Ecclesiastes: A Brief Introduction
Published February 1, 2023
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
A time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;” (Eccl. 3:1-2)
A time to neglect Ecclesiastes to our own hurt, and a time to receive its painful truths as medicine;
A time to put on the rose-colored glasses, and a time to see reality as it is;
A time to oversimplify Biblical wisdom, and a time to examine the anomalies of life;
A time to embrace false dichotomies, and a time to walk wisdom’s narrow path;
A time to debate authorship, and a time to simply accept that it was Solomon;
A time to keep silent, and a time to write a series of blog posts on Ecclesiastes.
Ecclesiastes is an enigma to many Christians. Like Punxsutawney Phil who emerges every Groundhog Day to predict the number of weeks until spring, Ecclesiastes makes it annual appearance in our Bible reading plans, only to return to its hole again until the same time next year. It is unlike any other book in the Bible. It is riddled with riddles and laced with a (seemingly) pessimistic tone. One commentator, Craig Bartholomew, puts it this way: “Ecclesiastes is a lot like an octopus: just when you think you have all the tentacles under control—that is, you have understood the book—there is one waving about in the air.” Christians find many reasons to be troubled by it, from its numerous declarations that “all is vanity” to several passages that (on the surface) seem to contradict other scripture. (Deeper study reveals the book’s orthodoxy and consistency with the rest of scripture, but many readers run scared before reaching that conclusion.)
Despite these challenges, we ignore Ecclesiastes to our own peril. God gave this book of wisdom to the church for its edification, and we desperately need its teaching today more than ever. My goal is to write a series of blog posts to help believers better understand Ecclesiastes and thereby apply it to their lives. My aim is not to give an explanation of every single verse, but to teach believers how to approach the book and understand its overall message. For this first post, I have the modest objective of briefly touching on the title and authorship of the book.
The name Ecclesiastes is as mysterious to some as the contents of the book, but it need not be this way. The name simply comes from the opening words in 1:1, “the words of the preacher.” The Hebrew word for “the preacher” is Qoheleth, which is also the book’s title in the Hebrew Bible. The word literally means “assembler” or “convener,” in the sense of one who assembles a group of people. This is usually translated as “the preacher” or “the teacher” in English because the leader of an assembly preaches to the assembled people. When the Old Testament was translated into Greek, the Hebrew word Qoheleth was translated as Ekklesiastes, which has roughly the same meaning. In the Latin Vulgate, the spelling was changed to Ecclesiastes, which was then used as the title in our English Bibles.
Who then is this mysterious preacher? Though Ecclesiastes never uses the name Solomon, the preacher is identified as “the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (1:1) who reigns over Israel (1:12). Though “son” can refer to any descendant, after the reign of Solomon, the kingdom of Israel was divided, and all future kings in Jerusalem reigned over the Southern Kingdom of Judah, not the Northern Kingdom of Israel, so only Solomon fits the description as “king over Israel in Jerusalem.” There are also many autobiographical details that line up with Solomon’s life, such as his great wisdom (1:16), unimaginable wealth (2:7-8), and massive building projects (2:4), and these are just a sample.
The case for Solomonic authorship is so strong that even those who hold to a different view usually don’t deny these connections. In fact, the alternative view is that Ecclesiastes was written by an anonymous sage who uses the figure of Solomon as a guise or persona, not as a forgery, but as a literary device that the original readers would have recognized. One problem with this theory is that the author gave such a convincing depiction of Solomon that Solomonic authorship was almost universally accepted until the 19thcentury when scholars finally “discovered” this literary device. It is out of the scope of this post to give the arguments for and against this view; suffice it say, believers can have confidence that Ecclesiastes was written by Solomon for the reasons given in the previous paragraph.
Though it’s difficult to find application in a discussion about title and authorship, I leave the reader with this: the fact that Solomon is identified as “the preacher” already tells us something about the nature of the book. If the author is “the preacher,” then the book is a sermon of sorts, which means that we can expect to be exhorted by God’s word. Let us then approach Ecclesiastes with ears that are eager to hear.