The book of Ecclesiastes presents a challenge to casual Bible readers and scholars alike, so the book's theme and tone seem at odds with the rest of Scripture. In fact, it is one of the few Old Testament books that the early church debated not including in the Bible.
One of the biggest questions surrounding Preacher concerns its authorship. Who wrote Ecclesiastes and what was he trying to tell us? Professor John Walton explores this question in his online course,Summary of the Old Testament. Let's see what Dr. Walton has to say about the origins, background, structure, and purpose of this interesting book.
Who is Kohelet?
The book of Ecclesiastes has often been dismissed by people who are overwhelmed by the vision of life offered within its pages. Like the book of Job, it doesn't avoid life's tough questions and doesn't allow for easy solutions. Interpreters of the book struggle with the questions it raises, leading some to question the author's orthodoxy or even whether the book belongs to the Old Testament canon.
The preacher's wisdom comes from one identified as "Kohelet". It is unclear if this is a personal name, a pseudonym, or an official title. Judging from the meaning of the related verb, the word seems to mean 'convener' or 'assembler'; hence the common English translations of 'teacher' (NIV) or 'preacher'.
Is Kohelet King Solomon?
Traditionally, Ecclesiastes has been identified as Solomon based on the information in the first two verses of the book. It is argued that no one else was "son of David, king in Jerusalem."However, it must be admitted that the term "Son of David" could be used to refer to anyone in the line of David.
It's also puzzling why Solomon is hiding behind a pseudonym. The Solomonic character of passages like 2:1–11 leaves no doubt that the author intended the reader to think about Solomon's experiences.
I said to myself, "Come on, I'm happy to test you to find out what's good." "Laughter," I said, "is crazy." And what does enjoyment do? I tried to cheer myself up with wine and embrace the madness, my mind still guiding me with wisdom. He wanted to see what good people can do in the few days of their lives under heaven.
I have undertaken great projects: I have built houses and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I built reservoirs to irrigate groves of flowering trees. I bought male and female slaves and gave birth to other slaves in my house. I also had more flocks and herds than anyone before me in Jerusalem. I collected silver and gold for myself and the treasures of kings and provinces. I acquired male and female singers and also a harem: the delights of a man's heart. I got so much bigger than anyone in Jerusalem before me. Through it all, my wisdom stayed with me.
I denied myself nothing of what my eyes desired;
I did not deny any joy to my heart.
My heart rejoiced in all my work,
and that was the reward for all my troubles.
But as I examined all that my hands had made
and what i fought for
everything was useless, running after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun.—Ecclesiastes 2:1-11
The statement in 1:16 and 2:9 that he surpassed all who came before him in Jerusalem would mean little if his father were his only predecessor. And the language of the book differs from the other writings of Solomon.In conclusion, it is not impossible that Solomon was Ecclesiastes, but the evidence to the contrary is enough to cast doubt.Since the Scriptures are silent on the subject, we cannot rely on them to identify Ecclesiastes.
Ecclesiastes: The Wisdom of Ecclesiastes
Not only is the identity of Ecclesiastes obscured, but it appears that although his wisdom is presented in the book, he was not the author. Rather, he is initially presented in the third person, and even when first person is used, he is sometimes presented as quoted material:
"You see," says the teacher, "this is what I discovered:
"Adding one to the other to discover the scheme of things -
while i was still searching
but not find—
I found a sincere man in a thousand
but no sincere woman among them all.
I only found this:
God created man upright
but they have gone in search of many plans.”—Ecclesiastes 7:27-29
This suggests that an anonymous author presented the wisdom of Kohelet, a famous collector of wisdom, for our consideration. The book ends with some biographical information about Ecclesiastes and a summary of his message.
The teacher was not only wise, he also imparted knowledge to people. He thought and searched and arranged many proverbs. The teacher searched for the right words and what he wrote was sincere and true.
The words of the wise are like barbs, their proverbs picked up like nails driven into place, given by a shepherd. Be careful, my son, especially besides them.
There is no end to reading many books, and studying too much tires the body.
Now everything is heard;
here is the end of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments
for this is the duty of all humanity.
For God will bring every work into judgment,
including all hidden things
if it is good or bad.—Ecclesiastes 12:9-14
The result is that even if Kohelet were Solomon, the author may have lived at a later time.
When was Ecclesiastes written?
