The Book of Ecclesiastes in Outline

Over the years, as I taught Old Testament to hundreds of students, I distributed an outline in class that would help students follow the lectures. Instead of being busy with taking notes, notes that would be incomplete because no one can write as fast as one speaks, students followed the outline and had time to ask questions and have dialogue with me and other students.

Solomon in His Old Age


After teaching Old Testament for more than thirty years, in some courses, the outline grew from a few pages to, in some cases, twenty or more pages for each lecture. In the end, I prepared an outline for each book of the Old Testament.

Below is the outline for the Book of Ecclesiastes. The notes are only an outline of what was discussed in class. If I were to develop the outline to cover what was discussed in class, the outline probably would be two or three times longer to what is found here.

Since all of my students received an outline of my lectures and since many students told me that they have used these outlines in church to prepare Bible studies to their congregation, I have considered making these outlines available to readers of my blog.

Unfortunately, I will not be able to develop the outlines to its fulness; the outlines will be provided as they were distributed to my students in the classroom.

It is here where I need your help. If you believe that these outlines are useful and if you believe that I should make them available for your use, I would like to ask you to leave a comment and let me know what you think, whether these outlines are informative or whether the outlines are too brief for your use.

If I make the outlines available, you can be free to use them, either for personal Bible study or for use in small Bible study groups.

So, without much ado, here is “The Book of Ecclesiastes in Outline.”

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

THE BOOK OF ECCLESIASTES

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

Introduction

The book of Ecclesiastes contains the reflections of a philosopher rather than the testimony of a believer. The work reflects the views of an Israelite whose theoretical training and life experience induced him to question many of the accepted beliefs of Hebrew tradition.

I. INTRODUCTION TO THE BOOK

1. Title

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

b. English Versions

Revised Standard Version (RSV): “The Words of the Preacher”

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) and New International Version (NIV): “The Words of the Teacher”

Good News Bible (GNB): “The Words of the Philosopher”

New English Bible (NEB): “The Words of the Speaker”

2. Meaning of the Title

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. The title is similar to:

sophereth, the office of the sopher or scribe, Ezra 2:55; Nehemiah 7:57

pochereth, the binder of gazelles, Ezra 2:57

qoheleth, an officer in the qahal, or the congregation.

3. Authorship

a. The title of the book associates the book with Solomon, see 1:1; 1:12, 16; 2:7, 9. This association comes because of Solomon’s role in establishing the Wisdom school in Israel.

b. The Talmud declares that “Hezekiah and his company wrote Ecclesiastes” (Baba Bathra 15a). Hezekiah, king of Judah (seventh century B.C.) tried to revive the glory of the literary activity and wisdom movement that was the hallmark of Solomon’s kingdom.

c. 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 (see 4:13; 7:19; 8:2-4; 10:4-7).

4. Date

a. If internal evidences are used (see 1:12, 16; 2:7,9) Solomon (962-922 B. C.) could be considered the author of the book.

b. 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.

c. The probable date of the composition range from the postexilic period (after 587 B.C.) to the Persian period (between 538-335 B.C.) but before Ben Sirach (c. 190 B.C.).

5. Canonicity

a. Place in the Canon

(1) The Hebrew canon places Qoheleth among the five Megilloth or Festal Scrolls.

(2) The book of Ecclesiastes was read during the Feast of Tabernacles.

(3) The Septuagint groups the book of Ecclesiastes together with Proverbs and Songs of Solomon. This is the order followed in the English versions.

(4) The reason that Ecclesiastes was grouped with Proverbs and Songs was because of the connection of these three books with Solomon.

(5) 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 Rabaa, 1:1, sec. 10).

b. Acceptance into the Canon

(1) The book of Ecclesiastes had problems in being accepted into the canon because of its humanistic and skeptical perspective.

(2) The School of Hillel, a school considered being a school of liberal Jews, accepted the canonicity of Ecclesiastes.

b. The School of Shammai, considered being a school of conservative Jews, rejected the canonicity of Ecclesiastes.

c. The Council of Jamnia (Yavneh), A.D. 90

The Rabbis at Yavneh accepted the book because it was believed that it was written by Solomon.

d. Early Christians also doubted the inspiration and authority of Ecclesiastes. Theodore of Mopsuestia (A.D. 400) of Antioch, question the canonicity of Ecclesiastes.

