The Contents (§ 1).
Who is the "Preacher"? (§ 2).
The Date (§ 3).
Egypt the Place of Composition (§ 4).
The Author's Viewpoint (§ 5).
1. The Contents. Ecclesiastes (Heb. Koheleth) is the title of the book which in the English Bible stands between Proverbs and the Song of Songs. A prologue, i. 2-11, and an epilogue, xii. 9-14, enclose the body of the book, and in both Koheleth "The Preacher" is spoken of in the third person. The prologue gives the theme of the composition: All is vanity; man has no abiding profit from his toil; there is nothing new under the sun. The key-note is struck in i. 2, "all is vanity," and the book proper ends with the same note (xii. 8). In i. 12 the Preacher, in the first person, begins his proof of the fruitlessness of all man's striving, and presents in the first section, i. 12-ii. 23, the results of his collected experience as king in Jerusalem. Striving after wisdom, enjoyment, possessions, contented activity, he found unsatisfying, and the results insecure. This, however, is not the consequence of chance, but is the ordering of God which stands fast (ii. 24-iii. 22). Fear of God and moderation are the duties of man. The next section, iv.-vi., contains a series of observations and statements, the result of experience, which supplement and emphasize what precedes. The best rule of living is, according to the next division, vii. 1-ix. 10, to get out of life the most enjoyment possible. For although wisdom is best, yet the riddle of life is that rewards are proportionate neither to wisdom nor virtue. The last section, ix. 11-xii. 8, commends a prudential morality and grasping of present opportunities. The epilogue adds some words on the Preacher's wisdom, on wisdom-literature in general, and the conclusion: Fear God and keep his commandments.
2. Who is the “Preacher”? Who is the person whose "I" appears so often in the book? In i. 2, vii. 27, and xii. 8 he is called Koheleth ; in i. 12 he gives himself this name and identifies himself with a wise, rich, brilliant king over Israel in Jerusalem who, according to the conception of the author, can be no other than Solomon. Of the many meanings of the word Koheleth proposed only two call for serious consideration: (1) The word is a participial form with feminine ending but masculine meaning such as is found in late Hebrew (Pochereth, Ezra ii. 57; Sophereth, Neh. vii. 57), taken to mean "he who calls the assembly together" (and harangues). (2) The feminine sense of the ending is retained and some personified being (expressed in Greek as Hē ekklēsiazousa, "she who harangues") is represented as speaking. This can be no other than Hokhma, "Wisdom," but a specialized wisdom which deals with practicalities, with the art of living (cf. Prov. i. 21, viii. 1-3, ix. 3; Is. xl. 9). Herself timeless, in the days of Solomon (whose person was more or less in the writer's eye) she had begun to make observations, which she had continued through the centuries only to find ceaseless repetition characterizing the issue of events up to the time of the writing of the Book.
