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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Ecclesiastes

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ECCLESIASTES

1. Title and Canonicity . The title has come to us through Jerome from the LXX [Note: Septuagint.] , in which it was an attempt to express the Heb. nom de plume Kôheleth ,’ i.e. ‘one who speaks in an assembly’ ( kâhâl ) the assembly being all who give their hearts to the acquisition of wisdom. The book is one of the third group in the Heb. Bible the Kethûbhîm or’ Writings’ which were the latest to receive recognition as canonical Scripture. It appears to have been accepted as Scripture by c [Note: circa, about.] . b.c. 100. At the synod of Jamnia ( c [Note: circa, about.] . a.d. 100) the canonicity of Ec., the Song of Songs, and Esther was brought up for discussion, and was confirmed.

2. Author and Date . The book contains the outpourings of the mind of a rich Jew, at the beginning of the 2nd cent. b.c. We may perhaps gather that he was in a high station of life, for otherwise his very unorthodox reflexions could hardly have escaped oblivion. He could provide himself with every luxury ( Ecclesiastes 2:4-10 ). But he had private sorrows and disappointments; Ecclesiastes 7:26-28 seems to imply that his life had been saddened by a woman who was unworthy of him. He was apparently an old man, because his attempts to find the summum bonum of life in pleasure and in wisdom, which could hardly have been abandoned in a few years, were now bygone memories ( Ecclesiastes 1:12 to Ecclesiastes 2:11 ). And he lived in or near Jerusalem, for he was an eye-witness of events which occurred at the ‘holy place’ ( Ecclesiastes 8:10 ). That is all that he reveals about himself. But he paints a lurid picture of the state of his country. The king was ‘a child’ much too young for his responsible position; and his courtiers spent their days in drunken revelry ( Ecclesiastes 10:16 ); he was capricious in his favouritism ( Ecclesiastes 10:5-7 ), violent in temper ( Ecclesiastes 10:4 ), and despotic ( Ecclesiastes 8:2 a, Ecclesiastes 8:4 ). The result was that wickedness usurped the place of justice ( Ecclesiastes 3:16 ), and the upper classes crushed the poor with an oppression from which there was no escape ( Ecclesiastes 4:1 ); the country groaned under an irresponsible officialism, each official being unable to move a finger in the cause of justice. because he was under the thumb of a higher one, and the highest was a creature of the tyrannous king ( Ecclesiastes 5:7 ): and in such a state of social rottenness espionage was rife ( Ecclesiastes 10:20 ). The only passage which distinctly alludes to contemporary history is Ecclesiastes 4:13-16 , but no period has been found which suits all the facts. In Ecclesiastes 8:10 an historical allusion is improbable, and Ecclesiastes 9:13-15 is too vague to afford any indication of date.

The book or, more probably, Ecclesiastes 1:1 to Ecclesiastes 2:11 only, is written under the guise of Solomon. In Ecclesiastes 2:12 (according to the most probable interpretation of the verse) the writer appears to throw off the impersonation. But the language and grammatical peculiarities of the writing make it impossible to ascribe it to Solomon. The Heb. language which had been pure enough for some time after the return from Babylon, began to decay from the time of Nehemiah. There are signs of the change in Ezr., Neh., and Mal., and it is still more evident in Chron., Est., and Eccl., the latter having the most striking Mishnic Idioms. It must therefore be later (probably much later) than Esther ( c [Note: circa, about.] . b.c. 300), but before ben-Sira, who alludes to several passages in it ( c [Note: circa, about.] . b.c. 180). It may thus be dated c [Note: circa, about.] . b.c. 200.

3. Composition . One of the most striking features of the book is the frequency with which a despairing sadness alternates with a calm pious assurance. Many have seen in this the struggles of a religiously minded man halting between doubt and faith; e.g. Plumptre compares this mental conflict with Tennyson’s ‘Two Voices.’ But the more the book is read, the more the reader feels that this is not so. The contrasts are so sudden; the scepticism is so despairing, and the piety so calm and assured, that they can be explained only on the assumption of interpolations by other hands. Moreover, in the midst of the despair and the faith there are scattered proverbs, somewhat frigid and didactic, often with no relevance to the context. The literary history of the writing appears to be as follows: ( a ) The gnomic character of some of Koheleth’s remarks, and the ascription to Solomon, attracted one of the thinkers of the day whose minds were dominated by the idea of ‘Wisdom’ such a writer as those whose observations are collected in the Book of Proverbs. He enriched the original writing with proverbs culled from various sources. ( b ) But that which attracts also repels. The impression which the book made upon the orthodox Jew may be seen in the Book of Wisdom, in which ( Ecclesiastes 2:1-9 ) the writer collects some of Koheleth’s despairing reflexions; and, placing them in the mouth of the ungodly, raises his protest against them. There were living at the time not only gnomic moralizers, but also men of intense, if narrow, piety men of the temper afterwards seen in the Maccabees. One of these interpolated observations on (i.) the fear of God. (ii.) the judgment of God. In every case except Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 [Heb. 4:17 5:6] his remarks explicitly correct some complaint of Koheleth to which he objected. Ecclesiastes 12:11-12 is a postscript by the ‘wise man,’ and Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 by the pious man. The additions which appear to be due to the former are Ecclesiastes 4:5 ; Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 , Ecclesiastes 6:7 ; Ecclesiastes 6:9 , Ecclesiastes 7:1 a, Ecclesiastes 7:19 Ecclesiastes 7:19 , Ecclesiastes 8:1 , Ecclesiastes 9:17 f., Ecclesiastes 10:1-3 ; Ecclesiastes 10:8-14 a, Ecclesiastes 10:18 Ecclesiastes 10:18 f., Ecclesiastes 12:11 f., and to the latter Ecclesiastes 2:26 , Ecclesiastes 3:14 b, Ecclesiastes 3:17 , Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 , Ecclesiastes 7:18 b, Ecclesiastes 7:26 b, Ecclesiastes 7:29 , Ecclesiastes 8:2 b, Ecclesiastes 8:3 a, Ecclesiastes 8:5-6 a, Ecclesiastes 8:11-13 , Ecclesiastes 11:9 b, Ecclesiastes 12:1 a, Ecclesiastes 12:13 f.

