Kohelet is a powerful challenge to the traditional Deuteronomic theology. Not only does it not accept that good actions result in rewards, and bad actions in punishment as launch a savage 12 chapter attack on the notion. The strangeness of the work seeps into every attempt at commentary, even the attempt to date the work is fraught. Seow notes 'the book has been dated anywhere from the tenth century BCE to the first CE.' That said most commentators date authorship to a time post-invasion of Alexander the Great (the work does show some signs of Greek influence) but preceding Ben Sira, (which Kohelet probably influenced), and the Maccabean wars (which Kohelet does not seem to know of). We are accordingly in the late fourth or early third century BCE.
Critical confusion deepens as we turn to matters of substance. Fox cites six major works on the book, all published in the last fifteen years, and analyses their overall position on the philosophy of the work. For Crenshaw and Longman Kohelet is ultimately pessimistic, for Perry and Fredrick, it is ultimately optimistic, for Murphy, Seow and himself he reserves ambivalent labels. In any event, the work is profoundly disturbing.
'Utter futility - said Koheleth - Utter futility! All is futile!' (1:2) is Kohelet's brutal opening salvo and following some twelve chapters of coruscating analysis of the state of the world his conclusion is the slightly briefer, but no-kinder rejoinder 'Utter futility - said Koheleth - All is futile!' (12:8)
Of course, there is much debate about the meaning of this brutal claim and its central term - Hevel - translated by JPS as 'futile'. I like the understanding of Fox, who understands Hevel as absurd. 'The absurd is a disjunction between two phenomena that are thought to be linked by a bond of harmony or causality, or that should be so linked …Thus the absurd is irrational, an affront to reason - the human faculty that seeks and discovers order in the world around us' This definition seems to capture the tension that suffuses the book, and presumably the author, as he struggles with a nexus of cause and effect Ben Sira ultimately ducks.
On the one hand Kohelet stubbornly expects that the good will be rewarded while the evil will be punished, see , and -13. This is the great nexus of cause and effect that permeates earlier Biblical works and most later Jewish theologies. Indeed it is the base assumption against which it is possible to speak of a problem of evil.
On the other hand problem, Kohelet perceives unjustified suffering, 'sometimes a good man perishes, in spite of his goodness and sometimes a wicked one endures in spite of his wickedness' (7:15) 'Folly was placed on lofty heights while rich men sat in low estate' (10:6 see also 9:3). The suffering is real. Evil exists. In these verses, Kohelet expresses no expectation of the implementation of Deuteronomic theology.
Nor does Kohelet think there is anything the human can do to bring forth justice in this world. 'Whatever happens, it was designated long ago and it was known that it would happen; as for man, he cannot contend with what is stronger than he. Often much talk means much futility' -11 (see also ).
Before unpacking what Kohelet does indeed suggest we need to note Kohelet's understanding of the ideal cause-effect mechanism. There is a bridge between the good action and the reward or the evil action and the punishment and it is here that Kohelet focuses his analysis. Evil action does not cause punishment directly, rather it is supposed to anger God who in turn is supposed to decree the punishment. 'Don't [do evil] else God may be angered by your talk and destroy your possessions' (5:5). This is an entirely orthodox position, indeed the passage just cited seems closely based on Deut 23:22-5 and to a lesser extent Lev 5:4. The problem is that practically life does not seem, to Kohelet, to be working that way.
Kohelet is also aware that there may well be sins of which he, or others, may be unaware. 'For there is not one good man on earth who does what is best and does not err,' (). This, of course, is one of the more damaging accusations made against Job, that by complaining of his total goodness he is guilty of a certain pride which may well make him worthy of punishment (Job 15:12 f). But Kohelet refuses to accept that such hidden sin could explain the dislocation he perceives. 'Koheleth recognizes no relationship between act, situation and reputation, having rejected any connection between a person and that individual's acts or state''
Thus God is accused and found guilty, the fabric of cause and effect is torn. And this, for Kohelet, breaks the myth of the all-good, all-powerful Divine. 'Theodicy - justifying the Divine - does not work for Koheleth. He takes generalities as absolutes and he will not subordinate the anomalies he observes to the beliefs he accepts. Injustices are intractable distortions that warp the larger pattern rather than fading into it.'
