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by Albert Barnes
Introduction to Ecclesiastes
I. This book is placed, in the most ancient Jewish and Christian lists, between the other two books (Proverbs and the Song of Songs) attributed to Solomon, and the constant tradition of the Jewish and Christian congregations has handed down Solomon as the author without question.
Some modern critics have indeed alleged that Solomon could not have written it: (a) because the language is such as no Jew in his age could have used; (b) because the language differs from that of Proverbs and the Song of Songs; and (c) because the historical allusions in the book do not agree with the period and the circumstances of Solomon.
(a) In answer to this, it would appear that every word quoted from Ecclesiastes as impossible to be used before the captivity has been shown either:
(1) to be used in books written, as is generally believed, before the captivity; or
(2) to be formed from words, and by a grammatical process, in use before the captivity; or
(3) to be represented in such books by a derivative; or
(4) to be undoubtedly common to other Semitic dialects besides Chaldee, and therefore, presumably, to Hebrew before the captivity, although not found in extant writings of earlier date than Ecclesiastes.
The allegation, therefore, that the language of this book shows distinct traces of the Chaldean invasion, of the Babylonian captivity, or of any later event which affected the Hebrew tongue, may be considered sufficiently answered.
(b) The dissimilarity in style and diction between this book and Proverbs or the Song of Songs is admitted; but it has been accounted for to some extent, first, by the difference of subject. Abstract ideas may be expressed up to a certain point by words which originally denoted something else: but philosophic thought such as distinguishes this book from the other two, gradually forms its own terminology. Next, it is argued, that there was an interval of many years between the composition of the two former books and of this; and that in that time there was a natural change in the temperament, views, and style of the writer; a change which may be traced partly to Solomon’s familiarity with foreign women sprung from various Semitic races, partly also to his extensive negotiations and personal contact with the representatives of other nations, some of whom were not of Semitic origin 1 Kings 10:22.
Lastly, to balance the differences, it is to be noted that there are some characteristic resemblances between these books. It is reasonable to regard these as an indication of a common origin.
(c) It is alleged that the particular mention of Jerusalem Ecclesiastes 1:1, Ecclesiastes 1:12 as the seat of Solomon’s reign, implies that the book was written at a time when there was more than one seat of kingly authority in Israel, i. e. after the separation of the ten tribes and the erection of another capital, Samaria. The answer is that there is an obvious fitness in the specific mention of Jerusalem previous to the account of Solomon’s labors in Ecclesiastes 1:0; Ecclesiastes 2:0, for it was the scene of his special work for many years, and the place which he had made the chief monument of his grandeur.
It is alleged that the expression, “I was king” Ecclesiastes 1:12, implies that, at the time when these words were written, Solomon was no longer king, and that, consequently, the passage must have been written by someone who was impersonating him after his death. But, in Hebrew, the preterite is used with strict grammatical propriety in describing a past. It does not prevent critics, after taking all the facts into account, from considering the whole of these books as the work of the same author. which extends into the present. Solomon is as a speaker who views the action or state expressed by the verb as then first about coming to pass, in progress, or perhaps occurring at the instant. The phrase therefore, would be both grammatically correct, if used by Solomon before the close of his reign, and a natural expression of his feelings in his old age.
It is argued that such a state of violence, popular oppression, and despotic rule, as that which is instanced in Ecclesiastes 4:1 did not exist in Palestine in the peaceful reign of Solomon. This allegation has no foundation in fact. The significant statements of historians (e. g. 1 Kings 12:4 and 2 Chronicles 2:17-18; 2 Chronicles 8:7-9) and the numerous unmistakeable allusions in the Book of Proverbs (e. g. Proverbs 1:10-13; Proverbs 6:16-19; Proverbs 11:26; Proverbs 14:20; Proverbs 22:22-23; Proverbs 24:21; Proverbs 25:5; Proverbs 28:2, Proverbs 28:16) agree with the descriptions in Ecclesiastes in showing that the kingdom of Israel, even in its most prosperous days, afforded grievous instances of the common evils of Asiatic despotism.
