Lesson 4 of5
In Progress

Introductory Issues in Ecclesiastes

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).