12 Aug 2011

Dust In the Wind: Qohelet’s Protest against "Solomon"

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Ecclesiastes, Exegesis, Hebrew Bible

Ecclesiastes is one of my favorite books in the Bible. It is one of the strangest books in the Bible too. Its real messages tends to be neutered among Christians. This is my second short reflection on this amazingly profound piece of biblical protest literature.

I have been asked about my KJV series … yes there is more to come!

Who wrote Ecclesiastes?

It is important to note that that this is a separate question from who is Qohelet. Qohelet is the person who speaks through most of the book – the preacher. But the book was not written by Qohelet. There is the voice of the narrator that opens in the Prologue and reappears in the Epilogue to the book – clearly not the same person as Qohelet — even in English. This question is also not a question about inspiration.

Even the most conservative scholars have long argued against the position that

Solomon was neither the author nor Qohelet — I have come to accept this position for a number of reasons to be listed below. E. J. Young, probably the most conservative OT scholar of the last century even denied Solomon was the author of this book. There is in fact nothing in the book to support the notion that Solomon was author of the book.

1) Ecclesiastes 1.12 (Qohelet, was king over Israel in Jerusalem).

It is striking that the past tense is used here. Its use is a claim that there was a time when Solomon was alive but was no longer king (if we were to understand Qohelet as Solomon). Indeed the ancient Targum understands it this way and creates a legend that Solomon abdicated his throne in his old age. The historical books (Kings and Chronicles) however not only do not mention such a thing, but do not allow such a period in Solomon’s life. According to 1 kings 11, Solomon died WHILE STILL king of Israel.

2) Ecclesiastes 1.16a (I said to myself, ‘I have surpassed in wisdom everyone who ruled Jerusalem before me . . .”)

This sounds very strange on Solomon’s lips. Qohelet claims more wisdom than all the rulers in Jerusalem that proceeded him, but only David was ruler in Jerusalem before him. Unless one wishes to postulate that these included the pagan rulers of Jebus before it was Jerusalem.

3) The use of the image of “king”

I have concluded is a literary device used by Qohelet. That Qohelet is not really a king, or was a king, becomes evident when careful readers notice that the association between Qohelet and “king” lasts only through the first 3 chapters of the book, after which nothing is made of it. In fact when the kingship comes up later in the book there is a large gap between the speaker and the institution. For example in Ecclesiastes 4.1-3,

I turned and observed all the oppression that is done under the sun, and Oh, the tears of the oppressed!! There is no one to comfort them. Power is in the grasp of the oppressors. There is no one to comfort them. So I praised the dead who are already dead more than the living who are still alive. But better than both of these is the one who does not yet exist. That one has not seen the evil activity that is done under the sun.

How could Solomon write these verses? He was the mightiest ruler of the land. He could easily have done something more than bemoan the plight of the oppressed — as king that was his sworn duty. He was sworn to protect the oppressed. Note what Psalm 72 says (it is attributed to Solomon in the heading:

He will defend the afflicted among the people
and save the children of the needy;
he will crush the oppressor . . .
For he will deliver the needy who cry out,
the afflicted who have no one to help.
He will take pity on the weak and the needy
and save the needy from death.
He will rescue them from oppression and violence
for precious is their blood in his sight.
(Psalm 72. 4, 12-14a).

Indeed, from Kings we know that Solomon himself rather than bemoan the plight of the poor was in fact the oppressor. He created heavy burdens for his people, something that continued until the end of his reign as we know from the dialogue between the people of Israel and Rehoboam (1 Kings 12, esp. v.4).

4) Ecclesiastes 5.7-8 [English text 5.8-9] “If you see oppression of the poor and deprivation of justice and righteousness in the province, do not be surprised concerning the situation. For one official looks out for the other, and there are officials over them. The profit of the land is taken by all; even the king benefits from the field.”

As before this seems like an impossible statement coming from Solomon. It is rather a PROTEST against the establishment, against the king, not by the king. Solomon, I doubt, would have so written about himself. And the comments under #3 apply here as well. The internal clues point to a person who was anything but the king.

From a stand point of the language of the text one can only comment that the Hebrew of Ecclesiastes is not like that of any other book in the Hebrew Bible. As one scholar once noted “if Koheleth were of old Solomonic origin, then there is no history of the Hebrew language” (Franz Delitzsch). The Hebrew of Ecc is more like what one finds in the Mishnah than in the rest of the Hebrew Bible. That strongly suggests that the book originates probably in the 3rd or 4th century B.C.E. rather than the 10th.

Who wrote Ecclesiastes? A man known to us simply as the “Teacher” or “Preacher” whose confessions or observations were brought together by one of his students. Only in heaven will we learn of their real names. The names are unimportant however because the teaching is truly profound.

Leave a Reply