Ecclesiastes (1): Basics

By any standards the book of Ecclesiastes is a unique and enigmatic work; even among the other Biblical writings there is nothing akin to it. Sometimes we are almost led to wonder what such a book is doing in the Bible at all! Yet the more its words are studied the more it becomes apparent that the book has an important message to deliver, and a special role to play. Its uniqueness — not to say its difficulty — makes it all the more fascinating, and its study the more rewarding.

In this series we will look at various aspects of the book, among them its themes, its style, and its structure. We will also look at one or two passages in detail, even though the primary aim is to get a broad understanding of the book as a whole. This is not an exhaustive study; it is an introductory exploration. I hope it will stimulate the interest and further study of others.

In this first article we will sketch the basic shape of the book and look at the way in which the different types of material which it contains have to be carefully distinguished.

The shape of Ecclesiastes

The book has many key words, but the most significant of these is without a doubt the word vanity (translated by some as meaningless, absurdity, or emptiness). The book is punctuated with the refrain, “This also is vanity.” It seems that almost everything to which the Preacher turns his attention merits this verdict; everywhere he looks vanity is to be found.

That this is indeed one of the central contentions of the book is emphasised in only the second verse: “Vanity of vanities saith the Preacher, all is vanity.” That verse contains the key word vanity three times, and so makes a fitting opening assertion of the book’s main theme. The verse is duplicated in 12:8 — and this full statement appears only in these two places. These two verses, 1:2 and 12:8, form a kind of frame around the main part of the book. The main argument of the book (1:3-12:7) takes place within the boundaries of this frame.

But what happens outside these boundaries? Outside them we find the book’s introduction and conclusion. The introduction is straightforward enough, consisting of only one verse: “The words of the Preacher,the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (1:1). The conclusion is, as we would expect, a statement summarising or making explicit the overall message that is to be understood from the book; we find it in 12:9-14.

This conclusion is particularly valuable; without it, it would be possible to misunderstand the message of the main section of the book. That main section could be misread and misconstrued as being predominantly negative (indeed, many scholars, dismissing the authenticity of the conclusion, have so misconstrued it, thinking the Preacher has only a message of doom and gloom). The conclusion shows clearly that this would be a wrong understanding of the book, and that in fact the overall message is a positive one.

It is also worth noticing that both the introduction and the conclusion are written in the third person: the Preacher is referred to as he (the Preacher), not as I. In the main body of the book (1:3-12:7), the Preacher addresses us in the first person as I and gives us his personal observations. There is only one place in this main body of the book in which third person speech (he) is again introduced: 7:27. That verse reads, “Behold, this have I found, saith the Preacher, counting one by one, to find out the account.” This little phrase, occurring as is does roughly in the middle of the book, is a reminder to us that what we are reading all the way through this central section (1:3-12:7) is a first person account, the personal observations of the Preacher.

Numerical patterns

It is worth noting down the structure that is developing so far:

1:1 Introduction (3rd person)

1:2 Vanity of Vanities (frame)

1:3-12:7 Main Body of Book (1st person)

12:8 Vanity of vanities (frame)

12:9-14 Conclusion (3rd person)

A fascinating fact about this structure is that various associated numerical patterns have been proposed. I present these for the consideration of readers; not all readers will warm to this type of material, and it has to be said that there are question marks which hang over this analysis at certain points. Furthermore, such patterns do not have any spiritual benefit, other than filling us with awe at the intricacy with which God’s word has been written. Nevertheless I include them because they interest me and I am sure they will interest others also.

The phrase “vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (the frame, occurring at 1:2 and 12:8) has a numerical value of 216. This is the number of verses from the beginning of the book to the concluding frame. The numerical value of the first word of Ecclesiastes (dibrey in Hebrew) is also 216, and it occurs three times in the epilogue (12:9-14).

The numerical value of “vanity” is 37. It occurs 37 times in the book (omitting what can be regarded as the textually doubtful occurrences at 5:7 and 9:9).

