Qohelet is the Hebrew title for the little book entitled Ecclesiastes in our English Bibles. Our title Ecclesiastes is from the Greek Septuagint and is a translation of the Hebrew title Qohelet, which means “one who assembles or addresses an assembly.”
I love this book, but I must confess that the first time I read it as a young Christian, I found it extremely troubling. It is full of apparent contradictions and tentative conclusions. Many see it as worldly, pessimistic, even cynical. The covenant name of God – Yahweh (or LORD) is never used. Most references to God use the definite article (Ha-Elohim): The God (32 out of 40). The author seems to deny the afterlife (3:19, 20; 9:10).
I’ve read many commentaries on the book, and while they have added much to my understanding, I get the feeling that they’re not quite sure what to do with this book either. One author says, “The thing that most surprised me in the majority of Ecclesiastes commentators was their extraordinary knowledge of Hebrew, coupled with the superficiality of their thought” (REASON FOR BEING, Jacques Ellul, page 12). Unfortunately, I suppose the same could be said for him.
Some commentators can’t believe that all these apparently contradictory statements can be from the same author, so they posit that it is a collection of random proverbial thoughts by various authors, pasted together by an ignorant redactor. They and others have a hard time with the claim made by Qohelet that he is one and the same as King Solomon, so they assume an anonymous author who assumes Solomon’s role. [He tells us he is “the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (1:1), "king over all Israel in Jerusalem" (1:12). The only son (descendant) of David who reigned over all Israel was Solomon. Some have argued that the references to "all who were in Jerusalem before me" (1:16; 2:7, 9) could not refer to Solomon, since he was only the second king of Israel to reign there. However, Jerusalem was an ancient and powerful city named Jebus long before it was conquered by David.] Some claim a later date than Solomon (971-31 BC) because of a supposed reliance on Greek thinking. And so on and so on.
None of these claims can be proven. They seem to be attempts at deconstructing the text rather than dealing with it as it is. Usually those who make these claims have a very loose (if any) theology of inspiration.
But if we hold to the doctrine of the inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures, if we hold that “all Scripture is (literally) God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16), then we can’t crawfish out of dealing with the text as it stands. We must at least grant the same respect for its integrity as we would any other piece of literature – and more.
Unfortunately, liberal critical commentators aren’t the only ones who deal improperly with this book. Conservative evangelicals are not always truthful in our handling of it either. We don’t like those parts that seem to clash with our theology, so we “spiritualize” them away and try to make the book more palatable.
So how should we interpret the book? Here are what I believe are some important points:
-- We must deal with the book as a unit. It is tempting to pick out the good stuff, or the parts that seem more palatable, and to ignore the rest. This is, I suppose the biggest problem for evangelicals. We read the Bible “devotionally”; we memorize verses out of context; we pull passages out of context for sermon topics. But Ecclesiastes is different from the book of Proverbs.
-- We need to interpret the book in its context. It claims Solomon as its author, so we must see it from his perspective and in the context of his life.
-- We must search for the author’s intent. What is he trying to tell us? Though when looked at superficially, the book seems to ramble and wander back and forth, we must look for clues as to where it is headed.
-- We must recognize that though this book is part of the inspired Scriptures, it is not to be interpreted in the same way as the Mosaic Law or the prophecies of Isaiah or Ezekiel. It does not present us with a “Thus sayeth the LORD.” Its tentative conclusions may be incomplete and it is only when the author comes to a final conclusion that we can say that.
-- And, finally as Christians, we must look at it from this side of the cross and resurrection. Qohelet is not the final word on life!
So here goes a brief synopsis of my understanding:
Qohelet gives us, I believe, his purpose and theme in the frequently used Hebrew words ‘INYAN and ‘ANAH, which can be translated “occupation” or “task” and “occupied with.” In 1:12 and 13, he tells us “I, Qohelet, was king over Israel in Jerusalem, and I set my heart to seek and to explore all that has been done under the heavens. It is an evil task which God has given to the sons of men to be tasked with.” (Also see 3:10.) Though God has given this task to all “the sons of men,” Qohelet seems to feel this burden especially on himself and invites us to join him in a sort of quest for meaning in life, which he feels has been laid upon him.
But what is this task?
About 51 times he uses the Hebrew word TOB, which translates as “good” or “better.” “This is better than that.” At least part of his task seems to involve a search for relative good, perhaps to find the ultimate good. Not necessarily moral good, but that which is beneficial to man.
Unfortunately the quest runs up against many dead ends. Another frequently used term (35 times) is HEBEL, which is literally “vapor,” but which is usually translated “vanity” or “futility.” Many times he says “vanity of vanities.” Everything he tries seems to be a vapor. Not nothingness, but rather something that seems to have substance, but which can’t be taken hold of. We might say in a more modern expression, it’s like trying to nail jello to a tree.
We also need to note that Qohelet is starting from a completely “this world” perspective. Thirty-two times he uses the phrases “under the sun” or “under the heavens.”
So Qohelet comes to some very good tentative conclusions and advises us that life and its blessings are gifts of God. Enjoy them!
2:24: “There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and let his soul see good in his labor. This also I have seen, that it is from the hand of God.”
3:13: “And also every man who eats and drinks and sees good in all his labor, it is a gift of God.”
5:18: “Look at what I have seen: it is good and beautiful to eat and to drink and to see good in all one’s labor which he labors under the sun in the number of days of his life which God has given to him, because that is his portion.”
7:14a: “In the days of good, enjoy the good,”
8:15: “So I praised pleasure for there is nothing better for a man under the sun, except to eat and to drink and to take pleasure, and this will stay with him in his labor all the days of his life which God has given him under the sun.”
9:7-9: “Go eat your bread with pleasure and drink your wine with a good heart for God is already pleased with your works. Always let your clothes be white and oil not be lacking on your head. See life with the wife you love all the days of your life of vanity which He has given to you under the sun all the days of your labor which you labor under the sun.”
Yet there is more to it than that. Look at 3:11: “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has placed eternity in their heart, without which man will not find out the work which God has worked from beginning until end.” Though Qohelet is uncertain about what happens after this life, he knows there is more beyond it. In 8:12b: “I know that it will be good to those who fear God, who fear in His presence.” When will it “be good”? It seems apparent that he doesn’t believe it will happen in this life.
And so as Qohelet struggles with his quest, he is forced to look beyond this present life. Finally in 11:9, “Enjoy yourself young man, in your childhood and let your heart be good in the days of your youth and walk in the ways of your heart and the sights of your eyes, and know that in all of these God will bring you into judgment,” he reminds us that while we are to enjoy life, we are accountable to God. Again it is apparent that this judgment is set in the future, beyond this life.
12:13, 14: “Hear the sum of the whole matter: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every man! For God will bring every work to judgment, everything hidden, whether good or evil.”
If I may attempt to summarize what I believe Qohelet meant: God has placed in the heart of every person, a desire for something more than this life has to offer. We may spend our entire life searching, yet will find nothing of substance. We should, however, enjoy the good things of life, recognizing that they are all from God. And as we do enjoy these, we have to keep in mind that we must give an account to God for all.
And from our post-resurrection perspective we have to recognize that not only in Qohelet, but in all the Old Testament, we feel a longing for something better. That something better can only be found in Jesus Christ. Qohelet points to a need. Christ fulfills that need.