the Week of Proper 4 / Ordinary 9
Ecclesiastes, Book of
Holman Bible Dictionary
Date and Author An almost universal agreement, even among conservative scholars, thinks that Ecclesiastes was not written by Solomon. Solomon's name is never mentioned in the book. Qoheleth refers to gaining more wisdom than “all they that have been before me in Jerusalem” (Ecclesiastes 1:16 ), which does not fit Solomon who had only David as his royal predecessor. Elsewhere, the writer speaks as if he were a subject rather than a ruler (Ecclesiastes 4:13; Ecclesiastes 8:2; Ecclesiastes 9:14-16; Ecclesiastes 10:16-17 ,Ecclesiastes 10:16-17,10:20 ) in a time of oppression (Ecclesiastes 4:14 ), injustice (Ecclesiastes 5:8 ), and social confusion (Ecclesiastes 10:6-7 ). Moreover, the language of the book is clearly late, being the closest to postbiblical Mishnaic Hebrew of any book in the Bible. From these and other clues, scholars conclude that a later writer used a literary device, the “didactic autobiography” to present his teaching, probably between 300,200 B.C. Some scholars continue to argue for Solomon as author, thinking this is the only way Ecclesiastes 1:1 can be interpreted.
Literary Character After the title (Ecclesiastes 1:1 ) and the introductory poem on the vanity of all things (Ecclesiastes 1:2-11 ), the book takes the form of a “didactic autobiography” which recounts Qoheleth's project “to study and explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 1:13 NIV). Qoheleth undertook great building projects, enjoyed the best of life's pleasures, and in every regard achieved the pinnacle of human success. Still, he concluded that all this, including work and play, is merely “vanity.” Qoheleth loosely maintained the form of the autobiography ( Ecclesiastes 2:9 ,Ecclesiastes 2:9,2:24; Ecclesiastes 3:10 ,Ecclesiastes 3:10,3:16; Ecclesiastes 4:7; Ecclesiastes 7:15; Ecclesiastes 9:13 ) as a device to weave together a great many wisdom forms and reflections on life, elaborating the theme of vanity. He concluded with an allegory on death. The autobiography is framed by the observation which began the book: “Vanity of vanities all is vanity (Ecclesiastes 1:2; Ecclesiastes 12:8 ). The book ends with a short third person epilogue, probably by an editor, which puts Qoheleth and his difficult book in theological perspective (Ecclesiastes 12:9-14 ).
Content Ecclesiastes is a book which focuses upon the limits of life to teach wisdom. The point of view is that of the Solomon-like Qoheleth whose wealth, wisdom, and glory placed him at the upper limit of human success. From his royal pinnacle Qoheleth surveyed life and judged it to be vanity because of the inescapable limits God and sin place on even the most successful human being. Thus the book cannot be dismissed as the disillusioned pessimism of one whom life had cheated. Human limits are various: humans cannot make straight what is crooked (Ecclesiastes 1:15 ); what is lacking cannot be numbered (Ecclesiastes 7:13 ); nor can humans remove injustice (Ecclesiastes 3:16 ) and oppression (Ecclesiastes 4:1-2; Ecclesiastes 5:8 ) from the earth. Sometimes good folk receive evil while the wicked prosper (Ecclesiastes 7:15; Ecclesiastes 8:14; compare Psalm 73:1 ). Thus, humans are unable to achieve their dreams and ambitions because of sin and because of their limited knowledge, power, and goodness. In his focus on limits Qoheleth, like Job, attacked those who selectively misuse traditional wisdom to promote a false gospel of unlimited success for the “righteous.” Even if humans do seem to succeed, like Qoheleth himself, had even this is vanity, because their knowledge is limited and imperfect: “no man (adam ) can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11 ). Moreover, even the best, richest, and wisest life is ended by death. Thus even the greatest goods and achievements, indeed, “everything under the sun” must be labeled as “vanity.”
The Hebrew word translated as “vanity” is hevel whose literal meaning is “breath” or breeze. The author used this word metaphorically, often with the added phrase “striving after wind,” to express the transience, weakness, and nothingness of human life. All things pass away. His view of life was much like that of the godly psalmist who prayed, “Lord, make me to know mine end that I may know how frail I am. Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before thee: verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity ( hevel )!” (Psalm 39:4-6; compare Job 7:16; Psalm 62:9; Psalm 78:33; Psalm 144:4 ). Elsewhere, the Bible conveys this view of human limits by the imagery of grass, which grows and whithers while the Word of God alone endures forever (Psalm 90:5-6; Isaiah 40:6-8; James 1:10-11; 1 Peter 1:24 ). In this light, it is quite mistaken to translate hevel as “meaningless” as does the NIV throughout Ecclesiastes.
