One book of the Hebrew Bible stands out like a sore thumb—Ecclesiastes. It is truly an alien amid the other books. It denies human access to revelatory insights. It presents the deity as indifferent to human conduct, dispensing rewards and punishments regardless of merit. It questions everything regardless of its source. It gives credence to nothing but what the author’s eyes saw and his ears heard.
The author—we don’t know his name; he chose to write under the name Qoheleth—is for us an unknown radical thinker.
The book at first seems like a hodgepodge of narrative genres—royal experiment, anecdote, autobiographical narrative, poetic metaphor and allegory, malediction and benediction, sayings, existential observations, reflections and dispute.
It begins with a superscription apparently attributing authorship to King Solomon— “The words of the Preacher [Qoheleth], the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (Ecclesiastes 1:1).a It ends, 12 chapters later, with two029 quite different epilogues, one (Ecclesiastes 12:9–11) sympathetic (“The Preacher sought to find pleasing words, and uprightly he wrote words of truth”— Ecclesiastes 12:10), the other (Ecclesiastes 12:12–14) cool and dismissive (“The sayings of the wise are like goads… My son, beware of anything beyond these”).
The opening superscription is followed by an introductory poem (Ecclesiastes 1:3–11) about the meaninglessness of everything, natural as well as human:
“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity…
“What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
and there is nothing new under the sun.
“There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to happen
among those who come after.”
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 1:9, 1:11
Preceding the two epilogues is a concluding poem (Ecclesiastes 11:7–12:7) about old age and death:
“[I]f a man lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity.
“[T]he almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along and desire fails; because man goes to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets.”
Ecclesiastes 11:8, 12:5
This concluding poem ends just as the introductory poem began, forming a kind of thematic envelope for the book:
“Vanity of vanities says the Preacher; All is vanity.”
Following the introductory poem is a royal experiment (Ecclesiastes 1:12–2:26) in which the author tests wisdom and folly, sensuality and achievement, fame and fortune, concluding that nothing brings lasting satisfaction:
“I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem.
“I said to myself, ‘I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; an my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.’ And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind.
“For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.
“I said to myself, ‘Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself.’ But behold, this also was vanity. I said of laughter, ‘It is mad,’ and of pleasure, ‘What use is it?’
“I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself, I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees.
“I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces; I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, man’s delight.
“Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.
“Then I said to myself, ‘What befalls the fool will befall me also; why then have I been so very wise?’ And I said to myself that this also is vanity. For of the wise man as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten.
How dies the wise man? As the fool! So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a striving after wind.”
Ecclesiastes 1:12, 16; 2:2, 4–6, 8, 11, 15–17
The experiment thus concludes on a note of hatred for life, which offers only fleeting pleasure as a suitable response.
Another memorable section (Ecclesiastes 3:1–22) begins with the well-known poem about a time for everything and laments the impossibility of discovering the right occasion for any particular word or deed:
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
A time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
A time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to seek, and a time to lose;
A time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
A time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate;
A time for war, and a time or peace.”
The remainder of the book also includes collections of proverbial sayings (Ecclesiastes 7:1–12, 10:1–4, 10:8–11). Here are some of the better known:
“A good name is better than precious ointment; and the day of death, than the day of birth.
“It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting; for this is the end of all men, and the living will lay it to heart.”
“Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off an evil odor; so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.”
“Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days… As you do not know how the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything,”
Ecclesiastes 11:1, 5
Qoheleth laments over the oppression of victims and their powerlessness, warns against overzealous piety, observes that humans work for naught, emphasizes the role of chance in frustrating all effort and acknowledges the ever-present threat of death.
This somber message persists through various repetitions, refrainlike phrases and favorite expressions: Everything is hebel—futile or ephemeral, a vanity. All effort is like shepherding (or pursuing) the wind. Human effort aims at profit—but to no avail. Death cancels every possible gain, and God makes no distinction between people and animals at the moment of death. Thus Qoheleth urges his hearers to seize the moment, knowing that even pleasure does not yield any lasting profit, realizing at the same time that Sheol (the netherworld) is a dark and permanent home.
How did a book with such radical ideas get into the Bible? How could it have been accepted into the canon?
