ECCLESIASTES . The Book of Ecclesiastes belongs to the wisdom writings of the Hebrew Bible, along with Proverbs and Job. The Hebrew title of the book is Qohelet, a term related to the verb qāhal, "to gather, assemble." Most likely the noun qōhelet designates the function "gatherer," although it remains unclear whether the term refers to the author as a gatherer of wise sayings or as a gatherer of persons for instruction. Greek translators interpreted the word to mean ekklēsiastēs, "member of a citizen's assembly." Although the book identifies Qohelet as "king over Israel in Jerusalem, " that is, Solomon (1:12; cf. 1:1), scholars recognize this persona as a literary fiction, one that is maintained only for the section 1:12–2:26. In the epilogue Qohelet is referred to as a ḥākām, a "sage" who taught the people.
Date, Provenance, and Reception
The lack of specific historical references within the book makes it difficult to date Ecclesiastes. Consequently, its linguistic profile provides the best clue to the date of composition. The presence of Persian loan words and numerous Aramaisms, as well as Hebrew expressions and grammatical forms typical of other post-exilic texts, makes a date earlier than the mid-fifth century bce all but impossible. Opinion is divided, however, as to whether the book is more likely to have been composed during the Persian period (540–332 bce) or the Hellenistic period (332 bce–165 ce). A date in the fourth or third century bce is most likely.
Though the date remains somewhat uncertain, the social context of the book is reflected in the striking use of terms drawn from the commercial world. Ecclesiastes often uses these terms in a derived or metaphorical sense, but the commercial origin of words such as yitrôn (profit), ḥesrôn (deficit), ḥeshbôn (account), and shallît (proprietor) is readily recognized. Moreover, a number of the sayings concern money and economic relations. Beginning in the Persian period, the economy of Palestine was increasingly monetary and commercial. The competitive economic context of Persian and Hellenistic Palestine was also combined with an autocratic and often arbitrary system of political and economic hierarchy (royal grants, tax farming, etc.) that made it difficult for individuals to have a sense of control over their economic futures. This socioeconomic situation seems to inform the perspective of Ecclesiastes, in which the inability of persons to be able to grasp the order of the world becomes thematic. One of the ways in which this perspective is manifest in Ecclesiastes is the foregrounding of the contradictoriness of experience.
Not surprisingly, Ecclesiastes was one of the books about whose canonicity certain rabbis raised questions in the late first century ce, when such issues were being discussed. The shocking nature of a number of the observations of Ecclesiastes provoked some of the opposition. In addition, the book's odd, self-contradictory structure gave pause. As a remark in the Talmud observes, "the sages sought to withdraw the book of Qohelet because its words are mutually contradictory" (b. Shabb. 30b). Nevertheless, the book was received as canonical in Judaism and thus in the Christian canon. In fact, Ecclesiastes came to be recognized as one of the five Megillot, the scrolls read in connection with the calendar of Jewish festivals. Ecclesiastes is read during Sukkot, the Festival of Booths, presumably because of the connection between the repeated calls of Ecclesiastes to enjoy the present moment and the association of Sukkot with "the season of our rejoicing."
Content and Themes
Although Ecclesiastes is often seen as a heterodox work, it fits quite well into the larger picture of wisdom writings in the ancient Near East. Ancient Near Eastern wisdom was fundamentally concerned with the quest for order in the natural world, especially as that order expresses itself in the sphere of human experience. While many wisdom texts, such as the Book of Proverbs, express confidence in human ability to discern and profit by perceiving such an order, there are also many that express a skeptical or pessimistic view. These include the Egyptian writings of the Dialogue of a Man with His Ba, The Admonitions of Ipuwer, and the conclusion to The Instructions of Ani. In Mesopotamian wisdom The Babylonian Theodicy and, in particular, The Dialogue of a Master with His Slave articulate skepticism toward the project of discerning the order of the universe. In Israelite wisdom the Book of Job is also reckoned among the skeptical works. It is probably incorrect to see these different opinions as representing a chronological movement from confidence to skepticism. It is rather more likely that both the confident and the skeptical perspectives were present within the dialogue of wisdom at most times.
The particular perspective of Ecclesiastes concerning the accessibility of order in the world is announced in the opening verse of the text (1:2). Following the translation of the King James Version, the line is often rendered "Vanity of vanities, says Qohelet; vanity of vanities; all is vanity." The word translated "vanity" is hebel, which literally means "a puff of air." It is, as C. L. Seow suggests in Ecclesiates: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (1997), "anything that is superficial, ephemeral, insubstantial, incomprehensible, enigmatic, inconsistent, or contradictory.… It cannot be grasped—either physically or intellectually" (p. 47). Thus, Ecclesiastes does not deny that there is an order to the world—indeed, he often suggests that there is—only it is one that cannot be grasped by human knowing. Consequently, translators sometimes render hebel by such terms as futility or even absurdity.
