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Bible Commentaries

The Biblical IllustratorThe Biblical Illustrator

- Ecclesiastes

by Editor - Joseph Exell



The Title and Date of the Book

The title of this book is derived from the Greek Septuagint, where it appears as the representative of the Hebrew “Koheleth,” which has been variously rendered preacher or debater. “Koheleth” is used throughout the work as s synonym of “the son of David, king in Jerusalem,” i.e. Solomon; but there can be little doubt that Solomon was not the real author, and that his name was only assumed by a well-known and legitimate device for a literary purpose. The first to discern the truth was Luther, who assigned the work to the time of the Maccabees (circa 150 b.c.)

. The late date rests mainly on the evidence of the language, which is not that of the ancient Hebrew, but of a decadent time, when many Aramaic words crept into the Jewish vocabulary. (A. M. Mackay, B. A.)

We may mention three grounds for questioning the belief that Solomon was the author.

1. The language shows traces of Hebrew words and forms later than his time, and occurring only in such Old Testament books as Malachi, Daniel, Ezra.

2. Certain expressions and utterances cannot be attributed to Solomon:


“I, Koheleth, was king” (Ecclesiastes 1:12), as though he had now ceased to be such;

(2) “all they that have been before me in Jerusalem” (Ecclesiastes 1:16), as if there had been a series of monarchs preceding;

(3) expressions relating to the oppression of the poor, and the perverting of judgment, such as occur from time to time in the book (Ecclesiastes 4:1; Ecclesiastes 5:8; Ecclesiastes 8:9; Ecclesiastes 10:5), and in reference to which the real Solomon, so far from posing as a critic, would have considered himself responsible.

3. The tone of the book and the character of its teaching not only suggest the period when the Persian empire had been overthrown, and Alexander the Great’s successors had established Greek culture throughout the civilized world, but also bear distinct traces of Stoic and Epicurean philosophy. For the former, see Ecclesiastes 1:5-7; Ecclesiastes 1:9-11; Ecclesiastes 1:17; Ecclesiastes 2:12; Ecclesiastes 3:14-15; Ecclesiastes 7:25; Ecclesiastes 8:8; Ecclesiastes 9:11; Ecclesiastes 10:18; and for the latter, Ecclesiastes 2:24; Ecclesiastes 3:22; Ecclesiastes 5:18; Ecclesiastes 7:7; Ecclesiastes 8:9; Ecclesiastes 8:14; Ecclesiastes 9:7; Ecclesiastes 9:16; Ecclesiastes 10:16-18. We may observe that the claim, such as it is, to personate the great king, is more conspicuous in the earlier part of the book. Like Solomon, Koheleth had made trial of wisdom, of wealth, and of the pleasures of art. But, whatever may have been his thoughts, with respect to the darker side of Solomon’s closing years, the great king evidently fades gradually from his mental vision, and he proceeds in the remainder of this treatise to give us undisguisedly his own attitude towards life and its problems. Here we plainly have before us in no sense the Solomon of Jewish history, but a philosophical Jew of the later centuries before Christ. (A. W. Streane, D. D.)

There is general agreement among the abler modern critics that the book was written somewhere between the later period of Persian rule (circa 840 b.c.)

and some date before the Macedonian supremacy came to an end (say circa 200 b.c.). Within these limits it is impossible to fix any date with certainty, but there is much probability in the theory originated by Mr. Tyler that the author was a wealthy Jew who lived at Alexandria, and there in luxury and philosophical culture sought compensation for the loss of national and religious hopes which had left his nature impoverished; and who in old age recorded how vain his quest had been. (A. M. Mackay, B. A.)

