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When I was younger, I thought that because Ecclesiastes was so dour, it was a sort of negative wisdom—something like, "This is how crazy you get when you don't follow God." However, this approach to Ecclesiastes has some problems. Life is not a bed of roses, even for the Christian (especially for the Christian?), and there is a good deal of wisdom in it which corresponds to Proverbs, which is a little hard to explain if the whole book (minus its bookends of explanation), is a throwaway (in the sense that it doesn't have any reliable teachings).

As there are quite a number of hermeneutical approaches to Ecclesiastes, I would be curious to hear several people weigh in on how the book should be taken. Is the "negative wisdom" position defensible? If not, how can some of the apparently extremely pessimistic statements be taken?

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sometimes we learn best from others mistakes. What I get from Solomon's writing - a lot - is what not to do. –  ironman99 Apr 16 '12 at 17:51
    
Lamp Mode on Ecclesiastes. Those guys are so solid. –  Kazark Apr 21 '12 at 15:29

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Well, it's certainly has to be taken as wisdom, since

  1. it's in the Bible
  2. it says it is wisdom (Ecc 7:23)
  3. it was written by the wisest man on the earth up to his time (Ecc 1:16, 1 Kings 4:29)

While it is on the cynical side, that's because he relates his whole journey which also includes the learning experiences before he fully recognized the sovereignty of God, and our meaning in life. The end of it all is summarized by this "positive" statement:

Ecc 12:13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Be careful, since the NIV (see this question) mistranslates vanity as meaningless. The point of Ecclesiastes is that we are not in control, God is, and we being finite do not understand all his ways (Isaiah 55:9). Wisdom is really learning our limitations and God's omnipotence.

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+1 Clear, concise, convincing. Yes, my earlier view was doubtless connected to the fact that I grew up reading the NIV and NLT (which also renders it meaningless). –  Kazark Apr 16 '12 at 17:44
    
The summary argument is powerful. If it is a book of negative wisdom, that is an incongruent statement tacked on the end as if to recover from a book that was a little too gloomy... and how does that jive with inerrancy? Not very well. –  Kazark Apr 21 '13 at 20:10

The book is not a book of negative wisdom exactly, it is a complementary, but realistic philosophy, composed by a person who struggles for wisdom in a state of complete doubt. This is the position of a Greek scholar (or a modern scientist). The book is a warning to Jewish scholars --- don't read too much and don't think too much--- you'll be a lonely depressive guy. But it also describes a scholarly philosophy which must reflect contemporary thinking in certain ways not included in other books.

Ecclesiastes (Wikisource translation) is a book about scholarship and wisdom acquired through constant doubt and experimentation. It is reporting the degree to which the study of the world causes the mind to feel the absence of God, and the degree to which this leads one to a subtler appreciation of God:

Because as wisdom grows, anger grows, and he who adds knowledge, adds pain. (Ecc 1-18)

This sentiment is familiar and timeless, and rings true today, more so than most things in the Bible.

I view Ecclesiastes as a Jewish response to Greek philosophy, especially the then current ideas of Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle proposed a philosophy of moderation, which is echoed in Ecc 7:15-18

I have seen everything in my days of mirage: there is a righteous man succumbing in righteousness, and a wicked man, enduring in his wickedness. Don't be greatly righteous, and don't be too much wise, why become desolate? Don't be greatly wicked, and don't become foolish: why die before your time? Better that you grasp this, and from the other do not release your hand: because he who fears God will outdo everyone.

This book is a valuable record of the way the world looked to a 3rd-5th century BC scholar (before LXX composition, but after the end of the first exile, since it talks about temple sacrifice as current), of faith in the Hellenistic era. It is as valuable as any philosophy.

The peculiarities of Ecclesiastes are that it is very pessimistic, but ultimately very life-affirming. It is the only place in the Bible that places limits on how much you should try to think about ethics and God, it is the only place that encourages you to party and have-fun (within reason), and it is the only place that both encourages wisdom, and laments the lack of faith that reason often instills.

