From: Ecclesiastes and the Perpetual Paradoxes of Life Return to Home
By Roland H. Worth, Jr. © 2012
Authorship and Internal Tensions
The Claimed Personae of the Author
Although the author is never identified by name, at least three major elements of self-description point to whom the work intends us to take as the author: (1) He was “son of David (1:1), a description most naturally taken of an immediate son rather than a more distant relation; (2) he ruled as “king in Jerusalem” (1:1; 1:12) and “over Israel” (1:12); (3) he was obsessed with “wisdom” (1:13, 16). In other words, Solomon.
Looked at from a broader perspective the same identification is also an obvious one. As we examine the text, the subject matter of Ecclesiastes and the themes it develops tells us several things about the author.
First, he is an old man. Young men and women are usually optimistic—overly optimistic and naïve, if anything. Almost as if our existence demands a life-time balance, as we become advanced in age we typically become grouchier, more fidgety about the annoyances of life, and more concerned about the future. Stereotypes, of course, yet by and large they are typical of human existence. And based on this spectrum of life, the mind-frame reflected in the author is one who is “getting along in years” and sees far more to be concerned with than to the optimistic over.
Second, he has observed first hand failure and futility. One simply does not obtain the degree of cynicism and near-despair manifested by the author without batting one’s head against a concrete wall and discovering that all one gets is a headache. Although some of this one can learn from books describing the experiences of others, the personal pain and distress manifested in the work only comes after years of first-hand experience.
Third he has known responsibility and authority and, for that very reason, is concerned with its use and abuse. The author introduces himself as “king.”
[Page 6] Although the claim to be a son of David (theoretically) could be pretense and, more so, that of being “king,” the fact remains that this concern with authority is one which one would expect to find in an elderly and fundamentally idealistic ruler. (At the most removed from the throne--the view of an intimate and trusted adviser who has spent years sharing his best insight with the monarch.) It would not be the mind frame of a detached intellectual wisdom writer who works far from the seat of power and who has not borne the responsibility of assisting in governance.
The viewpoint is that of a man who has had everything and discovered the incredible limits that even “unlimited” power actually suffers. This could occur as the result of either and, probably, both of two reasons.
The first is the difficulty in getting one’s own administrators to fulfill the desired policy. It is said that President Harry Truman was musing one day soon after the 1952 election of his successor, former General Dwight D. Eisenhower, as to how exasperating the Presidency would actually turn out to be for the former military leader. Truman observed to the effect, “It’s going to be awfully frustrating for him. As a general, he’s used to having his orders obeyed. Here he’s going to give orders and discover they don’t get carried out.”
Exaggeration, of course, but a rebellious
and basically status quo bureaucracy has been the bane of virtually every
President in post-World War Two
Similarly, rulers who enter their post with the highest ideals quickly discover the difficulty of carrying them out. “Truth, justice, and the American way” was the way the Old Superman television series summed up the hero’s goals. But in the political context, what is the truth in a given situation? Where does the self-interest or the naivety of one’s advisers stop and the actual facts begin? What is “justice” in a given situation when the facts may be in dispute and even the best solution far from appealing? And what is the true “Israelite way” (to give the Biblical writer’s context)? Other nations did things certain ways but what was the way most in accord with the underlying fundamental principles of his own people?
Faced with these difficulties of bureaucracy and even information, cynicism develops. The kind of skepticism manifested by the author of Ecclesiastes. The cynicism of a man who has wielded power.
Finally, the work reflects a man to whom religion is important but not pivotal. Extremely few passages in the work mention religious activity in particular or even God. It is not that the book spurns God, but because his frame of reference is governance rather than theology. His orientation is not the comfort divine revelation can give, but the realities of human existence forced upon us by a candid and honest evaluation of the world around us.
It is not that he would deny us comfort from any and all sources, but that he has a compulsion to force us to the recognition that the psychological tranquilizers the actual socio-economic-political world can offer, by itself, are modest. Even so, they are adequate for our survival if we permit them do their work and fulfill their legitimate purposes.
[Page 7] The degree of perception of an after-life (and, especially, its nature) is often far from clear in the Old Testament in general and in Ecclesiastes in particular. Perhaps because of his rebellion against God in his old age (assuming the work is by Solomon) he could mention this aspect only with the greatest circumspection since his own track record had opened him to the charge that, in a future post-earthly world, his own joyful reception would be far from assured. Be that as it may, as an utilitarian monarch whose center of intellectual gravity is nearly always maintaining the best in the current world, the palliatives of the next one just barely impugn upon his mind.
If the picture we have deduced from the book sounds remarkably like that of the traditional author—Solomon—you are correct. The Solomon of old age who had enjoyed the glories of power but who had also seen the limitations that went with it. The Solomon who when asked for a blessing from God when coming to the throne chose wisdom to govern his people rightly (1 Kings 3:5-14), not insight into Yahweh’s will. An honorable request for a man who knows he is going to live the rest of his life as ruler, but not the kind of prayer we would expect from a David. The goal is honorable but the priorities are different.
Solomon ruled forty years (1 Kings ), providing the opportunity to see the limitations of government. He saw first-hand the difficulties of determining truth and administering justice. The famous “brain-teaser” in which he was faced with two women both claiming to be the mother of a certain child brilliantly illustrates the limitations and difficulties of being a ruler (1 Kings -28).
But imagine being faced with various other stratagems—not as extreme as this case but equally devious—for four decades and could the mind frame of Ecclesiastes be avoided? Imagine hearing the reports from your subordinates and trying to get them to use their insight in a similarly constructive manner in behalf of justice and equity. Imagine hearing reports of abuse and misuse of position and having to battle them, time and again.
Now factor in personal
weakness and failure. He ultimately
married a multitude of foreign wives (1 Kings 11:1, 3) who were even permitted
to bring pagan worship into the borders of
Furthermore, as so often happens in human inter-relationships, what began as “convenience” became something far more, for we read that “Solomon clung to these [wives] in love” (1 Kings 11:2). Emotional commitment now was interwoven into the fabric of political self-interest. Both pushed him toward acceptance of the open practice of their various polytheistic cults.