To me, it seems impossible to read verse after verse without feeling that they have little or no meaning unless we look on them as the outcome of a time of suffering and oppression. They seem to point steadily to an age when national freedom was gone, national life extinguished for a time; the spirit of freedom dead; the high memories of the past forgotten; the Messianic hopes not yet rekindled; when the God of Hosts seemed far removed; when all around was dark and gloomy; in days, it may be, when Persian, or Syrian, or Egyptian kings ruled over the land of David as a province of their kingdom, and the hopes of Israel seemed dead and gone--buried and out of sight. Then, it might well come to pass that the spirit of some son of Israel was stirred within him to try to reach his people’s heart, not by spoken word or the stirring address of a Jewish prophet--the day of prophecy was over; not by the music of a psalm--the psalmist’s harp was silent; not by a great poem like the Book of Job--such poetry had died out of the nation’s heart; but by putting forth in this half-articulate and ambiguous form a soliloquy or discourse, call it which you will, breathing the very spirit of that later age--its sadness, its languor, its passive and oriental aequiesecnce, almost lethargy, under suffering. It bears the stamp, from first to last, of dejection, if not of despair. Yet its still unrelinquished, pervading sense of the fear of God as the end of life; its firm hold of the inherent distinction between right and wrong; its refusal, in spite of all that seems to cloud the hope, to part with the conviction of a judgment, a righteous judgment, yet to come; its counsels of activity, patience, cheerfulness, prudence, calmness, sympathy with suffering, stand out amidst the wreck and decay of all around. (Dean Bradley.)

Ewald has advanced a twofold argument against assigning the composition of this book to the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, and in favour of “the last century of the Persian dominion.” The first is, that the writer complains, “in an entirely new and unheard-of manner, of an excess of bookmaking and reading.” It cannot, however, be shown that a difference in this respect existed between the last century and the last but one of the Persian rule; and to a time subsequent to this it is by no means allowable to look. The second reason urged is, that “such harrowing pain and desperate cries of agony did not characterize the earlier period of the Persian rule.” It must have become, Ewald thinks, in its last years, more oppressive and violent. On this matter, however, history furnishes no authentic information. (E. W. Hengstenberg, D. D.)

Professor Cheyne, in agreement with Ewald and Delitzsch, assigns the book to the Persian period, though rightly and fairly admitting that “the evidence of the Hebrew favours a later date than that of Ewald,--favours, but does not actually require it.” For he views with a well-founded scepticism the attempts that have been made to trace in it the definite presence of Greek philosophical ideas, and even to discover Graecisms in the language. The style of Ecclesiastes is indeed almost that of the Mishnah (2nd cent. a.d.)

, and it must be a product of the time when that style was in process of formation; but the alleged Graecisms do not appear to involve more than a normal and intelligible extension of native Hebrew usage. (Professor S. R. Driver.)

The Plan and Purpose of the Book

“Theologians,” says Herder, “have taken great pains to ascertain the plan of the book; but the best course is to make as free a use of it as one can, and for such a purpose the individual parts will serve.” A connected and orderly argument, an elaborate arrangement of parts, is as little to be looked for here as in the special portion of Proverbs which begins with chap. 10., or as in the alphabetical psalms. It is a part of the peculiarity of the book to have no such plan; and this characteristic greatly conduces to the breadth of its views and the variety of its modes of representation. The thread which connects all the parts together is simply the pervading reference to the circumstances and moods, the necessities and grievances of the time. This it is that gives it unity; and its author sets a good example to all those who are called to address the men of our own generation, in that he never soars away into the clouds, nor wastes his time in general reflections and commonplaces, but keeps constantly in view the very Jews who were then groaning under Persian tyranny, to whose sick souls it was his first duty to administer the wholesome medicine with which God had entrusted him: by ever fresh strokes and features he depicts their condition to them, little by little he communicates the wisdom that is from above, and in the varying turns of his discourse sets before them constantly the most important and essentially saving truths. To further the fear of God and life in Him is the great purpose of the writer in all that he advances; hence his assertion of the vanity of all earthly things, for he alone can fully appreciate what a precious treasure man has in God, who has learnt by living experience the truth, “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” (E. W. Hengstenberg, D. D.)

