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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

About the Book

Ecclesiastes manifests some of the literary characteristics of a Royal Testament, a common type of literature of the ancient Near East intended for the instruction of the king's successor. The Royal Testament was written in the first person and claimed to be advice gleaned from the experience of life. Although the book begins with a kind of third‐person descriptive prologue ( 1, 1–11 ) and ends with an epilogue also in the third person ( 12, 9–14 ), everything else within it suggests but one speaker and, despite some conflicting statements, one point of view. There are also several unresolved literary questions regarding the book's authorship, dating, place of origin, composition, and structure.

The very first verse of the book describes rather than identifies the speaker as “David's son, Qoheleth, king in Jerusalem.” (See the Solomonic attribution of the book of Proverbs, early in the Reading Guide to that book.) Since there is no biblical mention of a Davidic son by the name of Qoheleth, some other connotation must be intended. The exact meaning of the name Qoheleth is debated. It probably comes from the Hebrew word qahal, meaning assembly. The form of the word suggests that it is not a name but a participle that designates someone who does something. This explains why most commentators maintain that the word refers to someone who calls forth or presides over a meeting, perhaps for the purpose of teaching. The Greek word used to translate qahal is ekklesia, meaning a citizens’ assembly in Greece. In this biblical book, the one who presides over the assembly is called Ecclesiastes or Preacher.

The man is further designated as the son of David, king of Israel. The reference is obviously to Solomon, the one revered in popular devotion as the wise king par excellence. The author seems to be claiming that Solomon is the speaker, and therefore the teaching in the book has the authority of Solomon's wisdom. Although this claim appears only in the first two chapters, it sets the tone for the rest of the instruction. From the outset the teaching has authority even though it may prove to be unorthodox.

The language of the book resembles the kind of Hebrew that appeared during a very late biblical period and was used almost exclusively for literary purposes. The inclusion of several Aramaic words has led scholars to date the book around the third century BC. The place of origin is more difficult to determine. Some say it was Phoenicia, others suggest Egypt. The international character of the wisdom tradition adds to the complexity of precise identification (see introduction to the Wisdom Books, RG 236 ).

There are also different opinions regarding the structure of the book. Some believe that it is simply a collection of wisdom pieces lacking organization. Others divide the book into two major parts: Qoheleth's observations of life, and the conclusions that he draws. (The New American Bible belongs to this latter group.) Since there is only one speaker, a structure based on alternate speeches is ruled out.

Besides instruction, the author makes use of several other teaching techniques. These include proverbial quotations, contrasting proverbs, and rhetorical questions. Several of these forms are mentioned in the prologue to Proverbs, “…proverb and parable, the words of the wise and their riddles” (Prv 1, 6 ). All of this fosters the characterization of Qoheleth as a respected teacher of wisdom.

Ecclesiastes is one of the five books that make up the Megilloth, or “Scrolls,” a special collection that includes Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, and Esther. These books were read during various liturgical festivals and were gathered together for the sake of convenience. Ecclesiastes was read during the harvest celebration of Sukkoth, also known as Tabernacles or Booths. This major pilgrim feast was so called because the harvesters lived in booths as they gathered in their crops. It is not clear how this practice of reading began or why Ecclesiastes was chosen for this festival. Perhaps the somber tone of the book, the seasoned reflections of an aging sage, fit the maturity of harvest. Although reading the book was not always a consistent synagogue practice, Ecclesiastes continues to be considered part of the Megilloth.

The book clearly begins with the distinctive “Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” ( 1, 2 ) and ends on the same tone “Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, all things are vanity!” ( 12, 8 ). What some consider a kind of prologue ( 1, 1–11 ) might well come from the original author. The epilogue ( 12, 9–14 ) is different: at least one, possibly two people besides the primary have added something. Verses 9–11 praise Qoheleth as a wise teacher and compiler of wisdom sayings. Whoever added these verses plainly agreed with Qoheleth's conclusions despite their critical and sometimes unconventional viewpoint. The tone changes, though, with verse 12, which begins with the same Hebrew word as does verse 9. Some hold that this is textual evidence of a second epilogue. This is the only place in the book where the student is identified in a manner found frequently in Proverbs. However, the student is warned against too much speculation and is advised to trust in the retributive justice of God, a theme that Qoheleth consistently challenges.

