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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature

Ecclesiastes

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This book has obtained its Hebrew name Kohelethfrom the designation of the principal person mentioned in it, who is thus styled in several passages. Some have supposed that Koheleth means a body or academy of sages, whose dicta are contained in this book; but this opinion is contradicted by the heading of the book itself, which thus commences: Words of Koheleth, the son of David, the king in Jerusalem. Hence it appears that Koheleth is intended for an epithet of Solomon. Various interpretations have been given of its meaning, but in all probability it means assembler, preacher, or teacher.

The circumstance that Solomon is introduced as the speaker in this book has induced most of the ancient interpreters to consider him as its author. Others, however, are of opinion that words are used in it which show that it must have been written at a later period than the time of Solomon.

The diversity of sentiment as to the authorship has of course led also to a difference of opinion as to the date of the book. But one thing is clear—that whoever may have been the author, the book cannot have been written after the times of Ezra and Nehemiah, under whom the canon was completed.

Those who maintain that Ecclesiastes was not written by Solomon are of opinion that it was not composed during the latter period of the first, but rather during the time of the second temple, since idolatry does not occur among the deviations combated by the author. The whole book seems to presuppose that the people were externally devoted to the Lord. The admonitions of the author to a serene enjoyment of life, and against murmuring; exhortations to be contented with Divine Providence, and the attacks upon a selfish righteousness of works, may best be explained by supposing the author to have lived in a period like that of Malachi, in which there prevailed a Pharisaical self-righteousness, and melancholy murmurings because God would not recognize the alleged rights which they produced before him, and refused to acknowledge the claims they made upon him.

The author places the fundamental idea of the nothingness of all earthly things both at the beginning and at the end of his book, and during its course repeatedly returns to the same. This has induced many interpreters to suppose that the purpose of the author was to demonstrate this one idea; an opinion which, down to the most recent times, has been unfavorable to the true interpretation of the book, because everything, however reluctant, has been forced into an imaginary connection. The following is the correct view. The object of the author is not to teach an especial tendency of wisdom, but wisdom in general. Consequently it is not at all surprising if the connection suddenly ceases, and a new subject commences. That the idea of the nothingness of earthly matters should strongly predominate may easily be explained, since according to our author it forms a very important part of wisdom. He never, however, intended to confine himself to this one idea, although he likes frequently to point it out in passing, even when he is considering a matter from another point of view. 'The plan of this book,' says Herder, 'has been the subject of much investigation. It is best to consider this plan as free as possible, and to employ its separate parts for its support. The commencement and the conclusion show the unity of the whole. The greater part consists of isolated observations concerning the course of the world, and the experience of his life. These are connected with general sentences; and, finally, a very simple conclusion is deduced from the whole. It seems to me that a more artificial texture ought not to be sought for.'

With regard to the contents and objects of the book, we have to consider only the fundamental idea, omitting isolated sentences of wisdom, and rules for the conduct of life. Nobody can entertain any doubt concerning this fundamental idea. It is contained in the sentence: 'Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.' It is, however, very important that this should be rightly understood. The question is, What is that all which is vanity? The author does not mean all in general, but only all of a certain genus. He himself explains this, by defining this all in numerous passages; as, 'all that is under the sun;' that is, earthly things in their separation from the heavenly. To this leads also the enumeration of the all, in which occur only those things which belong to the earth—riches, sensual pleasure, honor, sphere of activity, human wisdom apart from God, self-righteousness. From many passages it appears that the author was far from comprehending the fear of God and active obedience to his laws among that all which was vanity. This appears most strikingly from the conclusion, which, as such, is of the highest importance, and furnishes the undoubted measure for the correctness of the whole interpretation. 'Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man [i.e. in this consists all that is incumbent upon him; and his whole salvation depends upon it]. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good, or whether evil.' (Compare : 'Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth;' . 'Fear thou God;' , and many other passages). A deep religious sense pervades the whole book. In reference to the prevailing idea, Ewald strikingly remarks, p. 182, 'There blows throughout this book a piercing chill against every earthly aim, and every vain endeavor; a contempt which changes into a bitter sneer against everything which in the usual proceedings of men is one-sided and perverse; an indefatigable penetration in the discovery of all human vanities and fooleries. In no earlier writing has all cause of pride and vain imagination so decidedly and so comprehensively been taken from man; and no book is pervaded by such an outcry of noble indignation against all that is vain in this world.'

From the contents of the book results its object. The author had received the mission to treat professedly and in a concentrated manner the highly important sentence, 'Vanity of vanities; all is vanity,' which pervades the whole of Holy Writ; but he is not content with the mere theoretical demonstration, so as to leave to another teacher its practical application, but places before us these practical results themselves: What is incumbent upon man, since everything else is nought? What real good remains for us, after the appearance in every seeming good has been destroyed? The answer is, Man shall not gain by cunning and grasping; shall not consume himself in vain meditations, nor in a hurried activity; he shall not murmur about the loss of that which is naught; he shall not by means of a self-made righteousness constrain God to grant him salvation; but he shall instead fear God (; ), and be mindful of his Creator (); he shall do good as much as he is able (); and in other passages. And all this, as it is constantly inculcated by the author, with a contented and grateful heart, freed from care and avarice; living for the present moment, joyfully taking from the hand of the Lord what he offers in a friendly manner. Man shall not be of a sorrowful countenance, but in quiet serenity enjoy the gifts of God. What would avail him all his cares and all his avarice? By them he cannot turn anything aside from him, or obtain anything, since everything happens as it shall happen.

 

 

 

 


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Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Ecclesiastes'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature". https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/kbe/e/ecclesiastes.html.

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