by William C. Williams, Doctorate of Philosophy
Professor of New Testament Studies, Oral Roberts Univ.
Author and Date: The name Ecclesiastes is derived from the Greek word ecclesia and means "someone who speaks to an assembly". The Hebrew word that corresponds to it is gohelet, which is to say "one who speaks to an assembly" or "the preacher".
Ecclesiastes is generally attributed to Solomon (approximately between the years 971 and 931 B.C.), who would have written it in his old age. The rather pessimistic tone that permeates the book agrees with the spiritual situation that Solomon went through in those moments (I Kings 11). Although I Kings doesn't mention it, Solomon must have recovered his sound judgment before death, after which he must have repented and returned to GOD. That which is said in Eccl. 1:1, "Words of the preacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem", seems to point to Solomon. Allusions to Solomon's wisdom (1:16), his riches (2:8), his servants (2:7), his inclination to pleasures (2:3), and his building activities (2:4-6) are found dispersed throughout the book.
Because of the problems that arise from an apostate Solomon writing these things, and due to some of the language utilized in Ecclesiastes being characteristic of a much later period in Israel's history, some scholars believe that the book has its origin in the times of Ezra (around 450 B.C.).
Authorship and Date: (HBH) Ecclesiastes tells us it was written by a son of David who was king in Jerusalem over Israel (1:1,12). This points to Solomon since he alone, after David, ruled both Judah and Israel. But many believe that Solomon (who reigned about 961-922 B.C.) could not have written the book and assert an unknown Jewish scribe composed it between 500 and 250 B.C.
The Language of Ecclesiastes. The Hebrew of Ecclesiastes is quite unusual and sometimes almost obscure. These peculiarities have led many scholars to believe Ecclesiastes was composed late in Old Testament history. But the Hebrew of Ecclesiastes is not characteristically "late" or "early"; it is simply unusual. The language of Ecclesiastes does have much in common with the language of Song of Songs. Several allegedly late Hebrew words in Ecclesiastes also appear in the Song. For this reason many scholars regard Song of Songs as a late book as well. But it is quite possible they have so much in common because they come from the same hand - Solomon's. (For particulars see the introduction to "Song of Songs".)
Internal Evidence. Some argue the text itself hints that Solomon was not the author. For example, in 1:12 the writer states that he "was" king in Jerusalem. The real Solomon, of course, never ceased to be king until the day he died. Some assert that passages like 8:2-3, which exhorts the reader to be tactful in the presence of the king, could not have been written by the king himself.
These arguments are rather weak. If, as it appears, Ecclesiastes was written by an aged man (12:1-7), it is not strange that he would speak of his reign in the past tense. Also it is not clear why a king could not be objective enough to give advice like that found in 8:2-3.
Literary Evidence. Certain passages of Ecclesiastes closely resemble other literature from the ancient Near East. For example, the Egyptian Song of the Harper exhorts the reader to enjoy life in terms almost identical to those found in Ecclesiastes 3:22 and 9:7-9. The Gilgamesh Epic, a Mesopotamian classic, also has parallels to Ecclesiastes 9:7-9 that are far too precise to be accidental.
It is almost impossible to account for the strong similarities between Ecclesiastes and these other ancient texts if we assume Ecclesiastes was written by an obscure Jewish scribe between 500 and 250 B.C. Literary practices changed greatly by that time. A scribe of that late a period would probably not even have known, much less used, the ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian literature.
Solomon, however, is known to have had wide contacts with the wisdom and learning of the ancient world of his day (I Kings 4:34). He doubtless knew works like the Song of the Harper and the Gilgamesh Epic. The similarities between Ecclesiastes and those texts are easy to explain if Solomon's authorship is assumed. All in all, therefore, the case for believing Solomon to have written Ecclesiastes is stronger than the case against it.
Background: The book evokes a time when the traditional answers to the great questions about the meaning of life have lost their relevance. Instead of responding to these questions with quotes from the Scripture, the Preacher introduces a methodology that leans on observation and inductive reasoning. In other scriptural books like Job, Proverbs, and certain Psalms, wisdom is synonymous with virtue and piety; its antithesis, foolishness, is converted thus into evil. In the book of Ecclesiastes, the word "wisdom" is sometimes used this way when it makes reference to the conventional interpretation of the concept by the Israelites (as in 7:1-8:9; 10:1-11:6). But in the initial chapter (1:12-18) the author approaches wisdom as a merely intellectual process, similar to the Greek philosophies, and questions its universal validity. Although he never disputes the existence of a GOD who grants significance to his creation, the Preacher is determined to discover it through his own experience and observation, in a way that he himself can verify it and pass it on to his disciples.
