An Introduction to Ecclesiastes
Ecclesiastes takes the reader through the highs and lows of life on this earth, from hedonism to nihilism, finally arriving at a conclusion that is perfectly at home within Old Testament theology: fear God and keep His commandments.
Ecclesiastes stands as one of the most difficult book to interpret among the Old Testament portion of the canon. Questions concerning the authorship of the book are numerous, and scholars are deeply divided concerning the lack of a clear unifying structure. Indeed, “Ecclesiastes seems at first glance to be a collection of apparently random themes.” Ecclesiastes seems shrouded in mystery both as to its origin and its message, raising for some questions as to its canonicity However, a close look at the authorship, structure, and theological message of the book reveals Ecclesiastes’ rightful place within the canon. The difficult form and pseudonymous authorship of Ecclesiastes actually accentuates and deepens the communication of its simple and orthodox message. Ecclesiastes was written to the cynic and skeptic, to those who have become disillusioned with the world and its empty promises for fulfillment. The same themes that at first glance may appear incongruent, such as vanity and enjoyment of simple pleasures, meaninglessness and wisdom, the hopelessness of death and purpose in life, upon careful, contextualized investigation work together to serve the author’s purpose of directing the reader to God for ultimate meaning in life. Ecclesiastes takes the reader through the highs and lows of life on this earth, from hedonism to nihilism, finally arriving at a conclusion that is perfectly at home within Old Testament theology: fear God and keep His commandments.
Scholars are divided over the exact structure of the book of Ecclesiastes. However, Ecclesiastes obviously presents the collection and summary of the wise Qohelet’s (“The Preacher’s”) teachings and as with any book of wisdom literature, there are numerous ways to divide and categorize material presented in the manner of a collection. Despite disagreement on the finer points of division, it is still possible to discern a very general outline within which Qohelet’s material is presented. The broadest overview reveals three sections: (1) a prologue in [v]Ecc. 1:1-11[/v], (2) Qohelet’s autobiographical speech, and (3) an epilogue in [v]Ecc. 12:8-14[/v]. Longman has noted that the structure of the book follows an autobiographical tradition in the ancient Near East. The prologue and epilogue are characterized by third person references to Qohelet, and together they frame the large first person monologue. This frame serves as an introduction and conclusion to the body of the work.
Structure and Authorship
Since the late 1800’s, the authorship of Ecclesiastes has been even more hotly debated than its structure. The author never offers his own proper name, but refers to himself as “Qohelet”, related to the Hebrew noun for “assembly.” Thus, “Qohelet” is primarily translated as “The Teacher,” “The Preacher,” or even “The Leader of the Assembly.” The traditional view places Solomon as Qohelet, the author of the book. These scholars look to internal evidence for support. Qohelet identifies himself as “son of David, king in Jerusalem” in [v]Ecc. 1:1[/v], followed by the claim that he has been “king over Israel in Jerusalem” in [v]Ecc. 1:12[/v]. Further, Qohelet was wiser than any king in Jerusalem before him ([v]Ecc. 1:16[/v]), oversaw building project ([v]Ecc. 2:4-6[/v]), and had great possessions ([v]Ecc. 2:7-8[/v]), becoming greater than anyone in Jerusalem before him ([v]Ecc. 2:9[/v]). These descriptions clearly refer to Solomon, whether he authored the book or not.
