Virtually every preacher I’ve heard quote from Ecclesiastes has been guilty cherry-picking verses to suit the message they wanted to convey. Sadly, until a few years ago, I too was a cherry-picker. Various passages from Ecclesiastes are quoted, especially at weddings or funerals without any regard for the larger or immediate context. Again, guilty as charged! Here are just a few of the most often pick cherries:
- At Funerals (and many other occasions): 3:1–8.
- At weddings and marriage retreats: 4:9–12
- For seeker-focused sermons: 3:11 and 12:13–14
Such misuse of these, and other, passages is at least a misrepresentation, and at worse, an abuse of the Qohelet’s intended message. We are quick to quote verses that we can make fit with our already held beliefs—if we ignore the context—yet we ignore or explain away those verses that challenge our theology. However, I have found that when this book is approached rationally it is of great spiritual benefit because it is truly a book that can “comfort the theologically afflicted and afflict the theologically comfortable.”
To respect the overall message of Ecclesiastes, one cannot simply quote the last two verses of the book (12:13–14): “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil” (NRSV). Most modern scholars do not read these as Qohelet’s actual words, but rather that both 1:1–11 and 12:8–14 are a third party’s framing of the Teacher’s message.
“Ecclesiastes begins as a third person narrative in 1:1–11, where the narrator introduces the words of Qohelet. Beginning at 1:12 and extending through 12:7, the narrator’s voice gives way to allow Qohelet’s own voice to speak (with the curious exception of 7:27). In the epilogue, the narrator’s voice resumes, providing a summary and evaluation of Qohelet’s words. The book’s intentional design is underscored by comparing 1:2 and 12:8″ (Peter Enns, Ecclesiastes. Emphasis is mine).
”Absolutely absurd!” says Qohelet, “Absolutely absurd! Everything is absurd.” (1:2)
“Absolutely absurd!” says Qohelet. “Everything is absurd!”” (12:8)
The words of the Teacher are obviously framed by the editor/narrator. I agree with Enns, “How one understands the relationship between this third person frame and the first person body of Ecclesiastes will determine how one understands the message of the book.”
Much of what is contained between the framing verses runs counter to the overall portrayal of God/Yahweh in the Torah, the Prophets and most of the Writings—with the exceptions of Job, Esther and Song of Songs. Consider 1:13b–14, “it is an evil business that God gave to the sons of man to busy themselves with. I have seen all the deeds that are done under the sun and, look, all is mere breath, and herding the wind.” These and other statements Qohelet makes definitely don’t put God in the best light.
So, when the book ends with a statement that humans should “fear God and keep his commandments,” it is more of a sighing resignation rather than a joyful declaration. He still believes God exists and works in creation, though he only refers to God as Elohim and never as Yahweh (the God of Israel). The phrase כָּל־הָאָדָֽם, (kol-ha’adam) is translated in most English versions as “the whole duty of everyone” (NRSV). However, the NIV (1984) actually comes closer to the Hebrew, “the whole of man.” This phrase is found three other times in Ecclesiastes (3:13; 5:18; 7:2) and these collectively provide us with a sense of how we should understand the phrase in its final appearance. Regardless of how we understand and translate this phrase, it must be understood in the context of Qohelet’s overall theme: “Everything is absurd” because it is like “a chasing after wind.” Reading Ecclesiastes is indeed challenging is so many ways, but rather than dismiss it, I’ve found so much that resonates with me and helps me wrestle faithfully with life and with God.
As you read Ecclesiastes, resist the urge to cherry-pick the verses you like and either ignoring or explaining away those that don’t fit with your preconceived ideas of who God is and how he works in the world. I think that the comments Enns makes in his introduction to Ecclesiastes are worth keeping in mind:
- Understanding Ecclesiastes as being a book, the product of an intentional, skilled, creative, and above all sagely (12:9-10) mind, encourages readers today to presume the book’s coherence, which is seen precisely through the tensions in the book and amid the conflicting struggles of life that are recounted for us there.
- [R]eading Ecclesiastes is an exercise in paying very close attention to recurring, and often confusing, mixtures of themes and phrases that drive forward the theology of the book.
- In the closing verses of the epilogue, the author resolves the tensions of the book, not by dismissing Qohelet’s observations, but by acknowledging the wisdom they contain and then bringing them under the broader (more traditional) umbrella of fearing God and keeping his commandments.