ECCLESIASTES: PART ONE
PRESENTED ON 09-21-13
How many of you have in the past year or so read portions of or the entire book of Ecclesiastes? To many, the book of Ecclesiastes appears esoteric. Even Biblical scholars and theologians have struggled with understanding what it is the writer is trying to communicate to his readers. I decided this past week to read through Ecclesiastes and in so doing was reminded that this book contains many insights as to how we humans should and should not behave. Therefore, I thought it would be good to systematically go through this book in a series of sermons which I will begin to do this morning. While the name Solomon does not appear in Ecclesiastes, the narrative appears to identify Solomon as the author or at least the source for the narrative that makes up this book.
Ecclesiastes 1:1 The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Ecclesiastes 1:12: I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem.
Ecclesiastes 2:9: I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.
We know from the record of Solomon’s reign, as recorded in 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles, that he was considered the wisest man on earth at the time and he was very wealthy. We are all familiar with how the wisdom of Solomon was demonstrated early on during his reign over Israel.
1 Kings 3:16-28: Now two prostitutes came to the king and stood before him. One of them said, "My lord, this woman and I live in the same house. I had a baby while she was there with me. The third day after my child was born, this woman also had a baby. We were alone; there was no one in the house but the two of us. "During the night this woman's son died because she lay on him. So she got up in the middle of the night and took my son from my side while I your servant was asleep. She put him by her breast and put her dead son by my breast. The next morning, I got up to nurse my son--and he was dead! But when I looked at him closely in the morning light, I saw that it wasn't the son I had borne." The other woman said, "No! The living one is my son; the dead one is yours." But the first one insisted, "No! The dead one is yours; the living one is mine." And so they argued before the king. The king said, "This one says, `My son is alive and your son is dead,' while that one says, `No! Your son is dead and mine is alive.'" Then the king said, "Bring me a sword." So they brought a sword for the king. He then gave an order: "Cut the living child in two and give half to one and half to the other." The woman whose son was alive was filled with compassion for her son and said to the king, "Please, my lord, give her the living baby! Don't kill him!" But the other said, "Neither I nor you shall have him. Cut him in two!" Then the king gave his ruling: "Give the living baby to the first woman. Do not kill him; she is his mother." When all Israel heard the verdict the king had given, they held the king in awe, because they saw that he had wisdom from God to administer justice.
We also have the account of the Queen of Sheba hearing of the wisdom of Solomon but not initially believing it. However, after having all her questions answered she was utterly amazed at how much Solomon knew.
2 Chronicles 9:5-6: She said to the king, "The report I heard in my own country about your achievements and your wisdom is true. But I did not believe what they said until I came and saw with my own eyes. Indeed, not even half the greatness of your wisdom was told me; you have far exceeded the report I heard.
Some Biblical scholars believe that Ecclesiastes was not written by Solomon but is a biography about Solomon written centuries after his death with information gathered from records handed down over the centuries. While the author of Ecclesiastes mentions the king some twelve times in the book, Solomon is never directly named. It has been pointed out that the language in Ecclesiastes is from a period later in Israel’s history. Solomon lived in the 10th century B.C. and much of the language in the book is from the time of Ezra and Nehemiah which was about 400 years later. It is also pointed out that some wording in the book indicates an author other than Solomon.
Ecclesiastes 1:1-2: The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: "Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless."
Ecclesiastes 12:8-10: "Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Everything is meaningless!" Not only was the Teacher wise, but also he imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true.
Since these passages appear to be written in the third person, it appears someone is writing about Solomon and not that Solomon, himself, is authoring the words. However, verse 10 does record that the teacher wrote the words. While it is entirely possible that someone other than Solomon penned the narrative that makes up Ecclesiastes, it is still apparent that it was Solomon that provided the thoughts that make up that narrative and in all likelihood wrote down the original narrative which was later reworked. In the Gospels we have Matthew, Mark, Luke and John recording the words of Jesus. There is no evidence Jesus wrote any part of the four Gospels. But these Gospels contain many of his thoughts and teachings.
Let’s now return to the beginning of this book and focus on the Hebrew word kohayleth which is rendered “teacher” in the NIV and NET translations, "speaker" in the NEB and “preacher” in many other translations. This Hebrew word is also written as Qohelet. These are transliterated forms of this word found in the Hebrew Scriptures. A transliteration is different from a translation. A translation is where the meaning of a word in one language is as closely as possible matched to the meaning of a word in a different language. A transliteration is where the letters of a word in the alphabet of one language are matched to the alphabetical letters of a word in a different language. This is done for pronunciation purposes only and not for determining the meaning. When we see English renderings of the Hebrew kohayleth such as “teacher,” “preacher” and “speaker,” these are translations of what the Hebrew word is believed to mean.
