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Bible Commentaries

Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable

Ecclesiastes

- Ecclesiastes

by Thomas Constable

Introduction

TITLE

The title of this book in the Hebrew text is all of verse 1. The Septuagint translation (third century B.C.) gave it the name "Ekklesiastes," from which the English title is a transliteration. This Greek word is related to ekklesia, meaning "assembly." "Ekklesiastes" is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word qohelet that the NASB translated "Preacher" in verse 1. The Hebrew word designates a leader who speaks before an assembly of people. The NIV translation "Teacher" is also a good one.

WRITER AND DATE

The commentators sometimes treat the Hebrew word qohelet ("Preacher"; Ecc_1:1-2; Ecc_1:12; Ecc_7:27; Ecc_12:8-10) as a proper name. [Note: E.g., Robert Gordis, Koheleth-The Man and His World, p. 5.] However, the fact that the article is present on the Hebrew word in Ecc_12:8, and perhaps in Ecc_7:27, seems to indicate that qohelet is a title: "the preacher" or "the teacher."

Internal references point to Solomon as this preacher (cf. Ecc_1:1, ecc 1:2-2:26; Ecc_2:4-9; Ecc_12:9). Both Jewish and Christian interpreters believed Solomon was the writer until the eighteenth century. With the rise of literary and historical Bible criticism, a widespread rejection of Solomonic authorship set in. Rejection of Solomonic authorship rests mainly on linguistic factors (vocabulary and syntax) that some scholars feel were more characteristic of a time much later than Solomon’s, namely, about 450-250 B.C. [Note: See J. Stafford Wright, "Ecclesiastes," in Psalms-Song of Songs, vol. 5 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, pp. 1139-43.] Conservative scholars have refuted this linguistic argument. [Note: See Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, s.v. "Ecclesiastes," by Gleason L. Archer; and idem, "The Linguistic Evidence for the Date of ’Ecclesiastes,’" Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 12:3 (Summer 1969):167-81.] Several more or less conservative scholars have rejected Solomonic authorship. [Note: These include Franz Delitzsch, E. W. Hengstenberg, H. C. Leupold, Edward J. Young, David A. Hubbard, Michael A. Eaton, and Tremper Longman III.] Yet there is no information in the Bible that would eliminate Solomon as the writer.

"The difficulty is that the linguistic data show that Ecclesiastes does not fit into any known section of the history of the Hebrew language. . . .

"Our conclusion must be that the language of Ecclesiastes does not at present provide an adequate resource for dating." [Note: Ibid., Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary, p. 19.]

Assuming that Solomon wrote the book in its entirety, he must have done so during his lifetime and probably during his reign (971-931 B.C.). It has seemed probable to some expositors that he may have written Song of Solomon in his youth, Proverbs in his middle life, and Ecclesiastes in his old age (cf. Ecc_2:1-11; Ecc_11:9; Ecc_12:1). This theory rests on the contents of the three inspired Bible books that he evidently wrote, specifically, clues in these books about the age of their writer.

"Ecclesiastes is best placed after his apostasy, when both his recent turmoil and repentance were still fresh in his mind." [Note: Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Ecclesiastes: Total Life, p. 31.]

An alternative view of authorship is that the book consists of the writings of two individuals: a narrator, and Qohelet (who was not Solomon but pretended to be Solomon). [Note: Tremper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament, pp. 279-88.] According to this view, an unknown wisdom teacher introduced (Ecc_1:1-11) Qohelet’s monologue on the meaning of life (Ecc_1:12 to Ecc_12:8). He then wrote a brief conclusion, calling his son to pursue a proper relationship with God (Ecc_12:8-14). References to Qohelet appear in the third person in the introduction and conclusion. Thus the book is a framed autobiography. If this literary analysis is correct, the structures of Job and Ecclesiastes are quite similar. Qohelet’s speech does not always express what is in harmony with the rest of the Old Testament, as the speeches of Job and his friends do not. It provides a foil for the second wise man, the narrator, who uses Qohelet’s observations to instruct his son concerning the dangers of skepticism and doubting.

PURPOSE

This book helps the reader develop a God-centered worldview and recognize the dangers of a self-centered worldview. It does not describe the life of faith or teach what the responsibilities of faith in God are. It also prescribes the limits of human philosophy (cf. Ecc_3:11; Ecc_8:16-17). The book teaches that people are accountable to God, and that they should avoid self-indulgence, which leads to the exploitation of others for selfish gain. [Note: See Robert Laurin, "Ecclesiastes," in The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, p. 585.]

"Christians may ask how the stress on using and enjoying life tallies with the NT command ’Do not love the world’ (1Jn_2:15). The answer is that the Teacher (Ecclesiastes) would have agreed fully with John’s next statement that ’everything in the world-the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does-comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away’ (vv. 16-17). One could hardly find a better statement than this of the whole theme of Ecclesiastes (e.g., Ecc_2:1-11; Ecc_5:10). Life in the world has significance only when man remembers his Creator (Ecc_12:1).

"There always have been two kinds of teaching about the way to holiness. One is by withdrawal as far as possible from the natural in order to promote the spiritual. The other is to use and transform the natural into the expression of the spiritual. While each kind of teaching has its place, some people need one emphasis rather than the other. Ecclesiastes definitely teaches the second." [Note: Wright, p. 1146.]

