Praise for Ecclesiastes Through the Centuries

“Christianson’s study of Ecclesiastes’s cultural impact is rich and rewarding. [He] beautifully exposits the material that he treats, and suggests by brief reference some other avenues of fruitful exploration. In these ways, Ecclesiastes Through the Centuries serves both as an excellent treatment of the title theme and a good model for other reception histories to follow. The book may be heartily recommended, without reservation.”

Bible and Critical Theory

“Students of Ecclesiastes have been waiting a good many years for a book like Eric Christianson’s study … Not since the time of Christian David Ginsburg’s magisterial commentary Coheleth (commonly called the Book of Ecclesiastes) in 1861 has there been such a thorough survey of the reception history of Ecclesiastes.”

Lutheran Theological Journal

“With the text’s many difficult and provocative passages, the reception history of Ecclesiastes is always going to be more interesting than that of many biblical books, and in this erudite but entertaining commentary, Christianson takes full advantage of the rich materials at his disposal … The introduction and commentary proper cover many topics, from patristic and rabbinic exegesis through to modern science-fiction, with numerous stops on the way … Christianson is a genial guide throughout, and his own enthusiasm is clear; the book is very well written and accessible, moreover, so that it should appeal to both specialists and a wider public … Overall an excellent book.”

Society for Old Testament Study Book List

“A fundamental resource on biblical interpretation, especially in the modern world, this book is a winner.”

International Review of Biblical Studies

“The Bible’s boldest dissonant voice, often muted in the interpretations of theologians, rings out clearly when amplified by the candid commentaries of such eclectic literary masters as Bunyan, Voltaire, Thackeray, and T.S. Eliot. Christianson’s book draws the reader into the company of many distinguished earlier readers, admiring and critical alike. Those who, like me, appreciate the dissenting voice of Ecclesiastes will treasure this book as a new favourite about an old one.”

Bernhard Lang, University of Paderborn

“Sophisticated and illuminating at every turn, this is an exemplary history of interpretation. A gem of a book.”

Harold C. Washington, Saint Paul School of Theology

Blackwell Bible Commentaries


For Juliana and Elliot

Series Editors’ Preface

The Blackwell Bible Commentaries series, the first to be devoted primarily to the reception history of the Bible, is based on the premise that how people have interpreted, and been influenced by, a sacred text like the Bible is often as interesting and historically important as what it originally meant. The series emphasizes the influence of the Bible on literature, art, music, and film, its role in the evolution of religious beliefs and practices, and its impact on social and political developments. Drawing on work in a variety of disciplines, it is designed to provide a convenient and scholarly means of access to material until now hard to find, and a much-needed resource for all those interested in the influence of the Bible on Western culture.

Until quite recently this whole dimension was for the most part neglected by biblical scholars. The goal of a commentary was primarily if not exclusively to get behind the centuries of accumulated Christian and Jewish tradition to one single meaning, normally identified with the author’s original intention. The most important and distinctive feature of the Blackwell Commentaries is that they will present readers with many different interpretations of each text, in such a way as to heighten their awareness of what a text, especially a sacred text, can mean and what it can do, what it has meant and what it has done, in the many contexts in which it operates.

The Blackwell Bible Commentaries will consider patristic, rabbinic (where relevant), and medieval exegesis as well as insights from various types of modern criticism, acquainting readers with a wide variety of interpretative techniques. As part of the history of interpretation, questions of source, date, authorship, and other historical-critical and archaeological issues will be discussed, but since these are covered extensively in existing commentaries, such references will be brief, serving to point readers in the direction of readily accessible literature where they can be followed up.

Original to this series is the consideration of the reception history of specific biblical books arranged in commentary format. The chapter-by-chapter arrangement ensures that the biblical text is always central to the discussion. Given the wide influence of the Bible and the richly varied appropriation of each biblical book, it is a difficult question which interpretations to include. While each volume will have its own distinctive point of view, the guiding principle for the series as a whole is that readers should be given a representative sampling of material from different ages, with emphasis on interpretations that have been especially influential or historically significant. Though commentators will have their preferences among the different interpretations, the material will be presented in such a way that readers can make up their own minds on the value, morality, and validity of particular interpretations.

The series encourages readers to consider how the biblical text has been interpreted down the ages and seeks to open their eyes to different uses of the Bible in contemporary culture. The aim is to write a series of scholarly commentaries that draw on all the insights of modern research to illustrate the rich interpretative potential of each biblical book.

John Sawyer
Christopher Rowland
Judith Kovacs
David M. Gunn


Qoheleth himself hints at the reality of the situation. The world may run its course with elegant regularity, but the stuff of interpretation – the articulation of words and the pursuit of understanding especially – is marred by fatigue, cognitive exasperation and endless publication. Rendering such boundless her-meneutical energy has required the use of fat paintbrushes, often resulting in far simpler lines than the subject would demand if examined more closely (though often that scrutiny has been more comprehensive than the lines suggest). In this respect I share wholeheartedly the views of James Barr in his preface to The Bible in the Modern World, that the phrases he found himself using (such as ‘in the early church’ or ‘up to modern times’) ‘must be the abomination of the true historian’ (1973: p. x).

