Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23
The book that we know as Ecclesiastes is known in the Hebrew Scriptures as Qoheleth (sometimes spelled Qohelet or Koheleth).
The first verse ascribes authorship to Qoheleth, “the son of David”—leading many to presume that he is Solomon, who wrote the preceding book, Proverbs. Ecclesiastes, like Proverbs, is classified as a Wisdom book.
The word Ecclesiastes is derived from the Greek word, ekklesia. The Hebrew word, Qoheleth, means a person who is qualified to address a public assembly, and the Greek word, ekklesia, means a public assembly. The early church adopted the word ekklesia to speak of the church, the assembly of believers. However, the emphasis in the book of Ecclesiastes is on the wisdom of the one who is qualified to address the public assembly rather than on the assembly itself.
Although the book is traditionally ascribed to Solomon, it appears to have been written later than Solomon’s time—after Aramaic became the common language—”sometime after the sixth century BC” (Horne, 374). There are several reasons to question Solomonic authorship (Longman, 4-9).
• If the author was really Solomon, why would he use the name Qoheleth instead of his own name, Solomon?
• 1:12 says that Qohelet was the king of Israel, as if Solomon had ceased to be king during his lifetime. However, we have no record of any such event, and 1 Kings 11:42-43 suggests that Solomon reigned until his death.
• Ecclesiastes 4:1-3; 5:8-9; and 10:20 do not sound like something that would come from the pen of a mighty king.
• A number of fictional autobiographies from Mesopotamia attributed authorship to someone other than the real author—often to kings—and some scholars believe that this book follows that model.
• The royal attribution might have been intended to lend authority to the book—a common practice in that time and place—or might have been the result of Solomon’s reputation for wisdom.
This book has a dark or cynical character —although Eaton says that the author established the dark character of life without God in 1:1 -2:13 in order to contrast it with the more meaningful life that is possible with God (2:24 – 3:22) (Eaton, 55).
Qoheleth begins by saying “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (1:2). While there is a time for everything (3:1), those times are beyond our understanding. Instead of trying to ascertain the meaning of life, we will do better just to seek happiness and to experience the joys of food, drink, and pleasure, which are gifts from God (3:10-15; 9:7-10).
Furthermore, life has a chaotic quality, so that “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all” (9:11).
Death is the inevitable end—and the great equalizer. The day of death is better than the day of birth (7:1) and no one has “power over the day of death” (8:8). “Neither do (the dead) have any more a reward; for their memory is forgotten” (9:5).
ECCLESIASTES 1:2. VANITY OF VANITIES! ALL IS VANITY!
2Vanity (Hebrew: hebel) of vanities, says the Preacher (Hebrew: Qoheleth); Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.
“Vanity (hebel) of vanities, says the Preacher (Qoheleth); Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (v. 2). This verse sets the tone for the book of Ecclesiastes. The word hebel suggests something ephemeral—something fleeting. The words breath and vapor capture something of the sense of it, because they are short-lived and have so little substance. Qoheleth uses hebel 35 times in this book (five times in this verse) to speak of the meaninglessness and the absurdity of life. If there is one word that summarizes the message of this book, hebel is it.
We prefer to believe otherwise. We like to think that honoring traditional values (hard work, good planning, honesty, frugality, etc.) will produce rewards. While we know of exceptions (good people sometimes suffer, while rascals or fools sometimes prosper), we nevertheless cling to the hope that we can have a considerable amount of control over our destinies. But this book says (in the words of the song), “It Ain’t Necessarily So!”
ECCLESIASTES 1:3-11. NOT IN THE LECTIONARY READING
While these verses are not in the lectionary reading, the preacher needs to be aware of them. They illustrate the mindlessness and meaninglessness of life. People gain nothing from their toil (v. 3). Generations come and go (v. 4). The sun rises and goes down (v. 5). The wind blows this direction and that (v. 6). Rivers run to the sea, “yet the sea is not full” (v. 7). “All things are full of weariness beyond uttering” (v. 8). “There is no new thing under the sun” (v. 9). People who died long ago are not remembered, and we cannot expect to be remembered either (v. 11).
It almost appears that the author is suffering from a bout of clinical depression. Perhaps rather than being a keen observer, he simply needs a good dose of Prozac.
