Ecclesiastes (1)


Alter, Robert.  The Wisdom Books: Job Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes.  A translation with commentary.  (W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 2010).

Berlin, Adele and Marc  Zvi Brettler (editors).  The Jewish Study Bible (JPS Tanakh Translation).  (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004).  Pages 1603-1620 includes an introduction.

Brown, William P.  Ecclesiastes.  Part of the Interpretation Bible Commentary Series edited by James L. Mays.  (John Knox Press, Louisville, 2000).

Lohfink, Norbert.  Qoheleth, translated by Sean McEvenue.  Part of the Continental Commentary series.  (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2003).

Ogden, Graham S. and Lynell Zogbo.  A Handbook on Ecclesiastes.  Part of the  UBS Handbook Series.  (United Bible Societies, New York, 1997).

Scherman, Rabbi Nosson (editor).  Tanach: The Torah / Prophets / Writings.  The Stone Edition.  (Mesorah Publications, New York, 1996).

Towner, W. Sibley.  The Book of Ecclesiastes in The New Interpreter’s Bible Volume V.  Part of the New Interpreter’s Bible commentary and translation series edited by Leander E Keck and others.  (Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1997)

Zlotowitz, Rabbi Meir.  Ecclesiastes: A New Translation with a Commentary Anthologized from Talmudic, Midrashic and Rabbinic Sources.  (Mesorah Publications, New York, 1994)


Week One Tuesday Feb. 8: Chapters 1 – 6            (Week Two Tuesday Feb. 15: Chapters 7 – 12)


An overview:

Name comes from the first word of the book in Hebrew “Qoheleth”  – the Hebrew root is  qhl.  Sometimes rendered Preacher or Teacher, the  best sense of it is “community (leader or convener/assembler)”.  Our English Ecclesiastes is based on the ancient Greek Septuagint  translation of the Hebrew  word as  ekklesia which also means community or church.  Our New American Bible translation does not translate the word at all, opting to consider it a proper name – Qoheleth.

In Judaism all of  Qoheleth / Ecclesiastes is read as part of the Sukkot (Tabernacles / Booths)  celebration each year.  Read in the Catholic  lectionary cycle for Sundays  only on the  18th Sunday in Ordinary Time in  Cycle C.

Towner p. 267: “This commentary has been written in the conviction that we need to hear the author of Ecclesiastes out.  Time and time again one is driven to admit the truth of what Ecclesiastes has to say, even though one might not want to hear it.  Here is the most real of the realists of the sacred writers. … No faith can survive long that is founded on the slippery slope of conceptually muddled piety, and in Qohelet, God has given us a tonic for our biblical faith.”

Lohfink p. viii : argues that the author of the book is in dialogue with, in tension with, arguing with, not just Greek wisdom or ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, and  Hebrew wisdom – but all of the broad wisdom tradition before him and at his time.  p.15: Reality, in the end, DOES have meaning and purpose and order – but only God sees it and knows it,  we cannot.

Lohfink p. 15: Qoheleth has a radical focus on this world, in perfect harmony with the rest of the bible.  At a time when a spiritual immortality (Plato, Greeks) was rising, when apocalyptic ideas were also rising that tended to focus too much on the next world,  Qoheleth focused attention on the reality of the here and now and of death marking its end.  Which absolutely does NOT mean that this world and its things and activities are the POINT of life.

The rabbis attribute 3 books to King Solomon – Song of Songs, Psalms, and Ecclesiastes.

Towner p. 270, 271: linguistic characteristics allow us to date the book as one of the latest in the biblical canon, perhaps 300 to 200 BCE.  While there was some debate and dispute amongst both Jews and Christians it has always been considered a part of the Biblical canon.

Zlotowitz pps. xxxvi and ff:  a revered rabbi of the 13th century in Spain  (Nachmanides) saw three themes in the book:

  1. 1.       humanity must learn to avoid striving after the pleasures of this world because, for all their appeal to us, they are fleeting and valueless.  These pleasures (Z) likens to fireworks – full of flash and color one moment, gone entirely the next.
  2. 2.       despite appearances in our own eyes and our fallible understanding God IS just and God’s justice will triumph – in this world or the next.
  3. 3.       God is merciful and all good.

