Ecclesiastes

Ecclesiastes is presented as a book written by a king of Israel called “Qohelet,” typically understood to be Solomon. But scholars agree that the book’s author is unknown and lived after Israel returned from exile—long after Israel’s line of kings died out. The author was not trying to deceive his readers, however. He was using a kingly character to drive home his theological point.

The meaning of the name Qohelet is not clear, but it likely is derived from the Hebrew word qahal, which means “to gather.” In 1 Kings 8, this word is used several times to describe how Solomon gathered together the elders of Israel. Referring to this character as Qohelet may be the author’s way of alluding to Solomon indirectly. Also, the English title “Ecclesiastes” is derived from both the Latin and Greek words that mean “assembly” (and where we get our word “ecclesiastical” from). The Greek word ekklesia means “church” in the New Testament, which is why the name Qohelet is often translated as “preacher” or “teacher.” But these are not translations of Qohelet as much as interpretations of what the word might mean. It is best to leave the name as is and refer to the main character as Qohelet. Also, as readers will quickly see, Qohelet is not really preaching or teaching as much as he is lamenting and complaining about the nature of life.

The book begins with an introduction by an unknown narrator (1:1-11) and ends in 12:9-14 with the same narrator’s voice. He tells us that for Qohelet, everything is “vanity.” A better translation for the Hebrew is “meaningless” or “senseless”. In other words, Qohelet’s complaint is that life makes no sense—like the sun that rises and sets day after day with nothing to show for it. After the introduction, Qohelet takes over and lays out his concerns relentlessly. His problem amounts to this: life is meaningless because, no matter what you do, at the end of the day you have nothing to show for it. Why? Because you will die and all you worked for is left behind. This is a horrible fact of life, and what makes things worse is that God is responsible for it.

This is the heart of Qohelet’s complaint. He is angry with God appearing so unjust as to make life so meaningless. Qohelet clearly does not believe in an afterlife that will eventually make sense of it all. All he knows is that, no matter how hard he works, he is going to die and that will bring an end to everything. That is why he keeps saying, “what does it profit a man….” There is no profit, no payoff, to our life on earth because death is the leveler. An illustration of this is in chapter 3, which is a greatly misunderstood passage: “to everything there is a season…a time to be born, a time to die…” etc. The fact that everything has a “season” is not a comfort for Qohelet, but a source of despair. The seasons are in God’s hand and there is nothing anyone can do about it. Likewise, when he counsels that we should work hard and enjoy what we have while we can, he is not comforted. He is resigning himself that the best we have on earth is to enjoy what we can and when we can before we die.

Qohelet is clearly upset, and he has no problem challenging Israel’s conventional wisdom. No only do we see this in his negative view of God’s role in human affairs (e.g., 1:13-15), but also in his negative view concerning death (3:19-20), righteousness (7:16), God’s judgment (9:1-2), and pleasure (2:10, compare to Num 15:39). Also, Ecclesiastes is dotted with internal thematic inconsistencies (e.g., 1:18 and 2:13; 5:10 and 10:19; 7:3 and 8:15).

With all of this, the closing words of the book—which returns to the narrator’s voice—are astounding. He calls Qohelet wise (12:9-10), even though (or perhaps because) his words are painful (verse 11.) But, he also counsels that his readers should not get stuck in such thoughts (verses 11-14). The overall message of the book is that it is wise to be honest about your struggles but not to let them consume you. The narrator exhorts his readers in the end, despite their struggles—even with God!—they are to “fear God and keep his commands” (12:13).

– Peter Enns

 

 

Ecclesiastes is presented as a book written by a king ofIsraelcalled “Qohelet,” but scholars agree that the book’s author is unknown and lived afterIsraelreturned from exile—long afterIsrael’s line of kings died out. The author was not trying to deceive his readers, however. He was using a kingly character to drive home his theological point. The meaning of the name Qohelet is not clear, but conventional translations “teacher” or “preacher” not accurate. They are attempt to reflect Qohelet’s role in the book.

The book begins with an introduction by an unknown narrator and ends in chapter 12 with the same narrator’s voice. He tells us that for Qohelet, everything is “vanity” (hebel). A better translation for the Hebrew word hebel is “meaningless” or “senseless”. In other words, Qohelet’s complaint is that life makes no sense—like the sun that rises and sets day after day with nothing to show for it. After the introduction, Qohelet takes over and lays out his concerns relentlessly. His problem amounts to this: life is meaningless because, no matter what you do, at the end of the day you have nothing to show for it. Why? Because you will die and all you worked for is left behind. This is a horrible fact of life, and what makes things worse is that God is responsible for it.

 

This is the heart of Qohelet’s complaint. He is angry with God appearing so unjust as to make life so meaningless. Qohelet clearly does not believe in an afterlife that will eventually make sense of it all. All he knows is that, no matter how hard he works, he is going to die and that will bring an end to everything. That is why he keeps saying, “what does it profit a man….” There is no profit, no payoff, to our life on earth because death is the leveler. An illustration of this is in chapter 3, which is a greatly misunderstood passage: “to everything there is a season…a time to be born, a time to die…” etc. The fact that everything has a “season” is not a comfort for Qohelet, but a source of despair. The seasons are in God’s hand and there is nothing anyone can do about it. Likewise, when he counsels that we should work hard and enjoy what we have while we can, he is not comforted. He is resigning himself that the best we have on earth is to enjoy what we can and when we can before we die.

 

Qohelet is clearly upset, and he has no problem challenging Israel’s conventional wisdom. No only do we see this in his negative view of God’s role in human affairs (e.g., 1:13-15), but also in his negative view concerning death (3:19-20), righteousness (7:16), God’s judgment (9:1-2), and pleasure (2:10, compare to Num 15:39). Also, Ecclesiastes is dotted with internal thematic inconsistencies (e.g., 1:18 and 2:13; 5:10 and 10:19; 7:3 and 8:15).

 

With all of this, the closing words of the book—which returns to the narrator’s voice—are astounding. He calls Qohelet wise (12:9-10), even though (or perhaps because) his words are painful (verse 11.) But, he also counsels that his readers should not get stuck in such thoughts (verses 11-14). The overall message of the book is that it is wise to be honest about your struggles but not get bogged down in them. The narrator exhorts his readers in the end, despite their struggles—even with God!—they are to “fear God and keep his commands” (12:13).