The title ‘Ecclesiastes’ has been taken from the Septuagint, the first Greek translation of the Old Testament. The Hebrew word from which the translators took the title is qohelet.
This is the name the writer of the book uses for himself, and it has been translated as preacher (RSV), teacher (NIV) and philosopher (GNB). The writer does not tell us his name, but he was no doubt a well known wisdom teacher of his time (Eccles 12:9).
In keeping with a common practice of the time, the author writes as if he were some well known person whose life would form a background for his own teaching. He takes as his starting point a saying that probably came from King Solomon, ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity’. He then puts himself in Solomon’s position and proceeds to show that all the wealth, pleasure, wisdom and power that people may gain will, in the end, benefit them nothing if they have wrong attitudes to life and to God. Ecclesiastes is not a story or argument that begins in the opening verse and moves through in an unbroken development to the last verse. Rather it is a collection of some of the writer’s thoughts and ideas, probably written down later in life. Each section, however, is related to the central theme of the book. That theme is presented fairly clearly in the opening two chapters, then is restated and discussed, in part or in whole, in the following sections. Being a wisdom teacher, the writer is concerned with some of the apparent contradictions of life (see WISDOM LITERATURE). He does not rely upon comfortable orthodox theories, but examines the frustrations and injustices that sometimes make life seem useless and without meaning. However, he is not a pessimist. He has a strong faith in God, and that faith gives him his interpretation of life.
Meaning of the book
The writer’s interpretation of life is built around two main observations: first, that God is sovereign; second, that God is the Creator. His main ideas may be summarized as follows. No matter what benefits people may gain for themselves in life, they lose them at death. Life seems useless (2:14,18; 6:1-6). Yet through it all God is in control, directing events according to his purposes (3:11a,14; 8:15b). The writer is frustrated that he cannot know God’s purposes, but he never doubts that those purposes exist (3:11; 8:16-17; 9:1a). People should not therefore waste time searching after what God has kept for himself, but instead enjoy what God has given to them, namely, life (3:12-13; 5:18-19). Not only does God control affairs in people’s lives; he is the Creator who has given them his world. Therefore, they should accept whatever God determines for them and find enjoyment in God’s world and in all their activities in that world (2:24; 9:7-10). That is not to say that they may be selfish and illdisciplined. On the contrary, they will only enjoy life properly as they act with wisdom rather than folly, and as they do good rather than evil (7:5,7-9,19).
Summary of contents
Life seems at times to have no purpose (1:1-11). The search for a meaning to life through selfish ambition will lead to frustration. A person should accept what God gives and enjoy it (1:12-2:26). Having set out the central message of his book, the writer turns to consider some related matters: the control of God over life’s affairs (3:1-15), the widespread injustice in the world (3:16-4:3), and the uselessness of self-centred achievement (4:4-16). A collection of short messages encourages people to make the most of life’s frustrations. The writer gives advice about religion, money and other matters (5:1-7:14), and suggests that the way to contentment is to practise moderation (7:15-8:17). Life presents people with great opportunities for true contentment (9:1-12), but they will have no contentment without wisdom (9:13-10:20). The final section therefore encourages people to have a positive attitude to life (11:1-8); for the Creator holds them accountable for the way they handle the gifts of creation (11:9-12:14).