Solomonic authorship of Ecclesiastes was accepted by the vast majority of conservative scholars until the 19th century. Contemporary conservative scholars who doubt his authorship generally point to several internal factors to prove their point. The most notable example regarding the text itself is the use of the moniker Qohelet. “One must ask what is gained or what possible reason could Solomon have had for adopting a name other than his own in this book?” All other writings of Solomon bear his name, such as the Proverbs and Song of Songs. A king as prominent as Solomon would have had no need to author a work pseudonymously, for its impact would have been far greater under his own, highly recognizable name. More importantly, the author leaves us a few literary clues that he was not claiming to be Solomon. In the prologue ([v]Ecc. 1:1-11[/v]) and epilogue ([v]Ecc. 12:8-14[/v]), Qohelet is referred to in the third person only, indicating an outside speaker. Additionally, in [v]Ecc. 1:12[/v], the first person account includes the claim that “I was king,” a past tense reference that was never true of Solomon. The association with Solomon appears to recede into the background after the first three chapters, and Qohelet appears to be distant from the kingship. He is unable to do anything concerning the injustice that he sees ([v]Ecc. 4:1-3; 5:7-8[/v]). A king with the power of Solomon most certainly could have affected change in his own kingdom, yet the book of 1 Kings explains that Solomon willingly burdened his people with labor and taxes.
The conclusion concerning the authorship is that Qohelet identified himself with Solomon for the sake exploring the futility of wisdom, pleasure, and other temporal pursuits. Impersonation of Solomon as a literary form provided the author with the proper atmosphere that he needed to present this work. A man of Solomon’s wealth, power, and opportunity was needed to convey the message in a powerful way. If Solomon could not find fulfillment through his nearly unlimited success in life, then it is assuredly futile for everyone. Furthermore, scripture notes Solomon for his pursuit and possession of wisdom. His reputation for unsurpassed wisdom and the proverbs of Solomon give his character the credentials needed to provide an authoritative “Qohelet”. The allusions to Solomon’s life, character, and works are undeniable. Yet the absence of Solomon’s actual name and other clues are too significant to ignore. Fortunately, for those who accept the book as part of the inerrant Word of God, the debate over human authorship does not affect the message of the book as a whole. Whether Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes or not, his life provides the perfect illustration for the book’s message.
Initially it may seem that there are two contradictory messages in the book, an orthodox editor defending faith in God, and Qohelet’s cynicism. For example,, Qohelet states “For what does a man get in all his labor and in his striving . . . because all his days his task is painful and grievous,” yet a new section seems to begin with the seemingly incongruous statement “There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and tell himself that his labor is good. This also I have seen that it is from the hand of God.” Has an editor inserted orthodox qualifiers to Qohelet’s almost pagan pessimism? Fortunately this scenario proves unlikely; the epilogue praises Qohelet for teaching the people knowledge, and acknowledges that he sought to teach the people and write the words of truth “given by one Shepherd” correctly. Furthermore, “it is very odd to imagine an ‘editor’ issuing a work with which he disagrees but adding extensive notes and an epilogue to compensate…no wisdom document exists in two recensions with opposite theologies; it is doubtful if one ever did."
The Message of Ecclesiastes
The book of Ecclesiastes is masterfully composed to reveal the vanity of trusting in wisdom, pleasure, wealth, or any other human endeavor for satisfaction in this life. It is within the genre of wisdom literature to stretch the readers mind to grasp broader understanding through the employment of paradox, irony and hyperbole. Qohelet walks the reader through the numerous vain endeavors of man in order to illustrate that trust in one’s own ability to discover existential meaning in life apart from God will inevitably lead to bitterness, cynicism, and hopelessness. This book proclaims that God makes possible the pleasures that may be enjoyed in this life, for He is good and generous. Ultimate meaning and fulfillment in life is only possible by fearing God, keeping His commandments, enjoying His gifts for today and believing that He will reconcile all things in the future.
The importance of understanding the theological message of the book of Ecclesiastes must not be understated. One must interpret each verse in light of its literary style and the message of the book as a whole. As Greg Parsons has noted, “In no other book of the Old Testament is this guideline more crucial.” The editor’s conclusion provides the answer for the overall purpose of the work. The editor offers the essential summation to life’s purpose and message of Ecclesiastes, “The conclusion, when all has been heard: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil” (12:13-14).
