Read: Ecclesiastes 1:1
The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: (Ecclesiastes 1:1)
This year, I decided to focus my Bible reading, reflection and response onto the genre of “Wisdom” throughout the Bible. In January, I began with the book of Proverbs, which includes wisdom statements attributed to Solomon, the wise king, as well as several other wise people. That was before I started posting my meditations here at crux.live. Since then, I have meditated on:
- John’s gospel, the most poetic of the four biblical accounts of Jesus’ life and wisdom;
- Song of Songs, the second biblical book associated with wise King Solomon, a poetic and wise exploration of romance, weddings, sex and love;
- The letters of 1, 2 and 3 John, which also focus on love, the wise love of God which sacrifices all for the other;
- The book of Matthew, the most Jew-centric of the gospels, which includes long sections of Jesus’ wise teaching;
- Deuteronomy, which recounts Moses’ wise sermons to God’s people before they enter the promised land; and
- The letter of James, the New Testament epistle which most resembles the wisdom literature of the Old Testament in style and content.
Now, I’m turning to the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, the third wisdom book associated with King Solomon, although he isn’t named directly. Ecclesiastes, like the book of proverbs, can seem disorganised or even haphazard in its structure, because it treats many topics in quick succession. However, the LORD God is a God of order, and his written word is consistently well-ordered. I believe that Ecclesiastes has a strongly defined, coherent structure, one that is extremely common in biblical texts: the chiasm, or ring structure. The chiasm is a pattern of repetition, where the second half reflects the first, and the centre echoes the beginning and end, as can be seen in this structural outline of Ecclesiastes, that I’ve lifted from an essay I wrote half a dozen years ago:
A 1:1 introductory prologue
B 1:2 motto
C 1:3-11 Song of cycles of nature and society
D 1:12-4:16 observations: wisdom, pleasure, oppression, toil, loneliness, succession: hebel
E 5:1-9 instructions: fear God – listen to God; fulfill vows
F 5:10 – 6:12 observations: wealth; common problem to lack contentment: hebel
G 7:1-22 instructions: keep the end in mind; God’s sovereignty; fear God, not man
H 7:23-8:1 central observations including frame narrator’s voice at 7:27
G’ 8:2-8 instructions: be cautious in relations with king and regarding the future
F’ 8:9-9:6 observations: injustice; common destiny to join the dead: hebel
E’ 9:7-10 instructions: be joyful for God has approved what you do; do what you find to do
D’ 9:11-11:8 observations and instructions: be prudent applying wisdom to overcome hebel
C’ 11:9-12:7 Song of youth and death
B’ 12:8 motto
A’ 12:9-14 epilogue and conclusion
During my theological training, I studied Ecclesiastes and wrote the above-mentioned essay about its structure and message and I’ve just dug it out and re-read it. (I’m pleased to be reminded my lecturer gave me a high distinction.) My own scholarship has convinced me to vary my reading from my standard, habitual pattern of a chapter a day. Instead, I’m going to read Ecclesiastes section by section. Some sections consist of several chapters, others of only a few verses, but the Teacher’s argument will be easier to follow if I follow his textual structure.
So, the first section consists merely of a single verse, Ecclesiastes 1:1. It is the introductory prologue for the book. It reminds me of the initial verses in each of the New Testament epistles, in that it establishes the author’s identity and qualifications (cf Romans 1:1; Galatians 1:1; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; James 1:1; 2 Peter 1:1; 2 John 1:1, Jude 1:1 and Revelation 1:4 etc). Except that this phrase doesn’t specifically name the author; rather it gives a pseudonym, which the NIV2011 translates “Teacher.” In the same way, the apostle John referred to himself indirectly as “The Elder” in his second and third letters.
The Hebrew word translated Teacher is Qohelet, a noun built from the Hebrew verb qhl, which means “to assemble, summon, gather.” Qohelet is understood as a title indicating a person who assembles the people in order to speak to them, like Moses preaching in Deuteronomy, or Ezra reading the Law in Nehemiah 8. It may also refer to a person who gathers wisdom, in the manner of the men of Hezekiah king of Judah (Proverbs 25:1). Historically, then, Qohelet has been seen as a veiled reference to Solomon, who both summoned the Israelite leaders to the dedication of the first temple (1 Kings 8:1) and gathered proverbs (Proverbs 1:11; 1 Kings 4:32).
It is possible, however, that a later writer is assuming the persona of Solomon, or even compiling, editing and presenting Solomonic wisdom, as the men of Hezekiah did. However, the central section of the Ecclesiastes chasm (7:23-8:1), which again mentions Qohelet, is, I think, evidence of a stronger connection to Solomon. Qohelet is mentioned only seven times in Ecclesiastes: 3 times in the initial verses, once in the central verse 7:29, and three more in the final verses. In that centre passage, there is specific mention of the lack of upright women in the author’s environs as well as a warning of the dangers of women who ensnare men. Both of these references, I think, point to Solomon’s authorship of this book at a time long after he had married his hundreds of pagan wives, well after he had warned his son away from unfaithful women in his earlier collection of proverbs.
Thus, the author of the book is Solomon, son of David, king in Jerusalem, writing with the wisdom God granted him early in his reign so he could administer justice (1 Kings 3) as well as the wisdom he gained through long and bitter experience, including his idolatrous period. Or, if not Solomon, then someone else who deliberately took on the mantle of Solomon in this writing. Perhaps another king in the line of David, maybe even Hezekiah, a righteous king who reigned in Judah during the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel (1 Kings 18-20), whose men collected and compiled Solomon’s proverbs. Or maybe Ezra, a leader of God’s people during the return from exile, a time when intermarriage (the taking of foreign, pagan wives), was evidence of the unfaithfulness of Judah, and a stumbling block to many reestablishing their relationship with God. Whoever the author, they have the authority of Qohelet, the Gatherer of wisdom and Summoner of the people.
So, why should I listen to this Qohelet, this Teacher, Gatherer and Summoner?
Firstly, because God has sovereignly ordained that his wisdom be included in Holy Scripture, and I know (from 1 Timothy 3:15-17) that all Scripture is breathed out by God, the very words of God to me. All Scripture is able to make me wise for salvation through faith in my anointed King, Jesus. All Scripture is useful, fruitful and profitable, teaching me doctrine, telling me off, re-directing my ways, training me with skills and equipping me for my everyday ordinary life of glorifying God and loving my neighbour which God has set before me.
Secondly, because the wisdom of such an elder, a person who has lived long, seen much and learned bitter lessons along the way has much to offer me. I shall benefit from the wisdom of the Teacher’s 20/20 hindsight.
Ecclesiastes presents the hard-won wisdom of an old king, a wise elder.
LORD God Almighty,
Thank you for the wisdom you have shared with me so far this year through your word, the Bible. Thank you for teaching others like Solomon hard life lessons so I may learn the ‘easy way’, from their example and teaching.
Thank you for the wisdom you gave Solomon to administer justice in his realm. May I be just in my dealings with my ‘neighbours’.
Thank you for the efforts of so many of your people throughout the years to teach and record wisdom: for Moses, Solomon, the men of Hezekiah and Ezra; and for the saints of the ancient and medieval church such as Augustine and Calvin; for godly Bible teachers today such as Don Carson and John Piper, Kristie Anyabwile and Jen Wilkin; and also for my husband Jeff, the pastor and preacher of my own local church. Please bless Jeff as he prepares and preaches his sermons faithfully each week. Grant him a special measure of wisdom and clarity as he preaches through the book of Revelation.
Please help me to be wise as I meditate upon the book of Ecclesiastes. Equip me to give you glory in my everyday ordinary Christian life.