A Theological Introduction to Ecclesiastes (Pt. 1): Authorship, Authority, and Intertextuality

[This post starts a three-part series aimed to introduce Ecclesiastes and draw a few theological implications from its overview].

Ecclesiastes 1

To get a handle on the book of Ecclesiastes it is imperative to understand who the human author is (or in this case, who is the most likely candidate). Likewise, since Ecclesiastes is part of the biblical canon, it behooves us to see how the New Testament cites Ecclesiastes. Last, since Ecclesiastes is one of many wisdom books, and one of three in Solomon’s corpus (Proverbs and Song of Songs being the other two), we will consider how Proverbs and Ecclesiastes relate to the life of Solomon and how a structural comparison with Proverbs helps us better understand this enigmatic book. 

Authorship

Technically, Ecclesiastes is anonymous. No name is mentioned in the book. However, Jewish and Christian tradition have always affirmed Solomon as the author. After all, Solomon is the “son of David, king in Israel” who was regarded as preeminent in wisdom (1:1, 16). In Israel’s history, God gave Solomon profound wisdom (1 Kgs 3-4) and is known to have written much wisdom literature (1 Kgs 4:32). But not everyone agrees. There are arguments for and against Solomon’s authorship.

Against Solomonic Authorship

There are three reasons to question Solomon’s authorship.

  1. The phrase “son of David” does not alone speak to Solomon’s authorship. David had other sons, and many descendants of David took on this title (see Matt 1:20).
  2. The Hebrew language indicates a later date. But such a subjective argument—even if based on textual evidence—can be explained by the ‘canonicler’ (Ezra?) modernizing the language.
  3. A stronger argument against Solomonic authorship concerns the historical setting described in the book. On this point, the ESV Study Bible notes, “The Preacher’s remarks imply a historical setting that seems in tension with the Solomonic era, such as the fact that many have preceded him as king in Jerusalem (e.g., Eccles. 1:16; 2:7, 9—though these may include non-Israelite kings), that injustice and oppression are openly practiced (3:16–17; 4:1–3; 8:10–11), and that he has observed firsthand the foolishness of kings (4:13–16; 10:5–6) and their abuse of royal power (8:2–9).” It should be noted, however, that counter examples to these objections are not difficult. For instance, if Solomon was visited by the Queen of the South, it is likely that he would also be aware of the follies of other nations.

For Solomonic Authorship

By contrast, there is stronger evidence to believe that Solomon wrote the book. Consider these points in favor of Solomon’s authorship.

  1. No other candidate is better suited to serve as the author than Solomon. As noted above, Solomon was given great wisdom and wrote great volumes of wisdom literature. Proverbs explicitly names him and the Song of Solomon is also attributed to him (although it also is debated).
  2. In the text of Ecclesiastes itself, the author describes himself and says of himself “[I] acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me” (1:16), and that he had great possessions “more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem” (2:7). While the list of Jewish kings before Solomon is not long, this statement elevates him above his father David, which is no small feat. It would be worthy of mention and prestige.

Ecclesiastes in Canonical Perspective

Even with some questions remaining, we can wholeheartedly affirm the inspiration and authority of Ecclesiastes. From the book itself, it attributes its wisdom to the “one Shepherd” (Ecc 12:11) and in the New Testament, its words and concepts are cited by Jesus (John 3:8), Paul (Rom 3:10-12; 8:20; 2 Cor 5:10; 1 Tim 6:7), and James (1:19-21).

  • Ecclesiastes 1:2. Ecclesiastes constant refrain of futility is picked up in Romans, “For the creation was subjected to futility . . .” (Rom 8:20).
  • Ecclesiastes 5:15. In the context of gaining wealth on the earth, Paul speaks of man’s nakedness coming into and departing the world (1 Tim 6:7). He draws this imagery from Ecclesiastes 5:15, where in the same setting, a context that speaks of the vanity of riches, Solomon says, “As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand.”
  • Ecclesiastes 7:9. James’ warns us to be slow to anger, for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God (1:19-21). Ecclesiastes 7:9 says the same thing: “Be not quick in your spirit to become angry for anger lodges in the heart of fools.”
  • Ecclesiastes 7:20. Paul cites this verse in Romans 3:10ff. In his catena of Scripture excerpts he repeats Ecclesiastes conclusion: “Surely there is not a righteous man on the earth who does good and never sins.”
  • Ecclesiastes 11:5. While Jesus seems to be using a commonplace physical analogy between the movement of the wind and the work of the Spirit, comparison with Ecclesiastes shows that John 3:8 draws on Solomonic imagery—“As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything.”
  • Ecclesiastes 12:14. Second Corinthians 5:10 speaks of the judgment of God—a theme that pervades the New Testament. In this verse Paul draws on the language of Ecclesiastes 12:14, “For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”

Together, these six allusions and/or partial citations confirm the divine authorship of Ecclesiastes. As it says in Ecclesiastes, its wisdom comes from one Shepherd, and Jesus and the apostles recognized its enduring word.

A Final Word About Solomon

As to Solomon’s authorship, Jewish and Christian tradition gives us one more reason to believe that the most glorious king in Israel’s history was the author. Going back to the time of Jesus, the people of faith always read Ecclesiastes as Solomon’s work. As Jesus affirmed the Old Testament canon (e.g., Luke 24:27), he did not find reason to overturn the traditional authorship of any of the Old Testament books.

I would suggest, therefore, that under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, this wise king who became horribly foolish during his reign, wrote this book towards the end of his life in order to warn future generations of the folly of living a purely materialistic life—the life described in Ecclesiastes; the life lived by Solomon.

From a different angle, and from a different stage in life, Solomon gives us in Ecclesiastes the same message he did in Proverbs: “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight” (Prov 4:7). Only now, at the end of life, Solomon must say the same thing with great grief in his heart for the folly he himself pursued as left the God of Israel to chase 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kgs 11:3).

Interestingly, Ecclesiastes ends the way that Proverbs begins. In Proverbs 1:7, he writes, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov 1:7). And at the end of Ecclesiastes, he says the same thing a different way: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (12:13).

Those final words are the words of a man who knew the former (Prov 1:7) and walked away. Now, as if speaking from the grave, he has been given a chance to call others to wisdom. Holding these the beginning and end in contrast, it is striking to note the change. Proverbs calls young men to seek an impersonal wisdom. Yes, wisdom is personified in Proverbs 1-9, but it is still impersonal. However, at the end of Ecclesiastes the call is more personal. It is not simply, “Get wisdom!” It is “Fear God and keep his commandments.” True wisdom is found in rightly relating ourselves to God, and as it will be made manifest in the New Testament, walking in wisdom means walking with the One who is wisdom incarnate.

It took Solomon all of his life to understand this. May we who have his inspired words learn to “remember [our] Creator in the days of [our] youth” (Ecc 12:1).

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

One thought on “A Theological Introduction to Ecclesiastes (Pt. 1): Authorship, Authority, and Intertextuality

  1. Pingback: A Theological Introduction to Ecclesiastes (pt. 3): Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Christ | Via Emmaus

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