1902 Encyclopedia > Eccesiastes


THE BOOK OF ECCLESIASTES has been handed down by Hebrew tradition as one of the three canonical books of Solomon, son of David, the other two being Proverbs and the Song of Songs, or Canticles.

Two different practices have obtained from time immemorial as to the position of this book in the Bible. According to one, which is preserved in the MSS. and edi-tions of the Septuagint, and is followed by the MSS. and editions of the Vulgate, Ecclesiastes is the second in the order of the five books which, according to the Alexandrian Jews and the Greek and Latin churches, was written by Solomon. The order of these five books in the Alexandrian and Sinaitic Codices and in the MS. Bible of Charles the Bold, circa 850 (British Museum) is Proverbs, Ecclesi-astes, Canticles, Wisdom, and Ecclesiasticus. According to the other practice the book in question is separated from those which are supposed to belong to the same author, and is joined for liturgical purposes to the other four Megilloth.

Thus in the oldest dated MS. of the entire Hebrew Bible yet known (1009), now in the imperial library of St Petersburg, it is the third of the five Megilloth, viz., Buth, Canticles, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, and Esther. Though this order is also to be found in the Spanish and Italian MSS., it is by no means universal. Additional MS. 15,250 of the British Museum not only puts Ecclesiastes before Canticles, but places Faith before the Psalms. In the fourteen pre-Reformation German translations of the Bible (1462-1518), and in Wycliffe's English version, where the five Solomonic books are still kept together, the order of the Septuagint and Vulgate is followed, as is also the case in the English Catholic version (Douai, 1610). Luther, who was the first to remove Wisdom and Ecclesi-asticus from this group, and place them with the other so called Apocryphal books at the end of the Old Testament, has left Ecclesiastes as second in the order of the Solomonic writings. In our first English translation of the entire Bible (1535) Coverdale followed the example of the great Continental Reformer. Hence this narrower group and this position of Ecclesiastes in the succeeding English Bibles, and in the present Authorized Version.

There is hardly another book in the Bible which has called forth so many commentaries and suffered as much at the hands of expositors as Ecclesiastes. Nearly 350 years ago Luther remarked,—" Difficult as this book is, it is almost more difficult to clear the author of the visionary fancies palmed upon him by his numerous commentators than to develop his meaning." What would this sagacious Reformer have said if he could have seen the countless speculations of which it has been the subject since his days We are positively assured that the book contains the holy lamentations of Solomon, together with a prophetic vision of the splitting up of the royal house of David, the destruc-tion of the Temple, and the Captivity; and we are equally assured that it is a discussion between a refined sensualist and a sober sage. Solomon publishes in it his repentance, to glorify God and to strengthen his brethren; he wrote it "when he was irreligious and sceptical during his amours and idolatry." " The Messiah, the true Solomon, who was known by the title of son of David, addresses this book to the saints;" a profligate who wanted to disseminate his in-famous sentiments palmed it upon Solomon. It teaches us to despise the world with all its pleasures, and flee to monasteries ; it shows that sensual gratifications are men's greatest blessing upon earth. It is a philosophic lecture delivered to a literary society upon topics of the greatest moment; it is a medley of heterogeneous fragments belonging to various authors aud different ages. It describes the beautiful order of God's moral government, showing that all things work together for good to them that love the Lord; it proves that all is disorder and confusion, and that the world is the sport of chance. It is a treatise on the summum boraim; it is " a chronicle of the lives of the kings of the house of David from Solomon down to Zedekiah." Its object is to prove the immortality of the soul; its design is to deny a future existence. Its aim is to comfort the unhappy Jews in their misfortunes; and its sole purport is to pour forth the gloomy imaginations of a melancholy misanthrope. It is intended " to open Nathan's speech (1 Chron. xvii.) touching the eternal throne of David; " and it propounds by anticipation the modern dis-coveries of anatomy and the Harveian theory of the circula-tion of the blood. " It foretells what will become of man or angels to eternity; " and, according to one of the latest and greatest authorities, it is a keen satire on Herod, written 8 B.C., when the king cast his son Alexander into prison.