The conclusion of the book (12:13) is this: “The sum of the matter, when all has been considered: Fear God and keep His commandments, for that is man’s whole duty.”

Towner page 277: human experience and reflection about it have at the heart of the matter a tension.  Looked at this way and then that way – it seems that there is a lot of conflicting truth.  Traditional punishment / reward thought is found lacking, total moral randomness equally or more so.

This book, like other wisdom tradition books (Proverbs) does not contain a series of linear propositions or doctrines or absolute truths.  They are “generally true” insights garnered from lived human experience.  Hence, as in the Book of Proverbs, there can be two statements that are opposites: “A fool and his money are soon parted.” along with other statements about rich fools!  In Ecclesiastes – better off not to be born in one chapter,” better to be a live dog than a dead lion” in another.

Towner p. 278: “Perhaps Ecclesiastes is best viewed as a notebook of ideas by a philosopher / theologian about the downside and upside of life.  In this notebook he reports much of his own inner life and then turns to his students or his public with instructions that flow from that inner life.”

Towner p. 283: “Ecclesiastes is not a book about God; it is a book about ideas.  … Its ideas are about human survival in a world in which work is pain, overwork is foolish, pleasure soon pales in the face of death, and wisdom is unable to comprehend even the simplest sequences that would make possible real understanding of the world.  Such a world is absurd.  Yet…  He holds God in profound respect but will never claim to know too much about God.  Above all he will not commit God to the program of distributive justice that Job’s friends advocated.  Is his God just, then?  Is his God even good?  Qohelet does not tell us, perhaps cannot tell us.  His is not a book about God.”  (Most of the scholars agree  the first verse and the last few verses  are not from Qohelet.)

Brown p. 18: “In essence, Ecclesiastes is a book about seeking, one that moves between cynicism and acceptance, worldliness and spirituality, anxiety and serenity. “  Seek, accept disappointments and disillusionment, trust in our God who is beyond any comprehension, enjoy the moments of grace within life.


Chapters 1:1 to 2:26 Theme, Illustrations on the Theme of Absurdity

Translations vary: vanity of vanities, breath-  a puff  of breaths, vapors of vapors, JPS has futility of futilities.  The Hebrew word ‘hebel’ occurs 37 times in the book.  All have the same essence – something appears to be there but is not.  Towner p. 279: by use in other parts of Hebrew bible the sense is something without merit or value, an unreliable or useless thing.  Absurdity of absurdities.  Verse 1:2 and 12:8 are the same, constitute the them of the book, and mark the boundaries of the original text: Vanity of Vanities, all is vanity.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

Ogden p. 4 argues that Qoheleth throughout the book does not mean ‘vanity’ or ‘meaningless’ but “incomprehensible (by us)”.  Later uses include using it to express frustration with this reality.  “Each time he confronts these human problems, he recognizes that he cannot explain them, and so he eventually concludes that the best thing to do is to enjoy life.  Interestingly, when he gives this advice he is not advocating pleasure for pleasure’s sake.  He emphasizes that we should enjoy the life that God has given us.”

Ogden p. 23 says the sense of the first verses is thus:

“What a vast mystery!” says Qoheleth.  “What a vast mystery!”  “It seems as though everything  defies our understanding!”

Ogden p. 9 / 10: Qoheleth’s advice: ENJOY LIFE! occurs: 2:24, 3:22, 5:18, 8:15, 9:7, 11:7

Zlotowitz p. xvii “What profit doe man have for all his labor which he toils beneath the sun?”  (1:3)  And the academy of Rabbi Yannai said, “Only in striving for benefit in what is under the sun is there no gain, but in striving for Torah which preceded the sun, there is benefit.”

Lohfink is more open than the others appear to be that the book contains rhetorical questions “What profit …” , with subsequent thoughts that explore them without committing to particular positions.  We tend to read them as simply another way of making a declaration of a position.

“Why are you working 60+ hour weeks?”   “I have a great job.  I love my job.”  Remember – a good job doesn’t love you back.

