The title of the book, Ecclesiastes, comes from the Septuagint, the first Greek translation of the Old Testament. The translators took the title from the Hebrew word qohelet, the name that the writer of the book uses for himself. It has been translated by such English words as preacher (RSV), teacher (NIV) and philosopher (GNB) (Eccles 1:1,12).
Although the writer does not tell us his name, he was probably a well known wisdom teacher in Jerusalem. A number of of his illustrations reflect the viewpoint of those with status and wealth, which suggests that his students were mainly from upper class families (cf. Eccles 5:11-14; 6:1-2; 8:2-3; 10:4). But he also taught the common people at large (Eccles 12:9).
A common practice in those times was for an author to write as if he were some well known person in the past whose life would form a background for his own teaching. This is what the writer of Ecclesiastes appears to do in the opening chapters of his book. He quotes what was probably a saying of King Solomon, ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity’, and, placing himself in the position of Solomon, develops his message. He shows that all the wealth, pleasure, wisdom and power that people may gain will, in the end, be of no benefit to them if they have wrong attitudes to life and to God.
Ecclesiastes is not a story or argument that moves through the book in an unbroken development from the first verse to the last. Rather it is a collection of some of the writer’s teachings, and was probably put into its present form late in the writer’s life. Nevertheless, each section is related to the book’s central message. That message is presented at length in the opening two chapters, then is restated and discussed, in part or in whole, in the following sections. Although each section forms a unit by itself, the book is not disjointed. The writer has to some extent grouped sections where the subject matter is similar.
Like other Hebrew wisdom teachers, the writer is concerned with the apparent contradictions of life. (For a background to the wisdom writings in general see introductory notes to the book of Job.) He is not content to accept comfortable orthodox theories, but examines the frustrations and injustices that at times make life appear to be useless and without meaning. But he is not a pessimist. He has a strong faith in God, and this faith gives him his interpretation of life.
Meaning of the book
We must not read Ecclesiastes as if the writer is a priest or a prophet. He is not trying to explain the meaning of atonement, nor is he calling people to repentance. He is a wisdom teacher who wants to encourage God’s people to find the meaning in life that God intended. His interpretation of life, built around the basic truths that God is sovereign and God is the Creator, may be summarized as follows.
No matter what benefits people gain for themselves in life, they are cancelled by the certainty of death. Life seems useless (Eccles 2:14,18; 6:1-6). Yet through it all God is in control, directing events according to his purposes (Eccles 3:11a,14; 8:15b). The writer is frustrated that he cannot know God’s purposes, but he never doubts that such purposes exist (Eccles 3:11; 8:16-17; 9:1a). People should not therefore waste their time and energy searching after what God has kept to himself, but concentrate on enjoying what God has given to them, namely, life (Eccles 3:12-13; 5:18-19).
God is the sovereign Lord who controls all that happens in people’s lives. At the same time he is the Creator who has given his world to the people he created. Therefore, people should accept whatever God determines for them, but at the same time they should find enjoyment in God’s world and in all their activities in that world (Eccles 2:24; 9:7-10). But this enjoyment must not be selfish or without restraint, for they will only enjoy life properly as they act with wisdom rather than folly, and as they do good rather than evil (Eccles 7:5,7-9,19).