And Solomon was too smart not to have recognized that he had done the right thing politically but not the right thing religiously. Even the expected tolerance and support anticipated from any spouse, had become an excuse to simultaneously sell short his own religious heritage. You have in this combination of official responsibility and the forced recognition of personal compromise, the kind of mind that produced Ecclesiastes.
[Page 8] True, the author does not call himself Solomon (and this is introduced as major evidence in behalf of the argument that he wasn’t). Yet this would remain the most natural deduction from the description that is provided.
“King” conceivably could be used in a more
limited sense than that of national ruler, admittedly, and the wording
of the text that he ruled “in Jerusalem” (1:1; 1:12) could indicate that
he was a Davidic son or grandson appointed to rule over that city in
particular. Not impossible but the idea of appointing
potential rivals to pivotal subordinate positions was not one that was likely
to have had any appeal in
On the other hand,
In light of such phenomena it is hard to understand how some can insist that the author did not wish to be identified as Solomon. Except for adding the name itself, what more could he have done?
The view that the book was not from Solomon is not a new one, though it did not gain the ascendancy it now has until recent centuries. The revisionary movement was pioneered by Martin Luther in the sixteenth century. His views oscillated between two approaches. First was the possibility that the author had actually been writing during the time of the Maccabbees (referred to in Luther’s Table Talk); the second was the conviction that the book was written down and edited by those who heard Solomon’s words (referred to in Luther’s introduction to his translation and, later, in his commentary on the work).
Hugo Grotius carried the process of disassociation with Solomon even further in the seventeenth century. It picked up significant support in the nineteenth, and now so dominates religious scholarship (even most conservative research) that the older view is now clearly that of only a minority. A date during the third century B.C. is typical, through a few would place it back in the fourth or as late as the second century.
This change in perspective has required the evolution of a number of arguments to vindicate the changed perspective.
To begin with, as already noted, the author never explicitly calls himself “Solomon.” Furthermore, unlike Proverbs and Song of Songs, his name is not mentioned explicitly as the author. But would such explicitness convince critics in general or only a small number of them since so many deny the Solomonic roots of the other works as well?\
[Page 9] Along the same line, the lack of on-going and repeated references to the kingship of the author has also been held to be an indication that it is a fictitious pose. Yet if the author had repeatedly used the term “king” of himself, would that convince the critics that the man was genuinely such? (How many of “Paul’s” works are dismissed as fictitious attributions by similarly minded scholars in their study of the New Testament works!)
And if the claim be an adopted rhetorical pose, why would a man be astute enough to infer a Solomonic authorship to add prestige to his work, but naïve enough not to carefully perpetuate it throughout his book? It is easier to imagine a king who feels sufficiently at ease with his position that he does not have to continually “rub it in your face,” than it is to imagine someone else who has forgotten the role he has claimed for himself.
Related to this, there are self-descriptions and remarks that seem out of keeping with an actual king’s writing. Would a genuine ruler speak of oppressions in the land (4:1)? When Marcus Aurelius wrote his Meditations (c175 A.D.), however, he spoke of the evils of regal rule and rebuked them. Although many monarchs preferred to be “blind” to such excesses, not all gave in to the temptation.
But would the historical Solomon speak of them without promptly describing how he had curbed and removed them? Perhaps. Yet one might equally assume that any self-respecting monarch would act in such a manner and there was no need to stress the “obvious.” Furthermore, he might well abstain from such “bragging” if he was perceptive enough to recognize that for every injustice one corrected another seemed to replace it.
But were there serious
oppressions during Solomon’s rule at all?
1 Kings preferred
to remember the period in very up-beat tones, “
Just as every age of prosperity still has its stratum of poor, even a period in which justice is usually prevalent will have individual communities and judges where the opposite is the case. (Not to mention word of such that would have regularly drifted back from surrounding nations: Bad news travels fast.) Welcome to the real world that has existed throughout history.
Would a king virtually conclude the book (12:9) with a stress on his role of teacher of the people rather than kingship? The term by which he describes himself (“Qohelet”—see the discussion later in this chapter) emphasizes that role of teacher rather than governing position. Yet he might address his listeners from this standpoint if he recognized that, by the very nature of the situation, he could never order and enforce the convictions he would present (i.e., enforce it by authority of his kingship), but could only attempt to convince and reason that it represented the best conclusions and policies. In other words, act as a teacher.
For that matter, he might also take this approach if he thought that his long range contribution to the welfare of the nation lay far more in that realm of advocacy than in what he had done or not done as ruler. After all, the author is described in terms of age (i.e., going toward the end of his reign) and a man of astuteness such as himself could well recognize both the glory and the limitations of [Page 10] his success. His direct impact through regal decisions and orders would soon end, but his power to influence those who lived on afterwards might well continue—but only if he could convince them of the validity of his thinking through the words he wrote.
Flipping it over and viewing the matter from the standpoint of a non-regal authorship, would a wisdom sage actually speak of the futility of being long winded (“many words”) (5:7)? Yes, if he were unusually candid. Or if he did not have to defend the “professional” position of being a sage because his wisdom seeking went hand-in-hand with his role as king.
of him as “hav[ing] gained
more wisdom than all who were before in
certainly had been kings prior to even David, over
Some insist that a reference to Jebusite predecessors would have been most unlikely. For one thing Israelites looked down upon those earlier rulers. Doubtlessly true of the more immediate ones, but of all of them? Even of the mysterious Melchizedek in Genesis? Probably not. Furthermore “wisdom” (as scholars rightly keep reminding us) represented an international pursuit and was far from limited to the Jewish kingdom. In that context, a reference to having “wisdom” greater than even his non-Jewish predecessors would not seem all that much out of place for one pursuing such insight.
properly points to a fact that is easily overlooked: when the text refers to “all who were before
Since no monarch rules truly alone, this frame of reference deserves careful consideration. And, surely, in such a context a Solomonic reference to greater astuteness than the predecessors who controlled the city would fit quite appropriately.
A different difficulty has been found in the expression “was king” (), which has been interpreted to mean that the kingship was in the past. He could have retired but the folly of that was probably just as well known in the ancient world as it was made explicit in Shakespeare’s more modern King Lear. Would the ancient equivalent of King Lear’s reminiscences on kingship and life have gained an audience? Written when he had abandoned the kingship?