4. Koheleth’s reflexions

( a ) His view of life . After the exordium ( Ecclesiastes 1:1 to Ecclesiastes 2:11 ), in which, under the guise of Solomon, he explains that he made every possible attempt to discover the meaning and aim of life, the rest of his writing consists of a miscellaneous series of pictures, illustrating his recurrent thought that ‘all is a vapour, and a striving after wind.’ And the conclusion at which he arrives is that man can aim at nothing, guide himself by nothing. His only course is to fall back upon present enjoyment and industry. It is far from being a summum bonum ; it is not an Epicurean theory of life; it is a mere modus vivendi , ‘whereby he shall not take much account of the days of his life’ ( Ecclesiastes 5:19 ). And to this conclusion he incessantly returns, whenever he finds life’s mysteries insoluble: Ecclesiastes 2:24 f., Ecclesiastes 3:12 f., Ecclesiastes 3:22 , Ecclesiastes 5:17-19 , Ecclesiastes 8:15 , Ecclesiastes 9:7-10 , Ecclesiastes 11:1-10 (exc. 9b) Ecclesiastes 12:1-7 .

( b ) His religious ideas . It is improbable that he came into immediate contact with any of the Greek schools of thought. It has often been maintained that he shows distinct signs of having been influenced by both Stoic and Epicurean philosophy. Of the latter it is difficult to discern the slightest trace; but for the former there is more to be said. But there is nothing at which a thinking Jew, of a philosophical temper of mind, could not have arrived independently. And it must not be forgotten that even Stoicism was not a purely Greek product; its founder Zeno was of Phœnician descent, and his followers came from Syria, Cilicia Carthage, and other Hellenistic (as distinct from Hellenic) quarters. Koheleth occupies (what may be called) debatable ground between Semitic and Greek thought. He has lost the vitality of belief in a personal God, which inspired the earlier prophets, and takes his stand upon a somewhat colourless monotheism. He never uses the personal name ‘Jahweh.’ but always the descriptive title ‘Elohim’ (4 times) or ‘the Elohim’ (16 times), ‘the deity’ who manifests Himself in the inscrutable and irresistible forces of Nature. At the same time he never commits himself to any definitely pantheistic statements. He has not quite lost his Semitic belief that God is more than Nature, for His action shows evidence of design ( Ecclesiastes 3:11 ; Ecclesiastes 3:18 ; Ecclesiastes 3:22 , Ecclesiastes 6:12 b, Ecclesiastes 7:14 , Ecclesiastes 8:17 , Ecclesiastes 11:5 ). Moreover, God’s work the course of Nature appears in the form of an endless cycle. Events and phenomena are brought upon the stage of life, and banished into the past, only to be recalled and banished again ( Ecclesiastes 1:4-11 , Ecclesiastes 3:15 ). And this, for Koheleth, paralyzes all real effort; for no amount of labour can produce anything new or of real profit no one can add to, or subtract from, the unswerving chain of facts ( Ecclesiastes 1:15 , Ecclesiastes 3:1-9 ; Ecclesiastes 3:14 a, Ecclesiastes 7:13 ); no one can contend with Him that is mightier than he ( Ecclesiastes 6:10 ). And he gains no relief from the expectation of Messianic peace and perfection, which animated the orthodox Jew. There are left him only the shreds of the religious convictions of his fathers, with a species of ‘natural religion’ which has fatalism and altruism among is ingredients.

5. The value of the book for us lies largely in its very deficiencies. The untroubled orthodoxy of the pious man who corrected what he thought was wrong, the moral aphorisms of the ‘wise man,’ and the Weltschmerz of Koheleth with his longing for light, were each examples of the state of thought of the time. They corresponded to the three classes of men in 1 Corinthians 1:20 the ‘scribe’ (who clung faithfully to his accepted traditions), the ‘wise man,’ and the ‘searcher of this world.’ Each possessed elements of lasting truth, but each needed to be answered, and raised to a higher plane of thought, by the revelation of God in the incarnation.

A. H. M‘Neile.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Ecclesiastes'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdb/e/ecclesiastes.html. 1909.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, November 14th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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