These are notes for next Sunday Night’s Class on Ecclesiastes:
I. What is this book?
A. A speech:
1. The words:
2. The Preacher, Qoheleth:
The Hebrew root for Qohelth is qahal, an assembly or ‘a gathering’, and often describes the assembled Israelites for various reasons, whether civil, religious or military. Solomon assembled the Israelites for consecration of the new temple (1 Kgs. 8; 2 Chr. 54) and found foreign dignitaries assembled before him, including the Queen of Sheba (1 Kgs. 4:34; 10:1). (Fredericks 2010, 33).
[This next section is for your own reference. We are going to merely reference this section, unless there is a great outcry.]
C. Debate about the author: If you read anything or any commentary about Ecclesiastes, you will almost certainly read that this book was not written by Solomon. Even very conservative commentators will question Solomon. What they explain is that the writer was using a very well-known and well-understood device of pretending to be a famous historical figure. They argue that everyone who reads the book will understand that this is merely a literary device. In fact, after Ecclesiastes 2:11, the author “drops” the pretense of writing from the position of a king and from then on writes as someone who isn’t a king.
1. The language:
a. Foreign words? For example, the words for “garden” in Ecclesiastes 2:5 & “sentence” are Persian words [there is a question as to whether they are actually Sanskrit in origin]. Excluding Ecclesiastes, there is no evidence that these words were used in Hebrew prior to the 5th Century B.C. (Seow, 12). But, Solomon was an international man with contacts throughout the world. Would it be any more strange for Solomon to use a foreign word prior to the time it came into common use? [There are also Aramaic words, for which the argument is far less significant.]
The presence of the two Persian words seems to be irrefutable proof of a late date for the book, but here too the matter is not as settled as it appears. Archer says the words could be of Sanskrit origin and that they may have entered the language during Solomon’s period of extensive foreign trade.43 That hypothesis is open to question, but it is noteworthy that Pope also expresses doubt about whether pardes and the related Greek word paradeisos are of Persian origin. The word pitgam alone is slender evidence since we in fact have no idea when it entered the language. Fredericks notes that Persian influence and vocabulary spread through the ancient Near East long before the establishment of the Persian Empire and that the words need not have entered Hebrew via Aramaic, as is commonly assumed
Duane A. Garrett, vol. 14, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, electronic ed., Logos Library System; The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001), 260.
b. Colloquialisms: Colloquialisms are the kind of words that people say rather than write. Often, certain ways of saying things will not be written – particularly in formal writing. In the Bible we have extremely formal writing. The OT contains the most important literature to the ancient Hebrews. Much of it is written in a very formal style. Some of it might have sounded old-fashioned, the way the King James Bible would sound to us (the King James Bible actually sounded a bit old fashioned when it was published).
There are various ways of writing in Ecclesiastes which were not common for the writing which we know about during the time of Solomon. For example, if we were to say that a particular human being was presently engaged in the activity of walking we would say and write, “He walks.” But 400 years ago, someone would write “He walketh.” If you found something supposedly written 400 years ago with the word “walks” you might wonder whether you were being tricked. But, the fact is that people started saying “walks” before they started commonly writing “walks.” We can figure out pretty clearly when that happened in English, because we have a great deal of writing, both formal and informal, to study.
When it comes to 3000 Hebrew, we have far less information. We don’t know as much as we would like about dialects (some of the strange Hebrew in Ecclesiastes seems to come from Northern Israel). We don’t know as much as we would like about Solomon’s education. Solomon very likely grew up around people who didn’t speak the exact same kind of Hebrew as was spoken by other parts of David’s family.
A great deal of the strange Hebrew in Ecclesiastes seems best to be explained as vernacular (spoken language), colloquialisms and perhaps dialect (Seow, 20). This makes sense given that it appears to be a speech. “Transmission of this speech through the writing process could have modernized the language ot the extent that it looks somewhat later than early written Hebrew” (Fredicks, 2011, 32).
c. In short:
The question of the language of Ecclesiastes has naturally received the most attention. In answer to Delitzsch’s oft-quoted remark regarding Ecclesiastes and the history of the Hebrew language, one might note that our knowledge of the particulars of the history of Hebrew is quite limited. For Greek the history of the dialectical, orthographic, and lexical development of the language is well documented. Indisputable evidence concerning the history of the Hebrew language, however, is relatively scarce. Eaton remarks that “[t]he difficulty is that the linguistic data show that Ecclesiastes does not fit into any known section of the history of the Hebrew language.”