It was debated during the Jewish canonization debates whether to include Ecclesiastes, and thankfully it was included (or else the Hebrew version would have been lost, as other septuagint volumes were lost). The writing is sublime, and the images are profound and very moving. It is the only book of the Bible that immediately appeals to the atheist and the secular scholar, and it was pretty much the only thing that suggested to me, personally, that the rest of the Bible is at all worth reading.

There are what I consider to be probable alterations to the text of Ecclesiastes, but since it is not a book of law, redactions are not particularly worrisome to religious people. The first one is Ecc 2:13-14 (these two verses I think were added later, to mute the pessimistic sentiment expressed by 12-15), another one (I think) is "because he who fears God will outdo everyone" at the end of verse 7:18 (I am not sure that either is redaction). There are a handful more, but they don't change the meaning, just mute the sentiment, which would be better expressed more directly.

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Having established that we're on the same page, I must say that I really appreciate your answer. Though we can debate authorship until we're blue in the face, I believe that you have touched on a primary concern of Ecclesiates. –  swasheck Apr 17 '12 at 20:10

Proverbs is wisdom for children: do this and this will happen. It's basic mechanics. Plant and you will get a harvest.

It is all true, but life is more complicated. The harvest doesn't always come, even though we are to plant in expectation. So Ecclesiastes is the admission that wisdom simply isn't enough. Attempting to figure everything out is often an attempt to exclude God - as in our own culture. We must progress in our wisdom but it will always be contained within a priestly submission to God.

James Jordan also considers Ecclesiastes to be a meditation on the Feast of Booths (clouds). All is a mist. Man's glories do not last. Only God's glory cloud is permanent.

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The Book of Ecclesiates, known in Tanach as Kohellet and attributed to King Solomon, was controversial even before it was canonized by the rabbis. Many verses troubled them because they contradicted fundamental concepts in the Torah. In the end, the rabbis decided that the every less-than-holy statement in Kohellet was ultimately undone by Kohellets concluding words -- "The end of the matter, everything having been heard, fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the entire man. For every deed God will bring to judgment-for every hidden thing, whether good or bad." (Kohellet 12:13-14.)

The debate of the canonizers is discussed at several points in the Talmud. For example:

R. Yehudah son of R. Shemuel b. Shilat said in Rav’s name: The Sages wished to hide the Book of Kohelet, because its words are self-contradictory [to itself and the rest of Tanach]; yet why did they not hide it? Because its beginning is religious teaching and its end is religious teaching. (Shabbat 30b.)

In light of fears that the language of Kohellet 11:9 ("Rejoice, O youth, in your childhood, and let your heart bring you cheer in the days of your youth....") might cause people to choose self gratification for its own sake, the rabbis said:

What then? Is all restraint to be removed? Is there neither justice nor judge? When, however, he said, '...but know well that God will call you to account for all such things' (Kohelet 11:9), they admitted that Shelomo had spoken well. (Midrash Vayikra Rabbah 28:1; cf. Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 1:3.)

According to Rabbi Hayyim Angel, the sages were so uncomfortable with some statements in Kohellet, that they attempt to attribute the sayings Solomon states to others, such as "evil people or fools," sometimes not successfully, or resorting to Midrash to explain-away the problems. Angel, H. "Introduction to Kohelet: Sanctifying the Human Perspective," at p. 12.

Rabbi Angel says that it is critical to understand why there are so many contradictions in the first place. He notes, at p. 12 n. 5, that whereas most of the sages from the Middle Ages, begin with the premise that a great scholar like Solomon would not contradict himself, modern scholars, like Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik consider Kohellet's teachings Aristotelian. Rabbi Angel, therefore, suggests that people read Kohellet on its own terms, and provides these guidelines:

  1. Kohelet is written about life and religious meaning in this world.
  2. Given this starkly anthropocentric perspective, Kohelet should reflect different perspectives from the theocentric viewpoint of revealed prophecy.
  3. Unlike other prophets or Biblical writers, Kohelet assumes that God's works are unasailable, so instead of talking to God, Kohelet talks about God.
  4. From a human perspective, life is filled with contradictions; therefore Kohelet’s contradictions reflect aspects of the multifaceted human condition.
  5. Kohelet maintains both sides of the classical conflict: God is just, but there are injustices; once we can accept that the world appears unfair, we can realize that everything is a gift from God rather than a necessary consequence for our righteousness. We ultimately cannot fathom how God governs this world, but we can fulfill our religious obligations and grow from all experiences.
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Warning: excessive wordiness follows. Read Lance Roberts' answer for a clear, concise and convincing argument. This is only a prolix meditation on what he said.