The answer is, we don’t really know. Perhaps the epilogues saved it. They go a long way toward nullifying some of the extreme skepticism of the rest of the book. In its final form the book does end on a traditional note: “Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
Perhaps the attribution to David’s son Solomon helped ease the book’s entry into the canon. After all, that’s pretty heavy authority. On the other hand, that stratagem failed in many other instances. (Indeed, the practice of attributing authorship to some ancient worthy was so common at this time that we have a special word for such writings— pseudepigrapha, meaning falsely attributed writings.)
My own view is a little different. Israel had an ancient tradition of skepticism that surfaces time and again, if only for brief moments, in her canonical texts. For example, when Israel was overcome by the Midianites, the Angel of Lord appeared to the Israelite Gideon and declared, “The Lord is with you, valiant warrior.” Gideon 031responded, “Please, my lord, if the Lord is with us, why has all this befallen us?” (Judges 6:11–13). Job, too, speaking with despair and doubt, cries out, “Why does God place light on the sufferer and give life to the bitter in spirit?” (Job 3:20). In Proverbs, we read of the impossibility of gaining wisdom: “Who has ascended to heaven and come down? Who has gathered the winds in his fists?” (Proverbs 30:4). Perhaps this tradition of skepticism accounts for the book’s acceptance into the canon.
Two other books of the Hebrew Bible are attributed to King Solomon—Song of Songs and Proverbs. According to rabbinic tradition, Song of Songs was written in his youth, Proverbs in his middle age and Ecclesiastes in his old age. (Another work attributed to Solomon, the Wisdom of Solomon, was included in the Septuagint, a third-century B.C. translation of the Bible from Hebrew into Greek. Jews and Protestants have relegated the Wisdom of Solomon to the Apocrypha; for Catholics, it is deuterocanonical.)
To the modern critical scholar, it is clear that Solomon did not write Ecclesiastes, even though the text attempts to indicate otherwise. In addition to the superscription in Ecclesiastes 1:1 (“The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem”), the extensive literary unit from 1:12 to 2:26 is introduced by the statement, “I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem” (Ecclesiastes 1:12). (Incidentally, note the use of what we would in English call the past perfect tense [“I have been”]— hayiti in Hebrew. This suggested to later rabbinical commentators that Solomon had been deposed when this was written; they speculated wildly on the reasons for such punishment.)
The first epilogue may also suggest that Solomon was the author. These are wise sayings, it tells us, “given by one Shepherd” (Ecclesiastes 12:11). This may well be another reference to Solomon; the use of “shepherd” as a metaphor for royalty was widespread in the ancient world.
We have already looked at the literary unit I called a royal experiment—Ecclesiastes 1:12 to the end of chapter 2—which begins with the identification of the author as one who has been “king over Israel.” This is a common genre known as a royal fiction. The author of this literary unit adopted an ancient practice, common in early Egyptian circles and also in Sumerian wisdom literature, of presenting important teachings as the insights attained by the society’s supreme ruler. This practice was especially fashionable in the Hellenistic and late Roman period. Today, we recognize this as a royal fiction. In ancient times, however, this attribution may have led to the ascription of the entire book to the “son of David.”
In the rest of the book, the speaker drops the royal pretense and addresses pressing problems from the perspective of an ordinary citizen lacking the means of redressing wrongs. In the royal fiction, the author reinforces his arguments about the futility of all human endeavor by means of royal ascription, for as king the author could experiment with various modes of life without worrying about the consequences and without suffering from scarce resources. But even with this advantage, “All is vanity and a chasing after wind” (Ecclesiastes 2:26).
The enigmatic Hebrew title Qoheleth, translated “Preacher,” is derived from the root QHL (assembly). The Greek title, Ecclesiastes, is a translation, also based on a root meaning assembly (as in ecclesia, the Greek word for church).
Perhaps Qoheleth was intended to echo the repeated use of this root in 1 Kings 8:1, 2, 14. There we read that Solomon assembled (yaqhel) the governing body of Israel and later summoned the entire assembly (qehal) of Israel for the purpose of dedicating the newly constructed Temple. Perhaps the use of Qoheleth in Ecclesiastes was intended to suggest the teacher’s function as an assembler of the people, just as Solomon previously assembled the people to dedicate the Temple.
Or was the title less flattering, recalling Solomon’s habit of collecting (or assembling) wives and concubines? Another possibility is that the title Qoheleth refers to the assembling of aphorisms.
