The Interpretation of Ecclesiastes

J. Stafford Wright

The Book of Ecclesiastes might be called the black sheep of the Bible. In older days the Rabbinic schools of Hillel and Shammai disputed whether or not this Book “defiled the hands,” that is, whether it was a canonical Book that conveyed holiness when it was handled. Today the examiner asks, “On what grounds would you defend the inclusion of Ecclesiastes in the Canon?” In fact, the history of the interpretation of the Book shows the profound suspicion with which it has always been regarded. It did, however, find its place in the Canon of Scripture, chiefly because of its Solomonic authorship and the orthodoxy of the final chapter. Yet today few of us would care to maintain that Solomon was the author, while many scholars reject the final chapter.

Ought the book then to remain in the Bible? Would it not be better to admit straight away that the contradictions and unorthodox statements, which have delighted skeptics and puzzled devout minds, would have been far better employed in writing for the Rationalist Press Association than for the Library of the Holy Spirit? It is a question that must be faced. If there is no satisfactory interpretation of the book–satisfactory, that is, from the Christian standpoint–there is no logical reason for retaining it in the Bible.

I need not at this point enumerate the particular passages that have shocked the devout; we are familiar with the general tone of them. But it will be worthwhile to refer briefly to the methods of exegesis that Jews and Christians have employed to justify the retention of the book as part of the Word of God.

Jewish expositors made use of three methods. (1) Some of them read the so-called Epicurean passages with a question mark after them, thus: “Is there nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink…?” (2) Others adopted a legend that Solomon was driven from his throne in consequence of his disobedience to God, and held that this book was the product of his period of estrangement from God. The origin of this legend appears to be 1:12 which says, “I the preacher was King over Israel,” implying that now he is no longer king. (3) The unorthodox statements were paraphrased and explained away, as they are in the Targum on this book. Thus such a verse as 9:7, “Go your way, eat your bread with joy and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already accepted your works,” becomes in the Targum: “Solomon said by the spirit of prophecy before Jehovah, ‘The Lord of the world shall say to all the righteous one by one, Go taste with joy your bread which has been given to you on account of the bread which you have given to the poor and the unfortunate who were hungry, and drink with good heart your wine, which is hidden for you in the Garden of Eden, for the wine which you have mingled for the poor and needy who were thirsty, for already your good work has been pleasing before Jehovah.’” Paraphrase along these lines could make even Wellhausen a fundamentalist!

Early Christian commentaries used similar methods of allegorizing, paraphrasing, and explaining away. Jerome wrote a commentary on the book to induce a Roman lady to adopt the monastic life. According to him, the purpose of the book is to show the utter vanity of every sublunary [earthly] enjoyment, and hence the necessity of betaking oneself to an ascetic life devoted entirely to the service of God.

Martin Luther was probably the first to deny the Solomonic authorship. He regarded the book as “a sort of Talmud, compiled from many books, probably from the library of King Ptolemy Euergetes of Egypt.” Grotius in 1644 followed Luther in the idea that the book was a collection, and once the idea of the unity of the book was broken, it became possible to follow a fresh line of interpretation. Thus Herder and Eichhorn (c. 1780) regarded the book as a dialogue between a refined sensualist and a sensual worldling, or between a teacher and a pupil. The successor to this theory today is the commonly adopted one of three hands in the book. First, there is Koheleth himself. Koheleth is the title assumed by the main author. Our English versions translate it as “The Preacher.” Probably this is near enough to the correct meaning, but the commentaries commonly transliterate the Hebrew, so we shall do the same. Koheleth states doubts and problems that arise in his mind as he examines life. Then, there is the Pious Man who interjects orthodoxy when he finds a saying of Koheleth that shocks him. Finally, a Wise Man sprinkles in a few maxims and proverbs. It is, of course, possible to have many more writers than these three if you wish. Siegfried has a pessimist, a Sadducee, a wise man, a pious man, a proverbial anthologist, a Redactor, An Epilogist, a second Epilogist, and a Pharisee.

