We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Select Bible Use this Lookup to open a specific Bible and passage. Start here to select a Bible.
Make selected Bible the default for Lookup tool.
Book: Ch.V. Select book from A-Z list, enter chapter and verse number, and click "Go."
:
OR
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Look It Up Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Next Result

The Jewish Study Bible Contextualizes the Hebrew Bible with accompanying scholarly text on Jewish traditions and history.

Ecclesiastes - Introduction

AS LITERATURE, ECCLESIASTES BELONGS, along with Proverbs, Job, and some other sections of the Bible, in the category of wisdom. Wisdom texts reflect on the nature of the world and the God who created and controls it, and on the place of humans in this divine creation. These observations are usually presented as the work of one or more sages, who arrive at the observations by exercising wisdom—a faculty based on their own experience and that of other sages before them, and sometimes also on divine revelation. But whether from experience or revelation, the wisdom is regularly understood to have God as its ultimate source. In the case of Ecclesiastes, the wisdom is presented as experiential. The sage who comes to it through his experiences, one might even say experiments, is designated in Hebrew as Koheleth, and so supplies the Hebrew title for the book. Christian tradition generally uses, for book and sage, Ecclesiastes, “the one who assembled,” which is the Greek rendering of Koheleth found in the Septuagint (see 1.1 n. ).

The twelve chs of Koheleth cover a miscellany of topics: the cycles of the natural order; the amassing of wealth in property and other forms; the opposing forces that govern life; friendship, particularly as an antidote to life's wearying uncertainties; the virtues and difficulties of human authority; the nature of folly and the possibilities and limitations of wisdom; the enjoyment of one's toil; the terrors of old age. Behind these topics, it appears, are certain fundamental themes. The first is expressed by the term “futility” (hevel) ( 1.2 n. ). For Koheleth, this is foremost the inability of humans to make sense of the world around them—to see a coherent pattern, a plan to their lives and to nature, in the sense of a movement toward lasting goals, a line of development or progress. Koheleth, it appears, does not deny that there may be coherent patterns of activity for each human, animal, and other phenomenon, and he uses the word ma‘aseh (“deed, work, action” from ‘s‐h, “do, make”) for these (ch 8 ), indicating also that they seem folded into the larger ma‘aseh of God. But the human ability to discern what these are is frustrated, he argues, again and again; most significantly, the traditional doctrine of reward and punishment for the good and the wicked does not appear to work, at least in this life. In this regard, Koheleth is arguing against the position evident in the book of Deuteronomy or the bulk of Proverbs.

The one thing that is clear for Koheleth is death. It is the final point in each one's ma‘aseh, the one immutable event in life that every human, animal, and other organism must succumb to; it cuts across all categories of morality and class. If there is any survival beyond death, either physically or in terms of memory and influence, humans cannot know this, and so cannot rely on it. What is left to humans, then, as Koheleth sees it—though he does raise an occasional doubt (e.g., 6.1–12 n. )—is principally to enjoy their toil while they are alive. This “portion” (πelek) ( 2.21 ) is granted to them by God as part of their activity. Individual rewards and punishments, however, have no enduring significance because they are canceled out by death and cannot be passed on to future generations. The capacity to discern all of this—to understand what can be known and what cannot—is for Koheleth the task of wisdom. Wisdom, therefore, is most effective when it is used to clarify its own limits. In so doing, wisdom need not deny—nor does Koheleth deny—that God is in control and has a coherent pattern of activity that will bring every creature to account. Accordingly, it makes sense not to tempt the anger of God, say, by making rash prayer at the sanctuary or rash vows ( 4.17–5.5 ). This affirmation of God's authority and judgment is, indeed, what rabbinic interpreters have emphasized as the central element in Koheleth, and while some modern critics have assigned the vv. that express it to later, orthodox editor(s) of the book, it comports well with the limits on human wisdom, a central theme of the original author.

These topics and themes are not developed in a systematic exposition from the beginning to the end of the book; rather, a number of them, like futility and enjoyment of toil, are revisited, several times. These recurrences often involve new perspectives that build on, even contradict, what has come before (e.g., ch 8; 9.1–12; ch 10 ). At times, therefore, the recurrences and contradictions can be confusing, and in any case they make reading Koheleth no easy task.

