Historical Background:

While the text of Ecclesiastes claims to be a text written by someone called the Preacher in most Bibles, who also is the son of David, king in Jerusalem, it would be best to understand the word for preacher as collector. The one writing Ecclesiastes is assembling a text of wisdom from those sayings and teachings that has come before. The persona as the son of David, king in Jerusalem could mean a couple of things. It could refer to the real person of Solomon, it could be attributing the wisdom in the book to the sayings and teachings of Solomon in the past, or it could be connecting the wisdom of the book into the line of Jewish Exilic wisdom that has been retained since the time before when the Davidic kings ruled from Jerusalem.

The Hebrew of Ecclesiastes is from a late period. There are a number of major indicators of this such as Aramaic words, Persian phrases, and interesting vowel usages that simply would not be used if this text originated from the time of King Solomon or the southern kings of Judah before the Exile.[1] The inundation of these linguistic markers in the Hebrew means that the text was finalized well into the time when Jews were under Persian rule, either still in Babylon or in Jerusalem.

This question of location is interesting. For a book that emphasizes its connection to the king in Jerusalem there is no indication of life in Judea or near Jerusalem. Ecclesiastes is a book intended to help Jews understand how to evaluate the world in which they live from a thoroughly Jewish theological framework but there is only one mention of the 2nd Temple (5:1) and two mentions of sacrifice (5:1, 9:2). This could mean two options: Ecclesiastes was written in Babylon far from the temple life in Jerusalem, or the temple of life of Jerusalem had been occur for such a long period of time that such temple life of Jews in the land was assumed as the background for the type of theological wisdom reflected in Ecclesiastes.

The latter option seems to be the most justifiable based on the text itself and the timeline of Jewish 2nd Temple social development in Judea as we know it, especially after the thriving Jewish life witnessed to in the Greek text of Pseudo-Hacataeus. The heavy Persian influence of the document suggests the time of flourishing the Greeks witnessed around or after the conquering of the Middle East by Alexander the Great, ca. 330 B.C. The book could have been compiled sometime by the turn of the century and seems to have been disseminated among many Jewish communities by the mid-3rd century.

Literary Synopsis:

Ecclesiastes is often view as a very pessimistic text. A book of wisdom that declares most of human life is empty, meaningless, and vain. Yet, if the historical context of being conquered by Alexander the Great is truthful, a time and context of war under which the Jewish people have an increase in hardship because of new taxes and the oppressive dread of seeking a new relationship under a new empire, this outwardly negative outlook on life in this world becomes more understandable.

Still, Ecclesiastes is not pessimistic because it does not end believing that life in this world is actually meaningless. The Preacher, or Collector, is seeking to teach his readers that many of the ways humans attempt to find meaning in this world does end in emptiness. Thankfully, God has spared Israel from such meaningless wandering in the world. For the Collector says 12:13-14,

The end of the matter; all has been heard.

Fear God and keep his commandments,

for this is the duty of all mankind.

Something that should be noted is that wisdom theology in the Old Testament is not simply a type of natural theology that looks at the world and attempts to derive meaning out of the world about God. Instead, knowledge and experiences of life in the world are scrutinized under the glaze of a wise person who uses the revelation of God to critique and evaluate the goodness of those things learned or experienced. For the Collector, who is interpreting human life in God’s creation through the teaching of God, the Torah or the Law, no goodness in human life can come from the commonsense solutions of humanity. Self-indulgence, art, wealth, pleasure, and hard work become empty because death comes for all and it is all possessions and experiences are lost (2:14). Simple enjoyment of the life God has given to us is empty (2:24-26) and even depression or sadness at the suffering of life amounts to nothing (2:23).

The driving force that the Collector seeks for his readers to recognize is that they are not going to be able to escape the realities of this world, but what Israel should enjoy is the life that God has given to them (2:24-25, 3:12-13, 22, 5:18-20, 8:15, 9:9-10). While even this enjoyed life given by God will end in death and come to nothing the Collector concludes that a life content and obedient to God is the entire purpose of human life (12:13). The people of God can rest in God’s rule as the Creator over all things. The Collector assures Israel that whatever occurs in this world occurs because it has been named, or called into existence, by their Creator God (6:10) and because of this no matter the anxiety, anger, or fear the people of God must learn to obey because they recognize that he the one who holds the power over all things (5:7).

Observations:

  1. For the Collector there are two powerful realities that teach humanity how to live in this world. The first is death. It is the great equalizer because both wise man and fool are forgotten in death (2:16-17). Not only is there an equality between the wise and the foolish, death is something that is shared between humanity and beasts as well. The Collector despairs that if the body of the human and beast both become dust, then it is likely that the spirit of the human and beast will also dissolve or go to the same place in death (3:19-21).
  2. The second powerful reality that teaches humanity is God. God gives all life (2:24-15, 3:13-13). God gives wealth and power (5:16-19). He is the one who has made history unfold according to his declarations (6:10) so that God is behind both the days of joy and pain (7:14). The wisdom of God is an unfathomable reality that even the wise can never fully understand (8:16-17). The Collector even warns his reader that a life of endless study is empty because it can weary one’s life (12:12), but rather God has taught us how to live in his creation and this is how humanity is called to be (12:13).
  3. The book of Ecclesiastes link the power of death over humanity and memory. The Collector believes that death is an erasure of the person through forgetting they have existed in relation to other humans (2:16). Even more, those who are dead do not know anything at all because the dead do have the capability to remember (9:5). Memory is, as depicted by the Collector, the energizing interplay of life in the bodies of those alive and the lack of life in those who have lost the body that interacts with others.

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This post is a part of a Read-Through project in which I am reading through biblical and extra-biblical literature. I’m reading the texts in an order based on a couple of timelines I compiled. If you would like to join me on this journey the timelines are available, as well as my prior posts. Each one gives some historical background, a literary synopsis, and a few observations I found interesting enough to share about the examined text.


[1] See Peter Enns’ helpful article on “Ecclesiastes” in the IVP Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry and Writings for more on authorship and dating.

Posted by Justin Gill

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