If you were to survey a group Christians on their favorite book of the Bible I would bet good money on not one of them choosing Ecclesiastes. It is not easy book to understand, but it has a valuable message for us.
At the end of the previous post I mentioned that because Christians arrive at the conclusion that ultimately everything we do will be destroyed, and that because of that belief we are (or should be) motivated to seek eternal things. The primary basis for this belief is not, I think, in the belief that Jesus will one day return and destroy an evil infested earth and remake it perfect so that it will not be corrupted again. The primary basis, I think, is in the observations recorded in a book in the Old Testament: Ecclesiastes.
Ecclesiastes is part of what is considered the “wisdom literature” in the Old Testament. The purpose of this literature is mainly to provoke you to think, consider, or meditate on something. Unfortunately most of American Christianity seems to value these things very little, so it does not get much attention. However there is much to be learned from Ecclesiastes, and so in this post I will give you a brief overview of the book so that, hopefully, you will be able to understand it better should you decide to read or study it one day.
Who wrote Ecclesiastes and why does it matter?
Determining who wrote what in the Old Testament is usually quite frustrating. Unlike the New Testament the books do not name their authors at the beginning, so we are really left to deduce who wrote what in the vast majority of cases.
But why even bother with trying to determine who wrote what in the first place if we can’t any degree of certainty with our answer?
If you can determine who wrote something then you can also determine about when it was written. This will give you a context in which to place the work and allow you to understand what the author is trying to say. In the case of Ecclesiastes this is especially important because the events being described are general enough that they can apply to almost any period of ancient Israel’s history.
The traditional view is that Solomon is the author of Ecclesiastes, and this was the general opinion until the Enlightenment in the 17th century. Since then some have challenged this view on the basis of the peculiar language used in the book. This argument in pretty technical, so I will not go into detail on it here, but the basic problem with it is, I think, that we do not know enough about how the Hebrew language developed and what other languages influenced it and when to determine any sort of developmental timeline. So I do not find this line of argument to be very persuasive.
Others dispute on the basis of a few problematic verses which, it is claimed, that Solomon would have never written. Among these verses are:
Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them. And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive. But better than both is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.
Solomon would not have written this verse, it is claimed, because he could have delivered people from oppression.
If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness, do not be amazed at the matter, for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them. But this is gain for a land in every way: a king committed to cultivated fields.
This verse is claimed to be a protest against a king. So Solomon, as king, would not have written a protest against the office that he himself holds.
Even in your thoughts, do not curse the king,
nor in your bedroom curse the rich,
for a bird of the air will carry your voice,
or some winged creature tell the matter.
This verse is said to portray the king as a paranoid and suspicious bully. Solomon would not have given himself this portrayal.
However, there are also many similarities with Solomon that must accounted for, such as:
The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.”
So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem.
Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth.
So, according to this line of argument, the author is adopting a Solomonic persona in order to explore life in the world and make his point. In other words, Solomon is basically a foil for the author’s argument: if Solomon cannot find meaning and satisfaction in life in these areas then no one can.
However, the aforementioned problematic verses can also be accounted for by taking the use of the name “the Preacher” to be a literary device by which Solomon is distancing himself from his role as monarch. So the words are not those of “King Solomon,” but of “Solomon the Sage.”
My general approach to authorship matters is to hold to the traditional view (assuming there is one) unless there is a good reason to overturn it. I don’t really see a good reason to deny the traditional view that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes, so I will hold to it. However, I would not fault you for holding to the “Solomonic persona” view mentioned above; I do not agree with it, but it is certainly a reasonable view to hold. Regardless though, the book certainly has a connection to Solomon and that connection must be appreciated and taken into account when interpreting the book.
There are 3 main issues to sort out when it comes to interpreting Ecclesiastes: 1) the structure of the book, 2) the meaning of the Hebrew word hebel (הֶבֶל), 3) the meaning of “under the sun.”
First, the structure of the book is relatively simple:
- Introduction: 1.1-11
- Main Body: 1.12 – 11.6
- Conclusion: 11.7 – 12.14
The main issue here is determining the structure of the main body. Some see an elaborate structure such as a complicated parallelism. Others see no structure at all. Both of these views are extreme and should be rejected. There is certainly a logic to the main body, but there is no agreement as to what that logic is. Some think it is a progression of thought. Others think that it is a wandering between several topics. Personally, I think that it is really a combination of both. He does wander between several topics, but there is also a progression of thought in his wanderings.
The meaning of “under the sun”
First, I will say that I take then phrases “under heaven” and “under the sun” to be equivalent in meaning; there is no difference in meaning between the phrases in my opinion.
Now, at a basic level the phrase simply refers to life on earth in a memorable way that engages the reader’s imagination. It might also be invoking an image of sweltering heart in order to communicate the discomfort that the Preacher feels. It might also suggest the troubled life of humanity against the backdrop of an inevitable death. Essentially, it is a point of view which excludes God, a point of view which is unique in the Bible. Now, to be sure, God is not excluded from the overall picture nor is he absent from the Preacher’s thought, and so the book should be interpreted within the Preacher’s own religious tradition. In fact, in Ecclesiastes 1.13 the Preacher even says that “It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man,” thus showing that God is still factoring into his thoughts. However, when the Preacher examines what happens he is not considering why God allows it to be as it is, he is just looking at life as it actually happens without regard to figuring out why God allows it to be this way; that question is not in his mind.
The meaning of hebel
The meaning of this word essentially determines the meaning of the book, so it is very important to get the meaning of this word right. Usually this word is translated “vanity,” but that doesn’t really capture what the Hebrew word means. The word “vain” usually has associations with something being empty or worthless or of no value. However, the basic meaning of the Hebrew word is “breath” or “vapor,” and we don’t really have an English word that means “vaporiness.” Some have suggested “meaningless” as a possible meaning, but this meaning falls short in places. Some newer translations actually translate this with “futility.”
The best solution is probably to just import hebel into your vocabulary as denoting the idea that “everything is transitory and of no lasting value. People are caught in the trap of the absurd and pursue empty pleasures. They build their lives on lies.”
The image presented in chapter 1, I think, provides a good image as to what hebel really means:
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
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.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.
It is an image of monotony, of going through the same things day after day but never really getting anywhere. Perhaps you might also think of it as a treadmill: you go and go, but never really get anywhere. No generation has outlasted the earth (v.4); the sun continually rises and sets (v.5); the wind continually blows (v.6); the streams continually flow (v.7); and just as the sun, wind, and rain are never finished and go through the same things everyday, so does humanity (v.8); therefore there is nothing new under the sun and nothing will last for eternity (vv.9-11).
So the basic refrain of the book is that nothing you do will last; it will all come to nothing.
In my opinion the main body of the book is essentially a quest by the Preacher to find something that is not hebel. He is looking for something that will last; something he can count on; something that is always true. He was unsuccessful in his quest. Everything that is done under the sun is in fact hebel. It is this way because this is the way that God has determined things should work and there is nothing that humans can do to ever change this order of things. What should humans do then? Enjoy the life that God has given you, regardless of what that happens to be, because it has come from God and there is no way that you can change things. The Preacher’s point of view then is deterministic; he recognizes that things are the way they are because God has determined that they be so. So what was Solomon attempting to communicate through the Preacher’s quest? While there are many lessons to be learned from his quest it is my opinion that Solomon was warning his prosperous society that God has ordained that everything be hebel, a warning that is just as timely today for our prosperous society as it was for his. Therefore we should obey God instead of spending our efforts in a futile attempt to overturn the order of things (Ecclesiastes 12.13-14).