Ecclesiastes

The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.

The key word in Ecclesiastes is vanity — the futile emptiness of trying to be happy apart from God. The Preacher (traditionally taken to be Solomon — the wisest, richest, most influential king in Israel’s history) looks at life “under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9) and, from the human perspective, declares it all to be empty. Power, popularity, prestige, pleasure — nothing can fill the God-created void in man’s life but God himself (“He has put eternity into man’s mind” Eccl. 3:11 RSV)! But once seen from God’s perspective, life takes on meaning and purpose, causing Solomon to exclaim, “Eat … drink … rejoice … do good … live joyfully … fear God … keep His commandments!” Skepticism and despair melt away when life is viewed as a daily gift from God.

The Hebrew title Qoheleth is a rare term found only in Ecclesiastes 1:1,2,12; 7:27; 12:8-10. It comes from the word qahal“to convoke an assembly, to assemble.”Thus, it means “one who addresses an assembly, a preacher.” The Septuagint (Old Testament in Greek) used the Greek word Ekklesiastes as its title for this book. Derived from the word ekklesia“assembly, congregation, church,” it simply means “preacher.” The Latin Ecclesiastes means “speaker before an assembly.”

Author

Although the authorship of Ecclesiastes has been debated, there are powerful arguments the author of the book was Solomon. Let’s look at the evidence:

External evidence: Jewish Talmudic (the authoritative body of Jewish tradition comprising the Mishnah and Gemara) attributes the book to Solomon but suggests that Hezekiah’s scribes may have edited the text (see Prov. 25:1). Solomonic authorship of Ecclesiastes is the standard Christian position, although some scholars, along with the Talmud, believe the work was later edited during the time of Hezekiah or possibly Ezra.

Internal evidence: The author calls himself “the son of David, king of Jerusalem” (Eccl. 1:1,12). Solomon was the best-qualified Davidic descendant for the quest in this book. He was the wisest man who ever taught in Jerusalem (see Eccl. 1:16; I Kings 4:29-30). The descriptions of Qoheleth’s exploration of pleasure (Eccl. 2:1-3), impressive accomplishments (Eccl. 2:4-6), and unparalleled wealth (Eccl. 2:7-10) were fulfilled only by King Solomon. The proverbs in this book are similar to those in the Book of Proverbs (e.g. Eccl. 7:10). According to Ecclesiastes 12:9, Qoheleth collected and arranged many proverbs, perhaps referring to the two Solomonic collections in Proverbs. The unity of authorship of Ecclesiastes is supported by the seven references to Qoheleth.

Time of Ecclesiastes

Some scholars argue that the literary forms in Ecclesiastes are post-exilic, but they are, in fact, unique, and cannot be used to date the book. The phrase “all who were before me in Jerusalem” (Eccl. 1:16) has been used to suggest a date after Solomon’s time, but there were many kings and wise men in Jerusalem before the time of Solomon. However, Solomon was the only son of David who reigned over Israel from Jerusalem (Eccl. 1:12).

Ecclesiastes was probably written late in Solomon’s life, about 935 BCIf this is so, the great glory that Solomon ushered in early in his reign was already beginning to fade; and the division of Israel into two kingdoms would soon take place. Jewish tradition asserts that Solomon wrote Song of Solomon in his youthful years, Proverbs in his middle years, and Ecclesiastes in his later years. This book may be expressing his regret for his folly and wasted time due to carnality and idolatry (cf. II Kings 11).

There are no references to historical events other than to personal aspects of Qoheleth’s life. The location was Jerusalem (Eccl. 1:1; 1:12; 1:16), the seat of Israel’s rule and authority.

The Christ of Ecclesiastes

Ecclesiastes convincingly portrays the emptiness and perplexity of life without a relationship with the Lord. Each person has eternity in his heart (Eccl. 3:11), and only Christ can provide ultimate satisfaction, joy, and wisdom. Man’s highest good is found in the “one Shepherd” (Eccl. 12:11) who offers abundant life (John 10:9, 10).

Keys to Ecclesiastes

Key Word: Vanity-Ecclesiastes reports the results of a diligent quest for purpose, meaning, and satisfaction in human life. The Preacher poignantly sees the emptiness and futility of power, popularity, prestige, and pleasure apart from God. The word vanity appears 37 times to express the many things that cannot be understood about life. All earthly goals and ambitions, when pursued as ends in themselves, lead to dissatisfaction and frustration. Life “under the sun” (used 29 times) seems to be filled with inequities, uncertainties, changes in fortune, and violations of justice.

Yet Ecclesiastes does not give an answer to atheism or skepticism; God is referred to throughout. In fact, it claims that the search for man’s summum bonum must end in God. Satisfaction in life can be found only by looking beyond this world.

Ecclesiastes gives an analysis of negative themes but it also develops the positive theme of overcoming the vanities of life by fearing a God who is good, just, and sovereign (Eccl. 12:13, 14).

The bottom-line exhortation is — let us not be caught chasing after the wind, however tangible that wind may appear. It will still cause grief and vexation of spirit; it will lead us earthward to pursue the things under the sun. Rather we should always look God-ward and pray diligently for spiritual guidance and wisdom so we do not fall into the same trap as those who worship this life.

John Vandenberg