Introduction to Ecclesiastes

By James M. Rochford

Picture2The title “Ecclesiastes” is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Qōhelet, which means “preacher.” This Hebrew word comes from the term qāhal or “assembly.” Students of the New Testament recognize the term ecclesia, which refers to the church. The term qāhal is the Hebrew equivalent (which just means an assembly of people). Ecclesiastes should probably be rendered “one who gathers an assembly,” because the term “preacher” comes from anachronistic church culture in our time—not theirs. Rooker writes, “The noun Qoheleth is based on the verb qhl, which means ‘convoke and assemble,’ or simply ‘to assemble.’ This verb occurs frequently in 1 Kings 8 in reference to Solomon’s gathering the people to dedicate the newly constructed temple (1 Kgs 8: 1-2, 14,22,25), and its use in Ecclesiastes would evoke the memory of Solomon. For the title of the book the LXX used the Greek word Ekklēsiastēs, which is derived from ekklēsía, assembly, congregation, church.’”[1]

Is this a work of Greek philosophy?

Because Ecclesiastes seems to be such a fatalistic book, older critics believed that it was actually a byproduct of Greek philosophy. Yet Rooker writes, “Critics such as George A. Barton argued that the resemblance between Ecclesiastes and Stoicism was artificial and in fact the philosophies represented in the works were in complete opposition. Since Barton’s study the attempts to link Ecclesiastes with Greek philosophy have met stern rebuttals from the academic community. The issues pondered by Qoheleth are thoroughly Semitic and totally independent of Greek influence. Moreover, there are no clear Greek constructions or idioms in the book and not one Greek word. In addition, Brevard Childs has noted the drift of modern scholarship is to view the book as a unified composition of one author. This trend began early in the twentieth century when S. R. Driver recognized that the epilogue should be attributed to the author of the whole book.”[2]

Authorship

Solomon never explicitly claims to have written the book. Yet the author needs to have been the king of Israel (Eccl. 1:1), a man of incredible wisdom (Eccl. 1:16), wealth (Eccl. 2:8), and worldliness (Eccl. 2:3). The Baba Bathra 15a states that Hezekiah wrote the book, but Archer writes, “[This] probably means no more than that Hezekiah and his company simply edited and published the text for public use.”[3] Other Jewish traditions state that Solomon was the author (Megilla 7a and Shabbath 30).

What about the language and grammatical differences with other pre-exilic literature?

Some scholars deny that Solomon wrote this book (i.e. “Solomonic authorship). For instance, Luther didn’t credit Solomon with the book. Some expressions in this book seem to date to the post-exilic era. Franz Delitzsch cites “ninety-six words, forms, and expressions found nowhere else in the Bible except in exilic and post-exilic works like Ezra, Esther, Nehemiah, Chronicles, Malachi—or else in the Mishnah.”[4] They base their argument against Solomonic authorship on the notion that the Hebrew doesn’t fit with Solomon’s era in history. Yet Rooker points out that the Hebrew really doesn’t fit with any known era of Hebrew literature, so this argument is really erroneous:

Many scholars note that the Hebrew of Ecclesiastes differs from the Hebrew of any other OT book. The book fits into no known period of the history of the Hebrew language. Yet Daniel Fredericks has convincingly shown that the language reflects an earlier stage in the history of the Hebrew language. Clearly the language can certainly not be classified with later postexilic and postbiblical Hebrew works.[5]

Archer notes,

It should be carefully observed that a comprehensive survey of all the data, including vocabulary, morphology, syntax, and style, yields the result that the text of Ecclesiastes fits into no known period in the history of the Hebrew language.[6]

Aramaisms (i.e. loans words) could be explained by the fact that Solomon was heavily invested in trade with various peoples from all across the known world. Archer argues, “Commercial ties with both the Phoenician-speaking and the Aramaean peoples of the Syrian areas during Solomon’s reign were closer than any other period in Israel’s history (with the possible exception of Ahab in the ninth century.”[7] Moreover, language differences could be explained by the uniqueness of Ecclesiastes. Archer also speculates that loan words could have been imported from India, as Solomon’s trade was quite widespread, bringing loan words from farther than we might expect.[8]

Ecclesiastes 1:16 speaks of “all who were… before me”

Critics point out that “Solomon” states, “I have magnified and increased wisdom more than all who were over Jerusalem before me” (Eccl. 1:16). This is an odd statement coming from Solomon, because David and Saul were the only two kings that reigned before him. Who then could he be referring to?