The language, grammar and syntax of the book all seem to point to a late date for its composition (probably no earlier than the fifth or fourth century B.C.), but scholars differ widely in their assessment. Some of the sayings may well have entered Israel at an early date, possibly during the flowering of culture in the eighth century B.C.b Many of its linguistic features are unique. So there is great scholarly debate and disagreement over the implications of these linguistic peculiarities. Perhaps the language of the book reflects vernacular or colloquial speech.
On the other hand, sociological analysis of the book, a discipline still in its infancy,1 has suggested to some a mid-third-century B.C. date, 032based on the particular combination of ideas found in it.
How are we to understand the several voices within the book2 and the numerous tensions and contradictions in Qoheleth’s thought? One view is that in various parts of Ecclesiastes different people speak: a narrator, Qoheleth, who speaks in the first person, and a younger person, the “I” who investigated life’s futility in Ecclesiastes 1:12–2:26. Beyond these voices, according to this view, is an implied author responsible for the entire book, on all its levels, and this author is someone other than Qoheleth. The narrator remains in the background, emerging only in the second epilogue (Ecclesiastes 12:12) to tell his son about the strengths and weaknesses of the ancient wise man Qoheleth, whose teachings cause weariness and sting like the jabs of a shepherd’s goad.
A more traditional explanation of the opposing viewpoints of Ecclesiastes is that they are unreconciled contradictions within Qoheleth’s own mind.3 Scholars who read the book this way, see it as a sort of diary in which the author reflected about life at various times. The disparate voices are evidence of Qoheleth’s changing perceptions. Consequently, he who in youth denied the possibility of life after death could in old age entertain its likelihood, and he who once dismissed judgment later came to believe God would bring everything into the light of day. The trouble with such an explanation for the tensions within the book is that it doesn’t develop like a diary; contradictions sometimes interrupt Qoheleth’s natural flow of thought. Furthermore, this explanation of the multiple voices in Ecclesiastes as the evolution of one person’s views overlooks the possibility that later editors made changes. The possibility of later emendation of Ecclesiastes suggests that Qoheleth’s views may have been softened and brought into line with conventional wisdom.
In my opinion, the two epilogues offer perspectives for reading all the words of Qoheleth. The first epilogist commends Qoheleth, conceding that his teacher’s observations on life’s futility carry a sharp point; the second epilogist adopts a detached, if not hostile, attitude toward Qoheleth, warning against the making of more books—and endeavoring to sum up what really matters: Fear God and keep the commandments. This summary of human obligation owes nothing to Qoheleth’s encounter with reality. The rationale for this double imperative—to fear God and keep the commandments—also lacks continuity with Qoheleth’s understanding of divine indifference. It seems that someone refused to allow Qoheleth’s denial of final judgment to stand.
Scholars must also reckon with the possibility that glosses, later changes, have entered the text. My own investigations allow for only a few additions. For example, the superscription (Ecclesiastes 1:1), “The word of the Preacher, the Son of David, king in Jerusalem’ is redundant, and therefore, probably a later addition; the real introduction occurs in Ecclesiastes 1:12, where Qoheleth declares, “I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem.” Yet another example is the thematic envelope “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity” that appears in Ecclesiastes 1:2 and then again in 12:18, both times in the third person. Qoheleth elsewhere uses first person address, suggesting that these famous words may have been a later gloss. (Examples of additional glosses occur in Ecclesiastes 2:26a, 3:17a, 8:12–13, 11:96; perhaps 5:18 [5:19 in English versions] and 7:26b.)
In seven instances in Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth exhorts his reader to pursue enjoyment with a whole heart (Ecclesiastes 2:24a, 3:12, 3:22a, 5:17, 8:15a, 9:7–9a, 11:7–12:1a). But each exhortation occurs in a context that qualifies the advice by reminding us about the necessity of accepting one’s lot, the brevity of life and humankind’s ignorance of the future.
Although the case has been made that Qoheleth is a preacher of joy,4 I cannot accept that reading, for it robs the book of its integrity. The theme of life’s futility runs through Qoheleth’s teaching like a scarlet thread. The somber message explodes throughout the book; Qoheleth seems overwhelmed by a sense of toil, oppression, sorry business, brevity and darkness. In my view, the initial refrain (Ecclesiastes 1:2) that declares the utter futility and absurdity of all things and that occurs again, in shortened form, as an inclusion in Ecclesiastes: 12:8, governs even Qoheleth’s advice to make the most of life while one can. That initial refrain sets the tone of Qoheleth’s teaching. That assertion about life’s futility, plus the refrain about shepherding the wind (Ecclesiastes 2:26), admits no exception; everything is futile and absurd, and that also includes Qoheleth’s experiments with pleasure. life is futile, for death cancels every supposed gain; reality is absurd, because merit does not play a role in determining who can enjoy life and who cannot.