Content: The book of Ecclesiastes offers evidence of being a carefully composed literary essay that should be considered in its totality before examining its parts. The content of the book is defined in the same terms (1:2; 12:8) that anticipate and summarize the author's convictions. The theme is continued in 1:3, "What profit does a man have from all his labor for which he strives under the sun?"; or "Can a man find true wisdom apart from GOD's revelation?"
The Preacher's question investigates whether any kind of eternal, permanent value ("profit") exists, that can be found in this world ("under the sun") that might give meaning to life. The Hebrew word that's translated as "profit" is yitron (1:3), and can also be translated as "gain" or "value". "Vanity" is a key word in the book, and is the equivalent of the Hebrew word hebel (literally "breath", "encouragement"); it indicates that which is mortal, transitory or passing. By going over each one of the ways through which mankind has tried to find wisdom, the author of Ecclesiastes finds it elusive (like when one tries to catch "the wind") and deceptive ("vanity").
The "wisdom" of 1:12-18 is found empty of real value. The answer can be found neither in pleasures, nor in riches, great human achievements (2:1-11), in a doctrine of retribution (2:12-17) nor in material things (2:18-26).
If neither human achievements, nor material things, are yitron, what should our attitude be toward them, considering they don't possess any permanent value? The answer to this question introduces the other question that the book is dedicated to: You should enjoy life as much as GOD blesses it (3:11,12; 5:18-20; 9:7-10), remembering that at the end, He will judge "all these things" (11:7-10).
Not even the proper human life, in a merely secular sense, can be the yitron that the Preacher seeks. The interrelationship between life and death also makes up a subordinate theme of the book.
But getting back to the principal question of the Preacher, "Is it all destined to end (12:8) like it began (1:2), on a note of hopelessness? By constantly inquiring into the significance of everything that exists, the Preacher presents himself as an optimist, not a pessimist, and his little success in discovering some absolute value in this world ("under the sun"), doesn't mean that he has failed in his intent. On the contrary, he becomes obligated (when he makes the observation that GOD introduced order into the universe at the moment of creation, 3:1-14) to seek the permanent value that he pursues in the world to come (not "under the sun", but "over the sun", in other words). Although he doesn't say it in that exact way, the logic that serves to guide his entire investigation forces him to recognize the only real yitron in fear (reverence) and obedience to GOD (11:7-12:7). This is affirmed in the epilogue: Fearing GOD and keeping his commandments is the fundamental duty of mankind (12:13). This point should be made recognizing that, while true justice doesn't exist in this life, in his time, GOD will judge and put everything in its place (11:9; 12:14). The book concludes with this profound thought.
Message and Purpose: (HBH) Christian readers, after they have shaken off the initial shock of reading Ecclesiastes, have often described it as a defense of the faith or even an evangelistic work. Ecclesiastes shows that many of the pursuits of life, including wealth, education, and power, do not really fulfill. In that way Ecclesiastes shows that life without GOD is meaningless and drives the reader to faith.
Many readers have pointed out how much stark skepticism is in Ecclesiastes. If Ecclesiastes is an apologetic work, it is surely unlike any other defense of the faith ever written. But the defensive and evangelistic purpose of Ecclesiastes is clearer if one takes into account its original audience. A careful study of the text demonstrates conclusively that its first readers were not "ordinary" people but the wealthy, the powerful, and those who had access to the royal court. Again and again it deals with the study of wisdom (which the average person did not have time to do), the value of wealth, and the problems involved in being in the kings's court. These things did not apply as issues in the lives of most people.
Addressed to the intellectual and political elite of Israel, the book's "pessimism" makes sense. It was speaking to the very people who were most likely to build their lives on success, wealth, power, and an intellectual reputation. Ecclesiastes repeatedly points out the futility of such a way of life and urges the readers to face their need for GOD. In that sense Ecclesiastes is indeed evangelistic and in fact can be read profitably by anyone.
Ecclesiastes should not be called pessimistic or cynical, but it is brutally realistic. In Particular Ecclesiastes makes the reader confront the full and dreadful significance of death. Most people, whether or not they are religious, refuse to face what death really is: a calamity that nullifies the achievements of human life. Ecclesiastes strips away the myths we use to shield ourselves from this stark fact.
In Pointing out the dreadfulness of death, Ecclesiastes helps us see how profound is our need for resurrection. More simply, Ecclesiastes drives us to Christ. The New Testament shares this perspective; death is not a friend or even a doorway but a terrible enemy. It will be, however, a conquered enemy (I Cor. 15:26,54-55; Rev. 20:14).
