The Hebrew name of this book and of its author, Qoheleth, is actually a title, and it perhaps means “assembler” (of students, listeners) or “collector” (of wisdom sayings). The book’s more common name, Ecclesiastes, is an approximate translation into Greek of this Hebrew word. The book comprises an extended reflective essay employing autobiographical narrative, proverbs, parables, and allegories. An almost unrelenting skepticism characterizes the tone or outlook. The issues with which the author deals and the questions he raises are aimed at those who would claim any absolute values in this life, including possessions, fame, success, or pleasure. Wisdom itself is challenged, but folly is condemned.
The refrain which begins and ends the book, “Vanity of vanities” (1:1; 12:8), recurs at key points throughout. The Hebrew word, hebel (“vanity”), has the sense of “emptiness, futility, absurdity”: “I have seen all things that are done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a chase after wind” (1:14; 2:11, 17, 26; etc.). Everything in human life is subject to change, to qualification, to loss: “What profit have we from all the toil which we toil at under the sun?” (1:3). The answer is in the negative: No absolute profit or gain is possible. Even if some temporary profit or gain is achieved, it will ultimately be cancelled out by death, the great leveller (2:14–15; 3:19–20). Wisdom has some advantage over foolishness, but even wisdom’s advantage is only a temporary and qualified one.
Many would locate Ecclesiastes in the third century B.C., when Judea was under the oppressive domination of Hellenistic kings from Egypt. These kings were highly efficient in their ruthless exploitation of the land and people (4:1; 5:7). The average Jew would have felt a sense of powerlessness and inability to change things for the better. For Qoheleth, God seems remote and uncommunicative, and we cannot hope to understand, much less influence, God’s activity in the world (3:11; 8:16–17).
The book’s honest and blunt appraisal of the human condition provides a healthy corrective to the occasionally excessive self-assurance of other wisdom writers. Its radical skepticism is somewhat tempered by the resigned conclusions to rejoice in whatever gifts God may give (2:24; 3:12–13, 22; 5:17–18; 8:15; 9:7–9; 11:9).
The Book of Ecclesiastes is divided as follows:
I. Qoheleth’s Investigation of Life (1:12–6:9)
II. Qoheleth’s Conclusions (6:10–12:14)
A. No One Can Find Out the Best Way of Acting (7:1–8:17)
B. No One Knows the Future (9:1–12:14)
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