Ecclesiastes is the English designation for a book of the Old Testament, known in Hebrew as Koheleth (variously spelled). The canonical Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament—also part of the Christian Bible—is generally divided into three sections: the Law (or first five books, called the Torah); the Prophets; and the Writings. Ecclesiastes falls into the latter group and, along with Job and Proverbs, is considered wisdom literature, containing reflections on the meaning of life and righteous living. It is also described as poetic writing, characterized by parallelism and thematic refrains that repeat much like the rhythms of nature. In particular, Ecclesiastes compares the fleeting essence of human life with the everlasting nature of God and Earth. “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abi- deth for ever” (1:4). Humankind is time-bound, but God is eternal. Ecclesiastes is traditionally read during the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkoth (Tabernacles) as a reminder of the transitory nature of life and an admonition against overreliance on material possessions. In this context, Ecclesiastes foreshadows a similar message of the New Testament warning against attachment to earthly matters, which pass with time.
Underscoring the ephemeral quality of life, the book begins, “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher . . . all is vanity” (1:2). The term vanity, translated from the Hebrew through the Greek, does not suggest the English understanding of self-absorption but variously the concepts of futility and meaninglessness, based literally on the Hebrew bebel (or hevel), meaning vapor, or mist. Life is, therefore, no more than a breath that forms quickly, evaporates, and is gone. The passage of time is an overriding theme: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven” (3:1). There are no less than 45 direct references to “time” in the 12 chapters of Ecclesiastes and at least 6 admonitions to enjoy life in the present, not in the hedonistic sense but rather accepting both life and death as gifts from God. The present, then, takes on paramount significance, with the past forgotten and the future uncertain.
When the canon of the Hebrew Bible was defined at the Council of Jamnia (c. 90 CE), many Jewish scholars opposed the admission of Koheleth to the sacred, or inspired, collection of writings because of its pessimistic outlook; however, although not a book of praise, it ultimately affirms faith in God, God’s Creation, and the Hebrew law. The English title of the book is derived from the Greek ekklesia, originally denoting a secular gathering. The term became associated with religious gatherings and then was exclusively applied in a religious context referring to “church” or church-related (ecclesiastical) matters. The Hebrew title Koheleth is also based on the Hebrew root meaning “to gather or assemble”; however, the English translation has come to be understood as “preacher,” an honorific title referring to one who conducts or leads a religious assembly.
Some elements in the Jewish tradition hold the author to be King Solomon, who ruled Israel from approximately 970 to 928 BCE, as implied in the first line: “The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king of Jerusalem” (1:1). Tradition also attributes two additional Old Testament books to Solomon: the Book of Proverbs and Song of Songs. However, other scholars believe the opening of Ecclesiastes to be calling upon the credibility of Solomon’s wisdom rather than identifying him as the writer and believe its style and language place authorship about 250 BCE in the post-Babylonian exile era, when most Jews lived under Greek rule and exercised no real political power. The skeptical tone of the book may also reflect the prevailing Greek philosophy and antipathy of the Greeks toward Judaism. Despite the author’s viewpoint, he does not yield his faith in the face of adversity. The autobiographical first person is employed throughout from the perspective of a wise man who has lived fully and wishes to share his perspective on the purpose of existence. The maxims he advances are based on his own observation, but he is nonetheless cognizant of the limitations of human reason when he poses the question, “For who knows what is good for man in life, all the days of his vain life which he passes like a shadow?” (6:12).
Ecclesiastes comments on the futility of human accomplishments and the cyclical pattern of history over time: “What has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” (1:9). The narrator makes no reference to a hereafter, since the lives of both the righteous and the foolish end in death: “All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again” (3:20), which echoes the words of Genesis (3:19). Similarly in the Book of Job, divine justice remains a mystery: “The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong . . . but time and chance happenth to them all” (9:11). The meaning of life, then, must be found in the temporal sphere and living the brief interval of life to the fullest within the Hebrew law. Despite the seemingly hopeless tone of the book, the narrator affirms the existence of God and recognizes and encourages enjoyment and pleasure as divine gifts. “There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labor. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God” (2:24). The author cautions against pleasure becoming the goal of life, however, since he himself experienced wealth, luxury, and privilege but found them unfulfilling. While human endeavor appears futile, there is recognition of the value of life no matter how brief the interval: “For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion” (9:4-5).
In questioning the purpose of human life and endeavors, the author of Ecclesiastes expresses a practical ethic for the present, but without assurance of future justice. With the passage of time comes the inevitability of death: “For man also knoweth not his time: as the fishes, that are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare; so are the sons of men snared in an evil time, when it falleth suddenly upon them” (9:12). This tone is in contrast to the more traditional books of the Old Testament, particularly the Torah, which place great importance on law and ritual as the guiding principles of a righteous life. But the universality and timelessness of the message of Ecclesiastes has made it an enduring source of allusion, especially in Western culture and literature. The acceptance of the cycle of life does not reinforce hopelessness but recognizes the balance in all things in observing that there is a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time for war and a time for peace. The inexorable passage of time and the cycles of life, death, and rebirth place a particular value on life for all its brevity and uncertainty. Life remains a mysterious gift to be enjoyed to the fullest but never completely understood. Accepting the infirmities of old age and his own imminent death, the narrator advises, “Rejoice . . . in the days of thy youth” (11:9), but to find fulfillment, “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man” (12:13). Only righteous living in the here and now, regardless of station in life, gives meaning to an otherwise unexplainable existence.
Linda Mohr Iwamoto
See also Apocalypse; Bible and Time; Christianity; End-Time, Beliefs in; Evil and Time; God and Time; Judaism; Parousia; Time, End of; Time, Sacred
Alter, R., & Kermode, F. (Eds.). (1987). The literary guide to the Bible. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press. Eaton, M. A. (1983). Ecclesiastes: An introduction and commentary. Leicester, UK: InterVarsity Press.
Sheppard, G. T. (1980). Wisdom as a hermeneutical construct. Berlin: de Gruyter.