The key word “vanity” occurs three times in the frame; this yields a numerical total of 3×37=111. This is the precise number of verses at the midpoint of the book (at the end of 6:9). It is fascinating that if the phrase “this also is vanity and pursuit of wind” at 6:9b be regarded as a pivot, there are not only the same number of verses at either side (111 verses from 1:1 to 6:9a; 111 verses from 6:10 to 12:14), but also precisely the same number of Hebrew words (1491 at each side)! This seems too remarkable to be coincidence, especially since the proposed pivot phrase is so relevant and so much like the frame at 1:2 and 12:8.

The conclusion to the book consists of six verses. The first Hebrew word of these (translated “and moreover” at 12:9) can also be taken to mean “six additional”!

Readers can take these on board as fascinating details (or dismiss them!), as they will.

Two types of material

For the remainder of this article we shall focus our remarks on the main body of Ecclesiastes, 1:3-12:7 (the part inside the ‘vanity of vanities’ frame).

This main part of the book consists of two types of material. One of these is the observations of the Preacher. The Preacher looks at the world around him, he considers various aspects of it, and draws conclusions about the nature of the world, of life, of man and of God from these observations. A second type of material consists in instructions or admonitions for his readers. In these, he tells his readers how they should behave. Sometimes these follow on directly from the observations he has been making. For example, after observing how transient life is, he may advise that the best thing to do is to enjoy life while we still have it.

However, there are other parts of the book in which these sections of instruction are much longer and which seem in places to contain apparently unrelated material. Such sections seem as though they would have been more appropriate in the book of Proverbs — they are written in the same kind of piecemeal style. For this reason some scholars have called them “miscellaneous admonitions,” and examples include large parts of chapters 7 and 10. Quite how these sections, apparently so much like Proverbs, fit in to the more characteristic concerns of the Preacher (his recorded observations), is a matter which requires further study. It is not something on which I shall be offering material in these articles. It is one of the major difficulties of understanding the construction of Ecclesiastes as a whole.

That distinction, between observations and instructions, is one way in which we can characterise and get a handle on the kind of material Ecclesiastes contains, and it helps us divide up the book into smaller and more manageable sections for closer study. But there are other ways of looking at its contents. One concerns pronouns yet again. Most of Ecclesiastes consists of observations made by the Preacher about man — he, them, those “out there.” However, there are other sections which instead concentrate on you — your and my personal responsibilities. Thus, whereas in chapter 4 the Preacher has been concerned with observing the world out there, the behaviour of man in general, at the beginning of chapter five this changes completely as he turns to address you: “Keep thy foot when thou goest into the house of God…” It turns out that often the parts about man in general (in the third person, he) are concerned with the behaviour of the ungodly. In contrast you gives instruction for those who have hope in God and have a religious dimension to their lives. The observations about he do not necessarily apply to you, and vice versa.

A similar and equally important distinction can be drawn concerning the oft-repeated expression “under the sun.” This refers to those who are totally occupied with this life; their attention and the focus of their vision is always downwards to the things under the sun — the concerns of this life, the things taking place on the earth. In contrast to these are others who lift their eyes heavenwards and are able to see another level or dimension to life (these are occasionally spoken of as those who “see the sun”).

These three ways of distinguishing between the material in the main part of Ecclesiastes are all helpful, and are not mutually exclusive. It is perhaps worth reiterating them as bullet points:

  • Notice the distinction between the Preacher’s observations about the world and its ways and problems on the one hand, and the sections (like the book of Proverbs) which offer pithy advice and wise admonitions.
  • Notice who is being referred to: is it him (the man in the world), or is it you (and your personal responsibilities as one who has faith in God).
  • Notice whether the Preacher is speaking of those “under the sun,” with no other hope or expectation above what this world can offer, or whether he is speaking of those who have a higher plane on which to conduct their lives.

Each of these will help us come to a better understanding of the Preacher’s important message. We shall be looking at what that message is in the forthcoming articles, God willing.

Mark Vincent