The book of Ecclesiastes (Ecclesiastes 1)

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Although the author of Ecclesiastes referred to himself only as “the teacher”, he also claims to have been a son of David and a king over Israel in Jerusalem (Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12). Allowing for the fact that “son” can mean “descendant”, the only other person besides Solomon himself to fit both these descriptors would have been Solomon’s son Rehoboam. No one, however, considers Rehoboam’s authorship to be even a remote possibility.

Despite these claims, the traditional assumption that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes has come under question. Many interpreters treat the teacher’s claims as literary device, proposing that the author of Ecclesiastes took the identity of Solomon in order to give his words a certain weightiness. It is wise, however, not to embrace this option too readily. The canonical authority of the books of the Bible is closely related to their authors. By way of comparison, Protestant believers treat the Apocryphal book titled Wisdom of Solomon as noncanonical precisely because it is a late, pseudonymous work – one that Solomon did not actually write (see The Apocrypha under Titus 2).

The assumption that Solomon wrote the book late in his life would place its composition at about 940 B.C. Today the vast majority of scholars treat Ecclesiastes as a late, post-exilic text, many proposing a date as late as 200 B.C. Yet there are solid reasons for believing the late date theory for Ecclesiastes to be misguided (see Authorship of Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs under Ecclesiastes 5). Especially significant is the fact that the author demonstrated such familiarity with ancient texts from prior to the time of Solomon (works such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Egyptian Harper Songs; se Ecclesiastes and the Epic of Gilgamesh under Ecclesiastes 9). This is what we would expect from the highly literate age of Solomon, but it is hard to imagine that a writer living during the late post-exilic era would have known these writings or incorporated them into his book. By contrast, Ecclesiastes shows no familiarity at all with Greek literature – which is precisely what an educated Jew of 200 B.C. would have known.

Ecclesiastes is an advanced and reflective wisdom text. Unlike Proverbs, it was not included in the canon to educate young readers in the basic principles of wisdom. Rather, it was intended for those mature and experienced enough to deal with dark and difficult questions (see Ancient Near Eastern wisdom under Proverbs 1). In addition, it is clear that Ecclesiastes was written primarily for the elite in Israelite society – people both familiar with the ancient world of wisdom and comfortable within the corridors of power.

The author of Ecclesiastes clearly expected that his readers would from time to time have access to the king (8:2-5). Speaking to privileged, cultured people with money, power and intelligence, he warned this vulnerable audience that all the grandeur, brilliance and laurels this world has to offer are in the final analysis only fleeting.

The teacher claimed unequivocally that “there is nothing new under the sun” (1:9), but he was making this claim well over two thousand years ago. In view of the exponential advance in all areas of knowledge over the past century or so, study his argument with a critical eye, deliberately overlooking the language and details that date the manuscript and attempting tp reduce his premises to their most basic  components. Do you feel the work still represents universal truth? Has the teacher covered all basic areas? If you think there may indeed be something “new under the sun” since its writing, either in terms of God’s continuing self-revelation through His Son or from the  “enlightened” perspective of our own age, what might it be?

Does the author strike you as a gloom-and-doom pessimist, an at times “incurable” optimist or modern style realist? How well do you relate to his style and drastic shifts in tone?

Did you know that the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh contains a section remarkable similar to 9:7-9, illustrating the international flavour of ancient wisdom literature? Did you know that “words” are a common theme in wisdom literature (10:12)? Did you know that the teacher advocated being adventurous, for those who accept risks will reap returns (11:1)? Did you know that the teacher encouraged diversification of investments; that people can never know in advance which venture may fail (11:2)?


 

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