The Book of Ecclesiastes


Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

The twenty-first book in the ot. This book, one of the most often quoted of the Hebrew Bible, is also one of the most mysterious; scholars still do not agree about its provenance, language, literary genre, unity, or overall message.

Name: The name of the book in Hebrew, Qohelet, is itself something of a mystery. This word occurs nowhere else outside of the book. It appears to be related, however, to the term qahal (‘assembly’), which is why the Greek translators of the Bible rendered it as ekklesiastes, ‘assemblyman’ (hence, in some translations, ‘the Preacher’ or ‘Speaker’). Qohelet, then, would appear to be some sort of title or office, a supposition supported by the use of this term with the definite article in 12:8 (and possibly 7:27). Some modern scholars, dissatisfied with this explanation, have sought to view qohelet as the proper name or nickname of an actual figure or, alternately, as wisdom personified, a walking assembly (qohelet) of wise sayings. Perhaps the most promising of recent suggestions connects the word qohelet with the rare, but chronologically appropriate, biblical word qehillah (Neh. 5:7), which in context seems to mean ‘harangue’ or ‘argumentative speech.’ Ecclesiastes may simply be the ‘arguer’ or ‘haranguer.’

Language: The Hebrew in which the book is written shows definite signs of lateness, e.g., by the use of the Persian loan words pardes (‘garden’) in 2:5 and pitgam (‘decree’) in 8:11 (these words must certainly mean that the book was written after the end of the sixth century b.c., when the Jewish homeland became part of the Persian Empire). Apart from this, the language of the book is somewhat strange, with features of grammar, syntax, and vocabulary not paralleled elsewhere in the ot. In the past, scholars have suggested that the book is actually a poor translation of an Aramaic original, but that hypothesis is now largely and justly rejected. More recently, it has been argued that the original language was Phoenician, a dialect closely related to Hebrew but with distinctive features. Yet some of these very features are absent or only intermittently present in Ecclesiastes; this hypothesis too is to be rejected. Most likely, the language of Ecclesiastes is a late brand of Hebrew, with many northern (or at least non-Jerusalemite) features, a language thus situated somewhere between the artificial, ‘literary’ Hebrew of other postexilic writings and the dialect known as Mishnaic Hebrew that was to become a literary language only after the close of the biblical period in the writings of rabbinic Judaism. That is to say, the author of Ecclesiastes did not consistently frame his words, as other late authors did, in a literary, official Hebrew; on the contrary, he seems at times to have relished the brassy sound of contemporary, colloquial speech, especially when debunking accepted ideas.

Content: This view of his language as often consciously down-to-earth and unliterary is in keeping with his message. For although concerned with ultimate issues, Qohelet never loses his focus on the day-to-day life ‘under the sun.’ His book is peppered with allusions to the world of commerce and other daily pursuits. Surprisingly, despite the ingenuity of commentators, only a single allusion to Israel’s sacred writings or traditions has been convincingly demonstrated to exist in this book (Eccles. 5:3; cf. Deut. 23:22).

The literary form of Ecclesiastes is also unique. Its basic unit of expression is the mashal, the two-part proverb or saying. Yet it is not merely a collection of sayings (like, for example, the book of Proverbs). Instead, the sayings seem to frame a life history. The first-person speaker of the book, Qohelet, describes himself as having been ‘king over Israel in Jerusalem’ (1:12). In the opening chapters he describes his experiment in investigating both Wisdom (i.e., the path of patience and restraint) and Folly (hedonism and reckless abandon), an experiment that the resources of a king or ruler make him especially well suited to undertake (2:12). The pursuit of pleasure, with wine, rich living, and concubines—and indeed, the very project of this ‘scientific’ (2:3) inquiry into enjoyment—seems a young man’s quest; but Qohelet finds no answer in dissoluteness. He continues to try to grasp the totality of human existence, seeking to embrace it all in the propounding of wise sayings, but it eludes him; everything is ‘vanity.’ (The Hebrew hebel actually means not ‘vanity’ but something fleeting and futile, utterly insubstantial.) Again and again he tempers his previous observations with ‘But I returned and saw…’ or ‘I saw further…’ and some of his earlier observations are expressly contradicted by later ones. Some commentators have tried to shape Qohelet’s observations into a logical step-by-step argument, but the text resists such an approach as it does any attempt to outline its contents in orderly progression. Instead, what one can say is that Qohelet presents bits and pieces of the truth as he has seen it in his life, and the presence of that life is an all-important framing device. If a youthful inquisitiveness shines through the opening two chapters, the mood then switches to something more somber, resigned, and later, reconciled. The speaker himself seems to age, and by chap. 12, one can feel the weight of his many years and the expectation of death. At the book’s end, Qohelet is no more: we get his epitaph (12:9-10).

The book’s basic argument seems to be that human existence, like so many things in the natural world (chap. 1), is round, circular; different activities and desires fit at one moment, when their time comes around, but not at another (chap. 3). Like a sphere, the whole of life’s surface cannot be described from any one angle; one must travel around it in order to account for all, and truths apparent from one standpoint prove to be hebel from another.

Author: At some point after it was written, Ecclesiastes came to be attributed to King Solomon, the exemplar of wisdom in the Bible; no doubt this attribution helped to preserve its place in the sacred corpus of Jewish writings (for Solomon’s wisdom was of divine provenance, 1 Kings 3:12) despite its heterodox, and potentially heretical, teachings. Obviously, for the linguistic reasons cited above, this attribution is impossible; most likely, the book was written in the fourth or fifth century b.c. Its author may indeed have been named or nicknamed Qohelet, and if he was a (Davidide?) governor or administrator appointed by the Persian powers, his self-description as ‘king over Israel [the Jews] in Jerusalem’ may be no literary persona but a statement of fact.

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