Qohelet employs several important terms and repetitious phrases to represent key themes that weave together to illustrate the message of Ecclesiastes. It is critical to trace these literary devices throughout the book to discover what Qohelet wanted each phrase or term to communicate to the reader. If considered in isolation, certain phrases would appear contradictory to the message and unorthodox. For example, if “all is vanity” provides the literal sum of the matter, why even go on reading the book! At times Qohelet’s words appear contradictory and approaching nihilism or hedonism, but his orthodoxy is vindicated time and again as each phrase is interpreted within the context of the overall message and literary genre.
Themes and Phrases in Ecclesiastes
Hebel. Perhaps the most memorable expression in the entire book is Qohelet’s characteristic assertion “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” The Hebrew word hebel is variously translated as vanity (NASB, KJV, NKJV, NRSV), futile (NET), and meaninglessness (NIV). Further, it is translated in the Septuagint by mataio,thj, which carries the meaning of useless, futile, empty, or nonsense, nothingness, emptiness. Hebel has well over 30 occurrences in the book of Ecclesiastes. Several categories of use may be seen:
First are those passages in which the author states his inability to find fulfillment in work, both in his failure to be creative and in his lack of control over the privilege of free disposition of his possessions; this is "vanity": [v]19, 21, 23; 8[/v];. Second are those verses in which the author struggles with the idea that the connection between sin and judgment, righteousness and final deliverance is not always direct or obvious. This is an anomaly about life and it is "vanity":;;. The meaning of hebel here would be "senseless." Thirdly are those verses in which the author laments the shortness of life; this is "vanity":;; [v]10[/v]. Life, in its quality, is "empty" or "vacuous" (and thus unsubstantial), and in its quantity is "transitory."
Thus hebel is used to describe the utter meaninglessness of all things apart from God. Qohelet’s adamant assertion that “all is vanity” adeptly creates a literary effect that draws the reader into an experience of futility and frustrated reason. “The idea is that both individuals and their experiences are fleeting and transient. The reason the writer declared everything useless was that nothing he did or gained provided him with enduring substance and happiness” (emphasis mine). Every use of hebel modifies a human effort, whereas it is never applied to the divine actions and gifts that are to be received as good and enjoyed.
Under the Sun. Only in Ecclesiastes does this phrase make an appearance within the Hebrew canon. Qohelet employs this phrase to indicate that he is restricting his discussion to the earthly, temporal realm. “Under the sun” is where the vanities of work, life, and pleasure exist for humanity. Anything which Qohelet mentions as existing “under the sun” serves his exploration of the “abyss of pessimism.” This phrase is used by Qohelet as an important qualification to his use of hebel, so that God and heavenly realm are excluded. Surely one of the most famous passages in Ecclesiastes occurs, “That which has been is that which will be, and that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one might say, ‘See this, it is new’? Already it has existed for ages which were before us.” Anything that is truly new has its origins from God, in the heavenly realm. Mankind will continually repeat his mistakes, remaining the same fallen creature generation after generation.
Striving after wind. Qohelet often employs this phrase to describe the search for the unattainable. The phrase is connected to hebel in all, reinforcing the conclusion that all “under the sun” is meaningless. Nothing will result from man’s labor in this life, just as nothing will result from a man grasping at the wind.
Themes and Phrases in Ecclesiastes, cont'd
Eat, Drink, and be Merry. Qohelet’s frequent antidote to the meaninglessness of life is to enjoy the simple pleasures that are available. These pleasures are not enjoyable apart from the hand of God (2:24; 3:13; 5:19; 9:7). Scholars are divided on the meaning of these verses. Some note that these pleasures are presented in light of the lack of anything better, avoiding an “unqualified positive statement.” To these scholars Qohelet appears to be advocating a godless hedonism consisting solely of wine, women and song. Others see a much more positive tone, interpreting Qohelet as promoting contentment with humanity’s lot in life and rejoicing in the blessings of God. “Striving after the wind” makes labor and pleasure meaningless, yet receiving from God with gratitude yields simple pleasure. The latter view appears much more consistent with Israelite orthodoxy ([v]Deut. 14:26[/v]), for God was not opposed to the Israelite’s enjoyment of life as long as it was in His presence.
