Ecclesiastes 1:1-11 Exegesis assignment.

Introduction

The passage I have chosen to exegete is Ecclesiastes 1:1-11. This passage has some unique and subtle elements to it; therefore I will briefly look at how the introductory term “Hebel” has a unique translation meaning as well as the subtle contextual issues, which if missed will cause confusion in understanding the context, authorship and purpose of the book. Finally, in explaining the meaning of the passage I will show the context and value of this book of a whole and how doubt and pessimism can fit into the question of faith within a Christian context.

Context

Ecclesiastes is fourth in a set of five books that are found in the heart of the Bible. They are collectively known as the Wisdom Literature. It is a unique book, for no other book in the Scriptures has its combination of poetry and prose combined with its pessimistic and apparent faithless context. [1] Ecclesiastes is a Greek word, translated from the Hebrew word which is translated Qoheleth [2]The Preacher and is connected to the root qahal (The public assembly), which together means:

‘Making public, that which is associated with belonging to the select few, to whom hidden wisdom belongs’ [3].

There is a diversity of opinion in whether to distinguish between Qohelet as the preacher and Ecclesiastes as the book title, whereas some prefer to call the book ‘Qohelet’ instead of Ecclesiastes because of the potential for misinterpreting the meaning of the title. [4]

The difficulties of this book are historically renowned; because of its self contradictory nature and its contradictions of David’s writings, some Jewish scholars disputed its right to be included in the Jewish Cannon. However, its inclusion in the Jewish cannon is thought to be based on; reference’s to Solomonic authorship, though this argument is weak, [5] and that there is a reference to the Torah – though limited [6]

A literalistic understanding of Scripture: Eccl 1:1The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem, Jewish tradition that Solomon is considered to be the ultimate persona of wisdom / wise man and the described similarities between his and Qoheleth’s life Solomon ,traditionally is credited with authorship. [7] The Targum adds weight to this: arguing that Ecclesiastes is a record of Solomon’s repenting, of his apostate lifestyle; which would be fitting for someone reportedly so wise. [8]

Hassel makes a strong counter argument against Solomon’s author ship in a number of areas. Although he notes Cohen’s counter claim: There not being enough evidential literature,[9] he dismisses it with sufficient evidential research, showing it to contain enough Mishnaic Hebrew and Persian language.[10] It’s for this reason that Kinder dates it within a 350 – 250 BC timeframe.[11] Hassel then presents further arguments against a Solomonic origin; through asking why would Solomon choose to write under a pseudonym, admit he was an unjust king – unable to rectify social injustice.[12] I tend to agree with the reasoning that Solomon isn’t the author, having also observed an apparent disjointedness between the observations of Solomic wisdom (Proverbs) and Qohelth’s.[13] In concluding that Solomon isn’t the author, Longman argues instead that the author was adopting a “Solomonic persona to explore meaning in the world.[14]

There is no doubt that Christians throughout the ages have been bewildered in many attempts to understand this book,[15] and there is much scholarly disagreement and research into this book, that it can be difficult to know where to begin.[16] Longman makes the point that there are two distinct speakers. The first is an unknown narrator, who makes an introduction in the beginning of the book and finishes it with both a conclusion / response; 1:1-11 & 12:8-14 and makes a brief intrusion in 7:27. The second speaker is the apparent wise sage Qohelet. He doesn’t actually speak; rather the narrator quotes him in the first person. 1:12- 12:7 [17] [18]

Using Fox’s translation we now move to the exegesis of Qohelet 1:1-11[19]

1:1-2 The words of Qohelet, son of David, king in Jerusalem: Utterly absurd, said Qohelet, utterly absurd. All is absurd.

There is an interesting word play going on here for the title suggests that the wise man / author is Solomon. Yet his name is not mentioned and within this passage we see that the author of Ecclesiastes is actually saying that these are the words that Qohelet said – the inference being that the speaker is not Qohelet himself,[20] therefore he is about to interpret his wisdom.[21]

Fox says the key to understanding this passage, is in understanding the key word “Absurd” translated from the Hebrew word “Hebel.”[22] Fox shows that “Hebel” has connotations of ephemerality, incomprehensibility, deceit, and senselessness; hence his argument that the contextual meaning is “The Absurd” [23] and therefore is meant to be understood from an ironic stance; rather than the traditional understanding of wisdom; which is its backdrop [24]

1:3 What profit does man have in all his toil at which he labours

under the sun?

The narrator quotes Qohelet’s rhetorical question; which frames his thesis throughout the book. Starting with his observation that toil is absurd; for toil and labour never achieves finality. There is no end to it. There is a sense of frustration in his question about what is the reward of labour and that the whole process is absurd.