Towner p. 294: Everything we do, even our best, is destined for the cosmic scrap heap.  “…it becomes even more urgent than ever for us to impose meaning upon existence through acts of courage, loving-kindness, and compassion.  Although the memory of such acts will not survive, the acts themselves transcend the perishing nature of the world because they participate in the eternal reality of the love of God …”

What we “gain” or “store up” in the way of possessions in the end goes to others – remember the numerous saying of Jesus in the gospels related to this thought.

The sun, the wind, the water – indeed all of creation goes about it’s appointed rounds and in a sense, never gets anywhere, never adds to or subtracts from its total.  These images are “circular” and not “linear” as we tend to see our world, as we tend to see “progress”.  Qoheleth undermines some of the core assumptions we have of our constructed reality.  ON THE OTHER HAND: Lohfink p. 40 argues that Qoheleth is praising this circularity, its perfection and completeness, that it is OUR modern bias and  problem that we want change and see the poem as depressing.

The pursuit of wisdom (under the sun) leads to grief and sorrow, the pursuit of joy and pleasure is equally a dead end.   And yet we persist.  Philip Wylie  in Generation of Vipers, says “ignorance is not bliss – it is oblivion.”

All is absurd.  This is a persistent yet very uncomfortable part of our human life, our experience of life, and thought.  What if it’s true?  So much of our everyday life depends on us ignoring the thought and the question.  The poets, philosophers, writers, artists try refuse to let us ignore it.  Perhaps also our religious leaders?????

It is not so much that there is no meaning, pleasure or goodness in work, in eating, in making love – but it is not ULTIMATE in nature, and it is fleeting.

Chapter 3:1 to 3:15  Reflections on the meaning of time

Towner p. 305:  “Qohelet does not say why things occur at their appropriate times.  They just do.”

Brown p. 41: “Each activity, whether positive or negative has its season, and the seasons themselves have their place in the rhythm of the ever-circling years.  …   But no one activity has universal sway any more than exhaling or inhaling dominates the rhythm of breathing.  Permanence is not part of the chronological equation.”

Medieval rabbis –  unit of gathering stones … embracing  are  metaphors for sexual relations.  Other rabbis suggest the scattering and bringing back of Jewish exiles (Berlin, p. 1609).  others the destruction of the Temple and its rebuilding.  others suggest a game.  others the preparation for cultivating fields.

The trick is to know when to do what, to know what is appropriate now and what is not.


Chapter 3:16 to 4:8  Reflections on justice and death

Towner p. 311: “The ancients believed that at death everything returns to its source.  Consistent with that model, in 12:7 Qohelet distinguishes between the dust that descend to the ground from whence it came and the “breath” that arises to God, from whom it came.  However, the question of the continued existence of the creature that can live only because it is a combination of dust and life-breath is left totally unanswered.  The logic of the Teacher’s argument is to forge a solidarity in death between animals and human beings.”

fools fold their hands (refuse to work) and thereby destroy themselves, not cannibalism.  Brown p. 50: “As toil can be all-consuming, so idleness is self-cannibalizing.  The challenge is to find a balance by gaining a new perspective on the value of work.”

Berlin p. 1610 – Qoheleth takes no ultimate position on “life after death” (which had begun to circulate in the century or two before the time of Jesus)as an answer to the problem of the reality of successful evil-doers and the tragic fates of many good persons.  However, the reality of death is what he sees and he advises humanity to focus on enjoying what we have while we have it.

Chapter 4:9 to 6:12  Aphorisms on competition, cooperation, vows, love of money, and lowering expectations

Towner p. 319: “Those who have nothing to lose sleep sweetly even on half-empty stomachs, while those who have more than they need lose sleep worrying about protecting their assets – or perhaps because they have overeaten.”

Brown p. 60: “Possessing something cannot ensure that one will live longer, gain incontestable power, or appropriate life in all its joyous possibilities.  Consumption, in short, does not render contentment; it simply leads to more consumption, a vicious cycle.”

recognizing that the fruits of our labors and the world around us are gifts from God and are not really of our own doing makes enjoying them possible.  There remains the puzzle of who gets what gifts, when, how, why.


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