1. Introduction. 2. Historical Considerations: 2.1. Divinity, 2.2. Authorship, 2.3. Penmanship, 2.4. Title. 3. Textual Considerations: 3.1. Structure, 3.2. Genre, 3.3. Content

Introduction

Among Old Testament works, none wets a critique’s mouth like Ecclesiastes. Systematically, the book is filled with difficult assertions some find conflicting.[1] Linguistically, some evidence suggests an unorthodox authorship and date.[2] Historically, opposition to its inclusion in the canon of Scripture precedes Christ. I aim, not to entertain the critic, but to encourage the disciple. Look elsewhere for a work which takes God’s Word by the throat. I dare not grasp the Word as a handler, or else my hands would be slit upon the double edge: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). From Ecclesiastes no creature is hidden, and before it all critiques are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom they must give account (v.13).[3]

When exegeting Ecclesiastes, great care should be taken. Context and genre should always be considered. Otherwise, several assertions within will indeed appear ungodly.[4] Perhaps chief among interpretive challenges is the balance of “vanity” and “joy.” Bartholomew explains, “A major challenge of reading Ecclesiastes is determining how to read the joy passages in relation to the conclusions of meaninglessness.”[5] Weiss took note of unfettered commentators who lack such exegetical care:

Mistaken friends (though sometimes very lovely and zealous men) in their turn have often, influenced by imaginary difficulties, or seeming contradictions, wrested and perverted some of the sublimest passages of this peculiar Book, and squeezed them into the narrow limits of their own hypotheses, and made them involve, confirm, and attest doctrines and counsels, of which the royal author perhaps never dreamed, far less inculcated and advocated in this work.[6]

However, can we not say this about all of Scripture? Is not every word of God exceedingly worthy, to be handled with the utmost care and concern? Cannot every passage be taken out of context, twisted to teach some evil principle or encourage some wicked vice? In every passage, “There is enough brightness to illuminate the elect, and enough obscurity to humble them.”[7] Let us not kid ourselves, then, as if Ecclesiastes were a book for which to apologize. Further, let us ask God for interpretive grace in the great task before us. “However valuable be the stores of human learning, they will not throw one ray of true light upon the word, without the heavenly influence of the Great Teacher.”[8]

Ecclesiastes is beautiful and beneficial. In no book, for example, does the sovereignty of God make itself so undeniably evident, as in Ecclesiastes. If your comprehension of God’s providence only encompasses Romans 8:28, may this entire work now surround you with the vast arms of your Creator, that you would be further compelled to humility and obedience. Having introduced the book, let me now give precedence to historical and textual considerations.

Historical Considerations

First, Ecclesiastes is a God-breathed work. Some have doubted whether it should be included in our sacred canon, but then again, some have also doubted the divinity of our Lord Jesus. Intertestamental Jewish scholars tested one another on the matter of its inclusion, but it was certainly included and recognized as divine by the time of Christ.[9] In this way, Christ affirmed Ecclesiastes as God-breathed literature when He said, “Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled’” (Luke 24:44).[10] The New Testament does not quote Ecclesiastes,[11] yet neither does it quote Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Lamentations, Obadiah, or Zephaniah.[12] Ecclesiastes is certainly a divine, God-breathed work.

Second, Ecclesiastes faithfully records words from Solomon. The book opens with unmistakable evidence Solomon is in view.[13] “The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (Ecclesiastes 1:1). Some commentators (mainly modern) suggest “the son of David” may refer to any descendant of David, yet this is impossible.[14] This son of David ruled Israel from Jerusalem and is the representative of wisdom (as the name Koheleth implies, see below). The work of many critics is unnerving, how they treat Ecclesiastes as a specimen to be turned over rather than a sacred, preserved text to be exegeted.[15] Young represents my sentiment well: “Solomon was the only son of David that was king in Jerusalem. ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ is better than all the criticisms of the most learned among men.”[16] Church tradition attributes Ecclesiastes to Solomon.[17] We should conclude Ecclesiastes faithfully records words from Solomon. A later Jewish author did not personify Solomon, nor is this book the product of various additions.[18] When we read Ecclesiastes, we read the words of Solomon.

