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Ecclesiastes

[ih-klee-zee-as-teez]
Ecclesiastes (often abbreviated Ecc) (Kohelet, variously transliterated as Qoheleth, Göhalath, Koheles, Koheleth, or Coheleth) is a book of the Hebrew Bible. The English name derives from the Greek translation of the Hebrew title.

The author introduces himself as Qohelet, "son of David, and king in Jerusalem." The work consists of personal or autobiographic matter, at times expressed in aphorisms and maxims illuminated in terse paragraphs with reflections on the meaning of life and the best way of life. The work emphatically proclaims all the actions of man to be inherently "vain", "futile", "empty", "meaningless", "temporary", "transitory", or "fleeting," depending on translation, as the lives of both wise and foolish men end in death. While the author clearly endorses wisdom as a means for a well-lived earthly life, he is unable to ascribe eternal meaning to it. In light of this perceived senselessness, he suggests that one should enjoy the simple pleasures of daily life, such as eating, drinking, and taking enjoyment in one's wife and work, which are gifts from the hand of God.

According to Talmud however, the point of Qohelet is to state that all is futile under the sun. One should therefore ignore physical pleasures and put all one's efforts towards that which is above the Sun. This is summed up in the second to last verse: "The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone."

Etymology

Title

The Hebrew קהלת is a feminine participle related to the root קהל meaning "to gather." Scholars are unsure whether it means the "one who gathers" or the "one among the gathering." Although the form is a feminine participle, virtually no scholars argue that the author is a woman. Except for one dubious example of a third-person feminine singular verb associated with qohelet, the subject always uses masculine nouns and even refers to his wife and women. He says that he has acquired shida we-shidot, an ambiguous phrase that may refer to a harem (,shdh "breasts"); he describes how he could not find a virtuous woman; and he exhorts the reader to enjoy (re'a) life with his wife.

English translation

The English title of the book, Ecclesiastes, comes from the Septuagint translation of Qohelet, Εκκλησιαστής. It is related to the Greek noun Εκκλησία (originally a secular gathering, although later used primarily of religious gatherings, hence its New Testament meaning of "church"). Greek translators used "ecclesia" to render קהל (qahal) of the same Hebrew root.

The word Qohelet has found several translations into English, including The Preacher (following Jerome's suggested Latin title concionator and Martin Luther's Der Prediger). In view of the meaning of the Hebrew root ("gather, assemble, convene") one might opt for the translation "Speaker".

Authorship and historical context

Author

In the two opening chapters the author describes himself as the son of David, and king over Israel in Jerusalem (1:1, 12, 16; 2:7, 9), presenting himself as a philosopher at the center of a brilliant court. This could apply only to king Solomon, for his successors in Jerusalem were kings over Judah only. Consequently, the traditional Rabbinic and early Christian view attributed Ecclesiastes to king Solomon. This view has been abandoned by many modern critical scholars, who now assume that Qoheleth is a work in the pseudepigraphical mode. Most critical scholars suggest that Ecclesiastes was written around 250 BC by a non-Hellenized intellectual in the milieu of the Temple in Jerusalem, though Seow of the Anchor Bible commentary argues that it dates to the Persian period. The latest possible date for it is set by the fact that Ben Sirach (written ca. 180 BC) repeatedly quotes or paraphrases it, as from a canonic rather than a contemporary writing.

Many modern conservative scholars today also suggest that Solomon is an unlikely author. Since this work is found within the Ketuvim, there must be some room for poetical treatment. There are two voices in the book, the frame-narrator (1.1–11; 12.9–14) and Qoheleth (1.12–12.8). Scholars are less than unanimous about whether this indicates two authors.

R' Nachman Krochmal suggests that the term son of David should be interpreted to mean descendant of David. He posits that it was written by a powerful lord during the Persian Era (possibly during the missing years of Jewish history). The term King would not be difficult; since the Persian Monarch was known as the King of Kings, a lesser lord may have called himself a king.

Language

The Hebrew of Ecclesiastes was not common in the era of Solomon’s reign, and the book contains words borrowed from other languages. For example, the book contains several Aramaic and two Persian words. The influence of Aramaic is characteristic of late Hebrew. Other examples of late Biblical Hebrew include the qetAl pattern form nouns, which would have dated after an Aramaic influence, the frequent use of the relative sh alongside asher, the Ut ending, the frequent use of the participle for the present (which is later developed in Rabbinic Hebrew), using the prefix conjugation in the future (vs. the older preterite use), and terms that appear to specifically fit a Persian/Hellenistic context (e.g. Shallit). During the time of Solomon and through the eighth century, mater's were not used inside words (except maybe in 'ir (city) in the Lachish letters), and there is no evidence for early orthography.

Date of writing

Dominic Rudman, Determinism in the Book of Ecclesiastes (JSOTSup. 316; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001, p. 13) cites the modern commentaries supporting this dating.

