International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
ECCLESIASTES, THE PREACHER
e-kle-zi-as'-tez, or (qoheleth; Ekklesiastes, perhaps "member of assembly"; see below):
1. Structure of the Book
2. The Contents
3. Composite Authorship?
5. "King in Jerusalem"
6. Date and Authorship
7. Linguistic Peculiarities
8. Certain Inconclusive Arguments
1. Structure of the Book:
Reading this book one soon becomes aware that it is a discussion of certain difficult problems of human life. It begins with a title Ec (1:1), followed by a preface (1:2-11). It has a formal conclusion (12:8-13). Between the preface and the conclusion the body of the book is made up of materials of two kinds-first a series of "I" sections, sections uttered in the 1st person singular, a record of a personal experience; and second, an alternating series of gnomic sections, sections made up of proverbs (say 4:5, 6, 9-12; 5:1-12; 7:1-14, 16-22; 8:1-8; 9:7-10; 10:1-4; 10:8-12:7). These may be called the "thou" sections, as most of them have the pronoun of the 2nd person singular. The idea of the vanity of all things characterizes the record of experience, but it also appears in the "thou" sections (eg. 9:9). On the other hand the proverb element is not wholly lacking in the "I" sections (eg. 4:1-3).
2. The Contents:
In the preface the speaker lays down the proposition that all things are unreal, and that the results of human effort are illusive Ec (1:2, 3). Human generations, day and night, the wind, the streams, are alike the repetition of an unending round (1:4-7). The same holds in regard to all human study and thinking (1:8-11). The speaker shows familiarity with the phenomena which we think of as those of natural law, of the persistence of force, but he thinks of them in the main as monotonously limiting human experience. Nothing is new. All effort of Nature or of man is the doing again of something which has already been done.
After the preface the speaker introduces himself, and recounts his experiences. At the outset he had a noble ambition for wisdom and discipline, but all he attained to was unreality and perplexity of mind (Ecclesiastes 1:12-18). This is equally the meaning of the text, whether we translate "vanity and vexation of spirit" or "vanity and a striving after wind," ("emptiness, and struggling for breath"), though the first of these two translations is the better grounded.
Finding no adequate satisfaction in the pursuits of the scholar and thinker, taken by themselves, he seeks to combine these with the pursuit of agreeable sensations-alike those which come from luxury and those which come from activity and enterprise and achievement Ec (2:1-12). No one could be in better shape than he for making this experiment, but again he only attains to unreality and perplexity of spirit. He says to himself that at least it is in itself profitable to be a wise man rather than a fool, but his comfort is impaired by the fact that both alike are mortal (2:13-17). He finds little reassurance in the idea of laboring for the benefit of posterity; posterity is often not worthy (2:18-21). One may toil unremittingly, but what is the use (2:22, 23)?
He does not find himself helped by bringing God into the problem. `It is no good for a man that he should eat and drink and make his soul see good in his toil' Ec (2:24-26, as most naturally translated), even if he thinks of it as the gift of God; for how can one be sure that the gift of God is anything but luck? He sees, however, that it is not just to dismiss thus lightly the idea of God as a factor in the problem. It is true that there is a time for everything, and that everything is "beautiful in its time." It is also true that ideas of infinity are in men's minds, ideas which they can neither get rid of nor fully comprehend (3:1-18). Here are tokens of God, who has established an infinite order. If we understood His ways better, that might unravel our perplexities. And if God is, immortality may be, and the solution of our problems may lie in that direction. For a moment it looks as if the speaker were coming out into the light, but doubt resumes its hold upon him. He asks himself, "Who knoweth?" and he settles back into the darkness. He has previously decided that for a man to "eat and drink, and make his soul enjoy good" is not worth while; and now he reaches the conclusion that, unsatisfactory as this is, there is nothing better (3:19-22).
And so the record of experiences continues, hopeful passages alternating with pessimistic passages. After a while the agnosticism and pessimism recede somewhat, and the hopeful passages become more positive. Even though "the poor man's wisdom is despised," the speaker says, "the words of the wise heard in quiet are better than the cry of him that ruleth among fools" Ec (9:17). He says "Surely I know that it shall be well with them that fear God" (8:12), no matter how strongly appearances may indicate the contrary.
