Recapitulation of Theme and Sub-themes (6:10-12)

6:10 Whatever comes to be has already been called by name, and it is known that he is man, and that he is not able to dispute with one stronger than he is. 6:11 For there are many words that increase vanity. What is the profit to man? 6:12 For who knows what is good for man in his lifetime, the few days of his fleeting life, which he spends like a shadow? For who can tell man what will come to be after him under the sun?

This passage is exceptionally compact. Here Qoheleth pulls together the theme and the sub-themes and show in a direct and concise manner how they relate to one another. So to unpack the ideas we must interpret the passage in light of what he has said so far.

When Qoheleth first announced the theme of his speech, presented as, “Vanity of vanities; All is vanity (profitless),” as well as, “What profit is there?” (1:2-3), he recited a poem (1:4-8). The poem embodied the idea that, “whatever has come to be, that is what will come to be,” which means, “there is nothing new under the sun” (1:9). It thus illustrates the idea of the theme: there is no net gain or profit in this world. But it also carries its own message: despite the cycles of one generation replacing another, basic realities about humanity remain unchanged (1:4).

When the theme was repeated for the first time, presented only as “What profit is there?” (3:9), it was expressed as a consequence to the reality captured in the second poem (3:1-8). This poem, which began with “a time to die” (3:2), and ended with “a time for war” (3:8), embodied the reality that while death is certain, life is uncertain. In other words, there is no profit under the sun because we will one day lose everything we gain in this world, if not through a misfortune like war, then through death.

In reference to the events represented in this poem, Qoheleth said: “Whatever comes to be, has already been; that which will come to be, already has been; for God seeks what has gone by” (3:15). This is just a rephrasing of 1:9 and is thus saying the same thing as the previous poem, reminding us that basic realities have not changed. That means, the reality presented in the second poem--the certainty of death and the uncertainties of life—has not changed.

When Qoheleth’s audience now hear him say “Whatever comes to be has already been called by name,” they will recognize that this statement is also another rephrasing of 1:9. For when something has been “called by name” it is already known (Fox 1999: 248), and so it is already in existence (Crenshaw 1987: 130) and its character has been determined (Whybray 1989: 110). Therefore it amounts to saying that whatever comes to be, whether a thing or an event, it is not something new. This statement is thus making a quick reference to the message embodied in the two poems: basic realities, including the unpleasant reality that death is certain and life is uncertain, have not changed.

Qoheleth’s manner of rephrasing 1:9 and 3:15 in this passage enables him to remind his audience of this unpleasant reality and in the same breath, to highlight another unchanging reality about humanity: “it is known that he is man,” which implies “he is not able to dispute with one stronger than he is,” that is, God. What is happening is this. Qoheleth confronts his audience with the unpleasant reality, which he told them was ordained by God and which they would want changed if they could (3:1,11-15). He then says that it is useless to dispute with God to change it. For if a man is foolish enough to do that, no matter how many words he uses to present his case, these will fail to impress Him. The situation becomes one in which “there are many words that increase vanity.” In fact Qoheleth has already said that there could be no change, for “everything God does remains forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it” (3:14a).

The rhetorical question that follows--“What is the profit to man?”--is asked not only in light of the futility of trying to change the unchanging reality presented in the second poem, but also in light of the unchanging reality itself. Like the same question asked (3:9) just after this very poem (3:1-8), it is a repetition of the theme. But there is a difference. The question in 3:9 was asked in light of the unpleasant reality presented in the poem, which renders everything we gain in this world transitory and thus profitless. Here Qoheleth is asking whether there can be any profit at all when this reality is not only unchanging but is also unchangeable, and that trying to change it only increases futility. This rhetorical question, here asked for the last time in the speech, has never been asked in light of a situation this desperate. Hence this recapitulation of the theme and sub-themes enables Qoheleth to reiterate the theme in a more forceful way.

In the very next breath (verse 12), Qoheleth further explains why this unchangeable reality results in no profit under the sun. Everything is vanity because no one “knows what is good in his lifetime, the few days of his fleeting life, which he spends like a shadow.” And this in turn is because no one knows “what will come to be after him under the sun,” which means, since life on earth is uncertain, no one knows what will happen under the sun "after him," that is, after his leaving this world. To follow Qoheleth’s argument we must answer two questions. The first is, why is it that because we do not know what will happen in this world after we die, we do not know what is good?

Franz Delitzsch has answered this question well: “The author means to say, that a man can say, neither to himself nor to another, what in definite cases is the real advantage [or good]; because, in order to say this, he must look far into the future beyond the limits of the individual life of man, which is only a small member of a great whole” (1872: 312). The need to look beyond one’s lifetime to know what is good within one's lifetime explains why there is such an unusual emphasis here on the brevity of life: “few days,” “fleeting life,” and “spends like a shadow.” The imagery of a shadow here gives a concrete sense of how brief human life is compared to human history. For just as a shadow lasts a fraction of the lifespan of the observer, so is his lifetime a fraction of the span of human history.

Delitzsch’s answer is fully in line with what Qoheleth has said. For in light of the certainty of death, he had himself lamented the fact that he had to leave behind the fruit of his labor to his heir (2:18). He considered this vanity as well because, in light of the uncertainties of life, he would not know if his heir could make good use of it (2:19, 21). We saw that in that context he was recounting his quest for the meaning of life through the pursuit of success. Since he said he despaired over the fruit of his labor (2:20), he must have found the whole experience meaningless. Let us consider why this would be the case.