4. A generation goes and a generation comes, but the world remains forever the same.

5. The sun raises and the sun sets, then goes panting to its place whence it rises.

6. Going to the south and rounding to the north, round and round goes the wind, and on its rounds the wind returns.

7. All the rivers flow to the sea, but the sea is never filled. That place to which the rivers go, there they go again.

8. Words are all weary; man is unable to speak. The eye is not sated with seeing, nor the ear filled by hearing.

9. That which happens is that which shall happen, and that which occurs is that which will occur, and there is nothing what soever new under the sun.

10. If there be something of which one could say, “Look, this is new!”-it has already happened in the aeons that preceded us.

11. There is no remembrance of things past, nor of the things yet to come will there be remembrance of those who come still yet later. [25]

Qohelet builds on his pessimism, through observing the cycle of the sun, wind, rivers flowing into the sea wondering what are they actually achieving? There is a sense of fatality and not faith that seems to be inherent in his questioning – what impact does my toil have?

I believe the best way to understand this passage is to picture him standing on a hill while overlooking the farm. It’s a family farm that has been passed down from generation to generation. While he may know something of his ancestors – he never personally knew them, and he thinks of the future generations who will never know him either. He has been there since dawn and will be there till the sunset’s and recognises that his forebears did exactly the same thing. On the hill he can see the creeks / rivers flowing into the sea and can feel the wind on his face and see the trees and grass blowing about.

A sense of quiet despair grips him as he asks himself…what am I really doing – what is my purpose – what is the purpose of life and within these questions about life, he included questions about what is the point of creation – for there is no change, only dreary repetition.[26] There is a pessimism about him; one that is driven by this despair.

For his observation of the seas never being filled; despite the constant flow of water into them – are echo’s of his own heart – day after day – no matter what he does – it’s not enough – the land will swallow his attempts to appease it, and it will require new efforts each and every day. Though not specifically mentioned – his despair of toil is that – He ploughs the land – then needs to sow it – then needs to weed it – then needs to harvest it – then needs to plough the land again and so the cycle continues. Generation to generation, and likewise creation continues its nonstop repetitive cycling.

He cries out for something new and verse 9 and 10 take on the form of a question, if anything new can happen and the answer at this point in time – appears to be a resounding no! And so his pessimism continues with the thought of what is my purpose and it appears that all he has seen makes a mockery of life – it’s all absurd.

How do we apply this to our lives?

This passage can only be understood through understanding the main thrust of the then current wisdom movement which Qohelet represents – “Life is hard and then you die!”[27] His position is a faithless one, for it doesn’t include God working over, through and within creation. [28]

However the Narrator; listens patiently to him, complimenting him on his observatory prowess and writing words of truth in that there is nothing new under the sun. However, and there is a ‘But’, in that its only truth observed from a life lived without God and concludes that to understand life, to live with purpose and meaning – One has to first fear God. [29]

Longman concludes that the book and hence this passage is about busting and breaking down the idols in our life. Wealth, health, position and possession and while our minds are set on these things – we are under the sun. However for us, as Christians we are to keep our minds on a heavenly focus, one that focuses on Christ’s death and resurrection and the hope therein.[30]

Without detracting from this train of thought; I would like to add that within the whole cannon of Scripture within a Christian understanding; this book gives us great freedom and permission to grieve, lament and voice our inner despair, to doubt and to be overwhelmed – for after all we do live in a fallen world. One in which we will experience such things. And yet; despite our experience of brokenness– we are encouraged not to stop there – rather, we are to continue to live within the tension of the hope we have in Christ Jesus.

Bibliography

 

Bullock, C.Hassell. “Ecclesiastes,” in An Introduction to the Old Testament Poetic Books, revised and expanded. Chicago: Moody Press, 1988

Clines. David J.A “The Poetical books – A Sheffield reader.” Sheffield England: Sheffield press ltd. 1997

De Jong, Stephen. “A book on labour: the structuring principles and the main theme of the book of Qohelet.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament no. 54: 107-116. 1992.

Ellul, Jacques. “Reason for Being, mediation on Ecclesiastes” W.B Erdmann’s Publishing Grandrapids Michigan 1990

Fox, Michael V. “A Time to Tear Down & A Time to Build Up, A Rereading of Ecclesiastes” Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Erdmann’s Publishing Co, 1999

Fox, Michael V. “Qohelet and his contradictions.” Sheffield: Almond Press 1989

Hendry, G.S. “Ecclesiastes,” in The New Bible Commentary Third Edition, ed. D. Guthrie. England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1970

Kindner, Derek . “The Secret of Wisdom” England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1986

Longman, Tremper, III. “Challenging the idols of the twenty-first century: the message of the book of Ecclesiastes.” Stone-Campbell Journal 12, no. 2: 2009.

