‘Gain’ (yitron) Versus ‘Reward’ (heleq) in Ecclesiastes: What’s the Difference?

“What gain is to man?” constitutes the programmatic question in the book of Ecclesiastes. In his relentless quest for meaning and purpose, Qohelet repeatedly wrestles with the lasting value of everything—from pleasure to toil to love. Yet in his search for “gain,” he often refers to “reward,” especially in the context of the enjoyment passages:
• Ecclesiastes 2:10
• Ecclesiastes 2:21 (Enjoyment Passage: 2:24–26)
• Ecclesiastes 3:22 (Enjoyment Passage: 3:22)
• Ecclesiastes 5:17, 18 (Enjoyment Passage: 5:17–19)
• Ecclesiastes 9:6, 9 (Enjoyment Passage: 9:7–10)
Other phrases, such as “from the hand of God” (2:24), “God’s gift to man” (3:13), and “that God has given him” (8:15) clarify the source of this “reward.” Man toils, God rewards.
So, is this “reward” different from “gain”? Several options present themselves: With a pessimistic view of the book’s body, reward and gain are different; man has no lasting gain except to fear God and Qohelet’s reward is hedonistic pleasure seeking that is unworthy of faithful, God-fearing pursuit. With an optimistic view of the book, options include (1) the reward and gain are the same thing; (2) the reward and gain are different; man has no lasting gain, but he can enjoy reward; (3) reward and gain are unrelated concepts; one is enjoyed on earth and one is enjoyed in a spiritual sense only; (4) the reward and gain are different; man can truly attain lasting, eschatological gain by fearing God, and reward is a borrowing of that future gain in the present moment through faithfully enjoying God and his gifts.
This paper argues for the third option with an optimistic view of the book. In the context of the book as a whole, the enjoyment passages should be read as enabled by a true fear of God and enjoyed by the faithful believer. These earthly enjoyments borrow from the eschatological, lasting gain enjoyed by those in right relationship with God. In other words, while true, lasting gain is yet to come for the God-fearer, he or she can taste those future delights here and now by rightly enjoying God and his good gifts through a life of wisdom.
The conclusions in this paper will help interpreters to better understand gain, joy, hebel, and the optimistic yet realistic outlook of Qohelet in Ecclesiastes.