It has of course not been possible to fully contextualize all of the examples of Ecclesiastes’ reception presented here, but I hope that will not be conceivedas a criticism. This commentary provides a portal of sorts to more in-depth investigation, and it is hoped that at least some of these examples will tempt readers to get out their spades and dig further. Indeed, this is precisely my own experience. In the course of research I was so enticed by the story of Voltaire’s Précis of Ecclesiastes that I selected it as a case study for detailed scrutiny (the results of which are published in Christianson 2005). I have done my best, therefore, to point the way to studies that fill out the areas that this commen­tary has by necessity excluded. And with primary material I have spent many hours producing as full and as accurate references as I could manage.

As for selection, I do not pretend to have followed an objective set of crite­ria. I have, however, sought to indicate the ongoing relationship in Ecclesiastes’ reading history between the well established and the subversive. While in many cases my own proclivities have biased me to showcase the latter, subversive readings nevertheless can say a great deal about what is conventional. Often the selection was driven by a moment of piqued curiosity or by the recognition of some strange and perceptive response to Qoheleth’s words. In such a choice there is little in the way of science.

Readers would of course be right to recognize the inordinate swelling of the Introduction, an abscess that suggests some form of unchecked verbal abandon, but the growth comes from the inordinate attention given by readers to the person of Qoheleth and the tenor of the book. In the manner of Ray Bradbury’s hero Guy Montag/Ecclesiastes in Fahrenheit 451, Ecclesiastes itself has become a byword for all sorts of critical ideas. The same can be said for the Testimonia chapter, which compiles citations on a range of subjects that authors have in some way related to ‘Qoheleth’ or the book as a whole. It is perhaps due to the manageable size of Ecclesiastes and its relatively easily grasped themes that writers have characterized its entirety with alarming frequency.

About seven years ago John Sawyer invited me to write this commentary. I immediately warmed to the spirit of the series but was wary of retreading material I had previously covered. Indeed, I set to work on a proposal for another book and surprised myself by coming to the conclusion that I did not want anyone else to write the Ecclesiastes volume! I am, then, immensely grate­ful to John for the invitation. The project has transformed my views on the nature of interpretation.

In charting this vast interpretive activity, I have been truly overwhelmed by the support of friends and colleagues who have been generous with their time, resources and skills. Among those who brought relevant material to my atten­tion, I would like to thank George Aichele, Andy Benson, Jane Day, Paul Fiddes, Paul Joyce and Tina Nicolson. I would also like to thank those who have kindly made available to me their unpublished or soon-to-be published work (often in the form of old conference papers which their authors had presumed forgot­ten!): Rebecca Beal, Howard Clarke, Eric Eliason, Paul Flesher, Michael Fox, Larry Kreitzer, Scott Langston and Anthony Perry. I must offer particular thanks to Robin MacGregor Lane who allowed me to make use of his as yet unpublished translation of Jerome’s commentary on Ecclesiastes. David Gunn, John Jarick, John Sawyer and Anthony Thiselton each gave of their valuable time reading portions of this book, and I am grateful for their many improve­ments (and I hereby exonerate them of any errors that follow). I am also grate­ful to those who kindly provided their translation skills: Andrew Dawson, Robert Evans, Terry McWilliams and Victor Morales (who also located some very useful material during a stint as research assistant). My own understand­ing of many of the odd occurrences of reception has benefited from conversa­tions with friends and colleagues, for which I offer particular thanks to Trevor Dennis, John Jarick, Chris Partridge and Mike Williams. Mike’s knowledge of classical music and perceptive listening skills was positively enlightening. Col­leagues in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Chester have supported this work in numerous ways, and I offer them my wholehearted thanks. And thanks as well to the editorial staff at Blackwell – in particular, Hannah Berry, Rebecca Harkin, Andrew Humphries, Karen Wilson, Jean van Altena and Cameron Laux – who have shown remarkable patience and support for this long-term project.

Of course a project like this requires exceptional resources, and many library staff have offered far more of their time and expertise than can reasonably be expected. They include: staff at St Deiniols library in Hawarden, North Wales (Peter Francis, Jenny Jones, Gregory Morris, Karen Parry, Nicola Pickett and Patsy Williams); staff in charge of rare collections at the Bodleian and University of Cambridge libraries; staff at the University of Chester library, in particular our indefatigable inter-library loan officer, Donna Crookall.

A special note of thanks must be offered to Catherine Milnes, who under­took a work placement as my research assistant in the early stages. It was not until I had reached the latter stages of writing that I came to realize the aston­ishing energy and detail of Catherine’s work, particularly on the vanitas arts tradition. She was, it seems, as enamoured as I with this extraordinary interpre­tive history.

