By Mary Jane Chaignot

The title of the book is again derived from the Septuagint. There, it is the title of the main speaker. He identifies himself as Ekklesiastes. This translates the Hebrew word, Qohelet. Qohelet is not a proper name, but a pseudonym of sorts. This word is commonly translated as preacher or teacher, even though the author adopts the persona of a king - "the words of Qohelet, son of David, king of Jerusalem" (Solomon, of course). Yet there is nothing in the book to confirm this; there are no specific references to events or experiences in Solomon's life. The word Qohelet literally means "assembler" or "one who assembles." The feminine participle is used elsewhere for an occupational name. The English translations, then, by identifying him as a preacher or teacher, imply that he has assembled a group together for the purpose of instruction - like in a classroom setting. Still there are those who cling to the notion that Solomon is, indeed, the author; that in his later years, Solomon looked back over his life and struggled with the meaning of it all.

Notwithstanding such idealism, the internal evidence of the book -- based on its language and style -- suggests a much later writing date than the 10th century BCE. The book itself consists of three parts: first is a short prologue that introduces some of his major themes, then the main body of the work consisting of a long speech, followed by a brief epilogue. The speech greatly resembles ancient texts commonly grouped under the genre of fictional autobiographies. It was not unusual for ancient authors to put their words in the mouths of those who were more famous. This has led many scholars to the conclusion that there were (at least) two authors represented in this book - the main speaker and the one who supplied the beginning and the ending. Because there are no more specific internal clues useful for dating purposes, this might be all that can be said.

That being said, its Solomonic ties were perhaps instrumental in the canonization of this book. Legend has it that by the end of his life, Solomon had repented of his apostasy, hence lending authority to this work. And, although the early church seemed to accept Ecclesiastes as authoritative, some of the ancient rabbis expressed a lot of doubts about it. This is not surprising, considering that the message of the book seems to contradict many other parts of Scripture, leading some to the conclusion that its author was nothing but a heretic. One prime example is that most of Scripture exhorts people to adhere to the teachings of the Torah, to follow the commands of God. Ecclesiastes encourages people to "follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see." (11:9) Perhaps the prologue and the epilogue saved the day because those sections are much more traditional.

The author of the main section of Ecclesiastes wrestles with the meaning of life and looks for such meaning in a number of different areas - wisdom, wealth, women, and even buildings. In considering each of these areas, he determines that it is all meaningless. Life as he knows it is very frustrating. There are two inescapable facts over which one has no control. One is death; the other is not knowing when it is the right time to do anything. Decisions have to be made, but no one knows what tomorrow might bring. So it is that humans are at the mercy of time and chance. Despite this pessimistic view, Qohelet encourages them to "seize the day," to make the most of every moment.

This message stands against most of biblical tradition that maintains God's control over everything and gives reverence to His deep involvement and concern for His people. Qohelet does accept that God is sovereign, but sees Him as being dispassionate and dangerous. However, this pessimistic thought is not the final word of the book. There is still the epilogue, which functions much like the prologue and epilogue in the book of Job. The epilogue is really a comment on the teachings of Qohelet, teachings that are used as a foil to instruct a son on the dangers of speculation and doubt. In the end, then, the son is instructed to leave the skeptical thinking behind and to embrace wisdom and the law and the prophets.

In the Hebrew Bible, Ecclesiastes is in the third section, known as the Writings. It is one of a group of books known as the Five Scrolls (along with Ruth, the Song of Songs, Lamentations, and Esther) that are read in public at annual festivals. In the Septuagint and the Vulgate, it follows Proverbs and precedes the Song of Solomon as part of the Solomonic books. This particular book is read during the Feast of Tabernacles.

1:1-11 -- Prologue

  • 1:1
    • Superscription
  • 1:2-3
    • All is vanity
  • 1:4-11
    • Unchanging character of the world of nature

