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Ecclesiastes: Skeptical Wisdom
The Hebrew word here means “preacher” or “proclaimer” and signifies the one who calls together and addresses an audience. Traditionally the book is regarded as a work of Solomon. However, most scholars hold that it is a work of a writer who lived in the later years of OT history. The name of this later writer, who puts himself in Solomon’s place and writes as if he were Solomon, is not known. It represents the experiences of a man who had the best of everything–wealth, rank, power, honor, fame and pleasure, who at the end of his life was disillusioned. He felt emptiness of all the so-called blessings and concludes that all was vanity and meaninglessness.
The purpose of the book seems to be to show that self-gratification and successful worldliness do not bring satisfaction to the human heart. Life without knowledge of and fellowship with God is empty and meaningless. Man has a destiny which calls for co-operation with God in some worthy enterprise, and in this he finds abiding peace of the soul.
Ecclesiastes illustrates how far some Jewish thinkers had strayed from orthodox theology in the post-exilic period. Except for occasional orthodox corrections, the book voiced the skeptical, pessimistic feelings of a man who had tried everything but had found nothing satisfying or meaningful in which to invest his life. The main speaker is the “preacher, son of David, king of Jerusalem.” The word resembles the schoolmaster, one who is in charge of assembling the people together for instruction. Solomon’s relation to the book was probably the same as Ruth’s relation to the book of Ruth–that is, he was the main character portrayed by the book rather than the author. The language and thought of the book suggest a post-exilic origin. Like Proverbs, it might have been used as a schoolbook.
Authorship and Date: non-Solomonic Authorship?
The language in the book is unusual, so strange as to be foreign. Some have proposed that the book was originally written in Aramaic and then translated into Hebrew, very late Hebrew to be precise (scholars finding some 96 Aramaisms in the text).
The presence of two apparently Persian words, pardes and pitgam seems to make the argument beyond any doubt.
- Pardes = park or garden Ecclesiastes 2:5
- Pitgam = decree or sentence Ecclesiastes 8:11
Solomon was king over Israel for all of his life, but not according to the perfect tense of completed action, “was King” (Ecclesiastes 1:12). However, this could refer to an aged Solomon looking back over his career. The prospective of the book seems to support this idea of an old man looking back – Ecclesiastes 12:1-5.
Some argue that the book was written by the spirit of the dead Solomon where the root of Qoheleth (teacher) looks back to (1Kings 8:55-61) when Solomon spoke to the assembled people. Although, there is no real connection between 1 Kings 8 and Ecclesiastes, either in structure or content, and there is no literary link between the texts.
Some say that Solomonic authorship is abandoned after the first two chapters, since there is no reference to him. In particular, his authorship is discarded at (Ecclesiastes 8:2-4, 10:16-17, 12:9-14). But it is possible that the king could look critically at his own career, role and on appropriate behavior in the royal presence.
Historical and Literary Arguments
Some argue that Ecclesiastes shows a dependence on Greek thought and literature.
Hesiod’s “Works and Days” is an earthy, pessimistic work of Greek poetry written in the late eighth century BC, of which Ecclesiastes must be aware.
Ecclesiastes can be compared to the cynic and stoic traditions of Greek philosophy. The reference to a skepticism regarding an after-life (Ecclesiastes 3:19-21) to Epicurean annihilationism. The teacher’s analogy of breaking the golden bowl (Ecclesiastes 12:6) is like Lucretius’ speaking of death as the shattering of a vessel.
Others try to pinpoint historical allusions in the Persian or Greek periods of Jewish history. The wise youth of (Ecclesiastes 4:13) was probably Ptolemy V, who came to the throne in 205 BC (thus Ecclesiastes written after this). Others contend that (Ecclesiastes 6:3) refers to Artaxerxes II and III (Mnemon and Ochus). Also, (Ecclesiastes 4:13-16) refers to the career of Cyrus, and that (Ecclesiastes 9:14-16) refers to Themistocles of Athens.
A Look at the Book:
Vanity of vanities (Ecclesiastes 1:1-2:26). With these words, the writer of Ecclesiastes announced his opinion of the world and life in it. Nothing was lasting–nothing of real value. While not an atheist, he was a deist: one who believed that God had little or nothing to do with what went on in the world. The preacher had tried many things:
Work, but it was for nothing: the world went in circles and had no purpose (Ecclesiastes 1:2-11)
Wisdom, but it led to emptiness: knowledge increases sorrow (Ecclesiastes 1:12-18)
Pleasure: it too proved worthless (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11)
When he considered wisdom and folly: both men end up in the same place with no memory of him (Ecclesiastes 2:12-16). This thought led him to despair as he saw what a man had gained in life would be left to the foolish who did not work to attain it (Ecclesiastes 2:17-23). The final verse of chapter two resemble an orthodox addition to the writer’s words (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26).
For everything there is a season (Ecclesiastes 3:1-15). These famous verses, a variety of opposites to stress the paradoxical nature of life, represented a view of history that was strange to the rest of the OT. The general OT view was that history had a beginning and it will have an end: linear. It was moving to a goal under the direction of God himself.
A philosophy of history that saturates the book of Ecclesiastes — history moving in circles, going nowhere, having no goal or purpose — was clearly expressed in this section. It was like a dog chasing its tail but never catching it. This was a Greek idea, and not Hebrew. This seems to suggest that Ecclesiastes was influenced by the Hellenistic culture that blossomed across the near east following the conquests of Alexander the Great (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)
While God had given man a sense of time as past and future, he had not given him the ability to look at life as a whole. The best he could do was to take life as it came while doing his best (Ecclesiastes 3:9-15).