The Hebrew kohayleth is actually the title of this book. When the Hebrew OT was translated into Greek, a work called the Septuagint, the translators used the Greek word Ekklesiastes in their translation of kohayleth. English translators of the Scriptures then took this Greek word and transliterated it into Ecclesiastes. Why did the translators of the Septuagint use the Greek word Ekklesiastes to translate the Hebrew kohayleth? Ekklesiastes is derived from the Greek ekklesia which means assembly. We get our English word Church from this Greek word.
The Greek Ekklesiastes means “member of the assembly.” The Septuagint translators apparently felt this word most closely reflected the meaning of the Hebrew kohayleth as kohayleth appears to mean “to assemble” and can also mean leader, speaker, teacher or preacher of the assembly. Some rabbinic literature actually treats kohayleth as a title for Solomon.
So the title of this book appears to simply be saying that here are words spoken by a speaker to an assembly. These are the words of kohayleth. Some commentaries simple use the word kohayleth when referring to Ecclesiastes or the writer of the narrative found in this book.
Since the internal evidence found in the book itself strongly indicates the speaker is Solomon, we will assume it is Solomon who spoke the words even though someone else may have written them down later to form the document we call Ecclesiastes. We are going to assume we are studying the spoken words of a man who is said to have been the wised man living at the time. So let’s sit back and see what we can learn from this wise man.
The writer begins in a most startling fashion. His narrative ends in the same manner.
Ecclesiastes 1:1-2: The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: "Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless" (NIV).
1:2: “Futile! Futile!” laments the Teacher, “Absolutely futile! Everything is futile! (NET)
1:2: Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity (KJV.
Ecclesiastes 12:8-10: "Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Everything is meaningless!" (NIV).
The word translated variously as “meaningless,” “vanity” and “futile” is the Hebrew word hebel (heh'bel). Not only does the writer begin and end his narrative using this word, he uses it a total of 38 times in the material he presents. This word appears 78 times in the Hebrew Scriptures and 38 of those times it is found in Ecclesiastes. The phrase “meaningless, meaningless” is a doublet and signifies extreme meaningless. It is a superlative construction that expresses the most extreme degree of meaning that a word can have.
Because this word is so often used by the teacher and virtually establishes the foundational focus of his narrative, it is important we carefully consider this word in an effort to determine in what respect the writer is using this word and how it fits into the overall context of his narrative.
The Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon of the OT gives the basic meaning of hebel as “breath,” most often used as “breath of the month.” This word is also defined as empty or nothingness. How then did the King James and other translators come up with “vanity?” In our everyday English usage, the word vanity conveys an image of excessive pride in oneself or in one's appearance, a picture of conceit and perhaps even arrogance. Is this what the author of the book of Ecclesiastes has in mind? It doesn’t appear so. So why did the King James translators use the word “vanity.”
In the fourth century, a scholar in the Catholic Church named Jerome translated the Hebrew and Greek Scriptural texts into Latin. It became known as the Latin Vulgate. He used the word vanitas, (Van-ee-tass) to translate the Hebrew word hebel. At that time, this Latin word pretty much reflected the Hebrew meaning of hebel. In 1611 the King of England, King James, authorized the production of a new English version of the Scriptures. It became known as the King James Version (KJV). While the translators went to the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of the Scriptures in their work of translating, they also used the Latin Vulgate as a source for their translation.
In translating the Hebrew hebel, they took the Latin word Jerome had used to translate hebel and translated it as the English word vanity which at that time meant pretty much the same thing the word meant in Latin which was pretty much reflective of what the word hebel meant in Hebrew. However, the English word vanity changed over the centuries and now connotes an expression of narcissism and being self-absorbed. Therefore the use of the word vanity to translate hebel is no longer appropriate and no modern translation uses it.
In looking at the roots of the Hebrew hebel, it is revealed that this word indicates vapor, fog, steam, breeze and breath. This is why Hebrew Lexicons show this word to mean breath. Now what is the common thread running through all of these roots of the word hebel? They all describe something that is transitory, fleeting, temporary, short lived. The word can be used to connote nothingness or emptiness. This has led some scholars to see Solomon using hebel to signify the transitory, fleeting, temporary and short lived things of this life. One commentator described hebel as being what is left over after a soap bubble bursts. Life is like a soap bubble. It appears for an instant and then it is gone.
The Message Bible, a paraphrase of the Scriptures which many Christians use, renders hebel in Ecclesiastes 1:2: in this manner.
Smoke, nothing but smoke, there is nothing to anything. All of life is smoke.
As we have seen, several modern translations such as the NIV and NET Bibles render hebel as “meaningless” or “futile.”
