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Bible Commentaries

Dummelow's Commentary on the BibleDummelow on the Bible

- Ecclesiastes

by John Dummelow


1. Title. The title ’Ecclesiastes’ has been adopted by the English Version through the Latin Vulgate from the Septuagint (the earliest translation of the OT. into Greek from the original Hebrew), which gives it as the rendering of the Hebrew title Koheleth. It is, however, uncertain whether that word (derived from a root meaning ’to collect’) denotes (a) a member of a collective body, i.e. an assembly (Gk. Ecclesia, whence the title ’Ecclesiastes’), implying that the writer was one of a body of persons who thought and discoursed on the subjects engaging attention in the book, or (b) one who collects or convenes an assembly, ’the great orator’ which RM substitutes for ’the Preacher’ in Ecclesiastes 1:1.

2. Authorship and Date. Was Solomon the author of this book, as Ecclesiastes 1:1, if taken literally, implies? We may safely reply, No, for (a) the original Hebrew throughout the book shows traces of verbal forms, idioms, and style later than Solomon’s time; (b) the writer says, ’I.. (not ’am,’ but) was king’ (Ecclesiastes 1:12); (c) he refers apparently to a series of kings preceding him (Ecclesiastes 1:16); (d) he tells us that he was king ’in Jerusalem,’ thus pointing to a date later than the Disruption on Solomon’s death, when there began to be kings outside Jerusalem; (e) Solomon would not have drawn with his own hand a picture of moral evils (cp. Ecclesiastes 4:1; Ecclesiastes 5:8; Ecclesiastes 8:9; Ecclesiastes 10:6-7, Ecclesiastes 10:16), for which he would be held himself in large measure responsible; (f) there is no reference to features characterising Israelitish history in Solomon’s day. Besides all these reasons for placing the book later than Solomon’s time, it bears distinct traces of the Greek culture established throughout the civilised world after the break up of the Empire of Alexander the Great (died 323 b.c.). Such traces, e.g. appear in (a) the writer’s advice to enjoy the present life (Ecclesiastes 2:24; Ecclesiastes 3:22; Ecclesiastes 5:18; Ecclesiastes 9:7); (b) his comments on human weakness and disorder (Ecclesiastes 5:8; Ecclesiastes 7:7; Ecclesiastes 8:9, Ecclesiastes 8:14; Ecclesiastes 9:16; Ecclesiastes 10:16.), on the vanity and brevity of life (e.g. Ecclesiastes 1:2-17), and on the common destiny of human and brute creation (Ecclesiastes 3:18.); (c) his references to man’s inventive capacity (Ecclesiastes 7:29), and (d) his remarks on the phenomena of nature (Ecclesiastes 1:5-6).

Thus the book is decidedly later than the days of Solomon. On the other hand, an acquaintance with its language seems to be shown in the apocryphal book called ’Ecclesi-asticus,’ written cirEcclesiastes 180 b.c. We may, therefore, with confidence place Ecclesiastes earlier, though probably not much earlier, than that date.

But if belief in the traditional authorship is on these grounds to be put aside, we need have no scruple in at once rejecting the notion that the writer, whoever he may have been, had the smallest intention of fraud or deceit in thus assuming Solomon’s character for literary purposes. Such personation is nothing more than has been practised alike in ancient and modern times with perfectly straightforward motives. Plato’s dialogues or the speeches in Thucydides (to take two of the best known cases in classical literature) are examples of language put into the mouths of great men, not as having been literally spoken by them, but as expressing the sentiments which in the writer’s opinion under given circumstances might fairly be attributed to them.

We may notice that the claim to personate the great king, such as it is, is more conspicuous in the earlier than in the later part of the book. The thought of Solomon gradually fades from the writer’s mind, and he proceeds to give us undisguisedly his own attitude towards life and its problems in words that do not even mean to suggest the Solomon of Israelitish history.

3. Design of the Book. The main purpose of the author is evidently to offer men counsel, the result of his own experience, as to the principles on which they shall order their lives. The Divine Creator, he is sure, carries on the world in accordance with a plan, but that plan is hidden from us. What rule, then, shall we follow? Man, God’s creature, by nature aims at happiness. How shall happiness be attained? A glance around us shows that it does not go simply by merit; for instances are patent where virtue suffers and vice is prosperous. What path, therefore, shall we follow to gain our quest? Shall it be wisdom, or unrestrained pleasure, or devotion to business, or the pursuit of wealth? None of these will avail. Our rule must be to alternate wholesome labour with reasonable relaxation, assured that, although the ways of God’s judgments are obscure, all well-doing shall in the end be shown forth as approving itself to the Divine Judge.

Many a devout reader, turning over the Pages of this book, has been conscious of a sort of uneasy wonder that it should form part of the Bible; so different is its general tone from that of the sacred volume as a whole. For—(a) Throughout the whole book the gaze is turned inwards. Existence is represented as a puzzle beyond our powers to solve. In other OT. books the writer feels that he is showing us God’s hand in His dealing with individuals or with nations. But here God is a God who ’hides Himself,’ and we must grope on in the dark in our endeavour to become acquainted even with ’parts of His ways.’ (b) Elsewhere, specially in the prophetical and devotional books, God is not only a King and moral Governor, a Creator and a Judge, but He is tender, willing to forgive the penitent, ready to succour and sustain. But to the writer of this book God is only the Judge, austere, needing care in approach, omnipotent, and righteous. The element of love in His character is hidden. That He is, in the full sense of the word, the Divine Father, is seen dimly or not at all. The book thus shows the low-water mark of the religious thoughts of God-fearing Jews in pre-Christian times.