Another possibility is that the ruler had been ousted by a revolution. Of course if that was the intent of the wording, who would want to read the “wisdom” [Page 11] writings of a king who had been so unwise as to be deposed? Hence the meaning can not bear the intention of an overthrown king and only just possibly that of a “retired” one. More possible is that he had entered into a period of joint rule with his youthful successor—not unknown in the ancient world but a rarity due to its built in problems and tensions.
Even so, the wording (even as past tense) does, however, make sense of a king getting along in years and coming to terms with the fact that he is near the end of his rule. From the psychological viewpoint, he has become reconciled with it being far more of the past than of the future. In short, it “was” because he anticipated a death that could not be far away any longer.
Ancient Talmudic lore had another solution. A demon named Asmodeus forced Solomon to repudiate his kingship and he was only restored when he repented. But if a demon forced him, who exorcised it? The idea of self-exorcism through repentance is alien to the scriptures. On the other hand, demon possession might or might not convey the idea of moral guilt--in our judgment, the scriptural evidence is against it, though popular opinion in those ages might well have been explicit where scripture was, at best, only vaguely suggestive of the idea. Indeed, how could he repent if he were under decisive demon possession?
Assuming that we should read any of this into the text to begin with--which we need not--the Hebrew has been rendered more ambiguously as “have been king,” leaving the whole matter up in the air as to present versus past reign. The wording would permit either.
suggestion has been made by T. A. Perry, who puts the emphasis on the place
When was the book written during Solomon’s reign? Although we dismissed rather briefly the scenario of Solomon as a deposed and reinstalled king, we did so in order to keep our attention focused on the argument of whether the text requires or anticipates that the reader will interpret the wording in that manner. Having seen that it does not, it would be useful to return to that scenario because it serves as a natural lead into the question of when the book was written.
Perhaps partly in response to the “was king”—but even more so in response to the usefulness of providing a conjectural point and motive in his life for his having written the book—the conjecture arose that at some point Solomon effectively or actually lost his kingship. Only after his repentance was he restored to it and this book was written as the result of this (partial? full?) reversal. The quite dramatic “demonic” explanation has already been referred to, but one could conjecture more pragmatic and non-miraculous explanations for such occurring as well.
Finding textual evidence for such a real or theoretical deposition in either Kings or Chronicles is a lost cause. (Nor, for that matter, Solomon’s formal repentance for having drifted away from his early religious roots.) One, with [Page 12] imagination, could conjure up a situation in which his agents had so gained day-to-day control over the affairs of the kingdom that Solomon had lost real input. Such de facto (versus de jure) stripping of power was always a danger in a monarchy but one that even the least astute ruler did his best to protect against. Hence it is unlikely to have occurred without leaving a clear imprint upon the historical narratives.
Hence some have thought that unknown adversities were used by God to bring Solomon to repentance without removing him from the throne. It happened in the case of Manasseh (2 Chronicles 33), so why not Solomon? On the other hand, if it was felt necessary to explicitly spell out the change in a ruler far less important than Solomon, would not the appropriateness—even necessity—have been felt to explicitly mention it here as well?
Whatever weakening of faith Solomon underwent, we have no indication that he ever stopped his own regular worship at the temple or encouraged any one else to. Nor that he compromised any of his theoretical belief in the Torah. What he did grievously compromise was the anti-polytheistic demands of the Torah by marrying foreign pagans and permitting their gods to be worshipped in the royal city.
Furthermore, in his old age he permitted them to entice him into similar worship (1 Kings 11:3-8). Perhaps he regarded this as a diplomatic and practical necessity, but it certainly reflects his lack of putting God first and other affairs secondary. (And, perhaps, even putting his personal love for certain of the women above his duties of fealty to Jehovah.)
Yet there is no indication that he stopped the Yahweh part of his religiosity; his sin was what he added to it, the pagan worship. As the result he “did not fully follow the Lord, as did his father David” (11:6). The key word there is “fully.” There was following the Torah, but not the complete loyalty it demanded.
If his errors in judgment on such matters compromised the propriety of his writing Ecclesiastes, they similarly infected Song of Solomon and the Proverbs since the number of foreign wives he accumulated required many years to do so and, presumably, began near the beginning of his reign. In other words, during the years the other books were written. (Assuming, of course, that we attribute all three of these works to him.)
If Ecclesiastes was, indeed, written late
in his reign what we have are the meanderings of a guilt-ridden monarch. Guilt ridden because he knows full well he
has compromised his spiritual integrity, yet unwilling to give up either his
errors or the God of
Such matters we can never decisively settle even if we are fully convinced that Solomon wrote the work. Of course, those who insist that some one else wrote it are in an equally hopeless situation. What crisis of life, national, or faith compelled him to pick up a pen and pour out his soul? Here we would deal not only [Page 13] with an unknown situation, but a totally unknown authorship as well. We would have two mysteries to resolve rather than just one.
Having analyzed a cross-section of objections to the Solomonic origin of the work, one final area of argumentation needs to be considered: there is a general consensus that grammatical considerations and the form of Hebrew utilized argue decisively against the Solomonic authorship of the work (alleged late “Aramaisms” and “Persian” loan words are pointed to in particular) and these objections might even be valid.
The problem with such arguments is that the skillful “thrower of dust” can virtually always present a seemingly effective case for or against almost anything, especially when it is in a foreign language few readers are acquainted with. Of course, the analyst’s own skills may not be as great as he or she thinks they are, and that person, almost unconsciously, may have adopted whatever position is viewed as most “scholarly” or religiously acceptable among those he works with and among. The “herd instinct” is not exactly unknown in politics, scholarship or universities. (Nor the less obvious, but equally true, tendency of a minority to be “ruggedly independent” in conclusions as a result of cantankerousness or as a short-cut to prominence within the minority viewpoint.)