The Immanence of Death. Any advantage, wealth, or possessions that a person has gained in this life are rendered meaningless by death. A person cannot influence the timing of his or her death (8:8), a death that is similar to a person’s entrance into life (5:15-16). Qohelet viewed death as preferable to life for some (4:1-3; 6:3-5), with the sole exception that the dead will eventually be forgotten (9:4-5). Yet Qohelet must not be regarded as a nihilist. , Qohelet is underscoring the terrible oppression that he witnessed, concluding that it would have been better off never to have been born rather than exist in an oppressed condition. Qohelet is discussing a discontented rich man. If a man has all good things available and yet does not enjoy them (3:22), then the miscarried child is even better than he. Finally, one of Qohelet’s most important observations is the separation that death brings from earthly possessions (2:18; 5:15). Thus man should spend life fearing God and obeying His commandments, all the while enjoying the fruit of his labor.
Wisdom. Qohelet’s negative conclusions concerning wisdom are that it is transitory (4:13-16; 9:13-16), can bring much grief to a person (1:18), and does not prevent death (2:12). Yet it is better to be poor and wise than rich and foolish (4:13), and can help to preserve one’s life (7:11-12). Wisdom also provides success (10:10), gives strength (7:19; 9:16), and joy (8:1). However, as with all earthly pursuits, Qohelet sees wisdom in and of itself as vanity (2:15). All the human wisdom under the sun cannot redeem us from our temporal predicament under the curse. Wisdom cannot remove the difficulty of labor, and even if it prolongs one’s life, it cannot ultimately deliver us from death.
Fear of God. Qohelet chose not to use God’s covenant name, Yahweh, instead opting to exclusively use Elohim. Even with the omission of Yahweh, it is clear that the God of Israel is in view in Qohelet’s work. He is called the Shepherd (), a term used elsewhere in the Old Testament to refer to God ([v]Gen. 48:15; 49:24; Ps. 23:1; 28:9; 80:1[/v]). God will indeed correct injustice in the future (; [v]8:12-13; 11:9; 12:14[/v]), for He is in total control (; [v]5:2; 7:14; 9:1[/v]). In addition to fearing Him, mankind should seek to please God (2:26) and remember Him (12:1, 7). “All these truths about God are consistent with the rest of Scripture, thus affirming the validity of the place of Ecclesiastes in the Bible.” When these statements about God are read in light of the message of the book and the author’s conclusion, one cannot doubt that a proper doctrine of God is presented by Qohelet.
These main phrases and themes masterfully merge together to unfold a profound picture of human life. All the seeming difficulties of interpretation surrounding Ecclesiastes actually serve to state its message more dramatically. The use of paradox, irony, hyperbole and pessimism combine to give a potent depiction of our human predicament. There is “an appointed time for everything…a time to search and a time to give up as lost.” Yet as believers in God we must not give up as lost the search for meaning apart from wealth and pleasure. We must recognize that we live both in the frustrated experience of vanity “under the sun” and yet also within the hope of joy and pleasure from a God who is good. Both must be considered and understood in order to gain true wisdom as to human life and its proper relation both to the world and to God.
The book of Ecclesiastes was written for the cynics and skeptics among us. When all of life appears meaningless and the immanence of death seems like all there is to look forward to, Qohelet comes to our aid. His search for meaning took him through countless worldly pleasures in the physical and emotional realms. All that one may desire to do in life was tried by our friend the Preacher, with the conclusion that it is all vanity apart from God, and in the faithful fear of God there is peace and joy (2:26). As believers in God, we must at all times carry with us the wisdom of the conclusion of Ecclesiastes, lest we fall into despair at the futility surrounding us “under the sun”:
“The conclusion, when all has been heard: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.” – [v]Ecclesiastes 12:13-14[/v]
Bullock, C. Hassell. An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophetic Books. Chicago: Moody Press, 1988.