On the other hand, some commentators hold strongly to the unity of the book. Canon Lukyn Williams in the Cambridge Bible accepts it almost entirely, as previously did such commentators as Delitzsch, C.H.H. Wright and Cornill. What interpretation on this view will justify the retention of the book in the Bible? Without concerning ourselves with details, the interpretation generally adopted is that here we have the struggles of a thinking man to square his faith with the facts of life. In spite of all the difficulties, he fights his way through to a reverent submission to God. The book then is valuable, since it shows that even with the lesser light of the Old Testament it was possible for a thinking man to trust God; how much more is it possible for us with the fuller light of the New Testament! Cornill thus regards the book as marking one of the greatest triumphs of Old Testament piety.

Another type of interpretation is worth mentioning. This stresses the phrase “under the sun,” and holds that the author deliberately concerns himself only with the things of this world. Revelation and the world to come are laid aside for the purpose of the argument. Experience of the world leads only to pessimism. Where then is satisfaction to be found? The author does no more than hint that there is something more to be found in God. His purpose in writing is primarily negative–to cause dissatisfaction, so that men will turn in search of something that will satisfy.

Among those commentators who hold to the full inspiration of the Bible there is a certain hesitancy in dealing with Ecclesiastes. The introductory note in the Scofield Bible may be taken as fairly representative. “This is the Book of man ‘under the sun,’ reasoning about life; it is the best man can do, with the knowledge that there is a Holy God and that He will bring everything into judgment. The key phrases are ‘under the sun’; ‘I perceived’; ‘I said in my heart.’ Inspiration sets down accurately what passes, but the conclusions and reasonings are, after all, man’s.”

Without being concerned with minor details, we have now reviewed the main lines of interpretation of this fascinating book. I do not know how far any one of them has satisfied you, but none of them completely satisfies me. This is not to say that there is no truth in them; obviously most of them contain some truth. But I do not feel that any of them has given a key that will unlock the book as a whole, though all assume that there must be a key somewhere. That is to say, Ecclesiastes cannot be treated as a string of texts, each of which may be interpreted in isolation. Even though we may conclude that the author jotted down different passages at different times, in the manner of a diary of his spiritual experiences, yet most of us will feel that there must be some underlying unity, some theme by which the whole is to be interpreted. At any rate, I am proceeding on that assumption. So it is useless to take a text and ask “What does that mean?” unless we have in our minds some scheme for the whole book into which that text must fit. Most commentators have, of course, realized this. The point is, what is the scheme?

First of all, there is one interpretation that I believe we must unhesitatingly reject. This is the conclusion that we have here the uninspired reasonings of the natural man or even of the skeptic. The theory of Scofield, and the theory of those who hold to several hands in the book, do not strike me as in the least likely. Koheleth is spoken of in the last chapter as a wise man. He evidently had a high reputation for wisdom. There is a proverbial saying that a fool can raise problems which a wise man cannot answer. If Koheleth was the skeptic whose doubts needed to be dealt with by the other two writers, I do not see that his wisdom is much greater than that of the modern tub-thumping objector to Christianity. Anyone who wants to fling doubts at religion has plenty of ammunition in the world around.

Moreover, it does not seem to be worthy of God to occupy valuable space in the Bible with the arguments of the skeptic and of the natural man. We can buy those anywhere or have them for nothing. That is the difficulty with Scofield’s theory. This objection, of course, does not hold good against those who, like Cornill, see in the book the triumph of piety over the arguments of skepticism. There is something very attractive in this view, but none the less I do not feel that it gives us the master key to the whole book.

Let us then turn to the book afresh and try to examine it without prejudice. And let us see whether we can interpret it as a unity before cutting the Gordian Knot and dividing the book among three or more hands.

If you pick up a book and want to find the author’s viewpoint, where do you turn? The preface is usually helpful–sometimes it saves you reading the book! The conclusion also in a well-written book generally sums up the point that the author has been trying to put over. When you look through the book you may also be struck by something in the nature of a refrain, that by its continual recurrence tends to drive some point home. Suppose we apply these methods to Ecclesiastes.