I would like to thank my parents, who continue to show their support across many miles of ocean. I also thank Bob and Carol Rowberry, my parents in-law. They will never know just how much their unstinting generosity has enriched my life in the UK. I can offer only the most inadequate thanks to my wife, Sonya, for once again enduring my obsession with Qoheleth, but also for showing me uncommon support (including late night coffee and toast!). Finally, our children, Juliana and Elliot, have supported me no less with laugh­ter and a steady stream of reality doses.

A Pragmatic Note

In the commentary proper each chapter begins with a brief précis of the passage and its literary context in Ecclesiastes. The remainder of each chapter charts its interpreters. These readings are arranged chronologically, but are not cat­egorized under epochs or interpretive provenances (the only exceptions are the sections that deal with 1:1–2 and 12:1–7, which suited another scheme). Readers can, however, find extensive discussion of roughly conceived shifts of reading Ecclesiastes along such lines in the Introduction (e.g. Ecclesiastes in Renaissance readings, in modern literature etc.).

I have sought to preserve the variant spellings of early and pre-modern English, and I have not inserted ‘sic’ where exclusive language occurs (I use it only sparingly to clarify sense). Such language is so frequent in the sources that it would have become tiresome to do so.

Eric S. Christianson

1 March 2006

Preface to the Paperback Edition

It has been over five years since completing Ecclesiastes Through the Centuries. While I have been delighted by the volume’s warm reception, it was inevitable that some shortcomings would become apparent to me almost immediately. Perhaps most importantly, I realized while looking at the Preface that I had introduced ‘Qoheleth’ in the first sentence without a word of explanation. As it is the hope of the writers and editors of this series that the commentaries will have an appeal beyond the guild of biblical studies, this was an embarrassing slip-up. So, for those outside of Hebrew Bible studies especially, ‘Qoheleth’ is a transliteration of the Hebrew term for the book’s main character (alternatively transliterated as Qohelet, and more commonly in the past as Koheleth, Cohelet etc., and appearing at 1:1, 2, 12; 7:27; 12:8, 9, 10). A participle of the Hebrew verb qahal (to gather, assemble), most English translations of the Bible have alighted on a title such as ‘the Preacher’ or ‘the Teacher’ (and the ‘titling’ is supported by the prefixing of the definite article to qoheleth at 7:27 and 12:8). The majority of biblical scholarship, however, treats the word as a name, Qoheleth, and that is followed in this commentary.

Of course, some reviewers mentioned some of the gaps in the commentary’s coverage (not so much as a criticism as a point towards even further directions for readers). In terms of the primary material, the most pertinent gap to me was that there was little coverage of discourse outside of the Western European and North American. This is fair, and something I tried hard to avoid. A couple of years into the research of the commentary I was blessed with a research assistant who had studied in South Africa, was originally from Mexico and had travelled extensively. We drafted a letter/email which was sent to as many of his contacts as possible and came up empty-handed. I also explored the routes of postcolonial Bible criticism, but again was disappointed. I am certainly not suggesting the discourse is not there, but its treatment will clearly have to wait for someone more resourceful!

In terms of the secondary literature, I was pretty satisfied by the coverage of the commentary. However, in the same week that this commentary was launched at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature 2006, I found a fascinating and relevant volume hidden in the depths of the massive bookstalls of the conference. This was Mark Swift’s Biblical Subtexts and Religious Themes in Works of Anton Chekhov (Peter Lang, 2004). Remembering what I understood to be the fleeting presence of Ecclesiastes in the playwright’s work, I had a leaf through, and Ecclesiastes’ influence was plain to see. Swift argues that Qoheleth and Anton Chekhov shared ‘an epistemological questioning about the limits of knowledge’ and a form of ‘scientific skepticism’ accompanied by ‘compassion, moral conviction and practicality’ (178–79). Swift considers the thematic affinity of Ecclesiastes to selected stories (‘The Steppe’, ‘Happiness’, ‘The Beauties’ and ‘Gusev’) and finds that they all exhibit a search for meaning, the value of wisdom and learning, the method of epistemological observation, truth as a relative concept and the purposelessness of life, and these themes emerged from a direct relationship to the text of Ecclesiastes. Swift refers to Chekhov’s attempt to dramatize Ecclesiastes in a notebook fragment entitled ‘Solomon’ (something that I had briefly covered in the commentary; see p. 68). Swift argues that the fragment is ‘an adumbration of Chekhovian themes’, such as the quest for meaning, the burden of wealth and fame and existential despair. In other words, these are the themes that occupied the playwright even at the height of his creative powers.

