An Introduction to Ecclesiastes
Title: The title Ecclesiastes comes to us by way of a Latin transliteration of the Greek translation of a Hebrew word. In Jerome’s Latin Vulgate the book is called Ecclesiastes, “Speaker before an assembly,” which was a transliteration of the Septuagint’s Ekklesiastes, “One who calls or addresses an assembly,” which was a translation of the Hebrew word Qoheleth, “One who calls or addresses an assembly,” which is found in 1:1-2, 12; 7:27; and 12:8-10 in reference to the author. Readers will note the similarity between the word Ecclesiastes, “One who calls or addresses an assembly,” and Ecclesiology, “doctrine of the church” (from the Greek, Ekklesia, meaning “the assembly”). Interestingly, the English translation of the Hebrew word Qoheleth is, “the preacher,” one who in our context addresses the church.
Author and Audience: The author of Ecclesiastes is identified as “the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (1:1) and further described as one of unsurpassed wisdom (1:16) and wealth (2:4-9), as well as the arranger of many proverbs (12:9 cf. Proverbs 1:1; 10:1; 25:1). Traditionally, interpreters have concluded that the author was Solomon, who matches all the criteria and famously assembled the congregation of Israel in 1 Kings 8. Some have disputed Solomon’s authorship, but on the basis of the available evidence, he is certainly the best candidate. In the history of Israel, no one except Solomon has been both the son of David and the king in Jerusalem. The original audience was Israel, a people covenanted with the LORD and familiar with His law and promises. The closest analogy in our day is the church.
Genre & Style: Ecclesiastes belongs to the genre of wisdom literature. Thus, it shares similarities with Job, Psalms, Proverbs, and Song of Songs. The reader can expect figurative language: vivid images, metaphors, and similes. The style is a mixture of autobiographical prose and reflective poetry. In fact, the book is structured by an alternating pattern between prose and poetry.
Themes & Purpose: Some important themes of Ecclesiastes are human vanity, life under the sun, toil, wisdom, folly, pleasure, pain, and righteousness; and God’s works, gifts, and judgments. The message of the book is that life in a fallen world is short and full of troubles. Things like hard work, wisdom, wealth, and simple pleasures can mitigate some of the frustrations of life in a fallen world; but they cannot fix the problem of life under the sun, which is fleeting, fragile, and fickle. The only solution is to, “Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man's all. For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil” (12:13-14). Even the righteous suffer the effects of this fallen world. But, they can entrust themselves to the eternal God who promises to one day set everything right.
Outline: The following outline illustrates the structure, style, themes, and purpose of Ecclesiastes. Note the alternating sections of prose and poetry; the correspondence between the introduction and conclusion, a and a’, b and b’, c and c’, and the central theme in d.
Prose: Introduction & author (1:1) a Poetry: The vanity of man’s toil under the sun (1:2-11) b Prose: The failure of wisdom (1:12-2:26) c Poetry: A time for everything under the sun (3:1-15) d Prose: Fear God (3:16-6:12) c’ Poetry: Proverbial responses to poem about time (7:1-14) b’ Prose: The value of wisdom (7:15-10:19) a’ Poetry: Practical instruction for toiling under the sun (10:20-12:8) Prose: Conclusion & author (12:9-14)