Davis, Barry C. “[v]Ecclesiastes 12:1-8[/v]--Death, an Impetus for Life.” Bibliotheca Sacra 148, no. 591 (July-September 1991): 299-319, [CD-ROM], 2004, Garland: Galaxie Software.
Eaton, Michael A. Ecclesiastes : An Introduction and Commentary. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983.
Friberg, Timothy and Barbara. Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament. Baker Book House, 2000, [CD-ROM], 2003, Bibleworks 6.
Glenn, Donald R. Ecclesiastes. The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck. Colorado Springs, CO: Victor Books, 1985.
Kittel, Gerhard, ed. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Translated by G.W. Bromiley, vol. I vols. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965. Reprint, 1999.
Longman III, Tremper. The Book of Ecclesiastes. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1998.
Louw, J. P. and E. A. Nida. Louw-Nida Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains. 2nd Edition. United Bible Societies, 1988, [CD-ROM], 2003, Bibleworks 6.
Parsons, Greg W. “Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming the Book of Ecclesiastes, Part 1.” Bibliotheca Sacra 160, no. 638 (April-June 2003): 159-173.
________. “Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming the Book of Ecclesiastes, Part 2.” Bibliotheca Sacra 160, no. 639 (July-September 2003): 283-304, [CD-ROM], 2004, Garland: Galaxie Software.
R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., Bruce K. Waltke. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Moody Press, 1980, [CD-ROM], 2003, Bibleworks 6.
Reitman, James S. “The Structure and Unity of Ecclesiastes.” Bibliotheca Sacra 154, no. 615 (July-September 1997): 298-320, [CD-ROM], 2004, Garland: Galaxie Software.
Shank, H. Carl. “Qoheleth's World and Life View as Seen in His Recurring Phrases.” Westminster Theological Journal 37, no. 1 (Fall 1974): 58-74, [CD-ROM], 2004, Garland: Galaxie Software.
Zuck, Roy B. “God and Man in Ecclesiastes.” Bibliotheca Sacra 148, no. 589 (January-March 1991): 47-57, [CD-ROM], 2004, Garland: Galaxie Software.
|. ||Parsons, Greg W. , “Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming the Book of Ecclesiastes, Part 1,” Bibliotheca Sacra 160, (638 April-June 2003), 160.|
|. ||Eaton, Michael, Ecclesiastes : An Introduction and Commentary (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983), 9.|
|. ||Bullock, C. Hassell, An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophetic Books (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988), 178.|
|. ||Longman III, Tremper, The Book of Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans, 1998), viii.|
|. ||Study of the tradition, Fictional Akkadian Autobiography, is beyond the scope of this paper. The reader is directed to Longman, The Book of Ecclesiastes, 15-20.|
|. ||The editor also briefly interrupts in 7:27 with another 3rd person reference, reminding the reader that he was presenting the words of Solomon.|
|. ||Glenn, Donald R., Ecclesiastes (Colorado Springs, CO: Victor Books, 1985), 975.|
|. ||Notably Moses Stuart, Ernst W. Hengsteberg, Charles H.H. Wright, Edward J. Young, and Franz Delitzch in the 19th century. Contemporary commentators include Tremper Longman III, Michael Eaton, C. Hassell Bullock, and Derek Kidner, among others. Contemporary commentators who affirm Solomonic authorship include Gleason L. Archer, Donald Glenn, and Roy B. Zuck.|
