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Bible Commentaries

Arno Gaebelein's Annotated Bible


- Ecclesiastes

by Arno Clemens Gaebelein



The book of Ecclesiastes has difficulties which have puzzled both the expositor and the reader. We do not mean the question of authorship so much as the contents. It has been branded as pessimism, and not a few have declared that it is unworthy of the Holy Spirit and should never have been added to the other books of the Bible. In spite of all these perplexities connected with the book and hasty judgments, it has a definite place in the organism of the Holy Scriptures, and without this book the revelation of God would be incomplete.

The title the book bears in our English translation comes from the Septuagint, and is an attempted translation of the Hebrew word “Koheleth”, which Luther in the German version translated with “Preacher” (Prediger); it is thus translated in the King James version in the opening verse of the book--”The words of the preacher.” But the Hebrew word Koheleth can hardly mean preacher. It is derived from the verb “kahal” which means “to gather” or “assemble.” The word “kahal” has been translated “congregation,” or as the Greek of the Septuagint translates it “ecclesia.” Koheleth is feminine, evidently a word specially provided, and it has been suggested that this was done to correspond to “wisdom” in Proverbs, which is also the feminine gender Proverbs 1:20. Perhaps the word “debater” comes nearest to the meaning of the original. The word Koheleth is found nowhere else in the Bible; but in Ecclesiastes it occurs seven times, three times in the beginning, once in the middle and three times at the end of the book.

The Authorship and Date

Both Jewish and Christian tradition ascribe this book to King Solomon. The book itself does not leave us in doubt about it. Chapter 1:12-16 is conclusive. If this is disputed, as it is almost universally among rationalistic critics, and also by some who are not rationalists, we may well ask the question, Who wrote Ecclesiastes? The higher critic is unable to give a satisfactory answer. They give the date of the book and its composition about 250-235 B.C. The book itself shows that this is impossible, for the author of it lived at a time when Israel had reached the zenith of prosperity and glory. That time was during Solomon’s reign. If Solomon was not the author, then another person living during the reign of Solomon must have written the book. But everything shows that only Solomon could have been the author fit and fitted to write this book.

As already stated Jewish teachers and Christian teachers give decisive testimony for the Solomonic authorship. In a Jewish commentary of Ecclesiastes (Midrash Koheleth) which was written almost 1,200 years ago, a large number of learned and ancient rabbis bear witness to the fact that Solomon is the author. The Targum, or paraphrase, on this book, composed in the sixth century A.D., with many other Jewish commentators, speaks of Solomon as the writer of Ecclesiastes. Equally uniform is the testimony of the teachers of the early church. The critics fully acknowledge this consensus of Jewish and Christian opinion and they have an explanation for it. They say these scholars and commentators “wanted the faculty of historical criticism, one might almost say, of intellectual discernment of the meaning and drift of a book or individual passages,... and that they had no material for forming that opinion other than those which are in our hands at the present time” (Dr. E.H. Plumbtree in The Cambridge Bible). We shall see what the “intellectual discernment” is, of which critics constantly boast, and we shall find that it is but another term for “infidelity.”

It was Luther, the great German reformer who, as far as we know, began first to cast doubt upon this book. In his “Table Talks” he said; “Solomon did not write the book himself, but it was composed by Sirach in the time of the Maccabees. It is, as it were, a Talmud put together out of many books, probably from the library of Ptolemy Euergetes, King of Egypt.” He was followed by Grotius in 1644 who also denied that Solomon is the author. “From that time onward,” says a critic, “the stream of objections to the Solomonic authorship has flowed with an ever increasing volume.” No doubt it is still flowing, and that stream carries those who trust themselves to it farther and farther away from childlike trust in God’s Holy Word.