Many interpreters maintain that the overall message of Ecclesiastes is one of cynicism. Some feel the writer is virtually nihilistic. Nihilism is the philosophical position that there is no objective meaning in life. It is Nihilistic philosophy that leads to the idea of moral relativity. The well know atheist Richard Dawkins teaches that moral values are relative to the culture that creates them. Therefore, nothing is right or wrong in an absolute sense and there are no grounds for saying that your values are better than someone else.
Some scholars see the writer of Ecclesiastes as philosophically a nihilist. This approach is based on believing the writer is looking at life as meaningless and futile with no basis for anything. Solomon’s moral behavior is called into question as he is reported to have had 1000 wives and 500 concubines and he built temples to the foreign Gods of some of these wives.
However, this characterization of Solomon as being nihilistic doesn’t square with his many positive references to God as the source of good things. The rendering of hebel as meaningless or futile has been called into question because it appears to contradict Solomon’s admonitions to take what God has given us and live life to the fullest. If Solomon is taking an exclusively negative approach to life as being meaningless and futile, how do we explain his exhortations to enjoy life and his teaching that the good things of life come from God?
Ecclesiastes 2:24-25: A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?
Ecclesiastes 3:12: I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live.
Ecclesiastes 5:18: Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him--for this is his lot.
Ecclesiastes 8:15: So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun.
Solomon makes a number of these kinds of statements which appear quite contrary to the idea that life is meaningless, futile and empty. This is not the language of nihilism. This being the case, it appears Solomon is using hebel in its sense of something being transitory, fleeting, temporary and short lived. As we move through Ecclesiastes, we will see that the writer sees everything in this sense and bemoans the fact that everything is transitory, fleeting, temporary and short lived. At the same time however, because he sees everything in this way, he admonishes us to take what God has given us and used it to the fullest extent.
It is interesting to note that Adam and Eve named their second son Abel. In Hebrew this son’s name is hebel. While Able’s life was fleeting in that he died young when murdered by his brother Cain, it would be a real stretch to say his life was meaningless or futile as we understand those words.
It is instructive that the Israelites read Ecclesiastes at the Feast of Tabernacles. The Feast of Tabernacles, as we all remember, is a time of rejoicing. As we see recorded in Deuteronomy 14:23, the Feast of Tabernacles was to be a time of celebration. The Israelites were told to eat the tithe of their grain, the new wine and oil and to sacrifice and eat the firstborn of their flocks and herds and do all this in the presence of the Lord God. If the book of Ecclesiastes is such a negative book, why would it be read at a time of rejoicing? It was read at this time because it has a lot of instruction as to enjoying the good things of life as we saw in the previously quoted verses.
Seeing the writer as applying the Hebrew hebel to that which is transitory, fleeting, temporary and short lived is very reflective of the basic meaning of hebel which is breath or wind. Hebel literally means "breath." When you let out a breath of air in the cold of winter you see its mist briefly, and then, just as quickly, you see it dissipate. That's hebel. It’s there one minute, seemingly possessing substance, and then gone the next.
Breath and wind are transitory, fleeting, temporary and short lived. You can’t grab onto air. It goes right through your fingers. The things of life are much the same way. They are here today and gone tomorrow. Nothing is permanent. Solomon continually emphasizes this fact while at the same time shows that because of this, we should take what God has given us, as temporary as it may be, and put it to full use.
Solomon lived a charmed life. He had great wisdom given to him by God. He had great wealth. He built the temple in Jerusalem. He oversaw many other building projects. As we will see as we travel through Ecclesiastes, Solomon lived a very full life. Yet he shows how fleeting and temporary all that he accomplished was and he concludes that to fear God and keep his commandments is all that really matters.
Ecclesiastes 12:13: Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole [duty] of man.
Before we begin a systematic verse by verse review of Ecclesiastes, there is an often repeated phrase in Ecclesiastes that we need to consider as it appears to define the context of what is being said. This phrase is “under the sun.” We will encounter it some 28 times as we go through this book. It appears early in the narrative and is used over and over again.
Ecclesiastes 1:3: What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun?
The writers frequent use of “under the sun” is his way of limiting the things he speaks of to the physical realm in contrast to the spiritual realm which is above the sun where God’s dwelling place is somewhere in the vastness of space. As we move through Ecclesiastes, we will see that the writer acknowledges that all things under the sun (the physical realm) are fleeting and therefore our focus should be on that which is above the sun, the heavenly realm where God is.
As we move through Ecclesiastes in the following weeks, we will find what is written to offer a very realistic perspective on life. Solomon sees things as they really are and in the process of doing so he gives us insights into how best to deal with the way things really are. This book gives us opportunity to see the world through the eyes of a very wise person who, though very wise, appears to struggle with understanding the meaning and purpose of life just as many of us do.