Book Overview – Ecclesiastes
by Arend Remmers
- Author and Time of Writing
No author’s name is mentioned in the book of Ecclesiastes. Already old Jewish tradition says that King Solomon is the author of this book of the Bible. And yet Solomon’s authorship has many a times been doubted at for two reasons. Firstly for language reasons and secondly because the name Jehovah does not appear in the book. Both reasons however are neither sound nor compelling (compare with what is said under Peculiarities).
In Ecclesiastes chap. 1:1+12 the author calls himself son of David and king in Jerusalem. In verse 16 he speaks of his great wisdom which according to 1 Kings 3:12; 1 Kings 4:2 f; 10:1 only King Solomon had. In Ecclesiastes 12:9 he mentions that he set in order many proverbs. This fact also speaks for Solomon only (see 1 Kings 4:32; Proverbs 1:1).
Various expressions in Ecclesiastes would indicate that Solomon wrote the book only in old age (Ecclesiastes 1:12-18; Ecclesiastes 2:1-11; Ecclesiastes 11:9-10; Ecclesiastes 12:1-7). This is where the author reviews a long life and all his thoughts and deeds and where he is warning youth and points to old age.
King Solomon ruled around 970 to 931 BC. The book of Ecclesiastes must therefore date from the end of this period.
- Purpose of Writing
Ecclesiastes belongs to the last part in the Hebrew Bible, the “writings” (Hebr. ketubim) and further to the so-called five scrolls (Hebr. megillot), which are still read at Jewish feast days. Ecclesiastes is being read in the synagogue for the feast of tabernacles.
Verses 2 and 3 of the first chapter summarize suitably contents and purpose of the book: “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?” The word “vanity” appears not less than 37 times in this book! It is the Hebrew word “hevel” which also is to be found in the name Adam and Eve gave to their second son Abel (Genesis 4:2) after sin had entered the world by their disobedience.
The expression “under the sun” also appears 29 times. This expression stresses the character of the book that describes life on this earth from the viewpoint of fallen man. It has therefore rightly been called a scene of the consequences of fall of man (compare Genesis 3:17-19).
The underlying crucial question could be asked as follows: Which is the best way to spend life for a human being? – The answers to these questions are mostly given from human viewpoint. They therefore give the impression of the author being far away of the divine truth. Some of such false conclusions can be found in Ecclesiastes 3:19-22; Ecclesiastes 7:16-17; Ecclesiastes 8:15; Ecclesiastes 9:6; Ecclesiastes 9:10.
Such statements might make the reader wonder how such a thing can possibly be written in the Word of God. And yet the explanation is not difficult. This human reasoning is no divine revelation (as e. g. the Epistle to the Ephesians in the NT) but it has been added to the Bible by divine inspiration. Solomon’s experiences and thoughts are recorded as utterances of a man who is disappointed of life, even if man is not viewed in the book as having a living relationship of faith to God (although every man is responsible as creature towards God his Creator). This is why Ecclesiastes often has been called a book of sceptical or pessimistic character. And in fact we find no word of praising God and nothing of grace and redemption throughout the whole book. If the name of God appears the expression used is Elohim, but never the name Jehovah (over 40 times in total).
God’s direct teaching of man appears only in chap. 12:11-14. These final words can be considered a suitable introduction to the book of Proverbs. Although Proverbs precedes Ecclesiastes it is a step ahead of it in spiritual matters.
Ecclesiastes is one of the few books of the OT, which is not once referred to in the NT, although there might be many parallel thoughts (e. g. Ecclesiastes 5:1 and Matthew 6:7; Ecclesiastes 12:14 and 2 Corinthians 5:10; Ecclesiastes 7:9 and James 1:19).
The title “preacher” is the rendering of the Hebrew word qohelet (female gender) that is derived from the verb qahal (Engl. to gather). The word qohelet appears seven times in Ecclesiastes (chap. 1:1 ,2 ,12; 7:27; 12:8-10) but nowhere else in the Bible. The translators of the Septuagint have rendered it with ecclesiasts (from ecclesia, Engl. Assembly, church). Martin Luther was the first one to translate this word (which is difficult to translate) with “preacher”. But this meaning has been questioned. Another explanation is based on the principle meaning of “gathering publicly”. Accordingly the wisdom described in Ecclesiastes is the one accessible to all men. It is so to say the wisdom taught in the temple court whereas the hidden wisdom taught in the sanctuary (Psalms 73:17) is only opened up for believers. This wisdom is described in Proverbs, which as already mentioned are the “sequel” to Ecclesiastes.
b) The Name of God
Typically enough the name Jehovah appears not once in this book whereas the name Elohim (God) appears over 40 times. By studying the Pentateuch and the Psalms we have already seen, that the name Elohim shows God in His absoluteness and His omnipotence as Creator. On the other hand Jehovah is God’s name, which shows His grace and His relationship to men and especially to his covenant-people Israel. The fact that the name Jehovah appears not at all in Ecclesiastes is a sign to show that the subject is not one man or one people in a certain relation of covenant or faith to Him. It rather shows that the subject is man in general who is responsible to His Creator-God (Ecclesiastes 11:9; Ecclesiastes 12:1).
- Overview of Contents
Ecclesiastes 1:1-11 : Introduction – Emptiness of Life without God
Ecclesiastes 1:12-18; Ecclesiastes 2- 6 : Question for Sense in all that Happens on Earth
Result of Seeking: Worthlessness of all Labour
Certainty of Death
Comparison of Various Circumstances of Life
Correct Conduct towards God and the Neighbour
Vanity of the Various Circumstances of Life
Ecclesiastes 7-11; Ecclesiastes 12:1-10 : Good Counsels
Various Aspects of Wisdom
Goings-On of Men
Equal Fate for Everybody
Human Doings and Its Consequences
Vanity of Human Life from Youth to Old Age
Ecclesiastes 12:10-14 : End – Life in Light of Eternity