  • Dominic Rudman. "A Note on Dating of Ecclesiastes". Catholic Biblical Quarterly vol. 61 no. 1 (1999) pp. 47-53 contains a discussion with C. L. Seow, "Linguistic Evidence and the Dating of Qohelet." in JBL vol. 115 (1996), pp. 653–54—Seow supports a 4th century dating.

"Most current commentators e.g., R. N. Whybray, Ecclesiastes [NCB Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1989] 4–12) argue for a mid-to-late-third-century date. Others, among them N. Lohfink (Kohelet [NEchtB; Wurzburg: Echter Verlag, 1980] 7) and C. E Whitley (Koheleth: His Language and Thought [BZAW 148; Berlin/ New York: de Gruyter, 1979] 132–46), have suggested an early- or mid-second-century background."

Placement in canon

Name of God

The book of Ecclesiastes uses the expression ha-Elohim, "God", 32 times. But as the Jewish Encyclopedia has it:
The Israelitish name for God is nowhere employed, nor does there appear to be any reference to Judaic matters; hence there seems to be a possibility that the book is an adaptation of a work in some other language.

In other words, the more conventional Tetragrammaton is not used, though almost no modern scholars think that the book was written in Aramaic or Phoenician.

Canonicity

Bible scholars often consider Ecclesiastes to be divinely inspired and always accepted as canonical.

The Jewish Encyclopedia states:

The canonicity of the book was, however, long doubtful (Yad. iii. 5; Meg. 7a), and was one of the matters on which the school of Shammai took a more stringent view than the school of Hillel; it was finally settled "on the day whereon R. Eleazar b. Azariah was appointed head of the assembly." Endeavors were made to render it apocryphal on the ground of its not being inspired (Tosef., Yad. ii. 14; ed. Zuckermandel, p. 683), or of its internal contradictions (Shab. 30b), or of a tendency which it displayed toward heresy—that is, Epicureanism (Pesik., ed. Buber, viii. 68b); but these objections were satisfactorily answered (see S. Schiffer, "Das Buch Kohelet," Frankfort-on-the-Main, 1884).
Citing further from the Jewish Encyclopedia:
Yet without the idea that Qohelet was Solomon one could scarcely imagine the work ever having been included in the canon; and had it not been adopted before the doctrine of the Resurrection became popular, it is probable that the author's views on that subject would have caused his book to be excluded therefrom.
As this citation points out, the book fails to accord with the last of Maimonides' Thirteen Principles of Faith. (Though these Principles were articulated at a much later date, they evolved over a long period of time, and they are generally considered authoritative.)

Orthodoxy of views

Ecclesiastes appears in harmony with other Scriptures where they treat exactly the same subjects. It agrees with Genesis that a human is composed of the dust of the ground and a sustaining spirit from God (Ecclesiastes 3:20, 21; 12:7; Genesis 2:7; 7:22; Isaiah 42:5). Ecclesiastes also affirms the Toranic teaching that man was created "very good" and upright but willfully chose to disobey God (Ecclesiastes 7:29; Genesis 1:31; 3:17; Deuteronomy 32:4, 5). Ecclesiastes also acknowledges God as the Creator (Ecclesiastes 12:1; Genesis 1:1).

Death and afterlife

A great portion of the book concerns itself with death. The author emphatically affirms human mortality, going so far as to say that the dead in sheol know nothing. He mentions no resurrection, which, some may argue, is to be expected seeing that it predates this theology. (This view is in dispute, however, as Solomon's father, David, expressed a belief in the afterlife upon the death of Solomon's older brother, claiming with certainty that he would see his deceased son again.) In fact, it is the lack of consequences after death that lead the author to advocate enjoying life while you can. Martin Luther and certain other Christian leaders have quoted these verses in defense of the doctrine that the soul sleeps between death and resurrection . A meaningless life followed by oblivion is consistent with the purport of much (though not all) of the rest of the Tanakh as to the state of the dead (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10; Genesis 3:19; Psalms 6:5; 115:17). This view that death is oblivion stands in contrast to later descriptions of the afterlife, such as gehenna, the bosom of Abraham, and the resurrection of the dead.

Influences on other ancient writings

Ecclesiastes evidently influenced the deuterocanonical works, Wisdom of Solomon and Ben Sira, both of which contain vocal rejections of the Ecclesiastical philosophy of futility. As an example of this relationship among the books, consider the following pairs of passages:

Ecclesiastes: "For who knoweth what is good for man in this life, all the days of his vain life which he spendeth as a shadow? for who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun" (). "For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again" ().

Wisdom of Solomon: "For the ungodly said, reasoning with themselves, but not aright, Our life is short and tedious, and in the death of a man there is no remedy: neither was there any man known to have returned from the grave" ()

Ecclesiastes: "And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith" (). "All this have I proved by wisdom: I said, I will be wise; but it was far from me. That which is far off, and exceeding deep, who can find it out?" ().

Ben Sirah: "Seek not out the things that are too hard for thee, neither search the things that are above thy strength. But what is commanded thee, think upon with reverence; for it is not needful for thee to see with thine eyes the things that are in secret. Be not curious in unnecessary matters: for more things are shewed unto thee than men understand" ().

