As we begin our study of Ecclesiastes today, Lawrence Boadt, once again, helps us to find our footing….
No one has ever challenged the Book of Ecclesiastes’ right to the title of the most skeptical book in the Bible. Ecclesiastes, also called Qoheleth, has a unified approach to the value of wisdom: pessimism. While Proverbs sought to provide guidelines on what to do and not to do, and confidently summed up the way to wisdom as “fear of the Lord,” Ecclesiastes has its doubts whether such confidence has any basis in human experience. The author’s theme song is sounded at the beginning and again at the end of the book, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity—and a striving after wind” (Eccl 1:2, 14; 12:8). Futility and emptiness result from the constant human search for the meaning of life. He is particularly aware of the useless attempts to understand the mystery of divine purpose behind the order of the world as it is, the tragic finality of death, the reasons for success and failure, and the justice of rewards and punishment for good and evil behavior. These are beyond our capabilities to discover.
The word Qoheleth is Hebrew for a “preacher,” “head of the church assembly,” or something similar, although no other example of the word exists in the Bible. The more traditional title of the book, Ecclesiastes, is nothing but a direct Greek translation of the Hebrew word. That the author was Solomon is implied by the first verse when it says Qoheleth was the son of David in Jerusalem, but cannot be taken as fact. The book shows the development of Israelite thought that comes after the exile, especially in its doubts about old answers and its attacks on the rational approaches of Greek thought that began to influence the Near East at that time.
The book has much in common with other wisdom literature, however. The author undertakes the investigation of experience at all levels, and asks questions about creation, justice, the wise versus the fool, just and unjust, and even quotes a large number of proverbs that he actually thinks will work in life. But certain things are clear to him that others have never allowed. While admitting that God does direct all things, he insists that we cannot know what God is doing or why, and so our proper human response is to enjoy what God gives us now and use it the best we can. As Ecclesiasts 5:17 puts it: Here is what I understand as good: it is well if a person eat, drink and enjoy all the fruits of work under the sun during the limited days that God gives to one’s life, for this is a person’s lot.” For Qoheleth, everything has its proper time: “a time to be born and a time to die…a time to weep and a time to laugh” (Eccl 3:2-4), but the “why” is known only to God and not to us. His advice to enjoy life as it is may not seem very religious, but he tempers it with warnings “to fear God” (Eccl 5:6).
The Jewish rabbis fought a long time over whether the book was fit for the sacred canon of Scripture. The positive decision was made possible because Solomon was thought to be the author, and an editor added a pious afterword in Ecclesiastes 12:9-14 that summed up his message as “fear God and keep his commandments” (Eccl 12:13). It was fortunate that they recognized its inspired nature, for it teaches the great gulf between the transcendent God and our human striving to understand and so control him. In the end, Ecclesiastes’ message is one with that of Job—trust and surrender yourself to God’s loving care even if you cannot know where it will lead.