Rethinking Hevel in Qoheleth’s Perspective

An important feature of Hebrew wisdom literature is the use of a prologue and an epilogue to frame the main body of the work. In Proverbs 1–9, Lady Wisdom creates an appetite for the banquet which is given in chapters 10–30, and in chapter 31 she gives her final goodbye. Without the prologue and epilogue, the pithy Proverbs would not be read in the same light. The book of Job provides a two chapter prologue that gives insight into the characters and reveals the spiritual realities behind the sufferings of Job. Without this prologue, or the epilogue when Job’s fortunes are restored, the body of Job would be read in a much different light. In fact, because of the prologue, the reader is given insights that Job never receives. In the case of Qoheleth, the prologue and epilogue are also essential, but this time, the latter is more significant in terms of interpretive help with the book as a whole. This paper will employ Qoheleth as a test case to show that attention to the frame narrative in Hebrew wisdom literature offers essential keys for interpreting the body of the book.

Qoheleth is notoriously difficult for interpreters. If Proverbs displays patterns of order in a universe governed by the righteous YHWH, and Job teaches the covenant people to embrace mystery in suffering and to live for God’s glory, Qoheleth seems to teach that all of life is absurd and that God’s people should despair. For this reason, some ancient rabbis doubted the book’s divine authority, Luther struggled in his lectures on this book, and Waltke and Yu refer to Qoheleth as the black sheep among the canonical books. However, because of its beginning and end, along with its connection to Solomon, the Jewish and Christian communities both recognized that Qoheleth is canonical.

A close reading of Qoheleth, with special attention to the relationship between the frame narrative and the body of the book, will bring clarity to its overall message. This paper will argue that Qoheleth is a wisdom book in which the author observes the absurdity of life under the sun, with the telos of helping the covenant people to accept the absurd and to live for the eternal. The paper will arrive at this conclusion by beginning with some foundational observations about Qoheleth, noticing some key themes, and finally, returning to the relationship of the epilogue to the body of the book. In particular, the intentionally limited “under the sun” perspective of Qoheleth in the book’s body, will be contrasted with the eschatological perspective of the frame narrator as the key to understanding the book as a whole.