The gnomic sections are mostly free from agnosticism and pessimism. The book as a whole sums itself up in the conclusion, "Fear God, and keep his commandments" (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
Of course the agnostic and pessimistic utterances in Ec are to be regarded as the presentation of one side of an argument. Disconnect them and they are no part of the moral and religious teaching of the book, except in an indirect way. At no point should we be justified in thinking of the author as really doubting in regard to God or moral obligation. He delineates for us a soul in the toils of mental and spiritual conflict. It is a delineation which may serve for warning, and which is in other ways wholesomely instructive; and in the outcome of it, it is full of encouragement.
In some passages the speaker in Ecclesiastes has in mind the solution of the problems of life which we are accustomed to call Epicurean (eg. 5:18-20; 7:16, 17; 8:15; but not 2:24)-the solution which consists in avoiding extremes, and in getting from life as many agreeable sensations as possible; but it is not correct to say that he advocates this philosophy. He rather presents it as an alternative.
His conclusion is the important part of his reasoning. All things are vanity. Everything passes away. Yet (he says) it is better to read and use good words than bad words. Therefore because the Great Teacher is wise, he ever teaches the people knowledge, and in so doing he ever seeks good words, acceptable words, upright words, words of truth. "The words of the wise are as goads; and as nails well fastened" ("clinched at the back") (12:11). Such are the words of all the great masters. So (he ends) my son, be warned! There are many books in this world. Choose good ones. And his conclusion is: Reverence the Mighty Spirit. Keep to good principles. That is the whole duty of man. For everything at last becomes clear; and "good" stands out clearly from "evil."
3. Composite Authorship?:
We have noticed that our book has "I" sections and "thou" sections. Certainly these are structural marks, but as such they are capable of being interpreted in various ways. Partitional hypotheses can easily be formed, and perhaps there is no great objection to them; but there are no phenomena which cannot be accounted for by the hypothesis that we have here just the work of one author, who sometimes quotes proverbial utterances, either his own or those of other men. As proving the integrity of the book three points present themselves. First, in some cases (eg. Ecclesiastes 7:14 b-16) the experience matter and the gnomic matter are closely combined in sense and in grammatical construction. Second, it is possible to interpret all the gnomic sections as a part of the continuous argument. Third, if we so interpret them the book is a unit, the argument moving forward continuously out of the speculative into the practical, and out of the darkness into the light.
The speaker in Ecclesiastes calls himself Qoheleth (1:1, 2, 12 and other places), rendered "the Preacher" in the English Versions. The word does not occur elsewhere, although it is from a stem that is in common use. Apparently it has been coined for a purpose by the author of Ecclesiastes. In form it is a feminine participle, though it denotes a man. This is best explained as a case of the using of an abstract expression for a concrete, as when in English we say "Your Honor," "Your Majesty." The other words of the stem are used of people gathering in assemblies, and the current explanation is to the effect that Qoheleth is a person who draws an audience whom he may address. To this there are two objections: First, the participle is intransitive; its natural implication is that of a person who participates in an assembly, not of one who causes the participants to assemble. Second, the assembly distinctively indicated by the words of this stem is the official assembly for the transaction of public business. Worked out on this basis Qoheleth seems to mean citizenship, or concretely, a citizen-a citizen of such respectability that he is entitled to participate in public assemblies. It is in the character of citizen-king that the speaker in Ecclesiastes relates his experiences and presents his ideas.
This word for "assembly" and its cognates are in the Greek often translated by ekklesia and its cognates (eg. Deuteronomy 4:10; Deuteronomy 9:10 Judges 20:2; Judges 21:5, 8). So we are not surprised to find Qoheleth rendered by the Greek Ekklesiastes, and this Latinized into Ecclesiastes.