It would appear from all this, that the author created a literary character, Qoheleth, and ascribed Solomonic authority to him in order to give his own instruction credibility. A later editor further authenticated this teaching by explicitly assuring the reader of Qoheleth's wisdom. However, with two short verses a second editor tried to temper some of Qoheleth's statements.

There are two possible explanations for this inconsistent ending: (1) The book was already well enough accepted so that its critics could not dismiss it. Still, someone was in a position to append a caution to what might be considered questionable teaching. (2) If there was only one editor who agreed with Qoheleth's teaching, that person realized that without some kind of tempering it would not be preserved. In order to assure acceptance, the last verses restate the traditional view of retribution and seem to return the entire teaching to the circle of orthodoxy.

A Critical Point of View

There is a wide range of scholarly opinion regarding the meaning of the book. Qoheleth has been described as a skeptic, a cynic, or, more positively, a pragmatist. His view of life has been called everything from pessimistic and fatalistic to realistic. Some judge his religious outlook hedonistic or pleasure‐seeking, while others think it is faithful to Israelite values. It is clear that he is disillusioned with certain facets of his society, yet he lacks the enthusiasm of a reformer and the vision of a mystic. This has led some critics to label him a frustrated man who is resigned to the injustice and meaninglessness of life and who is intent on making the most of any fleeting pleasures, in the spirit of Epicureanism. It is difficult to make a distinction between a challenge to the way life is understood and dissatisfaction with life itself. Perhaps in the actual living of life, it is impossible to separate the two. A careful reading of Qoheleth, however, will show that he does not really despair of life but only of unrealistic expectations regarding it. Qoheleth's real struggle is with the meaning of life, especially life viewed from the perspective of the theory of retribution (see introduction).

A Chase after Wind

Qoheleth sets out to discover everything of value within human experience ( 1, 13 ). Since he is identified as a king, he has both the wealth and the leisure to embark on this quest. As possessor of extraordinary wisdom ( 1, 16 ), he of all people is equipped to experience life to the full. The text states that he has acquired wisdom, but satisfaction in what he sought was always beyond his grasp, “a chase after wind” ( 1, 17 ). It is clear that in his search for wisdom, he was looking for something else as well. Qoheleth next turned to the pursuit of self‐gratification, and in many different ways he was successful in this pursuit, but still he was not satisfied ( 2, 1–11 ). It seems that he accomplished everything to which he had set his mind in his search to answer the fundamental question: “What profit has man from all the labor which he toils at under the sun?” ( 1, 3 ). He consistently arrived at the same conclusion, however. There is no lasting gain, no tangible dividend, “with nothing gained under the sun” ( 2, 11 ).

The theory of retribution claims that there is a direct relation between the uprightness of one's behavior and the good or ill fortune that one enjoys or endures. According to this theory, Qoheleth's wisdom and wealth would be perceived as concrete proof of his goodness and a guarantee of future prosperity. But Qoheleth does not really enjoy his good fortune, and so he questions its value. Since death comes to all, he wonders, “why then should I be wise? Where is the profit for me?” ( 2, 15 ). It is not life as such, nor the search for fulfillment in life, that frustrates him. What he loathes ( 2, 17 ) is the profitlessness of human striving. It is not fulfilling. Since Qoheleth did attain the wisdom and wealth and pleasure that he sought, his frustration must stem from his failure to attain something in addition to these goals. Qoheleth is asking more of life than merely success and prosperity.

He is also troubled about the inevitability of death and the sense of futility it often imparts. Regardless of how one lives, death is the ultimate fate of all. Any advantage that one might have because of righteousness, wisdom, or wealth is only temporary and, therefore, questionable. In fact, the fool who disregards societal rules may actually have an edge over the one who conforms to them at the cost of enjoyment. Death and the total relinquishment that it demands force Qoheleth to question the value of any human accomplishment and to wonder if perhaps life itself is “a chase after wind.”

Nothing Is New under the Sun

We have already seen how the wisdom teachers appealed to the obvious order within the natural world as they urged people to live in compliance with acceptable social custom (see Proverbs: The Way of Wisdom, RG 257f ). The author of Job used the same technique with a slightly different twist. There we see that Job was overwhelmed by the wonders of nature and led to acknowledge the incomprehensible dimension of life (see Job: Reward and Punishment, RG 238f ). The author of Ecclesiastes also directs our attention to the regularity in nature ( 1, 2–11 ), but he does so in order to highlight its monotony. The activity of the earth does not change; it seems constant. The sun rises and sets and rises again and sets again in the same mode day after day. Although the wind appears at times to be irregular, it follows certain paths that, upon observation, can be predicted. Even the sea, though constantly fed, is never full. The regularity detected in nature appears to be devoid of any progress. There is nothing new under the sun.

