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Old Testament: Ecclesiastes

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The author of Ecclesiastes is unable to find meaning in life by living for work, by searching for the answers to life's big questions, or by pursuing more and more sophisticated pleasures. All of these efforts result in a sense of emptiness (Hebrew hevel, traditionally translated "vanity"). Life has its perpetual problems, such as injustice and evil, the whims of chance, the impossibility of understanding what God is doing or is about to do, and the inevitability of death. In view of these realities, Ecclesiastes counsels enjoying the everyday gifts God gives, such as times with family and friends, and faithfully remembering and worshiping God.

So What?

According to this book, living only for one's work (workaholism), or to accumulate more and more knowledge (intellectualism), or to find more and more exotic, pleasure-producing thrills (hedonism) will ultimately not be satisfying. The book is also in touch with reality, recognizing that earthly existence is marked by problems of injustice, evildoing, and chance accidents. There are many questions that we have about God, about what God is doing, and about death. We will have to learn to live with these questions. In the meantime, the book counsels us to enjoy one another's company and to enjoy the day-by-day good gifts that God gives us.

Where Do I Find It?

Ecclesiastes is the twenty-first book of the Old Testament, falling between Proverbs and the Song of Solomon. It is one of several books that come between the books recounting Israel's history and the books of prophecy.

Who Wrote It?

The writer is identified simply as the "Teacher" (1:1, 12; 7:27; 12:8, 9, 10). Despite some passages that suggest a king as the author, it is best to stay with this designation, ascribing the book to "Qoheleth" (Hebrew) or "Teacher," that is, one steeped in Israel's wisdom traditions (see 12:9-10), preparing a lesson for people who needed to hear what that wisdom had to say to their own lives.

When Was It Written?

While a few scholars would date the book in the fifth or fourth century B.C.E., the consensus of contemporary scholarship understands it to have been written in Jerusalem around 250 B.C.E., in which situation it fits well.

What's It About?

Ecclesiastes offers honest reflections on the human quest for meaning, on the realities of life on this earth and under God, avoiding pious clichés and advising the enjoyment of the gifts God gives.

How Do I Read It?

Do not expect this book to retell the story of the mighty acts of God or to bring prophetic words from God on the great themes of justice, peace, or messianic hope. Nor should you look for prayers of lament or songs of praise. Rather, sit back and listen to what this always critical and sometimes crotchety teacher has to say about life and death, God and love, sorrow and joy.

AUTHOR: James Limburg, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament

I. Author and Theme (Ecclesiastes 1:1-2)

The author is identified as the "Teacher," which is Qoheleth in Hebrew. The thematic word "vanity" translates the Hebrew hevel, which repeats as a refrain throughout the book. Its literal sense is a breath of air or puff of wind; as a metaphor, it can mean emptiness, nothingness, meaninglessness.

II. The Search for Meaning (Ecclesiastes 1:3-2:26)

In the first major section of the book the author reports on his search for meaning in life. Qoheleth has tried everything. Living for work proves to be wearisome. The perpetual search for wisdom brings only sorrow. And pleasures, from the sensual to the sophisticated, also finally end up as "vanity"--hollow and unsatisfying. Neither the accomplishments of one's work nor the accumulation of knowledge is ultimately satisfying. So the best thing to do is to enjoy the family and friends God has given you!

III. Who Knows? (Ecclesiastes 3)

"Who knows?" is the theme running through chapter 3. The Teacher acknowledges that there are particular times in life for particular activities. One of the haunting questions in life has to do with what the future will bring. And then there is the matter of death, with all its mysteries. There are some things that the Teacher does know (3:12-15), including the observation that all should stand in awe of God.

IV. Earthly Matters (Ecclesiastes 4)

This chapter discusses a number of earthly matters, including evil and injustice, envy and workaholism, the advantages of life together with another, and the power of wisdom.

V. Heavenly Matters (Ecclesiastes 5)

This chapter turns to focus on some heavenly matters, reminding humans that God is in heaven and they are on earth. The Teacher counsels readers to enjoy the days that God gives them.

VI. Death (Ecclesiastes 6-7)

The major concern of these chapters is death. Death may come too soon, and funerals can serve as reminders of one's own mortality. In 7:15-29 the Teacher reflects on some of life's riddles. The Hebrew Bible marks 6:10 as the beginning of the second half of the book.

VII. The Limits of Human Understanding (Ecclesiastes 8)

Here the Teacher admits that even the theologians and philosophers do not understand the great mysteries of life and again counsels enjoying the days that God gives.

VIII. How Then Should Life Be Lived? (Ecclesiastes 9-12)

In the context of remembering one's mortality, the Teacher reminds humans of the chanciness of life and advises enjoying God's gifts whether one is old or young. Wisdom is powerful, but young people are advised not to study overmuch, to remember and revere their Creator, and to live rightly.

AUTHOR: James Limburg, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament

According to most contemporary scholarship, Ecclesiastes was written during the time when the Greeks ruled over Jerusalem and the Jews, around 250 B.C.E.

Israel and the Jews had had a glorious past, but now the days of the kings were only a memory. After the exile came Persian rule. Then in 332 B.C.E. the armies of Alexander the Great moved into the East and the world became Greek overnight. Thus at the time of the writing of Ecclesiastes, the Jewish community was but a small island in the vast sea of the Greek empire.

