Friday, June 27, 2014

A Brief Survey of Ecclesiastes, Part 2

A Brief Survey of Ecclesiastes, Part 2

The canonicity of the book was, however, long doubtful (Yad. iii. 5; Meg. 7a), and was one of the matters on which the school of Shammai took a more stringent view than the school of Hillel.  It was finally settled "on the day whereon Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah was appointed head of the assembly."  Attempts were made to render it apocryphal on the ground of its not being inspired, or of its internal contradictions, or of a tendency that it displayed toward heresy — that is, Epicureanism.  But these objections were satisfactorily answered.  It was assumed that Solomon had taken the name "Qohelet," just as he had taken the name "Agur" (Prov. 30:1), as a collector; and probably the Septuagint rendering represents a theory that the name contained an allusion to I Kings 8:1 where Solomon is said to have gathered an assembly.  Along these same lines Rev. Scott wrote, “all of them [the “Epicurean-sounding” maxims] admit of a sound and useful interpretation, when accurately investigated, and when the general scope of the book is attended to.”[1]

There are no direct quotations of Ecclesiastes in the New Testament, however Matthew 23:23, R. V., "These ye ought to have done, and not to have left the other undone," seems clearly a reminiscence of Eccl. 7:18.  Holden gives a list from the German critic Carpzov of texts with more or less resemblance, but few of them carry any weight of parallelism or reference.

The “corrupt propensities,” as Bridges calls them, of the writer do not influence in deteriorating its real authority.  For this depends not upon the instrumentality employed but upon the dignity of its great author and the truthfulness of the testimony.  There is, for this reason, no ground to question that this book was given  - like every other part of Scripture – by inspiration of God.


The Book’s manifest purpose is to show that all is vanity unless one, “fears God, and keeps His commandments” (12:13).  The book is a record of Solomon’s desperate journey.  It was a maddening period in his adult life when life lost its luster.  He questions everything in life—values, God, ethics, etc.  He sought to live without God.  The goal of the journey is to show that you cannot live a significant, worthwhile, meaningful life without a personal relationship with God.  When you leave God out, life is a repetitious cycle of events, which neither possesses nor gives lasting value or satisfaction (1:2-11).  Solomon’s states clearly that significance in life can be found only in a trusting relationship with God:  Everything else is vanity.  If it is “under the sun” it will not satisfy because it is life apart from God.  Jesus asked, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?  Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”[2]  An adequate worldview must recognize that God is the highest value of all.  Life has a purpose and God will judge every deed.  Incidentally, this book is a testimony to the great doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints.  Despite the depths of Solomon’s fall, he was not left by God to die in that state.  Rather, like all the elect he was recalled and died securely in the grace of God that elected him to salvation before the foundations of the earth. 


“Vanity of vanities, All is vanity” (1:2).  “Wine, women and song” is the experience of living on the edge of reality without God.  Understanding of life begins with a healthy fear of God.  Elohim is used forty times in this book.  He is the total sovereign provider over all His creation.  The Preacher repeatedly admonishes men to “fear God” (3:14; 5:6; 8:12; 12:13).  Ecclesiastes reports the results of a diligent quest for purpose, meaning and satisfaction in human life.  The Preacher poignantly sees the emptiness and futility of power, popularity, prestige and pleasure apart from God.  The word vanity appears 37 times to express the many things that cannot be understood about life.  When earthly goals and ambitions are pursued as ends in themselves, they lead to disappointment and frustration.  Life "under the sun" (used 29 times) seems to be filled with inequities, uncertainties, changes in fortune, and violations of justice.

Yet Ecclesiastes does not give an answer to atheism or skepticism; God is referred to throughout.  In fact, it claims that the search for man’s summum bonum must end in God.  Satisfaction in life can be found only by looking beyond this world.  Ecclesiastes gives an analysis of negative themes but it also develops the positive theme of overcoming the vanities of life by fearing a God who is good, just, and sovereign (Eccl. 12:13, 14).


Ecclesiastes belongs to the Hebrew Wisdom literature.  The Hebrew in Ecclesiastes is unique to any other Hebrew from any other period.  It has some Aramaic and Persian words.  Archer says, “The reason for the peculiar vocabulary, syntax, and style seems to be found in the literary genre to which Ecclesiastes belonged – the genre of the philosophical discourse. If this particular genre was first developed in Phoenicia, and if Solomon was well read in this whole area of wisdom literature (cf. 1 Kings 4:30-34), there is every reason to believe that he deliberately chose to write in the idiom and style that had already been established for that genre.”[3]  It seems reasonably obvious that we are dealing here with a conventional style peculiar to the particular genre to which Ecclesiastes belonged.   It so happens that in the case of the precise genre to which Ecclesiastes belongs, we have nothing else that has survived from Hebrew literature.  There are some remarkable similarities between some passages in Ecclesiastes and the corresponding sections in the Proverbs.  He writes as a philosopher, and a keen observer of world history, current events and personal experiences.

Christ in Ecclesiastes:

Ecclesiastes convincingly portrays the emptiness and perplexity of life without a relationship with the Lord.  Each person has eternity in his heart (Eccl. 3:11), and only Christ can provide ultimate satisfaction, joy and wisdom.  Man’s summum bonum is found in the "one Shepherd" (Eccl. 12:11) who offers abundant life (John 10:9, 10).   In a striking passage from his commentary on Ecclesiastes, Gregory of Nyssa sees Qohelet as a reference, or perhaps a type of Christ.  He writes: “We must first consider the inscription of this book: ‘The words of Ecclesiastes, son of David, king of Israel in Jerusalem.’ The law of Moses is read in every church along with the prophets, psalms, historical books and other Old and New Testament readings. How, then, does this special inscription enhance Ecclesiastes, and what are we to make of it? …Perhaps this inscription refers to the leader of the Church [ekklesia]. The true Ecclesiastes [Qoheleth, Christ] gathers into one assembly those persons who often have been scattered and frequently deceived. Who could he be except the true king of Israel to whom Nathaniel said, "You are the son of God and the king of Israel" (Jn 1.49)?  If these words pertain to the king of Israel, the Son of God, as the Gospel says, then he is called Ecclesiastes. We will not deviate from the inscription's meaning provided that we learn about him who firmly establishes the Church through the Gospel and to whom these words apply. "The words of Ecclesiastes, son of David" [1.1]: thus Matthew begins his gospel with the name David and calls him Lord.[4]


No better conclusion of the book can be given than Solomon’s own: The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person (12:13).  Everything apart from God is futile.  Augustine said, “Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”[5]  When a person begins to grow spiritually, he realizes that the former way of life and the worldview that results from it no longer suffices for the new manner of living that has come to be.  In other words, what we once valued is no longer deemed to be so valuable.  The book of Ecclesiastes clearly provides expression for such a recognition. 

Solomon explored every visible realm of stimulation in a carefully controlled environment and was still unsatisfied.  Only God satisfies our deepest needs in life.  Everything else is “vanity."

[1] Preface to Ecclesiastes
[2] Matthew 16:26, NASB 1995
[3] Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties
[4] Gregory of Nyssa, Commentary on Ecclesiastes
[5] Confessions 1.1

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