Keep His Commandments: Reevaluating the Presence of Torah in Qoheleth’s Discourse

Scholarly opinion is divided regarding the relationship between the epilogue of Ecclesiastes (12:8-14) and the main discourse that precedes it (1:2-12:7). While there is near consensus that the epilogue provides the final and authoritative word for the reader in 12:13-14, there is great disagreement on how the outlook of these verses relates to the message of the main body. Mark J. Boda has supplied a helpful summary of scholars’ views of the main body/epilogue relationship in his 2013 chapter, “Speaking into the Silence.” Boda characterizes prominent scholars’ views on a spectrum ranging from affirmation to antithesis (Boda 260). His article, and a survey of pertinent literature, reveal a striking diversity regarding the epilogue’s relationship to Qoheleth’s main discourse.

One key to this conversation is to determine to what extent the thematic content of the epilogue appears within the main discourse. Of particular importance is the material in 12:13-14, which Longman describes as “the central truths of revealed religion: the fear of God, obedience to his commands, and an awareness of the coming judgment” (Longman, Ecclesiastes, 284). Scholars across Boda’s spectrum are divided as to (1) how much these three requirements of the epilogue appear in the main discourse and (2) how these elements affect its message.

Among the three elements of 12:13-14, scholars are most reticent to acknowledge the presence of a theme of Torah obedience throughout Qoheleth’s main discourse. Some scholars (e.g., Craig G. Bartholomew, William P. Brown) recognize an analog to the epilogue’s commandment-keeping exhortation in Qoheleth’s instructions on oath-taking in a cultic context (MT 4:17-5:6). While few scholars have connected this cultic pericope to the commandment-keeping imperative of the epilogue, even fewer have investigated other possible Torah allusions apparent throughout Qoheleth’s discourse. The present paper advances scholarship on the epilogue/main body relationship by analyzing the appearance and function of this epilogistic element in Qoheleth’s main discourse. The paper catalogues and demonstrates that some of the less recognized instances of Torah allusion and moral valuation create an affirmational relationship between the epilogue and the main body of Ecclesiastes. For example, Qoheleth’s reference to “the clean and the unclean” and “to the one who sacrifices and the one who does not sacrifice” (Eccl 9:2) later in the book demonstrates an ongoing Torah consciousness that frames his entire moral outlook. Through additional examples, the paper will show that the presence and function of these allusions in the argument of the main discourse proves a concrete connection between the epilogue and the central text.