As Donald Polkinghorne puts it, “The question, ‘What does that mean?’, asks how something is related or connected to something else. To ask what a word means is to ask what it stands for. To ask about the meaning or significance of an event is to ask how it contributed to the conclusion of the episode [of which the event is a part]” (1988: 6). The story-shaped nature of human life and human history is such that whatever we do is part of a drama that goes beyond our brief lifetime. And unless we know how the story ends, we do not know the value (whether good or bad) or the significance (meaning) of what we are doing. Since Qoheleth could not know the outcome of the fruit of his labor, not even in the very next generation, he found leaving it to his heir not only vanity but also a “great affliction” (2:21). This implies he found his success painfully meaningless, as he had toiled hard for it (2:22-23).

The second question we need to answer is, why is it that because we do not know what is good, there is no profit under the sun? We have just answered it as well. For if Qoheleth were able to know the ultimate outcome of all that he labored for, and that in light of that outcome, his labor could be considered good, he would have found meaning in it. And since the ultimate purpose of his pursuit of success was to find the meaning of life, he would not have considered the fruit of his labor vanity and despaired over it simply because he had to leave it all behind. That means, there is no profit under the sun not just because we have to leave this world, but also because we do not know what will come to be in this world after we have left, and thus do not know what is good. Hence this recapitulation of the theme and sub-themes also enables us to understand “What profit is there?” more clearly.

But how does this passage relate to the previous one? Note that verse 12 of this passage is essentially saying the same thing as 3:22, although in that verse, instead of the rhetorical question “who knows what is good for man in his lifetime” we have the repeated affirmation “there is nothing good except that man should have enjoyment.” For though the two expressions seem contradictory, they are in fact complementary. We just saw that Qoheleth's recounting of his pursuit of success (2:12-23) illustrates the meaning of verse 12. And this pursuit was part of his investigation to “see what is good for the children of man to do ... during the few days of their life” (2:3). This means in verse 12 Qoheleth is really asking, “who knows what is good for man to do in his lifetime, the few days of his fleeting life.” Also, Qoheleth concluded his investigation with the affirmation that there is nothing good except enjoyment (2:24). So the question “who knows what is good (to do)...?” excludes enjoyment. Combining verse 12 and 3:22, Qoheleth is therefore saying: because we do not know the future, we do not know what is good to do, and so there is nothing good except enjoyment. We have seen enjoyment is good because it gives meaning to life, and this is not affected by what happens in the future.

Hence Qoheleth’s repeated affirmation that enjoyment of life is the only good (2:24; 3:12, 22; 5:18) is based on the assumption that we do not know what is good to do, which is itself based on the assumption that we do not know what will happen in the future. So the rhetorical questions--“Who knows what is good for man...?” and “Who can tell man what will come to be ...?”--are in effect reaffirming these assumptions respectively. In the process, they reinforce the affirmation on enjoyment.

In other words, verse 12 not only explains why the reality of the certainty of death and the uncertainties of life results in no profit under the sun, it also reinforces the admonition to enjoy life. And in this passage, this verse follows the repetition of the theme “What profit is there?” just as the extended passage before it, which is an elaborate discussion on enjoyment (5:18-6:9), follows the previous repetition of the theme (5:16). Also, in the present passage the repetition of the theme in verse 11 follows a reference to the poem on the certainty of death and the uncertainties of life (3:1-8), just as the earlier repetition of the theme (3:9) follows this very same poem. So this passage recapitulates chapters 3-6, up to the last verse of the last passage (6:9) in terms of content and structure. Furthermore, the first part of verse 10 is a rephrasing of 1:9, which confirmed that the first poem (1:4-8) was an illustration of the theme, which was there expressed for the first time (1:2-3). And verse 12 is illustrated by Qoheleth's recounting of his quest for the meaning of life (1:12-2:23), which led to his first admonition to enjoy life (2:24-26). That means, this recapitulation goes all the way to the very beginning of the speech.

What then is the point of this recapitulation? As we just saw, because it shows directly and concisely how the theme and sub-themes relate to one another, it enables Qoheleth to ask “What profit is there?” more forcefully and helps us understand its meaning more clearly. But there is more to it. As shown in our exposition of previous passages, the unpleasant reality of the certainty of death and the uncertainties of life, the consequent vanity of life under the sun, and the consequent need for enjoyment to make sense of life, all have the effect of prodding us to acknowledge God and live a life pleasing to Him. “For God so works that men should fear Him” (3:14b). So even if his audience is not perceptive enough to see that in this recapitulation Qoheleth is urging them to do that, he is still in effect preparing them for the final exhortation: “The conclusion, when all has been heard: Fear God and keep His commandments” (12:13).

But, as we shall see in the next section, before he makes that call to decision, having now recapitulated the theme and the sub-themes, he shifts his focus to deliberate on how to come to terms with the down-to-earth realities in this world in light of the uncertainties of life. In the process he shows why a God-fearing life makes sense even in light of the most puzzling experiences under the sun. This thus further prepares his audience for the final exhortation.


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