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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Written by
Miles Custis

Miles Custis is the Manager of Instructional Media at Faithlife.

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Written by Miles Custis