Ecclesiastes - Introduction
Ecclesiastes is the Latin transliteration of the Greek rendering of the pen‐name of the author, known in Hebrew as Qohelet (“Gatherer,” traditionally “the Teacher” or “the Preacher”). The superscription of the book ( 1.2 ) presents Qohelet as “the son of David” who ruled in Jerusalem, evoking the memory of Solomon, king of Israel (968–928 BCE), the consummate sage and gatherer of wealth and wisdom (see 1 Kings 3–4; 10 ). Apart from the superscription and 1.12–2.11 , however, the author never speaks as king, and the epilogue portrays the author as a teacher rather than as king ( 12.9–14 ). Moreover, the perspective in most of the book is that of an outsider to the royal court ( 3.16; 4.13–16; 8.1–6; 10.16–20 ).
The date of the book is a matter of dispute, although most scholars argue on linguistic grounds that it should be dated to the postexilic period. The presence of two indisputable Persian loan words (“parks” in 2.5 ; “sentence” in 8.11 ) points to a date some time after 450 BCE, for there are no Persian loan words or Persian names in the Hebrew Bible that can be dated earlier. The abundance of Aramaisms (Aramaic loan words, forms, and constructions) also points to the postexilic period, when Aramaic became widely used in Palestine. A number of specific idioms regarding inheritance, grants, prisons, social abuses, judicial problems, and socioeconomic classes are attested in documents from the Persian period; in no other periods in history do we find such a coincidence of terminology. These features, together with the fact that there are no Greek loan words (or indisputable Greek ideas), suggests that the book should be probably dated sometime before the Hellenistic period, between 450 and 330 BCE, although many scholars date it a century or two later.
The period in question was one of tremendous economic growth, spurred on in no small part by the introduction of standardized coinage by the Persian central government. Money quickly became a commodity, desired for its own sake (cf. 5.10; 7.12; 10.19 ). Standardized currency helped to democratize economic opportunities, so that it became possible for even the poorest people in society to become wealthy. As in any era of tremendous economic innovation, the Persian period brought both opportunities and risks to the average person in the empire.
The context that Ecclesiastes addresses, however, goes beyond the economic one. The sense of the individual as a small part of a large scene is evident in the political allusions ( 4.1; 5.7 ), which should be read against the background of empire. Even descriptions of life and death reinforce the idea of the powerless individual ( 8.8 ). The inevitability of one's fate ( 3.15; 6.10 ), the unavoidability of death ( 3.19 ), and the repetitions of life ( 3.1–8 ) all work together to create a vision of the remoteness, the inscrutability, and ultimately the indifference of the world to the individual. In a vision of bleak grandeur the author faces this indifference, acknowledges it, and admits an inability to transcend it, but nevertheless derives from it a hard‐won wisdom: This is how the world is.
The author appears to have drawn lessons from the wider wisdom tradition. Yet he approached the issues through the socioeconomic idioms current in his generation to address the preoccupations of his audience. Despite the newness of their environment, the fundamental problems they faced about the possibility of coping with life in a world that is inconsistent, if not contradictory, were not new after all (see 1.10 ). Every generation must deal with the fact that mortals inevitably live in a world in which they do not have control (“all is vanity”) and life can only be lived before a sovereign God who alone determines all that happens on earth.