1:12-12:7 - Speech

  • 1:12-2:26
    • Looking for the meaning of life
      • 1:12 
        • Autobiographical introduction
      • 1:13-18 
        • Exploration of wisdom
        • Wisdom = frustration; knowledge = pain
      • 2:1-11 
        • Meaning of pleasure
        • There is no profit in toil
      • 2:12-17 
        • Death is great equalizer
        • Wisdom is better than foolishness, but death comes to both
        • All is meaningless
      • 2:18-23 
        • Death renders toil meaningless
        • Someone benefits who did not earn it
      • 2:24-26 
        • God grants enjoyment to some
        • Meaning is not found in wisdom or hard work
        • One should just enjoy the simple pleasures of life
  • 3:1-6:9
    • Continuing the Quest
      • 3:1-15 
        • The burden of "time"
          • 1-8 
            • Poem expressing the theme that everything has its time
            • All "time" is covered through expression of opposites
          • 9-15 
            • Reflections on time
            • God's work is complete, nothing can be added or taken away
      • 3:16-22
        • Issue of Justice
        • Injustice often appears where justice should be
        • Death comes to humans and animals alike
        • Enjoy the simple pleasures of life
      • 4:1-3 
        • Tears of the oppressed
        • The dead are better off than the oppressed
      • 4:4-6 
        • Meaninglessness of work
        • Motivation is derived out of jealousy
      • 4:7-12 
        • Benefits of companionship
          • 7-8 
            • For whom does a hermit toil
          • 9-12 
            • Two are better than one
          • 13-16 
            • Story of ambitious young man who gains notoriety, dies anyway, then is forgotten (sounds a lot like Joseph)
      • 5:1-7
        • Instruction on proper worship, vows, and oaths
        • If you do them, do them properly
      • 5:8-9 
        • Continued oppression of the "little people"
      • 5:10-6:9 
        • Meaninglessness of wealth
        • Can never have enough money; contentment is rare
  • 6:10-12:7
    • The Preacher's wise advice
      • 6:10-12 
        • There is nothing new
        • Advice is meaningless
      • 7:1-14 
        • A series of Proverbs
        • He chooses the darker features: death over birth; mourning over feasting; sorrow over laughter
        • Values wisdom more than folly, but neither knows the future
      • 7:15-22 
        • Limitations of Wisdom and Righteousness
        • Righteousness does not guarantee a long life; nor does wickedness mean having a short life
        • Argues that there is no predictable result from one's actions
        • So why bother; no one is righteous
        • Preaches moderation in one's approach to wisdom
      • 7:23-24 
        • Wishes himself to be wise; knows it is beyond his reach
      • 7:25-29 
        • Seeking does not always result in "finding"
        • God has made people upright but they have sought out many devices
      • 8:1 
        • Who is wise?
      • 8:2-9 
        • Advise regarding behaviour before the king
        • Obey the king; use caution before entering a vow before God
        • There is a time for everything though humans cannot know it
      • 8:10-15 
        • Observations on the wicked
        • Oftentimes they seem to prosper
        • No punishment for evilness, hence no motivation to stop
        • Thinks in the end they will get what they deserve, but in the short term, they do well
        • Life is meaningless
      • 8:16-17 
        • Pursued wisdom. Found it to be elusive, unknowable
      • 9:1-10 
        • Death comes to all regardless of good/evil life
        • Only option is to enjoy simple pleasures of life while one can
        • Death brings an end to everything
      • 9:11-12 
        • Even the present is unpredictable
        • No one knows his time
        • Things do not always turn out like we hope
      • 9:13-16
        • Illustration on meaninglessness of wisdom
        • Wisdom in the story was not valued nor rewarded
      • 9:17-18 
        • Positive proverbs on wisdom
        • Quiet words are better than shouts
      • 10:1-4 
        • Proverbs contrasting wisdom and follyA little bad folly can destroy a lot of good wisdom
      • 10:5-7
        • Illustration of worldly reversals
        • Slaves ride and nobles walk
      • 10:8-11 
        • Life is unpredictable and chaotic
        • Life is filled with "accidents" waiting to happen
        • Life is not always fair
      • 10:12-15 
        • Proverbs mocking foolishness, folly
        • Fools multiply words without knowing what they mean
        • Fools are exhausted at the end of the day because they are so inept
      • 10:16-17 
        • A digression contrasting immature vs. mature king Mature is better
      • 10:18-19 
        • Miscellaneous thoughts on life
        • Laziness has bad consequences; life should be lived to fullest
      • 10:20
        •  Regarding the king - never curse him; you may be found out
      • 11:1-6 
        • Future is always uncertain
        • Humans do not control when it rains or events around them. But they should act anyway
      • 11:7-10
        •  Inevitability of death
        • One always lives in the shadow of death
        • Can come at any time
        • Rejoice while you are young - it won't last
      • 12:1-7 
        • Contrast between youth and old age
        • Remembers youthful pleasures
        • Uses allegory of decaying house to illustrate decline and death
        • (Seven verses are one long sentence)

12:8-14 - Epilogue

  • 12:8
    • Everything is meaningless
  • 12:9-14
    • Evaluation of Qohelet's wisdom by different author
      • 12:9-12 
        • He was a wise man who tried very hard
        • Describes his efforts positively; he had good intentions
        • But ends with a warning to his "son"
        • Beware of endless "books"
        • People will exhaust themselves in trying to understand them all
      • 12:13-14 
        • Stick with what you know for sure
        • Fear God and keep his commandments
        • God will bring every deed into judgment, whether good or evil

Thus ends the book of Ecclesiastes. The words of Qohelet are deliberately pessimistic, ending with a diatribe on aging and death. He sought truth, but acknowledges he never found it. He claims all is meaningless. But his is not the last word. The final author takes a step back and looks at the Preacher's work, only to find it wanting. Skepticism is a great intellectual exercise, but when it comes right down to it, there is no substitution for the tried and true.


Horne, Milton. "Proverbs-Ecclesiastes." Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary. Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2003.

Longman, Tremper. "The Book of Ecclesiastes." The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans, 1998.

Mills, Watson and Richard Wilson. Mercer Commentary on the Bible. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1995.

Murphy, R and E Huwiler. "Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs." New International Biblical Commentary. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999.

Whybray, R.N. "Ecclesiastes." The New Century Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans, 1989.