It is stated that such passages as Ecclesiastes 12:7, Ecclesiastes 12:14 show a knowledge of revealed truth beyond what was given prior to the captivity. But if the exact words of Ecclesiastes are compared with the obscure intimations given by Moses on the one hand, and with the later utterances of Daniel on the other, this book appears to hold a middle place. It tallies very closely with some of the Psalms which were probably written about the age of Solomon. After all, does not the argument (mentioned above) proceed on an assumption that we are more competent than we really are to find out the ways of the Author of Revelation? Are we qualified to decide positively that so much, as is recorded on those subjects in Ecclesiastes came out of its proper season if it was given to Solomon?
On the whole, therefore, it seems the most reasonable course to accept as a simple statement of fact the words with which Ecclesiastes begins; and, in accordance with the voice of the church from the beginning, to regard solomon as the author of this book.
II. What was the object of the writer in composing this book?
The method of Greek philosophy and its principles - Epicurean, Stoic, and Cynic - have been attributed to the author of Ecclesiastes; but on no better ground than might be found in the writings of any thoughtful and sensitive man who has felt, contemplated, and described the perplexities of human life.
The author was evidently a man of profound faith in God, of large and varied personal experience, of acute observation of people and things, and of deep sensibility. He was probably first moved to write by a mind that was painfully full of the disappointing nature of all things viewed apart from God. Next, he was moved by a deep sympathy with fellow human beings who were touched by the same natural feelings as himself, and suffering like him, though each in their various ways; and thirdly, he was moved by the evident desire to lead other men, and especially young men, out of the temptations which he had felt, and out of the perplexities which once entangled and staggered him. Whether his heart was chilled by old age or by the cold shadow of some former eclipse of faith can only be conjectured; but there is in Ecclesiastes an absence of that fervor of zeal for the glory of God which glows in other books, and which we are justified in regarding as a feature of Solomon’s character in his early days. His immediate object would seem then to be to relieve his mind by pouring out the results of his own life, to comfort those who bore the same burden of humanity, and to lift up those who were naturally feeble or depressed by circumstances and to lead them in the way of God’s commandments.
As regards a plan, the writer of the book evidently regarded it as complete in itself; the first part of the book being contemplative or doctrinal, and the latter part being practical.
First, there is the writer’s statement of his subject, and his detailed account of his personal experience of the influence of vanity pervading human proceedings Eccl. 1–2. Then, there is the announcement of an external law to which also human affairs are subject, i. e. the will of God, Whose plan, incomprehensible in its extent, is found by all to be more or less in conflict with man’s will Eccl. 3–4, the result of such conflict being disappointment and perplexity to man. Then there is the commencement Ecclesiastes 5:0 of personal practical advice, followed by a mixture of reflections, maxims, and exhortations, in which the vanity of riches, the practical superiority of wisdom and patience, and the supreme power of God, are the prominent topics set forth in various ways Eccl. 6–8. The writer’s reflections are found in Ecclesiastes 9:0. His maxims are brought to an end in Ecclesiastes 10:0. And, in Eccl. 11–12 we have a concluding exhortation to such conduct and sentiments as are most likely to alleviate the vanity of this life, namely, to charity, industry, patience and the reverence of God.
If the book was composed, as seems probable, toward the end of Solomon’s reign, its direct tendency is obvious. In an age when “silver were like stones in Jerusalem” (i. e. common), no lesson was more necessary, and none would tell with deeper effect, than those powerful and touching declarations of the vanity of wealth and grandeur which are perhaps the most conspicuous feature in this book. Further, if the book appealed then, as it has ever since appealed, to an inner circle of more thoughtful readers, they especially, who in those days discerned the signs of the approaching dismemberment of the kingdom and the diminution of the glory of Jerusalem, would find their comfort in its lessons of patient endurance and resignation to the sovereign will of God. Whenever the church has been threatened with approaching calamity this book has always shown its consolatory effect upon devout believers. It served, before Christ came, to lighten for Jews the darkness of those “crooked” ways of God which have exercised the Christian penetration of Pascal and Butler. To the desolation of religious doubt, Ecclesiastes brings a special message of consolation and direction: for it shows that a cry of perplexity finds a place even in the sacred books; and it indicates a nearer approach to the living God in reverent worship Ecclesiastes 5:1, in active service Ecclesiastes 11:6, in humble acknowledgment of His power Ecclesiastes 3:10-17, in reliance on His final justice Ecclesiastes 5:8; Ecclesiastes 12:13-14, as the means by which that cry has been, and may again be, hushed.
the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany