The heavy Burden (The Enigma Sermons 5)

How are we to make sense of the enigma of life? Trying to understand a messy, often unjust world is difficult, often frustrating.  Qoholet keeps comparing this to “vapour” or “chasing after the wind.” In 1:13 he tells us that:

“It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with”[1]

The ESV translates the Hebrew word ra’ as “unhappy” this is the same word that is often translated “evil.” Is the task God has given us an evil one? Bartholomew sees Qoholet’s assessment as in sharp conflict with Genesis 1 -2.

“He sees the quest for meaning as unavoidable – it is given by God (v13) -but evil! There are many parallels to Gen 1-3 in Ecclesiastes, and here there is a shocking reversal of what we find in Gen 1 and 2. There the task given to humankind is good, but here, in almost blasphemous terms it is described as evil.”[2]

He sees the fault as lying with Qoholet’s approach to reasoning. This is because “The center of Qoholet’s quest will be his own consciousness, as manifest in observation, reason, and experience.”[3] Qoholet in his view takes the same approach to understanding as philosophers like Descarte. It is all about his ability to reason and observe.  This means that it is not true wisdom that Qoholet deals in.

“Qoholet’s use of ‘wisdom’ here is ironic, because Qoholet’s epistemology – the method he uses to find answers to his questions that he can trust as true -turns out to be very different from the wisdom of Proverbs.”[4]

I’m not convinced that this is only “ironic” wisdom. As we have seen in our previous studies

-Qoholet speaks as God’s king. He is a believer.

– There is a sense throughout the book that God is speaking and that Qoholet has God’s eternal verdict in perspective.

Additionally, I want to suggest that there is something very similar between the way that Qoholet’s sayings function and the way that the sayings in Proverbs functions. If at times we will find statements that appear to jar with us, get under the skin, cause us to wrestle, if at times we find statements that seem to be set in tension or even in confrontation with other scriptures even from within the same book, then we are seeing Ecclesiastes function in the same way that the book of Proverbs does. We have seen how for example we can be told both to answer a fool according to their folly and not to answer a fool according to their folly.  We are meant to see the whole picture. We are dealing with wisdom that causes us to think and apply in context not legalistic proof texts. What this means of course is that we cannot take one statement in isolation. We need to read the whole book.

This pushes us to ask the question “Why at this point, does Qoholet say what he says.”

It is helpful to keep thinking about what it is that he is actually saying.  Whilst the word used does often refer to evil, it has a wider semantic range.  That is why, we very rarely see 1:13 translated as “an evil task.” Enns observes that “the NIV is correct in giving ra’ its less moralistic interpretation here and elsewhere in Ecclesiastes.”[5]

The focus is not on the morality of the task God has set us but on the challenge and hardship of it. This fits with a theme that runs through Ecclesiastes. Life is a toil. Humans are constantly struggling and labouring but there seems to be little to gain from it.

It is also a heavy burden because of what we observe. This world is broken. It is a messy world, it is a decaying and dying world.  And what is more, at this juncture, with the information available, it looks to Qoholet like this is hopeless.

“What is crooked cannot be made straight,
and what is lacking cannot be counted.”[6]

Now, partly this wisdom echoes the observation of the wise woman who spoke to David about Absalom.

“We must all die; we are like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again.”[7]

There is a fragility to life and a finality to decisions and actions. “You can’t put the genie back in the bottle.” “Broken wings don’t always heal to fly.” This fragility calls for care. However, in this context, the saying presents the big picture and shows why the task is grievous. This world is broken and we cannot put it back together again. We have been made and commissioned to fill and subdue creation but we cannot. All of our attempts to understand this world, to change it to work with it, to repair it fail. That’s the frustration and Enns suggests that Qoholet’s frustration is with God himself. He sees v 13 and 15 as parallel and that God is implied as the subject in v 15 so that “Both express a frustration not simply with the way things are but with what God did to make them so.”[8]

It is important to remember again that Qoholet speaks as a believer not as an unbeliever.

“It is written  by a profoundly religious – indeed, wise (see 12:9) – Israelite, one who is not outside of the covenant but inside; one who is looking at Yahweh not from the outside in, but as an insider who is deeply perplexed, confused , perhaps even teetering on the brink of total scepticism, and this struggle finally comes to expression in such statements as we find in 1:13 and elsewhere in Ecclesiastes (esp in v. 15 below).”[9]

What does this mean for how we are to make sense of his seemingly negative comments? Well first of all, Enns points us helpfully to another biblical genre.

“It is helpful, again, to think of Ecclesiastes as being analogous to lament psalms where the psalmist bears the burden of seeing the grave disjunction between what he as an Israelite is to expect about God and his world, and what he experiences living in the day to day struggles and tensions of life (a good example is Psalm 73).”[10]

Qoholet is someone who “knows how things are supposed to be, yet his experience does not mesh with the ideal.”[11]

However, we can take things a step further. We know why this is the case. Bartholomew is right to draw parallels with Genesis 1-3 but whilst Genesis 1-2 presents our commission as good, Genesis 3 brings in a new factor. Our mission to fill, subdue and care for the earth has not been rescinded. It does not stop being good but it now comes with exactly the burden and the frustration we see in Ecclesiastes.

To the woman he said,

“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be for[f] your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”

And to Adam he said,

“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it’,
cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;

 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
 By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”[12]


Indeed, one way to look at much of Ecclesiastes is as an extended meditation and reflection on Genesis 3. God may have ordained our trouble but he is just in doing so. John Wesley observes:

“This travel – This difficult and toilsome work of searching out these things, God hath inflicted as a just punishment upon man for his eating of the tree of knowledge. To be exercised – To employ themselves in the painful study of these things.”

So practically from this we can say

  1. Here is the basis for distinguishing between “is” and “ought” between what the world is like and what it should be like.
  2. We have to keep remembering as we observe the world that it remains God’s World under his providential rule but it is a fallen world. Christ has come and dealt with sin but we live in the now and the not yet.
  3. The wonder of the Gospel is that Christ says “my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” We find rest in him.





[1] ESV

[2] Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes, 123.

[3] Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes, 123.

[4] Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes, 123.

[5] Enns, Ecclesiastes, (kindle location 526).

[6] Ecclesiastes 1:15 ESV.

[7] 2 Samuel 14:14.

[8] Enns, Ecclesiastes, (kindle location  563).

[9] Enns, Ecclesiastes, (kindle location  540)

[10] Enns, Ecclesiastes, (kindle location  540)

[11] Enns, Ecclesiastes, (kindle location  563).

[12] Genesis 3:16 -19.