Third, Solomon probably penned Ecclesiastes. There are two faithful options we must consider. Either Solomon penned Ecclesiastes, or Ecclesiastes is a later yet faithful account of Solomon’s words. The first option demands we consider Ecclesiastes akin to the Gospel of Luke, where Luke is the simple author. The second option demands we consider Ecclesiastes akin to portions of Genesis where Abrahamic dialogue is faithfully recorded hundreds of years later by Moses.[19] The result of each position is a text rightly attributed to Solomon, rightly considered divine, and rightly taken with utmost reverence and seriousness.

The matter falls upon linguistic debates. Many consider the language of Ecclesiastes impossible to attribute to Solomon.[20] I do not sympathize with most of these arguments, those based upon conjecture or unnecessary confliction, regarding differences between Proverbs/Song of Solomon and Ecclesiastes. One author may take up many different styles, especially an author of Solomon’s caliber. There is weight to theories which highlight language found only in the post-exilic era. However, the scarcity of sources, versatility of language, and learnedness of Solomon himself can account for these terms.[21]

If Solomon did not pen Ecclesiastes, the position must be taken that a later, inspired prophet recorded in written form, under conviction of the Holy Spirit, this oratory of Solomon.[22] This scribe cannot have composed or altered Solomon’s product, because he attributes the content to Solomon.[23] This theory complies with several matters within the book which suite Persian exile and may contradict the Solomonic period.[24] Solomon’s composition would have been quite prophetic, speaking wisely to matters which Israel did not appreciate at his time but later (i.e. exile) gravely needed to understand. For example, Ecclesiastes could be a sermon Solomon presented to those gathered in his midst, later brought to mind by the Spirit for Israel’s edification.[25] God reminded His people of Solomon’s lesson, giving them his sobering, poetic discourse in timely fashion. Esther (by this supposition, written in the same period) couples smoothly with Ecclesiastes in this view: “The Book of Esther furnishes vouchers for the complaints in Ecclesiastes of the drunkenness of the tyrants, of the unbounded influence of money: Haman urged as a reason for the destruction of the Jews, that it would bring ten thousand talents of silver into the treasury.”[26]

This position should be acknowledged as plausible.[27] However, it does stretch the bounds of orthodox opinion, which has posited Solomon to be the direct author (i.e. to have penned the book). The linguistic argument is clouded and I fear resting the matter upon it will subject any conclusion to cries of subjectivity.[28] I submit Solomon as not only the author of these words, but also of the physical book itself, written with his own hand in his latter days.[29] The date of composition, therefore, was 10th century B.C.[30]

Ecclesiastes[31] is Koheleth (קֹהֶלֶת) in Hebrew.[32] This is also the author’s self-imposed title (an appellative) and occurs seven times: 1:1, 2, 12; 7:27; 12:8, 9, 10.[33] Sometimes translated “preacher,” Koheleth refers to one that collects people, typically for an address.[34] Solomon possessed great wisdom which we know many domestic and foreign people gathered to hear (1 Kings 8). So in prescribing the title Koheleth (Gatherer) to himself, Solomon means to take advantage of the opportune audience and speak as the embodiment of wisdom.[35]

Textual Considerations

Ecclesiastes typically warrants a simple outline,[36] perhaps because it is difficult to systematize.[37] One may divide the book: The Vanity of Earthly Things (1:1-6:10), The Excellence of Heavenly Wisdom (6:10-12:14).[38] Another outline may highlight the personal (1:12–9:18) and proverbial (10:1–12:7), acknowledging the introduction (1:1-11) and conclusion (12:8-14).[39] Four sections can be deduced within the body (1:12-12:7), each explaining an experiment in happiness (2:26; 5:19; and 8:15).[40] My outline is as follows:

  1. 1:1-2:26 // Solomon walks us through his journey to escape futility.
    1. 1:1-11 // Solomon reflects on the time he realized everything is vanity.
    2. 1:12-18 // Solomon reflects on the time he sets his face toward escaping futility.
    3. 2:1-16 // Solomon reflects on the time he searched for fruit in futility.
    4. 2:17-26 // Solomon draws a conclusion about the point of a futile life.
  2. 3:1-8:17 // Solomon explains that the earth’s timeliness comes from God’s ordination.
    1. 3:1-15 // Solomon posits a sovereign Creator as the cause of earth’s timeliness.
    2. 3:16-22 // Solomon considers people under God’s sovereignty.
    3. 4:1-5:9 // Solomon considers evil under God’s sovereignty.
    4. 5:10-6:12 // Solomon considers wealth under God’s sovereignty.
    5. 7:1-14 // Solomon considers wisdom under God’s sovereignty.
    6. 7:15-8:13 // Solomon considers righteousness under God’s sovereignty.
    7. 8:14-17 // Solomon draws a conclusion about living under God’s sovereignty.
  3. 9:1-12:14 // Solomon elaborates on what wisdom looks like in a futile world.
    1. 9:1-12 // Solomon explains the beauty of wisdom.
    2. 9:13-10:11 // Solomon explains the blemish of folly.
    3. 10:12-15 // Solomon considers wisdom on the lips.
    4. 10:16-20 // Solomon considers wisdom in government.
    5. 11:1-4 // Solomon considers wisdom in the purse.
    6. 11:5-10 // Solomon considers wisdom in the mind.
    7. 12:1-14 // Solomon draws a conclusion about the principle of wisdom.

