Ecclesiastes

Often regarded as the most controversial book in the canon, Ecclesiastes questions the value of living from a human perspective. Its many difficulties, however, have provoked a wide range of interpretations over the centuries.

This book is commonly known in Christian tradition by its Greek name, Ecclesiastes (Ἐκκλησιαστής). This means something like “assemblyman,” and is the way in which the Septuagint translator renders the Hebrew word qoheleth (קהלת or קוהלת), the name or title used for the book’s protagonist. Jewish tradition uses the Hebrew word itself; in biblical Hebrew this properly ends with an aspirated -th, but it is conventionally pronounced with -t in later Hebrew, so the forms “Qoheleth” and “Qohelet” are both found. The meaning of this word is uncertain, and it is not clear even whether it is a personal name or a title, and so such conventional translations as “the Preacher” may be misleading, and are certainly somewhat speculative.

After the title and a prologue which sketches Qohelet’s understanding of the world in terms of unending natural processes, the first two chapters contain an account of his quest to find what it is that humans can find for themselves in all their work. This culminates in Qohelet’s despair at his realisation that, despite all his wisdom, he will ultimately perish just like a fool, and all that he has achieved will pass to somebody else. The third chapter begins with a famous list or poem (‘There is a season for everything, and a time for every matter under heaven’). The purpose of this is probably to emphasise that every action has its place in the processes of the world, and so when it occurs it must be the right thing, whether it seems inherently good or bad. From this point, though, the contents of the book are less clearly structured, and Qohelet moves between a variety of issues, introducing many of them with accounts of his own supposed observations. The discourse is wide-ranging, and perhaps sometimes re-works existing sayings or motifs. If there is a constant theme, however, it is that humans have no insight into the real character of the world, no way to plan properly, and no way to gain anything lasting from their lives. Accordingly, they must seek some recompense for their work in the pleasure that they can gain from undertaking it, and living must be embraced wholeheartedly. At the end of the book, in chapter 12, another famous sequence depicts the end of life, perhaps through an allegory on old age (as many interpreters have supposed) or perhaps through a series of images about death.

A strange epilogue follows this vivid passage. It talks about Qohelet having been wise, and about his selection and collation of sayings to create words that are both pleasing and truthful. Then, however, 12:11-12 describe all such collections as being like the spiked goads used by shepherds, and each saying as like a nail in such a goad. Accordingly, they are to be regarded with caution, and much study is, metaphorically, a tearing of the flesh. Abruptly declaring that all has now been heard, the epilogue then brings matters to a close with a demand to fear God and keep his commandments, with a warning that every deed will be judged. Those last sentiments sit uneasily with the tone of the book, and the whole epilogue has often been regarded as a secondary, editorial addition to the original words of Qohelet. Much recent scholarship, however, has preferred to understand it in terms of a frame-narrative: using a different, editorial voice in the title and epilogue, the creator comments on the words of his own character, and perhaps distances himself from Qohelet, inviting the reader also to think critically about what they have read.

Date and authorship

The book is presented as a monologue, prefaced by an introductory verse 1:1 (“The words of Qohelet, son of David, king in Jerusalem”), and followed by an epilogue in 12:9-14, which talks about Qohelet in the third person. In its present form, therefore, the book appears to contain Qohelet’s speech, but not itself to have been composed by Qohelet. Many commentators have assumed that the monologue alone is original, and that the material in 1:1 and 12:9-14 has been added, but, especially in recent years, others have suggested that at least some of this material belonged to the book from the outset. On that reading, Qohelet is not the author of the book, but a character, who is a creation of the actual author (Fox 1977, 83-106).

Qohelet is traditionally associated with King Solomon, and the statements in 1:1 and 1:12 point in this direction if they are taken together: Qohelet is both a son of David and a king over Israel (not just Judah) in Jerusalem. Solomon is not identified explicitly, however, and if Qohelet speaks as a king at all outside these verses, it is probably only briefly, in the first two chapters of the book. Some Jewish tradition explains the use of the name “Qohelet” rather than “Solomon” by means of a story, and the Targum, for instance, describes how God punished Solomon’s pride and sins by sending against him Asmodeus, king of the demons, who took his place on the throne: Solomon subsequently wandered Israel weeping, and calling himself Qohelet. It is not certain, however, either that the association with Solomon was originally present in the the book, or, if it was, that it was intended to be taken seriously.