II. PURPOSE OF ECCLESIASTES

1. 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.

2. The book presents a skeptical judgment of religion and the superficial and optimistic portrayals of the meaning of human life.

3. 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, at least in the eyes of another human being.

4. The author believed in God, but he does not believe that one can adequately discern the ways by which God governs the universe.

III. THE MEANING OF VANITY

1. The word “Vanity translates the Hebrew word hebel.

2. Hebel literally means breath, vapor.

3. The word appears 73 times in the Old Testament; of these 38 occur in Ecclesiastes.

4. The word is used in the Old Testament with three basic ideas:

a. To describe a human experience or a human sentiment (see Isaiah 49:4; Job 7:16).

b. To describe the senselessness of idol worshiping, Deuteronomy 32:21; 1 Kings 16:13; Jeremiah 2:5

c. The use of the word hebel in Ecclesiastes has a variety of meanings:

(1) At times the word appears with the idea of unproductive, useless, vain

(2) At times the word appears with the idea of senseless, empty, transitory.

(3) At times the word appears with the idea of incomprehensible, mysterious,

d. The Contemporary English Version (CEV) translates 1:2: “Nothing makes sense! Everything is nonsense. I have seen it all–nothing makes sense.”

e. The Revised English Bible (REB) translates 1:2: “Futility, utter futility, says the Speaker, everything is futile.”

f. The Good News Bible (GNB) translates 1:2: “It is useless, useless, says the Philosopher. Life is useless, all useless.”

IV. THE MESSAGE OF ECCLESIASTES

IV. THE MESSAGE OF ECCLESIASTES

A. The Title, 1:1

B. The Theme of the Book

1. Qoheleth’s theme, 1:2
2. Evidences for his theme, 1:3-11

C. The Search for Understanding

1. The fruitless search for understanding, 1:12-18
2. The fruitless search for pleasure, 2:1-11
3. The study of wisdom and folly, 2:12-17
4. The results of his acquisition of riches, 2:18-23
5. The only viable alternative, 2:24-26
6. Humans cannot understand or change the predetermined patterns of life, 3:1-15

D. The Failures of Human Society, 3:16-4:16

1. Injustice, 3:16-22
2. Oppression, 4:1-3
3. Envy, 4:4-6
4. The loneliness of the miser, 4:7-12
5. The impermanence of fame, 4:13-16

E. Advice on Religious and Political Matters, 5:1-9:6

1. Advice on religious life, 5:1-7

a. v.1 On obedience: obedience is better than sacrifice
b. v.2-3, On prayer: few words in prayer are better than much word
c. v.4-6 On vows: whenever you make a vow, pay it
d. v.7: conclusion: fear God

2. Advice on political matters, 5:8-9
3. Riches, the source of anxieties, 5:10-17
4. Riches are God’s gifts to be enjoyed, 5:18-20
5. Sometimes God does not allow a person to enjoy His gift, 6:1-6
6. Human’s fate has been fixed, 6:10-12
7. The supreme good, 7:1-13
8. Moderation is better than folly, 7:14-22
9. Wisdom, if it could be found, would be humanity’s best guide, 7:23-29
10. Obedience to authorities, 8:1-9
11. The failure of retributive justice, 8:10-9:6

F. Proverbs on Wisdom and Folly, 9:7-11:6

G. Final Advice, 11:7-12:7

1. Let young people rejoice in their youth, 11:7-10
2. The inevitability of old age, 12:1-7

H. Conclusion, 12:8-14

1. Qoheleth’s conclusion, 12:8

2. Epilogue (3 addendums), 12:9-14

a. Qoheleth as a wise man, 12:9-10
b. The sharpness of the words of Qoheleth, 12:11-12
c. Cautionary advice, 12:13-14

IV. LESSONS FROM ECCLESIASTES

1. No one can understand the mysteries of God by wisdom alone

a. Qoheleth’s attempt, 1:13:

“I applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with.”

