that men will fear God. From this, we should understand that Qohelet, as a biblical theologian, viewed life from a God-centered perspective.

How should we respond to living in a frustratingly enigmatic world? In the same way Qohelet did. We should develop a God-fearing Weltanschauung (worldview). And, in faith—based on this worldview—we should embrace God and, as a result, judiciously and reverentially enjoy His good gifts.


Robert V. McCabe is registrar and professor of Old Testament at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary. He joined the faculty of DBTS in 1983 as head of the Old Testament department, and he became registrar in 1987. He earned the M.Div degree at Temple Baptist Theological Seminary in 1974 and the ThM and ThD degrees at Grace Theological Seminary in 1980 and 1985 respectively. Dr. McCabe and his wife, Linda, reside in Allen Park MI and have three children.

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SWade's picture

I found this discussion of hebel interesting because I have always read it to be pessimistic. I don’t think interpreting hebel to mean “frustratingly enigmatic” significantly alters this view. For someone like Qohelet who dedicated his life to “search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 1:13), being frustrated in his life’s purpose would lead to a pessimistic view of life.

The important interpretation for Ecclesiastes is to understand what Qohelet is pessimistic about. In chapters 1 and 2, Qohelet relates his search about life. It should be emphasized that it is his search. From 1:13 through 2:23, Qohelet uses the first person (I, my or me) approximately sixty times. This was Qohelet’s personal search to raise himself up and gratify personal desires.

My interpretation of Qohelet’s search is a rebellion against God, proving he was the greatest man to live and proving he could attain the heights and wisdom of God through his own efforts. As we see, his efforts were ultimately hebel (meaningless), leading to his pessimistic view of life. Qohelet’s pessimistic view of life is not without qualification, however. He is pessimistic about life without God.

At the end of Qohelet’s search, he sees the potential for joy. He urges us to “eat and drink, and that his soul should enjoy good in his labor.” (Ecclesiastes 2:24, see also, 3:12, 22; 5:18, 8:15; and 9:7-10) Once again, it is important to understand the context in which this exhortation is made. Qohelet certainly ate, drank and sought enjoyment during his personal search. (Ecclesiastes 2:3, 8, 10). But as we see, this enjoyment of life for personal sake did not lead to fulfillment. In each instance that Qohelet encourages the enjoyment of life, he recognizes that enjoyment is a gift of God. ((Ecclesiastes 2:24, 3:12, 22; 5:18, 8:15; and 9:7-10). Pursuing enjoyment should not be the end of itself, but pursuit of enjoyment of life through God.

It is important to understand hebel as pessimistic. It is only in understanding that life without God leads to life without fulfillment and full of frustration do we fully appreciate the joys God has given us. As a result of the Fall, God had withheld complete understanding (Ecclesiastes 3:11). However, He has not abandoned us and given us the ability to enjoy life through him.

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