The Book of Ecclesiastes

The book of Ecclesiastes contains the reflections of a philosopher. Although the writer of Ecclesiastes was a believer in the God of Israel, he writes to address religious issues for which he was seeking answers. The book reflects the views of an Israelite whose theoretical training and life experience induced him to question many of the accepted beliefs of Hebrew tradition.

The title of the book in the Septuagint is “The Words of Ecclesiastes.” The word “Ecclesiastes” is the Greek translation of the Hebrew title dibrê qōheleth, “The Words of Qoheleth.”

English Versions differ on how they translate the Hebrew title dibrê qōheleth:

RSV: “The Words of the Preacher”

NIV: “The Words of the Teacher”

GNB: “The Words of the Philosopher”

NEB: “The Words of the Speaker”

TNK: “The words of Koheleth”

Scholars do not agree on the meaning of the title as found in the Hebrew Bible. The word Qoheleth derives from the Hebrew verb qāhal with means “to assemble.” The Hebrew noun qāhāl means “assembly, congregation.” Thus, it is possible that the word Qoheleth is the title of a person associated with the religious assembly in Israel. Qoheleth means one who convenes the congregation, probably to preach to it. If Qoheleth was a teacher, then the congregation would be the gathering of his students.

The title Qoheleth is similar to the Hebrew word sophereth, a Hebrew word describing the office of the sopher or scribe (Ezra 2:55; Neh. 7:5). Another similar Hebrew word is pochereth, the binder of gazelles (Ezra 2:57). Thus, Qoheleth was an officer in the qāhāl, or a leader of the congregation.

Another item of debate is the authorship of the book. The title of the book associates the authorship of the book with Solomon: “The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (Ecclesiastes 1:1). This association of the book with Solomon comes because of Solomon’s role in establishing the wisdom school in Israel.

The Talmud declares that “Hezekiah and his company wrote Ecclesiastes” (Baba Bathra 15a). Hezekiah, the king of Judah in the seventh century BC (715-687) tried to revive the glory of the literary activity and wisdom movement that was the hallmark of Solomon’s kingdom. Zedekiah and his men probably were also responsible for the final compilation of the book of Proverbs: “These are other proverbs of Solomon that the officials of King Hezekiah of Judah copied” (Proverbs 25:1).

It is possible that Qoheleth himself wrote the book, using the impersonation of Solomon as a literary device. Several statements in the book could not have been spoken by Solomon. For example, Qoheleth criticizes the king for not accepting advice: “Better is a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king, who will no longer take advice” (Ecclesiastes 4:13).

One Rabbinic source declares that Solomon “wrote the Song of Songs, with its accent on love, in his youth; Proverbs, with its emphasis on practical problems, in his maturity; and Ecclesiastes, with its melancholy reflections on the vanity of life, in his old age” (Midrash Shir Hashirim Rabbah, 1:1, section 10).

The date for the composition of Ecclesiastes depends on who was the author of the book. If internal evidence is used (see 1:12, 16; 2:7,9), then Solomon (962-922 B. C.) could be considered the author of the book and the date of composition would be in the last part of his reign.

However, linguistic evidence, that is, the presence of Aramaisms, Persian loan words, and the similarity of the Hebrew of the book with Mishnaic Hebrew seems to suggest a date in the postexilic period. If Ecclesiastes was written in the postexilic period, then the probable date for the composition of the book ranges from the postexilic period (after 587 B.C.) to the Persian period (between 538-335 BC), but before Ben Sirach (c. 190 BC).

Scholars differ on the purpose of the book of Ecclesiastes. I believe that the author of the book was a man rooted in Israelite faith but who struggled for a believable answer to the questions which had arisen out of the experiences of life. The book presents a skeptical judgment of religion and the superficial and optimistic portrayals of the meaning of human life.

His conclusion is that the duty of human beings is to fear God and to keep his commandments, even though it may or may not be meaningful to do so, at least in the eyes of another human being. The author believed in God, but he does not believe that one can adequately discern the ways by which God governs the universe.

I have written several posts dealing with issues in Ecclesiastes. In future posts I will continue studying Qoheleth’s search for meaning. In the meantime, enjoy reading the articles listed below.

Studies on the Book of Ecclesiastes

A Time To Be Born and a Time To Heal

The Pessimistic Literature of the Ancient Near East

A Christian Perspective on Illness

The Book of Ecclesiastes: Vanity of Vanities

The Book of Ecclesiastes: In Search of a Better Life

Ecclesiastes 7:28: Not One Upright Woman?

Ecclesiastes 7:28: In Search of a Better Translation

Ecclesiastes 7:28: Was Qoheleth a Misogynist? – Part 1

Ecclesiastes 7:28: Was Qoheleth a Misogynist? – Part 2

Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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