The conviction of Ecclesiastes that humans cannot grasp the order of the world helps make sense of a frequent literary strategy used in the book in which two sayings that contradict one another are placed side by side. Exposing contradictions as the way in which the world is in fact experienced demonstrates the elusiveness of any intellectual or moral order. Moreover, it also explains why his judgment concerning the utility of wisdom is so mixed. Wisdom may in some cases be an advantage, but in other cases it affords no advantage whatsoever. Hence, persons are unable to control their futures by discerning the right deed for the right time. For this reason Ecclesiastes often characterizes the work people do in their lives with a word that has negative connotations, ʿamal, meaning "burdensome toil." Similarly, Ecclesiastes notes that although God is just, injustice is often present in the world. Death becomes emblematic of the inability of humans to grasp any meaningful order, since "the same fate comes to all" (9:2), whether they are wise or foolish, good or evil, religious or not. Like the order of the world, God remains inscrutable for Ecclesiastes. Although much that Ecclesiastes says about God would be at home in Proverbs, he differs from that book in stressing the radical transcendence of God ("God is in heaven and you are on earth" [5:2]). Like an imperial monarch in the Persian or Hellenistic period, God is to be feared rather than loved (5:1–7).
Despite the conviction of Ecclesiastes that the order of things cannot be understood and used to human advantage, he addresses the concern of traditional wisdom for how to live appropriately in the world. Consistent with his analysis of the inability of persons to control their futures, Ecclesiastes endorses taking pleasure in the moment at hand. One should enjoy eating, drinking, being festive, loving one's spouse, working on the task at hand (9:7–10). Even this is not in one's own power, however, but rather is frequently described as God's "gift" or as a person's "portion" from God. Although this advice differs from what one finds in other Israelite wisdom texts, it is traditional wisdom, having a very close parallel in the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh epic. Thus, Ecclesiastes should not be seen as representing a crisis in Israelite wisdom, as is sometimes suggested, but rather as articulating the skeptical or pessimistic strand of traditional ancient Near Eastern wisdom.
Crenshaw, James L. Ecclesiastes: A Commentary. Philadelphia, 1987.
Fox, Michael V. A Time to Tear Down and a Time to Build Up: A Rereading of Ecclesiastes. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1999.
Lohfink, Norbert. Qoheleth: A Continental Commentary. Translated by Sean McEvenue. Minneapolis, 2003.
Longman, Tremper, III. The Book of Ecclesiastes. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1998.
Murphy, Roland E. Ecclesiastes. Dallas, Tex., 1992.
Seow, C. L. Ecclesiastes: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. New York, 1997.
Carol A. Newsom (2005)
ECCLESIASTES (Heb. קּוֹהֶלֶת ,הַקּוֹהֶלֶת), one of the group of minor writings of the Hagiographa known as the Five Scrolls (Megillot). The name Ecclesiastes is Greek and probably means "member of the assembly." It renders the Hebrew word kohelet (qohelet, or ha-qohelet = the Qohelet; 1:1, 2, 12; 7:27; 12:8, 9, 10). Qohelet is not a proper name but means something like "one who acts in the assembly" or "teaches the public" – see the description of his activities in 12:9. Qohelet is usually thought to be the author, but he may be a fictional persona, the author's "mouthpiece." Though Qohelet never claims to be Solomon, he does describe himself in Solomon-like terms: He is "king in Jerusalem" (1:12) and "son of David, king in Jerusalem" (1:1). Traditionally, therefore, he was identified with Solomon. Solomonic authorship, however, is ruled out by evidence of language and content.
Language and Date
The Hebrew of the book represents the latest stage in the evolution of biblical Hebrew. An example of the indicators of late biblical Hebrew is the root tqf (4:12; 6:10), which can only be borrowed from Aramaic, and not before the seventh century b.c.e. Also, the nouns pardes "orchard" (2:5) and pitgam "decree" (8:11) are both borrowed from Persian. Persia only emerged from obscurity in the middle of the sixth century b.c.e., and no words are known to have been borrowed from its language before that. Moreover, pardes, from the Persian piridaēza ("rampart," a domain of the king) was also borrowed by the Greeks (paradeisos) in the sense of "orchard," the sense it has in Ecclesiastes 2:5. The word avadeyhem "their deeds" in 9:1 is Aramaic, not Hebrew. So too, ʾillu, the Aramaic and post-biblical equivalent of the classical lu, occurs in the Bible only in Ecclesiastes 6:6 and in *Esther 7:4 (the latter being obviously post-exilic and probably third century b.c.e.). There are, in fact, Aramaisms in Qohelet at a much greater frequency than we would expect in a pre-exilic work. Indeed it has been argued – see the items by Ginsberg in the Bibliography – that the book was written in Aramaic and later translated into Hebrew. This theory has not been accepted by other scholars, but it calls for further examination. On the linguistic background of the book, see especially the books by Schoors and Seow.