Although there are certainly internal
linguistic terms and forms that point toward a type of Hebrew centuries after
Solomon, there are also those incompatible with such a late date. The evidence simply does not fit neatly or
conclusively in any one time frame, the
same problem we face in dating of the Conquest of
If this were not bad enough, Tremper Longman raises another possibility: could the “vocabulary and grammar” have been consciously updated by a later editor to preserve the work’s value to a later generation? Just as modern translations replace outdated language with more contemporary sentence construction and wording that reflects the same meaning.
Much of the Jewish Testament had little
interest for those outside of
So what shall we do with this array of data, of argument and counter-argument? Certainly the book leaves us with the impression that Solomon is intended as the author and for the purpose of explaining the contents, that is quite enough in and of itself. If it isn’t by him, it certainly represents a man who had an extraordinarily astute insight into the probable mind-frame of such a ruler.
Hence we will refer to the author as “Solomon” and one can take this either literalistically or as representative of the purported writer’s assumed identity. For the purpose of exegesis, the result will be much the same either way. Yet we will freely utilize vaguer terms such as “monarch” and “king,” as well as “Qohelet” (which emphasizes his role as teacher). In our judgment, all of these labels fit.
[Page 14] This real or assumed regal authorship is sometimes believed to refer only to , with the royal center of gravity disappearing thereafter. T. A. Perry (who does not believe in an actual royal authorship) rightly points out that the prerogatives, demands, and limitations of kingship remain a concern throughout the book: Unwise elderly kings are mentioned (4:13), the ruler’s dependence upon agriculture (5:8), the need to obey his commandments and maintain his respect (8:2-3), the need to be a responsible rather than loud-mouth ruler (9:14-17), and the danger of criticizing the monarch even in private (10:20). Hence we will describe the author throughout our analysis in terms descriptive of rulership as well as that of teacher.
The Author as Teacher and Questioner
It is of interest that the author stands before his readers not so much in his regal garb but in his role of teacher and instructor. Indeed, he calls himself “the Preacher” in the traditional KJV and NKJV rendering (1:1; ). He is not going to tell us the inner workings of his administration. He is not going to issue commands or orders. He is simply going to share with his readers the principles he had learned from his years in power. He is, if you will, a teaching monarch.
“Qohelet” is the word behind the English translation and it is actually a participle in Hebrew—a feminine one, which makes it odd as a name or title for a clearly male author. Often the term is transliterated into English with an “h” at the end or as Kohelet/Koheleth. In quotations we will normally utilize the form of the individual writer being utilized.
Because of the word’s similarity to feminine participles in Nehemiah and Ezra , 57 (which refer to distinct offices or positions), it is commonly argued that the term is “more appropriate for an office, pen name, acronym or function rather than [the name of] a specific individual.” Gary D. Salyer argues that, if it retains the sense of a person’s actual name at all, that it would be analogous to the English word “judge,” which is utilized most commonly of a position but which, occasionally, is found as an individual’s first name.
The term could be taken as an indication of female authorship (Kohel would be the expected word if it were a male), but that seems more a product of contemporary feminist theorizing than textual demand. Although there is certainly nothing a priori improper with the possibility of a female author for certain Bible books (or sections), Qohelet clearly equates the name with the position of “king” (a male term).
The term refers to an “assembler” or a convoker of a meeting. Hence the appeal of the KJV type renderings of “preacher” or “teacher” since that would be the person leading or overseeing a religious gathering. Carl Schultz gives preference to the latter because the work is not “sermonic” in content.
It is common to believe that the Jewish community at the time the book was composed had the position of “qoheleth.” The problem is that the position is undocumented and the nature of the office must be conjectural. The sad fact is [Page 15] that we know precious little at all of how and in what sense an “educational system” functioned in Hebrew society prior to the second century B.C.
Be that as it may, if we put a positive spin on the term “qohelet,” we might see in it the conceptual origin of what eventually became the rabbinate. If we look upon the position as one of challenging the received wisdom, it would have the connotation of disputant or, at the most extreme, “devil’s advocate” for unpopular positions for which, for better or worse, there was significant evidence.
In a Solomonic context, I find it hard to see how a monarchy would react with enthusiasm toward such a “negative” post (unless its activities were strictly in critiquing those lower in the hierarchy or outsiders). In a much later context (such as post-exilic) it is still hard to see where the support for such an office would come from. What we today would call “the establishment”—if it wishes to assure its survival—seeks those who further its supposed superior wisdom and not those who would negatively critique and undermine that image.
Hence a positive “preacharial” interpretation of the expression seems most probable—though anyone acquainted with preaching is fully aware that that does not necessarily exclude a negative element in the teaching as well. (The world is not just full of beautiful roses; it has plenty of briars as well.) Technically “preacher” would be an anachronism because of the modern connotations we easily read into it, but the underlying idea of religious teacher or speaker would certainly not be. And since the content of the teaching or speaking is moral and ethical, “preacher” certainly does it no injustice.
The use of “qohelet” has been taken as an effort to intentionally disassociate the author from the regal guise that had already been introduced in the book. Yet if that were the intent, why introduce the regal guise in the first place? Are we really going to lie as to our identity and simultaneously believe that we are going to pump our audience full of moral insight?
On the other hand, a person of royal blood might well prefer to emphasize this non-royal aspect of his interests. After all, his intention is not to compel adherence to some command or other, but to provoke his readers to thought and consideration. He is performing “preacharial” functions not monarchical and the term emphasizes that reality.
In his role as teacher, J. Coert Rylaarsdam argues that Qohelet adopts an instructional style (rather than the specific teachings), that was followed by Jesus,
1. He makes very frequent use of the first person to resent his convictions as a matter of personal experience or discovery: “I said to myself” or “I said in my heart” (1:16; 2:1, 15; 3:17, 18; also “I say,” 6:3 . . . ), “I found” (7:26, 27), “I know” (3:12, 14), and “I have seen” or “I saw” or “I perceived” (1:14, 17; 2:14; 3:10, 16, 22; 4:1, 4, 7, 15; 5:13, 18; 6:1; 7:15; 8:10, 17; 9:11, 13).
2. The personal relation or confession is often illustrated by means of what we might call a “story” or a “picture” (for example, -15; 6:2-3; -15).