Pertaining to genre, Ecclesiastes is without question poetic, though not as may be expected. The closest example might be Job. Ecclesiastes is “not designed to be sung or accompanied by music in worship or liturgical service.”[41] Ecclesiastes is a didactic poem, which is unparalleled in Scripture.[42] The basic principles of poetic interpretation apply, though with consideration to the philosophical focus of the work. Stuart describes this as an ethico-philosophical cast.[43] As a didactic poem, ontological and straightforward statements cannot be taken simply at face value.

Pertaining to content, Ecclesiastes teaches us that fleeting, earthly matters are vane without God.[44] Luther summarizes the book like this:

The main point (or more correctly, a main point) in this book is, that there is no higher wisdom on earth under the sun than that every man should fill his post industriously and in the fear of God, not troubling himself whether or no his work turn out as he would fain have it, but contenting himself, and leaving the ordering of all things great and small entirely to God. In fine, that he be contented, and abide by that which God gives him at the present moment, taking for motto the words, “The Lord’s behest will turn out best.” And thus a man should not worry and question and trouble himself how things will or should turn out in the future, but think within himself—God has entrusted me with this office, with this work, and I am resolved to discharge it diligently: if my counsels and plans do not succeed as I expected, let God dispose, ordain, and rule as He will.[45]

Jamieson contends Solomon also has in view coming judgment. “Seeing there is a coming judgment, and seeing that present goods do not satisfy the soul, ‘man’s whole duty is to fear God and keep his commandments’ (Ec 12:13, 14), and meanwhile, to use, in joyful and serene sobriety, and not abuse, the present life (Ec 3:12, 13).”[46] Keil and Delitzsch associate the concept of vanity with the Old Covenant: “In none of the O.T. books does the Old Covenant appear as it does in the Book of Koheleth, as ‘that which decayeth and waxeth old, and is ready to vanish away’ (Heb. 8:13).”[47] Emphasizing the meaning of Koheleth, Ginsburg offers a lengthy summary:

The design of this book, as has already been intimated (vide supra, p. 2), is to gather together the desponding people of God from the various expediencies to which they have resorted, in consequence of the inexplicable difficulties and perplexities in the moral government of God, into the community of the Lord, by shewing them the utter insufficiency of all human efforts to obtain real happiness, which cannot be secured by wisdom, pleasure, industry, wealth, &c., but consists in the calm enjoyment of life, in the resignation to the dealings of Providence, in the service of God, and in the belief in a future state of retribution, when all the mysteries in the present course of the world shall be solved.[48]

Rogland explains six key themes: 1) the tragic reality of the fall, 2) the vanity of life, 3) sin and death, 4) the joy and the frustration of work, 5) the grateful enjoyment of God’s good gifts, 6) the fear of God.[49]

May God bless our study of His sacred book.


[1] Tyler, T., Ecclesiastes; A Contribution to Its Interpretation: Containing an Introduction to the Book; An Exegetical Analysis; and Notes(London, Edinburgh: Williams and Norgate, 1874), 49.

[2] Ibid., 3. See also Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D., Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible Vol. 1 (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 403; Stuart, M., A Commentary on Ecclesiastes (New York: George P. Putnam, 1851), 72. For a lively, commonsense response to early critiques, see Weiss, B., New Translation and Exposition of the Book of Ecclesiastes: With Critical Notes on the Hebrew Text (Edinburgh, London: William Oliphant and Co., Hamilton, Adams & Co., 1858), 7-10.