The preface is a gaunt and stark announcement. “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” That may be the grumblings of a pessimist. To me it is the trumpets sounding the opening theme of some colossal overture. “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”

My opinion may be purely subjective; I do not ask you to accept it yet. But I do ask you not to dismiss the text as a sub-Christian verdict on life. It is sometimes said that Ecclesiastes is never quoted in the New Testament. But surely Paul has this verse in mind when he says in Romans 8:20, “The creation was subjected to vanity,” and in the context he includes us Christians in the whole creation. In other words, whatever may be the precise meaning of Koheleth’s sentiment, there is a general agreement between him and Paul that everything is subject to vanity. Incidentally, I wonder whether this text is a genuine utterance of Solomon’s, handed down as his comment on life. Koheleth at a much later date is so struck by it that he proceeds to put himself in the position of Solomon, and examines life through Solomon’s eyes, so as to see how far his verdict was justified. That, of course, is only an idea and has no direct bearing upon the theme of the book.

From the preface we turn to the conclusion. Here again, not far from the end, we find the words of the preface recurring, “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; all is vanity” (12:8). But the final conclusion is definitely presented as the final conclusion: “This is the end of the matter; all has been heard: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every hidden thing, whether it be good or whether it be evil” (12:13,14). This conclusion is so orthodox that we hardly need any parallel quotations to support it, but we may notice the statement of Christ in Matthew 19:17, “If you would enter into life, keep the commandments,” and that of Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:13, “The fire shall prove each man’s work of what sort it is.”

Now if this is the deliberate conclusion of Ecclesiastes, and if the book is a unity, it stands to reason that no statement elsewhere in the book can be interpreted as a final conclusion if it contradicts the statement at the end of the book. Or, to put it from another angle, if any statement in the course of the book is given as a final conclusion, it must be interpreted in the light of the ultimate conclusion at the end. This is not a matter of inspiration or non-inspiration; it is the treatment that we should give to any book written by a reasonable man.

The third way of finding an author’s point of view is to see whether there is any statement that recurs as a kind of refrain. There are several of these in Ecclesiastes. The “Vanity” theme recurs a number of times; Koheleth keeps reminding us of his text. “Under the sun” is another theme. One might add also, as Scofield does, “I perceived,” and “I said in my heart,” and similar phrases that describe a personal experience. We can see how these refrains fit into the general argument.

But there is yet another refrain, and this is the one that causes most of the difficulty in the interpretation of the book. Six times over it comes, repeated in slightly different phraseology but reiterating the same sentiment. Its first occurrence in 2:24 is representative of all the six: “There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and make his soul enjoy good in his labor.” The other occurrences are in 3:12,13; 3:22; 5:18,19; 8:15; 9:7-9. In each case the statements appear to be made as final conclusions. So the solution to life is that of the Epicurean sensualist, “Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”!

Now something must have gone wrong with our deductions somewhere. For this is completely different from the ultimate conclusion of the book. We must face the contradiction and look at the alternatives which might resolve it. Koheleth may be a slipshod writer who does not worry about contradictions. But this is not a minor contradiction; the whole basis and argument of the book is at stake. Perhaps, then, the Epicurean sentiments represent a temporary mood, which is described only to be rejected. If this is so, it is strange that the mood keeps recurring, each time in a dogmatic form that suggests a reasoned conclusion. At this point we may grow faint-hearted and adopt the counsel of despair, and dismember poor Koheleth, sending him to join the noble army of martyrs among which will be found most of the books of the Old Testament. This dismembering is an easy way out of many Bible difficulties, so easy that no one seems to have wondered why the Hebrews were so much more careless with their literature than any other people have been.

But let us have one more look and see whether we can save the unity of the book. Why do we read Epicureanism into this refrain? Because we are familiar with the Epicurean slogan. But suppose that Koheleth was not familiar with the slogan. Would he then necessarily mean by his statement precisely the same as the Epicureans meant by theirs? Could he possibly mean something that would be consistent with his ultimate conclusion? This line of thought is worth following up.

