Ecclesiastes is a Latin transliteration of the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Qoheleth. The word means “assembler” or “gatherer.” The term is commonly interpreted in English as “preacher” or “teacher” depending on the translator’s best guess as to whom Qoheleth is speaking. However, both of those translation choices are misleading and in the book the term Qoheleth acts as a pseudonymous nickname. The actual author(s) is (or are) anonymous.
The text wants us to associate Qoheleth with Solomon. The link is important because the book is wisdom literature. It makes this link both by saying that the words are those of a ”son of David, king in Jerusalem” and by the use of the pseudonym Qoheleth since the root verb qhl is repeatedly used in 1 Kings 8 for Solomon gathering the people together to hear his speech. However, the reason for the pseudonym is that it is not actually written by the historical king. The name allows the author to be associated with Solomon while maintaining distance from him.
Longman says, ”It is a way of indicating that the Solomonic persona is being adopted for literary and communicative purposes. In brief, the wise man who adopts the nickname Qohelet pretends to be Solomon while he explores avenues of meaning in the world. Solomon was known as the wisest and richest man to have ever lived. If he could not find meaning in the things of the world, who could (see 2:12)?”
Then Longman notes the ways that the text itself indicates that a strict identification with the historical Solomon is not intended. For example, Ecclesiastes 1:12 says that Qoheleth was king. However, 1 Kings 11 precludes the possibility of Solomon abdicating his throne before death. In other words, there was no time during his life when he “was” (past tense) king. Ecclesiastes 1:16 also is odd since it mentions ”everyone who ruled Jerusalem before me” given that only King David had previously been king of Israel ruling over Jerusalem. He hardly means the Jebusites who ruled the city previously.
Moreover, the association with ”Solomon” only continues for the first three chapters of the book before it is abandoned. Passages like Ecclesiastes 4:1-3, 5:8-9, and 10:20 obviously suggest a different author than King Solomon. In fact, the genre of the body of the book appears to be the same as that of other ANE literature that scholars call ”fictional autobiographies.” The primary objection to this line of argument has always been that God would not allow for anything approaching fiction in His Word (never mind that parables are fictional stories, fiction does not mean untrue).
The question of authorship is further complicated by the fact that there are two separate voices. These could be the work of a single author or they could be the work of two authors. The structure of the book makes the two voices clear. There is a prologue that gives us a summary of Qoheleth’s teaching (Ecclesiastes 1:1-11), the monologue by Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes 1:12-12:7), and the epilogue (Ecclesiastes 12:8-14).
As Peter Enns says, ”How one understands the relationship between this third person frame and the first person body of Ecclesiastes will determine how one understands the message of the book as a whole.” It primarily depends then on how you read the evaluation of the frame narrator in the epilogue.
The book then has the feel of a father giving his son a summary of Qoheleth’s wisdom, then he reads to his son Qoheleth’s autobiography, and then he tells his son what to do with this wisdom.
The epilogue begins (Ecclesiastes 12:8) with a similar line to the opening of the summary in the prologue (Ecclesiastes 1:2). The prologue saying, ”Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” The epilogue saying, ”Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth; all is vanity.” This sums up Qoheleth well.
The epilogue continues, ”Besides being wise, Qoheleth also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. Qoheleth sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth. The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”
Thus there is a frame narrator and there is a fictional autobiography in the middle.
Longman says that the evaluation of Qoheleth’s wisdom in the epilogue is ”somewhat complimentary but very reserved.” The frame narrator calls Qoheleth a wise man and describes his work somewhat favorably, but that is about it. To say that he was ”a wise man” is to say that his work was as a wisdom teacher. Longman is reading between the lines as if this were a letter of recommendation and he were trying to discern the truth about a candidate. Note that it does not clearly say that he authored any new proverbs.
Longman then says that the evaluation turned to the conclusions of Qoheleth with Ecclesiastes 12:10. He says the opening line is rather ”lukewarm.” Then with the next verse the evaluation turns much more critical and negative. The ESV translation capitalizes the first letter of ”Shepherd” in order to identify the shepherd with God. However, Longman disagrees. The qualifier ”one” can be a form of the indefinite – i.e. ”a” – thus Longman says, ”they are given by a shepherd.” The shepherd being a wisdom teacher.
He interprets the goads and nails as negative since they both would sting. The next verse then gives the son a warning: ”My son, beware of anything beyond these…” Thus Longman would say, ”Furthermore, of these, my son, be warned!” In other words, Longman thinks the frame narrator is warning his son about the words of Qoheleth. Then the father gives his son the commandment – ”fear God and keep His commandments” with motivation for doing so. With such a reading one wonders why Longman spent so much time writing a commentary that includes careful reflection on the fictional autobiography with its heterodox theology.
Enns, however, takes ”the view that the epilogue fundamentally supports Qoheleth’s observations while at the same time offering a mild ‘corrective’ by placing Qohelet’s observations in a broader (and traditional) theological context.” As Enns says, ”Qohelet represents a point of view that the frame narrator apparently feels strongly enough about to lay out patiently for his readers over 203 of the 221 total verses in the book. There is clearly something worthwhile his readers are expected to discern.”
In any case remember the structure of the Writings:
The book of Qoheleth is the climax of the Writings. There are two important observations to make in this light. The first has to do with the association of Qoheleth with Solomon. The second has to do with the epilogue’s warning about making new books. I have said this more eloquently in my post called ”Fear God and Keep His Commandments: Canonical Context.”
Longman appears to be right about the reasons for adopting the Solomonic persona. Solomon shows wisdom at its height and shows us how wisdom falls short. Since the Writings contain a great many books considered wisdom literature, this book, which is making that very point is a fitting climax. Qoheleth and Job have this in common. Longman would say that they also have in common speeches that are wrong. Yes, Qoheleth is not entirely right. But Enns’ point is well-taken that the frame narrator appears to think we can learn something from him.
Part of the reason that nothing further need be said than Ecclesiastes (as the frame narrator says ”beware of anything beyond these…all has been heard”) is that the main character of the book, Qoheleth, is a Solomonic persona; that is, he is a king and is able to investigate everything. As Enns puts it, “The king is more suited than anyone to make the claims Qoheleth makes. At his disposal are supreme wisdom, a supply of resources, and the luxury of time. No one else is so equipped to carry out so thorough and searching a critique of the human predicament.”
Thus there is no need to say “anything beyond these” words (Eccl 12:12a). There is no need to add or subtract from the book and you do not need to try to replicate Qoheleth’s quest since there is nothing new under the sun that you can add to it. This is a fitting climax to the pursuit of wisdom and the writing of wisdom literature.
But then for the second point about this as the climax to the writings. The Writings are the third part of the Hebrew Scriptures. The effect of putting Ecclesiastes at the climax of the Writings is to put an end to the editing of the Hebrew Scriptures. ”Of making many books there is no end…” does not refer only to the process of writing new books but also to the process of editing existing books. There is no need to add to these words, no need to say anything beyond these words, nor to subtract from them, no need for further editing (the end of Revelation in the NT serves the same function for the NT canon).
Thus Qoheleth is put at the center of the Writings as part of the argument that the Hebrew Scriptures were complete. Therefore, there is no need to add or edit another Psalm, or any other book for that matter. The canon is now closed. And the Scriptures are to be studied (although ”much study is a weariness of the flesh”).
So who is Qoheleth? Good question.