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The God of Qoheleth

June 1, 2011

Introduction

Ecclesiastes is generally considered by readers and commentators alike as being primarily a philosophical rather than a theological work.[1]  This approach to the book has often caused many to miss the important dimension of Deity that permeates the message of Qoheleth.  Although it is clear that the author did not intend his work to be a theological treatise, his message can only be rightly understood from within his theological framework.[2]  How one reconstructs Qoheleth’s theology depends very much on how one answers the following fundamental question: is the god of Qoheleth the God of Israel, or not?  Some answer in the affirmative, others the negative.[3]  The following essay will seek to address this question by exploring the ways in which Qoheleth portrays God throughout his work, and will then use this information to answer the questions surrounding the identity of God.

The Picture of God

Like the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, the God of Qoheleth is often described as being both present and distant, transcendent and sovereign over the world and all that is in it.[4]  Nowhere does Qoheleth argue for the existence of God; he simply assumes it.  The importance he places on God and His involvement with humanity is made clear by the fact that His name is mentioned explicitly some forty times throughout the book and is implied in numerous other passages.[5]  The present section will organise Qoheleth’s statements about God into four categories.[6]

God is the Source

One of the primary presuppositions of the book of Ecclesiastes is the fact that God is the source of all things.  He is the creator and provider of things both good and bad.  Although God is not explicitly identified as the Creator until 12:1, Choon-Leong Seow points out that the preface (1:2-11) already assumes that there is an ordered universe, inevitably leading the audience to the question of the Creator.[7]  This is further emphasised by the echoes of Genesis 1-3 that resound throughout the book.[8]  Qoheleth declares that God is the one who “makes everything” (11:5; cf. Gen. 1:1-27); that, despite the entry of sin, there is still good to be found in this world (2:24; 3:12-13; 5:18; cf. Gen 1:31); that, because of sin, there is also toil and hard labour (2:18-23; Gen. 3:17-18), and in the end, death (9:5; 12:7; Gen. 3:19).  R. N. Whybray thus observes that “Qoheleth’s picture of God and His dealings with man corresponds remarkably closely to that which we find in Gen. 3.”[9]  God is also seen as the provider of all things.  He is the giver of life (5:18; 8:15; 9:9; 12:7); He provides prosperity and the ability to enjoy it (2:24-26; 3:13; 6:2); He is also seen as being responsible for days of adversity (7:14), the “grievous task” of searching for understanding (1:13; 3:11), and for the incapacity to enjoy the benefits of one’s labour (6:2).[10]  Qoheleth therefore seems to believe quite strongly that “there is nothing except what God gives.”[11]

God is the Judge

Another important attribute of Qoheleth’s God is that He is the one who judges both the righteous and the wicked, though the timing of the judgment is a matter of debate.[12]  The role of God as judge first surfaces in the context of miscarried justice in 3:16-17.  Here, God’s justice is contrasted with the injustice exercised among and experienced by humanity.  Such will be met with divine judgment.  In 11:9, Qoheleth exhorts young men to enjoy the pleasures of life and follow after the impulses of their hearts and the desires of their eyes, but to remember that God will bring them into judgment “for all these things.”  Some have seen this as an editorial gloss to counteract such shocking advice.[13]  A similar approach has been taken regarding the judgment clause in 12:14.  But such a position is uncalled for as the reality of divine judgement has already been unambiguously stated (3:17).   Walter Brueggemann concludes that for Qoheleth, “there is a reckoning and an accountability that cannot be escaped. Moral coherence indeed exists, and conduct counts”[14] because all will stand in judgement before God.

God is to be feared

Fearing God is a theme that appears in a number of different, though not unrelated contexts throughout the book.  In 3:14, the appropriate response to the mystery and perpetuity of God’s work is that men should stand in awe before Him.  A similar idea is found in the liturgical setting of 5:1-7, which once again emphasises both the presence and distance of God.  In this context, fearing God consists of being cautious in speech (v. 2, 6), being faithful regarding vows (v. 4-5), and conducting one’s self in such a way that “does not invite punishment.”[15]  Roland Murphy notes that the imperative to
fear God at the end of this passage reveals that it “is at the heart of his religious attitude.”[16]  The one who fears God in 7:18 is said to “come through,” having successfully carried out the two recommendations of avoiding excessive righteousness and wisdom on the one hand (v. 16), and excessive wickedness and folly on the other (v. 17).[17]  Qoheleth assumes one of the traditional features of wisdom literature in contrasting those who fear God with the wicked in 8:12-13.  Significantly, the book ends with the theme of reverencing God hanging in the air, this time being directly related to commandment keeping (12:13).  The common thread that runs through each these statements seem to indicate that the fear of God flows out of “the mystery and incomprehensibility of God,”[18]  and “the recognition that God is God and people are human.”[19]

