The Authorship of Ecclesiastes

The book of Ecclesiastes bears no author’s name. The very first verse says that the book contains the words of someone called “the Teacher.” In Hebrew, this is the word qoheleth (קהלת), and the traditional Hebrew name for this book is Qoheleth, and often modern scholars will refer to the author as Qoheleth. The Greek translation renders qoheleth with the word ἐκκλησιαστής, and the Latin translation has ecclesiastes, which is obviously how we got the English name for the book. The Hebrew qoheleth (related to qahal, “assembly”) and the Greek/Latin ecclesiastes (related to ecclesia, “assembly”) both mean something like “assembly-man,” probably someone who speaks in an assembly, thus “teacher” or “preacher.”

Who is Qoheleth? The book does not explicitly identify him, but it provides some clues that Qoheleth is actually King Solomon, and the traditional view is that Solomon wrote the book. On the other hand, hardly any modern scholar thinks Solomon actually did write this book.

Let’s take a look at the evidence.

Indications that Qoheleth is Solomon

Solomon’s name never appears in the book, but a few verses strongly encourage us to think about Solomon.

The words of Qoheleth, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.

Ecclesiastes 1:1

I, Qoheleth, was king over Israel in Jerusalem.

Ecclesiastes 1:12

I said to myself, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.”

Ecclesiastes 1:16

I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself.

Ecclesiastes 2:4

I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house; I also had great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem.

Ecclesiastes 2:7

The picture presented by these verses certainly points to Solomon, above all. It is interesting that all of these verses appear in the first two chapters. If you look in chapters 3–12 for indications that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes, you will mostly come up empty. But certainly the first two chapters point toward Solomon.

The Opposing View

But hardly any scholars, indeed, hardly any conservative scholars, believe Solomon wrote this book. Reasons: 

(1) The statement in 1:12 may be interpreted so that the speaker is no longer king over Israel, which does not fit Solomon. On the other hand, we could translate the verb as “have been”, so there is no problem.

(2) 1:16 would appear to be an empty boast seeing that David was the only king over Jerusalem before Solomon. On the other hand, it is possible, though unlikely, that the speaker is referring to the Jebusite kings.

(3) The picture of Solomon ceases after chapter 2 (as already mentioned).

(4) Some statements fit oddly in Solomon’s mouth. The examples I regard as the best (i.e., most odd in Solomon’s mouth) are below. None of them are decisive, certainly not alone, or even all together, but they might make one wonder whether we should really imagine that Solomon wrote the book.

Moreover I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, wickedness was there, and in the place of righteousness, wickedness was there as well. 

Ecclesiastes 3:16

Since Solomon is the high judge of Israel, he inhabits “the place of justice,” so it seems like he could do something about the wickedness in the place of judgement. Maybe this observation concerns rather a foreign kingdom?

Better is a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king, who will no longer take advice. 14 One can indeed come out of prison to reign, even though born poor in the kingdom. 15 I saw all the living who, moving about under the sun, follow that youth who replaced the king; 16 there was no end to all those people whom he led. Yet those who come later will not rejoice in him. Surely this also is vanity and a chasing after wind.

Ecclesiastes 4:13–16

Could Solomon have said these things? Well, not as observations on his own country. Maybe these observations concern a foreign kingdom?

Keep the king’s command because of your sacred oath. 3 Do not be terrified; go from his presence, do not delay when the matter is unpleasant, for he does whatever he pleases. 4 For the word of the king is powerful, and who can say to him, “What are you doing?” 5 Whoever obeys a command will meet no harm, and the wise mind will know the time and way. 6 For every matter has its time and way, although the troubles of mortals lie heavy upon them.

Ecclesiastes 8:2–6

It sounds a little odd for Solomon to give advice about how to interact with a king. On the other hand, who better to give such advice than a king?

Alas for you, O land, when your king is a servant,

and your princes feast in the morning!

17 Happy are you, O land, when your king is a nobleman,

and your princes feast at the proper time—

for strength, and not for drunkenness!

18 Through sloth the roof sinks in,

and through indolence the house leaks.

19 Feasts are made for laughter;

wine gladdens life,

and money meets every need.

20 Do not curse the king, even in your thoughts,

or curse the rich, even in your bedroom;

for a bird of the air may carry your voice,

or some winged creature tell the matter.

Ecclesiastes 10:16–20

Again, this advice sounds a little odd in the mouth of Solomon (or any king). If we just came across this piece of wisdom on a piece of papyrus disconnected from a larger book, we would no doubt guess that it was composed by a courtier giving advice to other courtiers.

(5) The biggest argument against Solomonic authorship of Ecclesiastes is linguistic. The Hebrew of Ecclesiastes gives the impression of late Hebrew (i.e., long after the time of Solomon). Franz Delitzsch is often quoted: “If the book of Koheleth were of old Solomonic origin, then there is no history of the Hebrew language.” On the other hand, the linguistic nature of the book has been shown to be odd no matter what time period of Hebrew is concerned, and so it may not present an argument against Solomon. As Archer says, it is not impossible that Solomon wrote it.

Speech-in-Character?

The question must be asked as to why Solomon’s name does not appear in the book. Why would he use the pseudonym Qoheleth? The other books ascribed to him (Proverbs, Song of Songs) do bear his name in their titles.

Scholars who question Solomonic authorship do not question that we are supposed to think of Solomon in the first two chapters, but they say this is just an overt impersonation of Solomon, not intended to deceive, so that Qoheleth can illustrate life’s vanity through Solomon. This impersonation ceases after ch. 2, and Qoheleth takes up his own persona, that of a teacher.

In other words, the idea (and conservative scholars often take up this idea) is that Qoheleth “plays the part” of Solomon for two chapters in order to illustrate the futility of even the most pampered and privileged life. Sorta like season 4 of the Netflix show The Crown—the guy who plays Prince Charles is not, of course, really Prince Charles, nor is he trying to deceive us into thinking that he is really Prince Charles. He’s playing a part, and in some ways doing the same thing as Qoheleth: illustrating the futility or despair (or something like that) of even the most pampered life.

To take a biblical example, scholars often say that something similar is going on in Romans 7:14–25. They say—and I agree with the basic idea here—that Paul is not talking about his own present life, even though he says things that sound like it (“I am sold under sin”). It simply makes no sense to say that Paul the apostle is “sold under sin,” not when he has just been arguing that the baptized believer has been freed from sin (Roman 6) and when he is about to argue that the life of the Spirit is opposed to the life of the flesh (Romans 8). So scholars often talk about this section in Romans 7 as “speech in character,” such that Paul is not talking about himself but perhaps the person who doesn’t know Christ. Someone outside of Christ could say “I am sold under sin,” and Paul is playing the part of the non-Christian.

Other biblical examples of this sort of “speech in character” could be the way the New Testament interprets some of the Psalms, for instance, the way Peter in Acts 2 interprets Psalm 16, that even though David wrote Psalm 16, he must not have been talking about himself but about the Messiah. This Psalm represents David’s “speech in character” as the Messiah.

So, the idea might appear weird at first, but it is actually a little more common than we may initially realize. And I’ll say that often when I preach, I speak in the voice of God or of some other character. I’ll say something like, “I sent my son to die for you because I love you and I want to redeem you to myself,” or whatever. Speech-in character.

The idea is that this Qoheleth was some of sort of wisdom teacher who did a “speech-in-character” as Solomon for a couple chapters and then dropped the Solomon-bit and went on to his other wisdom teaching. This is the idea of authorship held, I think, by almost all scholars, including conservative scholars.

The Two Voices

We should recognize, though, that there are two voices in the book: a second voice—a frame narrator, not Qoheleth. Qoheleth speaks in the first person, and the frame narrator speaks about Qoheleth in the third person. There are three passages in which the reader can perceive the voice of the frame narrator, at the beginning, middle, and end of the book.

The words of Qoheleth, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.

2 Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth,

vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

Ecclesiastes 1:1–2

See, this is what I found, says Qoheleth, adding one thing to another to find the sum,

Ecclesiastes 7:27

Vanity of vanities, says the Qoheleth; all is vanity. 9 Besides being wise, Qoheleth also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs. 10 Qoheleth sought to find pleasing words, and he wrote words of truth plainly. 11 The sayings of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings that are given by one shepherd. 12 Of anything beyond these, my child, beware. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. 13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:8–14

Since the frame narrator provides the material at the beginning and end of the book, it would be more correct to call this person the author of Ecclesiastes and Qoheleth is the main character of the book. This would make the frame narrator the canonical author, and not Qoheleth.

(Traditionally the third person material has been interpreted as the voice of Solomon in old age looking back on his life, while the first person material is Solomon writing as a young man. This line of thinking is possible for the end of the book, but it falters when confronted with the “says Qoheleth” in 1:2; 7:27; and 12:8, where it just doesn’t make sense.)

The most persuasive argument for identifying Qoheleth with Solomon is the first verse, in which the frame narrator says that we are about to hear the words of the son of David, king in Jerusalem. In order for this to cohere with the “speech-in-character” view held by the majority of scholars, one would have to say that the frame narrator is saying that we are about to hear the words of a teacher who is, at first, imitating the son of David, king in Jerusalem.

The most persuasive argument for not identifying Qoheleth with Solomon is that Solomon’s name is never mentioned. Why would Solomon hide his identity behind a pseudonym (Qoheleth)? Why would the frame narrator refrain from revealing the true Qoheleth? The frame narrator does not at all identify Qoheleth with Solomon at the end of the book, but merely describes Qoheleth as a teacher and wise man.

In any case, the frame narrator was not Solomon, and was likely someone much later in Israel’s history (if we give credence to the linguistic argument). 

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