Two works that arrived too late for consideration are worth mentioning. James Limburg’s Encountering Ecclesiastes: A Book for Our Time (Eerdmans, 2006) offers scores of mainly anecdotal, personal and compelling examples of readers engaging with Qoheleth, in times of grief (such as the carving of Eccl. 7:2 on his grandfather’s tombstone) and joy especially. Lastly, James T. Robinson has had a long-time interest in the Jewish medieval reception of Ecclesiastes and his work has come to a fruition of sorts in Samuel Ibn Tibbon’s Commentary on Ecclesiastes: The Book of the Soul of Man (Mohr Siebeck, 2007). A key work in rabbinic exegesis that is touched on occasionally in this commentary (access to which was made possible through Robinson’s earlier, less lengthy work on Tibbon), Robinson’s translation will be of great interest to students of Ecclesiastes’ reception history (and Robinson’s Hebrew critical edition is apparently in the works).

I wish to thank Wiley-Blackwell for commissioning the paperback edition. Apart from some minor corrections and this second Preface, the text remains the same.

Eric Christianson

Chester, September 2011


The Vagaries of Interpreting Ecclesiastes

For just as those who have trained in wrestling in the gymnasium strip for greater exertions and efforts in the athletic contests, so it seems to me that the teaching of Proverbs is an exercise, which trains our souls and makes them supple for the struggle with Ecclesiastes. . . . Indeed, one could think of every hyperbole and still not properly express in words what great struggles the contest with this scripture involves for the contestants, as they fight for a foothold for their thoughts, using their skill as athletes so that they may not find their argument overthrown, but in every intellectual encounter keep the mind on its feet to the end through the truth.

Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on Ecclesiastes, c.380 (hom. 1, in Gregory of Nyssa 1993: 33)

[commenting on 1:9, ‘There is nothing new under the sun’:] A similar idea was suggested by the comic poet [Terence]: ‘Nothing has been said which has not been said before.’ Thus my teacher Donatus, when he would explain this verse, said, ‘They can go to hell who have said my interpretations before me.’

Jerome, Commentary on Ecclesiastes, 388/9 (in Kraus 1999–2000: 183)

I, in my humility, have considered the writings and compositions of those who have commented on the book of Ecclesiastes, both the more ancient and those of later date, and have found that they divide themselves into several classes; some have explained it by strange and far-fetched primary interpretations; and some by deep and subtle scientific disquisitions; and some by the method of recondite interpretation have drawn from it just and right doctrines; but the phase of resemblance between them is, that they have all been forced to alter its sense with glossing expressions, and not one of them has given us reason by any sufficient causes which he alleges, to give it any higher praise than that of ‘a rock which produces wholesome food’; or ‘a strong lion from whence cometh forth sweetness’.

Isaac Aramah, Commentary on Ecclesiastes, 1492 (Preface, in Preston 1845: 14–15)

This book is . . . one which no one has ever completely mastered. Indeed, it has been so distorted by the miserable commentaries of many writers that it is almost a bigger job to purify and defend the author from the notions which they have smuggled into him than it is to show his real meaning.

Martin Luther, Notes on Ecclesiastes, 1532 (in Luther 1972: 7)

If we look upon this Sermon in the Text, or any of the rest in the whole Book, as the word of man, though as the wisest of men, for so was King Solomon, we shall finde work for our wits to censure it, if not for our wilfulness to contradict it; (for no one book in all the Bible hath been more upon the rack, more stretched upon the tenter-hooks, by all sorts of men, then [sic] this) . . .

Edward Hyde, Allegiance and Conscience Not Fled out of England . . . (1662: 18)

It was impossible to compare the interpreters together, without being struck at the wonderful diversity of their opinions, which the light Solomon’s design and method appeared in to me gave me little room to expect . . . but the more I inquired into the grounds of every scheme that differed from mine, the more I found reason to conclude mine the most probable . . . For some find nothing in it but what appears to them perfectly agreable [sic] to the purest notions we can have of a revealed Doctrine; whereas others imagine they spy out Monsters, and discover many things which they can by no means reconcile with those notions, nor of consequence look upon as worthy of the holy Ghost.

A. V. Desvoeux, A Philosophical and Critical Essay on Ecclesiastes (1760: pp. vii, 6)

For I have observed that nearly all the commentators who had preceded me have almost entirely failed in doing justice to their task of interpretation.

Moses Mendelssohn, Commentary on Ecclesiastes, 1770 (in Preston 1845: 73)

Every fresh commentator either actually or virtually regards all his predecessors as having misunderstood Coheleth.

C. D. Ginsburg, Coheleth (1861: 73)

. . . the Book of Ecclesiastes [is] one of the wisest and one of the worst understood books in the Bible.

Matthew Arnold, A Speech at Eton, 1879 (in Arnold 1973: 31)

Ecclesiastes passed formerly as the most obscure book of the Bible. This is only the opinion of theologians, and in reality is completely false. The book, as a whole, is very clear; only the theologians had a major interest to find it obscure.

Ernest Renan, L’Ecclésiaste (1882: 15; my tr.)