What advantage does the earth have in being constant? What does the sun accomplish by rising and setting if it must repeat the cycle again and again with no variation and no advance? What profit comes from the wind's endless movement if it never arrives at any destination? To what avail do the streams nourish an insatiable sea? Qoheleth urges us to learn yet another lesson from nature. Human striving for gain is nothing but wearisome labor that must be repeated and repeated with no promise of conclusion and no assurance of gratification. Human life is basically the same regardless of the society or the generation into which one is born. Life itself follows the same cycles, and experiences are quite similar. Momentous events do occur, but they seldom interfere with the fundamental rhythms of existence. Nature repeats itself and so does human history. Nothing seems to have lasting significance.

In what may be the most familiar section of the entire book ( 3, 1–9 ), Qoheleth declares that each event of human life has its own appointed time. Here, each event is linked in poetic construction with its opposite. There are two ways of understanding this pattern. First, juxtaposing opposites is a poetic way of expressing totality. It creates an inclusion that encompasses both poles and everything in between. Examples of this include: “knowledge of good and bad” (see Gn 2, 9.17 ) meaning comprehensive knowledge; “bone and flesh” (see Gn 2, 23 ) referring to the entire body. The contemporary phrase “flesh and blood” has the same meaning.

The second way of understanding this poetic form is as an expression of relativity. There is an inevitability to human events that is nonetheless relative. The circumstances of life determine what is fitting and what is not. What is appropriate at one time or in one situation can be out of place when the circumstances change. This may be the author's way of insisting that there are no absolutes; that is, everything is always relative to all else. There is a time to die as well as a time to be born. Neither seems to have an advantage over the other. However, we do not know the rules that govern these appointed times, and so we are helpless to control them and may feel that we are at their mercy.

The task of living is not easy. Qoheleth explains why in 3, 11 . This verse may be the most difficult one of the book because of the questions surrounding the translation and interpretation of the Hebrew olam. Although some versions translate this word as “world,” or “future,” or even “ignorance,” the NAB renders it as “the timeless.” God has put olam in the human heart, and we want to know, to understand, and even to control everything in the world. It seems that while human beings are finite, their desires transcend the limits of time. Qoheleth has described the world as fixed and closed. There is, nonetheless, urgency within the human heart that seeks to burst the confines of restrictive determinism in order to delight in the wonders of freedom and mystery. We are reminded of St. Augustine's famous saying: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

All Is Vanity!

“All is vanity” is the expression that has come to characterize the entire book. The Hebrew word hebel, which is here translated as “vanity,” can also be rendered as “vapor” or “thin air.” It means pointlessness or futility, and it refers to something that may be real but that has little or no lasting substance. We have seen that Qoheleth has accomplished everything he set out to do. He has acquired wisdom and wealth; he has enjoyed pleasure and prosperity; he has achieved all of his goals. And yet he declares “All is vanity!” All of the energy he put into his projects was pointless; all of his toil was futile. One might expect him to advise against ever trying to be happy, but he does not. Quite the contrary! We will see that he urges people to enjoy what they have. Then what about life does he regard as vanity?

Qoheleth observed in the lives of others what Job experienced in his own life: The righteous do not always enjoy the good things of life, nor are the wicked always deprived of them ( 4, 1; 8, l0f ). Life itself has shown both Job and Qoheleth the inadequacy of the theory of retribution. This theory may be helpful in explaining some things and in encouraging a certain kind of behavior, but it falls short in many areas. While both men seem to have arrived at this insight, Qoheleth's dissatisfaction in the face of his own prosperity and success has led him a step further in challenging the theory. It is not only that a righteous person sometimes does not prosper; it is also that, even when one does realize some desired goal, there is no guarantee of fulfillment. To suppose that the attainment of goals, even noble goals, can fulfill human longings is, according to Qoheleth, vanity!

