Under the general title, "The Words and Work of God and
Man," I am presenting a series of studies in Ecclesiastes. While the
exposition developed in these pages must be allowed to speak for itself, a
few explanatory remarks regarding the process by which the conclusions
advanced have been reached seem both desirable and necessary.
Those seeking the mind of God through the Scriptures are
confronted with a critical obstacle of an unusual kind. The current
versions of the Bible often translate the same Hebrew word in various
ways, and quite as often one English word is made to do the duty of
several words in the Original. In this way a veil of mystery has been
thrown over many a passage, and a certain amount of human opinion and
guesswork has been imported into God's truth.
The Book of Ecclesiastes has severely
suffered from this inconsistency in translation. Evidence of this fact
will come before us in these studies. Meanwhile an illustration will serve
to show the way in which the Scriptures have been unconsciously obscured.
The noun cheshbon in verses 25, 27 and 29 of the seventh chapter,
is represented by "reason," "account," and "invention" in the AV. It must
be evident to the least critical reader that the author's thought is
necessarily obscured when in a brief paragraph with a sustained argument
the same word is rendered by different terms conveying divergent, and even
Another powerful factor in determining one's conception
of Ecclesiastes is the question of the Hebrew text. The Massoretic accents
are used not only as signs of interpunction, but often as a Rabbinical
commentary on the text. We are not bound by the accents in any case and
should scrutinize them carefully, especially in Messianic prophecies. Of
great value, yet they are no part of the sacred text. It is
possible also that we may not fully know the reasons of their location in
important places, and may impute wrong motives to the Jewish editors of
the text. That they can be perverted is plain enough from the fact that
the vocalization often foists upon a passage a meaning out of harmony with
No sacred book has ever been so much misunderstood in its
whole aim and spirit as Ecclesiastes. The opinions of men have been put on
a level with sacred writings. Eventually the views, which became popular,
have been considered "authoritative"; and to this day theology is unable
to free itself from the trammels of tradition and confess authority in
matters of exegesis rests exclusively with facts derived from the Bible
itself. Our aim should always be to adjust our thoughts to the facts, and
never to adjust the facts to our thoughts.
Applying this principle to the matter in hand, our prime
concern is to ascertain what the book of Ecclesiastes has to say about
itself. In the epilogue we read, "The terminus of the whole matter has
been heard: Fear the One, Elohim, keep His instructions, for this is the
whole duty of humanity. For the One, Elohim, shall bring every deed into
judgment concerning all that is obscured, whether good or whether evil"
(12:13,14). Hence we may say the book aims at achieving a threefold
object: (1) Recognition of God as God; (2) Reception of His revelation;
(3) Regulation of life in view of a future rectification or judgment.
What the author wrote was upright and true. "The
Assembler sought to find words of delight, and what was written is
uprightness and words of truth" (12:10).
This statement explodes the idea in vogue, which reads
into Ecclesiastes the pessimism of a broken-spirited debauchee. Some have
even placed this gem on a level with the works of Byron, Heine, and the
Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.
To substantiate this theory appeal is made to the
speeches of Job's associates as examples of utterances by misguided
critics, who had less understanding of God's ways in providence than the
man whom they sought to correct. Concurring in this opinion of the
discourses of Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, we would point out that the case
of Ecclesiastes is by no means analogous. At the end of the book of Job,
Yahweh informed his associates that they had not spoken concerning Him
what was rightly so (Job 42:7). The opposite is true of Ecclesiastes. The
categorical statement of the epilogue describes its contents as words of
uprightness and truth.
We are now prepared to consider whether Ecclesiastes
asserts itself as the work of Solomon. When we turn to the prologue and
epilogue, where it is most natural to expect information respecting
authorship, we find no mention whatever of Solomon, nor anything to
suggest his personality. On the contrary, there are many things in the
book incompatible with the historic Solomon. But it may be said, While
Solomon is not mentioned by name, the designation "Son of David" is
equivalent to it. This seemingly decisive argument is in reality of no
weight. The Hebrew "son" may equally well mean "descendant;" hence
evidence from the book itself must decide between the alternative
The thrice repeated reference to those who were "over
Jerusalem before me" (1:16; 2:7,9) proves that Ecclesiastes looks back on
a series of predecessors, a thing Solomon could not do. To say that the
writer may have had in mind the old Jebusite princes is gratuitous. What
Israelite, not to say anointed of the Lord, would think of identifying
himself with the rulers of an accursed nation?
