Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A Brief Survey of Ecclesiastes, Part 1

A Brief Survey of Ecclesiastes, Part 1 

The Book of Ecclesiastes has exercised the Church in no small degree.  Many learned men have not hesitated to list it among the most difficult books in the Canon.  Luther doubted whether any expositor up to his time had fully mastered it.  Gregory of Nyssa says, ”When [the book of] Proverbs has exercised our minds by its obscure words, wise sayings, riddles and various twists of words as contained in the Introduction, we find an ascent for those persons who have advanced to more perfect lessons with regard to this lofty, divinely inspired book.  If a toilsome, arduous meditation on Proverbs prepares us for these lessons, how much more laborious and difficult must it be to now examine such sublime matters proposed for our contemplation!”[i]

Gregory of Nyssa did not fail to consider the role Ecclesiastes would play in his scheme for the spiritual life. He saw it divided into three stages, an outline inherited from his illustrious predecessor, Origen of Alexandria: praktikh qeoria or "practical, applied" contemplation, yusikh qeoria or "physical" contemplation and qeologia or "theology" which pertains to God proper.  In Origen's scheme the book of Proverbs represents the first stage, the book of Ecclesiastes the second and the Song of Songs the third and final stage.  Gregory himself speaks of the three books of Solomon with reference to the three stages of spiritual growth at the beginning of his Commentary on the Song of Songs.

In Gregory and Origen’s system, the purpose of Proverbs is to teach; Ecclesiastes preaches.  The philosophy of the Song of Songs transcends both by its loftier doctrine.   For Gregory of Nyssa Proverbs is the first way, Ecclesiastes is the second and the Song of Songs is the third.  In Gregory’s view we see a need to be instructed in spiritual things before advancing to a realization that our former perceptions were subject to vanity.

These views may be a bit overly philosophical yet they do point to an interesting fact about the actual location of Ecclesiastes in the Canon.  It is just before the Song of Songs and just after Proverbs.  When one has fully realized and felt the futility of life apart from God, only then can his soul truly appreciate the splendor of the Heavenly Bridegroom.


The Book of Ecclesiastes gets its title from the first words of the book: “The words of Qohelet (ko-heh-let), the Son of David, King in Jerusalem” (1:1).  The name "Ecclesiastes"—literally, "Member of an Assembly," often thought to mean (after Jerome) "Preacher"—is the Septuagint rendering of the Hebrew "Qohelet," apparently as an intensive formation from the root "qahal," with which such forms as the Arabic "rawiyyah" (professional reciter) have been compared. The Hebrew word is given by the author of the book as his name, sometimes with the article (12: 8, and probably 6: 27), but ordinarily without it: similar license is allowed in Arabic in the case of some common nouns used as proper names. The Greek title is derived from the term ekklesiastes, which is a good translation meaning “preacher,” and is derived from ekklesia, meaning “assembly.” The Greek is Latinized into Ecclesiastes.


The author of Ecclesiastes can be none other than King Solomon the son of David.  His name is nowhere mentioned in the book, however references in Ecclesiastes clearly suggest his authorship. The Jews considered Ecclesiastes to be Solomonic and inspired. The early Christian church also approved it. The author identifies himself as Davis’s son who was a king over Israel in Jerusalem (1:1). The book is consistent with the historic accounts of Solomon (1 Kings 1-11), and he has the qualities that would make him David’s son (1:16; 2:4-9).  Some critics of note, such as Grotius, Dathè and others have rejected the Solomonic authorship on the grounds of supposed differences in style and the use of a few words of a supposed later origin.  These arguments, however, amount to theoretical doubts or plausibilities.  They in fact, involve a supposition utterly unworthy of Inspiration, viz., that some unknown author has palmed upon the Church in the Sacred Canon his own thoughts and words under the deceptive cover of the name of, “the son of David – King in Jerusalem.”  Gleason Archer writes, “Most modern scholars admit that the purported author of Ecclesiastes is Solomon; but they maintain that this was simply a literary device employed by a later author, now unknown to us, who wished to teach the ultimate futility of a materialistic worldview. If this could be accepted as valid, it would certainly put in question almost every other affirmation of authorship to be found in any other book of the Bible. Some later, unknown author might equally well have pretended to be Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, or the apostle Paul, simply as "a literary device to express his own views." If it were any other book than the Bible, this would have to be classified as forgery, a mere product of deception, which would render the actual author of such a spurious work liable to damages in a court of law. It is more than doubtful that a Bible that holds to such high standards of integrity and honesty and that was certified by the Lord Jesus and His apostles as being the infallible Word of God could be composed of spurious work by authors who paraded under assumed names.”[ii]

Therefore, there is no conclusive evidence against king Solomon as the author.  There are two lines of evidence in favor of the Solomonic authorship: External evidence and internal.