What, taken as a whole, are we to consider its moral? What was the main lesson it was designed to teach?. Was the preacher whose experiences are set forth meant to serve as a model to imitate or as a warning to avoid? For such a variety of character as appears in the utterances of the writer is almost without a precedent in so short a compass. Of course it is always more or less a truth that by isolating the utterances of a writer, by extracting single passages and detaching them from their context, we may make them appear to teach very different truths, sometimes even contrary ones. But it is not merely so here. In the Book of Ecclesiastes we pass rapidly through different strata of thought and feeling. We pass from one temperature to another, from something all but of the earth, earthy, to something almost heavenly in its sense of beauty and goodness. At one moment we are listening to the confessions of one who had tried pleasure and knew it was vanity, and at another we are at the standpoint of the Stoic. Again, we seem very perilously near the scorn of the cynic. At one moment we seem to be listening to the hopeless resignation of the fatalist, and then again to the more hopeful resignation of the Christian. There is what the artists call a want of keeping about the confessions and conclusions of this writer. It is difficult to imagine a man passing so rapidly from one to another, or, stranger still, being in all these moods at once, combining so many different men in one single personality. But this should not surprise us if we thought more, still less be a stumbling-block to us in implying inconsistency in the character represented. It may be that the very inconsistency of the teaching is meant to read us most salutary lessons. The phrase used by an eminent teacher, “the criticism of life,” is very applicable to this Book of Ecclesiastes. It is from end to end a criticism of life, conducted by a critic who, having watched life’s experiences, sums up and pronounces a verdict on it from the end of the life or from a period approaching the end. As to the verdict itself there is no difference between this critic and all those other critics of life whose writings constitute Holy Scripture. He holds his place among those companions by virtue of having arrived at the same conclusion as they, though by different paths of experience. That of course makes the value, the incalculable value, of such a book. It represents the testimony of those who have discovered the truth of the greatest acts of life, though they have arrived at it through failures and humiliations, and not through success and triumph. It is one of the many eternal blessings that we owe to the Bible that it records in so many different ways and affirms the testimony (if the world to the things that are not of the world. We should thank God for having taught us once more that there is no rest or satisfaction for man in the things of sense. But it is quite another question whether the process by which this truth is arrived at is either safe or sound for the spirit of man to go through. The criticism of life is a wholly different thing from the true use of life. It is no justification of a man’s existence when at the end, when a balance has to be struck and a conclusion arrived at, that conclusion is that most of the life has been a mistake and therefore a failure. To have learned the facts about life, however true and however important, cannot make the life a beautiful, a sound, or a profitable thing. There is no retrospective virtue in being able to draw a sound moral. The Preacher’s final conclusion of the whole matter is a beacon light for other men if they are wise enough to profit by it. (Canon Ainger.)

The Contents of the Book

The absence of a clear literary plan makes it difficult to arrange the contents of the book systematically. Facts are looked at from different sides and in various relations; the same subject recurs at different points; and the conclusions drawn are not always formally consistent with one another. Hence some have regarded the book as the work of a sceptic, or the expression of varying moods and fancies. Yet a closer examination shows that this is not the ease: the conclusions the writer comes to at various stages are virtually the same, and when he returns to his subject, it is to consider it on a different plane, or from another side. He begins by stating his theme: All is vanity, there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:1-11)