Some date the book to the 3rd or 4th century BC. and they affirm that the Hebrew of the book has characteristics of post-biblical Hebrew and that there is a perceptible influence of Greek philosophy. This view, popular with some scholars, must treat the book as factual fiction, a genre familiar to both Mesopotamia and Egypt. The presence of some Persian loanwords and the identification of an Aramaic influence have been used to strengthen this position.
A more common opinion among conservative interpreters is that the characteristic Hebrew is dialectical and therefore cannot help much in dating the book. Those who do not date the book to Solomon's time are more inclined to place it sometime in the eighth or seventh century B.C. to be placed, but can't really tell more precisely. Fortunately, the timeless nature of the book's wisdom makes it unnecessary to tie it to a specific time period.
Since the mid-2nd century AD, some have questioned the book's authority and, by extension, its canonical status. Initial objections from the Shammai and other rabbinic schools are cited in the Talmud, but they were never enough to raise serious doubts.
What is Preacher's background?
Like some of the other poetic books, Ecclesiastes contains several literary genres. Use allegories, sayings, metaphors, proverbs and other forms. Beyond gender identifications, there are a number of known literary works from the ancient Near East that address situations where conventional wisdom is seen as inconsistent with reality or experience. This was certainly the case with Job and his ancient Near Eastern counterparts. While this literature does not reject wisdom, it does show its limitations and shortcomings.
In Mesopotamian literature, an example would be the work known as Dialogue of Pessimism. This is quite a satirical play in which a man proposes various courses of action that are corroborated by the wisdom-style remarks of his slave. In either case, the man changes his mind and decides not to pursue the indicated course of action. This decision is also confirmed by the slave with a wise remark. The conclusion one would draw is that wisdom spells can be used to rationalize any given course of action.
In Egyptian literature there is an article in which a man contemplating suicide talks about various frustrations in life and his inability to find satisfaction. In this respect he bears a certain resemblance to Ecclesiastes. Harper's songs have a similar content and encourage you to enjoy life because you don't know what will come next.However, these seem to suggest a life of joy, which Ecclesiastes rejects.:
I said to myself, "Come on, I'm happy to test you to find out what's good." "Laughter," I said, "is crazy." And what does enjoyment do?—Ecclesiastes 1:1-2
What is the preacher's purpose and message?
The purpose of Ecclesiastes was to affirm that there is nothing "under the sun" that can give meaning to life. Even when a certain level of satisfaction or complacency has been reached, death awaits at the end. Frustration and adversity are inevitable, and the answers to life's tough questions are nowhere in sight. Under these conditions, the book confronts the imbalance and uncertainty of life and, probably unconsciously, demonstrates the need for a concept of resurrection to bring harmony to the discord of reality.
The preacher's message is that the way of life to follow is a life centered on God. The pleasures of life are not satisfying in themselves and cannot offer lasting satisfaction, but they can be enjoyed as gifts from God.. Life offers good times and bad times and does not follow a pattern as the principle of retribution suggests. But everything comes from the hand of God:
When times are good, be happy;
but when times are bad, consider this:
God made the one
as well as the other.
Therefore, no one can discover
nothing about his future.—Ecclesiastes 7:14
Adversity may not be pleasant, but it can help us become the people of faith we are meant to be.
It is now clear that we believe the book has a positive and orthodox message. This is controversial among interpreters of Ecclesiastes because many scholars have found nothing but pessimism or cynicism in its pages. An early Jewish view that is still prevalent today is thisThe erroneous theology of Ecclesiastes is given as an example of wrong thinking and is only corrected in the last chapter.However, if you look at the colophon, the summary in verses 13-14 is simply a repetition of what Ecclesiastes says throughout the book.
What is the structure of the Preacher?
We should not look for organizing principles like those found in the philosophical treatises of Western civilization. The 1:2 and 12:8 recording and the recurring chorus -"There is nothing more beautiful for a man than . . .' (cf. 2:24-26; 3:12-13, 22; 5:18-20; 8:15; 9:7-9) - show us that this is a coherent work, but the author goes along with In the introduction, several relevant topics for discussion were continued. It is useful to remember that wisdom literature often attempts to teach how to think rather than what to think.
After introducing the problem in 1:1,1, Ecclesiastes' own experience is used to point out that nothing "under the sun" can give meaning to life. In life "under the sun" God is far away and not a factor:
The words of the teacher, the son of David, the king in Jerusalem:
says the teacher.