One of the causes which have contributed to obscure the design of this book is the name Ecclesiastes. This title Preacher, which ascribes to Solomon an office foreign to the Old Testament, has been given to it by the Septuagint and Vulgate in accordance with a Jewish tradition, and has been adopted alike by the pre- and post-Reformation authorized versions of the Scriptures. The Jewish tradition in question is to be found in the Midrash Rabba on Eccl. i. 1, where we are told that " Solomon was called Coheleth = Ecclesiastes, because his discourses were delivered in the Cahai = Ecclesia." Hence the title in the Alexandrian ver-sion, which was followed by the Latin Authorized Version, and is reproduced in Wycliffe's Bible " the boc of Ecclesiastes, that is to sey, boc of talker to the people." Hence, too, Luther's title Prediger, which is followed in our first printed English Bible " the boke of the Preacher, otherwyse called Ecclesiastes" (Coverdale, 1535), and which is perpetuated in our Authorized Version. This title, however, is contrary to the grammatical form of the word Coheleth, as well as to the usage of the root from which it is derived. It has arisen from a desire on the part of the Jewish synagogue to exhibit Solomon in the garb of a penitent confessing his sins, and, by detailing his bitter experience, warning the people publicly to avoid the thorny path he has pursued and walk in the ways of righteousness. Laudable as this desire is, it perverts the historico-exegetical import of the book, and is contradicted by the signification of the name.

Coheleth is the participle feminine Kal of hdhal, which primarily means to call, to call together, to collect, to assemble. The verb occurs about forty times in the Hebrew Bible, and is invariably used for assembling or gathering people together, especially for religious worship. Hence the name means a collectress, or an assembleress of people into the presence of God, a female gatherer of an assembly to God, This meaning of the name is fully confirmed by another Jewish tradition, which is embodied in the Midrash Yalkut (Eccl. i. 1), and is exhibited in the ancient Greek versions of Aquila and Symmachus. Chapter i. 12 tells us that Solomon is meant by this designation, since he was the only sou of David who was king over Israel in Jerusalem. The feminine and symbolic appellation arises from the fact that in chapter vii. 27 of this very book Solomon is depicted as personified Wisdom, who appears herself in Prov. i. 10, viii. 1, &c, as Coheleth, or the female gatherer of the people. This symbolic name is, moreover, intended to indicate the design of the book itself, and to connect Solomon's endeavours here with his work recorded in 1 Kings viii. Solomon, who in 1 Kings viii. is described as gathering (brtp"1) the people to hold communion with the Most High in the place which he erected for this purpose, is here again represented as the gatherer (r6np) of the far-off people of God. As he retains his individuality, he sometimes describes his own experience, and sometimes utters the words of Wisdom, whose organ he is.

The design of this book, as indicated in the symbolic title of its hero, is to gather God's people, who were led astray by the inexplicable difficulties in the moral govern-ment of the world, into the community of God. Coheleth shows them the utter insufficiency of all human efforts to obtain real happiness—that it cannot be secured by wisdom, pleasure, industry, wealth, and prudence, but that it consists in the calm enjoyment of our lot, in resignation to the dealings of Providence, in the service of the Most High, and in looking forward to a future state of retribution, when all the present mysteries shall be solved, and when the Righteous Judge shall render to every man according to his deeds, whether they be good or evil.

Instead of writing an elaborate metaphysical disquisition to refute the various systems of happiness which the different orders of mind and the different temperaments had constructed for themselves, Solomon is introduced as narrating his painful experience in all his attempts. He shows how he had vainly striven to divert the longings of his soul by various experiments, and the only solution which can pacify the perplexed mind when contemplating the unfathomable dealings in the moral government of the world.

The theme or problem of the book is given in chapter i. 2—11. On the assumption that there is no hereafter, and that the longing soul is to be satisfied with the things here, Coheleth declares all human efforts to satisfy the longings of the soul to be utterly vain (chap. i. 1, 2), since conscious man is more deplorable than unconscious nature, for he must speedily quit this life, whilst the earth abides for ever (4); the objects of nature depart and retrace their course again, but man disappears and is for ever gone (5-11).