God is Beyond Comprehension

A final way in which Qoheleth portrays God is that He is beyond understanding.  This idea is made explicit in three places throughout the book.  In 3:11, it is revealed that God has set eternity in the heart of humanity so that they “will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end.”  Unravelling the ambiguity of this much debated passage need not be dealt with here,[20] except to note that despite the meaning of העולם, the work of God is incomprehensible.  The next passage in which this attribute of God appears is 8:16-17, where Qoheleth pines that although one may seek wisdom and understanding, even depriving oneself of sleep in the pursuit, it is not possible to discover the work of God under the sun.  He later writes that, “Just as you do not know the path of the wind and how bones are formed in the womb of the pregnant woman, so you do not know the activity of God who makes all things” (11:5).  Most translations see two points of comparison in this verse, but Murphy suggests that “it seems better to recognise only one term of comparison, the action of the רוח, or ‘life-breath,’ in the womb,” seeing it as a reference to the mystery of conception and birth.[21]

The Identity of God

Having now briefly looked at the picture Qoheleth paints of God, we are in a position to address the questions surrounding His identity.  When the four divine characteristics that have been highlighted are compared with the rest of the Old Testament, it becomes clear that they are in complete harmony.  Roy Zuck thus notes that “all these truths about God are consistent with the rest of Scripture.”[22]  God is indeed the creator and provider of all things (e.g. Gen. 1-2; Job 38:1-7; Ps. 104; Pro. 3:19-20); He is the judge (e.g. Ex. 5:21; 1 Chron. 16:33; Ps. 7:8; 98:9); He is to be feared (e.g. Deut. 10:12; 1 Sam. 12:24; Job 1:8; Pro. 1:7); and He is beyond comprehension (e.g. Deut. 29:29; Ps. 92:5-6; Pro. 20:24; Isa. 55:9).[23]  On this basis alone, one may draw the conclusion that the identity of God is obvious.  It is however, not a conclusion that is without question among some interpreters.

It should first be noted that Qoheleth only refers to God as אלהים, the generic name for god(s) in the ancient world,[24] and not by the usual personal name יהוה.  This has sometimes been used as an argument to prove that Ecclesiastes finds its origins outside of Israel.[25]  But this is not an adequate explanation.  After all, the covenant name for God does not appear in the book of Esther or the Song of Solomon either.[26]  It has already been demonstrated that Qoheleth speaks of one God and identifies Him as the creator and provider of all things.  Such obvious creational-monotheism would be a misfit in any other ancient worldview and thus points strongly towards Qoheleth writing from within an Israelite context.  But if this were so, why the absence of the covenantal name?  There are at least two possible explanations.  First, the frustrations and failures of Qoheleth that characterise the book are experienced on more than just a national level; they are universal.  He may have thus been writing vis-à-vis the whole of humanity to God, which would appeal to a wider audience with the more generic name אלהים.  A second possibility is that as the Old Testament canon was drawing to a close, there was a growing reluctance to use the divine name, “hence, when Ecclesiastes reached its final form – even if Solomon had been the author and had used the covenant name – reverence would have required the use of [אלהים].”[27]

Another criticism which brings the identity of Qoheleth’s God into question is the fact that there is no evidence of the covenant or salvation history anywhere in the book.  But the absence of evidence is no  evidence of absence.  That these central  features of Israelite faith are not referred to by Qoheleth is typical of  wisdom literature, which concerns “the individual member of society rather than with the nation as a whole.”[28]  It addresses the events and experiences of daily life, of which these larger national elements form and implicit framework.  Murphy thus points out that “there is no incompatibility between the saving God of history and the God of human experience.”[29]  Therefore, while such central features are missing, “this does not give one the right to play off the God of Qoheleth against the Yahweh of Israel.”[30]  They are, as has been seen, one and the same.