Longman, Tremper, III.. “Ecclesiastes: A Commentary.” Trinity Journal 9, no. 1: 120-123. 1988

Longman, Tremper. “The Book of Ecclesiastes” Grand Rapids Michigan: Wm.b.Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1998

Rudman, Dominic.. “Woman as divine agent in Ecclesiastes.” Journal of Biblical Literature 116, no. 3: 411. 1997

Shields, Martin. A. “The End of Wisdom: A Reappraisal of the Historical and Canonical Function of Ecclesiastes “USA: Eisenbrauns: 2006

Spangenberg, I J J. “Irony in the Book of Qohelet.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament no. 72: 57-69. 1996.


 

[1] Tremper. Longman, The Book of Ecclesiastes (Wm.b.Eerdmans Publishing Co: Grand Rapids Michigan, 1998) 23.

[2] The correct spelling is קהלת, so in English it’s just an approximation. You’ll find Qohelet, Qoheleth, Koheleth, Kohelet, and even Coheleth! Martin Shields.

[3] G.S.Hendry, “Ecclesiastes,” in The New Bible Commentary Third Edition, ed. D. Guthrie (England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1970) 570.

[4] Ibid., 570 The title Ecclesiastes comes from the Greek word Ecclesia; which means the gathering – or assembly. However this title is misleading, as the Hebrew word Qohelet has a deeper and different meaning – The Preacher / The Assembler… and therefore the focus is more on what the preacher is saying..and not on the actual assembly who are hearing what he says…. This distinction aids the discussion of there being a variety of speakers in this book.

[5] Martin. A. Shields, The End of Wisdom: A Reappraisal of the Historical and Canonical Function of Ecclesiastes (Eisenbrauns: USA, 2006) 2. Shields notes that this isn’t a strong argument for other more orthodox pseudonymous works were discarded.

[6] Ibid.

[7] C.Hassell. Bullock “Ecclesiastes,” in “An Introduction to the Old Testament Poetic Books” revised and expanded (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988)183-84.

[8] Tremper. Longman, The Book of Ecclesiastes, 3.

[9] Hassell, 184.

[10] Hassell, 186. He notes Archer’s hypothesises in that the language used was of a philosophical nature developed in Northern Israel, prior to Solomon and though Hassel dismisses this as being overly speculative – he does agree that there are limitations to understanding Hebrew linguistics through our current resources.

[11] Derek Kindner, The Secret of Wisdom (England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1986) 60.

[12] Ibid., 184.

[13] Problems arise when you compare the faith statements, ‘Blessings will follow ‘in the example of Proverbs 6:6 If you learn from, and put into practice, the lessons you gain from observing the toiling ant. For here we read hard work is the basis of blessing… yet it appears that Qohehleth see’s repetitive hard work as being questionable and even objectionable.

[14] Longman, The Book of Ecclesiastes, 6.

[15] Hendry, 570.

[16] Tremper, Longman, III. 1988. “Ecclesiastes: A Commentary.” Trinity Journal 9, no. 1: 120-123.

[17] Longman., The Book of Ecclesiastes, 37. I say apparent wise sage; I will show that the narrator is actually critiquing the wisdom movement as a whole and that in reality the polemic of Qohelet is actually foolishness.

[18] Longman, Tremper, III. 2009. “Challenging the idols of the twenty-first century: the message of the book of Ecclesiastes.” Stone-Campbell Journal 12, no. 2: 207-216.

[19] Michael V. Fox A, A Time to Tear Down & A Time to Build Up, A Rereading of Ecclesiastes ( Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1999) 159.

[20] Fox., 159-160. This adds weight to Longman’s argument in there being a narrator who frames Qohelet’s words and is not actually Qohelet himself.

[21] Fox., 163.

[22] Other translations translate it NIV & TNIV (Meaningless), CEV (Nothing makes sense), ESV, ISV, KJV, RV (Vanity), Holman Christian Bible (Absolute futility), Amplified (Vapours of Vapours, futilities of futilities ) and The Message (Nothing but smoke)

[23] Fox., 30-34

[24] I J J Spangenberg,. “Irony in the Book of Qohelet.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament no. 72: (1996)60. He goes on to make the point that irony is lost if you’re trying to make sense of something in a literal fashion

[25] Fox., 163-165.

[26] Ibid.,168

[27] Longman, Tremper, III. 2009. “Challenging the idols of the twenty-first century “.,206

[28] Space doesn’t allow me to expand on the wisdom movement of Qohelet…however perhaps it indicates the type of faithless mocking that Nehemiah and the Hebrew people suffered when rebuilding Jerusalem Neh 4:1-4

[29] Longman., 214

[30] Ibid., 216

About Craig Benno

I'm an average aussie guy who has lived perhaps a not so average life.
This entry was posted in assignments, Ecclesiastes 1:1-11 and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Ecclesiastes 1:1-11 Exegesis assignment.

  1. Pingback: Ecclesiastes 1:1-11….faith, pessimism and doubt. | Unsettled Christianity

  2. Anonymous says:

    same passage here 😉

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