Like Proverbs, the Book of Ecclesiastes belongs to the category of wisdom literature, a description of which was given by the present writer in CHRISTIANITY TODAY (Oct. 26, 1959). The interested reader may be referred to that article.


From the times of the Jewish rabbis, doubt arose as to the canonicity of this book. And even after the ascension of Christ, disputes took place in the circles of Jewish scribes. According to tradition the matter was settled by the synod of Jamnia in A.D. 90 to the effect that Ecclesiastes rightly belonged to the canon of Scripture.

It must frankly be confessed that the book presents serious difficulties to the believer. Viewed superficially it appears to be heterodox, even in direct contrast with the rest of Old Testament and—for Christians—also of the New Testament.

The main theme is stated in 1:3: “What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun?” Evidently the reply seems to be given in the preceding verse: “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity!” The Hebrew word translated “vanity” (hebel) basically means that which is hollow, has no real essence. And the repetition of the word in “vanity of vanities” is the Hebrew way of expressing the superlative. Therefore, utter vanity (is everything)! If this is the last word the conclusion must needs be—then it is not worth while to live and work; then there is nothing worth while to strive after; then also the sacrificial death of Christ is vanity of vanities.

Some scholars do not hesitate to call the book the pessimistic Song of Songs, or the most heretic book of the third century B.C. (the alleged date of origin). Reformed theologians are convinced, however, that, nothwithstanding all that a rationalistic approach brings to the contrary, the book is an integral part of the written Word of God. In spite of stubborn opposition it maintained its place in the canon, and there must be a special reason for this as many books aspired to canonical status in those times, even books pretending to have dignified men of the past as their authors. The book has a specific message also for the twentieth century and, as Gordis remarks, Koheleth (the Hebrew for Ecclesiastes) speaks to the modern age across an interval of 2,000 years with the immediacy of contact of a contemporary (Koheleth, the Man and his World, New York, 1955, p. vii). Although this writer differs from the general trend of Gordis’ book, he fully agrees in this respect.

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Let us try then to find out the relevant message.


The name Ecclesiastes derives from the Greek translation called the Septuagint, followed by the Latin Vulgate. This purports to be the Greek and Latin equivalent of the Hebrew qohelet. Qahal in the Old Testament has the same meaning as the Greek ekklesia which may mean a gathering of the (Greek) people and is used in the Old Testament also of the people of Israel as the chosen people of the Lord and thus broadly equivalent to the ekklesia, the church of the New Testament. Thus the translation “preacher” for qohelet which we find in most of our modern versions and “ecclesiastes” in the old versions.

The difficulty is, however, that the contents of the book do not exhibit the characteristics of a sermon (e.g., the words of the prophets) but, as has been stated above, of wisdom literature.

The form qohelet is feminine. This may point to an explanation according to which reference is made to an office, rather than to a person. In this case the reference is made to the office of a speaker in an assembly of people, not necessarily of a religious nature. According to this plausible explanation, the content of the book is to be regarded as the product of the address(es) or lecture(s) of an exponent of wisdom, not a preacher in an ecclesiastical gathering.


Because there are so many variations of thought and mood within the book, as well as alleged inconsistencies and contradictions, the unity and integrity have often been challenged through the ages.

Bickell devised the theory that the pages of the original book became disarranged and that the proper order has never been restored. Some scholars are of the opinion that the book presents the unsystematic record of debates between men of varying temperaments. Others defend the view that there is a multiplicity of authors, or that because of the heterodoxy many interpolations were made to render the book acceptable to orthodox Jewry (cf. Gordis, op. cit., pp. 6, 69 ff.), or that pagan philosophers introduced the “objectionable” parts.

Scholars find it increasingly difficult, however, to explain how such a complicated process, as envisaged in the above-named theories, could take place in the comparatively short time since the alleged time of composition (third century B.C.) and the time of Ben Sirach (190 B.C.) when the book had attained “at least quasi-canonical authority” according to Gordis.

The general tendency today is, therefore, against the atomization of the book and for a growing recognition of its basic unity. Some scholars still have doubts in regard to the first verse which forms the title, and the epilogue (12:9–14). These parts are generally regarded as the work of the editor. In The Interpreter’s Bible (Vol. V), the possibility is considered, however, that the epilogue “might be the author’s own postscript of self-commendation ‘in the gnomic style.’ Ben Sirach has a similar piece of a self-appreciatory nature (51:13–22) at the end of his work.” Eissfeldt (Einleitung, 1956, p. 608) is of the opinion that the author, following the model of Egyptian wisdom writers, may have provided the superscription in 1:1 himself.

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It would seem, therefore, that according to excellent modern scholars the whole is to be regarded as a unity which, at the same time, offers a strong presumption in favor of the integrity of the book. Thus another solution will have to be found for the apparent incoherency and self-contradiction (see below).


