the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34
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Whedon's Commentary on the Bible Whedon's Commentary
by Daniel Whedon
THE mystery of this book, which still causes much disagreement and perplexity among commentators, begins at once with the title. Ecclesiastes is the long-received Greek term for the Hebrew קהלת , Koheleth, or Coheleth. This is a feminine participle of the verb קהל , which means to collect always applied to collections of people, and usually for religious purposes.
The fitness of this term as applied to Solomon is conceded by all, however much critics may differ upon the question of its actual authorship. In 1 Kings 8:0, he is described as gathering the people of Israel in a grand, solemn assembly to worship Jehovah in the place which he had now built “a settled place.” Here he taught them to have communion with the Most High, and to come there with joy and gladness to keep their holy days. He is the one of all the rulers and inspired men of Israel to whom this title eminently belongs. He was the Koheleth the Ecclesiastes not the Preacher, which is too narrow a term, and is no part of the meaning of קהל , that term signifying, as above remarked, the one who gathered the people before God.
As title of this book, Koheleth is singularly beautiful and appropriate. The work of the book is to gather the people from difficulties, and perplexities, and vanities, and errors which led them astray from God, back to his truth, his law, and himself. This is done with the sympathy, patience, and gentleness of a shepherd, yet with the dignity of a teacher and the authority of a king.
Why the Title should be Feminine.
One reason, assigned by several expounders, is, that it is the use of a feminine abstract form to indicate a rank or office. So we say in English, “majesty,” for “king;” “administration,” for the man or men “administering” a government. This is plausible, but a severe scrutiny of Hebrew seems to show:
1. That no abstract thus formed is ever again used in a concrete or personal sense: it remains as the name of an office, and nothing more.
2. That, if it were used to indicate the man holding the office, it would be followed by the masculine form of the verb, which is not the case here. See Ecclesiastes 7:27.
3. No other abstract form made from the active participle can be found. The conclusion seems necessary, that “Koheleth” is not an abstract, giving the name of an office, but is concrete, signifying some person or thing really performing the act which its root defines some one actually assembling the people before God.
Probably the best explanation of this use of the feminine form is, that the writer personifies Wisdom. If Solomon be the writer, this would agree with his use of wisdom, Proverbs 1:20; Proverbs 8:1. The like use of personification is found in Luke 11:49: “Therefore also said the Wisdom of God.” Solomon attributes tacitly to Wisdom the sayings which divine Wisdom inspired, and thus the use of this remarkable form would be explained.
If Solomon be not the writer, still this tacit personification would be in harmony with the popular notions about him, as is illustrated in the Book of Wisdom, chapter vii, etc. He was reckoned an incarnation of Wisdom. Had, then, an unknown writer wished to impersonate Solomon, he could not have done better than to present him in the guise in which his countrymen loved to view him when he assumed the office of teacher.
The construction of the word, taken in this sense, with a feminine verb, would accord with the fixed usage of Hebrew grammar.
The allusions to wisdom in a special and subordinate sense, as, “I gave my heart to know wisdom,” etc., will cause no confusion if we bear in mind that the writer, though uttering the words of wisdom, does not lose his own individuality. Thus the apostles, speaking in general as the organs of the Holy Ghost, also speak at times their own views and their own experiences. See Acts 15:28: “For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us.”
The advantage of this latter explanation over the former is, that it conforms to the grammar without the necessity of creating, out of it, a special and exceptional instance. It is certainly admissible to do this when no alternative can be found. But the latter explanation agrees not merely with grammatical precedents, but at the same time harmonizes with well known forms of scriptural rhetoric. Thus Psalms 68:12, המבשׂרות , “them that publish it,” gives, from its feminine form, not merely an intense collective sense, but couches also the suggestion of co-operating wisdom. This explanation is the one most adopted in the long line of commentators who, since the Christian era, and even before it, have treated of this book.