Some of the Objections of Critics

The main objection is on linguistic lines. Hebraeists have pointed out that there are several scores of words and forms in Ecclesiastes which are found only in the post-exilian books and literature; some they claim originated even later. Professor Delitzsch makes the bold statement, “If Ecclesiastes is of Solomonic origin, then there is no history of the Hebrew language.” And another scholar states, “We could as easily believe that Chaucer is the author of Rasselas as that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes.” But not so hasty, gentlemen! There is another side to this question of the foreign words in this book, which, after all your objections, still is believed to be Solomon’s. Your objection on these linguistic peculiarities is really an evidence for the Solomonic authorship of this book. The words which are Aramaic (and Aramaic belongs to the same branch of language as the Hebrew Semitic) have been proven by other scholars to be in common use among the nearby nations who used the Chaldean language. Solomon was a scholar himself. No doubt all the available literature of that age and of the surrounding nations was at his disposal, and he was familiar with it. It is said of him, “His wisdom excelled the children of the East country and all the wisdom of Egypt, for he was wiser than all men.” That Solomon used Aramaic words is perfectly logical; but it would have been strange if such words had been absent from this book, with its peculiar character and message. That Solomon’s foreign diplomacy, as well as marriages with foreigners also made him familiar with Aramaic words and sayings is quite possible. Then we might add that no unimpeachable proof has ever been given that the Aramaic words and forms used by Solomon were of later date at all. At any rate objections to the date and authorship of a Bible book on purely philological evidence suits those perfectly who approach the Word of God as they approach any other literary production.

Another objection is made on account of the statement in chapter 1:12, “I, the preacher, was king over Israel.” It seems almost childish that these scholars raise such a point; it shows the weakness of their case. They declare that the writer of the book says, “I, the preacher, was king over Israel,” and that this could not have been written by Solomon, who never ceased to be king. This objection is foolish. It is not at all the question of the fact that the writer of the book reigned as king, but rather what was his position at the time when he wrote the book?

Another objection is the absence of the name of Jehovah in this book. It has been said, “A book coming from the Son of David was hardly likely to be characterized, as this is, by the omission of the name Jehovah.” This objection springs from the deplorable ignorance of the critics concerning the message and purpose of this book. The omission of the name of Jehovah and the use of the name of God as Elohim exclusively is a mark of the genuineness of the book. We shall refer to this later when we touch on the character and message of Ecclesiastes.

We mention but one more of the objections. They say “That the book presents many striking parallelisms with that of Malachi, which is confessedly later than the exile and written under the Persian monarchy, probably 390 B.C.”

This studied objection can readily be answered by anybody. In fact we have seen no valid objection whatever. Every one can be satisfactorily answered. A mature scholar, Dean Milman, wrote many years ago: “I am well aware that the general voice of German criticism assigns a later date than that of Solomon to this book. But I am not convinced by any arguments from internal evidence which I have read.”

The Message of Ecclesiastes

No other book in the whole Bible is so perplexing, if not confirming to the average reader as is Ecclesiastes. It is a book filled with hopelessness and despair, depicting the difficulties and disappointments of life, and the hollowness of temporal things; at the same time it seemingly sanctions a conduct which clashes with the standards of holy living as revealed in other portions of the Scriptures. The utter absence of any praise, or expression of joy and peace, as it is in the group of other books to which Ecclesiastes belongs (Job, Psalms, Proverbs and Solomon’s Song) is another striking characteristic.

The problem is solved in the very beginning of the book itself. In the first verse we are introduced to the illustrious author of the book, who calls himself “Koheleth,” and “the son of David, King in Jerusalem.” This ought to settle the question for ever. If another man wrote as the critics maintain centuries later and assumed that he is “the son of David and King of Jerusalem,” he was a fraud. But why does Solomon write? What is the theme he follows? What is the object of his debate or discourse? The next two verses give the answer to these questions and the solution of the problem. Vanity of vanities, saith Koheleth; vanity of vanities--all is vanity. “What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun?” Here are two words which arrest our attention. The first one is “vanity,” used five times in the second verse. It occurs many times throughout the book and is frequently connected with “vexation of spirit” (literally, pursuit of the wind). The word “vanity” means that which soon vanishes, nothingness. It is used for the first time by Eve when she had her second son, whom she called “Abel.” So the great king, the wisest of men in his discourse in which he seeks and searches out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven (verse 13), and in all his searching independent of Jehovah’s revelation, he discovers that all is vanity and vexation of spirit.

