For the first 18 centuries, Old Testament scholars have attributed the authorship of Ecclesiastes to Solomon. This was based on the allusions of verses 1:1 and 1:16, where the writer claims he is “King David’s son, who ruled in Jerusalem,” and that he was “wiser than any of the kings in Jerusalem before” him. Since the 19th century, however, several things have created questions as to whether Solomon was indeed the author.
The first concern is the question surrounding the pseudonym Qoheleth, a word unique to this book. According to Kidner, Qoheleth (pronounced Ko-HELL-eth or Ko-HELL-et) means something like one who “assembles a group of people,” hence the English translation of preacher or teacher. Proverbs and Song of Songs both make direct claims to Solomonic authorship, yet Ecclesiastes is somewhat distanced by using a title or a role. Which begs the question, why would Solomon himself do this?
The second concern is regarding the literary criticism of the Hebrew used in Ecclesiastes. Peter Enns cites that the linguistic evidence of the book suggests that the dating of Ecclesiastes is more consistent with the Hebrew used in the post exilic era. Instead of dating Ecclesiastes in the tenth century BC which would be more attune with Solomon’s rule, the linguistics and the evident Aramaic influences would betray something more aligned with the fourth century. Those who would argue for Solomonic authorship would simply claim that the original writings were updated as the language evolved. To each their own.
The third issue is the question of a second author. Some scholars have noted that the tone of the content makes a sudden shift in chapter 12. From 1:12 to 12:7, Qoheleth writes in first person singular. But in 12:8-14, there is a shift from first person to third person, as if a wise person has been quoting the words of Qoheleth to his son. Therefore, Ecclesiastes contains the words of a wise father to his son, who he has introduced to the thought of a person who is called Qoheleth, who is nothing more than a literary construct. This idea expressed by Tremper Longman, would satisfy to some degree the many questions that have been raised.
Jewish and Christian scholars have traditionally attributed Ecclesiastes to Solomon, but ultimately, the identity of Qoheleth is unknown. No one who chooses to believe that Solomon is the author of Ecclesiastes will find themselves alone on an island without cellular reception. Wise and faithful scholarship, however, must look at all evidence, not just the low hanging fruit. Which brings me to the message of the book.
It is totally possible to benefit from the reading and study of Ecclesiastes without having hard evidence regarding authorship and dating. The book itself is both timely and timeless, in that it meant something then and continues to speak with incredible relevance to today. In the coming weeks I’m going to dive into the text and provide commentary on each section of the book. But for now, consider three broad themes identified by Derek Kidner that will be revisited again and again.
The first theme is that God is the creator who has set the scene of the world and placed us in it. This setting that we find ourselves in is unforgiving and unyielding, regardless of our efforts to reshape and remold it. Nothing is new, and nothing can be added or subtracted.
Theme number two is that God is sovereign and has set the scene in motion. Living in the perpetual motion of the world may feel like life on a treadmill or life in the same lane, resulting in our feelings of futility. Nothing is within our command, and nothing is within our control.
The third theme is that God is the God of unsearchable wisdom, reducing our best ideas and brilliant thoughts to little more than speculation. The pursuit of God’s unrevealed wisdom can be frustrating and brings us to the ultimate point of Qoheleth. With much beyond our control, we should seize each and every day, follow Jesus, and live life to the fullest.
Ecclesiastes is dark and depressing, painting a bleak picture of existence for those who are old enough to have been disappointed by life and are exasperated by their inability to alter its course. But tough books like Ecclesiastes are included in the Bible because God isn’t threatened by our questions or frustrations. Qoheleth may be a fictional character, but that doesn’t mean that his message is any less real. Ecclesiastes is best understood when we lean into it, not away from it. In many ways the reader will find more similarities than dissimilarities.
As we read and study Ecclesiastes together, look for these themes and how they connect with each other. Next week I’ll begin with the first unit of thought, found in chapter 1:1-11.