Who Wrote Ecclesiastes and What Does It Mean?
The book of Ecclesiastes presents a challenge to casual Bible readers and academics alike. The book’s theme and tone seem so contrary to the rest of Scripture. In fact, it’s one of the few books of the Old Testament that the early church debated not including in the Bible.
One of the biggest questions surrounding Ecclesiastes is in regards to its authorship. Who wrote Ecclesiastes—and what was he trying to communicate to us? That’s a question that professor John Walton tackles in his online course, Old Testament Survey. Let’s look at what Dr. Walton has to say about the origins, background, structure, and purpose of this interesting book.
Who is Qoheleth?
The book of Ecclesiastes has often been avoided by people who feel overwhelmed by the view of life offered in its pages. Like the book of Job, it refuses to dodge the hard questions of life and doesn’t allow easy solutions. Interpreters of the book struggle with the issues it raises, leading some to question the orthodoxy of the author or whether the book even belongs in the Old Testament canon.
The wisdom of Ecclesiastes comes from someone who is identified as “Qoheleth.” It’s not certain whether this is a personal name, some sort of pseudonym, or the title of an office. Judging from the meaning of the related verb, it would seem that the word means “convener” or “assembler”—thus the common English translations “Teacher” (NIV) or “Preacher.”
Is Qoheleth King Solomon?
Traditionally Qoheleth has been identified as Solomon because of the information given in the first two verses of the book. It is argued that no one else was “son of David, king in Jerusalem.” Yet it must be admitted that the designation “son of David” could be used to refer to anyone in the line of David.
It is also puzzling why Solomon would hide behind a pseudonym. The Solomonic flavor of sections like 2:1–11 leave no doubt that the author intended for the reader to think of Solomon’s experiences.
I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless.“Laughter,” I said, “is madness. And what does pleasure accomplish?” I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly—my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was good for people to do under the heavens during the few days of their lives.
I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired male and female singers, and a harem as well—the delights of a man’s heart. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.
I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my labor,
and this was the reward for all my toil.
Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun. —Ecclesiastes 2:1–11
The claim in 1:16 and 2:9 that he surpassed all who were before him in Jerusalem would mean little if his father were his only predecessor. And the language of the book is different than Solomon’s other writings. In conclusion, it’s not impossible that Solomon was Qoheleth, but evidence to the contrary is sufficient to make it doubtful. Since Scripture is silent on the matter, we cannot be confident in identifying Qoheleth.
Ecclesiastes: the Wisdom of Qoheleth
Not only is Qoheleth’s identity concealed, but it seems that though his wisdom is presented in the book, he was not the author. Rather, he is initially introduced in the third person, and even when the first person is used, it’s sometimes presented as quoted material:
“Look,” says the Teacher, “this is what I have discovered:
“Adding one thing to another to discover the scheme of things—
while I was still searching
but not finding—
I found one upright man among a thousand,
but not one upright woman among them all.
This only have I found:
God created mankind upright,
but they have gone in search of many schemes.” —Ecclesiastes 7:27–29
This suggests that an unnamed author was presenting the wisdom of Qoheleth, a famed assembler of wisdom, for our consideration. The book ends by giving some biographical facts about Qoheleth and a summary of his message.
Not only was the Teacher wise, but he also imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true.
The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one shepherd. Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them.
Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.
Now all has been heard;
there is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.—Ecclesiastes 12:9–14
The result is that even if Qoheleth were Solomon, the author may have lived at a later time.
When was Ecclesiastes written?
Some have dated the book in the third or fourth century BC, claiming that the Hebrew of the book has characteristics of post-biblical Hebrew and that there is discernible influence from Greek philosophy. This view, while popular among some scholars, must treat the book as a royal fiction, a genre well known in both Mesopotamia and Egypt. The presence of a few Persian loanwords and the identification of some Aramaic influence have been used to bolster this position.
More common among conservative interpreters is the view that the distinctive Hebrew is dialectical and therefore can’t give much help in dating the book. Those who don’t date the book to the time of Solomon have been most inclined to place it sometime in the eighth or seventh centuries BC, but one cannot really be more precise. Fortunately, the timeless nature of the book’s wisdom makes it unnecessary to link it to any particular time period.
From the middle of the second century AD, some have questioned the authority of the book and therefore also its canonical status. Initial objections from the rabbinic school of Shammai and others are cited in the Talmud but were never sufficient to cause serious doubt.
What’s the background of Ecclesiastes?
Like several of the other poetic books, Ecclesiastes contains a number of literary genres. It makes use of allegories, sayings, metaphors, proverbs, and other forms. Beyond genre identifications there are a number of literary works known from the ancient Near East that address situations in which conventional wisdom is viewed as inconsistent with reality or experience. Certainly this was the case in Job and its ancient Near Eastern counterparts. While this literature does not reject wisdom, it shows its limitations and insufficiency.
In Mesopotamian literature an example would be the work known as the Dialogue of Pessimism. This is a rather satirical piece in which a man suggests various courses of action that are affirmed by his slave’s wisdom-style observations. In each case the man then changes his mind and decides not to pursue the stated course of action. This decision is likewise affirmed in each case by the slave with a wisdom-style observation. The conclusion one would draw is that wisdom sayings can be used to rationalize any given course of action.
In Egyptian literature there is a piece in which a man considering suicide discusses various frustrations of life and his failure to find satisfaction. In this respect it has some similarity to Ecclesiastes. Likewise similar in content are the Harper’s Songs, which encourage enjoying life because one cannot know what will come after. These, however, seem to suggest a life of pleasure that is rejected by Qoheleth:
I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless. “Laughter,” I said, “is madness. And what does pleasure accomplish?” —Ecclesiastes 1:1–2
What is Ecclesiastes’ purpose and message?