, i.e. human life has no substantial result. He then gives proof from practical experience. He had tried, and found that vain is the quest for knowledge (Ecclesiastes 1:12-18), vain the pursuit of pleasure (Ecclesiastes 2:1-10), vain the profit of labour and activity (Ecclesiastes 2:11-23). The conclusion is that there is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and enjoy the fruit of his labour (Ecclesiastes 2:24); for all depends upon God, and man can only submit (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26; Ecclesiastes 3:1-22). He then takes a wider survey of human life and society (4-6.), interspersing various maxims of conduct to be followed in the prevailing “vanity”: and the question, “Who knoweth what is good for man in his life?” suggests the praise of true wisdom, and calls forth maxims on the way to attain it (Ecclesiastes 7:8.), leading on to a consideration of political wisdom (Ecclesiastes 9:10.). The dark background is always the vanity or unprofitableness of life; yet the Preacher’s position is not a pessimism nor a creed of despair. Life is good, though neither the best nor the last good; benevolence is to be practised (Ecclesiastes 11:1-8); and the young especially are exhorted to live joyfully, yet with a regard to a coming judgment (Ecclesiastes 11:9-10; Ecclesiastes 12:1-8). (James Robertson, D. D.)

The Canonicity of the Book

The collection of sacred writings which was held in reverence by the Jews of Palestine in the days of our Lord and His apostles, consisted of twenty-two books, and these included the Book of Ecclesiastes. The first preachers of Christianity appear to have been in complete agreement with their unconverted brethren as to the authority of their sacred books; and in point of fact, all the books of the Jewish canon have always enjoyed unquestioned authority in the Christian Church. It is no disparagement to the authority of the Book of Ecclesiastes that no direct quotation from it is to be found in the New Testament. A few coincidences of thought or expression have been pointed out (e.g. Ecclesiastes 11:5 with John 3:8; Ecclesiastes 9:10 with John 9:4)

; but none of them is decisive enough to warrant our asserting with any confidence that the Old Testament passage was present to the mind of the New Testament writer. But there is no reason to imagine that any of the apostles would have hesitated to appeal to the authority of any book of the Jewish canon, if his subject had required such a reference. In the Jewish schools there was controversy, about the end of the first century of our era, whether the Book of Ecclesiastes was one of those which “defile the hands”: that is to say, whether it was affected by certain ceremonial ordinances, devised in order to guard the sacred books from irreverent usage. We need not inquire what exact amount of authority might be conceded to the book by those who then placed it on a lower level than the rest; for the view which ultimately prevailed recognized it as entitled to all the prerogatives of canonical Scripture. (G. Salmon, D. D.)

The Inspiration of the Book

The inspiration of Ecclesiastes is of an indirect kind. We are not to read it as we should a prophet or a gospel. The conclusions at which the writer arrives are often not Christian truths; the sentiments he expresses are not Christian sentiments--indeed, they are frequently the very opposite. Not, indeed, that his book is quite without value on the positive side. “His aphorisms,” says Driver, “are often pregnant and just; they are prompted by a keen sense of right; and in his satire upon society he lays his finger upon many a real blot,” and to this extent his teaching may have direct religious value. Then, further, he has permanently voiced a mood of constant recurrence in human history; his work, as Dean Plumptre says, “meets the necessity of a state of mind from which, perhaps, no period of the world’s history has been quite exempt, and to which periods, like our own, of increasing luxury and advancing knowledge are especially liable,” and there is positive advantage in that. But, after all, to teach direct religious truth was not in the commission which the Holy Ghost gave to “Koheleth.” His work was written to state all the difficulties of life rather than to solve them. It is ‘inspired, not merely in spite of, but because of, the fact that it often rouses our whole nature to protest against the conclusion at which it arrives. The value of Ecclesiastes consists in this: that it shows how little the world can satisfy the soul of man apart from God; that one can drink deep of every earthly pleasure and yet be left hungering and thirsting; that the highest culture and the most varied experience can do nothing to solve the problem of existence by their own unaided efforts; in a word, its mission is to render us dissatisfied with the merely sensuous pleasures of earth, to sharpen our longing for the unseen things of the spiritual life, and to teach the soul there is no rest for it but in God. It is the thoroughness with which it performs this function which proves it a divinely inspired book--a book without which the Bible would be incomplete, lacking one of its most essential elements. (A. M. Mackay, B. A.).

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