Background

The name of the book Ecclesiastes in Hebrew (qoheleth) refers to the speaker (Ecc 1:2,12; Ecc 12:8), though the exact meaning of the Hebrew word is uncertain. It apparently means to “assemble” or “gather.” The title may designate a “collector” of sayings or sentences, though more lean toward this word as a designation of one who “gathers an assembly” and is authorized to address the group – hence a “preacher.” The Septuagint rendered the word ekklesiastes, which in classical Greek meant a member of the assembly of citizens (ekklesia). The Vulgate simply transliterated the Greek into Ecclesiastes while the English versions use the name “Ecclesiastes” or “The Preacher.”1The introductory information on this page is adapted from Professor Emeritus Forrest Bivens’ course notes for Senior Old Testament Isagogics at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. Used with permission.

Authorship

Internal evidence in Ecclesiastes points to Solomon, the son of David and the third king of Israel, as the the author.  Not only the very first verse (Ecc 1:1) but also references to his incomparable wisdom (Ecc 1:16) and the great works that he accomplished (Ecc 2:4-11) confirm for most that no other “son of David, king in Jerusalem” is meant. While the name Solomon is never explicitly given (as is true of other Solomonic works), the vast majority of Jewish and Christian scholars ascribed the book to Solomon until the time of the Reformation. There is an ancient rabbinical tradition that Hezekiah and his associates wrote Ecclesiastes, but this may well be a reference to a copying or publishing process rather than actual authorship. Other Jewish tradition clearly identifies Solomon as the book’s author.

More recently, however, it must be acknowledged that even very conservative scholars have expressed the opinion that an anonymous writer who used the name Solomon as a literary device wrote the book much later than the 10th century BC. Among those who have endorsed this kind of view are Hengstenberg, Delitzsch, J. Raven, E. J. Young, and H. C. Leupold. Their arguments have been based to a large degree on linguistic features of the book, since the language of Ecclesiastes is significantly different from biblical texts that come from the time of Solomon. Several Aramaisms and (to some) Phoenician language influences have led many to place the writing of the book in exilic or post-exilic times (see the Chronology of Latter Prophets and Intertestamental Period). Points of grammar are also identified that mark the book as different from tenth century BC writings.

Careful studies of the evidence and arguments allow us to respond to these ideas. Archer, for example, notes 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.”2Archer, Gleason L. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 2007. 530.,3Consider the plausible concluding argument of Archer: “It seems fairly obvious that we are dealing here with a conventional style peculiar to the particular genre to which Ecclesiastes belonged…It so happens that in the case of the precise genre to which Ecclesiastes belongs, we have nothing else which has survived from Hebrew literature.” Archer, Gleason L. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 2007. 531-32. This dissimilarity is also seen when the book is compared to exilic and post-exilic writings. Nor are there similarities to non-canonical writings in the fourth, third, or second centuries BC, though Qumran fragments of the book establish the presence of the book by about 150 BC.

Purpose for Writing

Ecclesiastes’ main purpose can be and has been often misunderstood. The frequently repeated observation that “Everything is meaningless” and the “hopeless” nature of so many other statements have led both ancient and modern readers to consider it pessimistic and skeptical if not downright atheistic in tone. Others have thought it endorses materialism, sensualism or intemperance. Others have gone as far as to say the teaching of Ecclesiastes is contrary to that of the gospel.

The book clearly has this in common with Job: It addresses hard questions of life and does not provide easy or simplistic answers. It deals with situations in which conventional wisdom is often viewed as inconsistent, limited, and insufficient. The purpose and message of the book is stated well by Hill and Walton:

The purpose of “the Preacher” 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 (Ecc 7:14). Adversity may not be enjoyable, but it can help make us the people of faith we ought to be.4Hill, Andrew E. and Walton, John H. A Survey of the Old Testament. 368-69.

Christ Connection

Everything under the sun is meaningless unless you know God. In Ecclesiastes we see what life looks like without Jesus at the center, “chasing after the wind” (Ecc 1:14). But when you know your Shepherd (Ecc 12:11; Gen 48:15; Ps 23:1; Jn 10:11-15), your life has meaning at last. Jesus is our Good Shepherd and makes it possible that we can “have life, and have it to the full” (Jn 10:10).

Notable Passages

  • Ecclesiastes 1:1-2
  • Ecclesiastes 3:11
  • Ecclesiastes 4:9-12
  • Ecclesiastes 5:13-20
  • Ecclesiastes 12:1-8
  • Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

Outline

While studying Old Testament wisdom literature, we know that we should not look for an internal structure that is the same as Western philosophical works. The bookend verses (Ecc 1:2, 12:8) and the recurring refrain “There is nothing better for a man than to…” (Ecc 2:24-26; 3:12-13, 22; 5:18-20; 8:15; 9:7-9) certainly indicate a unified work. In this poetic treatment, the author proceeds by introducing and evaluating pertinent topics (Human wisdom, pleasures, work, etc.) that have to do with life under the sun. Here are a few possible outlines:

  • Prologue (Ecc 1:1-11)
    • Life Under the Sun (Ecc 1:12-6:12)
    • Life Under God (Ecc 7:1-12:8)
  • Epilogue (Ecc 12:9-14)

or

  • Introduction and Theme (Ecc 1:1-11)
    • The Meaninglessness of all things (Ecc 1:12-6:12)
    • Words of Wisdom (Ecc 7:1-12:7)
  • Conclusion (Ecc 12:8-14)

or

  1. Introduction (Ecc 1:1-11)
  2. Fulfillment in Life: Problem & Solution (Ecc 1:12-3:15)
  3. Frustrations in Life: Problem & Solution (Ecc 3:16-7:29)
  4. Guidelines for Plotting a Course through Life (Ecc 8:1-12:8)
  5. Conclusion (Ecc 12:9-14)

References   [ + ]

1. The introductory information on this page is adapted from Professor Emeritus Forrest Bivens’ course notes for Senior Old Testament Isagogics at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. Used with permission.
2. Archer, Gleason L. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 2007. 530.
3. Consider the plausible concluding argument of Archer: “It seems fairly obvious that we are dealing here with a conventional style peculiar to the particular genre to which Ecclesiastes belonged…It so happens that in the case of the precise genre to which Ecclesiastes belongs, we have nothing else which has survived from Hebrew literature.” Archer, Gleason L. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 2007. 531-32.
4. Hill, Andrew E. and Walton, John H. A Survey of the Old Testament. 368-69.