There may be something in it. For at the beginning of Chapter 2 Koheleth describes Solomon’s adventures in what we may call Epicureanism–mirth, pleasure, laughter, wine, servants, silver, gold, music and love. What more could a good Epicurean want? But Koheleth’s conclusion is that it is all vanity. He can hardly then be advocating a similar course of pleasure for all men, even on a lesser scale. What then does he mean? Let us return to the preface and the conclusion.

“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” “Fear God, and keep his commandments…God shall bring every work into judgment.” The first is a verdict on all life. The second is counsel in view of the verdict. But is the verdict true? That is what Koheleth examines for us, turning life over and over in his hands so that we see it from every angle. And he forces us to admit that it is vanity, emptiness, futility; yet not in the sense that it is not worth living. Koheleth’s use of the term “vanity” describes something vastly greater than that. All life is vanity in this sense, that it is unable to give us the key to itself. The book is the record of a search for the key to life. It is an endeavor to give a meaning to life, to see it as a whole. And there is no key under the sun. Life has lost the key to itself. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” If you want the key you must go to the locksmith who made the lock. “God holds the key of all unknown.” And He will not give it to you. Since then you cannot get the key, you must trust the locksmith to open the doors.

Before we come back to the Epicurean refrain, I want us to be convinced that this really is the theme of the book and not just a fancy of my own. The statement in 3:10,11 is instructive: “I have seen the travail which God has given to the sons of men to be exercised therewith. He has made everything beautiful in its time; also he has set the world in their heart, yet so that man cannot find out the work that God has done from the beginning even to the end.” A number of commentators adopt the R.V. marginal rendering here and translate the Hebrew ha-‘olam as “eternity” instead of “the world,” and, as this makes better sense, we may adopt it. The previous context deals with the occurrence of events at their right times. “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted.” And a long list follows. Then come the two verses that I quoted just now. God has given us a sore travail. Events happen to us from time to time, but God has given us a longing to know the eternity of things, the whole scheme; but, try as we will, we cannot see it, though we can declare by faith that each event plays its part in the beauty of the plan.

This is not an isolated thought. It occurs again in 7:14: “In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has even made the one side by side with the other, to the end, that man should not find out anything that shall be after him.” Again it comes in 8:17: “Then I beheld all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun, because however much a man labor to seek it out, yet he shall not find it: yea moreover, though a wise man think to know it, yet shall he not be able to find it.”

This is not pessimism. It is the solemn truth–just as true today in Christian times as it was in the days of Koheleth. That eternal WHY hangs over our lives. It meets us at every turn. Our fondest hopes are shattered. Why? The Nazi hordes overrun Europe. Why? God allows the War. Why? A brilliant young Christian life is swept away, while a good-for-nothing wastrel is miraculously delivered. Why? Why? Why? Where is the sense in it all? And yet we must go on looking for the sense. It is incredible that life should make no sense. Every man who thinks at all believes that there is sense somewhere, if only he could find it. He may not look very far; he may settle down to an unworthy philosophy of life. Or he may plumb the depths of reason, of science, or of theology in an endeavor to find the plan. But he cannot find it. Joad has not found it. Huxley has not found it. Karl Barth has not found it. No one has. The moment we think we have it, something happens that does not fit into the scheme at all. But we go on looking. We must look. We cannot help it. “It is a sore travail which God has given to the sons of men to be exercised therewith….He has set eternity in their heart, yet so that man cannot find out the work that God has done from the beginning even to the end.”

See how Koheleth develops his theme. We go through the world with him, looking for the solution to life, and at every turn he forces us to admit that here is only vanity, frustration, bewilderment. Life does not provide the key to itself.

Come with him in the first chapter and study Nature, that great revelation of God. But Nature is a closed system, an endless round of sunshine, winds, rain, rivers, speaking of God, it is true, but not disclosing the plan of God. They key is not in Nature.

Then let us try Man. Perhaps the key will be found in the process of history or in the progress of science. But all we see is an endless chain of generation after generation striving for this and for that, groping for something and finding no satisfaction, producing new inventions which are but adaptations of what already exists in the closed system of Nature, and which never bring