In corroboration of the allegation in the prologue, and to show the utter failure to satisfy the cravings of the soul with mere temporal pleasures, Coheleth tells us that, with all the resources of a great monarch at his command (chap, i. 12), he applied himself assiduously to discover by the aid of wisdom the nature of earthly pursuits, and found that they were fruitless (13-14), since they could not alter destinies. Hence, when he reflected upon the large amount of wisdom which he had acquired, he came to the conclu-sion that it is utterly useless (16-17), for the accumulation of it only increased his sorrow and pain (18). Wisdom having failed, Coheleth resolved to try pleasure, to see whether it would yield the desired happiness, but he soon found that this too was vain (chap. ii. 1), and hence denounced it (2). After procuring every imaginable pleasure (3-10) he found that it was utterly insufficient to impart lasting good (11). He then compared wisdom with pleasure, the two experiments he had made (12); and though he saw that the former had a decided advantage over the latter (13, 14a), still he also saw that it does not except its possessor from death and oblivion, but that the wise man and the fool must both die alike and be forgotten (145-16). This melancholy thought made him hate both life and the wealth which he had acquired by wisdom and industry, and which, to aggravate matters, he perchance might leave to a reckless fool (17-21). It convinced him that man has nothing from his toil but wearisome days and sleepless nights (22, 23), and that there is therefore nothing better for man than to enjoy himself (24a). Soon, however, he found that this too is not in the power of man (246, 25). God gives this power to the righteous and withholds it from the wicked, and it is after all only transitory (2).

Having shown the failure of wisdom, knowledge, and enjoyment to calm the. distracted mind which broods over the problem that, whilst the objects of nature depart and re-trace their steps, again man vanishes and is for ever for-gotten, Coheleth now shows the vain efforts of industry to satisfy the restless longings of the soul. All the events of life are immutably fixed (chap. iii. 1-8); labour is therefore fruitless (9). Even the regulations to human labour which God has prescribed in harmony with this fixed order of things man in his ignorance often mistakes (10, 11). Nothing is therefore left but the enjoyments as one finds them. But this, too, as has already been shown, is a gift of God (12, 13), who has fixed everything to make man feel his utter dependence on and fear the Lord (14, 15). The success of the wicked does not militate against this conclusion, for there is a day fixed for righteous retribution (16, 17). But even if all terminates here, and man and beast have the same destiny (17-21), this only shows all the more that the enjoyment of life is our only portion

(22). Such, a desperate conclusion, however, makes death preferable to a toilsome life (iv. 1-3),—a life spent in exertions to battle with the pre-ordained order of things, a life expended in labours which either arise from jealousies and fail in their end (4-6), or are prompted by avarice and defeat themselves (9-16). But as God has thus ordained the order of things, we ought to serve him (17-v. 6), trust to his protection under oppression (7, 8), and remember that the rich oppressor has not even the comfort of the poor labourer (9-11), and often bi.'.ngs misery upon his children and himself (12-16). This again brings Coheleth to the mournful conclusion that nothing is left but to enjoy the few fleeting years of life, which is a gift of God (17-19).

Coheleth now shows that neither the much-coveted wealth nor the highly-praised prudence suffices to secure the desired happiness and solve the melancholy problem of life that the same failure attends wealth (vi. 1-9), for the rich man cannot over-rule the order of Providence, nor forecast what will be for his happiness (10-12). The same is the case with the prudential or common sense view of life. Coheleth thought to secure happiness by acquiring and leaving a good name (vi. 1-4), by listening to merited re-buke (5-9), not indulging in a repining spirit. He would also submit to Divine Providence (10-14), be moderate in his religious practices (15-20), not meddle with the opinions of others (21, 22), seeing that higher wisdom is unattain-able (23, 24), and submit to the oppressive powers that be, convinced that the mightiest tyrant will ultimately be punished (viii. 1-9), for, though righteous retribution is momentarily suspended which causes wickedness to triumph, God will eventually administer justice (10-13). But as he found that the fortunes of the righteous and the wicked are often reversed all their lifetime, he had to relinquish this common-sense view of life as utterly insufficient to calm the longings of the soul, and recurred to his repeated conclusion that there is nothing left for man but to enjoy the fleeting things of this life (14, 15).