Kohelet refuses to accept that God in God's omnipotent omniscience is guaranteed to be all good, and this, not the tendency of the human to fail, is what causes him to engage with despair. The cry 'all is absurd' is ultimately a protest against God, not human. This makes Kohelet a work of theology (Seow correctly takes Scott to task for equivocating on the issue) not 'mere' philosophy. It reaches beyond the human condition or at least seeks to. I am reminded of the brutal Psalm 44 where God is sought, but never appears, instead sending death to those who worship the Divine exactly as Sinaitic Revelation appears to demand. Indeed Kohelet has little or no time for Sinai. 'His ethic has no relationship to divine commandments, for there are none…[Kohelet's] God is not Yahweh, the covenant God of Israel. He is rather the mysterious inscrutable Being whose existence must be presupposed.'
Clearly, Kohelet makes a deeply unorthodox teacher from within the Deuteronomic tradition, but he does not make an orthodox wisdom teacher either. When Ben Sirah is faced with the same data that embitters Kohelet, he likewise does not turn to revelation and covenant. Instead, he works from within the wisdom tradition. For Ben Sira, the closest point to a solution to the problem of evil is an ability to know God through an appreciation of the splendour of creation, 'Look at the rainbow and praise him who made it.' (Ben Sira 43:9-12 ). But for Kohelet 'All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full …All such things are wearisome.' (1:7-8) The charms of the natural world, so tempting to other wisdom writers do nothing for Kohelet. As Scott claims, 'Man may catch glimpses of the divine order in the very regularity of physical process in the natural world … [but] not in any moral order recognizable in experience.' What makes Kohelet so unique, the thing that places him so close to the edge of both wisdom and traditional Biblical orthodoxy, is not his recognition of the suffering of individuals, but his refusal to be seduced away from this pain by a broader view more in keeping with Divine bounty and glory. It is this refusal that drives his dealing with the problem of evil. Kohelet is simply not interested in theodicy. He walks away from the temptation to justify God.
In response to this futile world, like Ben Sira, Kohelet refuses to countenance the possibility of just Next World. Indeed his dismissal of anything beyond death is even fiercer that Ben Sira. For Kohelet, not even a good name survives death. 'the wise man, just like the fool is not remembered for ever.' (, see also 9:5).
In fact, at first glance, Koheleth seems to respond to this damning indictment by surrendering to it. We do not see the urging of sinners to mend their ways, rather he seems to acknowledge "pervasive injustice as a way of life and 'nothing warped can be straightened out.' ()." Indeed Kohelet even suggests not being born at all would be preferable to this sad reality. (4:3) But a closer read shows that Kohelet is not, in fact, advocating surrender, rather acknowledging that the only effective response is the internal one. Only responses that begin, and indeed end, with the attempt by the human to guide one's own psychology, seem a worthy response to Divine fickleness. Pleasure does feel good and is worth pursuing, even in the face of the inevitability of death (6:6). Despite the triumph of the sinner we are still urged to some semblance of decency, 'don’t overdo wickedness and don’t be a fool' (). Pleasure is a worthy goal, as long as one realises its limits, 'Even if a man lives many years, let him enjoy himself in all of them, remembering how many the days of darkness are going to be.' (11:8). Indeed in the face of the bleak tomorrow, we are nonetheless urged to seize today, 'Sow your seed in the morning, and don't hold back your hand in the evening.' (11:6) After all 'a live dog is better than a dead lion.' (9:4) In these glimmers there lies a different response to the problem of evil; a response that acknowledges the superiority of the enemy, but refuses to surrender. Even in a Universe where the Divine cause-effect nexus fails to function smoothly, there is no suggestion that the human should give up on morality and the search for pleasure.
