The title ‘Ecclesiastes’ is found in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) and is derived from the Hebrew word Koheleth, found seven times in Ecclesiastes. Koheleth means ‘caller’ and is translated ‘the preacher’, e.g., 1. 2; 12. 8. In this largely autobiographical poem, the royal preacher, Solomon, shares with us excerpts of his weary search for the significance of human existence. He will examine science, wisdom, philosophy, pleasure, materialism, as well as living for the ‘now’ as possible avenues of satisfaction. Is it possible for man to actually enjoy his earthly sojourn, that is, his life ‘under the sun’? It seemed to Solomon that all man’s toiling was utterly meaningless, 1. 2.
Ecclesiastes highlights the sorrowful consequences of choosing to venture down wrong paths in life. Solomon entered into many political marriages with the daughters of pagan kings, who then brought strange gods into his palace, all of which degraded his relationship with Jehovah. He forsook God’s word, which he had known from his youth, to pursue selfish interests and sensual pleasure. Now, writing in his autumn years, Solomon is disappointed, and even disillusioned because of his own carnality.
It is not necessary for us to follow the royal writer in his regretful exploits to learn their end. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon examines his own life, especially his mistakes, and reflects on a lifetime of observations in an attempt to make sense of it all: ‘Why is man upon the earth?’ and ‘How can man find satisfaction in life?’ Ultimately, he will conclude that the answer to both questions is the same: ‘Fear God, and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man’, 12. 13. Solomon’s ontological quest led him back to the Lord, and to understand that man exists to please Him. This is perhaps why Solomon uses the less familiar term ‘God’ exclusively throughout the book, until he acknowledges the importance of personally fearing the Lord at the end. Recognizing and yielding to divine authority results in personal fellowship with the Lord and the experience of His blessing.
Where Proverbs provides hundreds of wise course corrections to navigate through life, Ecclesiastes explores a panoramic view of life itself – what does it all mean and what is truly satisfying in life? Unfortunately, Ecclesiastes is penned from a foolish humanistic perspective. This is one of the great paradoxes recorded in scripture – how does the wisest man ever known play the world’s greatest fool?
Date and historical setting
Since Solomon reigned as Israel’s king from 971 to 932 BC his literary works would have been composed during that timeframe. H. A. Ironside suggests the following order of his writings:
‘Presumably he wrote the Song of Solomon when he was young and in love, Proverbs when he was middle-aged and his intellectual powers were at their zenith, and Ecclesiastes when he was old, disappointed, and disillusioned with the carnality of much of his life’. 1
The author of the Ecclesiastes does not mention his name and provides limited information about himself. Jewish tradition has long ascribed its authorship to Solomon, though today that determination is widely debated. 2 Solomon’s authorship was broadly accepted throughout the Church Age until Martin Luther rejected the idea in the sixteenth century. Presently, many conservative Bible scholars do not believe that Solomon wrote this literary device, because much of its Hebrew grammatical construction did not exist until after the Babylonian captivity. However, recent studies have called into question the validity of this linguistic evidence and reopened the possibility of Solomon’s authorship on a grammatical basis. 3
We do know that the author was a descendent of David and was also a king of Israel ruling in Jerusalem, 1. 1, 12. Although the word ‘son’, in these verses can mean a grandson or later descendant, the primary sense best fits the text, as there was only one descendant of David that ruled over all Israel in Jerusalem – David’s son Solomon. William MacDonald makes a case for Solomon’s authorship by correlating information found in Ecclesiastes with what we know about Solomon elsewhere in scripture:
‘Solomon was a king in Jerusalem: of great wisdom (1:16); of great wealth (2:8); one who denied himself no pleasure (2:3); one who had many servants (2:7); and one who was noted for a great building and beatification program (2:4-6)’. 4
Given the known inspired writers of scripture, what we understand about them, and their writing styles and thematic works, it seems likely that Solomon is the author of Ecclesiastes. On this point, William Kelly poses the follow conjecture:
‘Even if the book had no such marks as Ecclesiastes 1:1, and 12, who does, who could, speak of wisdom as in the latter half of Ecclesiastes 1 but Solomon? Who could sit in judgment of all that is done under the heavens, and pronounce on its nothingness as in Ecclesiastes 2, but one with the weight of that great king? Was any one that ever lived after him in Jerusalem entitled so truly as he to speak of great works that he made, of building and planting with every accessory; of servants within and without; of such possession of herds and flocks and on such a scale of grandeur; of wisdom remaining, notwithstanding vast accumulations of silver and gold and the peculiar treasure of kings? There is no real ground to imagine an anonymous writer personating Solomon: an idea quite alien to scripture, though reasonable in the eyes of worldly men used to fiction. Here all is intense and solemn reality, as he had proved too well who could speak beyond any’. 5
Accordingly, this author will proceed on this assumption and that the book was a sorrowful reflection of Solomon’s life resulting from many poor choices – now his regrets.
Reoccurring phrases and ideas
Because Solomon confines his quest to understand the meaning of life to the material world, much of his efforts frustrate, even torment him. The answer to this important question cannot be found through ‘under the sun’ reasoning or experiments; one must get above the sun – contemplate divine revelation. Therefore, many of the reoccurring words and phrases throughout Ecclesiastes convey a general tenor of sadness: ‘labour’ occurs twenty times; ‘evil’ eighteen times; ‘vexation of spirit’, KJV, or ‘grasping for the wind’, NKJV, nine times; words such as ‘oppression’, ‘sorrow’, ‘grief’, and ‘mourning’ are plentiful.
The following is a list of key repetitive phrases and a brief explanation of their meaning:
- ‘Vanity of vanities’ – Vanity describes the emptiness of life apart from God and His purposes. That which is futile has no lasting value and will only cause man frustration.
- ‘Under the sun’ – In short, this phrase refers to life on earth from man’s perspective: man is born, he labours, he suffers, he experiences brief moments of fleeting joy, he dies and leaves behind all that he gained in his brief existence.
- ‘Eat, drink and be merry’ – Throughout scripture this idea conveys natural man’s propensity to satisfy himself through sensory stimulating, which has no lasting enjoyment or worth. This is temporal man behaving temporally – he disregards what is eternal, ignores accountability to his Creator, and, instead, indulges himself and lives for the moment.
- ‘I perceive’ – This is natural man trying to make sense of the material world without the aid of divine revelation, which means he cannot accurately reckon what is spiritual, intangible and eternal.
In order to perceive the meaning of this book properly, it is important to understand that much of what Solomon concludes during his ontological journey is not correct, or is only partly true. This reveals the futility of the ‘under the sun’ perspective, that is, the fallacy of human reasoning apart from divine revelation. His dismal outlook is that life is ‘vanity and grasping for the wind’, 1. 14, that is, not worth living. The material world will never be able to explain the spiritual significance of life. One must get above the earthly viewpoint, that is, of being under the sun and seek and accept what God reveals about our existence to enjoy it – this is Solomon’s point! Nothing on this earth will ever satisfy the deep longing of the human heart to be in communion with one’s Creator – without Him, life is meaningless.
1 C. I. Scofield, The New Scofield Study Bible, KJV, Oxford University Press, 1967, pg. 672.
2 William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989, pg. 791.
3 Sid Buzzell, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, edited by J. F. Walvoord and Roy Zuck, Victor Books, 1986, pg. 902.