Pessimism versus faith
Within the Wisdom Literature of the ancient Near East there was a style of writing which we may call ‘pessimism literature’. In the Bible Ecclesiastes is its only example, but the tradition goes back at least to 2000 bc in both Egypt and Mesopotamia.
Yet Ecclesiastes is ‘pessimism’ with a difference. For other ‘pessimist’ writings were bleak, sensual and unrelieved by any note of hope. In the Dialogue of Pessimism (a Babylonian work of the fourteenth century bc) suicide is the only answer to the problem of life. In the Epic of Gilgamesh the god Shamash states bluntly ‘The life you pursue you shall not find’. Although Ecclesiastes echoes ancient pessimism, it has another strand which is in marked contrast. For it also holds forth the possibility of joy, faith and assurance of God’s goodness.
Ecclesiastes is an edited work. In 1:2, 7:27 and 12:8 the words ‘says the Teacher’ occur in the middle of proverbial sayings. In 12:9–14 a description is given; clearly one person is presenting the teaching of another. ‘Teacher’ represents the Hebrew word Qoheleth, which is an artificial name (although quite ordinary in its structure). It has a meaning, roughly ‘Mr Teacher’. The verbal root means ‘to assemble’ and is used elsewhere of assembling a meeting to address it (see the niv mg., which gives an alternative, ‘leader of the assembly’). It has the ‘feel’ of the paraphrase ‘Mr Teacher the king!’. Who then is this ‘Mr Teacher’? 1:1 and the descriptions in chs. 1 and 2 clearly refer to Solomon (although ‘son of David, king of Israel in Jerusalem’ could refer to any king in the line of David). Yet the name ‘Solomon’ is avoided. There is no claim to Solomonic origin as there is in Song 1:1 and Pr. 1:1. The editor is presenting royal teaching in the tradition started by Solomon, yet he holds back from claiming that he is presenting the very words of Solomon. The tradition then is Solomonic, but the editorial work is later.
What is the date of the editorial work? Three lines of approach have been pursued in answering this question, two of them fruitlessly. The first looks for historical references within the book itself. Identifications of the events in 4:13–16 and 9:13–16 have been attempted but not satisfactorily. The second suggests that Ecclesiastes depends on Greek thought and, therefore, derives from the Greek epoch (i.e. third century bc or later). Nothing can be asserted along these lines. No explicit citations of Greek thought are found. Pessimism goes back to centuries before any possible date for Ecclesiastes. Greek scepticism itself may owe something to the Mesopotamian world. The third approach, and the one that holds out most hope for dating Ecclesiastes, is the study of its language. Yet even this is difficult. It is not written in precisely the same Hebrew as any other part of the OT. It uses two Persian words which suggests that our edition of Ecclesiastes dates from the time after the rise of Persian rule in Israel (sixth century bc). Yet it also has a few traits which could be early. Mention of the temple (5:1) excludes the period when there was no temple (586–516 bc). Tentatively we may suggest that Ecclesiastes dates from the fifth century bc, but more statistically thorough studies of the language may provide evidence of an earlier date. Or it could be that further study of the language will provide convincing evidence of both early and late features (and therefore suggest that it is an early work which was subsequently updated). Along these lines progress may be made but no consensus has yet been reached.
There are three features of Ecclesiastes that are worth mentioning: (i) It makes use of a division of reality into two realms, the heavenly and the earthly, referring to what is ‘under the sun’ or ‘under heaven’ and what is ‘on earth’, e.g. ‘God is in heaven and you are on earth’ (5:2). (ii) It distinguishes between observation and faith. The Teacher says ‘I have seen under the sun … ’ (1:14) but goes on to say ‘but I came to realise … ’ (2:14). When he uses the verb ‘see’ he points to life’s hardships. When he calls to joy it is not in connection with seeing but it is what he believes about God despite what he sees. (iii) It brings us to face the grimness of life and yet constantly urges us to faith and joy.
What then is the purpose and abiding message of Ecclesiastes?
It is a reply to the unrelieved pessimism of much ancient thought. Yet at the same time it does not envisage a superficial ‘faith’ which does not take adequate account of the fallenness of the world. It is thus both an evangelistic tract, calling secular people to face the implications of their secularism, and a call to realism, summoning faithful Israelites to take seriously the ‘futility’, the ‘enigma’ of life in this world. It forbids both secularism (living as though the existence of God has no practical usefulness for life in this world) and unrealistic optimism (expecting faith to cancel out life as it really is). Negatively, it warns us that ‘faith’ is always a contrast to ‘sight’ and does not provide us with a short cut fully to understand the ways of God. Positively, it calls us to a life of faith and joy. Summarizing Ecclesiastes, J. S. Wright (Ecclesiastes, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 5 [Zondervan, 1992]) used to say ‘God holds the key to all unknown—but he will not give it to you. Since you do not have the key you must trust Him to open the doors’.
From as far back as any one can trace, Ecclesiastes has been ‘canonical’ (i.e. authoritative in the community of believers). Although there was a dispute among the rabbis at Jamnia in ad 100 as to why it was authoritative, it was agreed that it was authoritative. The presence of Ecclesiastes manuscripts at Qumran shows it was viewed similarly even earlier.
A line of argument can be traced in chs. 1–3. In chs. 4–10 the sections are more loosely linked; groupings of proverbs can be found, but any more rigid logic or reason for the order of the sections cannot be traced. Chs. 11–12 are distinctive in that they carry a note of sustained exhortation.
D. Tidball, That’s Life! Realism and Hope for Today from Ecclesiastes (IVP/UK, 1989).
F. D. Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes, BST (IVP, 1976).
J. S. Wright, Ecclesiastes, EBC (Zondervan, 1991).
M. A. Eaton, Ecclesiastes, TOTC (IVP, 1983).
niv New International Version
OT Old Testament
BST The Bible Speaks Today
EBC Expositor’s Bible Commentary
TOTC Tyndale Old Testament Commentary