The content too points to a Hellenistic dating. There is reason to think that the author was influenced by Stoic philosophy (see Rudman in Bibliography). Also, competitive foot races, alluded to in 9:11, entered the Near East only in the third century b.c.e. A deeper indicator of Greek influence (which would scarcely be possible before the Hellenistic period) is the book's display of the mindset of Greek philosophy. This enterprise tried to determine the good by the application of human reason alone, without appeal to tradition or revelation. Qohelet, alone of the Bible, follows this path.
The book of Ecclesiastes is a reflection on life together with advice on making one's way through it. Qohelet introduces himself as a wise king who sought to examine all that happens on earth (1:12–18), including toil, wisdom, and pleasure. His goal is to determine "what is good for man to do under the heavens during the few days of his life" (2:3). He amassed wealth and belongings, and this accomplishment seems to have given him pleasure; but ultimately he found it senseless (2:4–2:26). As Qohelet proceeds on his investigation, he observes a variety of values and typical events. Most of these he finds senseless and "bad," but he does suggest various ways of maneuvering through life and, from time to time, does praise certain modes of behavior and experiences. Still, he begins and concludes with a judgment that recurs throughout the book, "All is hevel," a keyword usually translated "vanity" or "transient" but that might be better translated "senseless" or "absurd."
Recurring topics include injustices (3:16–22); social oppressions (4:1–3; 5:7–11); the futility of toil and pleasure (2:18–26; 4:4–8; 5:12–6:9); the failure of wisdom and the frailty of its achievements (4:13–16; 6:10–12; 7:13–14, 23–24; 8:16–9:10; 9:1–3). Occasionally he grants wisdom's (limited) value (9:13–18; 10:1–3). He more emphatically affirms life's goodness and the importance of grasping life's pleasures when they present themselves (9:4–10; 11:7–12:1) – an imperative made all the more urgent by the incessant awareness of death's grim certainty (9:7–10; 12:1–8). He concludes with a mysterious description of the path to death (12:2–7). The opening declaration "All is hevel" concludes his words. An epilogue (12:9–14) speaks about Ecclesiastes from the standpoint of a later sage.
The book of Ecclesiastes is written in an unusual, difficult Hebrew, and its thought is self-contradictory and sometimes opaque. Hence its interpretation has been marked by sharp disagreement among the commentators.
Traditional commentators, following the Midrash (especially Kohelet Rabbah), regard the book to be King Solomon's words in old age. Having experienced both the world's glories and its disappointments, he realized the futility of mundane strivings and the insignificance of earthly goods – matters "beneath the sun" (1:3 and often). These he deemed hevel (understood to mean "trivial"). In contrast, matters that are not "beneath the sun" but rather belong to the transcendent, spiritual realm, have great and everlasting value. These are, above all, the eternal life and study of Torah. The book teaches that one must resign oneself to God's will, for all his works are good. Injustices will eventually be rectified and righteousness rewarded, if not in this life then in a blessed eternity, the "world to come."
Most modern commentators understand the book to express skepticism about traditional beliefs, especially the verities of the book of Proverbs and similar wisdom literature, in particular the axioms of God's justice and the efficacy of wisdom and hard work. An example of a negative reading is that of Crenshaw, according to whom Qohelet directs a radical, unrelenting attack on the traditional beliefs of the sages and denies the reality of a moral order. All that is left, Qohelet concludes, is the pleasure of the moment, which may soothe the troubled spirit. A more positive reading is advocated by Fredericks, who argues that Ecclesiastes is only commenting on the human realm. This is characterized by transience, to be sure, but man can find ways to cope, namely by simple pleasures, wisdom, the joy of work, and resignation to God's will. Similarly, Seow argues that "all is hevel" does not mean that everything is meaningless or insignificant, but that the meaning of life and the rationale of its inequities transcend human comprehension. Humans must accept whatever happens, while making the most of life's possibilities.
Fox (1999, 2004) argues that the underlying issue that Qohelet addresses is the question of meaningfulness in life. For events to be meaningful, they would have to cohere in a comprehensible picture, with deeds securely and predictably producing the appropriate consequences. The righteous should be rewarded and the wicked punished; the one who toils should get to enjoy the full fruits of his work while the foolish should suffer penury; the wise should have a life the polar opposite of the fool's; and something should distinguish them in death.