. . . we have now reviewed the main lines of interpretation of this fascinating Book. I do not know how far any one of them has satisfied you, but none of them completely satisfies me.

J. S. Wright, ‘The Interpretation of Ecclesiastes’ (1946: 21)

How many far-fetched theories have been hazarded by modern writers who are locked up in their own crippling presuppositions? Even the vagaries and extravagances of ancient exegesis can have a sobering effect on current scholarship.

Roland E. Murphy, ‘Qohelet Interpreted’ (1982: 336)

It may be that in the last resort Qoheleth is a mirror which reflects the soul of the interpreter. If so, there is sufficient vanity in scholarship to appreciate reliable mirrors.

James Crenshaw, ‘Qoheleth in Current Research’ (1983: 51)

Since one of Qohelet’s themes is the inability of human enterprise to seize and hold, to take possession of a thing, it is perhaps no accident that the book eludes the attempts of interpretive activity to fix its meaning determinately . . . It is always interesting to see where the ‘interpretive sweat’ breaks out in dealing with such an iconoclastic book.

Carol A. Newsom, ‘Job and Ecclesiastes’ (1995: 190, 191)

Charting a Harsh Terrain

When . . . I had made myself, as I apprehended, a tolerable master of the subject [of interpreting Ecclesiastes], I set about the work, which, after all, proved a far more laborious task than I at first imagined, not only from the phraseology peculiar to this Book, which in many places, is dark enough in itself, and rendered still darker from the prodigious variety of arbitrary interpretations, but sometimes also from the difficulty of finding out the true connexion of the several parts, which, on a cursory view, seem to have no dependence on each other.

Anonymous, Choheleth, or the Royal Preacher (1765: p. vi)

It would be very difficult to distinguish the parts and arrangement of this production; the order of the subject and the connexion of the arguments are involved in so much obscurity, that scarcely any two commentators have agreed concerning the plan of the work. The style of this work is . . . singular; the language is generally low, I might almost call it mean or vulgar; it is frequently loose, unconnected, approaching to the incorrectness of conversation; and possesses very little of the poetical character, even in the composition and structure of the periods.

Robert Lowth, Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews, 1787 (in Lowth 1995: 2.174–5)

[Ecclesiastes] reminds me of the remains of a daring explorer, who has met with some terrible accident, leaving his shattered form exposed to the encroachments of all sorts of foul vermin.

Paul Haupt, ‘The Book of Ecclesiastes’, 1894 (in G. A. Barton 1959: 28)

In the river of revelation these chapters of Ecclesiastes seem to lie in some quiet and shadowy backwater, far removed from the central stream.

Wilfrid Johnson Moulton, c.1925 (in Scott 1929: 74)

It is a sort of scrapbook collection of contradictory meditations on identical themes. Here the lore of the sages turns in upon itself, comments on and refutes itself . . . The effect of such a methodology is to open vacuous chasms in knowledge and experience. This is destructive criticism; even the alternative offered by Job is passed by . . .

Lawrence B. Porter, ‘Bankruptcy: The Words of Qoheleth, Son of David, King in Jerusalem’ (1969: 3042)

. . . there is a tremendous interpretive pressure to raise the valleys and lower the hills, to make the way straight and level before the reader. But a reading faithful to this book, at least, should try to describe the territory with all its bumps and clefts, for they are not mere flaws, but the essence of the landscape.

Michael V. Fox, Qohelet and his Contradictions (1989: 28)

Inasmuch as it would be absurd to criticize a Rubik’s Cube for the problems it presents to its user, so it is with the text of Ecclesiastes.

Gary Salyer, Vain Rhetoric (2001: 147)

Qoheleth the Philosopher

How then do I interpret the words, Koheleth sought to find out words of delight? Koheleth sought to pronounce verdicts from his own insight [lit. ‘that are in the heart’], without witnesses and without warning . . .

Babylonian Talmud, c.450 (b. Rosh Hashanah 21b)

[Qoheleth] contemplates, teaches, mourns, comforts, imparts counsel, contradicts, and corrects himself . . . The author is no dogmatic and phlegmatic teacher, but a warm and animated examiner of truth. To a philosopher, it is essential to listen to the opposite opinions. He, without regarding his own system, listens to all objections which can be made, and does not fear the consequences of statements he admits . . . [He] candidly places before the eyes of the reader all the objections which he makes, and all that transpires in his inmost soul; he is not afraid to think aloud.

David Friedländer, Der Prediger, 1788 (in Ginsburg 1861: 79–80)

This book contains the investigations of several associations of literary men among the Israelites; it contains propositions which at that time formed the limits of philosophic speculation, and which seem to have been proposed intentionally, to agitate and to explain doubts, and thus to develop the intellectual faculties.

J. C. C. Nachtigal, Koheleth, 1798 (in Ginsburg 1861: 192)

It is an autobiography with a purpose. The book may seem unnatural, but it is because the life was a calculation . . . He seems to be a fool, but he is rather a wise man making experiments in folly – a philosopher blowing bubbles from which may come out the science of light.