However, even though we probably see the world more positively than Qoheleth did, we have to acknowledge that we have experienced some of the things that he writes about in this book. We have seen good people lose and bad people win. We have tried to do good things, only to have them backfire on us. We have tried hard and been disappointed.
This book tells the truth, if not the whole truth. It is this fact that makes the book valuable. It acknowledges that “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all” (9:11)—and thus requires us to grapple with the implications of this reality.
We might counter by saying that the race is usually to the swift, and the battle usually to the strong, etc. However, we must admit that exceptions to that rule occur more frequently than we would like.
ECCLESIASTES 1:12-14.I APPLIED MY HEART TO SEARCH OUT WISDOM
12 I, the Preacher (Hebrew: Qoheleth), was (Hebrew: haya—have been) king over Israel in Jerusalem.13 I applied my heart (Hebrew: leb) to seek and to search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under the sky. It is a heavy burden that God (Hebrew: Elohim) has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with. 14 I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.
“I, the Preacher” (Qoheleth) (v. 12a). Some translations translate the word, Qoheleth, as Teacher and others as Preacher. The word means “a collector of wisdom, a preacher…. (The assumption was that) the preacher had gathered knowledge to speak about life” (Baker & Carpenter, 984-985).
“was (haya—having been) king over Israel in Jerusalem” (v. 12b). This phrase has stimulated all sorts of scholarly comment.
• First, we know of no king over Israel in Jerusalem known as Qoheleth.
• Second, only David and Solomon lived in Jerusalem and ruled over the ten tribes that would become known as Israel (the Northern Kingdom). The kingdom split into north (ten tribes) and south (Judah and Benjamin) under the reign of Solomon’s son, Rehoboam (1 Kings 12). Jeroboam became the first King of Israel, and did not rule from Jerusalem. Beginning with Omri, the northern capital was located in Samaria (1 Kings 16).
• See the comments on Solomonic authorship in the “Context” section above.
“applied my heart (leb) to seek and to search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under the sky“ (v. 13a). The Hebrew word, leb, can be translated heart or mind or will. It refers to the innermost part of one’s being.
The word “wisdom,” in this context, would include every kind of understanding at Qoheleth’s disposal—academic knowledge, practical skills, general intelligence, etc. Qoheleth applied all these things to the task of “all that is done under the sky”—an impossible task. He knew that it was impossible. In our day, having access to much more extensive knowledge and technology, it appears even more impossible. The more we know, the more we realize that we don’t know.
“It is a heavy burden that God (Elohim) has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with“ (v. 13b). Qoheleth uses Elohim rather than Yahweh throughout this book. Elohim is a generic name for God, and can be used to refer to any god. It is therefore much less personal than Yahweh, which is the personal name of the God of Israel. Qoheleth’s use of Elohim seems to reflect the tension in his relationship with God.
Qoheleth regards human life as unhappy—not only his own life but all human life. He blames God for this unhappiness, because God has burdened people with unhappy tasks and responsibilities.
“I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and a chasing after wind” (v. 14). Other seekers after wisdom had studied life and concluded that it made sense—that there was some sort of understandable moral structure to life—that a life well-lived could be happy and meaningful. Qoheleth, however, studied life and concluded that “all is vanity and a chasing after wind.”
ECCLESIASTES 2:18-23. I HATED ALL MY LABOR IN WHICH I LABORED
18 I hated all my labor in which I labored under the sun, because I must leave it to the man who comes after me. 19 Who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have rule over all of my labor in which I have labored, and in which I have shown myself wise under the sun. This also is vanity. 20 Therefore I began to cause my heart to despair concerning all the labor in which I had labored under the sun. 21 For there is a man whose labor is with wisdom, with knowledge, and with skillfulness; yet he shall leave it for his portion to a man who has not labored for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22For what has a man of all his labor, and of the striving of his heart, in which he labors under the sun? 23For all his days are sorrows, and his travail is grief; yes, even in the night his heart takes no rest. This also is vanity.
“I hated all my labor in which I labored under the sun, because I must leave it to the man who comes after me” (v. 18). In chapter one, Qoheleth found the human condition to be “vanity and a chasing after wind” (1:14). Now he gives a practical example of that. He hates his labor, because he knows that the day will come when he will die and will have to leave the proceeds of his labor to someone else—to “the man who comes after me.”