The Wisdom of the Sage

The wisdom of Qoheleth consists not only in a critical examination of everything that is supposed to bring happiness but also in providing positive counsel. Although he finds fault with some aspects of human striving, he advises something that is often overlooked in times of feverish activity, something that is always within reach and may well be the key to true happiness and contentment. He exhorts his hearers to relish the simple pleasures that are at hand ( 2, 24; 3, 13.22; 5, 19; 8, 15; 9, 9 ). These pleasures can be experienced in the very act of living: in eating, in drinking, in labor itself rather than in the wealth that one may hope to produce by it. According to Qoheleth, this pleasure, like everything else in life, has come from the hand of God and should be enjoyed.

One cannot calculate this enjoyment or manipulate it as might be possible in a purely business transaction. Life is not a business transaction and to expect a strict quid pro quo (this for that) return, as one might expect in a rigid interpretation of retribution, will only end in disappointment. Qoheleth believes the enjoyment should be sought in the doing rather than in the outcome. To wait in anticipation of something more than the natural satisfaction that accompanies human activity is foolish, because the future is uncertain.

Qoheleth does not spurn the search for wisdom or the normal human striving for success and prosperity. He objects to making human accomplishment the primary or exclusive goal in life. He calls upon all to find pleasure in what they are doing and, if they are fortunate enough to become successful in the process, to see this as a gift from God as well.

A Challenge for Today

Ecclesiastes is not an account of Qoheleth's journey in faith. It is more like jottings or a report of his experiments in living. He did not share Job's struggle with theodicy (a defense of God against the accusation of injustice). Rather, Qoheleth addressed human misconceptions about divine activity, not the incomprehensible itself. He seems to have gone right to the core of things. He scrutinized some of the primary undertakings and fundamental goals of people.

Qoheleth would probably be unrelenting in his criticism of many of the attitudes found within our contemporary society. He knew that prosperity is often fleeting and cannot ensure happiness, even when it is at one's disposal. The complexity of modern society and the instability of the world's economy make it more difficult to amass wealth today than may have been the case in the past. For this reason, the strain and conflict that often accompany the struggle for “upward mobility” have been heightened. This is true for nations as well as for individuals. Much of the injustice in present society stems from greed and an avaricious devouring of the wealth of the world. Too many people believe that having more will make them happy.

Qoheleth never disparaged ingenuity or hard work. Rather, he criticized those who judged the worth of human endeavor by the amount of output rather than the quality of input. There is a very thin line between directing all of one's energies toward accomplishing a noble goal and sacrificing everything for the sake of success. Qoheleth wholeheartedly endorsed the former while he condemned the latter. He would most likely criticize any attitude or system that places more value on the product than on the person producing it. Today's business practices, whether local, national, or international, would come under his scrutiny in this regard.

The struggle for upward mobility is not the only dimension of contemporary society that Qoheleth would most likely challenge. Many people spend a lifetime climbing the ladder of prominence and power. Others will do almost anything to gain acceptability in prestigious social, professional, or political circles. And who does not aspire to a reputation for wisdom or exceptional intelligence? Qoheleth would challenge us to put all such ambition in the right perspective.

This sage teacher was not blind to the many disappointments and tragedies of life, but neither was he an advocate of radical social change. He cautions against wishing for what cannot be, and he urges his hearers to make the most of what they have. This may not be an encouraging message for those who are deprived of the necessities of life, but most likely it was not intended for them. He is not contesting the justice of the social order. He is questioning the value of the motivation behind obsessive striving for success.

Finally, Qoheleth was convinced that the future is not totally under our control. It cannot be manipulated by human decision nor determined by human behavior. A strict interpretation of retribution frequently includes the notion that God is bound to respond to our actions with appropriate reward or punishment, whichever the case may be. This normally unconscious attitude surfaces when we are faced with unexplained reverses of fortune. We wonder what we have done to bring adversity upon ourselves, or we accuse God of behaving unfairly toward us. Qoheleth would remind us that God is not bound by our interpretive theories. We can accurately predict neither success nor failure.

Qoheleth would insist that the primary goal of life is living. All work, all progress has one principal purpose and that is the enhancement and promotion of life. Every other end is at best secondary or otherwise “a chase after the wind.” This is a profoundly religious teaching, for Qoheleth believed that it was the creator who placed the desire for happiness within each human heart, made living an exciting adventure, and willed that every person be given the chance to find pleasure in life. He would strongly object to any materialistic point of view that might minimize or deny this basic conviction. Qoheleth was a champion of the greatest of God's gifts—life itself.

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