Although daunting to understand for some, Ecclesiastes has long been respected as one of the most literarily complex books in the bible. Some avoid this book because, when read with a passive approach, it often reveals a rather depressing look at life; others prefer to deal with the book by selecting quotable passages out of context that reflect a worldview most Christians are more comfortable with. Modern biblical scholars, however, advocate that not only does the book of Ecclesiastes contain an encouraging and heartening look at the world, but also that the book makes a unique contribution to the biblical Hebrew wisdom literature. Additionally, most would contend that if Ecclesiastes was removed from the canon or completely ignored, it could seriously hinder our ability to understand the ideal of Godly wisdom, and thus, biblical living.
To establish the niche of the book of Ecclesiastes, it is necessary to lie out an outline of the evidence proving its validity as a canonical book. The first goal should be to examine the external evidence– that is, to establish age and authorship. The second priority is to determine major themes and how they are developed within the book of Ecclesiastes. And finally, to conclude why this book belongs in the Old Testament canon, we should examine how the book, including both its internal concerns and external evidences, develops or proves itself inseparable from the rest of the canonical biblical texts.
The evidence for the validity and inspiration of the scroll of Ecclesiastes has been debated for thousands of years. The very same questions ancient rabbis struggled to determine are the questions modern biblical scholars and textual critics argue over today. These debates often center on the authorship and age of the document.
While some extreme-fundamentalist Christians still insist, against the evidence, that Solomon was the author of Ecclesiastes, most modern biblical scholars would argue against Solomon’s authorship. (Childs, 582) While the book itself does, indirectly, suggest that the author is David’s son Solomon, the identifying verses are limited to the first two verses of the book and many scholars see these remarks as the author aiming to assume the persona of a person associated with wisdom rather than an actual identification of Solomon as the author. Hill and Walton argue that if, indeed, it was Solomon writing to identify himself he would do so boldly rather than by using evasive techniques. (293) Seemingly supporting this claim, the author of Ecclesiastes claims, in 1:16 and 2:9, that he has surpassed all that came before him in Jerusalem, but it can be pointed out that if he was the first ruling son of David, this would really be no fact to brag about. (Hill and Walton 239) Ultimately, La Sor sums the argument up by writing “It is far easier to say that Solomon did not write Ecclesiastes than to say who did.” (588)
Which naturally bring the reader to ask who did write the book of Ecclesiastes. Some scholars argue the book was written by a philosopher, a wise man in the footsteps of Solomon, or even by someone who wanted to intentionally forge a writing of Solomon. Clarifying evidence seems evasive, and no positive conclusions regarding authorship can be made. Scholars have, however, decisively ruled out several suggestions of authorship. “Despite superficial resemblances to Aristotle, Theogonis… and stoics, Qohelet was a Semitic wise man, not a Greek philosopher, and his mood and approach reflect a very different world” (588 Sanford)
When we consider the argument that it was a lesser-known man who wrote the book of Ecclesiastes, it reveals a logical reason to suppose why the author claimed to be Solomon. As an unknown, he knew by alluding to Solomon his words, which he believed to be both wise and godly, would be carried farther than would the ramblings of an average man. “…why does Qohelet seek to link himself with the real king? The simplest answer is for literary effect. The words of the honored head of Israel’s wisdom movement would carry weight with the sages whose views Qohelet aimed to correct.” (589 Sanford)
It could be argued that the debate over the date of the original composition of Ecclesiastes has been even more heated and varied than the debate over authorship. While those who claim Solomon as the author of Ecclesiastes find reason to believe the book dates to a time preceding the exile to Babylonia, most scholars propose that the book dates to a time during or after the exile. Perhaps the reason the debate hasn’t been resolved sooner is the uniqueness of the book; “the Hebrew of Qohelet is unlike any other of the Old Testament.” (329 Arnold) Arnold argues that “Most scholars date the work to the third century B.C” (329) and La Sor takes a more daring step in claiming that “a date later than 200 is ruled out, both by Ecclesiastes… and by fragments of Qohelet among Qumran scrolls.” (588) Although they seem to agree on a general timeline, Arnold claims, “The grammar and vocabulary of Ecclesiastes do not appear to be postexilic, but in fact completely consistent with pre-exilic Hebrew.” (329 Arnold) While Sanford holds that “The serious questioning of beliefs and values of ancient Israel points to a time where prophetic activist had crested and vital hope in God’s active presence and power had waned… both vocabulary and sentence structure are post-exilic, more closely akin to Mishnais style than any other Old Testament book.” (588 Sanford)
As aforementioned, many Christians treat the book of Ecclesiastics as a difficult or even useless book of the Old Testament– at best a source of nice quotes or situationally applicable passages. Most would like to avoid its depressing, even “hedonistic” worldview in favor of its overshadowing canonical predecessor, the book of Psalms. La Sor claims that Ecclesiastes was placed after Psalms “because it was thought that the writings linked to Solomon should follow those attributed to his father David.” (586 Sanford) But although their placement debatably makes sense chronologically, the tone of writing in these two books could not be more diverse.
In some ways, the arguments that Ecclesiastes “is a depressing book” are valid, “The book reflects a time of despair. The promises of the covenant seem far distant, the glories of the national Israel forgotten, and the shining hope of the prophets lost” (326 Arnold) Some scholars have even gone so far as to say the book of Ecclesiastes is not a godly work but the product of skepticism and religious breakdown in Israelite society. (Childs, 583)
Ironically enough for a piece of “wisdom literature,” the themes of Ecclesiastes are firstly that “conventional wisdom was not only inadequate, but close to blasphemous,” (589 La Sor) secondly that of an “overarching theological rubric under which all human behavior was to be view, namely, the judgment of God,” (Childs 586) and finally, the theme Qohelet most closely sites himself, “Life without God at the center is meaningless.” (326 Arnold)
Not only is the book of Ecclesiastes itself a unique literary work, but it also contributes a stark and poignant message to Israel: stop following man’s wisdom and content yourself to fear God and enjoy the life he has given you. “Like Job, he protested the easy generalizations with which his fellow teachers taught their pupils to be successful. They had oversimplified life and its rules so as to mislead and frustrate their followers.” (589 Sanford) Arnold argues that Ecclesiastes is a collection of diverse literary types, all making the same point. (327) It seems that Qohelet is so eager to make his point that he will use poetry, narrative, proverbs, and mediations to illustrate in whatever way his reader will be able to understand. Arnold argues that the fundamental teaching of all of these forms is simply: “Life, and our preoccupation with the material and temporal things, is meaningless.”(327 Arnold) Although this might be a common conclusion after reading the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus, to Qohelet’s readers, this was a radical statement. Arguably, this unorthodox teaching was essential to be included in the canon in order to pave the way for the teachings of the Messiah. Despite the ongoing debates over authorship and date, it is clear that Ecclesiastes plays an important part in the development of the Old Testament wisdom literature and, more generally, in the progressive revelation of God’s will throughout the bible.
Arnold, Bill T. and Bryan E. Beyer. Encountering the Old Testament: A Christian Survey. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999.
Childs, Brevard S. Introduction to the Old Testament As
Scripture. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979.
Hill, Andrew E. and Walton, John H. A Survey of the Old
Testament, pp. 155-160,183-185. Grand Rapids: Zondervan
Publishing House, 1991.
LaSor, William Sanford, David Hubbard and Frederic Bush. Old Testament Survey. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982.
© L. A. Braman 2003-2018
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