The Book of Ecclesiastes
The Hebrew title of this book is ‘Qoheleth’ (cf. 1:1-2, 12; 7:27; 12:8-10) and refers to the Preacher who can be identified as the author (Cone 2009:17). The term ‘Qoheleth’ means “to assemble” and the English title “Ecclesiastes” is from the Greek word ekklesia, which means “to assemble”. The person who was inspired to write Ecclesiastes was ‘the son of David, king in Jerusalem’ (1:1) and ruled over the united Israel, i.e. before the kingdom split into two (1:12). This person had more wisdom than those before him (1:16), for a while he gave himself over to carnal pleasures (2:1), did many great works (2:4-6) and he had much wealth (2:7-10). The above strongly suggests that king Solomon wrote Qoheleth; it was also Solomon who assembled Israel in Jerusalem when the (first) temple was dedicated (1 Kings 8:1-65). If Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes, it probably occurred later in his life, perhaps between 950-935 BC (Cone 2017:17) and may have been read in Solomon’s court (Finkbeiner 2014:972).
It is difficult to outline Ecclesiastes and no ‘analysis of its design has gained widespread scholarly support’ (Rooker 2011:541). One can readily identify a title (1:1) and an epilogue (12:9-14). Further, a life lived without God, with a focus only under the sun, is indeed ‘vanity of vanities’ – a superlative phrase used only twice in Ecclesiastes. This phrase demarcates the introductory and concluding themes (1:2-11; 11:7-12:8). But how was the rest of the book structured? Among many worthy proposals, those of Reitman (1997) and Wright (1968) are commendable — but we prefer the proposal of Wright.
The corpus of Ecclesiastes can be divided into two halves: the first is the Preacher’s investigation of life (1:12-6:9). This first halve is characterised by the phrases ‘all is vanity’ and a ‘chase after wind’ which serve as structural dividers. The second halve of Ecclesiastes contains the conclusions of the Preacher (6:10-11:6) and the major structural dividers are the phrases ‘not discover’ or ‘do not know’. If all this is correct, then the first halve of Qoheleth focuses on the meaninglessness of life under the sun without God (cf. Wright 1968:334) whereas the second halve provides various maxims regarding prudent behaviour (Rooker 2011:542). Using the above, Wright’s (1980:325-326) proposed structure is presented below:
Poem on Toil (1:2-11)
I. Qoheleth’s investigation of life (1:12-6:9)
Double Introduction (1:12-15, 16-18)
Study of Pleasure-seeking (2:1-11)
Study of Wisdom and Folly (2:12-17)
Study of the Fruits of Toil
One has to leave to others (2:18-26)
One cannot hit on the right time to act (3:1-4:6)
The problem of a “second one” (4:7-16)
One can lose all that one accumulates (4:17-6:9)
II. Qoheleth’s conclusions (6:10-11:6)
Man cannot find out what is good for him to do
On the day of prosperity and adversity (7:1-14)
On justice and wickedness (7:15-24)
On women and folly (7:25-29)
On the wise man and the king (8:1-17)
Man does not know what will come after him
He knows he will die; the dead know nothing (9:1-6)
There is no knowledge in Sheol (9:7-10)
Man does not know his time (9:11-12)
Man does not know what will be (9:13-10:15)
He does not know what evil will come (10:16-11:2)
He does not know what good will come (11:3-6)
Poem on Youth and Old Age (11:7-12:8)
Content, Meaning and Application
Ecclesiastes is not a cynical or a depressing book (cf. Constable 2017:6-8). It may appear that way, because the author unflinchingly shows the reader what a life without God in this fallen world ends up being: vanity of vanities. It is interesting to note that the key phrase ‘under the sun’ is used 37 or 38 times in the book, but references to God occur 40 times or more. Cone (2009:18) states the twofold thesis of Ecclesiastes well: “(1) the hopelessness and emptiness of life without God (under the sun), and (2) the meaningfulness of even the most ordinary acts (eating, drinking, labor, etc.) when one enjoys the proper perspective of and relationship to God (a particular kind of beyond the sun worldview)”. What is the end of the matter, when all has been heard? The conclusion of the Preacher is clear: ‘Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil’ (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).
Centuries after Ecclesiastes had been penned, in his high-priestly prayer to the Father, Jesus said these words: ‘And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent’ (John 17:3). We are to be the salt of the earth but that is not all, because if ‘you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory’ (Colossians 3:1-4).
Cone, C.C., 2009, Life beyond the sun: An introduction to Worldview & Philosophy through the lens of Ecclesiastes, Tyndale Seminary Press, Ft. Worth.
Constable, T.L., 2017, Notes on Ecclesiastes, 2017 edition.
Rooker, M.F., 2011, ‘The Book of Ecclesiastes’, in E.H. Merrill, M.F. Rooker & M.A. Grisanti, The World and the Word, pp. 539-545, B&H Publishing Group, Nashville.
Finkbeiner, D., 2014, ‘Ecclesiastes’, in M. Rydelnik & M. Vanlaningham (eds.), The Moody Bible Commentary, pp. 971-985, Moody Publishers, Chicago.
Reitman, J.S., 1997, ‘The structure and unity of Ecclesiastes’, Bibliotheca Sacra 154(615), 297-319.
Wright, A.G., 1968, ‘The riddle of the sphinx: The structure of the book of Qoheleth’, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 30(3), 313-334.
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