Structure: (HBH) To the modern reader, Ecclesiastes at first appears to have no structure at all. The book does not follow modern standards of setting topics in a hierarchy. But a careful reading shows that Ecclesiastes carefully moves among a group of selected subjects. These include wealth, politics, wisdom, death, and aging. As the book moves to and fro among these and other topics, a complete statement gradually emerges.
Theological Contribution: The Book of Ecclesiastes has a powerful message for our selfish, materialistic age. It teaches that great accomplishments and earthly possessions alone do not bring lasting happiness. True satisfaction comes from serving GOD and following His will for our lives.
But another important truth from Ecclesiastes, which we often overlook, is that life is to be enjoyed. The preacher of this book repeats this truth several times so it does not escape our attention. "There is nothing better for them than to rejoice, and to do good in their lives, and also that every man should eat and drink and enjoy the good of all his labor - it is the gift of GOD" (3:12-13). GOD wants us to enjoy life's simple pleasures. Our grateful acceptance of His daily blessings can bring a sense of joy and fulfillment to our lives.
Special Considerations: One of the most moving passages in the Bible is the poem from Ecclesiastes on the proper time for all events: "A time to be born, and a time to die" (3:2). This text, if taken seriously, can restore balance to our living. Another powerful passage is the figurative description of the aging process (12:1-7). The preacher realizes that old age with its afflictions looms ahead for every person. So he counsels his audience, "Remember now your Creator in the days of your youth, before the difficult days come" (12:1).
Personal Application: Christians in the modern church often assume a passive intellectual attitude, accepting almost everything that's said to them, or simply questioning a doctrine according to appearances, instead of investigating whether it has a biblical foundation. The Preacher's challenge finds its parallel in the apostle Paul's recommendation to the Ephesian Christians that they not be "wavering children, carried everywhere by every wind of doctrine" (Eph. 4:14). To the principle of interpreting the Scriptures for oneself, clearly established by Luther and the Reformers, is added the mandate to "Scrutinize the Scriptures" (John 5:39), to know what they truly teach.
The Preacher's purpose for finding what really has value in this life, should be a challenge to each true believer in Jesus Christ, "the way, and the truth, and the life" (John 14:6). The Preacher's failure at the time to find something of permanent value, in the things of the world, teaches Christians who live in these times of greed and materialism to concentrate on the "things from above" (Col. 3:1) and not glorify ambition and material possessions.
Christ Revealed: Although the book of Ecclesiastes doesn't contain typical prophecies or allusions about Jesus Christ, it anticipates a certain number of teachings of the one in whom the law and the prophets are fulfilled (Matt. 5:17). Although Jesus said little about wisdom, Paul referred fully to the wisdom that comes from GOD (Rom. 22:44) in contrast to that of the narrow world of human limitations (I Cor. 1:17; 3:19; II Cor. 1:12).
In Matthew 6:19-21 Jesus warned against the pursuit of riches in this world, saying that it was the kingdom of heaven that should be sought, which reminds us of the Preacher's echo of condemnation against materialism in 2:1-11, 18-26; 4:4-6; 5:8-14. Likewise, the emphasis on heaven that Jesus makes reflects the impossibility of finding something of permanent value "under the sun" (in this world). The Preacher's conclusion, that the only true value resides in reverence and obedience to GOD (12:13), is equivalent to Jesus' teaching that what is of primary importance is our attitude toward GOD (Matt. 22:37, citing Deut. 6:5) and secondly, our attitude toward all other human beings (Matt. 22:39, citing Lev. 19:18).
The Holy Spirit in Action: All the references to the "spirit" in Ecclesiastes designate the vital force that gives life to human beings and animals (see 3:18-21). However, the book anticipates some of the problems that Paul faced defining the use of the spiritual gifts in I Cor. 12-14. Those who believe that GOD has spoken through the Holy Spirit in dreams and visions (Joel 2:28-32; Acts 2:17-21) would do well in following the Preacher's counsel: not all dreams communicate GOD's wishes to us (5:3). It seems as if Paul had these kinds of reserves in mind when he speaks in I Cor. 14:29 of the gifts of tongues and prophecy, recommending that an orderly manifestation of this nature might be followed by a judgment on the part of the assembly. Also, the Preacher's emphasis on reverence and obedience to GOD anticipates Paul's interest in the edification of the Church (I Cor. 14:5). True spiritual gifts - genuine manifestations of messages or miraculous actions - should be maintained within a spirit of reverence to GOD's glory through Christ and for the edification of the believers.
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