Ecclesiastes is a much neglected book of theology. Apart from a few pop cultural references and the oft quoted conclusion, little is actually done with the book as a whole. This is unfortunate because the book asks many of the challenging existential questions of our own day (i.e. what good is all the work I do from day to day?). These challenging questions introduce themes that develop throughout the book and do not allow the type of piecemeal reading of the book that is more typical and appropriate of the book of Proverbs. We would do well to read the book holistically, considering carefully the inner musings of the book’s main character, Qohelet. “The Preacher/Teacher” as (s)he is often rendered in translations, Qohelet is introduced by an unnamed narrator who returns at the conclusion of the book (12:9-14) to offer a final evaluation of all that Qohelet has said. This frame-narrator is the one to whom we should attribute authorship of the work as a whole. Thus, the famous conclusion to “fear God and keep his commandments” is not to be attributed to whomever we may identify with Qohelet.
The identity of Qohelet is the subject of much debate. Too often it is assumed that Qohelet is to be identified unequivocally as Solomon (based solely on 1:12-2:19); this identification ultimately will not do justice to the book of Ecclesiastes as a whole or to the theology of the Old Testament. First, the name Solomon is never used of Qohelet. In fact, Qohelet is not a title as our translations suggest (i.e. The Preacher/Teacher), it is the character’s name (and the name is not Solomon!). The name is a feminine participle, “one who assembles,” and likely plays off the image of Lady Wisdom in the book of Proverbs who assembles people to instruct them (Pro 1:20-33; 8:1-36; 9:1-12; cf. Eccl 12:9). This does not necessarily mean Qohelet is a female, as both masculine and feminine verbs are used in reference to the character (1:2-masculine; 7:27-feminine). Second, the identification of Solomon simply cannot be maintained throughout the entirety of the text. While 1:12-2:19 is certainly intended to reflect the character of Solomon, other passages like 4:1 reflect sentiments never shared by the Solomon we read about in the narrative literature of Israel. Oppression was characteristic of Solomon’s reign (1 Ki 12:1-4) and thus clearly not something he would have been powerless to reverse. The unquestionable allusion to Solomon at the outset of the book is an intentional literary move on the part of the author best understood in light of the central aim of the book (more on this below).
The motivating question of the book is set forth in 1:3, “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” In my own words: Is what I do from day to day meaningful in any real sense? Qohelet finds that true meaning is threatened by what he identifies as hevel. Qohelet’s unique use of the word hevel makes it notoriously difficult to translate. Attempts by modern translations to capture its meaning by “vanity” or “meaningless” are not just insufficient, they are misleading and counterproductive. The word is best left untranslated and its meaning should be derived from the variety of ways in which Qohelet makes use of it. While no English word captures the phenomenon of which Qohelet laments, I believe the slang phrase “shit happens” captures the essence of this phenomenon. While Qohelet conclusions regarding hevel and meaning may not satisfy the idealists of the world (Qohelet is often touted as a cynical wisdom teacher), his somber judgments about taking advantage of today elicits a very down-to-earth (under the sun?) approach to the ethical, moral, and otherwise religious spheres of life (Eccl 9:7-10).
So what does this have to do with Solomon? First, Solomon represents the wisdom tradition of Israel. The appeal to Israel’s most exalted wisdom teacher, Solomon, is likely to lend credence to the book. Second, the book sets forth an ambitious agenda: “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? . . . And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with” (Eccl 1:3, 13). Who is suited for this investigation? Qohelet, as Solomon the king, has unlimited funds, resources, authority, and time to carry out this investigation. Qohelet, as Solomon the wise man, has unsurpassed wisdom to use in his investigation. If anyone could provide an answer to this question, certainly it would be Solomon!? But Qohelet goes where Solomon could never go, and experiences life on the other end of the social spectrum as the book progresses (4:1). In the words of the apostle Paul, Qohelet has “become all things to all people that by all means [he] might [persuade] some” (1 Cor 9:22).
The narrator finds himself persuaded by much of what Qohelet has said (12:10). He does, however, offer a slight critique to what Qohelet calls the “whole [duty?] of man” (3:13, 5:18; 7:2). In light of hevel‘s grip on the world around us, the foremost concerns of mankind are to be understood theologically: “Fear God and keep his commandments, indeed, this is the whole [duty] of man! For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (12:13-14).