The book has been attributed to Solomon rather by presumption and uniform consent than by critical demonstration. Serious doubts have, in modern times, been raised on this matter, and some learned and careful critics have decided adversely to the long-received opinion. Their line of thought has been nearly as follows:
1 . The tone of remark in the book seems to proceed from one who lives in a time of social depression, of injustice, and of tyranny. The description of the various phases of these is given with the vividness of an actual beholder, who is at the same time powerless to prevent or remedy them. Oppression and violence rage so fiercely that death is thought better than life. All the behaviour of an Oriental despotism, in its worst form, is depicted; the misery of the people is acknowledged; and counsels of patience and prudence are repeatedly given. This state of things cannot be supposed to have existed in the reign of Solomon; or, if it did, he would hardly thus record his own shame.
2 . The character of rulers most frequently given in this book is that of gluttons, drunkards, laggards, and spendthrifts, who are also so irritable that one may counsel them only delicately and indirectly. See Ecclesiastes 5:9. It seems hardly probable, either, that Solomon would so speak of his own rank. While, too, he recommends individuals to patiently submit, he intimates (Ecclesiastes 8:2-9) that the despot will surely receive punishment from the wrath and rebellion of the mass of his subjects. All this sentiment and suggestion seems very unkingly.
3 . The sins and extravagances of Solomon’s life must have been the cause of the evils which he, if he were “Koheleth,” here describes. Yet he nowhere acknowledges any sin of his own. He had introduced idolatry, he had filled his harem with foreign and idolatrous women, he had openly dealt badly with God’s law and covenant, yet his own misdeeds are here spoken of as mere experiments, and the conduct of others over whom he had influence is matter of bitter complaint. It is thought that the writer of a book so pure as this, had he led a guilty life, would, by a moral necessity, have uttered some language of confession and self-abasement, nothing of which can here be found.
4 . A tone of disappointment, of weakness, and of wretchedness runs through the entire book. Some past magnificence seems to float in the mind of the writer, but there is no sense of a glorious destiny such as enlivened the age of Solomon. It is a time of bitter trial. Many minds seem driven into desperate ungodliness. Deeper minds seek satisfaction in practical and speculative reasoning, tinged with sadness, unrelieved even by the hope of the Messiah. The book seems like the exponent of Israel’s darkest and most doubtful day.
5 . To these suggestions, arising from the sentiment and contents of the book, are added certain difficulties in identifying the rhetoric and language as Solomon’s. The Proverbs, whose authorship none can doubt, are compact, precise, and energetic, like the speaking of a king. Koheleth is moderate and dreamlike, full of repetitions and dilutions. Phrases occur in it which are so marked as to be clearly habitual to the writer’s speech, but which are not found in Proverbs as, “under the sun,” and others. It is thought that, as Pope could not have written in the style of Chaucer, or Macaulay in that of Carlyle, so Solomon could not have written in that of Koheleth. This difference of rhetoric is plainer in the Hebrew than in any translation.
6 . There are in Koheleth a few words and forms of words which are not found in biblical Hebrew in its golden age the age of Solomon. The argument from these is of little weight, as it is impossible to say that these were not in some use even at Solomon’s epoch. There are in the book ten or eleven of these later forms. Of Chaldaic words an element not found in the Bible until after the captivity there are, perhaps, ten. The most careful criticism of word-forms finds so little of reliable indication from this source that small mention need be made of it; but what indication there is, is toward a later authorship. Some of the ablest of modern Hebraists, as Stuart and Ginsberg, have urged that all the conditions of the authorship are satisfied by supposing the writer to have lived in Palestine at some time in the fourth century before our era, to have assumed the title of Koheleth from his being a hakam, or public teacher, and to have made Solomon the character delivering the discourse. It will be perceived that the weight of the argument is chiefly from moral probabilities, and that there is a lack of specific proof. The argument will seem more or less forcible to various minds. It is unquestionably gaining in favour with many careful students and thinkers.
In favour of Solomon as author, the weightiest arguments are as follows:
1 . The general belief of Jews and Christians up to modern times. This does not establish the case, nor render it invulnerable to critical examination, but it affords a strong presumption of its truth.