But there are occasional indications of structure in the book. Thus, a frame surrounds most of the book, as 1.2 is essentially repeated in 12.8 ; the assertion in these two vv. that everything is futility should then reflect what the author regards as the fundamental theme of all the intervening material. Within the frame are various smaller units defined by formal markers, balance in the placement of vv., or a certain connectedness in the flow of narrative. The catalogue of polarities in 3.1–8 is the most obvious example, with the opposites arranged as syntactic parallels. (Other examples are considered in the annotations below.) These structures create a loose coherence. This is reinforced by the repetition of certain nouns for key concepts, like “futility” (hevel) and “portion” (πelek), and of certain verbs, like “set my mind” (natati et‐libi, 1.13 ) and “probe” (tur, 1.13 ), which represent a technical terminology assembled to describe Koheleth's intellectual search. Put together, then, the recurrences of themes and terminology testify to the leisurely, self‐conscious, ruminative process in which Koheleth is engaged, meandering through, around, and back to his favorite issues, considering them first from one angle, then from another.

If the Koheleth of the book is depicted throughout as a sage, he is also, in the first two chs, described as a king, more specifically, as recognized from the earliest Bible translations (e.g., Septuagint, Targum), as Solomon son of David. To be sure, the name Solomonis nowhere used in the book; conversely, Koheleth does not occur elsewhere in the Bible. Yet the genealogy and descriptions given of Koheleth in his book ( 1.1, 12 16; 2.7, 9 ) make the identification with Solomon clear. The Solomonic depiction is consistent with the depiction of Koheleth as sage, given the clear biblical tradition of Solomon as wise man (1 Kings ch 3; 5.9–14 ), and indeed, the larger ancient Near Eastern association of kingship and wisdom. Classical rabbinic tradition generally accepted that Koheleth was really Solomon, and thus that the book originated from the Solomonic period, but internal evidence points to a much later date of origin. Thus, the book's two Persian words, pardes (“grove,” 2.5 ) and pitgam (“sentence,” 8.11 ) indicate that in its present form it does not date from before the postexilic period (latter 6th century BCE on) and the emergence of the Achaemenid Persian empire that ruled Judah and most of the ancient Near East. This date comports with the variety of late grammatical features of Koheleth's Hebrew. At the other chronological end, Koheleth cannot be later than the first half of the 2nd century BCE, the date of a fragment of Koheleth found among the Dead Sea Scrolls and of the apocryphal work, the Wisdom of Solomon—and, perhaps, also of Sirach—which implicitly refers to Koheleth. Within these chronological limits, scholars continue to debate whether Koheleth belongs in the Achaemenid Persian period (late 6th to end of 4th centuries BCE) or to the following early Hellenistic period, perhaps during the 3rd century bce. In either instance, the several positive references to political hierarchy, wealth in land, and money (kesef) all mark the author of Koheleth as probably of the landed gentry.

Although Koheleth belongs in content and language with Proverbs and Job as a wisdom book, in post‐talmudic Jewish tradition, sometime between the 8th and 10th centuries ce, it came to be classified as one of the five megillot (scrolls), alongside Ruth, Esther, Song of Songs, and Lamentations, each of them to be read on a religious festival of the year. Koheleth is read on Sukkot, celebrating the completion originally of the fall harvest and later also of the yearly cycle of reading the Torah. This celebration of work completed, expressed both as joy and as a mood of reflection on memory and time past, resonates with themes in Koheleth, and so may have established the connection between the book and the festival.

Despite the firm place Koheleth has in the biblical canon, rabbinic tradition is ambivalent about the book. The evidence is rather laconic and concerns, in particular, the debates of the 1st century BCE through the early 2nd century ce, dealing also with certain other controversial biblical books like Ezekiel and the Song of Songs. Two features of Koheleth, and in varying fashion of these other books, appear to have provoked discussion: that they exhibit contradictions, in the case of Koheleth, self‐contradictions; and that they offer unorthodox views that do not comport with the mainstream of Jewish thinking about God and Torah in the Bible. The result was, as various rabbinic Sages argued—others disagreeing—that Koheleth and these other books did not reflect divine inspiration, or in the ancient terminology, “did not make the hands impure” and deserved to “be removed from use and stored away” (e.g., b. Shab. 30b; m. ‘Ed. 5.3 ; b. Meg. 7a). These rabbinic dis‐ cussions are all post facto, after Koheleth and the other books had already been includedin the biblical canon. While they may contain, therefore, some memory of earlier debates about inclusion in the canon, they more likely reflect an ongoing challenge of how to correlate the ideas and formulations of Koheleth and the other books with the rest of the biblical canon. In this regard, they are matched by the actual efforts of many classical Jewish commentators on Koheleth to make this correlation, by taming various troublesome sections of the book (see, e.g., 3.9–12 n.; 6.1–12 n.; ch 7 ) and by asserting that the statements in the epilogue, which appear orthodox, represent, indeed, the basic sense of the book. In the latter effort, the commentators may not be far wrong ( 12.9–14 n. ).

[PETER MACHINIST]

  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Look It Up Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Next Result
Oxford University Press

© 2019. All Rights Reserved. Cookie Policy | Privacy Policy | Legal Notice