[Page 16] 3. Perhaps most distinctive of all, there is the “better” saying. There are six examples of this in 7:1-12 and several more in various places (2:24; 3:12, 22; 4:6, 9, 13; 5:5; 9:16-18). . . . All three of these forms developed in such an original way by Koheleth live on in the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels.
Although thought provoking, the comparison is unquestionably a bit over-stated and must be hedged with the very different intents of Jesus as compared with the regal speaker in Ecclesiastes. Jesus’ repeated “I say to you” was an assertion of personal authority. In contrast Qohelet’s references to “seeing” and “saying to myself” are indications not of power but of meditation and detailed personal reflection.
Moreover, when Jesus makes comparative statements, arguing that one thing is “better” than another He is far more often speaking in absolute terms of one thing always being better than another. In contrast, the wisdom writer speaks of things being comparatively better than another; his framework is utilitarian.
Most telling in behalf of the borrowed style thesis is Qohelet’s use of parable like story illustrations, yet even here the stories are often spelled out in far more detail by Jesus, with the down to earth picturesque touches added to bring them “alive.” While the Ecclesiastes’ writer’s stories illustrate a point, Jesus’ parables often stand on their own feet and convey the point in themselves without further elaboration being considered necessary.
Even with these “ifs and buts,” the instructional parallels are intriguing and it is quite possible that Jesus consciously developed them further to fit His own use and teaching style.
Turning to the apostles and other writers of the New Testament, Ecclesiastes is never explicitly quoted or cited. Tremper Longman, however, suggests that there may well be an allusion to it in Romans 8:18-21,
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility (mataiotes), but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.
The Hebrew “hebel” (= “vanity,” KJV) was translated into Greek by the word mataiotes that Paul uses in his Romans text. If there is an intended tie-in with Ecclesiastes, then Paul would be moving the argument one step further. The author of the Old Testament work simply argues all is “hebel;” Paul argues that it is God’s intent and purpose that this be the case. A thought, one would think, that would not have been uncongenial to Solomon himself.
Admitting Rival and Equally True Realities
It has been a “given” of criticism of Ecclesiastes,
that its contents contradict itself.
Given the penchant for modern analysts to throw up this claim as an apparently
self-serving method to downgrade the credibility of scripture, it may be a bit
surprising to learn that this concern was a very ancient one as well. The Jewish rabbi
The reasoning seems to be that if it respected the Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy), then its intents were fully orthodox even if its contents presented grave interpretive problems. It is also telling that, in spite of such perceived difficulties, the ancients did not feel free to expurgate or alter the text to remove the difficulties.
This would be an oddity, indeed, if the theory that Ecclesiastes has undergone such treatment in the past were valid or if the right to carry out such alterations on any perceived “canonical” work constituted part of the Jewish tradition. This lends considerable support to the premise that one might accept or reject the authority of a text but that one did not have the right to change it even in a “good” cause.
(The theory of “orthodox” interpolations in Ecclesiastes also suffers from the grave disability of explaining why the job was so inadequately done that alleged “obvious” contradictions remain unrelieved. Was the interpolator that incompetent or did the interpolations not occur in the first place but simply reflect the preservation of the original text?)
Although it is not our purpose to be writing an apologetic volume defending the integrity of scripture, yet at least modest consideration must be given to this matter of internal tensions within the book (and between it and other Biblical texts) since it occupies so much space in the minds of so many.
A traditional method of dealing with the purported contradictions is that of “harmonization:” this argues that terms are used differently or that they actually deal with different subjects. So long as one “plays fair” with the text and the distinctions actually do grow out of textual or contextual differences, this is a quite legitimate approach.
If the fundamentalist desire for inerrancy has earned much criticism, the liberal pursuit of pervasive inconsistencies has, oddly enough, escaped the rebuke it so amply deserves. If the scriptures were so consistently inconsistent--as religious [Page 18] liberals often seem to believe--one can not help but wonder how the writings could have gained an audience in the first place.
Among those who believe that the scriptural text was freely altered by successive generations before reaching a final (and ultimately canonical) text, the theory of “additions” has been quite popular. In this approach, later writers looked upon earlier comments and tried to modify the incorrectness of them by inserting their own observations and thoughts.
Michael V. Fox has found four fundamental difficulties with these theories as developed in regard to Ecclesiastes, “(a) First of all, the sentences commonly eliminated [to create a theoretical original form of the text, rw] are often linked syntactically to material that is almost certainly original. . . . (b) The glosses do not fulfill the purposes ascribed to their authors. . . . (c) Even with all the additions. . . , the skeptical and pessimistic character of the book remains blatant. . . . (d) Most fundamentally, excising passages as later additions does not result in consistency.” In short, the perceived difficulties remain, if only in somewhat diluted form.
Furthermore, as R. N. Whybray rightly suggests, “It must be asked what would have been the point of making such orthodox additions to a book whose whole teaching one disapproved of. If it was thought to be important to condemn Qoheleth’s teaching, it would surely have been better to suppress the book altogether or, if that proved impossible, to write another book refuting his arguments.”
Another method of dealing with the internal “discrepancies” is to argue that they are being quoted for the purpose of refutation. Closely akin to the quotation explanation is the dialogue scenario: in this approach what we have are exchanges between Qohelet/pseudo-Solomon and a more optimistic objector. One method of making these differing viewpoints clear to the reader is that of T. A. Perry. In his translation, he prints Solomon’s words in bold and the words of the objector in italics.
There are two great difficulties in this approach. One is that it minimizes the insight of Qohelet and assumes that one individual of great perceptivity could not recognize and even concede the existence of competing and even contradictory realities in human existence.
The other difficulty is utilitarian: how do we determine where one speaker ends and another begins? In Perry’s analysis (and translation) the response may be in an adjoining verse, within the same verse, or either speaker may run on for several verses before the other side responds. Although the scenario might well work when one consistent stream of thought continues for a number of verses (such as in the Song of Solomon)--and then shifts to another clear-cut point of view--within the erratic and ever changing pattern proposed by Perry, that approach loses most of its appeal.
