Study Guide

God in Ecclesiastes

God

Ecclesiastes has an unusual perspective on God, one shared by almost no other Biblical writers—except, maybe, in a few ways, for the author of Job (to risk repeating this point again). It's just what you'd respect from this crazy, rogue book of the Bible. Like the God of Job, you can't expect Ecclesiastes's Deity to make any human sense. He's above you. He put the idea of "Eternity" into your head just to puzzle you—which doesn't really mean "Eternity" (a timeless changeless world), but something more like a span of time stretching way into the past and into the future, far beyond you (source).

He writes,

He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. (NRSV 3:11)

You can't attempt to understand time or try to set straight "what God has made crooked," so you shouldn't even try.

Ecclesiastes always refers to God as "Elohim" (usually translated as "God") instead of as "Yahweh" (usually translated as "The Lord God"). In the Torah, the name Elohim is applied to God as a more distant creator figure. Yahweh is much more personal—emotional, occasionally enraged, but also at times very loving and merciful. Elohim on the other hand is a name for God when he "works in mysterious ways." You can't hope to know what he's up to, and you certainly shouldn't bother to try:

Just as you do not know how the breath comes to the bones in the mother's womb, so you do not know the work of God, who makes everything. (NRSV 11:5)

Disinterested Dad

Most people agree that Ecclesiastes—if he really was an actual, individual person—believed in God, since he talks about him a good amount. But it's still an open question: does Ecclesiastes's version of God care? It seems like he could just be a metaphor for "Fate" or "Time" or something like that.

The God who appears in every other part of the Bible, whether in the Hebrew Bible or in the Christian scriptures, cares very intensely. God persistently and often frighteningly expresses his concern for Israel, and Jesus Christ sacrifices himself for the sins of humanity in the Gospels. But Ecclesiastes's Elohim is like Emily Dickinson's God—who, Dickinson said, despite the fact that he's supposed to be present everywhere, still seems like a bit of a recluse.

Ecclesiastes's portrayal of God is one of the things that makes some people think that he was inspired by Greek philosophy. Since Ecclesiastes's language wasn't influenced at all by Greek, this seems pretty unlikely, but it's still interesting to see the similar things that some Greek philosophers were saying about their gods. Epicurus—who may have lived at around the same time as Ecclesiastes or a little later—claimed that he still believed in the Greek Gods—in Zeus and Apollo and the rest—but that they were not the dysfunctional family that the Greek myths made them out to be (what with Zeus turning into a swan to impregnate women and cheat on his wife—you know, things like that).

Far from being a pack of emotionally disturbed tyrants living at the top of Mount Olympus, Epicurus said that the gods actually dwelt in a state of pure peace—very far away from earth, somewhere on the other side of the galaxy, maybe. The state of peace they had attained should be a model for human beings. So, you can see how Epicurus's idea of the gods—distant, totally un-interested in human beings, living in a state of tranquility that we don't have—could seem a lot like Ecclesiastes's idea of God. (For scholarly info on Epicurus, check out this Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry).

Mystery Man

Yet, at times, Ecclesiastes does think that God will judge the sins of humanity—even though he doesn't think there's life after death, or that good people are repaid in this life, or that bad people are punished. Frankly, he sounds like he's saying a bunch of contradictory things about God. And you know what—he probably is. Hey, no one's claiming that this book is totally consistent, or that Ecclesiastes always talks sense, or that other writers might not have put in new sayings and parables that cluttered the book's original message.

For example, he also sees God as favoring certain people:

Likewise all to whom God gives wealth and possessions and whom he enables to enjoy them, and to accept their lot and find enjoyment in their toil—this is the gift of God. For they will scarcely brood over the days of their lives, because God keeps them occupied with the joy of their hearts. (NRSV 5:18-20)

We can't really know for certain what Ecclesiastes thinks about God—but that's part of his point, in a way. God is a mystery, and he's forced the rest of us to work inside that mystery, never knowing exactly where we are or what it's all about. That seems to be Ecclesiastes's real position on the God question. Although his God may not care about humans, he does require one thing that might seem pretty familiar: humility. "Fear" is another, more old-school way of putting it.

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