Introduction

Ecclesiastes harps on an aspect of life which should be obvious—but we tend to ignore it: how insubstantial and difficult life is under the sun. When the unregenerate ignore it, they become inured to their need for Christ; and when the regenerate ignore it, they loose much appreciation for Christ. Further, they loose touch with people who can sniff fakeness at fifty feet away, and so they are ineffective at ministering to the downcast. Whoever ignores it becomes frivolously and unrealistically lighthearted. Welcome to bubbleheaddom! But Ecclesiastes is honest.

Sample Exposition

Let me work through several verses to demonstrate what I mean.

3What does a man gain by all his toil under the sun?

It is a chronic delusion of man that lots of striving will leave him somewhere better off—and as far as under-the-sun vapor is concerned, it sometimes does. But vapor is only vapor; any truly wise man will tell you that as we enter the world—naked—so we will leave it. Wisdom takes striving as vapor; not as something meaningless, but certainly as something to be rested from. Don't store up treasures. Nothing inverse about that wisdom!

4A generation comes and a generation goes, but the earth remains forever.

I almost feel myself a fool to even comment on such profound wisdom. Profound wisdom is such that, if repeated wrongly or by a fool, it is purely trite.

It's easy to feel as if you have something new—something unknown to other men or to previous generations. It's easy to feel that way when you fall in love. Sorry; you aren't the first person to fall in love. You've not even the ten-thousandth person to fall in love. And you are probably not among the ten-thousand most passionate lovers in history. (Just try writing something like this. I for one barely even understand it; the poetry far outstrips me, and I am a poet.)

You might have been the valedictorian at your college, while getting two majors in unrelated fields, taking a foreign language for the enjoyment of it, running campus clubs, playing sports and cultivating meaningful friendships. You aren't exceptional. It's been done before; often. And it will be done again. (See verses 9 and 10.)

Your life might be extremely hard. You might experience pain and horror far beyond what your neighbors experience. Even if you become famous in our generation for your misery, it is nothing beyond the lot of men. People have been raped and maimed and cheated and oppressed and hated and maligned and manipulated and have lost everything before. Genocide is not new. Abuse is not new. And none of it shows signs of abating.

Hmm. Not much there which is only true in some sort of negative or inverse way. In fact, if you have some wisdom you may be saying, "Wow, that is really obvious." Yes; what makes it so profoundly wise is the fact that humans seem so incapable of coping with the realization that all the stock ways we like to define ourselves do not make us special, and with the realization that we are not on the verge of ridding ourselves of misery. It's just the next iteration of humanity.

Verses 5 through 7 run in much the same vein, but with emphasis on the physical creation. They are plain and undeniable—and yet with a deeper meaning; thus the Teacher concludes from them:

8aAll things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it...

I'm a software engineer. Software is the epitome of vapor. What intense skill must be exerted, to accomplish such astonishing tasks—until our newest competitor makes us obsolete, or the whole codebase is entirely rewritten.

On a more personal level, I am kind of demented about making my code beautiful. So far in my experience, that kind of dementia is a rare disease. I've worked with a lot of legacy code, and with a lot of people who might have benefitted from reading this book. I cringe every time I extract a pretty little class, test-driven and refactored, from a big ball of mud—I shudder to imagine the fate of my little works of art.

Okay. Sorry for geeking out there for a bit; it might seem like a diversion, particularly because there are people on this site who did not come here from StackOverflow. Here's what I'm trying to say: This is personal to me. I get it. Life is full of weariness. I'm spending my life1 writing code that's only going to be messed up and then eventually thrown away. The net result of all my code in the span of human history: negligible.

