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Bible Commentaries
Ecclesiastes

Utley's You Can Understand the BibleUtley Commentary

- Ecclesiastes

by Dr. Robert Utley

INTRODUCTION TO ECCLESIASTES

I. THE NAME OF THE BOOK

A. The Hebrew name was the phrase from Ecclesiastes 1:1, “the Words of Qoheleth, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.” Its short designation was Qoheleth (BDB 875), the VERB used of Solomon in 1 Kings 8:1. It is a FEMININE PARTICIPLE from the Hebrew Qahal, “congregation” or “assembly” (cf. IV. F.). It seems to designate an office (i.e., used with ARTICLE in Ecclesiastes 12:8).

B. The book was called “Ecclesiastes,” which is a Latinized form from the Septuagint. This is the Greek term for “one who assembles,” from the root “to call out.”

C. The term Qoheleth can mean

1. one who assembles an audience, therefore, a teacher, preacher, debater, etc.

2. metaphorically for one who gathers truth, a philosopher or sage

3. one who gathers different opinions and decides which is more accurate

II. CANONIZATION

A. Ecclesiastes is an example of a type of wisdom literature. It is an extended treatment of a subject and, like Job, often challenges traditional wisdom teachings.

B. It is part of the third division of the Hebrew canon called “the Writings.”

C. It is also part of a special grouping of five small books called the Megilloth or “five scrolls.” Each of these was read at an annual feast day. Ecclesiastes was read at the feast of Booths or Tabernacles.

D. Because of the skeptical, negative nature of this book, it was rejected by the conservative rabbinical school of Shammai, but advocated by the liberal rabbinical school of Hillel. This discussion continued even until the time of Jamnia after the fall of Jerusalem (A.D. 70-90).

E. Several of the canonical books of the OT had difficulty being accepted

1. Ecclesiastes - bitter, negative, non-traditional spirit

2. Song of Songs - affirmation of physical love

3. Esther - no mention of God or Jewish Temple or sites

4. Ezekiel - his Temple different from Moses'

5. and to some extent, Daniel. - apocalyptic prophecies of Dan. 7-12

F. Ecclesiastes was finally accepted because

1. it was attributed to Solomon

2. it has a traditional conclusion (i.e., Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)

3. it rings true to human experience and reveals the confusion of the Jewish community. As an aside, its scepticism truly addresses the age of post-modernity

II. GENRE

A. Ecclesiastes, like Job, must be interpreted as a whole. It is a sustained focus on the tensions of human existence (through Ecclesiastes 12:0).

B. It is a tongue-in-cheek sarcastic look at life without God. The key phrase is “under the sun,” Ecclesiastes 1:3, Ecclesiastes 1:9, Ecclesiastes 1:14; Ecclesiastes 2:11, Ecclesiastes 2:17, Ecclesiastes 2:18, Ecclesiastes 2:19, Ecclesiastes 2:20, Ecclesiastes 2:22; Ecclesiastes 3:16; Ecclesiastes 4:1, Ecclesiastes 4:3, Ecclesiastes 4:7, Ecclesiastes 4:15; Ecclesiastes 5:13, Ecclesiastes 5:18; Ecclesiastes 6:1, Ecclesiastes 6:5, Ecclesiastes 6:12; Ecclesiastes 7:11; Ecclesiastes 8:9, Ecclesiastes 8:15, Ecclesiastes 8:17; Ecclesiastes 9:3, Ecclesiastes 9:6, Ecclesiastes 9:9, Ecclesiastes 9:11, Ecclesiastes 9:13; Ecclesiastes 10:5; Ecclesiastes 11:7; Ecclesiastes 12:2 (31 times).

C. The book is characterized by opposites (antithetical parallelism). Notice:

1. wisdom vs. folly

2. good vs. evil

3. light vs. dark

4. love vs. hate

5. life vs. death

6. this world vs. afterlife

The mysteries of fallen human existence are admitted and documented, but there is more! There is God; there will be justice one day. Because humans do not know the answers does not mean there are no answers! This book is written in the style of OT Wisdom Literature (monotheistic, judgment day, future hope, goodness and fairness of God, revelation [Scripture] is true and secure).

IV. AUTHORSHIP

A. The book is anonymous.

B. Jewish tradition said it was one of three books written by Solomon (Midrash Shir hasherem Rabbah I, 1, sect. 10)

1. Song of Songs when he was young

2. Proverbs when he was middle aged

3. Ecclesiastes when he was old and bitter (Rashi)

C. Solomon is surely the literary foil of Eccl. 1-2 because of his wisdom, wealth and position. But there are hints that he is not the true author:

1. in Ecclesiastes 1:12, “I was king over Israel in Jerusalem” (NIV) - past tense

2. in Ecclesiastes 1:16, “. . . more than all who were over Jerusalem before me” (NASB) - only David was king before Solomon

3. in Ecclesiastes 4:1-3, Ecclesiastes 5:8 and Ecclesiastes 8:9 governmental abuse is discussed but as hopeless

4. obviously the author is not King Solomon in Ecclesiastes 8:2-4, where advice on how to act in the King's presence is given

5. the name, Solomon, does not occur in the book

D. For a scholarly argument for Solomon's authorship see Introduction to the OT, by C. F. Keil, vol. 1, pp. 516-529.

E. Baba Bathra 15a (a book of the Talmud) said the men of Hezekiah wrote Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs, but this obviously meant they edited or compiled the wisdom books.

