The book of Ecclesiastes is an attractive conundrum. It contains many of the most recognizable quotes in our culture (to every thing there is a season, the sun also rises, the race is not to the swift, what ever your hand finds to do, etc.). So ingrained in our culture are the sayings of Ecclesiastes that Baruch Spinoza, the Dutch Philosopher was quoted as saying “Popular religion may be summed up as a respect for Ecclesiastes.”
And yet with all of its cultural sound bites Christians seem to seldom study the book seriously. Many have doubted its usefulness and avoid it entirely while others draw conclusions from it that are at odds with the complete witness of scripture. What then are we to make of this somewhat enigmatic and seemingly gloomy book that seems out of place in a world of upbeat Christian positivism?
The name of the book is really Qoheleth, a Hebrew word that means somebody who speaks in the assembly. That word is often translated speaker or preacher in the body of the book, but the odd name comes from the Septuagint, the Greek Translation of the Old Testament used in the Greco Roman World. It is a translation of Qoheleth into Greek. The Greek word ekklesia means assemlby, although by the second century had become the way to refer to a church. Its remnants can still be found in modern languages. Iglesai means church in spanish and l’eglise is a church in French.
Ecclesiastes is part of a tradition of literature from the Ancient Near East called Wisdom Literature. Job, Proverbs and (sometimes) Song of Solomon are the other Canonical books that are part of this tradition. Dennis Bratcher has written a short, excellent essay on Wisdom Literature in the Bible available here. We will not be discussing Wisdom Literature’s place in the world at large, but Bratcher brings up several points about how it appears in scripture that we will be discussing.
1. It is addressed to everyone, these are issues of universal concern and are surprisingly mundane.
2. It does not appeal to revelation but is rational and philosophic.
3. Its claims to authority are in tradition and observation.
4. Wisdom Literature in the Bible has its basis in reverence for God.
So who wrote it? I have no clue whatever. Tradition and the the speaker’s references to himself say the author was Solomon. But Scholars note that the use of so many Persian loan words that would not have been available to a Hebrew writing at the time of Solomon suggests that either it was written later or that the language was updated (perhaps we have the “Living Bible” version of something written much earlier).
There are two speakers in the book, the Frame Narrator who we hear in 1:1-11 and 12:9-14 and Qoheleth, the preacher who speaks in the rest of the book. Is this meaningful? It may mean two authors or an added prolog and end notes. It may be editorial copy inserted for clarity. It may be nothing.
It is considered canonical by both Christians and Jews, but no single reason for its canonicity can readily be given. In the 1st century there was considerable debate between two of the major rabbinical school’s over its inclusion. Its canonicity has never been seriously challenged by any school of Christian thought.
The author gets right to his major purpose for writing in 1:3. He wants to know the meaning of life, its value or purpose. The majority of the book is then taken up with a description of the writer’s activities looking for answers to this question, the results of the search and advice he derives from the search.
The key word used is “vanity” a translation of a Hebrew word that means futility, uselessness or nothingness. It is used 35 times in 29 verses in the book and is often joined with a phrase “under the sun” which is used 29 times in 27 verses.
To me the book seems like one of those one actor plays, but with a narrator. The narrator comes out on the stage, introduces the character to come, sets the question to be answered and reminds us of how long this question has been unanswered. Fade to black. When the lights come up The Preacher is there ready to tell us what he knows.
Read the first chapter of Ecclesiastes and think about some questions:
1) How far can we get figuring things out for ourselves apart from revealed truth? Is it worth trying?
2) Is the world really cyclical? Is everything that is being done now something that has been done before?
3) Is there really nothing new under the sun?
4) And what is all this “under the sun” stuff getting at?
5) Is wisdom really the source of grief? In what sense?