The Jews in Jerusalem at this time had heard of the mighty acts of God in their past, but God did not seem to be doing anything mighty for them in their day. They had heard of the powerful words of God through the prophets, and they had preserved those words, but God did not seem to be saying anything in their day. They did not deny God's existence in heaven, but they were on earth, and God seemed distant and unreachable. Even their best theologians and philosophers were baffled when it came to the question of what God was doing (8:17). Individuals sought in vain for meaning in their work, in intellectual pursuits or in sophisticated pleasures, but nothing ever seemed satisfying. All was "vanity," about as substantial and permanent as a puff of smoke. A once-powerful nation that was now weak, without good political leadership; a religious community skeptical about God's involvement in their lives; people desperately searching for meaning--such was the situation that the Teacher who produced this essay had to address.

AUTHOR: James Limburg, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament

Bonhoeffer on Ecclesiastes. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who was executed under the Nazis, made extensive use of Ecclesiastes. In interpreting Ecclesiastes 3, as an example, he writes: "But, to put it plainly, for a man in his wife's arms to be hankering after the other world is, in mild terms, a piece of bad taste, and not God's will. We ought to find and love God in what he actually gives us; if it pleases him to allow us to enjoy some overwhelming earthly happiness, we mustn't try to be more pious than God himself….'For everything there is a season'" (Letters and Papers from Prison [New York: Macmillan, 1971] 168-169).

Ecclesiastes and Solomon. While references in the book to "the son of David, king in Jerusalem" (1:1) and "king over Israel" both suggest a king as the author, with Solomon as the likely candidate, there are problems with identifying the author as Solomon. That king is never named in the book. The "king" association is dropped after chapter 2. "All who were before me in Jerusalem" does not fit with Solomon, who was only the second king of Israel in Jerusalem. Most important, the language of the book is clearly that of a time later than Solomon. There are at least two Persian loan words in the book (translated "parks" in 2:5 and "sentence" in 8:11), which point to a time during Persian rule, after 539 B.C.E.

The epilogue. Many interpreters see the final section (12:9-14) as a late addition to the original composition and thus of less value than the "original" part of the book. If we read the book as a whole, however, the epilogue provides clues for understanding the message of the whole. We observe something of the Teacher's method of working in 12:9-10, some advice for young scholars in 12:12, and a summary of the message of the book in 12:13.

Hevel ("vanity," NRSV). Since the word occurs thirty-seven times in this book, it is important to get its sense. The literal meaning is "breath" (Isaiah 57:13; JPS translates as "breeze" here), vapor, or cloud of steam. This thematic word runs like a pedal point on an organ throughout the entire book. Interestingly, hevel is translated as "Abel," the son of Adam and Eve, in Genesis 4. Already at the beginning of the Bible there is an allusion to the transitory nature of the human being in the name "Abel/hevel."

Jewish use of the book. In Judaism, the book is the text for the celebration of the fall festival of Sukkoth, or booths. Deuteronomy 16:1-17 lists the three ancient festivals (passover, weeks, booths), and vv. 13-15 tell how to celebrate booths. Jews today continue to celebrate the festival in the fall by building a small structure where they will eat and drink and visit with friends. The keynote of the festival is joy. This calls to attention the theme of rejoicing that runs through the book.

Luther on Ecclesiastes. Martin Luther's commentary on Ecclesiastes remains a classic that is still useful for our own understanding of the book. Note, for example, what Luther says about 5:20: "This statement is the interpreter of the entire book: Solomon intends to forbid vain anxieties, so that we may happily enjoy the things that are present and not care at all about the things that are in the future, lest we permit the present moment, our moment, to slip away" (Luther's Works 15:93).

Structure of the book. Some have suggested that the book is a random collection of essays and sayings with no governing structure. Others suggest a simple division into longer essays in chapters 1-6 and collections of shorter sayings in chapters 7-12. There is, however, a certain progression of thought as is suggested by the content division above. An important marker in the Hebrew text is the note that the book divides into two equal parts between 6:9 and 6:10; any consideration of the book's structure should take this point of division into account.

Tone of the book. Does Ecclesiastes mark the "low-water mark" of Old Testament thought, as some have suggested? Is it really an especially gloomy essay? The book does indeed recognize life's problems, including death. But the central message of the book is expressed in those passages that call for celebration of life together with family and friends and appreciation of the everyday good gifts that God provides (see 2:24-26; 3:12-13, 22; 5:18-20; 8:15; 9:7-10; 11:8-12:1).

AUTHOR: James Limburg, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament

Enjoy the gifts of God. "It is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun….This is the gift of God" (5:18-19). The Teacher counsels enjoying the good days (7:14; 3:22) and the good things, because they are gifts "from the hand of God" (2:24-26; 3:12-13). Eat, drink, and enjoy the days that God gives you (8:15)! Enjoy good wine, the man or woman you love, throw yourself into your work, because God approves of all these things (9:7-10).

God at a distance. "God is in heaven…," says 5:2. Isaiah spoke of the Lord as "high and lofty" and "holy" which means separate or distant (Isaiah 6:1-3). Jesus taught his followers to recognize God's transcendence in praying, "Our Father in heaven" (Matthew 6:9). All should be in awe of God (Ecclesiastes 3:14) and worship God in humility and reverence (5:1-2, 7; 12:13).

God cares. God is the maker of everything on earth (3:11; 7:13). God gives humans their lives (5:18; 8:15); God is their maker and creator (7:29; 12:1) and takes life back to God when the creature dies (12:7).

Human beings--creatures of the earth. "And you upon earth…"--humans are addressed in 5:2. On earth there are problems of injustice and evil (3:16-17), oppression (4:1-3; 5:8-9), greed (5:8-17), unfairness (7:15-18; 8:14; 9:11-12), and finally death (2:14-17; 3:19-21; 6:3-6; 7:2; 12:1-8).

What is God doing? "So you do not know the work of God," says 11:5 (see also 3:10-11 and 8:16-17). For Ecclesiastes, there appears to be a gulf between God in heaven and people on earth.

AUTHOR: James Limburg, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament