For a long time, I have had a nagging doubt about Ecclesiastes. It is a sense that I am missing something. Let’s face it, this is not an easy book. The question of authorship is an issue (was it Solomon?), but still more its content with its seemingly negative outlook on life and its tensions or even apparent contradictions. To name just one, does the wicked prolong his life or does he not (compare Eccl. 7:15 and 8:12-13)?
So I wonder. Is there something I have overlooked? Is there historical background information or a way of explaining it that would throw an entirely different light on the book and enable us to make sense of it? Did someone out there crack the code and I am not aware of it?
Well, maybe not. I have not found a golden key that instantly makes everything crystal clear. But at least my efforts have not been a chasing after wind either; I have made progress!
The Question of Authorship
First, let’s look at authorship. The author is never mentioned by name. Instead, he presents himself or is presented in the third person form with the Hebrew word qohelet. It derives from the same root as qahal, which means assembly. In Greek, qahal is translated as ecclesia, usually translated as church in English. This is where the name Ecclesiastes comes from. It appears to be a title rather than a personal name. This confirmed by the fact that it is always used with the article. But what does it mean?
It suggests someone who assembles or gathers. Some have argued that this refers to the collecting of proverbs and other wise sayings. More likely it is something that has to do with people and takes place in the assembly. For this reason, the term qohelet is often translated as preacher or, better, teacher, since the author obviously stands in the tradition of the wise men (and women) of Israel who were more likely to teach than to preach.
Even though no name is given, there are a few statements made about the author that taken together can only point to Solomon. Ecclesiastes 1:1 describes him as “the son of David, king in Jerusalem.” In Ecclesiastes 1:12 he states: “I the Preacher have been king over Israel [not Judah] in Jerusalem.” He surpassed “all who were in Jerusalem before me” (Eccl. 1:16) and had greater possessions “than any who had been before me in Jerusalem” (Eccl. 2:7).
There are problems with this identification, however, and even a significant number of conservative scholars do not believe that Solomon is the author. I will mention two:
- Solomon is never mentioned by name and it is only in the first two chapters that the speaker presents himself as king. In the rest of the book, he is simply speaking as a wise man, not a king (see especially Eccl. 12:9-10).
- The Hebrew used in this book is often considered to be much later than that of Solomon’s time. There are a few Aramaic and Persian words used, which is taken as an indication of an exilic or postexilic date. This is a difficult argument for me to judge since it is beyond my circle of competence.
But if the author is not Solomon, there is a problem as well. The technical term for this is pseudonymity, writing under a false name. Okay, he does not use the name, but he does lead us to believe that this is Solomon speaking, at least in chapter 1 and 2. It is not only problematic that he is using a false identity; he would also be describing doing things he did not actually do. Is there a way to explain this?
Can Pseudonymity Be Legitimate?
As I was working on this book, the Logos free book of the month came out and it happened to be the commentary on Ecclesiastes in the Believers Church Bible Commentary series by Douglas Miller. Great timing, couldn’t have been better.
Miller points to two literary forms that may have influenced the opening chapters of Ecclesiastes: royal inscriptions and royal autobiography. In royal inscriptions, a king would boast of his accomplishments. Royal autobiography was usually written after a king’s death and is in that sense fictional. As Miller (2010:25) writes:
The (fictional) royal autobiography is the apparent memoir of a monarch who writes in order to pass along wisdom gained from experience.
Ecclesiastes does not simply mimic this form; he turns it into a parody. These kings and their scribes took themselves quite seriously and would teach with a pose of wisdom and authority on how to live life. According to Miller, when Qohelet takes on the persona of Solomon, the wisest king of all, it turns out to be all smoke and vapour.
In this view, Qohelet lets Solomon (posthumously) reflect on his life as if engaging in a research project. There is a clear thesis statement (all is vanity) and a research question (what does man gain by all the toil?); there is a series of experiments with observations and discussion. The conclusion and results amount to a resounding confirmation of the thesis statement. Anyone who has done a report on a research project should recognize the format.
So pseudonymity after all? Under one condition it would not be problematic to pretend to be (in this case) Solomon: when it would have been clear to the original audience, being familiar with the type of literature, that the real author was merely playing the role of Solomon. It is impossible to tell if this was the case, if the first readers would have picked this up, but it is at least a possibility. The other possibility continues to be Solomonic authorship. I do not think this view has been disproven; the evidence is not entirely conclusive.
Theories of Multiple Authorship or Editors
Two observations have led to theories about the involvement of more than one person in crafting the final version of this book. Most of the book is written in the I-form but both the beginning and the end of the book speak about Qohelet in the third person. Is this a later addition and do the concluding verses of the book agree or disagree (as some think) with the rest of the book?
Tremper Longman, whose writings I normally enjoy and appreciate, takes this approach in his commentary on Ecclesiastes (1998). He was my hope for finding a new key to the book to unlock a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of it, but I don’t find his view convincing. (To balance this out: Longman has also been an important advocate for the influence of royal autobiography on the form of Ecclesiastes, a key that does indeed open a new way to look at the first two chapters of the book.) It of course a possibility that the final verses in third person are from a different author, but if so, not from a person who seeks to balance or even correct the views of the Preacher.
I don’t see why an editor would give so much press to a view he finds problematic and then fails to make it clear (the vast majority of readers miss it) that the reader should actually read the bulk of Ecclesiastes as dangerous and, well, wrong, as something we are meant to disagree with.
The second observation is the tensions or contradictions (depending on how you read them) in the text. Ecclesiastes is at first sight quite negative. If everything is vanity or meaningless or absurd, depending on your translation, why then the counsel to enjoy life that runs like a refrain through the book? Isn’t this equally meaningless? Did a later scribe correct Qohelet’s presumed cynicism by adding more “orthodox” and more conventional wisdom sayings to balance out some of his most shocking statements?
I don’t think so. Qohelet is not cynical and he is not a nihilist but a realist. For a lot of people in this world, life is tough, at least part of the time and especially towards the end. Besides, as we will see in the next section, Qohelet is not as negative as it appears due to a subtle mistranslation of a key term.
It makes more sense to me to see the tensions in the book as inherent not in the mind of the author – as if he were confused – nor in a multiplicity of authors but as innate to life. We are not dealing with contradictions but with the paradoxical nature of reality: life is filled with paradox.
On a side note: a shift to third person does not always mean that a different person, the narrator or editor, has taken over. It is possible to write or speak about yourself in third person. Balaam does it in one of his oracles:
And he took up his discourse and said,
“The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor,
the oracle of the man whose eye is opened,
the oracle of him who hears the words of God,
who sees the vision of the Almighty,
falling down with his eyes uncovered. (Nu. 24:3-4, ESV)
The Meaning of a Key Term
We now come to the best insight I gained, also thanks to Douglas Miller’s commentary. He did his Ph.D. on Ecclesiastes. The core of his contribution was a study of the key Hebrew term hebel. It appears 38 times in the book, including at the beginning and at the end, suggesting it is both a thesis statement of what the book seeks to establish and its conclusion:
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity. (Eccl. 1:2, ESV)
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity. (Eccl. 12:8, ESV; in Hebrew, the repetition of a term turns it into a superlative; “utter” or “supreme” vanity would catch the meaning)
Quite a few different terms are used to translate hebel in different versions: meaningless, absurd, empty, futile and others. This seems to reflect an excessively negative outlook on life.
Douglas Miller goes to great lengths to investigate each occurrence of the term in Ecclesiastes. As it turns out, none of the translations just listed and most others can be used consistently; in each case, there are statements where this translation does not make sense.
Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.
Remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity. (Eccl. 11:9-10, ESV)
There is a contradiction – if hebel here does indeed mean vanity or meaninglessness (why would you rejoice in it?). But not if we are to understand that youth is fleeting and does not last long – so rejoice in it while it lasts. At the same time, translating fleeting or transient will not work for other occurrences.
Miller, therefore, argues that we should understand the term as a symbol or broad metaphor. This is the original meaning of the word. We should translate as vapour or smoke. Such a metaphor can easily have more than one meaning, depending on context. Both vapour and smoke represent something that is:
- Transitory, fleeting, ephemeral
- Insubstantial, lacking substance
- Foul or bad
Translating vapour or smoke gives us one term that fits every occurrence. It also means that Ecclesiastes is not quite as negative about life as other translations suggest. Life is fleeting and things may lack substance, but they are not meaningless. It makes sense, then, to look for enjoyment in life and to remember God in it all. This is not the whole story, but then, neither is Ecclesiastes the whole Bible. As Miller puts it:
Qohelet is not declaring all of life to be meaningless or absurd; he uses vapor to describe a life full of perplexities, tensions, difficulties; in this context, he offers help for living with both the good and bad aspects of life. (Miller 2010:264)
The End of the Matter
Ecclesiastes is a necessary counterweight to the more conventional and simple wisdom of Proverbs, where the righteous usually do well and the wicked do not. In reality, Life is messy and full of – not contradiction but paradox. Qohelet brings out this paradox by stating a thing and its opposite or at least by bringing together statements that appear to be in conflict with each other. Because it all depends. Both a thing and its opposite can be true, depending on the situation.
As such the book functions as an argument against simplistic answers. One modern application: it makes for a devastating critique of the health and wealth gospel.
Life does not follow simplistic rules or dogmas.
Longman, Tremper, III (1998), New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans)
Miller, D. B. (2010), Believers Church Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes (Scottdale, PA; Waterloo, ON: Herald Press)
Standard Bible Society (2001), The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Standard Bible Society)