The question of justice (Ecclesiastes 3:16-4:16). A man worked out of a sense of rivalry with his fellow man. It was better to work with someone so as to have the protection a partner could give. It was better to be young, poor and wise than to be and old and foolish ruler. Being a hero was also just temporary, since heroes were soon forgotten.
Do not fool around with God (Ecclesiastes 5:1-7) The preacher warned that a person should avoid calling God’s attention to himself. God should be obeyed without question. If one could not keep a vow, it would be better not to make it. Silence was better than chatter that might make God become angry.
Life has problems (Ecclesiastes 5:8-6:12). If the government oppressed a man, he had no hope for justice since every official was protected by the one above him (Ecclesiastes 5:8-9). Kings and rich men had money, but life was not a bed of roses for the rich. More riches meant that one was responsible for more people. A rich man lost sleep worrying about his money, while the laborer slept peacefully. If a man saved money, he would lose it and leave his work as he came into it, with nothing. The best thing to do was to accept what God gave and not worry about it (Ecclesiastes 5:10-20).
There was no justice in the preacher’s way of looking at life. A man could be wealthy and lose it all. He could have a large family and a long life and still be disgraced by not having a proper burial. If a man could not be happy while he lived, he would have been better off not to have been born. The best thing to do was take what he saw rather than to desire the unseen thing. Things were already predetermined for a man, so there was no profit in arguing about it (Ecclesiastes 6:1-12).
Thinking about life (Ecclesiastes 7:1-8:1). These reflections on life saw life’s end as more important than its beginning. Mourning was better than joy, and sorrow was better than laughter. Only a fool laughed. The wise rebuked the fool. Wisdom was the best guarantee that a man would keep what he had. The key to life was moderation. Wisdom had shown the preacher “the wickedness of folly and the foolishness which is madness” (Ecclesiastes 7:25). But the worst of all things was woman. A very few men could be trusted, but no woman was worthy of his trust.
Watch out for the ruler (Ecclesiastes 8:2-9). The only safe thing to do in regard to rulers was to stay out of their way. If a man were wise enough, he could make right choices about what to do and when to do it. Unfortunately, no man had that kind of wisdom.
There is no justice in life (Ecclesiastes 8:10-9:12). The wicked prospered as though he were righteous. There was just no way the preacher could understand the ways of God. Even those wise men who made such a claim to know God’s ways really did not know them. The preacher had decided that the wise and righteous were controlled by God (Ecclesiastes 8:10-9:1).
The righteous and the wicked suffered the same fate. A sinner was just as well off as the saint. Of course, while there was life there was hope. While one was living, he could enjoy life with his wife. He should do what he did with diligence, for there would be no chance to do anything once he went to the grave. His time would come before he knew it (Ecclesiastes 9:2-12).
Wisdom and foolishness (Ecclesiastes 9:13-10:20). This section contains a number of illustrations about wisdom and foolishness. According to the preacher, a little wisdom would go a long way; but a little foolishness could cancel the effects of a great deal of wisdom. Foolishness was especially bad when if infected those who had power.
The actions of the wise (Ecclesiastes 11:1-6). A man wise in business spreads his investment around. One who always worried about the weather would never reap a crop. That was the risk of living.
Advice to the young (Ecclesiastes 11:7-12:8). Life should be appreciated, but such a life would have its darker days. A young man should relish his youth, but he should still remember that he had to account to God for it. For that reason, he should take God into account in his youth before the problems of age and death overtook him.
The end of it all (Ecclesiastes 12:9-14). Another person summarized the preacher’s life. He had taught what he had discovered about life with honest conviction. A final word was given to the students:
Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh (Ecclesiastes 12:12).
And there is a final orthodox note: Fear God, and keep his commandments, this is the whole duty of man (Ecclesiastes 12:13)
What About Ecclesiastes?
The book reveals that post-exilic Jews were not at all orthodox in their views of God. The writer believed in God. For him God was not actively involved in the events of everyday life — or if He were, one could not discover how He was involved. He did not accept the orthodox view that righteousness was always rewarded with blessing and that sin was always punished.
Outline of the Book:
- Solomon’s Disillusionment with Life (Ecclesiastes 1:1-2:26)
- Everything is Meaningless (Ecclesiastes 1:1-11)
- Wisdom is Meaningless (Ecclesiastes 1:12-18)
- Pleasures are Meaningless (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11)
- Wisdom and Folly are Meaningless (Ecclesiastes 2:12-16)
- Toil is Meaningless (Ecclesiastes 2:17-26)
- Solomon’s Wise Observations (Ecclesiastes 3:1-5:20)
- A Time for Everything (Ecclesiastes 3:1-22)
- Oppression, Toil, Friendlessness (Ecclesiastes 4:1-12)
- Advancement is Meaningless (Ecclesiastes 4:13-16)
- Stand in Awe of God (Ecclesiastes 5:1-7)
- Riches are Meaningless (Ecclesiastes 5:8-20)
- Solomon’s Wise Counsel (Ecclesiastes 6:1-8:17)
- Prosperity is Meaningless (Ecclesiastes 6:1-12)
- Wisdom (Ecclesiastes 7:1-8:1)
- Obey the King (Ecclesiastes 8:2-17)
- Reminders and Conclusion (Ecclesiastes 9:1-12:14)
- A Common Destiny for All (Ecclesiastes 9:1-12)
- Wisdom is Better Than Folly (Ecclesiastes 9:13-10:20)
- Bread Upon the Waters (Ecclesiastes 11:1-6)
- Remember Your Creator While Young (Ecclesiastes 11:7-12:8)
- The Conclusion of the Matter (Ecclesiastes 12:9-14)