James Bennet, The Wisdom of the King (1870: 5)

He was reverent, sincerely reverent . . . The joys of youth and friendship, of home and garden, are fleeting, but after all they are real, and in spite of all the sorrow in the world we need not hesitate to enjoy them while they last: they are God’s gifts. Koheleth has not a satisfying philosophy of life. He has very little theology. He does have, however, something which in its intense earnestness and its steadfast allegiance to both reason and conscience, both mind and heart, well deserves to be called faith.

Millar Burrows, ‘Kuhn and Koheleth’ (1927: 97)

He stepped into the world of letters as a mature thinker. He had suffered much and seen much, and had formed the habit of looking at life analytically, searching always for an answer. He treated his own existence as an experiment to be lived out like a play. And he lived it alone.

Elizabeth Stone, ‘Old Man Koheleth’ (1942: 100)

Ecclesiastes . . . thinks it best to let sleeping dogmas lie . . . [He] is a free-lance humanist . . .

John Paterson, ‘The Intimate Journal of an Old-Time Humanist’ (1950: 245)

[Qoheleth] is ‘disillusioned’ only in the sense that he has realized that an illusion is a self-constructed prison. He is not a weary pessimist tired of life: he is a vigorous realist determined to smash his way through every locked door of repression in his mind.

Northrop Frye, The Great Code (1982: 123)

He is a man for the eighties, a private-sectorite. But being a personality who wears contradictions without discomfort, he has another side, one that suits another realm – the realm of the artist, where a restless spirit of inquiry soars beyond the walls of the status quo.

Daphne Merkin, ‘Ecclesiastes: A Reading out-of-Season’ (1987: 401–2)

Qoheleth is an ‘intellectual’ in a sense otherwise unknown to the Old Testament. In his remorseless determination to probe the nature of things he belongs to a new world of thought, though . . . his sense of God’s transcendence (‘God is in heaven, and you upon the earth’, 5:2) is a Jewish inheritance which distinguishes him quite radically from the secular philosopher . . . To some extent . . . Ecclesiastes stands as a lonely beacon in a dark and largely uncharted literary ocean.

R. N. Whybray, Ecclesiastes (1989: 7, 8)

At most we could concede that the ‘subjects treated’ by Qohelet are also philosophers’ favourite subjects – subjects that metaphysics has dealt with. But nothing more . . . Let us leave metaphysics to the metaphysicians, then, so that we can listen to Qohelet speak without metaphysicians’ discourse interfering. This way we will see that he speaks differently from them.

Jacques Ellul, Reason for Being: A Meditation on Ecclesiastes (1990: 27)

Wrought by Melancholy

The Book of Ecclesiastes . . . is written as the solitary reflections of a worn-out debauchee, such as Solomon was, who looking back on scenes he can no longer enjoy, cries out All is Vanity! . . . From what is transmitted to us of the character of Solomon, he was witty, ostentatious, dissolute, and at last melancholy. He lived fast, and died, tired of the world, at the age of fifty-eight years . . . Seven hundred wives, and three hundred concubines would have stood in place of the whole book. It was needless after this to say that all was vanity and vexation of spirit; for it is impossible to derive happiness from the company of those whom we deprive of happiness.

Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason, II, 1794 (in Paine 1896: 4.127–8)

Ecclesiastes had diffused a seriousness and solemnity over the frame of his spirit [i.e. of Jesus Christ, who ‘probably’ studied this scripture], glowing with youthful hope, and made audible to his listening heart

The still, sad music of humanity,
Not harsh or grating, but of ample power
To chasten and subdue.

Percy Shelley, ‘Essay on Christianity’, c.1820 (in Shelley 1880: 2.341; the lines Shelley cites are from William Wordsworth’s ‘Lines Written a Few Miles above

Tintern Abbey’ [1798], ll. 91–3)

The Book of Ecclesiastes has been called sceptical, epicurean; it is certainly without the glow and hope which animate the Bible in general.

Matthew Arnold, Literature and Dogma, 1873 (in Arnold 1968: 207)

He is an uncompromising pessimist, who sees the world as it is. Everything that seems pleasant or profitable is vanity and a grasping of wind; there is nothing positive but pain, nothing real but the eternal Will, which is certainly unknowable and probably unconscious. These truths . . . are the bitter fruits of that rare knowledge, increase of which is increase of sorrow.

E. J. Dillon, The Sceptics of the Old Testament (1895: 113)

The truth is, he was a disappointed man, and there are two sorts of disappointed men in life . . . The man who is disappointed because he has not got, may have still the fascination of his hopes before him. But the man who has got what he desires and is then disappointed, has pricked the bubble, and knows the meaning of emptiness and vexation of spirit.