"Ecclesiastes does not pretend to preach the Gospel. Rather, it encourages the reader to a God-centered worldview rather than falling victim to frustrations and unanswered questions. None of its contents has to be rejected in the light of the NT. Although the NT revelation is vastly greater than that in Ecclesiastes, the two are not devoid of similarities (e.g., Jam_4:13-17). Like the people of God in Solomon’s time, believers today are subject to the unexpected changes and chances common to mankind. Yet they know that God works through every vicissitude of life. Respecting the future, which for Solomon was shrouded in a shadow land, Christians have the glorious hope of being in the presence of Christ himself (2Co_5:6; Php_1:23)." [Note: Ibid., p. 1148. See also George R. Castellino, "Qohelet and His Wisdom," Catholic Biblical Querterly 30 (1968):25-28, reprinted in Roy B. Zuck, ed., Reflecting with Solomon, pp. 40-43; Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, pp. 271-79; and Gordis, pp. 122-32.]

GENRE

This is a book of Hebrew poetry, specifically, wisdom literature designed to teach the reader. It is also autobiographical, relating the personal experiences of the writer. The writer also included some proverbs in Ecclesiastes. It is more similar to Job and Song of Solomon, however, than it is to Psalms, Proverbs, and Lamentations. [Note: See Tremper Longman III, The Book of Ecclesastes, pp. 15-20, for further discussion of the genre.]

OUTLINE [NOTE: COMPARE THE OUTLINES BY JAMES S. REITMAN, "THE STRUCTURE AND UNITY OF ECCLESIASTES," BIBLIOTHECA SACRA 154:615 (JULY-SEPTEMBER 1997):317-19; AND THAT OF "THE SCOPE AND PLAN OF THE BOOK OF ECCLESIASTES," THE BIBLICAL REPERTORY AND PRINCETON REVIEW 29 (JULY 1859):419-40, REPRINTED IN ZUCK, ED., PP. 115-31.]

I.    The introductory affirmation Ecc_1:1-11

A.    Title and theme Ecc_1:1-2

1.    The title Ecc_1:1

2.    The theme Ecc_1:2

B.    The futility of all human endeavor Ecc_1:3-11

1.    The vanity of work Ecc_1:3

2.    The illustrations from life Ecc_1:4-11

II.    The futility of work Ecc_1:12 to Ecc_6:9

A.    Personal observations Ecc_1:12 to Ecc_2:17

1.    Solomon’s investigation of human achievement Ecc_1:12-15

2.    Solomon’s evaluation of his investigation of human achievement Ecc_1:16-18

3.    Solomon’s investigation of pleasure Ecc_2:1-11

4.    Solomon’s evaluation of his investigation of pleasure Ecc_2:12-17

B.    General observations Ecc_2:18 to Ecc_6:9

1.    The outcome of labor Ecc_2:18-26

2.    Labor and divine providence Ecc_3:1 to Ecc_4:3

3.    The motivations of labor Ecc_4:4-16

4.    The perishable fruits of labor Ecc_5:1 to Ecc_6:9

III.    The limitations of Wis_6:10 to Wis_11:6

A.    God’s sovereign foreordination of all things Ecc_6:10-12

B.    God’s inscrutable plan chs. 7-8

1.    Adversity and prosperity Ecc_7:1-14

2.    Righteousness and wickedness Ecc_7:15-27

3.    The value and limitations of wisdom ch. 8

C.    Man’s ignorance of the future Ecc_9:1 to Ecc_11:6

1.    The future of the righteous on earth Ecc_9:1-10

2.    The future of the wise on earth Ecc_9:11 to Ecc_10:11

3.    The folly of criticism in view of the uncertain future Ecc_10:12-20

4.    Wise behavior in view of the uncertain future Ecc_11:1-6

IV.    The way of wisdom Pro_11:7 to Pro_12:14

A.    Joyous and responsible living Ecc_11:7 to Ecc_12:7

1.    Joyful living Ecc_11:7-10

2.    Responsible living Ecc_12:1-7

B.    The concluding summary Ecc_12:8-14

Conclusion

The Book of Ecclesiastes contains an argument that is very difficult to unfold because the ideas that connect succeeding portions of the text are not always easy to discover. This has led many a commentator to despair, as the following quotation illustrates.

"A connected and orderly argument, an elaborate arrangement of parts, is as little to be looked for here as in the special portion of the Book of Proverbs which begins with chapter X., or as in the alphabetical Psalms." [Note: Ernest W. Hengstenberg, A Commentary on Ecclesiastes, p. 15. See also Delitzsch, p. 188.]

One of the keys to staying with Solomon in his reasoning is to understand the perspective from which he spoke. Phrases such as "under the sun" and "advantage," plus remembering how much special revelation Solomon enjoyed, are absolutely crucial to understanding what he was and was not saying. The recurrence of other key phrases such as "vanity and striving after wind," "vanity of vanities," "does not know," "cannot discover," and "you do not know" also help us. They note the movements of his thought from one section and emphasis to another. The accurate understanding of key terms such as "vanity," "wise," "foolish," "prosperity," "adversity," "righteous," and "wicked" also clarify Solomon’s thought.

"Qoheleth’s intent in his writing is to pass judgment on man’s misguided endeavors at mastering life by pointing out its limits and mysteries. He would prefer that man replace such false and illusory hopes with a confidence based on the joy of creation as God’s gift." [Note: Johnston, p. 26.]

What Solomon observed about life is still as true today as it was when he lived. Neither the progress of revelation nor the progress of civilization has proved the preacher’s inspired book false or his advice bad.

This book needs more popular exposition than it has received because it exposes the error of contemporary man’s ways so effectively. Bible teachers and preachers have neglected it because it is difficult to understand and expound. Nevertheless most people in our day live in a superficial world of unreality that Ecclesiastes cuts right through. Part of our difficulty in understanding the book is that we, too, think this way and assume Solomon was speaking on this level. However, he was dealing with the more fundamental issues of human existence that not many people think or talk about today.

Bibliography

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