Before propounding his final conclusion, Coheleth gives a résumé of his investigations. Since it is impossible to fathom the work of God by wisdom, seeing that even the righteous and wise are subject to this inscrutable Provi-dence just as are the wicked (viii. 16-ix. 2) ;—for all must die alike and be forgotten, and have no more participation in what takes place here (3-6), and we are therefore to indulge in pleasures here, since there is no hereafter (7-10); success does not always attend the strong and the skilful (11, 12); wisdom, though advantageous in many respects, is often despised and defeated by folly (13-x. 3); we are to be patient under sufferings from rulers who by virtue of their power often pervert the order of things (4-7), since opposition may only increase our sufferings (8-11); the exercise of prudence will in the long run be more ad-vantageous than folly (12-20) ; we are to be charitable, though the recipients of our charity often appear ungrate-ful, since some of them may after all requite us (xi. 1, 2); we are always to be at work, not allowing ourselves to be deterred by imaginary failures, since we know not which of our efforts may prove successful (3-6), and thus make life as agreeable as we can, since this is the only scene of enjoy-ment, and the future is all vanity (7, 8);—yet, seeing that even all this does not satisfy the higher craving of the soul, and still leaves conscious man in a more deplor-able state than unconscious nature, for the objects of nature depart, retrace their course again, while man disappears and is for ever forgotten—Coheleth at last comes to the conclusion that the enjoyment of this life, combined with a belief in a future judgment, does secure real happiness for man (9, 10). We are therefore to live from our early years in the fear of God and of a final judgment, when the Right-eous Judge will rectify all present inequalities (xii. 1-7).

The wisest and most painstaking Coheleth found by experience that all human efforts to obtain real happiness are vanity of vanities (xii. 8-10), that the sacred writings alone contain the clue to it (11, 12), that there is a Righteous Judge who takes cognizance of all we do, that He will in the great Day of Judgment try the conduct of us all, and that we are therefore to fear Him and keep His commandments (13, 14).

From this analysis of its contents it will be seen that the book consists of four parts, with a prologue and epilogue. The prologue and epilogue are distinguished by respectively beginning with the same phrase (i. 1, xii. 8) and ending with two marked sentences (i. 11, xii. 14). The prologue, which consists of chapter i. 1-11, propounds the grand problem of the book ; whilst the epilogue, which consists of chapter xii. 8-12, gives the solution proposed by Coheleth. The four sections, which are respectively indicated by the recurrence of the same formula or refrain, viz., ii. 26, v. 19, and viii. 15, give the result of each experiment or group of efforts to satisfy the cravings of the longing soul, apart from the conclusion at which Coheleth arrived.

Coheleth fills up a gap in the Old Testament lessons. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures virtue and vice are spoken of as being visibly rewarded on earth. God declares at the very giving of the law that He will show mercy to thousands of those who love Him and keep His commandments, and visit the iniquity of those who hate Him to the third and fourth generation (Exod. xx. 5, 6). The whole of Lev. xxvi. and of Deut. xxviii. are replete with promises of earthly blessings to those who will walk in the way of the Lord, and threatenings of temporal afflic-tions upon those who shall transgress His law. The faith-ful fulfilment of these promises and threatenings in the early stages of the Jewish history convinced every Israelite that " God judgeth the righteous, and God is angry with the wicked every day," and afforded a source of consolation to which the righteous resorted when the power of the wicked threatened destruction (1 Sam. xxiv. 13-16, xxvi. 23; Pss. vii., ix., lii.). Like a net of fine threads is this doctrine spread over the entire Old Testament (comp. Pss. xvii. 1, 2; xxvi. 1, 2; xxviii. 1-3; xxxv.; liv. 7-9; lv. 20-24; xc; cxii.; cxxv. 3; cxxvii.; cxh; cxli. 10; Prov. x. 6; xi. 5-8, 19; xii. 7; Hag. ii. 15-20; Zech. i. 2-6; viii. 9-17; Malachi ii. 17). By limiting the bar of judg-ment to this side of the grave, the Old Testament yielded no explanation of, or succour under, the distracting sight of the righteous suffering all their life, and then dying for their righteousness, and of the wicked prospering and pro-longing their days through their wickedness. It was under such despairing circumstances that Psalms xxxvii., xlix., and Ixxiii, were written. But these very Psalms endeavour to allay the prevailing scepticism in the moral government of God, by declaring that the righteous shall ultimately prosper and prolong their days upon the earth, and that the wicked shall suddenly be cut off in great misery. Hence the recurrence of this perplexity passing over into despair when these reassurances and consolations were not realized by experience, and when the sufferers, however conscious of their innocence, were looked upon as rejected of God in consequence of some secret sin. The book of Job, which so successfully combats the latter notion by showing that afflictions are not always a proper test of sin committed, only confirms the old opinion that the righteous are visibly rewarded here, inasmuch as it represents their calamities as transitory, and Job himself as restored to double his original wealth and happiness in this life.