Perry believes that there are a number of “dialogic markers” that point to the shift from one speaker to another, however. The strongest is the use of ki, but most examples he quotes are the speaker quoting / presenting his own intention (i.e., the speaker remains the same). When a different individual is being cited, one would expect more than just the presence of this one word to indicate it. The other indicators of dialogue shift are, in our judgment, even more fragile and inconclusive.
[Page 19] But is it the text that contradicts so much as the reality of the world itself that is at variance and which must somehow be dealt with by Qohelet? Michael V. Fox works toward one form of such an approach when he observes, “To be precise, Qohelet is not contradicting himself so much as observing contradictions.”
Indeed, he argues that it is the author’s desire to be consistent within his own interpretation of how reality should be that drives him to distraction when recognizing that reality does not conform with theory. Knowing that good should triumph, that evil should be punished, and that God will ultimately judge and vindicate, he looks around and candidly admits that this does not always happen in the short-term, in the here and now.
Indeed, there are many cases of the very opposite. This he denounces as absurd and it is that contrast between theory (however ultimately rooted in truth it may be) and what actually occurs that drives him to anguish, annoyance, and frustration.
Furthermore, we must remember that contradictions exist only when the same topic is under consideration. “I praised the dead who were already dead, more than the living who are still alive” (4:2). This would contradict, “I did not/should not praise the dead . . . more than the living.” It certainly does not contradict “a living dog is better than a dead lion” (9:4), where the subject is not who to praise at all but whether life is better than death. The frame of reference is totally different. For that matter 4:2 is itself contextually limited to a situation where oppression reigns (4:1).
“It is good to eat and drink” (; even stronger in ) would contradict, “It is not good to eat and drink.” On the other hand to say that is “better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting” (7:2) isn’t to denounce the pleasure and enjoyment of a good meal with friends but (contextually) to say that there are more lessons to learn from the place of dead than the place of entertainment. In the theme is to enjoy life; in 7:2 it is to learn from death. Again, the interpretive context is thoroughly different.
Let us examine another type of theoretical contradiction. “Wisdom excels folly” () would be in diametrical opposition to, “Wisdom does not excel folly.” Both are direct statements. Looking at 6:8, however, the question is, “For what more has the wise man than the fool?” Why should we take a rhetorical question as requiring a negative answer when in a different place the same person has asserted a positive one? Hence the actual intended response may well be, “He does, though it may not appear that way.”
But giving a negative answer would not necessarily be contradictory either. Because wisdom is better than folly () that does not necessarily mean that in this world financial and social terms that the wise man “has more” than the fool (cf. 6:8). The latter may be wealthier or have an illustrious ancestry and we do not. The wise man ought to “have more”—and ethically and in insight does have more—but it does not come in a form that the world may necessarily recognize as important.
[Page 20 Another area of contradiction is seen in the treatment of anger. “Sorrow [the Hebrew can also be translated, anger] is better than laughter” (7:3) would contradict the assertion “sorrow [anger] is not better than laughter”—a statement not made by Ecclesiastes. When the frame of reference is shifted to the comparative value of sorrow and laughter to a description of the behavior which characterizes a fool the description is much different: “anger rests in the bosom of fools” (7:9).
How can there be a contradiction? The frame of reference is totally different. Anger can produce change that laughter can not (cf. 7:3), but if one knows nothing but anger and that is one’s only response to others, then one is a “fool” for even legitimate criticism is going to be automatically dismissed.
Others see a conflict between 7:3 and where Qohelet speaks of the man who “eats in darkness and he has much sorrow and sickness and anger.” Pivotal to this verse are the introductory words, “all his days.” If his life is full of pathological depression and rage he is to be pitied. But there is a profound difference between this and the person who keeps anger on a short leash and unleashes it only selectively.
Others see contradictions not merely within the book but with other books. Again the phenomena is much exaggerated. One of the best examples is Ecclesiastes 11:9b, “Walk in the ways of your heart, and in the sight of your eyes; but know that for all these God will bring you into judgment.” This is believed to be contradictory to Numbers that they were to “remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them.”
One must concede that this concern is far from an invention of modern theological trends that dilute the concept of inspiration and scriptural reliability. The Septuagint translators were so concerned that they inserted “not” after the word “walk.” The Targums make similar inserts in their paraphrases.
When parents tell their child, “Go out tonight and enjoy yourself” (instead of giving them specific limitations), only the stark raving lunatic includes in that generality permission to go drunk driving. The child already knows the expected guidelines and the permission to act is given with those unspoken but always implicit. Would we expect a wisdom writer to give a “blank check” by his words when far less learned modern parents would never think of such a thing?
And just in case his readers did make that misapplication, Solomon promptly adds, “But know that for all these God will bring you into judgment.” He did not need to spell out what the ground rules for proper behavior was—to a God-fearing Jew they were the regulations of the Torah. And in case they were inclined to intentionally “forget” that, they are warned of the coming judgment upon their behavior.
A popular alleged “contradiction” is that Qohelet believed in the essential stability of the world (1:9: “there is nothing new under the sun;”cf. verse 10) while other writers insisted that “new” things occurred. To begin with, the word “God” is noticeably absent from this Ecclesiastes text and there is no particular reason to assume that anything other that mankind’s ability to bring about drastic change is under consideration. And even that was certainly not absolute either since everyone knew that kings succeeded each other and altered policies for good or ill.
[Page 21] Furthermore the nature of the “new” things
that are promised is easily overstated.
Jeremiah 31:31-34 speaks of the coming of a “new covenant.” Yet that covenant was still to be with those
of the house of
Other passages speak of God miraculously creating something “new:” roads and rivers in the desert (Isaiah 43:19). Numbers speaks of him creating “a new thing” to punish the rebellious: opening the earth up so it can swallow them. Even miracles are not, however, in the strictest sense “new” since the scriptures refer to them repeatedly. Only, perhaps, the type, nature, and beneficiaries would vary. The power behind them would remain identical. Therefore even in the miraculous, there would be an element of continuity that Qohelet was extremely aware of.
Hence, though there are tensions between the teachings of Qohelet, they do not rise so easily to the level of contradictions as is often assumed. And, at their worst, it is a matter of the realities of life “contradicting” rather than the author inventing the differences.