Of course, 1 Kings 14:9 makes a similar claim to Jeroboam (“you also have done more evil than all who were before you”). This passage (like Eccl. 1:16) doesn’t explicitly speak against kings, but could refer to prophets or judges in Israel’s history. In fact, Jerusalem was a city during the time of Melchizedek (~2,000 BC), having a very ancient history. Moreover, this could refer to Solomon’s great wisdom over the wise men of Israel (1 Kings 4:31).

Canonicity: Is Ecclesiastes really Scripture?

The canonicity of Ecclesiastes was questioned by many of the early rabbis, because it has such a skeptical outlook on life. How could this be included in Scripture with such a fatalistic view of the meaning of life?

However, this fits with Solomon’s view of the life apart from God. Yes, Ecclesiastes reads like a modern piece of atheistic existential literature at points. But this is because Solomon is trying to engage his readers with the folly and uselessness of living apart from God.

By the end of the book, Solomon clearly states that life is meaningful and valuable when we factor God into the picture (Eccl. 12:10-14). He writes, “The Preacher sought to find delightful words and to write words of truth correctly. 11 The words of wise men are like goads, and masters of these collections are like well-driven nails; they are given by one Shepherd. 12 But beyond this, my son, be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body. 13 The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. 14 For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.”

Additionally, Ecclesiastes is found in the canon of Josephus, the canon of Aquila, and was “quoted with standard formulas for citing Scripture, in the Mishnah (Sukkah 2.6; Hagigah 1.6; Kiddushin 1.10) and the other tannaitic literature.”[9] Melito (late second century) also includes it. Canonicity scholar Roger Beckwith writes, “Pseudo-Philo, De Sampsone 44, quotes with the formula ‘Scripture says’ words which come either from Prov. 26.27 or Eccles. 10.8. More definite is the reference in Greek Testament of Naphtali 8.7f. to Eccles. 3.5, which it ascribes to ‘the Law’, i.e. Scripture.”[10]

What does Solomon mean by “vanity of vanities”?

Translators render the Hebrew term hebel as “vanity” (NASB, ESV), “meaningless” (NIV, NLT), or “futile” (NET). When the NASB and NIV render this term “vanity,” they don’t mean narcissism. Instead, it means that someone pursues a goal in vain. Rooker writes, “This term occurs 38 times in the book, more than half of its total occurrences in the Old Testament. The concrete meaning is ‘vapor’ or ‘breath’ (see Job 7:16; Pss 39:5, 11 [HB, vv. 6, 12]; 62:9 [HB, v. 10]). Hebel conveys notions of transience and insubstantiality.”[11]

The purpose of this book

Ecclesiastes explains the uselessness of life apart from God. Solomon’s purpose in writing this book is to show that even the wisest man on Earth (1 Kings 4:30) cannot know the meaning of life—apart from God. He writes, “I saw all that God has done. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all his efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its meaning. Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend it” (Eccl. 8:17). Archer writes, “The purpose of Ecclesiastes was to convince men of the uselessness of any worldview which does not rise above the horizon of man himself. It pronounces the verdict of ‘vanity of vanities’ upon any philosophy of life which regards the created world or human enjoyment as an end in itself.”[12]

Solomon is an apt teacher, because he experienced the fullness of pleasures in this world, including sex, power, and wealth. And yet, he is highly critical of the fulfillment and purpose of these things. Instead, his conclusion is to seek after God instead (Eccl. 12:10-14). While Solomon affirms the existence of God (2:24; 3:11, 13-14), using the term 40 times, he is reasoning from a worldview where God is not factored in. We might compare his thinking to the statement of Peter: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life” (Jn. 6:68).

Teaching Rotation

Week 1: Read “Introduction to Ecclesiastes” (above). Then read chapters 1-3. Ask the group to pull out the observations that Solomon makes about life if God does not exist (i.e. living “under the sun”).

Week 2: Read chapters 4-8. Ask the group to pull out the observations that Solomon makes about life if God does not exist (i.e. living “under the sun”).

Week 3: Read chapters 9-12. Ask the group to pull out the observations that Solomon makes about life if God does not exist (i.e. living “under the sun”).

