1. Title. The name of this book in the Hebrew is Qoheleth, “Preacher.” This title the speaker applies to himself in ch. 1:12. Qoheleth probably refers to a “convener” of a meeting, or to the official “speaker” or “preacher” at such a gathering. The feminine form of the word in Hebrew and its use with a feminine verb in ch. 7:27 suggest the possibility that, as used in Ecclesiastes, this word designates not only Solomon as “preacher” but also divine Wisdom speaking through him. Figuratively, Wisdom addresses the people (Prov. 1:20). Thus, Qoheleth appears both as the agent for the communication of divine wisdom, and again as Wisdom personified.
The words of the wise are spoken of as “goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies” (Eccl. 12:11). In ch. 12:9 it is stated that “because the preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge.” In 1 Kings 4:32, 33, the word “spake” is repeated three times. This refers, not to written compositions, but to addresses delivered before an assembly convened for the purpose. The Holy Spirit meant it to be understood that Solomon’s teaching was intended for the “great congregation,” the church of God in all places and in all ages (see Ps. 22:25; 49:1–4).
The Greek and Latin titles of Qoheleth have been “Ecclesiastes,” presumably a translation of Qoheleth. The meaning is somewhat similar. Qoheleth comes from the Heb. qahal, “to call an assembly,” whose noun form means “gathering,” or “congregation.” In Greek the word for “congregation” is from the verb root kaleo, “to call,” the noun form of which is ekklesia, “church.” Such English words as “ecclesiastic” and “ecclesiastical” are derived from ekklesia.
2. Authorship. From the most ancient times, by universal consent, King Solomon has been considered the author of Ecclesiastes (see PK 85). The Hebrew descriptive phrase, “son of David, king in Jerusalem” (ch. 1:1), was considered sufficient proof in favor of Solomon as author. Martin Luther, in his Table Talk, was the first to cast doubt upon Solomonic authorship.
It was also the unanimous opinion of all writers on Ecclesiastes, from earliest times to Martin Luther, that Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon were written by one author. It has been pointed out, however, that there are differences in literary style. But this difference in the style of Ecclesiastes, as compared with that of Proverbs and the Song of Solomon, may readily be attributed to different subject matter or to maturity of outlook at a later period of Solomon’s life. The Song might be attributed to the time of Solomon’s first love for God; Proverbs to a later period; and Ecclesiastes to his old age.
To surrender belief in Solomon as the author—as most modern writers do—is to be utterly at sea with respect to the authorship of Ecclesiastes. Certainly no other person can be fixed upon as author with any show of plausibility. Such a view makes the “Preacher” of ch. 1:1 a mere literary figure who wrote “in the spirit and power of” King Solomon (see Luke 1:17).
It is quite impossible to arrive at a precise date for the writing of Ecclesiastes. Modernists generally hold that it was produced in the 3d century b.c. But King Solomon died in the year 931/30 b.c. (see Vol. II, p. 134), and if he is assumed to be the author, the date of writing would be immediately prior to that time.
The position of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew canon may be of some help in the attempt to discover the approximate date of the insertion of the book as we now have it into the canon. In the first place, Ecclesiastes is included in the Megilloth, the five miscellaneous “rolls,” or books—Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. In the second place, Ecclesiastes is one of the last five books as they stood in the Hebrew canon—Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra–Nehemiah, and Chronicles. In both cases we find Ecclesiastes immediately preceding Esther. This may suggest that these two books became part of the canon at approximately the same time (see Vol. I, pp. 36–38). It is entirely possible, even probable, that the book had been written and was in circulation years, perhaps even centuries, before it became part of the canon.
3. Historical Setting. The setting of Ecclesiastes is clearly stated in the book itself. After the prologue, the first eleven verses, appears Solomon’s own terse statement, “I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem” (ch. 1:12). The Hebrew verb “I was” is in the perfect tense, the very form Solomon would use in speaking before an assembly convened in his old age. Still king, he makes a statement concerning his own personal experience. It deals, not so much with historical events, with which his hearers were no doubt well acquainted, as with his own search for happiness.
4. Theme. Though Solomon was pre-eminent among Hebrew kings, both in wisdom and in temporal prosperity, he relates how all of these advantages failed to provide true and lasting happiness. And how was man to acquire happiness? By cooperating with his Creator and thus realizing the divine purpose that brought him into existence.