There are three problems, which preoccupy
Ecclesiastes' death, succession, the just suffering as a sinner. Death
occupies a large place (cf 2:16; 3:19; 4:2; 7:1,17,26; 8:9; 9:3-5),
the special point of perplexity being the just dying the death of the
unclean. The prominence given to Succession (2:18,19; 4:8; 6:2) is not
surprising, seeing the writer himself is a king, for with royalty it is a
paramount question, especially in Israel, where the Messianic hope was
bound up with the perpetuity of the Davidic house. Hence the kings of
Judah occupied a place which no other kings ever have, or could,
occupy - they were forerunners of the Messiah. The violent fate
overtaking the just - his being carried off from the holy place - is also a
matter of grave concern (7:15; 8:10-14; 9:2,3).
A moment's consideration will show that the problems
contemplated in Ecclesiastes do not fit with Solomon's experience. As to
death, in his old age Solomon lapsed into idolatry; therefore death in a
manner indicating the Lord's displeasure - a possibility which dismays
Ecclesiastes - would, according to Hebraic conceptions, be a just reward of
his deserts. As to succession, Solomon reigned forty years. As Rehoboam,
his son and heir, was forty years of age at the time of accession to the
throne, he must have been born the very year of his father's coronation.
Solomon's succession was thus assured from the beginning of his reign. As
for the trials of the just, the calamities which marred the close of
Solomon's tranquil reign were inflicted by the Lord because of his
The author of the book, being a king of the Davidic line,
the question of date is restricted within definite bounds. It cannot be
earlier than Rehoboam, nor later than Zedekiah. Now, there is only one
king possessing the necessary requirements: Hezekiah of Judah.
The problems, which engage Ecclesiastes, present a
striking analogy with Hezekiah's experience. When Israel came out of Egypt
Yahweh promised not to put on them the diseases of Egypt, if they would
heed His commandments, and keep His statutes (Ex.15:26). King Hezekiah
gave himself to Yahweh's service, loved His law supremely and trusted in
Him implicitly. Yet he is smitten with the disease of Egypt, and his death
is decreed by the God he served: "Thus speaks Yahweh: Give instruction to
your household, for you are going to die; and you shall not remain alive"
(Isa.38:1). Surely here is an experience to stagger faith and arouse
Succession was no less pertinent with him. He faced a
dynastic, and therefore a Messianic, crisis, when brought to the gates of
the Unseen having neither "son nor second." The word of Isaiah announcing
his certain death involved another grave fact - as his disease was a species
of leprosy, it meant burial with the unclean, and this, coupled with
childlessness, was to him, and to the nation at large, a sign that Yahweh
had rejected him.
The problems in Ecclesiastes find an echo in the psalm of
Hezekiah (Isa.38:9-20). Here is mourning over death and the rejection by
Yahweh, which parallels the somber mood prevailing in the first part of
Ecclesiastes. "My lifespan is uprooted and is deported from me like a
shepherd's tent; I have rolled up my life as a weaver does; He is clipping
me from the thrum. From day unto night, You are finishing me up"
(Isa.38:12). And even as hopefulness is on the ascendancy in the second
part of Ecclesiastes, so also Hezekiah's psalm concludes with acclamation:
"The living! the living one! he is acclaiming You as I do today" (Isa.
The conclusion emerging from these considerations is that
to designate the Book of Ecclesiastes as a "dissertation" and its author a
"skeptic" is to ignore the practical intention or purpose enunciated in
the book itself. The purview of this book is much broader and grander than
Bible students have hitherto been willing to allow. It approaches no less
a theme than the place of evil in the Divine plan.
This need not surprise us after what we have already seen
of the relation it sustains to King Hezekiah. The character and experience
of the man preeminently fitted him to assume a representative capacity in
his discussion of the universe.
The affliction of Hezekiah, which paved the way to a
glorious aftermath of prosperity and peace, furnished a concrete
illustration of the gracious purposes subserved by evil. We cannot but
believe that such unique experience would crystallize into a masterpiece
The view here advanced puts a different complexion on the
alleged materialistic ideas. If we identify the words of Ecclesiastes with
the unusual trial of a particular personage - Hezekiah, for instance - then
the texts can be put into context. The so-called "materialistic" ideas are
but reflections on the possible meaning of events which were suggested to
the writer as he observed life. The occasion, which brought this book into
existence enables us to discern in it the plaint of a saint, holding fast
to his faith in God, who is brought into perplexity before the strange
dispensation of God's providence.
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