Since life is vanity, what then is good? Qoheleth's answer has two points which are repeated several times in the book (though many commentators overlook this aspect of the book's teaching). The first point is summarized by the editor at the end of the book: “Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13 ). God's sovereign actions are beyond human ability to change (Ecclesiastes 7:13 ); God has done this “that men should fear before him” (Ecclesiastes 3:14 ). It is God who has set the limits on human life and knowledge (Ecclesiastes 7:14 ). Thus Qoheleth's world is “vain,” but only in the sense noted above. It is not a world without God. Apart from God, “who can eat and who can have enjoyment?” (Ecclesiastes 2:25 NAS). Even if a person experiences injustice ( Ecclesiastes 3:16; Ecclesiastes 5:8; Ecclesiastes 7:15; Ecclesiastes 8:14 ), God is still a just Judge (Ecclesiastes 3:17-18 ) who acts in His own time (Ecclesiastes 8:6; Ecclesiastes 11:9 ). For Qoheleth, worship of God and vows made to Him are matters of utmost seriousness (Ecclesiastes 5:1-2 ,Ecclesiastes 5:1-2,5:4 ). Since God judges sin (Ecclesiastes 5:6 ), people should avoid foolish talk and “fear God” (Ecclesiastes 5:7 ). “Although a sinner does evil a hundred times and may lengthen his life, still I know that it will be well for those who fear God, who fear Him openly. But it will not be well for the evil man and he will not lengthen his days, like a shadow, because he does not fear God” (Ecclesiastes 8:12-13 NAS; compare Ecclesiastes 7:18 ).
Qoheleth's second point is: humans do not have sovereign control over life, being limited by vanity in all its forms, especially death. Because of this, they should enjoy life and its ordinary pleasures of work and play, food and drink, love and family, all as gifts from God (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26; Ecclesiastes 3:12-13; Ecclesiastes 5:18-20; Ecclesiastes 9:7-10 ). If there is resignation in Qoheleth, it is that of one who has left the riddles and painful mysteries of life in God's hands, while accepting its limited joys with sober thanks.
I. Life is vanity because nothing new ever occurs (Ecclesiastes 1:1-11 ).
II. Wisdom produces only vanity (Ecclesiastes 1:12-18 ).
III. Pleasure and possessions are all vanity (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11 ).
IV. Wisdom is no better than folly (Ecclesiastes 2:12-17 ).
V. Labor brings only vanity (Ecclesiastes 2:18-26 ).
VI. God plans the world but hides the plan (Ecclesiastes 3:1-11 ).
VII. The wise conclusion: seek to enjoy life (Ecclesiastes 3:12-22 ).
VIII. Illustrations show life is vanity (Ecclesiastes 4:1-16 ).
IX. The wise conclusion: fear God (Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 ).
X. Wealth brings no advantage (Ecclesiastes 5:8-6:12 ).
XI. Proverbs illustrate the way of wisdom (Ecclesiastes 7:1-14 ).
XII. Righteousness results in vanity (Ecclesiastes 7:15-25 ).
XIII. Warnings are needed against the wiles and devices of women (Ecclesiastes 7:26-29 ).
XIV. Wise conclusion: obey the King (Ecclesiastes 8:1-9 ).
XV. Righteousness goes unrewarded (Ecclesiastes 8:10-17 ).
XVI. All people share the same ultimate fate (Ecclesiastes 9:1-12 ).
XVII. Wisdom does not provide the ultimate answer (Ecclesiastes 9:13-10:20 ).
XVIII. Wise conclusion: act in the face of vanity (Ecclesiastes 11:1-8 ).
XIX. Youth has the advantage (Ecclesiastes 11:9-12:7 ).
XX. Wise conclusion: everything is vanity (Ecclesiastes 12:8 ).
XXI. Parting advice: Learn from the teacher and obey God (Ecclesiastes 12:9-14 ).
Raymond C. Van Leeuwen
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Ecclesiastes, Book of'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hbd/​e/ecclesiastes-book-of.html. 1991.