The Date. All data,--the historical references, the linguistic character, marking it as at the transition from the use of Hebrew to that of Mishnaic Aramaic, and the general tone of the work--compel the placing of the book at the end of the period when Hebrew was used. To secure a more exact dating than this is difficult. The view of Graetz that the book belongs to the time of Herod the Great involves a series of impossibilities and contradictions. Nor is the assignment by Jewish tradition to the "Men of Hezekiah" or to Solomon himself any more defensible. A more definite datum seems to be furnished in the fact that the Wisdom of Solomon stands to this book in a relation of hostility (cf. Wisd. of Sol. ii. 1-5, iii. 2-3 with Eccles. ix. 2, 5, 10, viii. 8, i. 11, etc., and Wisd. of Sol. ii. 6-9 with Eccles. ix. 7-9, iii. 22, v. 17). If the Wisdom of Solomon can be placed about 100 b.c., that furnishes the date than which Koheleth can not be later. Whether the book of Sirach, the date of which does not go back of 200 b.c., implies the prior existence of Ecclesiastes can not with certainty be decided. The parallels between the two do not prove the dependence of Sirach, though it does seem possible that in Ecclus. xi. 11, xiv. 18, xxi. 12 the influence of Eccles. i. 2 can be discerned; similarly in the parallels Eccles. ix. 11 and Ecclus. xi. 12-13, the latter seems the younger. Koheleth gives no sign that its author had shared in the awakening of patriotism and zeal for the national religion which the Maccabean rising inspired. The atmosphere of the book is that of the Wisdom literature, cosmopolitan rather than national. The limits of date are 430-200 B.C. The age of Nehemiah exhibits many characteristics which fit the historic situation presented by Koheleth. On the other hand the philosophy of the book shows Greek influence in its terminology and its agreement with Stoic and Epicurean thought. In iii. 11, v. 18 the word yaphe occurs in the exact sense of the philosophic kalon; in iii. 12 "to do good" has the meaning of the Greek eu prattein; and these data involve a time when the Greek ferment had had time to work. On the other hand, the niceties and fine distinctions of the two schools of thought find no echo, only the commonplaces and superficialities of the Greek are reproduced. Not even the allegory in chap. xii. makes against this conclusion, since the thought is clearly conveyed in an Egyptian piece of poetry found in the tomb of Nefer-hotep (Records of the Past, vi. 129, cf. the "Festal Dirge," idem, iv. 117-118).
4. Egypt the Place of Composition. This, as well as many other items, speaks for the writing of the book in Egypt. For its composition in Jerusalem only one passage speaks (v. 1). The frequent mention (v. 8, viii. 2-5, x. 4-7, 16-20) of the nearness of the king's house suits Egypt, since in the times in which the book falls no king resided in Jerusalem. Residence near the sea is implied in xi. 1, reminding one of Alexandria, at the time the royal city, and the seat of a great Jewish settlement. The expression "king in Jerusalem" is peculiar to this book in the Old Testament; thoroughly Egyptian is the designation of the grave as the "everlasting house" (xii. 5 "long home"). The time and the place are indicated as that of the Ptolemies and their court, and before the oppression of the Jews under Ptolemy IV. Philopator; or between 320 and 217 B. C., and at Alexandria (cf. viii. 2, 8, with Josephus, Ant., XII. i. 1). The coldness with which the author sets forth the worthlessness of wealth as an end for which to strive, the persistence with which he endures a mode of life which he would not choose and wishes to forget, the intensity with which he sets forth the humiliation to man from his zeal for knowledge in the face of the ordering and limitations of fate, all speak for such a setting.
5. The Author’s Viewpoint. It is entirely comprehensible from these expressions how the newer exegesis comes to call the book "Skepticism's Song of Songs." But such a conception is a mistaken one. Beneath the questioning of the book lie strong religious convictions, the assurance that God Almighty rules the world. He is the creator (vii. 29, xii. 1), he is lord of life and the bestower of life on man (viii. 8, 15), he has allotted to man the quest and its toil (i. 13, iii. 10, 18, viii. 17), so that entire existence, vanity as it is, must be accepted as of God's ordering (ii. 26), though in the labor and the quest of life he grants joy to man (ii. 24, v. 18, vii. 18). How tragic it is that though the conception of eternity is in man's heart (iii. 11), yet its depths he can not fathom (vii. 23-24, viii. 17 - ix. 1)! The purpose of God was to plant in the heart of man the fear of God (iii. 14, vii. 18), for God is the judge of compliance with the laws he has established (iii. 17, viii. 6-8). Things ethically good in the world are life (ix. 4-5), wisdom, companionship (iv. 7-12), success, and enjoyment of labor and its results (ii. 24, iii. 1-2, 22, ix. 7-8). Since issues are uncertain, the more urgent is the duty of constant striving (ix. 10, xi. 1-6). So that the sum to which a fading Judaism reduced the wealth of the prophetical faith is the certainty of one eternal God, creator and ruler of the world, and the certainty of his judgment. The method of reaching this conclusion is to put thesis and antithesis together so that the mean stands out from the very juxtaposition (iv. 4-6, v. 7-8, vii. 16-18). Yet this method of composition gave rise to the earlier suppositions that this juxtaposition of contradictory theses pointed to a discussion between two persons, or to an anthology, or to a mistake of the binder (or copyist). Similarly, the most opposite views of the teaching of the book have been held--that it involves the consequences of a sheer yet somewhat spiritual skepticism, and that it is a book of consolation.