(c) Human existence is looked at mainly on its darker side. It is at once monotonous and vain. There is nothing new anywhere. Its good things, even if attained, are fleeting. Close upon the enjoyment of them the ’days of darkness’ follow, and they ’shall be many.’ The book thus emphasises in a way not found in the rest of the OT. the lack of a clear vision of a future life which had not yet been brought to light by Christ.

But these very peculiarities, which have caused perplexity to devout readers, form, when rightly viewed, a signal part of the credentials of the book as a constituent part of the ’Divine Library,’ which, through its various elements, historical, prophetical, devotional, ethical, was destined in God’s providence to appeal to the needs of successive periods of man’s existence. To the question characteristic of much of the thought of the present day, ’Is life worth living?’ the book gives the best answer which a Jew, at once influenced by heathen philosophy, and placed amidst political and social miseries, could give. There is a wide-spread habit of mind, called by the convenient name of pessimism, which takes a gloomy view of human existence, either because of the miseries of the world in general, or because of the deficiencies to be found in man’s nature. Now it is in Ecclesiastes, and Ecclesiastes alone, that this tendency is dealt with upon anything resembling the lines in which it expresses itself in the working of men’s minds in our own generation.

It is, then, in a very real sense a present day question, which is here treated. If thoughtful people are now saddened by the sorrows and sufferings of the world, and by the evil that goes unpunished, so too was ’the Preacher.’ But the point for us to notice here is that, unlike many now, he retained his reliance on God’s justice, although devoid of our mainstay, viz. the Christian faith which was then unborn. The forms of philosophical culture familiar to him were not unlike some of our own, while one special form of argument which we can use was unavailable in his day. The steady growth of sympathy with every kind of suffering and need, the widening sense of human brotherhood—this practical result of the fuller realisation of the meaning of Christ’s teaching and life constitutes for us a special form of argument on the side of the Christian faith. He had no such help to retain his hold upon the God of his fathers. Nevertheless, we mark that his faith, however imperilled at times, did not fail him. How much less, then, should ours fail to whom God has been revealed as a God of love through Christ Incarnate, and the Sacrifice for sin.

4. Analysis of Contents. Although the general aim of the book is clear, the connexion of thought is not always easy to follow. There are many breaks, repetitions, and deviations into side-issues. The following is an outline of the contents.

Introduction. Man’s life is saddened by its brevity, and by the purposeless and monotonous repetition which meets him on all sides (Ecclesiastes 1:1-11). Various methods may be tried in order to obtain relief, viz. the pursuit of wisdom(Ecclesiastes 1:12-18), of enjoyments and of art (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11). Of these wisdom is the noblest, and yet all of them are but vanity (Ecclesiastes 2:12-23). The best course is to alternate toil with frugal enjoyment; though even this also is vanity (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26). At least, however, we can see that God is a God of order (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8); yet man’s insight into God’s plan is extremely limited. The best course, therefore, is to combine the enjoyment of God’s gifts with uprightness of life (Ecclesiastes 3:9-15). True, man and beast alike return to the ground; nevertheless, if not here, then hereafter wrongs shall be righted (Ecclesiastes 3:16-22). The ills inseparable from both poverty and success cut men off from the helpful companionships of life (Ecclesiastes 4:1-12). Wisdom prevails over the highest rank; but even so there is nought that is lasting (Ecclesiastes 4:13-16). In religious life ignorance and hypocrisy prevail (Ecclesiastes 5:1-7), in political and social matters cruelty and avarice (Ecclesiastes 5:8). Greed of gain is unsatisfying and in the end futile (Ecclesiastes 5:9-17). Let a man, avoiding these, make tranquil enjoyment his aim (Ecclesiastes 5:18-20). Length of life only increases man’s liabilities to suffering; yea, though he be possessed of all possible advantages (Ecclesiastes 6:1-6). The only wise course is to use what we have, avoid all vain grasping at that which is beyond our reach, and accept the limitations which the very name man suggests (Ecclesiastes 6:7-12). Advice for the conduct of life (Ecclesiastes 7:1-14) Avoid extremes whether of asceticism or excess (Ecclesiastes 7:15-18). Wisdom is rare, yet needed by all. Righteousness, seldom found among men, is absolutely unknown among women (Ecclesiastes 7:19-29). Wisdom is needed by none more than those who have to do with kings’ courts (Ecclesiastes 8:1-5). Many as are the disorders and disappointments of life, it must still be that God will in the end show Himself a just Ruler. Make, therefore, a cheerful use of the good things of life, while convinced that His ways are ’past finding out’ (Ecclesiastes 8:6-17). Death is universal, and what lies beyond is in the darkest shadow (Ecclesiastes 9:1-6); nevertheless, combine innocent enjoyment with diligent work (Ecclesiastes 9:7-10). The wise, the strong, and the rich are all the puppets of chance. One foolish slip may bring about much havoc (Ecclesiastes 9:11 to Ecclesiastes 10:1). There is practical wisdom in patient and quiet regard to duty (Ecclesiastes 10:2-7). The incautious reformer brings untoward results to himself (Ecclesiastes 10:8-11). The fool’s talk, unlike that of the wise man, is wordy and wearisome, and also abortive (Ecclesiastes 10:12-15). A boy-ruler is a disaster to the kingdom; but the prudent will submit in silence (Ecclesiastes 10:16-20). Fulfil plain duties, even if success be dubious. While the powers of youth remain, let life, though fleeting, be as bright as may be (Ecclesiastes 11:1-10). The service of God will not bear postponement to the winter of life (Ecclesiastes 12:1-7). The outcome of the whole book is summed up (Ecclesiastes 12:8-14).

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