Qoheleth’s seven exhortations to enjoy life must 033therefore be understood against the thoroughgoing pessimism that accompanies them. The first encouragement to enjoy life (Ecclesiastes 2:24a) emphasizes the arbitrary way God allocates the ability to do so, concluding with the judgment that “all this is futile, absurd and shepherding the wind” (Ecclesiastes 2:24–26). The second exhortation (Ecclesiastes 3:12) has much the same context: God has given humans a special prize but prevented them from taking advantage of it, keeping them ignorant and incapable of changing things; hence one should enjoy life, for God has a way of instilling fear in a people (Ecclesiastes 3:12–14). The third exhortation (Ecclesiastes 3:22a) follows the declaration that no one knows our destiny, but that we surely join the animals in death, thus returning to dust. The fourth (Ecclesiastes 5:17) emerges from reflection on grievous evil and vexation, and the fifth (Ecclesiastes 8:15a) evolves from a discussion of inequities. The sixth (Ecclesiastes 9:7–9a) grows out of ignorance about God’s fundamental disposition toward human beings. The final exhortation concludes with a declaration of youth’s ephemerality; the encouragement to enjoy things stands under a stern warning: “But know that for all this activity God will bring judgment on you!” (Ecclesiastes 11:9–10).
In short, Qoheleth does encourage people to live as fully as possible while youth lasts, but he has no illusion that such conduct transforms daily existence into something of lasting value. Life still falls under the verdict: utterly futile. The oppresive shadow of death, the decisive role of chance, the tedium, the monotony, the inequity, the stupidity, the callousness, the inevitability of oblivion—such was Qoheleth’s daily fare.
Groping for a positive assessment of Qoheleth’s teaching, one scholar claims that Qoheleth viewed God as just and loving, actively working in society to ensure justice for the virtuous.5 But this view overlooks the stated inability of humans to discover what the deity actually does or to benefit from divine activity:
“Then I saw all the work of God, that man
cannot find out the work that is done under the
sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he
will not find it out; even though a wise man
claims to know, he cannot find it out.”
Ecclesiastes 8:17, cf. 9:1
In the final poem the despairing sentiment swells to a crescendo (Ecclesiastes 12:1–7). Here Qoheleth draws together everything that precedes: The tenuous affirmation of life that culminates, even for the privileged few, in cold winter and death. The opening thought, “a generation dies,” with which Qoheleth burst into consciousness returns once more, this time with a solemn funeral procession and with thoughts about an eternal home in dust devoid of the animating principle, God’s breath.
Inexplicably, most interpreters of Ecclesiastes tend to remove the sting from Qoheleth’s words, just as Job’s dissenting voice has been silenced through various interpretive strategies.6 This refusal to hear unaccustomed sounds within religious traditions robs them of authenticity, for, sooner or later, even devout worshipers encounter life’s ambiguities, forcing them to ask hard questions about the things they once held firmly.
In my view, skeptics like Qoheleth have a heightened sense of justice and possess a vision of a better world, hence they cannot be faulted for lack of faith. Qoheleth described life as he saw it. He may have lacked the prophetic conscience or the joy that comes with a conviction that God has communicated the divine will in specific statutes, but Qoheleth does speak what was true for him. That honesty ought to earn him a special place in history, for the willingness to question revered beliefs is rare indeed. If there is a time for everything under the sun, then Qoheleth’s dark thoughts will struggle to be heard above the clamor of those who would remove the sting from his teachings.
One book of the Hebrew Bible stands out like a sore thumb—Ecclesiastes. It is truly an alien amid the other books. It denies human access to revelatory insights. It presents the deity as indifferent to human conduct, dispensing rewards and punishments regardless of merit. It questions everything regardless of its source. It gives credence to nothing but what the author’s eyes saw and his ears heard. The author—we don’t know his name; he chose to write under the name Qoheleth—is for us an unknown radical thinker. The book at first seems like a hodgepodge of narrative genres—royal experiment, anecdote, […]