Let me hate on the cat who wrote the question for a minute. I suspect that when he held to his former position about Ecclesiastes, he was buying into the "Christians are supposed to be happy all the time" lie. There is a superficial idea among Christians that if we ever reach a point (like Job did!) where we just can't explain away the problems then we have reached a theological failure.

This is not the only part of the Bible that deals with problem. Try reading the Psalms, Jeremiah or Lamentations. How can some of the apparently extremely pessimistic statements be taken?—as real talk, homey. The Bible is real talk.

And my writing tone—now—is not one that offers you a neat little bow to tie all your little problems up with. —Propaganda

Do not confuse God's goodness with your ability to explain it. My frustration at work isn't just me and can't just be fixed by working with programmers who love clean code. It is a pandemic problem—

8b...the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.

My problem is simply that temporal things do not satisfy. I cannot be made happy by any organ of my body, for it is only vapor that passes in and out of my organs. Organs only want more until they wear out.

Now this is certainly not at all in tension with the other teachings of the Bible. All the passion of the righteous man is directed toward one thing:

One thing have I asked of Yahweh, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of Yahweh all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of Yahweh and to inquire in his temple. (Psalm 27:4)

He uses the terminology of "gaze," but he is certainly not speaking of something his earthly eyes can behold and be satisfied by (the beauty of Yahweh is only partly visible by the eye even to Moses on the side of the mountain). When this singlehearted purpose is strayed from, only dry cisterns can be found.

Conclusion

This line of reasoning can be extended to the rest of the book. When I used to think of Ecclesiastes as a book of negative wisdom, I was thinking rightly in that I recognized that the vapor ought to drive us to the Rock. However, to think that Ecclesiastes is the ranting of a man driven mad by his sin misses the candidness of the book, and decreases its potency. Not: if you don't cling to the Rock, you will go mad and see all as vapor; but rather: all under the sun is vapor—flee to the Rock.


1I'm about to start a new job at an Agile company, and hopefully there will be lots of demented people there. However, I suspect that even if I enjoy my job more it will still feel like vapor many days.

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There are two books of the "Son of David": Ec 1:1 ¶ The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Mt 1:1 ¶ The book of the generation [record] of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

The first book is the earthly wisdom that Solomon gained and speaks of the kingdom of this world. The second book is heavenly wisdom and speaks of the kingdom of heaven.

Though Solomon was the wisest man on earth...

(1Ki 10:23 So king Solomon exceeded all the kings of the earth for riches and for wisdom.)

...he was the veriest fool in the kingdom because he did not obey God.

De 17:16 But he shall not multiply horses to himself, nor cause the people to return to Egypt, to the end that he should multiply horses: forasmuch as the LORD hath said unto you, Ye shall henceforth return no more that way.

His multiplicity of wives brought foreign gods into Israel.

Ps 111:10 The fear of the LORD [is] the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding have all they that do [his commandments]: his praise endureth for ever.

The simplest child who obeys God is wiser than Solomon.

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Solomon did not write Ecc. It is composed late, around the 3rd-2nd century or maybe the first. It is replete with Greek thinking and Greek influence, and it is the closest thing to a half-way house between early Judaism and midieval Judaism/Christianity in the Bible. It is reflecting the theological crisis of the later Jewish era. –  Ron Maimon Apr 17 '12 at 19:27
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@Ron: But the text clearly presents itself as being written by a king of Israel and strongly suggests a connection to Solomon. Whoever wrote it, the text clearly wants us to have Solomon's wisdom in mind. As to the date, the range among scholars seems to be 4th to mid 2nd century BC. I don't see any arguments for the first. (Not that the date seems to matter at all under this interpretation.) –  Jon Ericson Apr 17 '12 at 20:52
    
@JonEricson: The 1st century is impossible, as it appears in LXX, that's me making stuff up. Sorry. I am sure there is a Solomonic idea, but I am not sure that it is Solomon himself that is being brought up. I didn't read any Bible parts involving Solomon, except for Song of Songs, so I can't comment. –  Ron Maimon Apr 18 '12 at 0:41

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