Wisdom and Vexation in Ecclesiastes

One of the issues involved in interpreting Ecclesiastes is the presence of what could be considered contradictions. The author declares that “much wisdom” comes with “much vexation” (Eccl. 1:18) and increased knowledge increases sorrow. But he also calls wisdom “good” and “an advantage” (Eccl. 7:11). The author argues that the dead are better off than the living (Eccl. 4:2­–3) and that the living are better off than the dead (Eccl. 9:4–6).

Sometimes these opposing statements appear in consecutive verses. In Ecclesiastes 8:12, the author says that “a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life,” and in verse 13 he states, “it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days.”

These contradictions have caused “much vexation” for many who read Ecclesiastes and try to find ways to explain away their presence. But these contradictions play a vital role in the author’s argument. They illuminate the book’s theme: that life is full of contradictions. For example, when the author compares wisdom and folly, he notes that wisdom is to be preferred (Eccl. 2:12–14a), yet he also observes that the wise and the foolish share the same fate (Eccl. 2:14b–16). This leads the author to despair because everything in life “is vanity and a striving after wind” (Eccl 2:17).

In Chapter 2 of The End of the Matter, I closely examine Ecclesiastes contradictions. I explore how different interpreters have dealt with them, and show how they can be understood as part of the book’s overall argument about the contradictory nature of life. Later chapters illustrate how the author’s declaration to “fear God and keep His commandments” (Eccl. 12:13) provides a fitting conclusion to his argument.

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  1. Dear Miles,
    Are you related to the Dr Miles Custis who was a GP in Portland, Oregon? What a wonderful, compassionate doctor he was for my mother and my siblings back in the 50’s and 60’s, and what a great loss it was for our family when that servant of God died!
    If you are not related to him, let me tell you, the name carries a great, great weight of Godly reputation (As does that of his brother – Pastor Dwight Custis – Uncle Dwight and Aunt Lucille in the hearts of my siblings and me).
    Chaplain Rick Bradley in Yakima, Washington

  2. Miles Custis says:

    I actually am related to Dr. Miles Custis. He was my father’s uncle, and Pastor Dwight and Lucille are my grandparents. I never met Dr. Miles Custis, but I am named after him because he was very influential in my dad’s life. Thank you for your kind words about my family.