1. Introduction. 2. The Author: 2.1. Identity, 2.2. History, 2.3. Title. 3. Preview of Book: 3.1. Interpretive Challenges, 3.2. Important Words/Phrases, 3.3. Important Concepts, 3.4. Ethical Advice. 4. Conclusion.

Introduction

Ecclesiastes is a challenging read. Looking at it as one piece is easy, but diving into the meat of the book, trying to interpret individual verses and paragraphs, has gotten many teachers and writers stuck. I’m certainly not the most capable teacher or writer, but I do believe Ecclesiastes is a divinely inspired book. And if God inspired Ecclesiastes, that means Ecclesiastes must be good and perfect and certainly worth our time.

The Author

The first thing we should do is talk about the author: Solomon. “The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (Ecclesiastes 1:1). Solomon’s name is never mentioned in Ecclesiastes, but we know these are his words because there was only one son of David who was king in Jerusalem. Solomon ruled Israel in what has become known as the “golden years,” when peace and prosperity reigned like no other time in Israel.

Solomon was born to David and Bathsheba. David was a prolific poet and undoubtedly the first influence for Solomon’s love of poetry. Solomon assumed the throne of a budding kingdom when he was twenty years old. Additionally, Solomon inherited the great tasks of finishing Jerusalem’s defenses and building the temple. As a nation, Israel had become quite rich and was prepared to usher in a time of great peace, and Solomon would do just that. In 1 Kings 3, God offered the young king a gift: Solomon asked for wisdom. God said, “Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you” (v.12). Solomon immediately began to demonstrate the great, supernatural gift of wisdom God had given him, and for many years he feared and obeyed God.

However, Solomon’s power and wealth eventually became a great stumbling block. Solomon began to indulge himself in everything he desired. If he wanted something, he got it. The inclinations of his heart acted as a rudder, steering his life without restraint. He married many women and bought many more. Some of these women brought with them foreign gods, to which Solomon eventually built altars. The great son of David, king of Jerusalem, became soft and effeminate, filled with lust and gluttony. After years of grasping for pleasure, Solomon was more interested in the gold which layered the temple than in the God Who dwelt there. After Solomon’s indulgence had become ripe, God confronted him:

Therefore the Lord said to Solomon, “Since this has been your practice and you have not kept my covenant and my statutes that I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you and will give it to your servant. Yet for the sake of David your father I will not do it in your days, but I will tear it out of the hand of your son. However, I will not tear away all the kingdom, but I will give one tribe to your son, for the sake of David my servant and for the sake of Jerusalem that I have chosen.”[1]

1 Kings 11:11-13

1 Kings does not record Solomon’s repentance, which probably means he did not repent in time to turn the nation of Israel away from the ruinous course he set it upon. He repented too late to make an impact on his country. Therefore, Ecclesiastes was probably written near Solomon’s death-bed. It is a dying confession, the testimony of a man who had wasted his final decades on the lusts of the flesh. I suspect that God’s confrontation with Solomon (1 Kings 11:11-13) jolted the king to repentance. God’s words to Solomon are echoed throughout Ecclesiastes.

With Solomon’s life in mind, it is fascinating that he calls himself “the Preacher” in Ecclesiastes (1:1). “Preacher” is a translation of the Hebrew Koheleth. The English title “Ecclesiastes” comes from a Greek translation of the Hebrew KohelethKoheleth, in its most basic form, refers to one who gathers (typically, to gather people). So Solomon is the “Gatherer,” bringing people to himself, calling people to listen to what he has to say. The gender of Koheleth is also important. Words in Hebrew can be masculine or feminine. Koheleth, although it refers to Solomon, is a feminine noun. This feminine noun occurs nowhere else in the Bible, and Solomon probably created the word himself.

So why would Solomon create a feminine title for himself, meaning “the Gatherer?” I think the answer is found in Solomon’s greatest work: the Book of Proverbs. In Proverbs, Solomon personifies wisdom as a woman. This woman, Wisdom, is to be revered above the evil woman, the temptress. So Solomon characterizes the concept of “wisdom” as a woman. Then in Ecclesiastes, instead of giving his name, he gives himself the feminine title “gatherer;” and throughout the book he leads the reader on a path of finding and applying wisdom. I believe the connection is this: in Ecclesiastes, Solomon is personifying wisdom. Solomon is presenting himself as the embodiment of wisdom. He is saying, “Listen, if you think you can do better than I have, in searching out the meaning of life, then think again. I have supernatural wisdom given to me from God: for all practical purposes, I am the embodiment of wisdom. What I say in this book is the truth, the end of the matter. You cannot reason more wisely than I have.”

Preview of Book

Having evaluated the author, let us preview the book. There are two primary challenges to interpreting Ecclesiastes. First, we are challenged by the unique style of writing. Ecclesiastes is poetry (as are Job, Psalms, Proverbs, and Song of Solomon), but it is poetry unlike anything else in Scripture.[2] This is what we might call philosophical poetry. Ecclesiastes does not rhyme, nor is it meant to be put to music, nor painted on canvas and hung on the wall with flowers. This is free-form poetry carried along by Solomon’s musing. Ecclesiastes is like riding on a long, artistic train of thought. This presents an interpretive challenge to us because sometimes it may not be clear if Solomon is being literal, sarcastic, figurative, etc. Nonetheless, I trust that God will give us grace to glean truths from Solomon’s poem.

Second, we are challenged by the balance between “vanity” and “joy.” One commentary says, “A major challenge of reading Ecclesiastes is determining how to read the joy passages in relation to the conclusions of meaninglessness.”[3] Throughout this book, Solomon tells his readers that everything is meaningless and vain, but then he’ll turn around and tell you to be happy in everything. So, the very things which he calls vain are the exact things he tells us are joyful. There is a beautiful, central point to the book found in this balance, but you’ll have to wait to find out.

Important words/phrases in Ecclesiastes include the following: “vanity” (“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity” [1:2]), “toil” and “under the sun” (“What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” [1:3]), “heart” and “wisdom” (“And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with” [1:13]), “madness” and “folly/fool” (“And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind” [1:17]), “joy” and “evil” (“because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil” [2:21]).

Important concepts in this book include the following: the repetition of history (“Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’? It has been already in the ages before us” [1:10]), forgetfulness of history (“There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after” [1:11]), the sovereignty of God (“He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” [3:11]), the inevitability of death (“For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the otherThey all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity” [3:19]), the importance of fearing and obeying God (“The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” [12:13]).

Ecclesiastes also holds important ethical advice, which includes the following: advice for speaking (“Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few” [5:2]), advice for kings (“But this is gain for a land in every way: a king committed to cultivated fields” [5:9]), advice for riches (“He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity” [5:10]), advice for food (“Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do” [9:7]), advice for learning (“My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” [12:12]).

Though difficult, Ecclesiastes is a helpful book. I have high hopes that our time in this part of the Bible will prove fruitful and edifying.


[1] Later, God said, “Nevertheless, I will not take the whole kingdom out of his hand, but I will make him ruler all the days of his life, for the sake of David my servant whom I chose, who kept my commandments and my statutes. But I will take the kingdom out of his son’s hand and will give it to you, ten tribes. Yet to his son I will give one tribe, that David my servant may always have a lamp before me in Jerusalem, the city where I have chosen to put my name” (1 Kings 11:34-36).

[2] The closest in genre perhaps is Job.

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

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