The title of the book in Hebrew is qōhelet (also transliterated qōheleth and koheleth), a particular form of the verb “to assemble,” which led to the Septuagint translation Ekklēsiastēs, one who addresses an assembly, frequently rendered “The Preacher.” The content of this short treatise, however, is less ecclesial than sapiential, displaying a skepticism and dry wit that would be incongruous in a formal religious gathering. Even the ethical theory of moderation smacks of the academic, and the editorial epilogue, by another hand (12.8–10), shows the author in the guise of a scribe‐teacher, adding the definite article: haqqôhelet, or “The Assembler,” suggesting that it may well be a student's nickname for a well‐known character.
Written probably in the third century BCE, it belongs among the wisdom books, being one of the Megillot. Its unity is much disputed, ranging from twofold or fourfold authorship to a loose collection of short sections or chapters attributed to different hands. However, the recurrence of idiosyncratic phrases and sophistication of language may point to a single author. In spite of what appears to be a lack of sequence and an overlapping of ideas, there is real unity in the thought pattern. It presents a running dialectic: the “vanity of things” set over against the goodness of life. Being to some extent gnomic wisdom, an extended proverb, it restructures accepted truths about life, death, pleasure, and toil, and reevaluates them realistically, holding experience up to the light and refracting it. The seeming contradictions are a deliberate teaching tool, and the heterodox atmosphere comes from this dialectical style rather than from the ideas.
Philosophical more than religious, the work consists of a sequence of reactions to the question presented in 1.2–3: “What does one gain by all one's toil?” Beginning and ending with this theme, the book falls into two parts: a philosophical treatise on life and the absurd (chaps. 1–6), and an ethical discussion on how one should live one's life as a result (chaps. 7–12). Quite often a traditional maxim of the schools serves as a launching pad for a personal observation. The thesis of 1.2–3 is the starting point: “vanity,” or universal contingency, qualifies cosmos, human environment, and all human effort. The idea refers more to the way Qoheleth experiences life than to a clear metaphysic. There follows a demonstration of this thesis by a study of cosmic circularity (1.4–11). All things are in perpetual flux, ending where they began—an order presumably fixed by God but to mortals quite arbitrary. One finds oneself swept up in a flood of time and destiny that cannot be controlled. Even the human desire for knowledge is contingent. The subsequent proof of this thesis (1.12–2.26) begins in typical sapiential style, from experience. Adopting the mantle of Solomon and thus vested with perfect wisdom (1.1, 12, 16), the author looks for meaning where traditionally it is to be found: in pleasure, in riches, in work. All end in death. Even wisdom itself avails nothing. Absurdity remains, and not simply in personal experience but rooted in human nature: “God has given to human beings” the innate urge to reason why, but even this is “vanity.” Paradoxically, the inevitability of death focuses the mind on the “now,” and so human life, with its limitations and pleasures, takes center stage. Indeed, 2.16–26 suggests that the only norm is the individual. Although time rolls around fruitlessly, again and again (3.1–9), and people can find no permanent foothold, yet they still study and inquire and dream, for God “has made everything beautiful in its time, and has put eternity into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from beginning to end” (3.11). From chap. 3 on the thesis is viewed from every side, philosophical and existential (3.1–12 is answered in 3.13–15; 3.16–21 in 3.22; 4.1–5.17 in 5.18–20). The mystery of existence is seen in the pattern of the cosmos and in time, both of which impose themselves on humanity, though to some extent one can control the latter and limit its mystery by judging the propitious moment. There is further the enigma of right and wrong: good is not invariably rewarded (3.16–20; 7.15); the same end comes to all (3.19–20), and all that results from human effort is bitterness (6.2–3). Contingency is as near a rule of life as one can find.
The practical conclusion is drawn in the second half of the book (7.1–11.6) in what is effectively a moral treatise, proverbial in style. If effort and toil, if even piety and justice avail so little, the only profitable attitude to adopt is to live in the world as one finds it, to be moderate in all things (even piety), and to enjoy the good pleasure that life gives, for even this is a gift, and fulfillment may not come with success (7.15–25; 8.14–17). In these chapters many familiar themes reappear, such as human destiny, God's providence, wisdom, and folly; but now they are given a moral twist, and Ecclesiastes becomes a wisdom dialectic in the service of a humanistic ethic. The fact of death and the problematic nature of moral retribution lead to the belief that life remains the only good—as long as one recognizes its precarious nature and lives within the sane limits of prudence. The presence of God acts as a moderating influence on the harder skepticism of the contemporary scene, while a strong belief in free will and human responsibility modifies its determinism. The author does of course present an enjoyment ethic, but he is quite careful to impose restrictions on the enjoyment of life's good things, which must never exceed human limits. Abuse is never acceptable. Pleasure is a practical ideal, not an absolute. This appears to be the best solution to the vanity of things.
The final word, suitably, is found in an allegory of youth and age (11.7–12.8). Life is short, and youth in particular should enjoy it, for soon will come old age when energy fades and passions die. The editorial epilogue (12.9–14), perhaps by two hands, is an orthodox footnote, sympathetic but cautious.
Ecclesiastes represents an individual's experiential view of the world and human existence and a resultant ethic based on reason applied to that experience. Without rejecting his tradition, the author's rational, universalistic tendencies made blind allegiance to that tradition impossible. God remains the God of Judaism, but the author sees him rather as Elohim, the universal creator and sovereign who remains beyond human understanding. It is this that makes the ethic so important; in an unpredictable world one maintains human values of integrity and decency. One maintains one's humanity, and perhaps this is the only certain value.
How this book found a place in the Hebrew canon remains a puzzle. Perhaps it is a tribute to the fact that a religious scholar, heir to a tradition, could face a world of cultural ferment and make a personal contribution by offering an intellectually valid answer to the problem of existence.
Dermot Cox, O. F. M.