Ecclesiastes 1-3

He uses the term Elohim for God, rather than Yahweh. These two titles describe God, but one emphasizes God as Creator (Elohim), and the other as Covenant-Maker (Yahweh). For instance, in Genesis 1, Moses explains God as Creator, but in Genesis 2 (v.4ff) he explains him as the Covenant-Maker. If God is merely the Creator, we would lack what God’s plan is all about.

(1:3) This reminds me of atheist Bertrand Russell’s thoughts in “A Free Man’s Worship.”

(1:4, 11) The Earth will shake us off like a disease.

(1:17) He seems to be saying that wisdom, madness, and folly are equally meaningless without God (cf. 2:16).

(1:18) The more we reflect on this, the worse we feel. From this standpoint, it would be better to be ignorant of these topics entirely.

He moves from abstract thinking to autobiographical thinking. He pursued all sorts of pleasures, but what was the result? He tries pleasure, sex, wine, and building projects—nothing filled the God-shaped-hole.

(2:4) He pursued building projects.

(2:5-6) He pursued environmentalism.

(2:7-9) He pursued owning other people and animals (power?).

(2:10) He pursued pleasure.

(2:11) The result? All of these endeavors were meaningless.

(2:19) Solomon’s kids squandered his empire after he died.

(3:1) The band “The Byrds” sing these lyrics in “Turn, Turn, Turn.” The song sounds upbeat, but that’s not Solomon’s idea.

(3:9-10) We could choose one antithesis or another, but what does it all mean in the end? He calls this a burden (v.10).

(3:11) Of course, we sense that we were made for something more—for eternity. But we don’t know his plan—apart from his revelation.

(3:12) Without God, it’s better to just try and be happy.

(3:13-14)

In the working world, people said that the number one commodity that they want is to feel like they are valuable. This ranked even above money.

Ecclesiastes 4-8

(4:8-9) The man seems to know that his toiling is worse by being alone. This seems to be a contrast between pursuing success and pursuing family. It seems like a tension.

(4:13-16) Wisdom is better than riches, but it still all ends the same. It’s better, but not by enough.

(5:1-7) Religion is meaningless, unless we know God’s will (v.1). Vows are important to God. We need to do what we say, and say what we do. We should be conscientious of how we approach God.

(5:8-17) Materialism.

(5:18-20) YOLO. If God is only the Creator, then we should just enjoy and be happy.

(6:6) The length of life isn’t the key to meaning. It’s the length, plus the satisfaction of God.

(6:12) Our lives are compared to a few short years.

(7:1-2) We can learn a lot from going to a funeral.

(7:3-12) Money doesn’t live on in the next generation, but wisdom could.

(8:1-8) This reminds us of Job and the fact that we’re not all-knowing.

Application

We don’t know the meaning, but we know the one who does.

This book reminds us of what the other side would think. It grows appreciation for the answers that we do have.

We take for granted the notion that we can be both consistent and content with our worldview.

Our motivation comes from God in our pursuit of meaning.

[1] Merrill, Eugene H.; Rooker, Mark; Grisanti, Michael A. The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing. 2011. 539.

[2] Emphasis mine. Merrill, Eugene H.; Rooker, Mark; Grisanti, Michael A. The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing. 2011. 540.

[3] Archer, Gleason. A survey of Old Testament introduction (3rd. ed.,). Chicago: Moody Press. 1994. 528.

[4] Archer, Gleason. A survey of Old Testament introduction (3rd. ed.,). Chicago: Moody Press. 1994. 529.

[5] Merrill, Eugene H.; Rooker, Mark; Grisanti, Michael A. The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing. 2011. 540.

[6] Archer, Gleason. A survey of Old Testament introduction (3rd. ed.,). Chicago: Moody Press. 1994. 530.

[7] Archer, Gleason. A survey of Old Testament introduction (3rd. ed.,). Chicago: Moody Press. 1994. 530.

[8] Archer, Gleason. A survey of Old Testament introduction (3rd. ed.,). Chicago: Moody Press. 1994. 535.

[9] Roger T. Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church and Its Background in Early Judaism (Grand Rapids, MI: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1986), 321.

[10] Roger T. Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church and Its Background in Early Judaism (Grand Rapids, MI: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1986), 320.

[11] Merrill, Eugene H.; Rooker, Mark; Grisanti, Michael A. The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing. 2011. 540-541.

[12] Archer, Gleason. A survey of Old Testament introduction (3rd. ed.,). Chicago: Moody Press. 1994. 525.