The contents of the monologue do not suggest that it must actually have been written by Solomon, even if the information in 1:1 and 1:12 is original. They do not exclude the possibility, however, and some conservative scholars still regard the book as a Solomonic composition. Most critical commentators, on the other hand, reject this attribution, usually pointing to the unusual character of the Hebrew in the book. This shares a number of characteristics with later, post-biblical Hebrew, and although it cannot definitively be described as “late” Hebrew itself, it is unlikely to be the language of the early period with which Solomon is associated. Most significantly, the book contains two words which are borrowings from Persian, and which are unlikely to have entered Hebrew usage before the Persian period. Most scholars regard the book as a product of the Hellenistic period, with a few preferring the Persian period. If it is not the work of Solomon, as seems likely, then the identity of the actual author is unknown, and we have no information about the circumstances of its composition.

It has sometimes been suggested that Ecclesiastes was originally composed in Aramaic. That view is now generally rejected, but it is true that there is little apart from its Hebrew that strictly demands a Jewish origin.

Genre and links with other literature

Ecclesiastes is traditionally described as “wisdom literature,” although that term is notoriously difficult to define. It contains many aphorisms and some direct exhortations, types of content closely associated with advice literature, and in part it presents itself as offering advice. Links with a number of other works have been suggested, including the Epic of Gilgamesh, but there are few direct or explicit references to other Jewish literature.

Interpretation

Ecclesiastes has provoked many different interpretations, and a general tendency to view Qohelet sympathetically has often led commentators to see him in their own image. Two particular issues have tended to dominate in recent years, however. The first is the sense of the word הבל hevel , which has traditionally been translated “vanity,” but which literally refers to a puff of air or vapour. Qohelet claims that everything is “vanity of vanities,” and describes many individual phenomena using the same word, sometimes remarking also that they are a “chasing after wind.” Scholars have understood him to be using this as a metaphor for, variously, transience, worthlessness, futility, illusion, or absurdity—depending to a great extent, of course, on their view of his overall message. The second main area of debate has surrounded the tone of the book. Although it is generally agreed that Qohelet sees the pleasure to be gained from work only as a substitute for some more lasting but unobtainable profit, scholars disagree about his attitude towards it: is his message ultimately one of despair at a world from which so little can be gained, or of gladness that we are free to take pleasure in the knowledge that it is not displacing something better which we should instead be labouring to find?

Reception history

It is sometimes claimed that Ecclesiastes was only received controversially into the Jewish canon. There is no evidence for that claim, however, even though it is true both that rabbinic sources reflect some disquiet about perceived contradictions and that some passages in Wisdom of Solomon and Enoch can be understood as expressing opposition to Ecclesiastes. Ancient methods of interpretation were such that, for the most part, it is only more modern scholars who have found the book challengingly unorthodox. Very broadly speaking, earlier commentators tended to see its message as a rejection of the world and of worldliness—an interpretation that was strongly challenged by Luther, but that has continued to be influential. More recent interpreters have been inclined to pay greater attention to its determinism, and to the various ways in which it appears to sit uncomfortably with the religious ideas of Deuteronomy and many other biblical materials, and potential links with Greek philosophy have been explored since the 18th century. It might well be fair to suggest, however, that the book has had a greater impact on literary and popular culture than on religious life: it is often quoted (perhaps unconsciously in many cases), and has furnished titles for many books and films, while the list of times in chapter 3 supplies the lyrics for a song by Pete Seeger, famously covered by the Byrds.

Further reading

Christianson, Eric S. Ecclesiastes Through the Centuries. Blackwell Bible Commentaries. Malden, Oxford; Carlton: Blackwell, 2007.
Fox, Michael V. “Frame-Narrative and Composition in the Book of Qohelet.” HUCA 48 (1977): 83-106.
Fox, Michael V. A Time To Tear Down And A Time To Build Up. A Rereading Of Ecclesiastes. Grand Rapids; Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1999.
Weeks, Stuart. Pages 71-84 in An Introduction to the Study of Wisdom Literature. T&T Clark Approaches to Biblical Studies. New York; London: T&T Clark, 2010.