Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett

in The Bible: Authorized King James Version

Published in print February 1998 | ISBN: 9780192835253
Published online April 2009 |

Series: Oxford World's Classics


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The Book of Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth) is one of the five scrolls (megilloth). In later Jewish practice it was the text appointed to be read on the feast of Booths (Tabernacles). The Greek name suggests a member of an ekklesia or ‘church’, and the Latin concionator, ‘preacher’, or ‘arranger’, which is closer to the Hebrew qohelet (1: 2, 12; 12: 9–10)—a person who summons assemblies to meet. The description (1: 1) of Qoheleth as ‘son of David, king in Jerusalem’ and (1: 12) ‘I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem’, suggest that he may have been Solomon, as would befit a writer of a wisdom text, but the sense of a series of past figures before him in Jerusalem (1: 16; 2: 7, 9) casts doubt on this. It is odd that the name Solomon does not appear in the text when it is used in Proverbs and the Song of Solomon. But, given the tone and content of Ecclesiastes, there is a certain poignancy in reading the book as if it were Solomon's reflections in old age on the extravagances of a wasted life where so much wealth, power, and sexual experience (700 wives and 300 concubines: 1 Kgs. 11: 3) could only be described as ‘Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity’ (1: 2).55 The main argument of the Book of Ecclesiastes seems to undermine all the conventional clichés of biblical wisdom literature and its values: thrift, appropriate action at the appropriate time, distinctions between wicked and righteous, the superiority of wisdom over folly, the ways that lead to death and the ways that lead to life, and the fear of YHWH as the ground of wisdom. The epistemological bases of wisdom, experience and observation, are deconstructed by Ecclesiastes and shown to be empty: ‘vanity and vexation of spirit’ (4: 4). ‘For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity’ (3: 19) Death happens to all. ‘This is an evil among all the things that are done under the sun, that there is one event unto all: yea, also the heart of the sons of men is full of evil, and madness is in their heart while they live, and after that they go to the dead’ (9: 3). The relationship of virtue to reward is unpredictable: ‘I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all’ (9: 11). Phrases such as ‘there is no new thing under the sun’, ‘for in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow’, ‘and how dieth the wise man? as the fool’, ‘all the oppressions that are done under the sun’, ‘it is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting’, and ‘much study is a weariness of the flesh’ are characteristic of the Book of Ecclesiastes. Each traditional point of view is swept aside by Qoheleth's refusal to let it slip past his critical evaluation of everything under the sun. Even the dogma of the appropriate time is undermined in the well-known poem ‘To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven’ (3: 1–8). Qoheleth concludes it with the question: ‘What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboureth?’

Chapter.  1004 words. 

Subjects: Religious Studies ; Biblical Studies

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