Introduction to Ecclesiastes

Posted by Worldview Warriors On Monday, January 6, 2020 0 comments

by Katie Erickson

I took a class during my seminary education called “Psalms and Wisdom Literature.” The professor announced toward the beginning of the class that we were going to read from Qohelet. My classmates and I looked at each other confused; how are we part of the way through our seminary education and have no idea who or what “Qohelet” is?! None of us wanted to ask at the risk of embarrassment. Finally, though, we figured it out - Qohelet is the Hebrew name for the book of Ecclesiastes!

That bit of confusion always comes to my mind when I ponder the book of Ecclesiastes. It is a very interesting book of the Bible, so today I’ll provide an introduction to some background of this book, and then starting next week we’ll dig into its content one section at a time.

The word Qohelet is often translated as ”teacher,” which in the case of Ecclesiastes likely refers to King Solomon. The book starts out in Ecclesiastes 1:1 by saying, “The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem.” The word “Teacher” is the word “Qohelet” in the original Hebrew. Since Solomon was David’s son, this book is traditionally ascribed to him as the author. In Hebrew, Biblical books often get their name from one of the first words from the book, as is the case here, which is why my professor, a great language scholar, was referring to Ecclesiastes as Qohelet.

So where did the English name Ecclesiastes come from? The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, has the word “Ecclesiastos” as the second word of the book, in the same location where we see Qohelet in the Hebrew. This word is related to the Greek word “ecclesia,” which means an assembly or a gathering (often translated as “church” in English), so the Ecclesiastos is sort of like a pastor or the one who heads up the assembly. So, in our English Bible, the book’s name actually comes from the Greek.

Although the authorship of this book is often attributed to Solomon, some scholars believe that Solomon was not the author. All language changes over time, and they believe that the Hebrew of this book is not from the same era as Solomon but rather much later. There are a few passages that some say would not have been written by the king. But overall, the authorship of Solomon cannot be conclusively ruled out.

The date of the writing of Ecclesiastes is closely related to the discussion of its authorship. There are bits of Aramaic in the book, but Aramaic is very closely related to Hebrew as the two languages use the same alphabet and the grammar is similar. Aramaic became the commonly spoken language of the people of Israel sometime before the time that Jesus was on earth, so some consider the dating to be later (and thus not written by Solomon) because of this. However, it was very likely that Aramaic was spoken by the Jews long before the time of Jesus, even while Hebrew remained the primary written language, and the Aramaic in Ecclesiastes is similar to how sometimes we write more like how we speak rather than in “proper” English.

So, what is the purpose of writing the book Ecclesiastes? It is considered part of the Ketuvim, the wisdom writings of the Old Testament. In general, wisdom writings give us rules for living God-fearing lives. While books like Proverbs lay this out pretty plainly, Ecclesiastes digs a little deeper into the meaning of life and how God has worked throughout history as well as in our own lives. It does contain practical words to live by, but in a more subtle way than Proverbs.

The book of Ecclesiastes has been questioned as to why it’s included in the Bible at all. At first glance, it appears extremely pessimistic. But due to its likelihood of being authored by Solomon, it has remained in the canon of Scripture. It was one of the five Megilloth - scrolls of five Biblical books (Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther) that are linked together in Jewish tradition. Ecclesiastes would have been read by the Jewish community at the Feast of Tabernacles. Further support for its continued inclusion in the Bible is that Paul pretty clearly refers to it in Romans 8:20.

The general theme of Ecclesiastes is found in Ecclesiastes 1:2: “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.’” Life in this world can appear to be meaningless, but as Ecclesiastes explores that concept, it also shows us where we can find our true purpose: only in God. It may seem meaningless that God created our lives to be so frustrating and empty, but the truth is that God made mankind and all of creation to be perfect, and it’s our fault for messing everything up. The book of Ecclesiastes helps us figure out what our purpose is in this world that we live in, based on our faith in God and in how He has created us.

While it’s not directly quoted in the New Testament, there are many places where the themes of Ecclesiastes are referenced and go right along with the teachings of Jesus and the other authors of the New Testament. The overall idea of the book is not to withdraw from the things of this world, but rather to see God in them and see how He continues to work in our lives, even through things that may appear meaningless to us.

I hope you’ll join me as we walk through the book of Ecclesiastes for the next six months or so, and that you’ll find this study far from meaningless.

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