Qoheleth attempted an impossible task: he tried to understand every human experience by means of wisdom (human reasoning).

b. His conclusion, 1:14:

“I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.”

The concept of vanity: To Qoheleth “vanity” represents the mysteries of life. The word vanity (Hebrew: hebel) means something without substance, nothingness, futility, something useless. In many places the best translation would be incomprehensible. The CEV translation, “nothing makes sense” comes closer to the intent of Qoheleth.

c. The reason, 1:15:

“What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted.”

Qoheleth concludes that finding answers for the problems of life by means of wisdom is impossible (human reasoning). He also concluded that improving the human condition is impossible, but he believed that God’s decisions were unchangeable.

2. Faith cannot be the materialization of human ideals. Qoheleth discovers the frustration of the one who looks for ultimate answers. The inevitability of injustice, of death, of suffering, and the innumerable uncertainties of life, all these were the mysteries for which Qoheleth found no answer.

3 According to Crenshaw, (Old Testament Wisdom, p. 128), Qoheleth’s search for understanding, lead him to 5 important discoveries:

a. Death cancels everything

b. Wisdom cannot achieve its goal

c. God is unknowable

d. The world is crooked

e. Pleasure commends itself.

4. Qoheleth’s final solution

a. Qoheleth’s ultimate goal was a search for a meaningful life with God through knowledge.

b. His desire was to discover God’s will in the values and traditions he had received from his ancestors. His search led him to near despair.

c. What Qoheleth was looking could only be found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Only the Good News in Jesus Christ can offer humanity a way to discover answers to the basic questions of life.

If you would like to receive a PDF copy of this outline, let me know and I will emailed it to you.

NOTE:

My book Divine Violence and the Character of God will be published in January 2022. The book deals with God’s violent acts in the Old Testament in light of God’s character as a gracious and merciful God. You can order a pre-publication copy of the book at 40% discount. If you want to order the book at 40% discount, send an email to drmariottini@gmail.com and put Divine Violence in the subject line and I will send you information on how to order a pre-publication copy of the book at 40% discount. This discount will be available only on pre-publication orders. Once the book is published, the 40% discount will no longer be available.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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13 Responses to The Book of Ecclesiastes in Outline

  1. Rick Walker says:

    Great outline of Ecclesiastes. I am one of your former students from SBU and went to Israel with you in Jan 1988. Been following your posts for a couple of years. Please keep the outlines coming.

    Like

  2. agnesscion says:

    This is a very detailed outline! Please continue posting the outlines from your lectures.

    Like

  3. bobspen says:

    Professor, thank you for this outline. I only wish I had the opportunity to study under your teaching and leadership. What an honor sir, to read your blogs!

    Like

    • Bob,

      Thank you for your very nice words. During my time as a professor, I taught more than one thousand students at the university and more than one thousand’s students at the seminary. I tried to be faithful to the teachings of the Bible. Today, many of my students are teachers in colleges and universities.

      I wish you were one of my students. Since I did not have this privilege, you still can learn from me by reading my forthcoming book on Divine Violence and the Character of God. This book is based on my course on Old Testament Theology. In this book I seek to teach people what kind of God God is. Follow the link above and learn how to order the book with 40% discount.

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

      Like

  4. Blessing Boloje says:

    Dear Claude Mariottini,
    I am glad to stay in touch with you since I met you in Helsinki, Finland (SBL). I found your outline interesting and useful for my Wisdom Literature class.

    Like

    • Blessing,

      What a pleasure hearing from you again. Helsinki was great time for all of us. I am glad we met in Helsinki.

      Beginning next year, I will make more outlines available to my readers. Right now, I am working on the manuscript for my forthcoming book, Divine Violence and the Character of God.

      I hope you have a blessed Christmas.

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

      Like

  5. Pingback: The Book of Ecclesiastes in Outline | A disciple's study

  6. zenodamascus says:

    Greetings.
    Excellent, useful, & relevant outline for a difficult book! Thank you for posting it. Please post as many of your outlines as you can.
    Blessings!

    Like

  7. Alan Jones says:

    Yes, I would appreciate a PDF copy of your insightful Ecclesiastes outline.

    Like

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