It is, however, Koheleth's refusal to even countenance orthodoxy which continues to perplex. What is the work doing in the canon? When compared to the deeply traditional reading of Ben Sira, a work which failed the test of canonisation, Koheleth's apparent blasphemy seems even more remarkable. Admittedly rabbinic sources, and indeed Christian ones as well, attest to debate about the admissibility and thereby holiness of Koheleth's peculiar brand of heresy,  but in the end the work is deemed acceptable. Perhaps the Rabbis didn’t have the courage to strike this work out, or maybe they had more courage than even Koheleth, enough courage to accept both orthodoxy and heresy. Gordis brings a tale of Rabbi Bunam of Pshya which seem apposite. One day Rabbi Bunam found his beloved disciple Enoch in tears. The Rabbi asked him, 'Why are you weeping?' and Enoch answered, 'Am I not a creature of the world, and am I not made with eyes and heart and all limbs, yet I do not know what good I am in the world.' 'Fool' said Rabbi Bunam, 'I also go around like this.'  Maybe, at a certain point we all face the darkness Koheleth articulates so clearly, and then what?
Indeed I am reminded of what Paul Ricoeur calls 'second naïveté.' Here, despite the fact that one is aware the Universe does not function with the simple literal faith expressed by Ben Sira, one nonetheless submits to Her charms, there being no other choice. How much succour does this awareness bring? In his Fifth Stage of Development, the psychologist J. Fowler describes a place where we recognise, 'solutions or explanations of a problem that seemed so elegant [are] but a painted canvas covering an intricate endlessly intriguing cavern of surprising depth.' This seems to be where Kohelet stands. Both modern and ancient teachers seem to suggest that there is no greater existential succour available than the ability to retain a true understanding of the complexities of the world while, pursuing happiness despite the failure of the cause effect nexus. If this pursuance of happiness seems naïve, so be it. I prefer the moniker courageous.
'Have you courage, O my brothers?' asks Nietzsche, 'Not the courage before witnesses, but anchorite and eagle courage, He has heart who knows fear, but vanquishes it, who sees the abyss, but with pride - He who with eagles talons grasps the abyss: He has courage.' Kohelet surely is such a man, and his message is one that allows a religious person to look into the abyss and vanquish fear.
The problem of evil cannot be solved ignoring it as Ben Sira seems to suggest, nor, at least for this reader, will the appeal to nature and 'radical amazement' in the hope that evil will not surface, prove sufficient in all cases. Evil cannot even be solved by Kohelet's radical search for truth. But maybe, through courage and honesty, evil can be lived into submission, and for this notion, if no other, we should cherish this acceptable heresy.
 Seow, Anchor Bible p.viii
 See generally Seow, Ecclesiastes p16-36, Gordis, Koheleth, p.63-68, Scott, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, p192. In any event, the notion that King Solomon could have composed the work seems no more than a 'literary effect and no observant [sic] reader could suppose otherwise' Scott op cit. p 196
 Fox, A Time to Build, p xii
 All translations from JPS
 The remainder of the book seems to be, by its own admission, a later addition. See Scott op cit, 194 and other modern commentaries.
 Fox, A Time to Build p.30. Fox is influenced by Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus, but then again Camus may well be influenced by Qohelet, see Fox 8-11 and bibliography cited there.
 Gese op cit p. 143
 Fox op cit 66
 op cit p.54
 Scott, op cit p.192
 op cit 198
 Fox op cit p67
 See Mishna Yadaim 3:5 inter alia and Jerome's fourth-century work, Commentarius in Ecclesiasten MPL 23, p1172.
 Gordis, Kohelet p121-122
 Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, trans. Buchanan pp. 351-352
 Fowler, Stages of Faith p. 188
 Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (IV, 73, 4)