Many of us feel quite differently. We are happy to know that we might be able to leave an inheritance to our children. We fear the possibility that an illness in our last months might wipe out our savings so that nothing will remain to pass on to our children.
As I write this, I am nearly seventy years old, so I know whereof I speak. I have worked hard for most of my years, and have a home and some modest savings that I hope to leave to my children when I die. I have lived a life full of meaning, and expect to gain one last dollop of meaning by leaving an inheritance for my children.
But that isn’t the way Qoheleth sees it! Not at all!
“Who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have rule over all of my labor in which I have labored, and in which I have shown myself wise under the sun. This also is vanity” (v. 19). Our depressive Qoheleth does not understand leaving an inheritance as something positive. Those who inherit his possessions might be wise or they might be foolish. They might invest their inheritance and gain security from it—or they might blow it on an around-the-world cruise. They might use their inheritance to start a business or to educate their children—or they might quit their jobs and spend the rest of their lives in drunken revelry. After his death, Qoheleth will have no control over the ways that his money is used, and that lack of control bothers him greatly.
Qoholeth has claimed to be a king (1:1), and kings often enjoy great wealth. He might have been Solomon, and Solomon certainly enjoyed great wealth. Inheritances pose a special problem for very wealthy people. They often leave considerable amounts of money to foundations that use their money over a period of many decades. Seeing the liberal causes supported by foundations using money left by conservative industrialists, I often think, “If (John Doe) knew how his wealth was being used, he would turn over in his grave.”
And children of wealthy people seldom show the ability of the person who founded the family fortune. That was certainly true for Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, who ignored his advisors, acted foolishly, and split the kingdom (1 Kings 12).
“Therefore I began to cause my heart to despair concerning all the labor in which I had labored under the sun” (v. 20). Knowing that he will die and assuming the worst regarding the future of his work and possessions, Qoheleth falls into despair—wallows in pessimism.
“For there is a man whose labor is with wisdom, with knowledge, and with skillfulness; yet he shall leave it for his portion to a man who has not labored for it. This also is vanity and a great evil” (v. 21). See the comments on verse 19 above.
When Qoheleth speaks of great evil, he most likely means “a great injustice” (Horne, 419)
“For what has a man of all his labor, and of the striving of his heart, in which he labors under the sun?” (v. 22). This is a rhetorical question that expects the answer, “They get NOTHING from all their toil and strain—NOTHING. Only GRIEF!”
Labor and striving are two aspects of work. Labor is the effort that the person expends working. Striving is the stress that he/she feels while while grappling with work-related problems. Labor darkens his/her days. Striving darkens his/her nights.
“For all his days are sorrows, and his travail is grief; yes, even in the night his heart takes no rest. This also is vanity” (v. 23). This verse answers the question of verse 22. Hardworking people get only pain, stress, and, sleepless nights for their trouble.
“So what is the Christian preacher to do with this preacher’s work? …If the preacher finds it impossible to agree with Koheleth’s conclusions about the futility of life, he or she can be sure that there are those in the congregation who at least now and then—if not always—experience such profound futility. Those voices deserve to be expressed and understood, even—and especially—in the context of worship” (Tucker, 357-358).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Brown, William P., Interpretation: Ecclesiastes (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2000)
Crenshaw, James L., The Old Testament Library: Ecclesiastes, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1987)
Davis, Ellen F., Westminster Bible Companion: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs(Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000)
Deane, W.J., The Pulpit Commentary: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Vol. IX (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, no date)
Eaton, Michael A., Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Ecclesiastes, Vol. 16 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983)
Garrett, Duane A., New American Commentary: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Vol. 14 (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993)
Horne, Milton P., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Proverbs-Ecclesiastes (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2003)
Hubbard, David, The Preacher’s Commentary: Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Vol. 16 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2002)
Longman, Tremper III, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998)
Murphy, Roland, Word Biblical Commentary: Ecclesiastes, Vol. 23a (Dallas: Word Books, 1992)
Murphy, Roland, and Huwiler, Elizabeth, New International Biblical Commentary: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999)
Towner, W. Sibley, The New Interpreters Bible: Introduction to Wisdom Literature, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom, Sirach, Vol.V (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Copyright 2009, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan