It is not surprising that the book of Ecclesiastes had a struggle to maintain its place in the canon, and it was probably only its reputed Solomonic authorship and the last two verses of the book that permanently secured its position at the synod of Jamnia in 90 A.D. The Jewish scholars of the first century A.D. were struck by the manner in which it contradicted itself: e.g., "I praised the dead more than the living," iv.2, "A living dog is better than a dead lion," ix.4; but they were still more distressed by the spirit of scepticism and "heresy" which pervaded the book (cf. xi.9 with Numbers 15:39).
In spite of the opening verse, it is very plain that Solomon could not have been the author of the book. Not only in i.12 is his reign represented as over—I was king—though Solomon was on the throne till his death, but in i.16, ii.7, 9, he is contrasted with all—apparently all the kings—that were before him in Jerusalem, though his own father was the founder of the dynasty. There is no probability that Solomon would have so scathingly assailed the administration of justice for which he himself was responsible, as is done in iii.16, iv. i, v.8. The sigh in xii.12 over the multiplicity of books is thoroughly inappropriate to the age of Solomon.
Indeed the whole manner in which the problem is attacked is inappropriate to so early a stage of literary and religious development. But it was by a singularly happy stroke that Solomon was chosen by a later thinker as the mouthpiece of his reflections on life; for Solomon, with his wealth, buildings, harem, magnificence, had had opportunity to test life at every point, and his exceptional wisdom would give unique value to his judgment.
Ecclesiastes is undoubtedly one of the latest books in the Old Testament. The criteria for determining the date are chiefly three. (1) Linguistic. Alike in its single words (e.g., preference for abstract nouns ending in uth) its syntax (e.g., the almost entire absence of waw conversive) and its general linguistic character, the book illustrates the latest development of the Hebrew language. There are not a few words which occur elsewhere only in Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther: there are some pure Aramaic words, some words even which belong to the Hebrew of the Mishna. Even if we allow an early international use of Aramaic, the corrupt Hebrew of the book would alone compel us to place it very late. Some have sought to strengthen the argument for a late date from the presence of Greek influence on the language of the book, e.g., in such phrases as "under the sun," "to behold the sun," "the good which is also beautiful," v.18; but, probable as it may be, it is not certain that there are Graecisms in the language of Ecclesiastes.
(2) Historical. There is much interesting detail which is clearly a transcript of the author's experience: the slaves he had seen on horseback, x.7, the poor youth who became king, iv.13-16 (cf. ix.14ff.). These incidents, however, are too lightly touched, and we know too little of the history of the period, to be able to locate them definitely. The woe upon the land whose king is a child, x.16, has been repeatedly connected with the time of Ptolemy V. Epiphanes (205-181 B.C.), the last of his house who ruled over Palestine and who at his father's death was little over four years old. However that may be, the general historical background is unmistakably that of the late post-exilic age. The book bears the stamp of an evil time, when injustice and oppression were the order of the day, iii.16, iv.1, v.8, government was corrupt and disorderly and speech dangerous, x.20. The allusions would suit the last years of the Persian empire (333); but if, as the linguistic evidence suggests, the book is later, it can hardly be placed before 250 B.C., as during the earlier years of the Greek period, Palestine was not unhappy.
(3) Philosophical. The speculative mood of the book marks it as late. Though not an abstract discussion—the Old Testament is never abstract—it is more abstract than the kindred discussion in the book of Job. It is hard to believe that Ecclesiastes was not affected by the Greek philosophical influences of the time. If it be not necessary to trace its contempt of the world to Stoicism, or its inculcation of the wise enjoyment of the passing moment directly to Epicureanism, at least an indirect influence can hardly be denied. Greek thought was spreading as the Greek language was; and the scepticism of Ecclesiastes, though not without parallels in earlier stages of Hebrew literature, yet here assumes a deliberate, sustained and all but philosophic form, which finds its most natural explanation in the profound and pervasive influence of Greek philosophy—an influence which could hardly be escaped by an age in which books had multiplied and study been prosecuted till it was a burden, xii.12.
This "charming book," as Renan calls it, has in many ways more affinity with the modern mind than any other in the Old Testament. It is weary with the weight of an insoluble problem. With a cold-blooded frankness, which is not cynical, only because it is so earnest, it faces the stern facts of human life, without being able to bring to their interpretation the sublime inspirations of religion. More than once is the counsel given to fear God, but it is not offered as a solution of the riddle. The world is crooked, i.15, vii.13, and no change is possible, iii.1-8. It is a weary round of contradictions, birth and death, peace and war, the former state annihilated by the latter; and by reason of the fixity of these contradictions and the certainty of that annihilation, all human effort is vain, iii.9. It is all alike vanity—not only the meaner struggles for food and drink and pleasure (ii.) but even the nobler ambitions of the soul, such as its yearning for wisdom and knowledge. Whether we turn to the physical or the moral world it is all the same. There is no goal in nature (i.): history runs on and runs nowhere. All effort is swallowed up by death. Man is no better than a beast, iii.19; beyond the grave there is nothing. Everywhere is disillusionment, and woman is the bitterest of all, vii.26. The moral order is turned upside down. Wrong is for ever on the throne. Providence, if there be such a thing, seems to be on the side of cruelty. Tears stand on many a face, but the mourners must remain uncomforted, iv.1. The just perish and the wicked live long, vii.15. The good fare as the bad ought to fare, and the bad as the good, viii.14. Better be dead than live in such a world, iv.2; nay, better never have been born at all, vi.3. For all is vanity: that is the beginning of the matter, i.2, it is no less the end, xii.8. Over every effort and aspiration is wrung this fearful knell.
Sad conclusion anywhere, but especially sad for a Jew to reach! Indeed he contradicts some of the dearest and most fundamental tenets of the Jewish faith. Many a devout contemporary must have been horrified at the dictum that man had no pre-eminence above a beast, or that the world, which he had been taught to believe was very good (Gen. i, 31) was one great vanity. The preacher could not share the high hopes of a Messianic kingdom to come, of resurrection and immortality, which consoled and inspired many men of his day. To him life was nothing but dissatisfaction ending in annihilation. If this is not pessimism, what is?
But is this all? Not exactly. For "the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun," xi.7. Over and over again the counsel is given to eat and drink and enjoy good, ii.24; and despite the bitter criticism of woman already alluded to, a wife can make life more than tolerable, ix.9. Nor does the book display the thorough-going rejection of religion which the previous sketch of it would have led us to expect. It is pessimistic, but not atheistic; nay, it believes not only in God but in a judgment, iii.17, xi.9b, though not necessarily in the hereafter. There is considerable extravagance in Cornill's remark that "never did Old Testament piety celebrate a greater triumph than in the book of Ecclesiastes"; but there is enough to show that the book is, after its own peculiar melancholy fashion, a religious book. It is significant, however, that the context of the word God, which only occurs some twenty times, is often very sombre. He it is who has "given travail to the sons of men to be exercised therewith," i.13, iii.10, cf. esp. iii.18. Again, if the writer has any real belief in a day of judgment, why should he so persistently emphasize the resultlessness of life and deny the divine government of the world? "The fate of all is the same-just and unjust, pure and impure. As fares the good, so fares the sinner," ix.2. This is a direct and deliberate challenge of the law of retribution in which the writer had been brought up. It may be urged, of course, that his belief in a divine judgment is a postulate of his faith which he retains, though he does not find it verified by experience. But such words—and there are many such—seem to carry us much farther. Here, then, is the essential problem of the book. Can it be regarded as a unity?
Almost every commentator laments the impossibility of presenting a continuous and systematic exposition of the argument in Ecclesiastes, or Qoheleth, as the book is called in the Hebrew Bible.
The truth is that, though the first three chapters are in the main coherent and continuous, little order or arrangement can be detected in the rest of the book. Various explanations have been offered. Bickell, e.g., supposed that the leaves had by some accident become disarranged—a supposition not wholly impossible, but highly improbable, especially when we consider that the Greek translation reads the book in the same order as the Hebrew text. Others suppose with equal improbability that the book is a sort of dialogue, in which each speaker maintains his own thesis, while the epilogue, xii.13f, pronounces the final word on the discussion. One thing is certain, that various moods are represented in the book: the question is whether they are the moods of one man or of several. Baudissin thinks it not impossible that, "apart from smaller interpolations, the book as a whole is the reflection of the struggle of one and the same author towards a view of the world which he has not yet found."
Note the phrase "apart from interpolations." Even the most cautious and conservative scholars usually admit that the facts constrain them to believe in the presence of interpolations: e.g., xi.9b and xii. la are almost universally regarded in this light. The difficulties occasioned by the book are chiefly three. (1) Its fragmentary character. Ch. x.; e.g., looks more like a collection of proverbs than anything else. (2) Its abrupt transitions: e.g., vii.19, 20. "Wisdom strengtheneth the wise more than ten men that are in a city: for there is not a righteous man on the earth." This may be another aspect of (1). But (3) more serious and important are the undoubted contradictions of the book, some of which had been noted by early Jewish scholars. E.g., there is nothing better than to eat and drink, ii.24; it is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting, vii.2. In iii.1-8 times are so fixed and determined that human labour is profitless, iii.9, while in iii.11 this inflexible order is not an oppressive but a beautiful thing. In viii.14, ix.2 (cf. vii.15) the fate of the righteous and the wicked is the same, in viii.12, 13, it is different: it is well with the one and ill with the other. In iii.16, which is radically pessimistic (cf. vv.18-21), there is no justice: in iii.17 a judgment is coming. Better death than life, iv.2, better life than death, ix.4 (cf. xi.7). In i.17 the search for wisdom is a pursuit of the wind: in ii.13 wisdom excels folly as light darkness. Ch. ii.22 emphasizes the utter fruitlessness of labour, iii.22 its joy. These contradictions are too explicit to be ignored. Indeed sometimes their juxtaposition forces them upon the most inattentive reader; as when viii.12, 13 assert that it is well with the righteous and ill with the wicked, whereas viii.14 asserts that the wicked often fare as the just should fare and vice versa; and that this is the author's real opinion is made certain by the occurrence of the melancholy refrain at the end of the verse.
Different minds will interpret these contradictions differently. Some will say they are nothing but the reflex of the contradictions the preacher found to run through life, others will say that they represent him in different moods. But they are too numerous, radical, and vital to be disposed of so easily. There can be no doubt that the book is essentially pessimistic: it ends as well as begins with Vanity of Vanities, xii.8; and this must therefore have been the ground-texture of the author's mind. Now it is not likely to be an accident that the references to the moral order and the certainty of divine judgment are not merely assertions: they can usually, in their context, only be regarded as protests—as protests, that is, against the context. That is very plain in ch. iii., where the order of the world, vv.1-8, which the preacher lamented as profitless, vv.9, 10, is maintained to be beautiful, v.11. It is equally plain in iii.17, which asserts the divine judgment, whereas the context, iii.16, denies the justice of earthly tribunals, and effectually shuts out the hope of a brighter future by maintaining that man dies like the beast, vv.18-21.
Of a similar kind, but on a somewhat lower religious level are the frequent protests against the preacher's pessimistic assertions of the emptiness of life and the vanity of effort. For the injunction to eat and drink and enjoy the fruits of one's labour may, in their contexts, also be fairly considered not simply as statements, but as protests (cf. v.18-20 with v.13-17); for this glad love of life was thoroughly representative of the ancient tradition of Hebrew life (cf. Jeremiah's criticism of Josiah, xxii.15.) Doubtless these protests could come from the preacher's own soul; but, considering all the phenomena, it is more natural to suppose that they were the protests of others who were offended by the scepticism and the pessimism of the book, which may well have had a wide circulation.
It now only remains to ask whether books regarded as Scripture ever received such treatment as is here assumed. Every one acquainted with the textual phenomena of the Old Testament knows that this was a common occurrence. The Greek-speaking Jews, translating about or before the time at which Ecclesiastes was written, altered the simple phrase in Exodus 24:10, "They saw the God of Israel," to "They saw the place where the God of Israel stood." In Psalm 84:11 they altered "God is a sun (or pinnacle?) and shield" to "God loves mercy and truth." They altered "God" to "an angel" in Job 20:15, "God will cast them (i.e., the riches) out of his belly"; or even to "an angel will cast them out of his house." These alterations have no other authority than the caprice of the translators, acting in the interests of a purer, austerer, but more timid theology. At the end of the Greek version of the book of Job, which adds, "It is written that Job will rise again with those whom the Lord doth raise," we see how deliberately an insertion could be made in theological interests. The liberties which the Greek-speaking Jews thus demonstrably took with the text of Scripture, we further know that the Hebrew-speaking Jews did not hesitate to take. A careful comparison of the text of such books as Samuel and Kings with Chronicles shows that similar changes were deliberately made, and made by pious men in theological interests. We are thus perfectly free to suppose that the original text of Ecclesiastes, which must have given great offence to the stricter Jews of the second century B.C., was worked over in the same way. [Footnote 1: Cf., e.g., the substitution of Satan in 1 Chronicles 21:1 for Jehovah in 2 Samuel 24:1.]
It would be impossible to apportion the various sections or verses of the book with absolute definiteness among various writers; in the nature of the case, such analyses will always be more or less tentative. But on the whole there can be little doubt that the original book, which can be best estimated by the more or less continuous section, i.-iii., was pervaded by a spirit of almost, if not altogether, unqualified pessimism. This received correction or rather protest from two quarters: from one writer of happier soul, who believed that the earth was Jehovah's (Psalm 24:1) and, as such, was not a vanity, but was full of His goodness; and from a pious spirit, who was offended and alarmed by the preacher's dangerous challenge of the moral order, and took occasion to assure his readers of the certainty of a judgment and of the consequent wisdom of fearing God. On any view of the book it is difficult to see the relevance of the collection of proverbs in ch. x.
If this view be correct, the epilogue, xii.9-14, can hardly have formed part of the original pessimistic book. The last two verses, in particular, are conceived in the spirit of the pious protest which finds frequent expression in the book; and it is easy to believe that the words saved the canonicity of Ecclesiastes, if indeed they were not added for that very purpose. The reference to the commandments in v.13 is abrupt, and almost without parallel, viii.5. Again, the preacher, who speaks throughout the book in the first person, is spoken of here in the third, v.9; and, as in no other part of the book, the reader is addressed as "my son" v.12 (cf. Proverbs 1:8., ii.1, iii.1).
The value of Ecclesiastes is negative rather than positive. It is the nearest approach to despair possible upon the soil of Old Testament piety. It is the voice of a faith, if faith it can be called, which is not only perplexed with the search, but weary of it; but it shows how deep and sore was the need of a Redeemer.