Conclusion

The present paper has briefly examined the God of Qoheleth by observing four ways in which He is presented throughout the book of Ecclesiastes – as creator and provider, as judge, as one to be feared, and one who is beyond comprehension.  These findings were then compared with the picture of God that is revealed in the rest of the Old Testament and it was seen that they were consistent with each other. Two of the major challenges to this understanding were addressed and were seen to be without any substantial foundation. In light of the foregoing evidence, it must therefore be concluded that
the God of Qoheleth is indeed the God of Israel, and it is only within this theological framework that his message can be correctly understood.


[1] C.L. Seow, Ecclesiastes: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 54.

[2] “Qoheleth’s concept of God… is the central question for the interpretation of his thought.” R. N. Whybray, New Century Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 27.

[3] See Stephan de Jong, “God in the Book of Qohelet: A Reappraisal of Qohelet’s Place in Old Testament Theology,” Vetus Testamentum 27, no. 2 (April 1997), 154, and Roland Murphy, Ecclesiastes, Word Biblical Commentary 23A (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1992), 1xvii for a list of representatives of both views.

[4] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1997), 395.

[5] Seow, Ecclesiastes, 54. Murphy points out that God is “the subject of the verbs נתן, ‘give,’ and עשׂה, ‘do,’ no less than eighteen times.” Ecclesiastes, 13.

[6] Jong, “God in the Book of Qohelet,” classifies the statements into six categories.

[7] Seow, Ecclesiastes, 55.

[8] See Charles C. Forman, “Koheleth’s Use of Genesis,” Journal of Semitic Studies 5, no. 3 (1960): 256-263, for a more detailed study on this point.

[9] Whybray, Ecclesiastes, 29.

[10] Jong, “God in the Book of Qohelet,” 155.

[11] Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, 394.

[12] See the discussion in Murphy, Ecclesiastes, 36 and Seow, Ecclesiastes, 175.

[13] Especially in light of the fact that Num. 15:39 warns against following after one’s heart and eyes. Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes, 184.

[14] Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, 394.

[15] James L. Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes: A Commentary (London: SCM, 1988), 118.

[16] Murphy, Ecclesiastes, 51.

[17] Whybray, Ecclesiastes, 121.

[18] Murphy, Ecclesiastes, 1xvi.

[19] Seow, Ecclesiastes, 174. Tremper Longman, The Book of Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 36, may perhaps be overstating the case when he concludes that “the fear advocated here is that of fright before a powerful and dangerous being, not respect or awe for a mighty and compassionate deity.”

[20] See Seow, Ecclesiastes, 174, for a helpful and balanced discussion on the meaning of this verse.

[21] Murphy, Ecclesiastes, 109.

[22] Roy B. Zuck, “God and Man in Ecclesiastes,” Bibliotheca Sacra (January-March 1991), 51.

[23] I am in debt to Jong, “God in the Book of Qohelet,” for this idea of comparison.

[24] G. Johannes Botterweck, ed. Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, Revised Edition. Translated by John T. Willis, vol. 1, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974) 267-277.

[25] “The Israelitish name for God is nowhere employed, nor does there appear to be any reference to Judaic matters; hence there seems to be a possibility that the book is an adaptation of a work in some other language.” David Samuel Margoliouth, “Ecclesiastes,” in The Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. 5 (New York, NY: Ktav Publishing, 1901), 33.

[26] There is no mention of God in these two books at all, except for a disputed reference in Song of Songs 8:6. But there is no question of His presence, especially in the book of Esther.

[27] J. Stafford Wright, Ecclesiastes, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 5, edited by Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991), 1148.

[28] Whybray, Ecclecisates, 29.

[29] Roland Murphy, “Wisdom in the OT,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 6, edited by David Noel Freedman (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1992), 922.

[30] Murphy, Ecclesiastes, 1xviii.

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3 Comments
  1. Thank you Ben for this article!! As you know, Elohim is one of the most frequently used words for God by Moshe in the Torah. — David

    • Ben permalink

      Appreciate the feedback David. Thanks for stopping by!

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