Under the Persian and Ptolemeian dominion over Palestine, the political affairs of the Jews were such as to render the incongruity between the destinies of men and their morals still more striking. Hence people began to arraign the character of God.

" Every one that doeth evil Is good in the sight of Jehovah, he delighteth in them, Or where is the God of justice ?"—Mai. ii. 17.

" It is vain to serve God, And what profit is it that we keep his ordinance And walk mournfully before Jehovah of Hosts ? For now we pronounce the proud happy ; They also that work wickedness are built up; They even tempt God, yet they are delivered."—Mai. iii. 17, 18.

Under these circumstances, when the inheritance of the Lord, which was to be the praise and the ruler of all the earth, was reduced and degraded to the rank of a mere province ; when her inhabitants were groaning under the extortions and tyranny of hirelings ; when her seats of justice were filled by the most venial and corrupt men (Ecel. iii. 16) ; when might became right, and the impunity and success with which wickedness was practised swelled most alarmingly the ranks of the wicked (viii. 10, 11); when the cherished faith in temporal retribution was utterly subverted by the melancholy experience of the reversion of destinies; when the longing minds of the desponding people, released from the terrors of the law, began to import as well as to construct philosophic systems to satisfy their cravings (xii. 12), and to resort to various other experiments to obtain happiness, Coheleth disclosed a new bar of judgment in the world to come. There the Judge of the quick and the dead will rectify all the inequalities which take place here.