Outline and Interpretive Approach
In analyzing Ecclesiastes, we have divided it into nine chapters, each dealing with a paradox the author is developing in that section. However, Ecclesiastes is the kind of book that can drive the interpreter to distraction: the logical divisions that are often easily apparent in other books are hard to uncover in this one.
One nineteenth century scholar lamented, “It has become almost a proverb that every interpreter of this book thinks that all previous interpreters have been wrong.” This generalization has direct applicability to the interpretation of specific texts, but obviously the interpretation will be seriously affected by the intended context as well. Establish that and one will likely find interpreting individual verses significantly easier.
Interpreting verses independent of context is especially hazardous in this book since it is easy to prove all types of odd and eccentric (not to mention merely traditional “heretical” views) by grabbing on to selected verses and ignoring the point they are driving at in their original setting. Hence the usefulness of context and recognition of the broader themes being developed in different parts of the book.
Even so, there can be no challenging the fact that there is no consensus as to how to divide the work. Indeed, in spite of its relative shortness, more different outlines have been suggested for it than any other Biblical book; “an almost infinite number of schemes,” suggests one commentator with more than a little justice.
One of the major contributing causes to the difficulty of the task lies in determining at what point the author has ended one section and begun another. [Page 22] Repeatedly, one finds detailed commentaries attempting to decide whether a specific verse ends the preceding discussion or begins a new one. If one can’t even safely determine that, how is one going to confidently theorize as to how the subsections (and even the broader sections of which they may be part) hang together to develop a given theme?
The major schemes of analysis have involved interpretive divisions that are twofold (chapters 1-6 and 7-12; 1-4 and 5-12); threefold (chapters 1-3, 4-6, 7-9, 10-12); and fourfold (chapters 1-2, 3-5, 6-8:15; ). We will not even attempt to go into the more complicated ones.
Faced with such diversity, perhaps it is not surprising that some have even given up trying to resolve the matter. Michael V. Fox argues that this is no need to even make the effort: Qohelet simply had no pattern in mind but simply “wanders about” until he ends with the same theme he had begun with (1:2; 12:8).
Part of the problem may be in our perception creating a difficulty that would not necessarily have been evident to the original generation of readers. R. N. Whybray reminds us that “ancient Near Eastern notions of logical relationships are very far removed from modern western ones.” They might well perceive an appropriate interrelationship and development, where we only see jarring transitions that do not always add up to a coherent whole.
In spite of such limitations, it is unlikely that any would challenge that the author of the work has used the concept of paradox throughout. Repeatedly he says something and then (so to speak) adds “but on the other hand,” and proceeds to present the limitations of his earlier statement. The voice of experience of a man who has ruled so many years he recognizes that such is the bitter reality. The fundamentals remain simple but the application is hedged.
We have chosen nine paradoxes that sum up pivotal thought frames within which the mind of the writer has worked. We do not claim that these are exhaustive or that they could not be presented in a different verbal format. We do believe, however, that they responsibly represent the data as we have it. With a book that lacks obvious formal dividing points perhaps nothing more than this is possible.
In analysizing each textual section we have attempted to do two things. First, we examine what the text meant to the author. Then we examine what it can mean to us. Those are not totally identical. The life-experiences of a ruler are not those of 99% of the human race!
On the other hand, one of our fundamental human aspirations is to learn from the experience of others. Either in a positive or a negative manner. The apostle Paul worded it this way, “these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition . . .” (1 Corinthians ). In this book we apply this principle to the book of Ecclesiastes.
In our analysis we present what I call “thought flow analysis,” how the reasoning of one section leads to that of the next and how it all interlocks into one coherent whole. Although verse-by-verse analysis independent of the context can lead to useful and constructive results in some cases (like most of the book of Proverbs, where there is no real context), in a work like this it is likely to encourage us to put interpretations on specific verses that were never in the mind of the writer.
[Page 23] Likewise it will easily divert our minds from the most important point: understanding the theme of reasoning he is trying to impress upon us. Hence we attempt to drive home the key thoughts, assumptions, and reasoning of Qohelet and describe how they were relevant both in his own life and ours as well.
 Eric S. Christianson, A Time to Tell: Narrative Strategies in Ecclesiastes, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Supplement Series 280 (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), n. 51, p. 31, points to a surprising number of textual references that make the most sense if the author is presenting himself as old. These exist independent of the line of reasoning we are developing here.
 Donald C. Fleming, “Ecclesiastes,” in International Bible Commentary, revised edition edited by F. F. Bruce (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Marshall Pickering/Zondervan, 1979, 1986), 691.
 Cornelis Vanderwaal, Job-Song of Songs, Volume 4 in the Search the Scriptures series (St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada: Paideia Press, 1979), 86.
 One Jewish midrash so limits the text, but not others: T. A. Perry, Dialogues with Kohelet: The Book of Ecclesiastes (University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993), 178.
 An approach that Dominic Rudman, Determinism in the Book of Ecclesiastes, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Supplement Series 316 (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), 11-12, insists is that of “most modern commentators.”
 Ibid., 12.
 H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1952), 15-16.
 Ibid., 16, and Rudman, 12.
 Rudman, 12.
 Fleming, 692.
 Rudman, 11, and Michael V. Fox, Qohelet and His Contradictions (Sheffield, England: Almond Press, 1989), 151.
24]  For a
survey of suggested datings, see Daniel C.
Fredericks, Coping with Transience:
Ecclesiastes on Brevity in Life, in the Biblical Seminar
series, Volume 18 (Sheffield, England:
JSOT Press, 1993), n. 2, p. 13.
For the political and social context that existed in the third century
B.C. (and which Ecclesiastes would be reflecting if composed in that era), see
Elsa Tamez, When the Horizons Close: Rereading Ecclesiastes, translated from
the Spanish by Margaret Wilde (
 Leupold, 11, and R. N. Whybray, Ecclesiastes, in the New Century Bible Commentary series (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 4.
 For texts and comments, see Christianson, 142-143. Also see n. 47 and n. 50, p. 142.
 H. Louis Ginsberg, Studies in Koheleth, Volume 14 of the Texts and Studies of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 5711), 13, and Tremper Longman III, The Book of Ecclesiastes, in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament series (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 5-6.