5. "King in Jerusalem":
The speaker in Ec speaks not only in the character of Qoheleth, but in that of "the son of David, king in Jerus" (1:1). So far as this clause is concerned the king in question might be either Solomon or any other king of the dynasty, or might be a composite or an ideal king. He is represented (1:12-2:11) as "king over Israel," and as distinguished for wisdom, for his luxuries, for his great enterprises in building and in business. These marks fit Solomon better than any other king of the dynasty, unless possibly Uzziah. Possibly it is not absurd to apply to Solomon even the phrase "all that were before me over Jerusalem," or "in Jerus" (1:16; 2:7, 9; compare 1 Chronicles 29:25 1 Kings 3:12; 2 Chronicles 1:12). It is safer, however, to use an alternative statement. The speaker in Ec is either Solomon or some other actual or composite or ideal king of the dynasty of David.
6. Date and Authorship:
If it were agreed that Solomon is the citizen king who, in Ecclesiastes, is represented as speaking, that would not be the same thing as agreeing that Solomon is the author of the book. No one thinks that Sir Galahad is the author of Tennyson's poem of that name. Qoheleth the king is the character into whose mouth the author of Ecclesiastes puts the utterances which he wishes to present, but it does not follow that the author is himself Qoheleth.
The statement is often made that Jewish tradition attributes the writing of Ecclesiastes to Solomon; but can anyone cite any relatively early tradition to this effect? Is this alleged tradition anything else than the confusing of the author with the character whom he has sketched? The well-known classic tradition in Babha' Bathra' attributes Ec to "Hezekiah and his company," not to Solomon. And the tradition which is represented by the order in which the books occur in the Hebrew Bibles seems to place it still later. Concerning this tradition two facts are to be noted: First, it classes Ecclesiastes with the 5 miscellaneous books (Canticles, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther) known as the five meghilloth, the five Rolls. Second, in the count of books which makes the number 22 or 24 it classes Ecclesiastes as one of the last 5 books (Ecclesiastes, Esther, Dan, Ezra-Nehemiah, 1 and 2 Chronicles). That the men who made this arrangement regarded the books of this group as the latest in the Bible is a natural inference.
7. Linguistic Peculiarities:
This agrees with the internal marks which constitute the principal evidence we have on this point. The grammatical character and the vocabulary of Ecclesiastes are exceptionally peculiar, and they strongly indicate that the book was written in the same literary period with these other latest books of the Old Testament. The true date is not much earlier or later than 400 B.C. (see CHRONICLES), though many place it a century or a century and a half later. Details concerning these phenomena may be found in Driver's Introduction or other Introductions, or in commentaries. Only a few of the points will be given here, with barely enough illustrative instances to render the points intelligible.
In Ecclesiastes the syntax of the verb is peculiar. The imperfect with waw consecutive, the ordinary Hebrew narrative tense, occurs-for example, "And I applied my heart" (1:17)-but it is rare. The narrator habitually uses the perfect with waw (eg. 1:13; 2:11, 12, 14, 15 bis. 17). In any English book we should find it very noticeable if the author were in the habit of using the progressive form of the verb instead of the ordinary form-if instead of saying "And I applied my heart" he should say "And I was applying my heart," "And I was looking on all the works," "And I was turning" (1:13; 2:11, 12), and so on. Another marked peculiarity is the frequent repeating of the pronoun along with the verb: `I said in my heart, even I'; `And I was hating, even I, all my labor' (2:1, 18 and continually). The use of the pronoun as copula is abnormally common in Ecclesiastes as compared with other parts of the Hebrew Bible (eg. 4:2). The abbreviated form of the relative pronoun is much used instead of the full form, and in both forms the pronoun is used disproportionately often as a conjunction. In these and many similar phenomena the Hebrew language of Ecclesiastes is affiliated with that of the later times.