Having considered the uncertainty of human happiness, the Preacher turns to contemplate the actual misery with which the world is filled. For a world full of distress the “wise man” does not propose any kind of “welfare state” as a solution to social inequalities and injustices. As the Preacher draws his survey to a close, he sets forth a series of practical suggestions. Individually, we should give such help as we can to the poor and to those who suffer. But the most important thing is to give our hearts and our affections to God, to yield obedience to Him, and so be ready for the final judgment. Ecclesiastes thus provides a sound philosophy of life, of the purpose of man’s existence, of duty and destiny.
By setting forth his personal experiences Solomon essays to guide others along the pathway to faith in God. He recounts the tyranny in the world, the injustices, the disappointments that might undermine man’s faith in his Creator. But the day of retribution cannot be ignored or postponed indefinitely. Even though inequalities persist for a time, these are often essentially disciplinary measures; therefore man’s duty and final happiness consist in meeting life with the determination to seize its opportunities and to make the most of them. God will take care of the future.
In the book of Ecclesiastes God’s people are thought of, not as a chosen nation but rather as an assembly of individuals, meeting together under the leadership of Qoheleth, the Preacher. Discussion in the assembly concerns the interests of the individual as a member of the group, directly and personally accountable to God. Ecclesiastes thus provides a fitting transition from Israel after the flesh to Israel after the spirit. The sermon of Solomon, king of Israel, whose name means “peace” but who did not find it in his own personal life till well advanced in age, was appropriately included by the Jews in the closing section of the Old Testament, a fitting climax to the philosophy of life illustrated throughout God’s dealings with His people in ancient times.
When Solomon lost sight of the source of the wisdom, glory, and power Heaven had so graciously bestowed upon him, natural tendencies gained the supremacy over reason. Confidence in God and reliance on divine guidance imperceptibly gave way to increasing self-confidence and the pursuit of ways of his own choosing. As reason was subordinated more and more to inclination, Solomon’s moral sensibilities were blunted, his conscience seared, and his judgment perverted. Atheistic doubt and unbelief hardened his heart, weakened his moral principles, degraded his life, and eventually led to complete apostasy. For years he was harassed by the fear that inability to turn from folly would end in utter ruin (see PK 51–77).
Toward the close of his life, however, conscience finally awakened and Solomon began to see folly in its true light, to see himself as God saw him, “an old and foolish king” who would “no more be admonished” (ch. 4:13). The time was drawing near when he must die, and he found no pleasure in reflecting upon his wasted life (ch. 12:1). Both mind and body were already feeble as a result of indulgence (vs. 2–5; PK 77). Sincerely repentant, he sought to retrace his wayward steps; chastened in spirit, he turned, wearied and thirsting, from earth’s broken cisterns to drink once more at the fountain of life.
But restoration to favor with God did not miraculously restore the wasted physical and mental strength of former years (see MH 169). “Through sin the whole human organism is deranged, the mind is perverted, the imagination corrupted” (MH 451), and Solomon’s repentance “did not prevent the fruition of the evil he had sown” (Ed 49). “He could never hope to escape the blasting results of sin” (PK 78). Solomon nevertheless did recover a limited measure of the wisdom he had so recklessly discarded in his pursuit of folly. Through bitter experience he had “learned the emptiness of a life that seeks in earthly things its highest good” (PK 76). Gradually, he came to realize the wickedness of his course, and sought how he might lift a voice of warning that would save others from the bitter experiences through which he himself had passed (PK 80–82, 85), and thereby counteract, as best he could, the baleful influence of his folly.
Accordingly, by the Spirit of inspiration, Solomon recorded for aftergenerations the history of his wasted years, with their lessons of warning (PK 79). The book of Ecclesiastes is “a record of his folly and repentance” (PK 85), a delineation of “the errors that had led him to squander for naught Heaven’s choicest gifts” (PK 80). It is “full of warning” (PK 82) and contains much that was not intended by Inspiration as an example to be followed, but rather as a solemn warning. It pictures in vivid terms his pursuit of pleasure, popularity, wealth, and power; but the thread that binds this sad narrative together is Solomon’s own candid analysis of the perverted thought processes by which, in his own mind, he had justified his wayward conduct. Those portions of Ecclesiastes that relate the experience and reasoning of his years of apostasy are not to be taken as representing the mind and will of the Spirit. Nevertheless, they are an inspired record of what he actually thought and did during that time (see PK 79), and that record constitutes a sober warning against the wrong kind of thought and action. For instance, the cynical attitude toward life expressed in chs. 2:17; 4:2; 7:1, 28 is far from being a model for the Christian (see also chs. 1:17; 2:1, 3, 12; etc.). Passages such as these should not be wrested from their context and made to teach some supposed truth that Inspiration never intended them to teach.