[3] The divinity of this book has been witnessed in every age of the church, as Buchanan testifies to in the mid 19th century: “In such an age as the present, the study of this book would seem to be peculiarly appropriate. Never, perhaps, at any former period did this world hold out so many allurements to fascinate the minds of men, and to draw their hearts away from God” (Buchanan, R., The Book of Ecclesiastes: Its Meaning and Its Lessons [London, Edinburgh, Glasgow: Blackie & Son., 1859], 9).

[4] “If several expressions in the Ecclesiastes, which have been condemned, be understood in this qualified sense—a sense clearly suggested by truth and reason—they will be found in every respect worthy of the inspired Author, from whom they proceed” (Holden in Bridges, C., An Exposition of the Book of Ecclesiastes [New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1860], vi). See also Stuart, 11.

[5] Bartholemew, Craig, “Ecclesiastes” in NIV Zondervan Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 1260.

[6] Weiss, 6.

[7] Pascal in Bridges, iv.

[8] Bridges, iii-iv.

[9] Buchanan, 12. Many recognized its divinity before Christ. “Koheleth is quoted with the formula, ‘It is written,’ in a Talmudic story of a conversation in the reign of Alexander Jannaeus (105–79 b.c.). The King said to him (Simon ben Shetach), the king’s brother-in-law, ‘Why didst thou mock me by saying that nine hundred sacrifices were required, when half would have been sufficient?’ Simon answered, ‘I mocked thee not; thou hast paid thy share and I mine … as it is written, “For the protection of wisdom is as the protection of money”’: a literal quotation from Ecclesiastes 7:12” (Devine, M., Ecclesiastes or The Confessions of an Adventurous Soul [London: Macmillan and Co., 1916], 214).

[10] Holden, G., An Attempt to Illustrate the Book of Ecclesiastes (London: F. C. and J. Rivington, 1822), xxix-xxx. Christ here declares all three portions of the Old Testament (Law, Prophets, Hagiographa) to be Scripture. “Being prophetical of Christ, all three parts must have emanated from the inspiration of the Holy Ghost” (Coleman, J. N., Ecclesiastes: A New Translation with Notes Explanatory, Illustrative, and Critical Second Edition [Edinburgh: Andrew Elliot, 1867], vii).

[11] Bridges, xi.

[12] Coleman, xv.

[13] “The words of the Son of David—King of Jerusalem—seem to point with absolute precision to Solomon—the only Son of David who was the possessor of that royalty” (Bridges, vii). See also Reynolds, E., Ed. D. Washbourn, A Commentary on the Book of Ecclesiastes, (London: Mathews and Leigh, 1811), vii; Holden, iii–iv; Coleman, vii–viii; MacDonald, J. M., The Book of Ecclesiastes Explained (New York: M. W. Dodd, 1856), 48.

[14] e.g. see Alter, Robert, The Hebrew Bible: The Writings [New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019], 673.

[15] For later dates of Ecclesiastes, see Jastrow, M., Jr., A Gentle Cynic: Being a Translation of the Book of Koheleth (Philadelphia; London: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1919), 70; Tyler, 31; Ginsburg, C. D., Coheleth, Commonly Called the Book of Ecclesiastes: Translated from the Original Hebrew, with a Commentary, Historical and Critical (London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts, 1861), 255; Finlayson, T. C., The Meditations and Maxims of Koheleth: A Practical Exposition of the Book of Ecclesiastes (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1887), 17.

[16] Young, L., A Commentary on the Book of Ecclesiastes (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1865), 18.

[17] Ginsburg, 244. See also Strong, J., A Complete Hermeneutical Manual on the Book of Ecclesiastes (New York, Cincinnati: Hunt & Eaton, Cranston & Curts, 1893), 21.

[18] For a heavily critical presentation of the content of Ecclesiastes (as being the product of multiple authors), see Jastrow, 29, 63–64, 86, 108-109, 110-111, 116-117.

[19] Also comparable to Pauline dictation practices.

[20] See Hengstenberg, E. W., trans. D. W. Simon, Commentary on Ecclesiastes (Philadelphia, New York, Boston: Smith, English, & Co., Sheldon and Company, Gould and Lincoln, 1860), 9.

[21] For contra. to such critical speculations, see Holden, x–xi; Strong, 22-23.

[22] See Stuart, 67.

[23] Modern theory of authorship and historical reliability varies from antiquity, this much is true. However, the timeless import and significance of Scripture is plain and straightforward. Micro difficulties may abound, but theories which introduce sweeping confusion must be opposed. Theories which make whole books of Scripture impossible to exegete by the unlearned Christian should be discarded. In Ecclesiastes, this means, whatever our opinions of penmanship, if the work is attributed to Solomon, we are to likewise attribute it to Solomon.

