Studies in Ecclesiastes

The Words and Work of God and Man

Part One
Introduction to Ecclesiastes
by Vladimir Gelesnoff

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 unrelated, ideas.

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 the context.


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 meanings.

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 apostasy.

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 questionings.

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. 38:19).

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 of literature.

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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