It all makes no sense."
What do people get out of all their work?
where they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets,
and rushes back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north;
round and round
always returns to its course.
All rivers flow into the sea,
but the sea is never full.
To the place where the rivers come from
there they return.
All things are tiring
more than can be said.
The eye never tires of seeing,
nor the ear its fullness of hearing.
what was will be again
what has been done will be done again;
There is nothing new under the sun.
there is something to say
"Look! This is something new"?
It was here a long time ago;
it was here before our time.
No one remembers previous generations.
and even those who will come
will not be remembered
for those who follow them.—Ecclesiastes 1:1-11
Kohelet's alternative perspective
Once Kohelet has considered the potential sources of fulfillment and ruled them out, he offers an alternative perspective on life. In 3:1–15 he advises a moderate approach:
there is time for everything
and a season for every activity under heaven:
time to be born and time to die
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
time to cry and time to laugh
a time to cry and a time to dance,
time to scatter stones, time to gather stones,
AA time to hug and a time not to hug
A time to seek and a time to abandon
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
time to love and time to hate
A time for war and a time for peace.
What do workers get out of their work? I have seen the burden that God has placed on mankind. He made everything beautiful in his time. He also put eternity in the human heart; but no one can comprehend what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and do good while they live. That each of them can eat and drink and find satisfaction in all their work, that is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will last forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing can be taken away from it. God does it so that people fear him.
what is, has been,
and what will be was before;
and God will hold the past accountable.—Ecclesiastes 3:1-15
While nothing can be satisfying, there is no need to take a pessimistic, cynical, or fatalistic view of life. Enjoy life for what it is: a gift from the hand of God.When God is at the center of one's worldview, life's aspirations can fall into place and offer life not meaning but enjoyment.
Using pairs of antitheses in 3:1–8, Ecclesiastes begins by addressing why God should be at the center of our worldview. We have no control over the "times" of life, and many of them can be difficult. Stability can only be found in a God-centered focus. God has placed these limitations on us, but he has "put eternity in our hearts" so that we can seek him.
preachers and odds
Having presented the basic worldview of Ecclesiastes, the next few sections deal with the application of that worldview to life situations. It's not hard to apply when life is running smoothly, but how does it hold up when adversity hits? That is what 3:16–7:29 is about.
Ecclesiastes considers various situations in life that cause adversity. It's interesting that he focuses on the daily, routine frustrations that are too often our common fate. If one were to criticize the Book of Job, one might complain that the setting is too contrived. No one we know is the kind of person Job was, and it is highly likely that no one we know has suffered as much as Job. In this book, for the sake of theory, it was important to consider the most contradictory situation imaginable. But Ecclesiastes ensures that we can identify with his examples. The end result is that frustration and adversity cannot be avoided. So what does your worldview offer?
The solution suggested in Chapter 7 is that we should not try to avoid frustration and adversity.A God-centered worldview is willing to accept both prosperity and adversity as coming from the divine hand.. Here Ecclesiastes is concerned not with the cause (ie, God causing our frustrations), but with the idea that adversity serves a useful purpose in shaping us as individuals and especially as people of faith. This is exactly the attitude that Job took towards his problems:
"Naked I came out of my mother's womb,
and naked I will go.
The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away;
The name of the Lord be praised."—work 1:21
The Ecclesiastes solution leads to the final section of the book, where the author offers guidelines for planning the journey of a lifetime. Much of chapters 8 and 9 is concerned with adjusting our expectations of this world. This is followed in chapter 10 by warnings about power and the ramifications of foolish behavior. Chapter 11 urges a cautious but not too cautious approach to life, reminding us that we are responsible for how we live and the choices we make. Finally, Chapter 12 uses a variety of images and allegories to encourage the reader to act now. As the old saying goes, "You can't learn any younger."
After the verse inclusio of verse 8 comes what we call a colophon. This was used in ancient Near Eastern literature to further identify the author and embody what was written on the manuscript or tablet. As noted, there is nothing here that inverts or negates the book's message or offers a corrective to its teaching.
How do you live?
Ultimately, Ecclesiastes is a book about finding your way in life. We have learned to think of our world as being about the search for fulfillment. But the author of Ecclesiastes has a powerful message for us: fulfillment is God's business. We must accept what God sends us, be it blessings or adversity. Because ultimately the gifts we enjoy are not meant to bring us satisfaction.
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