The purpose of Qoheleth was to contend that there is nothing “under the sun” that is capable of giving meaning to life. Even if some level of fulfillment or self-satisfaction were achieved, death is waiting at the end. Frustration and adversity are unavoidable, and answers to the hard questions of life are not forthcoming. On these terms the book confronts the crookedness and uncertainty of life and shows, probably unconsciously, the need for a concept of resurrection to bring harmony out of the discord of reality.
The message of Ecclesiastes is that the course of life to be pursued is a God-centered life. The pleasures of life are not intrinsically fulfilling and cannot offer lasting satisfaction, but they can be enjoyed as gifts from God. Life offers good times and bad and follows no pattern such as that proposed by the retribution principle. But all comes from the hand of God:
When times are good, be happy;
but when times are bad, consider this:
God has made the one
as well as the other.
Therefore, no one can discover
anything about their future.—Ecclesiastes 7:14
Adversity may not be enjoyable, but it can help make us the people of faith we ought to be.
It’s clear by now that we believe the book has a positive, orthodox message. This is a matter of some controversy among the interpreters of Ecclesiastes, because many scholars have found in its pages only pessimism or cynicism. An early Jewish view still widely held today is that Qoheleth’s unsound theology is given as an example of incorrect thinking and is corrected only in the last chapter. As we look at the colophon, however, the summary offered in verses 13–14 is simply a restatement of what Qoheleth is saying all through the book.
What Is the Structure of Ecclesiastes?
We should not look for principles of organization such as might be found in philosophical treatises of Western civilization. The inclusion of 1:2 and 12:8 and the recurring refrain—“There is nothing better for a man than to . . .” (cf. 2:24 – 26; 3:12 – 13, 22; 5:18 – 20; 8:15; 9:7–9)—show us that this is a unified work, but the author proceeds by introducing various pertinent topics for discussion. It’s helpful to keep in mind that wisdom literature often tries to convey how to think rather than what to think.
After the introduction to the problem in 1:1–1, Qoheleth’s own experience is used to suggest that nothing “under the sun” can give life meaning. In life “under the sun,” God is far removed and not a factor:
The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:
says the Teacher.
Everything is meaningless.”
What do people gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.
All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.
All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.
No one remembers the former generations,
and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow them.—Ecclesiastes 1:1–11
Qoheleth’s alternate perspective
Once Qoheleth has considered the potential sources of fulfillment and has rejected them, he offers an alternate perspective on life. In 3:1–15 he advises a moderate course of action:
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
What do workers gain from their toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him.
Whatever is has already been,
and what will be has been before;
and God will call the past to account.—Ecclesiastes 3:1–15
Though nothing can offer fulfillment, one need not adopt a pessimistic, cynical, or fatalistic view toward life. Enjoy life for what it is: a gift from the hand of God. If God is in the center of one’s worldview, the pursuits of life can be put in their proper place, not offering meaning for life, but offering enjoyment.
Using pairs of antitheses in 3:1–8, Qoheleth begins to address why it is that God needs to be in the center of our worldview. We are not in control of the “times” of life, and many of the times of life can be difficult. Stability can only be found in a God-centered approach. God has imposed these limitations on us but has put “eternity in our hearts” so that we might seek him out.
Ecclesiastes and adversity
The basic worldview of Qoheleth having been set forth, the next sections address the application of that worldview to the situations of life. It is not difficult to apply it when life is going smoothly, but how does it stand up when adversity comes? That is the concern of 3:16–7:29.
Qoheleth considers various situations in life that produce adversity. It is of interest that he focuses on the daily, routine frustrations that are all too frequently our common lot. If the book of Job were to be criticized, one might complain that the scenario is too artificial. No one we know is the kind of person Job was, and very likely no one we know suffered to the extent Job did. In that book it was important for theory’s sake to consider the most contradictory situation imaginable. But Qoheleth makes sure that we can identify with the examples he offers. The end result is that frustrations and adversity cannot be avoided. So what does his worldview offer?
The solution suggested in chapter 7 is that we should not try to avoid frustration and adversity. A God-centered worldview is willing to accept both prosperity and adversity as coming from the divine hand. Here Qoheleth deals not with cause (that is, that God causes our frustrations), but with the idea that adversity serves a useful purpose in shaping us as individuals and particularly as people of faith. This is precisely the attitude Job took in the face of his troubles:
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
and naked I will depart.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
may the name of the Lord be praised.”—Job 1:21
Qoheleth’s solution leads to the last section of the book, where the writer offers guidelines for plotting a course through life. Much of chapters 8–9 concerns adjusting our expectations of this world. That is followed by warnings in chapter 10 about the power and effects of foolish behavior. Chapter 11 urges a cautious but not-too-cautious approach to life and reminds us that we are accountable for how we live and for the decisions we make. Finally, chapter 12 uses a flow of diverse images and allegories to encourage the reader to act now. As the old adage goes, “You can’t learn any younger.”
Following the inclusio line of verse 8 comes what we call a colophon. This was used in ancient Near Eastern literature to identify the author further and to epitomize what was written in the manuscript or tablet. As mentioned earlier, there is nothing here that reverses or negates the message of the book or offers a corrective to its teaching.
How do you live?
Ultimately, Ecclesiastes is a book about how you make your way through life. We’ve learned to think in our world that it’s all about the pursuit of fulfilment. But the author of Ecclesiastes has a powerful message for us: fulfilment is God’s business. We should accept what God sends our way, whether blessings or adversity. Because, ultimately, the gifts we enjoy aren’t meant to bring us fulfilment.
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