In studying the book of Ecclesiastes it is therefore most important to differentiate between the subtle, perverted reasoning to which Solomon refers, and the clearer insight that came with his repentance. The context of a statement often makes evident whether Solomon is speaking of the false reasoning of former years, or of the chastened reflections of the days of his repentance. A delineation of the perverted thinking and attitudes of former years is often introduced by such expressions as “I saw,” “I said,” “I sought,” “I made,” “I gave my heart,” etc. (see chs. 1:13 to 2:26). In contrast, sober conclusions drawn from the experience are often introduced by “I know” or “I have seen” (see chs. 3:10–14; 5:13, 18). Again, a note of cynicism and uncertainty generally marks the thinking of former years (see chs. 1:18; 2:11, 14–20; 4:2, 3; 6:12; 7:1–3, 27, 28; 9:11). In contrast, conclusions reflecting the considered judgment of later life are positive in tone (see chs. 5:1, 10; 9:11; 11:1; 12:1), and the principles stated (see chs. 5:10, 13; 6:7; 8:11; 11:9; 12:7, 13, 14) are confirmed elsewhere in Scripture.
It should also be noted that Solomon uses the word “wisdom” to refer both to worldly wisdom (chs. 1:18; 7:12; etc.) and to true wisdom (chs. 7:19; 8:1; 10:1; etc.). When entering upon his pursuit of pleasure and folly, he intended to enjoy all the pleasures of sin and at the same time retain his wisdom and sound judgment unimpaired (ch. 2:3). In his folly, he thought himself wise (ch. 2:9), but of this fatal self-deception he did not become aware until many years had passed, and, like the prodigal (Luke 15:17), he came to himself, a sadder and wiser man (Eccl. 7:23). Such is the deceptiveness of sin, as Eve found out to her chagrin and bitter disappointment (see Gen. 3:5–7).
I. Prologue: The Futility of Life, 1:1–11.
A. Generations come and go, seemingly in vain, 1:1–4.
B. The cycles of nature appear endless and purposeless, 1:5–8.
C. Is there anything “new,” any great objective to existence? 1:9–11.
II. Solomon’s Quest for Happiness, 1:12 to 2:26.
A. Increased knowledge brings increased disappointment, 1:12–18.
B. The vanity of pleasure, mirth, and material possessions, 2:1–11.
C. In death, sage and fool are alike, 2:12–17.
D. The wise unsatisfied with the results of his efforts, 2:18–23.
E. Satisfaction comes only from God, 2:24–26.
III. A Season for Everything, 3:1 to 4:8.
A. A time for various human activities, 3:1–15.
B. A time for divine judgment, 3:16–22.
C. A time allowed for human injustices, 4:1–8.
IV. Four Ideals, 4:9 to 5:9.
A. The value of companionship, 4:9–12.
B. The value of wisdom, 4:13–16.
C. The value of reverence, 5:1–7.
D. The value of justice, 5:8, 9.
V. The Folly of Life, 5:10 to 6:12.
A. The folly of materialism, 5:10–12.
B. The incomprehensibility of suffering, 5:13–17.
C. The futility of effort, 5:18 to 6:12.
VI. Things Worth Living For, 7:1–22.
A. Reputation and character formation, 7:1–10.
B. Wisdom to understand God’s dealings, 7:11–14.
C. A balanced outlook on life, 7:15–18.
D. None are perfect, 7:19–22.
VII. The Search for Wisdom, 7:23 to 12:7.
A. Its disappointments, 7:23–29.
B. Resolving its conflicts, 8:1–15.
C. The inscrutable ways of God, 8:16 to 9:6.
D. Contentment amid the vicissitudes of life, 9:7 to 10:6.
E. Every deed its due reward, 10:7 to 11:10.
F. The close of life, 12:1–7.
VIII. Epilogue. What God Expects of Man, 12:8–14.