The second word which we notice is “under the sun.” This expression is found twenty-nine times in this book. Now that which is “under the sun” is on the earth. There is, of course, something which is above the sun, that is heaven, the heavenly things. Ecclesiastes then is occupied with earthly things, with what man does apart from God, that is the natural man. The book describes the things under the sun, shows that all what man does, his pursuits, his labors, whatever undertaken and all that is connected with it, is nothing but vanity and vexation of spirit, ever unsatisfying and filled with sorrow and perplexity. The writer makes it clear that in all his searching and description of the things under the sun he does not depend on divine revelation, on that which is above the sun, but he reacheth his results through the light which nature gives; his resources are within himself. This is confirmed by the phrase, “I communed with my own heart,” which occurs seven times in the book. The book of Ecclesiastes is therefore the book of the natural man apart from divine revelation. This is the reason why the name Jehovah (God’s name as He enters in covenant relation with man) is omitted and the name of God is only expressed by Elohim, that is His Name as Creator. It shows what the natural man is, the life he lives, and the world in which he lives with its fleeting vanities. Ecclesiastes is embodied in the Holy Scriptures for one purpose, to show to the natural man the hollowness and vanity of all that is under the sun, and to convince him thereby to seek and find that which is better, that which is above the sun.

“it is the experience of a man who--retaining his wisdom, that he may judge of all--makes trial of everything under the sun that should be supposed capable of rendering men happy, through the enjoyment of everything that human capacity can entertain as a means of joy. The effect of this trial was the discovery that all is vanity and vexation of spirit; that every effort to be happy in possessing the earth, in whatever way it may be, ends in nothing. There is a canker worn at the root. The greater the capacity of enjoyment, the deeper and wider is the experience of disappointment and vexation of spirit. Pleasure does not satisfy, and even the idea of securing happiness in this world by an unusual degree of righteousness cannot be realised. Evil is there, and the government of God in such a world as this is not in exercise to secure happiness to man here below--a happiness drawn from things below and resting on their stability” (Synopsis of the Bible).

Natural men, and even infidels, have put a kind of a seal upon the character of the book. The French infidel Renan praised it as being the only charming book that a Jew had ever written, a book, he added, that touched our grief at every point, while he saw in the writer one who ever posed but was always natural and simple. Frederick the Great, equally infidel, regarded it as the most valuable book in the whole Bible.

Revelation and Inspiration

In the study of this book the important distinction between what is “revelation” and what is “inspiration” must not be overlooked. What Solomon sought out, the conclusions he reached, the things he found as he communed with his own heart, all is recorded in this book by divine inspiration. But this inspired record is not revelation in the sense, for instance, as the Epistle to the Ephesians. It is not divine revelation for man to be guided by. It is not revelation concerning that which is above the sun, nor the future. We mention this because those who hold the evil doctrines of soul-sleep and also annihilation turn to Ecclesiastes and quote (9:5, 10) as being “the word and revelation of God” when it is not.

The book too directs to Christ. There is that which is above the sun, that which is not vanishing, but abiding. The old creation demands a new creation and that has been made possible in Christ.

The Division of Ecclesiastes

It has been charged “that the book is very far removed from the character of a systematic treatise and therefore does not readily admit of a formal analysis.” This verdict is far from being right. The analysis and division of the book depends on the right viewpoint concerning the contents of it. As we have stated in our introduction Ecclesiastes is the book of the natural man searching out the things under the sun and the conclusions he reached. The division of the book should be made with this theme in mind.

After reading the book carefully a number of times one finds that there are two main parts. The first six chapters form the first part and the remaining six chapters constitute the second part. In the first part the search of the wise man brings out the fact what the chief good is not, how all things under the sun are vanity and vexation of spirit. In the second part the search leads to certain conclusions. The chief good is sought for in wise conduct but in all we are still on the ground of the natural man.