Qohelet 5: Since Everything is Utterly Absurd, What’s a Person To Do?

As we have noted, Qohelet repeatedly uses the word, hevel, to stress that certain individual actions or pursuits are meaningless and thus in the end that all of life “under the sun” is utterly meaningless. So, if that’s the case, Qohelet, what are people supposed to do with their lives? There is a phrase that Qohelet uses that sheds some light on that question and provides key perspectives that Qohelet encourages all humans to embrace.

That phrase, in Hebrew, is כָּל־הָאָדָֽם, (kol-ha’adam) literally, “all the human.” What? It has been variously translated by Hebrew scholars as, “everyone,” “all humanity,” and “the whole of humanity,” to name a few. In the second to last verse of Ecclesiastes, stress is put on this phrase with the addition of כִּי־זֶ֖ה  (ki-zeh), “because this [is]”. Again, what? Don’t worry. I think it will make sense when we consider each time this phrase occurs in the book.

3:13

וְגַ֤ם כָּל־הָאָדָם֙ שֶׁיֹּאכַ֣ל וְשָׁתָ֔ה וְרָאָ֥ה טֹ֖וב בְּכָל־עֲמָלֹ֑ו מַתַּ֥ת אֱלֹהִ֖ים הִֽיא׃

And also, every human (kol-ha’adam) who eats and drinks and sees good in all his work, this is a gift of God.

Qohelet says that in light of the absurdity of life, it is for every person to enjoy whatever pleasures there are; that is, in eating, drinking and seeing good come from one’s efforts. These experiences and the opportunity to enjoy them is a gift from God. This statement, and the one in 5:18, are known as the carpe diem (Latin for “seize the day”) passages. There is a time for everything under the sun (3:1–11), so we should enjoy the experiences that are pleasurable when they come our way because, soon enough, some unpleasant times will come.

5:18

גַּ֣ם כָּֽל־הָאָדָ֡ם אֲשֶׁ֣ר נָֽתַן־לֹ֣ו הָאֱלֹהִים֩ עֹ֨שֶׁר וּנְכָסִ֜ים וְהִשְׁלִיטֹ֨ו לֶאֱכֹ֤ל מִמֶּ֨נּוּ֙ וְלָשֵׂ֣את אֶת־חֶלְקֹ֔ו וְלִשְׂמֹ֖חַ בַּעֲמָלֹ֑ו זֹ֕ה מַתַּ֥ת אֱלֹהִ֖ים הִֽיא׃

Moreover, every human (kol-ha’adam) to whom God gives wealth and possessions, he gives the ability to partake of them, to accept his lot, and rejoice in his labors. This is a gift from God.

Qohelet then zooms in on this idea that rejoicing in one’s material possessions, in that these are given by God. He credits God with a person’s ability to “partake of them” and “to accept his lot.” In verses 13–17, Qohelet has observed that possessions and wealth can leave us or be taken from us as quickly as they can be given. So, when we have them, we should use them and rejoice. This, too, is a gift from God.

7:2

טֹ֞וב לָלֶ֣כֶת אֶל־בֵּֽית־אֵ֗בֶל מִלֶּ֨כֶת֙ אֶל־בֵּ֣ית מִשְׁתֶּ֔ה בַּאֲשֶׁ֕ר ה֖וּא סֹ֣וף כָּל־הָאָדָ֑ם וְהַחַ֖י יִתֵּ֥ן אֶל־לִבֹּֽו׃

It is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting, in that it is the end of all humanity (kol-ha’adam); let the living take it to heart.

The only certainty in life overall is uncertainty, except for the certainty that we all will die. The inevitability of death is a repeat and key focus of Qohelet’s outlook on life and he emphasizes that we must keep our ultimate end in mind. We can’t put it off by ignoring it. It is better to face day-to-day life knowing that death awaits us all.  

12:13

סֹ֥וף דָּבָ֖ר הַכֹּ֣ל נִשְׁמָ֑ע אֶת־הָאֱלֹהִ֤ים יְרָא֙ וְאֶת־מִצְוֹתָ֣יו שְׁמֹ֔ור כִּי־זֶ֖ה כָּל־הָאָדָֽם׃

The end of the matter; everything has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, indeed, this is the whole of humanity (ki-zeh kol-ha’adam).[1]

It is important to remember that these are the words of the editor (sometimes called the narrator[2]), not the words of Qohelet. Some scholars think the editor was trying to make Qohelet’s message more theological “orthodox” by bringing all of his teaching under the umbrella of “fearing God and keeping his commandments.” Other scholars see this statement as a slight corrective. Obviously, the editor is not minimizing or contradicting anything that Qohelet wrote, as he obviously holds him to be a wise man who eloquently writes the truth (12:9–10). However, the whole of humanity (or every human) must see that regardless of the uncertainty of life, we must not lose sight of our obligation to worship and obey God.

I agree with Enns, who writes…

  • 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.

If life under the sun is utterly absurd, what should we then do? Enjoy the good things we have when we have them, especially in light of the certainty of death, all the while making sure we worship and obey God.

Ecclesiastes is my favourite book in the Hebrew Bible. I appreciate its bold honesty. It is not full of platitudes that are meaningless in the real world. It’s not a “Jesus will fix it” message. Life in this world is hard and at times downright near impossible. Yet, there are, at least for some, times where we can rejoice and enjoy what the better times bring. I love the fact that Qohelet is straight up regarding his struggles about God and with God.

It’s not a book for the younger of age and/or of faith. But sooner or later, even in the lives of the richest of this world—of which I am one—the absurdity of life “under the sun” cannot be ignored or easily dismissed with platitudes and memes. I think a person will have had to experience life’s absurdities to truly appreciate Qohelet’s wisdom and truth.

If you’re interested in further reflection or study of Ecclesiastes, here are some resources that I trust you’ll find helpful.

  • Alter, Robert. The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes: A Translation with Commentary. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010.
  • Enns, Peter. Ecclesiastes. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2011.
  • Fox, Michael V. Ecclesiastes: The JPS Bible Commentary. Philadelphia: JPS, 2004.
  • Seow, Choon-Leong. Ecclesiastes: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. New Haven: Yale Publishing, 1997.

For a one podcast overview check out: https://peteenns.com/ecclesiastes-with-pete-enns/.


[1] The word “duty” found in most English translations doesn’t actually occur in the Hebrew text. That may have been the intent of this verse, but it’s not what we have preserved in the text.

[2] See Qohelet 2 in this series.

One thought on “Qohelet 5: Since Everything is Utterly Absurd, What’s a Person To Do?

  1. OK, but Qohelet 7:1-4 still confuses me. Each set of verses seems to say the less desired is better – death better than birth, frustration better than laughter, mourning better than pleasure. And again in 7:8 – ends are better than beginnings. All seem to contradict 7:14, “when times are good, be happy”

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