2 . The assertion by the author himself in the book: “I, Koheleth, was king over Israel in Jerusalem.” Parallel to this, John says in the Apocalypse, “I, John was in the isle… called Patmos.” Identifying himself with his future readers, he speaks of the present as a past historical fact. And so it is thought that Solomon, by a figure of rhetoric, transfers himself to future ages and writes for future readers. Upon these he wishes definitely to impress his own historic position, that they may recognise in his character and opportunities a basis for the experiences and sentiments of the book. And this remark applies to all the allusions to Solomon which the book contains. He was surely in condition to try on the largest scale the experiments here recorded, and repeated mention of this creates confidence in the readers of the book.
3 . The difference in rhetoric between Proverbs and “Koheleth” is thought to be justified by the different character of the aim and contents of the books. Probably no writer can be named whose variety of style is so great and so sustained throughout two productions. Burke, of English writers, would approach this most nearly, whose essay on the “Sublime and the Beautiful” may be compared with Proverbs, and whose “Thoughts on the French Revolution” may be compared with “Koheleth.” Some such change of manner in thought and expression may have come over Solomon in the interval between “sharp youth and dreamy age.”
4 . The verbal differences the use of words in “Koheleth” which are not found in Hebrew writings of the Solomonic era is of little weight in argument. A great writer, like Shakspeare, may pick from the popular speech of his day, words which do not become classical and serviceable in higher literature until long after. Solomon may have done this.
5 . The felt lack of agreement between the causes of misery given in the book, as misgovernment, injustice, etc., and anything that could have existed under Solomon’s rule, is explained by the theory that the book was written philosophically one might say, prophetically. It is directed to the opposite extreme of human experience from that addressed in Canticles, (this to gloom, that to gayety;) an extreme sure to occur soon or late, and to need sympathy and consolation. Solomon’s own reign was by no means free from oppressions and disorders; but his allusions to the evils of the world need not be supposed to be drawn from the narrow limits of his own time and realm. He provided food and comfort for minds inclined to seek relief from gloom and depression by indulging in that speculative argumentation which Hebrew thinkers were then learning from the Greeks. He showed how the human mind, after ranging far and wide over the dreary mysteries and perplexities of life, and finding no rest, may, like the dove, fold its weary wing and settle to quiet and shelter beneath Jehovah and his commandments. Those who hold this view of “Koheleth” must regard it as the most wonderful of all the writings of Solomon.
6 . The belief in Solomon’s authorship is corroborated by a sentiment of moral sublimity which all the readers of the book recognise. A tone of grandeur and of dark sublimity is heard from every part, like the utter, race of one who, in depression and disappointment, still bears himself with the majesty of a king. If this be an impersonation, like the Agamemnon or OEdipus of a Greek drama, the art is sustained with wondrous skill and power. Troublous times of grief and oppression are so joined with Solomon’s golden days that the seam is invisible. If it be Solomon himself, the royal Preacher, we are still more deeply moved by the sight of a king whose morning was so fair, rallying himself near his cloudy nightfall to record his “large experience” of what was vain and what was good for man. This sentiment, or this picture, will confirm the general belief in the Solomonic authorship against any criticism of critics for yet a long time. And this sentiment gives the book a charm and a power which cannot be too highly valued.
This question of authorship must not be made too important. There are other accepted books of Scripture whose authors have not been identified as the glowing, earnest book of Malachi. By whatever hand God was pleased to give “Koheleth” to the world whether we discern the body of the writer, or lose it behind an impenetrable screen we may rest confidently upon the book itself. Its broad sympathies, its profound and practical experience in so various affairs, its calm, wise, and gentle guidance, by meandering paths, from darkness to consoling light these were given to us by the inspiration of God, and are profitable for doctrine, for reproof, and for instruction in righteousness.