The vocabulary presents phenomena that have the same bearing. Words of the stem taqan appear in Ecclesiastes (1:15; 7:13; 12:9) and in the Aramaic of Daniel (4:36), and not elsewhere in the Bible; they are frequent in the Talmud Words of the stem zaman (3 1) are used only in Ecclesiastes, Ezra, Nehemiah, Daniel, Esther. Words of the stem shalaT, the stem whence comes our word "sultan," are frequent in Ecclesiastes-words which are used elsewhere only in the avowedly post-exilian books and in Genesis 42:6, though a different word of this stem appears in the history of the time of David. Only in Ecclesiastes and Esther are found the verb kasher, "to be correct" (whence the modern Jewish kosher) and its derivative kishron. The Persian word pardec, "park" (Ecclesiastes 2:5), occurs elsewhere only in Nehemiah and Canticles, and the Persian word pithgam, "official decision" or "record" (Ecclesiastes 8:11), only in Esther 1:20, and in the Aramaic parts of Ezra and Daniel. Ecclesiastes also abounds in late words formed from earlier stems-for example, cekhel and cikheluth, "folly" (Ecclesiastes 10:6; Ecclesiastes 2:3 et al.); or medhinah, "province" (Ecclesiastes 5:8), frequent in the latest books, but elsewhere found only in one passage in 1 Kings (20:14, 15, 17, 19). Especially common are new derivatives that end in "-n," for example, yithron, "profit"; `inyan, "travail"; checron, "that which is missing"; ra`yon, "vexation" (Ecclesiastes 1:3, 13, 15, 17 and often). To these add instances of old words used in new meanings, and the various other groups of phenomena that are usual in such cases. No parts of the book are free from them.
The arguments for a later date than that which has been assigned are inconclusive. The Hebrew language of Ecclesiastes is more like the language of the Talmuds than is that of the Chronicler or Daniel or even Esther; but if one infers that Ecclesiastes is therefore later than the others the inference will prove to be in various ways embarrassing. The differences are better accounted for by the fact that Ecclesiastes belongs to a different type of literature from the others.
8. Certain Inconclusive Arguments:
Various passages have local color in Ec (eg. 11:1), or make the impression of being allusions to specific events (eg. 4:13-16; 6:2, 3; 9:13-18), but the difficulty lies in locating the events. Dr. Kleinert argues plausibly for the writing of the book in Egypt in the time of the Ptolemies, but other equally probable hypotheses might be devised.
It is alleged that Ecclesiastes copies from Ecclesiasticus, but it is more probable that the latter copied from the former. It is alleged that the Wisdom disputes Ecclesiastes; if it does, that does not prove that the two are contemporary. It is alleged that the writer is familiar with the philosophy of Epicurus, and therefore must have lived later than Epicurus, who died 270 B.C., or even later than Lucretius of the 1st century B.C. If there were proof that this was a case of borrowing, Epicurus or Lucretius might have been the borrowers; but there is no such proof; the selfishness which constitutes the nucleus of Epicureanism has exhibited itself in human literature from the beginning. The strong resemblances between Ecclesiastes and Omar Khayyam have no weight to prove that the Hebrew author was later than the Persian Ecclesiastes presents a perfectly distinct doctrine of immortality, whether it affirms the doctrine or not; but that proves a relatively early date for the doctrine, rather than a late date for Ecclesiastes. At every point the marks of Ecclesiastes are those of the Persian period, not of the Greek.
In the early Christian centuries, as in all the centuries since, there have been disputes concerning the canonicity of Ecclesiastes. It was not questioned that Ecclesiastes belonged to the canon as traditionally handed down. No question of admitting it to the canon was raised. But it was challenged because of the agnostic quality of some of its contents, and, every time, on close examination, the challenge was decided in its favor.
There are volumes on Ecclesiastes in all the great commentaries, and treatments of it in the volumes on Introduction. A few of the many separate commentaries are those of Moses Stuart, Andover, 1864; H. Gratz, Leipzig, 1871; G. Wildeboer, Tubingen, 1898; E. H. Plumptre, Cambridge, 1881. Other works are those of J. F. Genung, Ecclesiastes, and Omar Khayyam, 1901, Words of Koheleth, 1904, and The Hebrew Literature of Wisdom in the Light of Today, 1906; C. H. H. Wright, Book of Koheleth, 1883; S. Schiffer, Das Buch Coheleth nach Talmud und Midrasch, 1885; A. H. McNeile. Introduction to Ecclesiastes, New York, 1904.
Willis J. Beecher