Qohelet sees that these things do not happen, at least not consistently (see 6:2; 8:11; 9:11), and he is weighed down by the collapse of meaning, which is revealed by the contradictions that pervade life. These he repeatedly calls hevel – "absurd" or "senseless." Qohelet is frustrated that life does not make sense. The irrationality of the world is his fundamental grievance, and his other complaints – such as the brevity of life, the futility of effort, the triviality of worldly goods, the vulnerability of wisdom, and the anomalies in divine justice – are secondary to this one and serve to confirm it.
Qohelet believes, or at least tries to believe, that God will eventually execute justice (3:17; 11:9b). The righteous, in principle at least, live long and the wicked die young (8:11–12a, 14). But Qohelet does not see this happening at present and fears that justice will come too late (8:10–11, 14). Qohelet sees injustices but insists that God is just. Qohelet does not eliminate this contradiction but is just frustrated by it.
God for Qohelet is an absolute, unpredictable autocrat. He is a distant and all-powerful force who can be feared but not loved (3:14b; 5:1, 2, 4; 6). But, though rather steely and remote, He is not uniformly hostile. If (for unpredictable reasons) God should grant someone good things, He wants the fortunate man to enjoy these gifts (5:20; 9:7).
For all his complaints, Qohelet is not a nihilist. "Everything is absurd" is to be understood as expressing a general characterization of life, not an absolute negation of the value of all activities and values. Qohelet shows how humans can recover and reconstruct meanings. He does not arrive at a grand logic or theology that makes sense of everything, but he does recommend modest adjustments and small-scale accommodations in our individual lives.
Some things Qohelet does find worthwhile, such as moderate work, temperate enjoyment of the pleasures that come to hand, love and friendship, gaining and using whatever wisdom is within our capacity, being reasonably righteous, and fearing God. Though their benefits are brief, imperfect, and uncertain, they are enough to make life worth living. Qohelet comes to realize that despite all its unfairness and absurdity, life itself is good, to be grasped all the more eagerly for death's finality.
Qohelet's affirmations all look inward, to each individual's benefit, and his concerns are internal as well: what troubles people, what cheers them up, how they can get along in a world in which much is predetermined and opaque. Though there are practical things we can do to reduce the risks, the only real realm of real freedom and control is the human heart – the domain of emotions, thoughts, and attitudes. We are to enjoy whatever pleasures God makes possible and avoid whatever sorrow we can. This, we may note, is Stoic doctrine as well.
A different theology emerges in the epilogue, 12:9–14. This is commonly considered an addition by a later scribe, but it may well be the words of the anonymous author. The epilogue evaluates Qohelet from a more conventional standpoint. It assures the reader that Qohelet was a wise and eloquent teacher, but also warns that the words of the wise hold certain dangers. What is of ultimate importance is to fear God, obey His commandments, and live in awareness of His ultimate judgment.
early commentaries: midrash qohelet rabba 8th–10thc. b.c.e.; english trans. A. Cohen, Midrash Rabbah, 8 (1983); Saadiah Gaon; Rashi; Abraham Ibn Ezra; Samuel b. Meir; Samuel ibn Tibbon; Obadiah b. Jacob Sforno; Yosef Ibn Yahyah; Moshe b. Hayyim Alsheikh. modern commentaries: G.A. Barton (icc, 1908); C.D. Ginsburg (1861; with extensive survey of older literature); E. Podechard (Fr., 1912); H.W. Hertzberg (Ger., 1932, 19632); R. Gordis (1951, 19673); H.L. Ginsberg (Heb., 1961); J.L. Crenshaw (otl, 1987); R.L. Murphy (wbc, 1992); M.V. Fox (jps Commentary, 2004); C.L. Seow (ab, 1997); T. Longman iii (nicot, 1998); N. Lohfink (Continental Commentaries, 2003). studies: H.L. Ginsberg, Studies in Kohelet (1950); E. Bickerman, Four Strange Books of the Bible (1967), 139–67. add. bibliography: A. Schoors, The Preacher Sought to Find Pleasing Words (1992); idem, Qohelet in the Context of Wisdom (1997); M.V. Fox, A Time to Tear Down and a Time to Build Up (1999); D.C. Fredericks, Coping With Transcience (1993); E. Christianson, A Time to Tell: Narrative Strategies in Qoheleth (1998); S. Burkes, Death in Qoheleth (1999); R. Sandberg, Rabbinic Views of Qohelet (1999); D. Rudman, Determinism in the Book of Ecclesiastes (2001).
[Harold Louis Ginsberg /
Michael v. Fox (2nd ed.)]