E. E. Cleal, Christian World Pulpit, 1907 (in Nicoll and Stoddart 1910: 531)

A Chopin prelude always is saddening, and Milton’s ‘L’Allegro’ never fails to liven up a leaden day. Koheleth, however, merely brings defeat and gladness into sharper outline in their relationship to each other, and does not deny or praise one or the other . . . His book is a record of profound personal disillusionment, which has ground him until he no longer feels it as anything but a faint taste of ashes in the mouth, and the red gone out of the sunset . . . Koheleth has not always been bored, and he participated passionately in the life around him, but in the end he set down his pen, and was only tired with life, and frustrated in his search to see something beyond it . . . Although the irony of his statements is apparent, I cannot think of them as being offered with a smile.

Elizabeth Stone, ‘Old Man Koheleth’ (1942: 99, 102)

There may have been many a melancholy streak in his nature that disposed him to look at the shadier sides of life. He is the original ‘gloomy dean’. He had hung his harp on the weeping willows and it moaned in the breeze . . . Job is an eagle soaring in the face of the sun, but Ecclesiastes is a land-blown bird with bedraggled wings and no power of flight.

John Paterson, ‘The Intimate Journal of an Old-Time Humanist’ (1950: 251)

He is a pathological doubter of everything, stemming from a drastic emotional experience, a psychic disturbance. He is doubtful about himself as a person of worth and character. He has no self-esteem or value of himself. His doubt has destroyed all values. He is an inferior, of no account, and he demeans himself constantly. His doubts come from a parapathy, a disease of the mind which he shares with many neurotics.

Frank Zimmermann, The Inner World of Qohelet (1973: 8)

I cannot imagine what it is like to read Ecclesiastes on a sunny day under a clear sky. It is, however much the pious commentators bustle in with their ready assuagements, a depressive’s lament – perfect reading for a gray day . . . Nothing suffices for this acquisition-happy malcontent, this Biblical character blessed with the dazzling ‘life style’ of a corporate raider but burdened with the wrong soul – the soul of a Flaubert. Like that other great connoisseur of ennui, Koheleth is acutely aware of the ‘boredom and ignominies of existence’, and would, I suspect, agree with the nineteenth-century writer’s calibrated assessment: ‘I admire tinsel as much as gold: indeed the poetry of tinsel is even greater, because it is sadder’.

Daphne Merkin, ‘Ecclesiastes: A Reading out-of-Season’ (1987: 393–5)

In Job, Job’s friends and ultimately even God argue against Job, but in Qohelet, no such opposition – human or divine – ever appears to mitigate Qohelet’s unrelenting pessimism.

Paul Flesher, ‘The Wisdom of the Sages’ (1990)

Preacher of Joy

. . . he quickly changes from an observing inquirer into an instructing and counseling senior friend, and to our great surprise advances the most beautiful maxims about caution and patience, fidelity and thoughtful industry . . . he at last concludes, from his observations, experiments, and researches, that there is no other lasting good for man than serene joy in God, comprising as it does everything else.

Georg H. A. Ewald, Sprüche Salomo’s, Koheleth, 1837 (in Ginsburg 1861: 210)

We marvel at the prodigality of nature, but how marvellous, too, the economy! The old cycles are for ever renewed, and it is no paradox that he who would advance can never cling too close to the past. The thing that has been is the thing that will be again; if we realize that, we may avoid many of the disillusions, miseries, insanities that for ever accompany the throes of new birth. Set your shoulder joyously to the world’s wheel: you may spare yourself some unhappiness if, beforehand, you slip the book of Ecclesiastes beneath your arm.

Havelock Ellis, The New Spirit, 1890 (in Ellis 1926: 33)

He looks at life in its vast sweep and, with a broad outlook on the world-order, sees not ground for despair, but order, reason, symmetry, and beauty – signs of an Infinite Wisdom and Goodness over all. He does not affirm that the world-order is meaningless, but, which is an altogether different thing, its meaning is beyond man’s power utterly to fathom. This is not the impertinence of pessimism but the words of a real reverence, a mood of the spirit which we all do well to cultivate, in his opinion.

James A. Greissinger, ‘The Worst-Understood Book’ (1909: 740)

So much in the world seems but an endless and wearying and unrewarding cycle of no more substance than a breath of wind over the desert. But this is no sterile wind blowing over empty places. And Koheleth is not a creation of T. S. Eliot – he is no Gerontion, no ‘old man in a dry month, being read to by a boy . . .’ There is no sense of futility here. Puzzlement, perhaps, and a sense of the absurdity of the world. But no desire to reject the world because it contains so much ugliness and wrong. For the world of Koheleth contains beauty and joy as well.

