The anti-Orthodox views in the biblical book Ecclesiastes (Qohelet)

Ecclesiastes is a controversial book. It has radical ideas that are contrary to today’s Orthodox Judaism. It contains verses that seem to contradict other verses.[1] The opening two verses and at least half of the final twelfth chapter were added to the book by an editor apparently with an attempt to make it fit better with his theology. He added that we must observe the divine commands and piously ascribes the book by an unknown sage to the wise King Solomon.

Many ancients tried to discard the book. At the outset of the common era the prestigious school of Shammai voted to exclude the book from the Hebrew Cannon, but the more widely accepted school of Hillel voted to retain it, and won the day.[2] But, even after it was included in the canon, there were rabbis who sought to withdraw it.[3] This is my second review of the biblical book Ecclesiastes. I was prompted to write on the book again after reading it again. I will add information that is not in my former review of the commentary by Rashbam.

There is little agreement when this book was written, but Professor Choon-Leong Seow, a distinguished biblical scholar, the author of this Anchor Yale Bible commentary, dates it in the Persian period between the second half of the fifth and the first half of the fourth centuries BCE. The book was written during a period when Israel was full of opportunities and risks. It was a world of money, commerce, and investment. The Qohelet author is advising his readers to be careful.

The name Ecclesiastes is derived from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Qohelet. The Greek translators understood the Hebrew to mean a member of the citizen’s council.

Professor Seow explains the apparent inconsistencies in a reasonable manner. Qohelet is saying that “pleasure is regrettably ephemeral, and so must be enjoyed whenever one has the opportunity. Similarly, Wisdom is not always reliable and does not always give one advantage, but it is appropriate to apply wisdom whenever possible (10:10). Life in general, too, is imperfect; it may even be miserable at times. For Qohelet, however, one still has the possibility for pleasure in life, whereas death is the end of all possibilities…. Qohelet’s emphasis…is the lot of human beings to enjoy themselves whenever possible. ”[4] “Qohelet does not leave the reader with the impression that wisdom is of no use whatsoever. True, it does not guarantee results, but there are times when it still may make a difference (10:4).”[5] Indeed, Qohelet emphasizes the benefits of wisdom.[6] “Wisdom has a clear advantage over folly – as stark as the advantage of light over darkness (2:13).”[7]

Seow notes that the word hebel appears 38 times in the book. Its literal meaning is “breath, whiff, puff, steam.” “Something that is hebel cannot be grasped or controlled.”[8] Qohelet sees what appears to people as inconsistencies in the world as events which people lack the ability to explain. But he writes that these difficulties should not stop people from getting the most they can out of life. The world is not bad, it is good. The Torah in Genesis 1 states frequently that what God created is good. The word most often used in this book also is tob, “good,” appearing 51 times. The problem is people who fail to understand how the world functions.[9]

Seow highlights that the text has more references to humanity than to God, 48 against 40 times. Qohelet does not use the Tetragrammaton, y-h-v-h, ever, but only Elohim. Seow writes “it is not an immanent deity of whom Qohelet speaks. The deity does not relate personally with anyone….God is wholly transcendent.”[10] Since God is not directly involved in any human event, the term Elohim refers to the laws of nature.[11]

While the editor of the book attempted to make the book reflect the theology of his time and emphasized that one must observe God’s commands, a teaching absent from the body of the book, neither he nor the author of Qohelet mentions the existence of a soul, life after death, and a future divine judgement.

In short, C. L. Seow composed an excellent commentary and has clarified what many saw as contradictory statements, and he has drawn attention to how the theology of Qohelet and his editor differs from the theology of Jewish Orthodoxy today.


[1] There are apparent inconsistencies, positive and negative statements, about wisdom, pleasure, whether living is a good thing or bad, and if God intervenes in human affairs.

[2] M. Yad. 3:5, Ed. 5:3, Babylonian Talmud Megilah 7a.

[3] BT Shabbat 30b.

[4] Pages 39 and 40.

[5] Page 52.

[6] The noun “wisdom” appears in the book 28 times and the term for a wise person an additional 21 times.

[7] Page 67.

[8] Page 47.

[9] This is also the message of the biblical book Job.

[10] Pages 56 and 66.

[11] See also Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed 2:48 where the sage says that whenever the Bible states that God did or said something it means that the event occurred according to the laws of nature, and the Bible ascribes the act to God since God created or formed the laws of nature.

Do You Want To Be Notified of New Blog Posts?