F. The term Qoheleth (BDB 875) can be a proper name or a title. It looks like a title because

1. it has the DEFINITE ARTICLE in Ecclesiastes 7:27 and Ecclesiastes 12:8

2. it is a FEMININE form which implies an office, but uses MASCULINE VERBS

3. it is a rare term found seven times, only in this book

G. The only section of the book that reveals a later editor(s) is Eccl. 12:9-110, Ecclesiastes 12:11-12, Ecclesiastes 12:13-14. They are obviously sages who are familiar with Genesis, Deuteronomy, Psalms, and Proverbs.

H. The apparent paradoxes or contradictions have been explained as

1. sarcasm, life without God (“under the sun”)

2. traditional Jewish wisdom and challenges to it (quoted to be refuted)

3. a wisdom teacher and his enthusiastic young student and a narrator (dialogue)

4. the conflict within fallen man (a life's journal)

5. later editors, example, Ecclesiastes 12:9-12 (positive toward Qoheleth) and Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 (negative toward Qoheleth)

6. I think #1 is best (cf. Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, p. 228)

V. DATE

A. There are two issues related to the date of Ecclesiastes:

1. when the book was composed

2. when it was put in its final canonical form

B. The historical setting must be after Solomon's day. He is used as a literary foil in Eccl. 1-2.

C. The final form of the book points to a later date:

1. stylistic form of the Hebrew is post-exilic but before 400-300 B.C.

a. Aramaic words and expressions

b. the form of the Hebrew

2. there are literary parallels in Phoenician wisdom literature of about 600-400 B.C.

3. allusions to Ecclesiastes appear in the writing of Ben Sirach, Ecclesiasticus, which was written about 180 B.C.

4. there have been several small parts of Ecclesiastes found in the Dead Sea Scrolls (4Q). These have been dated as late as the second century B.C.

VI. LITERARY UNITS

A. This book is difficult to outline. It is more like a life's journal than a structured literary work. It is similar to rabbinical teaching called “pearls on a string.” However, there are unifying words (i.e., “vanity,” but also “good”), phrases (i.e., “under the sun”), motifs (i.e., happenings), and a unifying theme (Ecclesiastes 1:2; Ecclesiastes 12:8).

B. It is possible that there have been editorial additions:

1. the opening, Ecclesiastes 1:1

2. inclusive Ecclesiastes 1:2 and 12:8 imply that Ecclesiastes 1:1 and 12:9-14 are additions

3. two added epilogues:

a. Ecclesiastes 12:9-12 (in the third person)

b. Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 (traditional theology)

C. It is obvious that Eccl. 1-2 use Solomon as a literary foil.

D. Chapter 3 is a wonderful poem about the common experiences of human life.

E. The remainder does not outline easily!

VII.THEOLOGICAL ISSUES

A. The very fact of this book's presence in the Canon seems to imply that God does not reject the sincere, doubtful seeker.

B. The asking of ultimate questions is not discouraged.

C. Ecclesiastes assumes the existence of God and is written within the stream of the OT faith.

D. Evil is a result of mankind's fall, not God (cf. Ecclesiastes 7:29; Ecclesiastes 9:3). This is not the world God intended it to be!

E. God's ways cannot be known. Mankind can struggle for meaning in life, but it cannot be found without God!

F. It doubts the easy orthodox views on the afterlife and doubts mankind's ability to know God, but still God is gracious and present.

G. The world, as it is, is unfair and cruel; there must be something more, if God's promises are true!

H. Be content with lifeit is from God. Enjoy it when and where you can (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26; Ecclesiastes 3:12, Ecclesiastes 3:13, Ecclesiastes 3:22; Ecclesiastes 5:18; Ecclesiastes 8:15; Ecclesiastes 9:7-9).

I. Simplistic answers that do not fit life experiences are “no” answers. We must face the reality of the meaninglessness of life if there is no God.

VIII. MAIN TRUTHS

A. Its main purpose was to show the futility of human existence apart from God. It is a tract to convert self-sufficient materialists or intellectuals. B. H. Carroll said that in the days of his infidelity, Ecclesiastes and Job exercised an unearthly power on him, expressing the emptiness of life and pointing toward God.

The dictionary section of NIDOTTE, vol. 4, pp. 552-554, lists a similar option as one of several: “if the vanity of all reality is truly Qoheleth's own conclusion, it is only because he limits his observations initially to a reality without the God of the OT; then when he does introduce God, this pessimistic view of life dissipates and is supplanted by a more orthodox attitude expressed in the epilogue (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).”

B. Happiness and contentment are found in Ecclesiastes 2:24; Ecclesiastes 3:12-13, Ecclesiastes 3:22; Ecclesiastes 5:18-20; Ecclesiastes 8:15; Ecclesiastes 9:7-9; Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

1. faith and obedience toward God

2. pleasures of home and family

3. one's work

C. This book is agnostic about God and the afterlife. It does not answer the questions of ultimate reality, but it does ask the questions of current reality:

1. For Jews, it showed the error of simplistic overstatements made by traditional theologians (“the two ways”).

2. For pagans, it shows the bankruptcy of earthly life without God.

3. Easy answers to life's questions are usually wrong. There is mystery even for faith! Revelation does not reveal all!

D. This author is using natural revelation, not special revelation (although he is familiar with Genesis, Deuteronomy, Psalms, and Proverbs), to examine life. The covenant name for God, YHWH, does not appear in the book. As in all wisdom literature, the general name for God, Elohim, is used.

E. This book forms a balance to the neat maxims of Proverbs that offer success in life (“the two ways,” e.g., Psalms 1:0). There is mystery in life, in nature, in humanity, and in God. The key is found in faith, not knowledge; in family, not possessions; and in God, not human wisdom or actions. The simple pleasures of life: family, work, friends, food provide happiness in this life. The next life is veiled, but God is there!

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