On the Continent, where Biblical criticism has been cul-tivated to the highest degree, and where Old Testament exegesis has become an exact science, the attempt to prove that Solomon is not the author of Ecclesiastes would be viewed in the same light as adducing facts to demonstrate that the earth does not stand still. In England, however, some scholars of acknowledged repute still adhere to the Solomonic authorship. Their principal argument is that the unanimous voice of tradition declares it to be so. We at once concede the fact. The Jewish synagogue undoubt-edly believed that Solomon wrote Canticles when young, Proverbs when in middle life, and Ecclesiastes in his old age (Midrash Yalfcut, Eccl. i. 1), and the Christian church has simply espoused the Jewish tradition. But with all due deference, we submit that tradition has no authority whatever to determine points of criticism. It is an acknowledged fact that the ancients, both Jews and Christians, and indeed the leaders of thought to the beginning of the 16th century, had not" the slightest appreciation of peculiarities of style. The different shades of meaning in which the same expression is used by different authors, the variations in forms, phrases, constructions, and sentences which obtained at diverse periods, and which supply definite data to philologists, and have been reduced to a science in modern days, began only to be noticed at the time of the Beformation, when the vital power of criticism was first applied to traditional dogmas. The spell of tradition once broken, thinking men soon began to recognize the literary style and the respective artistic merits of the component parts of the Bible. Hence Luther already declared, " Solomon did not write the book of Ecclesiastes; it was compiled by Sirach, at the time of the Maccabees It is, like the Talmud, made up of many books, which perhaps belonged to the library of King Ptolemy Euergetes in Egypt." No impartial student, with even a moderate knowledge of the genius of the Hebrew language, can fail to see the striking difference in the style of the pre- and post-exile books of the Old Testa-ment. In the case of Ecclesiastes the difference is still more unmistakable. Of the vocabulary and phrases in Ecclesiastes a part is to be found in the post-Babylonian biblical writings, and that only in the Chaldee portions ; whilst another part has no parallel in the Bible, but is only to be met with in the Mishna, the Talmud, and other post biblical productions. Unless, therefore, it is maintained that the Hebrew of the Bible, which extends over a period of several thousand years, and purports to exhibit the styles of a number of writers who lived in different districts, is unlike any other known literary language, that it had no development and no epochs in its literature, the striking Babbinic complexion of Ecclesiastes must assuredly stamp it as the latest composition in the Old Testament. Those who know the ultra-orthodoxy of the eminent Hebrew scholar, Professor Delitzsch, will feel the convincing power of this fact when they find that he assigns to Ecclesiastes the latest date of any book in the Hebrew Bible, because it is written in this unquestionably late language. We have abstained from adducing any other arguments derived from its contents, because this appears superfluous. An intelligent reader even in the English translation can see that the representation of Coheleth as indulging in sensual enjoyments and acquiring riches and fame in order to ascertain what is good for the children of men (chap. ii. 3-9 ; iii. 12, 22, <fcc), making philosophical experiments to discover the summum bonum, is utterly at variance with the conduct of the historical Solomon, and is an idea of a much later period ; that the recommendation to individuals not to resent a tyrannical sovereign, but to wait for a general revolt (chap. viii. 2-9), would not proceed from King Solomon; that the complaint about the multiplication of profane literature (chap. xii. 12) could only have been made at a time when the Jews became acquainted with the Greek writings and Alexandrian philosophy. The book, however, is of Palestinian origin, as is evident from the frequent allusion to rain (xi. 3, xii. 2), which does not fall in Egypt; the reference to the Temple and its worship (iv. 7); and the mention of " the city " (viii. 10), though, from the remark ro'HCO, in the city (v. 7), it would seem that the writer did not live in Jerusalem itself but in the neighbourhood.

From the records we possess of the discussions on the Hebrew canon we see that at the synod at Jerusalem, circa 65 A.D., and at a subsequent synod in Yabne, circa 90 A.D., the question was still an open one whether Ecclesiastes was canonical. The school of Shammai then decided against its canonicity, whilst the school of Hillel passed it as canonical (Mishna Yadaim, iii. 5, iv. 6; Eduyoth, v. 3). The reasons assigned for its rejection, as given in the Talmud, are that chap. ii. 2, vii. 3, and viii. 5 contradict each other, and that the book does not exhibit any signs of its being inspired (Sabbath 30 b, Megilla 7 a). Accord-ing to the Midrash Eabba on Eccl. xi. 9, the advice to enjoy sensual pleasures was considered as contradicting the law of Moses (comp. Eccl. xi. 9 with Numb. xv. 39) and inclining to heresy. The admonition, however, to fear God and the doctrine of a future judgment were urged in its favour and ultimately prevailed. The sages showed that the contradictions were apparent only, and the book was declared canonical (Aboth d' R. Nathan, cap. ).). Hence it passed over into the Christian church as a part of the canon.

Literature.—The most important commentaries on Ecclesiastes which furnish the best materials for forming an independent opinion on this avowedly difficult book are—Knobel, Commentar über das Buch Koheleth, Leipzig, 1836; Ewald, Qdhelet, in Die Dichter des Alten Bundes, 2d ed. vol. ii. 267, &c, Göttingen, 1867; Hitzig, Der Prediger Salome- im Kurzgefassten exegetischen Handbuch zum alten Testament, vol. vii., Leipzig, 1877 ; Stuart, A Commentary on Ecclesiastes, New York, 1851; Elster, Commentar über den Prediger, Göttingen, 1855 ; Graetz, Kohelelh, Leipzig, 1871 ; Delitzsch, Hoheslied und Koheleth, Leipzig, 1875. The last two give complete vocabularies of the post-Babylonian diction of the book. For the history of the interpretation see Ginsburg, Coheleth, commonly called the Book of Ecclesiastes, London, 1861. (C. D. G.)

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