|. ||Longman III, Tremper, The Book of Ecclesiastes, 4.|
|. ||Ibid., 4.|
|. ||Bullock, C. Hassell, An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophetic Books, 184.|
|. ||Longman III, Tremper, The Book of Ecclesiastes, 5.|
|. ||Ibid., 6.|
|. ||Eaton, Michael, Ecclesiastes : An Introduction and Commentary, 23-24.|
|. ||Bullock, C. Hassell, An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophetic Books, 185.|
|. ||Eaton, Michael, Ecclesiastes : An Introduction and Commentary, 40-41.|
|. ||Ibid., 48.|
|. ||Parsons, Greg W. , “Guidelines for Understanding and Proclaiming the Book of Ecclesiastes, Part 1,”, 160.|
|. ||Eccl. 1:2 (4 times), 14; 2:1, 11, 15, 17, 19, 21, 23, 26; 3:19; 4:4, 7f, 16; 5:6, 9 (English 5:7, 10); 6:2, 4, 9, 11, 12; 7:6, 15; 8:10, 14 (2 times); 9:9 (2 times) 11:8, 10; 12:8 (3 times).|
|. ||Longman III, Tremper, The Book of Ecclesiastes, 62-64.|
|. ||Bauernfeind, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. IV, ed. Gerhard Kittel, trans. G.W. Bromiley, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965. Reprint, 1999), 523, notes that mataio,thj is a very rare word in secular literature. Noteworthy uses in the LXX are in Ps. 38:3; 143:4, and in the NT Rom. 8:20; Eph. 4:17 and 2 Pet. 2:18. Bauernfeind argues that Rom. 8:20 is a “valid commentary on [Qohelet]…it tells us plainly that the state of mataio,thj (‘vanity’) exists, and also that this has a beginning and end. Before its beginning and beyond its end is God…”|
|. ||Louw, J. P. and E. A. Nida, Louw-Nida Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains (: [CD-ROM], Bibleworks 6, 1988).|
|. ||Friberg, Timothy and Barbara, Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament (: [CD-ROM], Bibleworks 6, 2000).|
|. ||Harris, R. Laird, Gleason L. Archer Jr., Bruce K. Waltke, The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (: [CD-ROM], Bibleworks 6, 1980).|
|. ||Bullock, C. Hassell, An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophetic Books, 192.|
|. ||Eccl. 1:3, 9, 14; 2:11, 17, 18, 19, 20, 22; 3:16; 4:1, 3, 7, 15; 5:13, 18; 6:1, 5, 12; 8:9, 15 (2 times), 17; 9:3, 6, 9 (2 times), 11, 13; 10:5.|
|. ||Longman III, Tremper, The Book of Ecclesiastes, 66.|
|. ||Eaton, Michael, Ecclesiastes : An Introduction and Commentary, 58.|
|. ||Ibid., 60.|
|. ||Eccl. 1:14; 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 6; 6:9.|
|. ||Shank, H. Carl, “Qoheleth's World and Life View as Seen in His Recurring Phrases,” Westminster Theological Journal 37, (1 Fall 1974), 68.|
|. ||Eccl. 2:24; 3:12, 13; 3:22; 5:18, 19; 8:15; 9:7, 9.|
|. ||Longman III, Tremper, The Book of Ecclesiastes, 107.|
|. ||Eaton, Michael, Ecclesiastes : An Introduction and Commentary, 74, 103.|
|. ||Eccl. 2:14, 16, 18 ; 3:2, 19–20 ; 4:2 ; 5:15 ; 6:6, 12 ; 7:1 ; 8:8 ; 9:2–5, 10 ; 11:8 ; 12:7.|
|. ||Zuck, Roy B., “God and Man in Ecclesiastes,” Bibliotheca Sacra 148, (589 January-March 1991), 55.|
|. ||Eccl. 1:13, 16ff; 2:3, 9, 12ff, 19, 21, 26; 4:13; 6:8; 7:4f, 7, 10ff, 16, 19, 23, 25; 8:1, 5, 16f; 9:1, 10f, 13, 15ff; 10:1f, 10, 12; 12:9, 11.|
|. ||Eccl. 3:14; 5:7; 7:18; 8:12, 13; 12:13.|
|. ||Zuck, Roy B., “God and Man in Ecclesiastes,”, 52.|
|. ||Ibid., 48.|
|. ||Ibid., 52.||
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