It is not surprising therefore that its position in the canon should have been questioned, for example, in the debate in the first century between the schools of Hillel and Gamaliel. The integrity of the book is rightly questioned so far as the epilogue is concerned. But the remark of Graetz that xii. 11 sqq. refer not to this book but to the entire third division of the canon, and its corollary, that Ecclesiastes stood at the end of the Old Testament, are both in error. Indeed Graetz thinks that the entire epilogue was affixed by the Synod at Jabneh, c. 90 A.D., a conclusion demonstrably wrong. The book was read by the Jews at the Feast of Booths.
Bibliography: For literature on Ecclesiastes consult: A. Palm, Die Qohelet-Literatur, Mannheim, 1886, and the work of C. H. H. Wright, below. On the text, S. Euringer, Der Massorahtext des Koheleth, Leipsic, 1890. English translations are found in most of the commentaries; special and noteworthy are those by [N. Higgins], London, 1778, and P. Haupt, ib. 1905, both metrical. The Commentaries are very numerous, the best are: J. H. van der Palm, Leyden, 1784; F. Hitzig, Leipsic, 1847; E. W. Hengstenberg, Berlin, 1859, Eng, transl., Edinburgh, 1869; C. Bridges, London, 1860; C. D. Ginsburg, ib. 1861 (noteworthy); M. Stuart, Andover, 1862 (philological); L. Young, Philadelphia, 1866; J. N. Coleman, Edinburgh, 1867; H. Graetz, Leipsic, 1871; T. P. Dale, London, 1873; W. H. B. Proby, ib. 1874; T. H. Leale, ib. 1877 (homiletical); E. H. Plumptre, Cambridge, 1881; E. Renan, Paris, 1882; G. G. Bradley, Oxford, 1885, new ed., 1898; T. C. Finlayson, Meditations and Maxims of Koheleth, London, 1887; W. Volck, Munich, 1889; M. J. Boileau, Paris, 1892; J. Strong, New York, 1893; C. Siegfried, Göttingen, 1898; G. Wildeboer, Tübingen, 1898; A. W. Streane, London, 1899; A. von Scholz, Leipsic, 1901; J. F. Genung, Boston, 1904; G. A. Barton, New York, 1908.
The works cited under BIBLICAL INTRODUCTION, I. generally treat of the book, especially Driver, Introduction, pp. 436-449. On questions of this nature consult: A. H. McNeile, Introduction to Ecclesiastes, New York, 1904 (the best); J. S. Bloch, Ursprung und Entstehungszeit des Buches Kohelet, Bamberg, 1872; A Treatise on the Authorship of Ecclesiastes, London, 1880; C. H. H. Wright, Book of Koheleth … in Relation to Modern Criticism and … Pessimism, ib. 1883; T. K. Cheyne, Job and Solomon, pp. 199-285, New York, 1889; P. Menzel, Der griechische Einfluss auf Prediger, Halle, 1880.
On the similarity to Omar Khayyam: J. F. Genung, Ecclesiastes and Oman Khayyam, Boston, 1901; A. Buchanan, Essence of Ecclesiastes in Metre of Oman Khayyam, London, 1904. On the history of interpretation S. Schiffer, Das Buch Coheleth nach Talmud und Midrasch, Leipsic, 1885; M. M. Kalisch, Path and Goal, London, 1880. Consult also: DB, i. 637-642; EB, ii. 1155-64.