Ecclesiastes 12

I finished my study of Ecclesiastes today! What I get out of Ecclesiastes 12 (based on my consultation of commentaries) is the following:

We will all eventually die. That message is conveyed in vv 1-8, whether you see those verses as an allegory for our deteriorating body parts (Ecclesiastes Rabbah, the Targum, Rashi, and Augustine), as a description of a wealthy landowner’s declining estate (Daniel Grossberg in the Jewish Study Bible, who refers to such a situation in Ecclesiastes 2), as an account of a funeral (Raymond Van Leeuwen in the HarperCollins Study Bible), or as a statement that almond trees and grasshoppers carry on, even after we die, meaning that nature is indifferent to us (Tremper Longman on v 5). Whichever of these interpretations is correct, the climax is v 7, which affirms that the dust of the corpse will return to the earth, while the spirit returns to God, who gave it.

Does v 7 support an afterlife? In Ecclesiastes 3:18-21, Qoheleth asks if the spirit of man goes upward, and he does so in the context of his discussion over whether humans have the same fate as beasts, namely, death. There, he appears to view the scenario of the spirit going upwards as an afterlife, and he dismisses it. Does he affirm the afterlife in Ecclesiastes 12:7? Tremper Longman says no, maintaining that Qoheleth is merely discussing death: when we die, our breath of life returns to God, who gave it. For Longman, that breath is not an immortal soul.

Ecclesiastes 12:5 refers to an eternal home, and Longman maintains that this, too, does not refer to an afterlife. For this verse, he documents that an eternal home in the ancient world simply meant a grave. Longman cites the second century B.C.E. Palmyrene Inscription (which was Punic), a targum on Isaiah 14:18, Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 19a, and Tobit 3:6.

Because of Ecclesiastes 3:18-21, I’m not entirely convinced by Longman’s treatment of Ecclesiastes 12:7; I’m more convinced, however, by his treatment of Ecclesiastes 12:5, since he brings in ancient sources. But I will say that Ecclesiastes 12:1-8 presents death as a horrible thing, as something we should keep in our minds to encourage us to serve God in our youth, as the source of this life’s futility. That corresponds with Qoheleth’s message throughout his book: that we should enjoy life while we still can. I have a hard time thinking that Qoheleth would have viewed death in such dismal terms had he believed in an afterlife.

Like the Nelson Study Bible, I interpret Ecclesiastes 12:11 to mean that Qoheleth’s words are goads that stimulate us to move in the right direction. Because life is transient, we should enjoy it while we still can—tasting of its pleasures even as we obey God. For Qoheleth, pleasures by themselves are empty, but they can be sweetened when we partake of them with the realization that we will one day die and no longer be able to enjoy them (see Ecclesiastes 7). And a healthy respect for God can influence us to enjoy those pleasures appropriately (Ecclesiastes 11:9).

On Qoheleth’s criticism of books and reference to judgment in Ecclesiastes 12:12-14, I think that Daniel Grossberg offers a decent explanation for what those verses are saying:

“[J]ust because human rational inquiry leads nowhere, in terms of demonstrating a system of reward and punishment or lasting achievements, it does not invalidate the power and sovereignty of God nor disprove the possibility that in some way He does call everyone and everything into account.”

So we should believe in God’s justice even when our eyes see the opposite? In my opinion, this can be a positive thing: I believe God is good and will make things right, even though there are so many things around me that are wrong; plus, I should do good, realizing that God is on the side of righteousness. But I can also envision an application of Qoheleth’s approach that does not quite appeal to me: “This non-Christian only looks like a good person, but he’s really evil because he doesn’t have the new heart that believing in Christ brings to those who have faith in Jesus, and so he will justly go to hell.” Why should I disregard the sight of my own eyes—experience—for “revelation” that presents a psychotic sort of God?

Overall, I appreciated the Book of Ecclesiastes. It’s probably the most “real” book in the Bible. Evangelicals like to talk about God having a special plan for everyone (especially believers): God will lead us to our career, or to a spouse, or to good health. But life does not always appear to be like this. A person can go to school to prepare for what seems to be God’s intended vocation for her, only for her to die before she gets to perform that vocation. A man can meet his “soul-mate” and get married to her, only for the couple to divorce. The man then searches again for the woman God supposedly has in store for him. Qoheleth is honest about life not always working out. He says that there are accidents—time and chance (which, for him, are actually the hand of God, whose ways we do not know). For Qoheleth, wisdom can help us to live better lives, but that doesn’t work all of the time. Our lives can be cut short, plus there is a lot of unfairness in the world.

But there is a limit to Qoheleth’s realism. He talks about oppression, and so he recognizes ills in society. And yet he encourages everyone to enjoy life—to eat, to drink, etc. But what if a person is too poor to eat or to drink? Although Qoheleth acknowledges the existence of victims in society, he seems to assume that everyone can live high off the hog, when such is not necessarily the case. And yet, maybe even the poor can enjoy life, in some capacity, and the message of Qoheleth can be useful even for them. (In my opinion, though, we should not use that as an excuse to refrain from helping the poor. Their lot is still horrible, even if they can make due with it, at times.)

Moreover, unlike Qoheleth, I believe in an afterlife precisely because this life is so unfair. But I thought about something yesterday as I was reading through an old paper for a theology class. In that paper from 2004, I state: “Everything bad that ever happened to me at some point came to an end. I am often relieved that the ultimate nightmare, life, will one day be over.” As I think back to that time, even my experience at church was promoting a similar message: Tim Keller said on more than one occasion that our suffering in this life will make our enjoyment of the afterlife so much sweeter. There is wisdom in this attitude, but I find that, nowadays, I am enjoying this life a lot more than I did in 2004, rather than just looking forward to an afterlife. Maybe that’s because there are shows on TV that I enjoy, or because I’ve learned social skills that help me to get along better with people, or because I have learned ways to cope with the ills of life. But I’m happier nowadays.

I still hope that there’s an afterlife, however, for the people and the things I enjoy will come to an end, and I dread that. I should enjoy the people I love while I still can, even as I hope that there just might be an afterlife that is run by a benevolent God.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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