The canonical right of Ecclesiastes has been uniformly acknowledged. No inspired writer gives us any list of the sacred books. Our first knowledge of them is from the Canon of Josephus. Josephus, being called to defend them before a heathen, ignorant of their number and import, made out the first list in our possession, giving twenty-two books, “which are justly believed to be divine.” With this list the Talmud agrees. Of these Ecclesiastes was the twenty-first. As it contained neither law nor prophecy it was classed with the Hagiographa, or sacred general writings, “containing hymns to God or maxims of life to men.” Its place in the holy Scriptures is amply justified by its broad and comprehensive effort to demonstrate the true philosophy of life to be in the fear of God and the keeping of his commandments, and in the reference of all human actions to the eternal judgment.
The Proverbs of Solomon seem to have established among the Jews a taste for sententious utterances. Even if this book came from another hand than his, it shows in this respect his influence, as it abounds in proverbial statements. Though, on the whole, of a poetic nature, it lacks the beauty and order of the Psalms and of some of the prophetical books. It is read in Jewish synagogues regularly at the feast of tabernacles. It seems as if its subdued and tender strains were meant to give a soft accompaniment of sadness to moderate the hilarities of that most gladsome of Jewish festivals, reminding men of life’s vanities while they exult in its blessings.
The theme of the book is the path to true happiness. The discussion of it is leisurely, and the views suggested are argued upon their various sides, so that if they have any real value it may be duly appreciated. A discernible law of logic binds the whole discussion, so that the book is at unity with itself. Sentiments are asserted, then qualified, controverted, admitted or denied, with all the freedom of colloquial discourse.
The method of the book may be shown in outline by the following division:
1 . A preliminary statement is made, a sort of apology for taking up the discussion. It is as if the writer felt man to be the most wretched object in creation: “For misery caught me at my birth, and cast me forth upon the wild.” The most changeful courses of nature abide, even in their changefulness; but man is unsatisfied while here, and soon departs, and disappears like a mist of the morning.
Whether it be so in fact or not, so it at least seems. But with a mind revolting at this unhappy show of things, and as if prompted by this very show, the writer thoughtfully and conscientiously undertakes the inquiry, whether there be any abiding good for man. This preliminary extends to Ecclesiastes 1:11.
2 . The author’s first series of experiments is then stated. He accumulates vast stores of knowledge to see what good may be in ample intelligence and broad views of affairs. Then he tries, to its fullest extent, the pleasure given by sensual indulgence. He finds knowledge far better than indulgence; but, alas! the wise and the fool come to the same speedy end.
The work of the wise is spoiled by some fool who follows him; and though the wise gets more and better enjoyment than the fool, yet all is very transitory. This first range of experiment occupies the book as far as to the end of chapter 2.
3 . The inquiry is now made, whether the full exertion of human energies will produce the desired result. Dr. Franklin, Mr. Greeley, and other eminent men, have praised industry. “Koheleth” finds man girded in by a fixed order of things. The inevitable and the immutable are set as bounds to his doings, that he may feel the presence of a higher Power than himself. Only a humble recognition of this Power, an effort to be in harmony with it, and a thankful enjoyment of what it gives, be it more or less, can save one from despair. This section ends with chapter 5.
4 . Delaying a little to show that riches can give no aid, “Koheleth” proceeds to a more extensive investigation of what wisdom that is, prudence, or common sense can do to procure happiness. Prudence takes short views, inquires what is best under the immediate circumstances, and leaves what is unmanageable to the disposal of a higher Power. But prudence is often baffled and its plans thwarted, so that the careful man is more miserable than the reckless. Little comfort, at most, is found in it, and the better way is for one to just grasp and enjoy what he can lay his hand on. This division ends at Ecclesiastes 8:15.
5 . Now is given a review of all the preceding discussion. Much is conceded to be failure. Some advantages are claimed for virtue and prudence, and the summation is, that a wise use of this present life, with what good it may give, and a fear of God, with steady expectation and regard of his final judgment, will give us all that is good for man, and save us in the last crisis. This summation extends to Ecclesiastes 12:7.
6 . A solemn, impressive conclusion is given, which deeply enforces the result gained by all this investigation.