Joan Abramson, The Faces of Israel (in Abramson and Freulich 1972: 15)

In the popular mind a happy Koheleth is an oxymoron: how could the sage who was convinced that ‘all is vanity’ have been capable of enjoyment? It is true that an ésprit de serieux hovers over the intelligent thinkers, by and large, and Kohelet is no exception . . . The problem is that although thinkers such as Kohelet try to be holistic and integrative, most readers tend to think atomistically, in terms of either/or . . . [Kohelet’s] is a religious vision embracing the insoluble tension between divine transcendence and human aspiration and responsibility . . . And when one reads Kohelet from the perspective of comedy, which is the upset and recovery of the protagonist’s equilibrium, it becomes clear that his existential ‘bottom line’ is not ‘vanity of vanities’, but rather ‘Sweet is the light, and it is good for the eyes to see the sun. And however many years a person may live, let him rejoice in them all . . .’ [11:7–8]

Étan Levine, ‘The Humor in Qohelet’ (1997: 82–3)

. . . Ecclesiastes advocates resignation without despair, that is, cultivating an inner attitude toward life that strives to transcend the tragic limitations and sorrows of existence through a frank and courageous acceptance that they cannot be transformed. Ecclesiastes thus promotes dedicating oneself to striving after joy in life, not so much for the reasons the idealistic pious believe, because it is a gift from God to be treasured, but because the search for joy is the only sensible goal considering the frustrating, tragic, and fundamentally futile nature of existence. Freud probably saw life in a similar way when he wrote that the purpose of psychoanalysis was to transform hysterical misery into common unhappiness.

Paul Marcus, ‘The Wisdom of Ecclesiastes and its Meaning for Psychoanalysis’ (2000: 248)

True to Life

This book is like the basin which Moses made out of the mirrors of the women. For he taught not only to see men’s faces in such mirrors, but to see their minds as well. Ecclesiastes also made this book out of the copper and the mirrors of women for the viewing of the minds of men . . . Therefore Ecclesiastes sees in this mirror whatever men do in the world.

Rupert of Deutz, Commentary on Ecclesiastes, c.1110 (in Eliason 1989: 74 n. 65)

This great Connoisseur of human nature would not have us to be always laughing, with Democritus, nor always weeping, with Heraclitus; but as, on some occasions, to be very serious, so, on others, to indulge social Mirth with more than ordinary freedom, provided we keep within the bounds of reason and moderation.

Anonymous, Choheleth, or the Royal Preacher (1765: p. xiii)

He speaks for humanity, and his words have always found an echo. His book is a great monologue, which presents life to us in its energetic traits, and its laconic style shews the profoundness of the thinker. It is scepticism softened by maxims.

S. Cahen, La Bible, 1848 (in Ginsburg 1861: 90)

This Preacher, I am willing to believe, had felt all that man’s heart could feel; but he had no suspicion of what man is allowed to know. The human mind in his day overpowered science; in our day it is science that overpowers the human mind.

Ernest Renan, c.1870 (in Scott 1929: 78)

He has trodden the very paths we tread. He shares our craving and has pursued our quest after ‘that which is good’. He has been misled by the illusions by which we are beguiled. And his aim is to save us from fruitless researches and defeated hopes by placing his experience at our command.

Samuel Cox, The Book of Ecclesiastes (1896: 209)

The Preacher belongs in the company of such spirits as Dante, Browning, Tennyson, Amiel, Paschal, and their like, who have through long years brooded on the meaning of life. His dozen autobiographical pages, wrought with literary art, replete with epigram, reveal a gentle, sensitive spirit, sincere, honest, reverent, not without the saving grace of good humor, genial, urbane, cosmopolitan, tolerant. The book is a wonderfully human document.

James A. Greissinger, ‘The Worst-Understood Book’ (1909: 737)

Koheleth belongs to the small coterie of books that do not grow old . . . He is almost brutally frank in holding the mirror up to life. For all that, he is neither a scoffer nor a pessimist. He loves life and has intense sympathy with the struggles and sufferings of humanity, but he smiles at the attempts of zealous reformers to change human nature or to improve a state of things, which (as he believes) follows logically from the conditions under which mankind carves out its career. Koheleth is not a cold and severely logical philosopher, intent upon building up a system of thought, but an easy-going dilettante who unfolds in a series of charming, witty and loosely connected causeries his view of life, as gained by a long and varied experience . . . Koheleth is serious in what he says, though he always speaks with a slight ironical smile on his lips, but he does not want us to take him too seriously, just as he himself does not want to take life too seriously. The human interest of the book is all the more intense because of its main conclusion, that life itself is a paradox. Life is made to be enjoyed, and yet enjoyment is ‘vanity’.

Morris Jastrow, A Gentle Cynic (1919: 8–9)

His words reveal a sensitive soul, sensitive alike to the joys of life and to its disheartening and inexplicable disappointments.

Millar Burrows, ‘Kuhn and Koheleth’ (1927: 95)

[Ecclesiastes] defeats all endeavors to force upon it interior self-consistency and harmony, and in its inclusion of many points of view, even though at odds with one another, it remains true to life.

Harry Emerson Fosdick, A Guide to Understanding the Bible, 1938 (in Fosdick 1965: 182)