Nevertheless, linguistic evidence is sufficient at least to challenge the late date for the composition of Ecclesiastes. In a major study D. Fredericks argues that Ecclesiastes cannot come from the postexilic period. His work, together with other recent studies, calls for a major reassessment of the date of the book.
Duane A. Garrett, vol. 14, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, electronic ed., Logos Library System; The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001), 258.
d. But, if it is a speech:
Perhaps one of these occasions (with foreign dignitaries) was the setting for this particular lecture we call Qoheleth or Ecclesiastes. The international flavor of the speech (including Aramaic and Persian words), its universality in philosophical subject matter, its theme of administration of justice by officials, all would fit this setting. (Fredericks 2010, 33).
2. The content:
a. We will consider the arguments about whether a King would write this as we go through the text.
b. General note: Since this book contains a great deal of comparison, contrast and thinking out loud – including seeming unresolved contradictions — many commentators have proposed 2, 3 or even 9 separate authors and editors. We are going to go with a single author (Eccl. 12:11).
C. Wisdom literature generally:
1. Genre, phone books & poems:
a. Wisdom genre:
b. James 3:13-17:
c. Proverbs 1:1-7:
II. What do we know about Solomon?
A. His parentage: 1 Sam. 11-12
1. Hittite (1 Sam. 11:3).
2. What was the effect of this upon David & thus Solomon’s house? (1 Sam. 12:10).
B. His reign: 1 Kings 1-11; 1 Chron. 29- 2 Chron. 9.
1. How it began (1 Kings 1).
2. His rule established (1 Kings 2).
3. His prayer for and receipt of wisdom (1 Kings 3).
4. Solomon’s wealth: 2 Chron. 9:13-22.
5. Builds and dedicates the Temple. 1 Kings 5-8.
6. Solomon turns from the Lord. 1 Kings 11:1-8; Neh. 13:26
7. The Lord’s curse. 1 Kings 11:9-13
III. Solomon’s Repentance:
A. There is no recorded repentance of Solomon in the Bible.
B. The argument from silence:
1. The biblical records are not complete.
2. Just note the comparison between Chronicles & Kings:
a. The manner of Solomon’s accession is omitted.
b. His marriage to Pharaoh’s daughter
c. His worship of foreign deities.
d. In fact, the Chronicler seems to place the blame for the break up of the kingdom on Rehoboam. 2 Chron. 10:15.
e. Compare the lack of Manasseh’s repentance in 2 Kings 21:17-18 with 2 Chronicles 33:10-20.
C. If there was a repentance, is Ecclesiastes that repentance?
IV. What’s in the book?
A. There are two great themes in this book:
1. God is the sovereign Creator, King & Judge.
2. Man is thwarted and frustrated in his desires.
1. Various translations: vanity, futility, meaningless, frustration.
2. The Hebrew word is “hebel” which means breath, vapor, steam, mist. One colorful translation is “soap bubbles”.
3. The word is used in the OT for
a. A man’s life: “Man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow” Psalm 144:4 (ESV).
b. An idol. 1 Kings. 16:13. The idea of an “idol” as mere breath is that the idol is nothing, “They have made me jealous with what is no god; they have provoked me to anger with their idols” (Dt. 32:21).
c. It is used in Hebrew for just plain breath or steam or vapor.
4. There are two Greek words which are used for translating this word which both appear in the NT. These two uses of the word may help to understand the idea of this word in Ecclesiastes.
a. One translation is as “futility”:
20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. Romans 8:20–21 (ESV)
This reference in Romans 8 will give us a useful tool for understanding Ecclesiastes, because one strain running through the book is the continuing effect of the Fall and the Curse (Gen. 3). Paul’s reference in Roman’s 8 refers back to the Curse and looks forward to the redemption of all things.
b. Another translation is the word “mist”:
13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. 17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. James 4:13–17 (ESV)
The temporal nature of life does not make it “meaningless” but it does but it into a particular theological context.
C. Outline: There is no agreed outline of this book. Some commentators find absolute chaos; others find the most intricate structure imaginable (at times the structure is so complex that no one else can see it). The one point which is agreed is that the book has two halves. Ecclesiastes 6:9 is the precise middle of the book in terms of size.
a. If you look at the question which comes at the mid-point, it does find a suitable answer at the end of the book:
Question: For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow? For who can tell man what will be after him under the sun? Ecclesiastes 6:12 (ESV)
Answer: The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. Ecclesiastes 12:13–14 (ESV)
b. The book also contains many obvious and well-recognized sections: 1:2, 1:3-1:11,3:1-8, etc.
c. The question of structure is the question of why the various sections were arranged in this fashion. Why does he repeat himself (or nearly repeat himself) so often? We will consider those questions as we move through the text.