Traditional Judaism

In traditional Judaism, Ecclesiastes is read either on Shemini Atzeret (by Yemenites, Italians, some Sepharadim, and the mediaeval French Jewish rite) or on the Shabbat of the Intermediate Days of Sukkot (by Ashkenazim). If there is no Intermediate Sabbath of Sukkot, even the Ashkenazim read it on Shemini Atzeret (or, for Ashkenazim in the Land of Israel, on the first Shabbat of Sukkot). It is read on Sukkot as a reminder to not get too caught up in the festivities of the holiday.

Messianic interpretation in Christianity

Nicholas Perrin has suggested that the framing device of Ecclesiastes was used to point to the Messiah. The book is framed by two sets of verses: 1:1, and 12:9-14. Both these sets of verses contain messianic allusions, which makes the entire book a pronouncement of the sage Messiah. Eccles 1:1 reads “The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.” This person has often been identified with Solomon, but Perrin finds this inapt. He points out that “son of David” by itself, is never used in the Hebrew Bible to denote Solomon; when Solomon is intended, he is named. And calling him “king in Jerusalem”, without a reference to his kingdom (e.g. Israel or Judah), is more typical in the Old Testament of the Eschatological Jerusalem than of historical Davidic kings. This opens up the possibility of viewing the figure as the Messiah rather than as Solomon.

In the period Ecclesiastes was written, references to the Davidic Messiah were often found along with wisdom and Jerusalem. In the non-canonical Psalms of Solomon, the Messiah is associated with wisdom; and Ben Sira associates Wisdom with Jerusalem. So in Eccles 1:1 both the (wise) Preacher and Jerusalem are references to the Messiah. The very opening verse of the book presents to the reader a messianic figure.

The closing frame of Ecclesiastes again presents the Preacher, the messianic figure (12:9). The major messianic reference here is the “one Shepherd” of verse 11. Most have interpreted the shepherd as God. This lends credence to the entire book, which is the aim of the epilogue. The authority of God and his Messiah are borrowed for the book of Ecclesiastes. The shepherd is also identified with the Messiah by Perrin. He shows that in the Hellenistic time of Ecclesiastes the “one Shepherd” was a common messianic trope which is based on the Book of Ezekiel. In chapters 34 and 37, Ezekiel describes the Davidic Messiah as the “one shepherd”: this wording is the same used in Eccles 12:11, and it is unique to these three passages. So the one shepherd is bound up with Nathan’s prophecy of the Davidic covenant of 2 Sam 7. Following the writing of Ezekiel, several works identified Davidic kings as being more than merely kings of Judah (e.g. 1 Chron 28:5) or as shepherd-Messiahs (Zech 11:7, 1 Enoch, Psalms of Solomon). Eccles 12:11 is one part of a messianic tradition spanning from Ezekiel up to Jn 10:16: “And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd.”

Vanity

Qoheleth's stated aim is to find out how to ensure one's benefits in life, an aim in accord with the general purposes of wisdom literature. For Qoheleth, however, any possible advantage in life is destroyed by the inevitability of death. As such, Qoheleth concludes that life (and everything) is senseless. In light of this conclusion, Qoheleth advises his audience to make the most of life, to seize the day, for there is no way to secure favorable outcomes in the future. Although this latter conclusion has sometimes been compared to Epicureanism, for Qoheleth it comes about as the inevitable result of his failure to make sense of existence.

This conclusion is reflected in the refrain which both opens and closes Qoheleth's words:

"Utterly senseless" says Qoheleth, "Utterly senseless, everything is senseless!"

The word translated senseless, הבל (hevel), literally means vapor, breath. Qoheleth uses it metaphorically, and its precise meaning is extensively debated. Older English translations often render it vanity. Because in modern usage this word has often come to mean "self-pride," losing its Latinate connotation of emptiness, some translators have abandoned it. Other translations include empty, futile, meaningless, absurd, fleeting, evanescent, or senseless. Some translations use the literal rendering vapor of vapors and so claim to leave the interpretation to the reader.

Ultimately, the author of Ecclesiates comes to this conclusion in the second to last verse of the last chapter:

"The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone."
Some argue that these two last verses are an addition to the original script since they stand in contrast to all of the previous statements made. Others argue that it actually completes the message by saying that nothing is of as high importance as the work of God.

"Vanity of vanities" is a Hebrew grammatical construction (idiom) denoting the superlative; that is, it attests to an extreme degree of the quality, similar to "the lord of lords", "the king of kings" or "holy of holies" (used of the inner sanctuary of the Jerusalem temple).

Other translations of Ecclesiastes 1:2 include:

  • "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity."
  • "Meaningless of meaningless! All is meaningless!"
  • "Futility of futilities, all is futile."

Classic English translation (King James Version) of the second to last verse 12:13:

"Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this [is] the whole [duty] of man."

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