[24] See Hengstenberg, 6; Stuart, 76.

[25] See Young, 8–9, 11-12; Holden, xxxviii-xlv.

[26] Hengstenberg, 15.

[27] Bartholomew may have this in mind (Bartholomew, 1259).

[28] Hengstenberg argues the placement of Koheleth in the Hebrew canon refutes Solomonic authorship, but I am unconvinced by this suggestion (Hengstenberg, 9).

[29] See Buchanan, 13. Rogland summarizes each position decently, and I find every point against Solomonic authorship answerable (Rogland, Max, “Ecclesiastes” in ESV Study Bible [Wheaton: Crossway, 2008], 1193).

[30] Ibid.

[31] “Ecclesiastes” comes from the Greek title of this book found in the LXX (Devine, 212; Alter, 673).

[32] Holden, xxxi. See also Holden, xxxviii-xlv; Weiss, 14.

[33] Ginsburg, 1. On title verses name, see Rogland, 1193.

[34] Young, 7–8. “In the word Koheleth, even if we take it in its widest sense, there is no authority for the rendering given in the English version. The word can be derived from no other verb than קָהַל (Kahal), ‘to assemble or to call an assembly’” (Weiss, 15).

[35] “He has it because it is descriptive of the design of the book, and because it connects his labours here with his work recorded in 1 Kings 8. Solomon, who is there described as gathering (יַקְהֵל) the people to hold communion with the Most High in the place which he erected for this purpose, is here again represented as the gatherer (קֹהֶלֶת) of the same people, who, through inexplicable difficulties and perplexities in the moral government of God, loosened their ties, and were in danger of becoming totally detached from that community” (Ginsburg, 2; italics removed). Solomon’s embodiment of wisdom accounts for the feminine aspect of Koheleth. “An intention to represent wisdom, חכמה, divine and heavenly wisdom inspired by the Almighty, speaking by the mouth of the king of Israel” (Holden, xlvi). “Although fem. in form, it is masc. in sense, as the masc. verbs, everywhere joined with it, sufficiently show. It is like our titles of excellency, majesty, grace, highness, etc., when indicative of office, honor, or station” (Stuart, 68; italics removed). “How came this title to be in the feminine gender? we reply, Because Solomon personifies Wisdom, who appears herself, in Prov. 1:10, and 8:1, &c., as Coheleth, or the gatherer of the people” (Ginsburg, 7; italics removed). See also Weiss, 16.

[36] Though some pessimistic exegetes complain of difficulty. See Hengstenberg, 15.

[37] For example, I consider Rogland’s outline quite unsatisfactory (Rogland, 1196).

[38] “Deviations from strict logical methods occur in these divisions, but in the main they are observed.” Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D., Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible Vol. 1 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 403.

[39] Strong, 39–44.

[40] Ginsburg, 17.

[41] Strong, 26–27.

[42] Coleman, xv. Ginsburg writes, “The form of the book is poetico-didactic, without the beautiful parallelisms and rhythm of the poetry written in the golden age of the Hebrew language. Even the grandest portion of the book (11:1–7), where the sacred writer rises infinitely above his regular level, is devoid of those charms which imparted such life and fascination to the older Hebrew poetry” (pg. 255; italics removed).

[43] Stuart, 10.

[44] See also Stuart, 11; Coleman, xiii. So then, earthly matters being vane without God, pursuits of happiness are likewise vane without Him. “It is to bring out into clear view the chief good—the true happiness of man, in what it does not consist—not in the wisdom, pleasures, honours, and riches of this world—in what it does consist—the enjoyment and service of God. Beggars we are, with all the riches of the Indies, without Him. He is the substitute for everything. Nothing can be a substitute for Him. The world is full of gaspers—and, alas! they gasp in vain. They only draw in air. They know not where the true substance lies—in Him the supreme good and satisfying portion—in His service—no hard and gloomy exercise—but full of liberty and joy.” Bridges, xii–xiii.

[45] Quoted in Hengstenberg, 32–33.

[46] Jamieson, 403. Though Holden seems to disagree (Holden, liii).

[47] Keil, C. F., & Delitzsch, F., Commentary on the Old Testament Vol. 6 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996), 632.

[48] Ginsburg, 16–17 (italics removed).

[49] Rogland, 1194-1195.

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