My Understanding of Ecclesiastes

All is vanity! What a pessimistic book. Ecclesiastes is one of the Ketuvim or Writings of the Hebrew Bible. Among the Christian Old Testament books it appears with the wisdom literature books. The title Ecclesiastes is a Latin translation of the Greek έκκλασία, based on the Hebrew Qoheleth, meaning teacher or preacher, something like one who convenes or addresses an assembly. I have used the name Qoheleth throughout this work.

According to tradition, Ecclesiastes was written by Solomon (970-931 BCE) in his old age.  Another tradition holds that King Hezekiah (716-687 BCE) and his colleagues wrote Isaiah, Proverbs, the Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes.  However, most critical scholars have rejected the idea of a pre-exilic origin. The presence of borrowed Persian words and Aramaic terms points to a date no earlier than about 450 BCE. It certainly was completed by 180 BCE, when it was quoted by others. The real dispute is about whether Ecclesiastes belongs to the Persian (450–330 BCE) or the Hellenistic periods (330–180 BCE). Ecclesiastes is definitely an anonymous writing with the most probable date in the Hellenistic 3rd century BCE.

Qoheleth used a literary device to introduce himself as the son of David, the king in Jerusalem. This veiled reference to Solomon would have put this book in the 10th century BCE. Sometimes Qoheleth even refers to himself in the third person singular, as a king in search of wisdom. This work presents a vague autobiography of Qoheleth, like a literary fictional autobiography form in the Middle Eastern tradition. Ecclesiastes differs from the other biblical Wisdom books in that it is deeply skeptical of the usefulness of wisdom itself.  This book of Ecclesiastes, in turn, influenced the so-called deutero-canonical books of the Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach, or as it is sometimes called Ecclesiasticus, not to be confused with this book.

Wisdom literature was a popular genre in the ancient world, where it was cultivated in the scribal circles. These kinds of writings were directed towards young men who would take up careers in royal courts. There is strong evidence that some of these sayings and teachings were translated into Hebrew and influenced the Book of Proverbs. The author of Ecclesiastes was probably familiar with these examples from Egypt and Mesopotamia.  He may also have been influenced by Greek philosophy, specifically the schools of Stoicism and Epicureanism.

Ecclesiastes does not have the common themes found in the Hebrew biblical canon. There is nothing about a revealing and redeeming God. It almost seems like this writer has lost his faith in God. Instead of positive, life-affirming proverbs, it appears to be deeply pessimistic. Is this author insightful or confused?

Qoheleth praises wisdom, but reminds the reader that wisdom has its limitations and is not man’s main concern. He explains what he had planned and experienced. His journey to knowledge is incomplete, although the journey itself is important. He proclaims that all the actions of humans are vain, futile, empty, meaningless, temporary, transitory, fleeting, or mere breath. Both the wise and foolish people die. In the light of this senselessness, you should enjoy the simple pleasures of your daily life, eating, drinking, and taking enjoyment in your work.

The subject of Ecclesiastes is the pain and frustration that he has observed in the various distortions and inequities in this world. The term ‘under the sun’ appears thirty times as a way of saying this earthly existence. However, there is a firm belief in God, his power, and justice. All events are predetermined and unchangeable. Life has no meaning or purpose, so just enjoy God’s gifts.

Ecclesiastes has had a deep influence on Western literature. It contains several phrases that have resonated in British and American culture, such as ‘nothing new under the sun,’ ‘a time to be born and a time to die,’ ‘vanity of vanities,’ ‘all is vanity.’

Generally Ecclesiastes it is divided into two parts. The first part opens with an introduction that sets the tone for the rest of the book. All things are meaningless. They are the vanity of vanities, the superlative of vanity. Qoheleth simply wants to know ‘What is new?’ He, as the wise King of Israel was on a foolish search for wisdom. He saw clearly that there was vanity and futility in pleasure, luxurious wealth, and greatness. He recognized the importance of wisdom, but both the wise and the foolish ones died. He even thought that it was vain to work hard, but it was good to please God.

Then there is the famous poem about a time for everything. The human task was to be happy and accept God’s role. You saw around you nothing but wickedness, humans, and animals, so that you might as well enjoy your work. Death was the common denominator of all. It levels life. You had to avoid oppression, being the oppressor, or the one oppressed. Do not get all worked up about work, because it is futile anyway. It was better to work with others than to work alone.

The old foolish king should be replaced with a young king. There were ways to conduct yourself in the Temple. Stay away from vows and be skeptical of dreams. He warned people about the vanity of money, sleep, and lost wealth. However you should enjoy whatever wealth you have. In fact, those who have wealth have a hard time enjoying their wealthy life because the appetites of humans are insatiable. They never have enough in this life of passing shadows.

In the second part we realize that we cannot discover what is good for us due to the dichotomies of life. We want to pass on wisdom whether we live in prosperity or adversity. We should not be too wise or too wicked. You have to know your heart and search for wisdom. Watch out for women. Who is the wise man? Know the power of the king, the right time, and the wicked. After all, just enjoy yourself.

You should seek love and the hidden work of God. However, we do not know love, despite the fact that we all share the same fate, death. Once again, we might as well enjoy life since we do not know what will come after us. Life is like a game of chance. Which would we prefer, wisdom or strength? Fools do not use quiet wise words in this upside down world. Be careful in what you do. Do not listen to the words of the foolish. You should have a good ruler for your land. Be careful about what you say in your uncertain life. You should plant seeds, no matter what the weather is like.

There is a concluding poem by Qoheleth that talks about the ages of life. First there is light and a happy youth. Then there is the loss of light and the impending death of old age. As usual, all is vanity. Finally, there is an epilogue from another author who praises Qoheleth. Then to make this book sound more religious, this epilogue indicates that Qoheleth was trying to goad us on with many of his comments. The concluding remarks are reminding us that all of us should then fear God.

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