To grasp the meaning and the way the book is composed to convey that meaning, we have to know what the problem is that awaits solution.

The wisdom of Proverbs promises a long and blessed life to its adherents. The Book of Job (another wisdom book) struggles with the problem of the suffering of the righteous which is apparently in conflict with the promises of Proverbs. Samuel Cox has aptly titled his book on Ecclesiastes, The Quest of the Chief Good. Apparently everything “under the sun” is subjected to change—nothing is of lasting value. How then can there be a chief and lasting good?

The present writer is convinced that the golden key and the Ariadne-thread through this seeming labyrinth is to be found in the assumption that the author is conducting a dialogue—with himself, just as the Book of Job contains dialogues between Job and his friends.

The “heterodox” statements can then be explained as being doubts expressed by the author when he places himself on an intramundane, empirical, philosophical standpoint. The “orthodox” gnomes on the other hand must be regarded as products of the light that breaks through in revelation. Just as in the Book of Job not every word can be taken as normative (e.g., when Job curses the day of his birth), so in Ecclesiastes due regard should be paid to the fact that here too the author struggles with himself. The context of Scripture is to be kept constantly in mind, as well as the ultimate outcome of the struggle.

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The author describes honestly his exploits to find the chief good in wealth, in sensual pleasures, in wisdom, and so forth, but nowhere is he able to find lasting satisfaction. The wisdom from “under the sun” is not in a position to solve his difficulties. This implies that he longs for the wisdom from “above the sun.”

It is noteworthy that he firmly believes in God right through the book. There is not the slightest doubt that God will bring everything into judgment. It must strike every reader with what respect Ecclesiastes speaks of the “house of God” (5:1), the place where the wisdom from above the sun is preached. This verse is to be regarded therefore as a pivotal text and one of the highlights.

Just like the author of the Book of Job, the Preacher has his ups and downs, but just as in the case of Job, “all’s well that ends well.” In the epilogue we hear “the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man” (12:13).

This is the solution, so far as the stage of revelation in the Old Testament can bring it. The chief good is the fear of God and the keeping of his commandments.

Aptly Professor Schilder has said that Ecclesiastes stands at the extreme end of the wall of wailing in Jerusalem. The author’s own philosophy has failed miserably, and his heart pines for Christ in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3).

If we are honest, we must confess that even we who walk in the glorious sunlight of the revelation in Christ sometimes feel inclined to say, “vanity of vanities”—what does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? Then it is that Ecclesiastes speaks the language of our own soul and we thank God that we may experience what he pined for.

Far from being the song of skepticism and pessimism, this book shows the way to conquer skepticism and paves the way for the Gsopel.


In The New Bible Commentary, G. S. Hendry says that this book defies any logical analysis. According to our Western standards there certainly is no logical sequence of ideas. We have a collection of loosely connected maxims, held together by the central idea. It is as if the intense struggle and confusion in the soul of the author are reflected in the book.

If we try to suggest an analysis, let the reader remember that this is only an effort to combine the whole with the central idea. We follow the analysis of Cox:

1. The prologue, where the problem is stated (1:1–11).

2. The first section, the quest in wisdom and pleasure (1:12–2:26).

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3. The second section, the quest in devotion to the affairs of business (3:1–5:19).

4. The third section, the quest in wealth and in the golden mean (6:1–8:15).

5. The quest achieved (8:16–12:7).

6. Epilogue, in which the problem of the book is conclusively solved (12:8–14).


In the allotted space it will be impossible to treat this subject exhaustively. For readers of CHRISTIANITY TODAY, such details need not be the main interest in any case. It is presumed that they want to know the meaning of the book. Allow us therefore to state only briefly that the general conviction, also of Reformed theologians, is that Ecclesiastes is one of the youngest books of the Old Testament. Its Hebrew represents the latest stage of development in biblical Hebrew and the closest approximation to Mishnaic Hebrew (Gordis). The whole tenure and background of the book moreover does not suggest the time of Solomon but a time in which mental depression and skepticism prevailed. The mentioning of “the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (1:1) and of “the king over Jerusalem” (1:12) are regarded as a literary device common in the Near East. Usually the third century B.C. is regarded as the time of origin. If this theory is accepted, the real author is unknown.


The book by Gordis (mentioned in the article) is one of the best and one of the most up-to-date from the viewpoint of liberal Jewish scholarship. The same applies to the article on Ecclesiastes in The Interpreter’s Bible, where we find a liberal exposition from the Christian viewpoint. For those who can read Dutch there is the scholarly commentary of G. C. Aalders of the Free University, Amsterdam. Helpful also is the New Bible Commentary and the relevant volume of Die Botschaft des Alten Testaments. The above-named book by Cox can be recommended as a good exposition, although it may be out of print.


Teologiese Skool

Potchefstroom, South Africa

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