As for the external evidence we have the Jewish Talmuds (the authoritative body of Jewish tradition comprising the Mishnah and Gemara), which attributes the book to Solomon but suggests that Hezekiah’s scribes may have edited the text (see Prov. 25:1).  Solomonic authorship of Ecclesiastes is the standard Christian position, although some scholars, along with the Talmud, believe the work was later edited during the time of Hezekiah or possibly Ezra.

The internal evidence is quite conclusive.  The author calls himself, "the son of David, king in Jerusalem" (Eccl. 1:1).  A later reference rules out any other offspring of David as a possible candidate, since Solomon was the only son of David to be king of Israel in Jerusalem (1:12).  After Solomon’s death the kingdom was divided and all David’s descendants that ruled in Jerusalem reigned only over the southern kingdom of Judah.  Solomon was the best-qualified Davidic descendant for the quest in this book.  He was the wisest man who ever taught in Jerusalem (see Eccl. 1:16; I Kings 4:29-30).  The descriptions of Qohelet’s exploration of pleasure (Eccl. 2:1-3), impressive accomplishments (Eccl. 2:4-6) and unparalleled wealth (Eccl. 2:7-10) were fulfilled only by King Solomon.  The proverbs in this book are similar to those in the Book of Proverbs (e.g. Eccl. 7:10).  According to Ecclesiastes 12:9, Qohelet collected and arranged many proverbs, perhaps referring to the two Solomonic collections in Proverbs.  Furthermore, the unity of authorship of Ecclesiastes is supported by the seven references to Qohelet.

The Grecisms supposed to be found in the book are all imaginary (for instance,  has no connection with fqe1gma.  The phrase "under the sun," which occurs so frequently, is also found in the Eshmunazar and Tabnith inscriptions, not later than 300 B.C., as the equivalent of "on earth"), and the suppositions as to borrowings from Greek philosophy which some have professed to detect are all fallacious.[iii]


The date is probably around 940-935 B.C., which would be consistent with Solomon as the author (970-931 B.C.).  All the best commentators are agreed that Solomon wrote this book toward the end of his life after his apostasy.  Bishop Reynolds says, “He seemeth to have written it in his old age, when he took a more serious view of his past life – the honour, pleasure, wealth, and wisdom he had so abundantly enjoyed – the errors and miscarriages he had fallen into – the large experience, and many observations he had made of things natural, moral domestical, sensual, Divine – the curious and critical inquiry he had made after true happiness, and what contributions all things under the sun could afford thereunto.”[iv]

All the internal evidence confirms this date.  It could not have been composed before his fall, i.e., before the awful state of madness he so graphically describes.  Neither could he have written it during the time since it is obviously a record of the past viewed in repentance.  We are left with no option but the later date.

The book was plainly written in a spirit of genuine penitence for the sins he had fallen into.  “He writeth in such sort, as if he had learned the doctrine of the vanity of earthly things by very great experience and long use.”[v]  The circumstances remind us of his father’s example – writing a psalm (Ps.51), however, he produces an entire book as a solemn testimony to the Church of his godly repentance.  “After his great fall Solomon recovereth himself again by repentance, and writeth his Book of Ecclesiastes, as his peculiar dirge for that his folly.”[vi]  Witsius speaks of this book “as written in his old age, when led, under the influence of the Divine Spirit, to repent of his past life.”[vii]  All the Patristic commentators agree with this view.

[i] Gregory of Nyssa, Commentary on Ecclesiastes
[ii] Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties
[iii] See Ad. Lods; "L'Ecclésiaste et la Philosophie Grecque," 1890
[iv] Annotations on Ecclesiastes – Works, vol. Iv.
[v] Lightfoot, Works, vol. i
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] Misc. Sacra, vol. ii. Exercit. vi.1

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