 Leupold, 10.
 Ginsberg, 13.
 Vanderwaal, 86; David A. Hubbard, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, in the Communicator’s Commentary series (Dallas, Texas: Word Books, 1991), 63; and Derek Kidner, A Time to Mourn & A Time to Dance: The Message of Ecclesiastes, in The Bible Speaks Today series (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1976), 21.
 Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Ecclesiastes: Total Life (Chicago: Moody Press, 1979), 28.
 Vanderwaal, 86.
 Cf. Longman, 5.
 Louis Goldberg, Ecclesiastes, in the Bible Study Commentary series (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983), 20.
 Cf. T. A. Perry, 39.
 Ibid., 39, refers to one text that may “hint” at such deposition.
[Page 25]  James L. Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes: A Commentary, in the Old Testament Library commentary series (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1987), 71 notes that Sanh. 2:66 and Git. 68b refer to this story.
 Naoto Kamano, Cosmology
and Character: Quoheleth’s
Pedagogy from a Rhetorical-Critical Perspective (
 Kaiser, 27, notes that the same tense is used of statements true both in the past and, ongoingly, at the current time, in Genesis 42:11, Exodus 2:22. Goldberg, 19-20, also appeals to the same texts. Crenshaw, 71, who believes the Solomonic identification is fictitious, concedes that the text could properly be rendered, “ ‘I have been and still am.’ That is, the action is past, but its effect continues to the present.’ ”
 Perry, 77-78.
 Longman, 3.
 Goldberg, 22-23.
 Ibid., 23.
 For example, Fox, Qohelet, 151; F. Buck, “Ecclesiastes,” in A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, Revised Edition, edited by Reginald C. Fuller, Leonard Johnston, and Conleth Kearns (New York: Nelson, 1969), 512; and Wesley J. Fuerst, The Five Scrolls: The Books of Ruth, Esther, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, Lamentations, in the Cambridge Bible Commentary: New English Bible series (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 97.
 Leupold, 13.
 For a concise summary, see Kaiser, 28-29.
 Goldberg, 20-21, and Michael A. Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983), 19; cf. 17-19.
 Longman, 10.
 For one of the better explanations of how the author could have made Solomonic references without any intent to deceive or mislead his readers, see Eaton, 23-24. Such common justifications, however, as that Solomon was “the traditional patron [Page 26] of wisdom” (Buck, 514) seem manifestly inadequate to morally justify what initially sounds like literary fraud.
 Perry, 38-40.
 Gary D. Salyer, Vain
Rhetoric: Private Insight and Public
Debate in Ecclesiastes, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Supplement
Series 327 (
 Ibid., n. 8, p. 243.
 On the possibility of a female author, see Perry, 178.
 R. N. Whybray, Ecclesiastes, in the Old Testament Guides series (Sheffield, England: JSOT Press for the Society for Old Testament Study, 1989), 17.
 Goldberg, 17; Leupold, 9; and L. D. Johnson, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, in the Layman’s Bible Book Commentary series (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press, 1982), 96.
 Carl Schultz, “Ecclesiastes,” in Asbury Bible Commentary, edited by Eugene E. Carpenter and Wayne McCown (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), 586.
 Salyer, n. 8, p. 243.
 Ibid., n. 8, pp. 243-244.
 Whybray, Ecclesiastes (Guides), 18.
 Salyer, n. 8, p. 243.
 Ibid., prefers the term “ ‘Convener’ technically, and ‘Speaker’ more loosely.”
 Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, in the New American Commentary series (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press, 1993), 264.
 J. Coert Rylaarsdam, The Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon, in The Layman’s Bible Commentary series (Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press, 1964), 97-98.
 As quoted by Michael V. Fox, “The Inner Structure of Qohelet’s Thought,” in Qohelet in the Context of Wisdom, edited by Antoon Schoors (Leuven-Louvain, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 1998), 225.
 For a detailed examination of various forms of this approach, see Fox, Qohelet, 19-22.
 Ibid., 24, 25, which provides a detailed analysis of these points.
 Whybray, Ecclesiastes (Guides), 24-25.
 For an analysis of the two related approaches, see Fox, Qohelet, 25-28.
 Perry, multi-pages: The translation is interspersed throughout the commentary, by sections.
 For a detailed presentation of them, see Ibid., 190-196.
 Ibid., 193-195.
 Fox, “Structure,” 226.
 Ibid., 234-235; cf. 234-238, in greater detail.
 Given as a contradiction by Ibn Ezra (Koh. 7:3), as cited by Perry, n. 9 p. 13.
 Given as a contradiction by Ibn Ezra (Koh. 7:3), as also cited by Perry, n. 9, p. 13.
 Another perceived contradiction found by Ibn Ezra (Koh. 7:3), as cited by Perry, n. 9, p. 13.
 For the argument that “anger” is the only proper translation, see Longman, 183-184.
 For other explanations, all of which he rejects, see Ibid., 188.
 Kaiser, 35.
[Page 28]  Some have argued that these words were an addition to the text to save the passage’s orthodoxy. Assuming that Qohelet was at least as intelligent as a modern parent, the concept of “answerability” was such a part of his worldview that it existed whether explicitly stated or not. For this reason, even if a later addition (which is unlikely), it surely represented Qohelet’s attitude.
 Crenshaw, 67.
 Whybray, Ecclesiastes (Century), 45.
 An unidentified commentator, as quoted by Fuerst, 91.
 Dianne Bergant, Job, Ecclesiastes, in the Old Testament Message: A Biblical-Theological Commentary series (Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1982), 227. For a summary of a wide variety of modern outlines for the book, see Roland E. Murphy, Ecclesiastes, in the Word Biblical Commentary series (Dallas, Texas: Word Books, Publisher, 1992), xxxv-xli.
 Fuerst, 94.
 Kaiser, 19-20.
 Whybray, Ecclesiastes (Guides), 40.
 Kaiser, 20. For a lengthy defense of the fourfold approach, see 20-23.
 Tamez, n. 1, p. 155.
 Fox, Qohelet, 157.
 Whybray, Ecclesiastes (Guides), 45.