This coming Sunday, July 17, we are beginning a new sermon series on the book of Ecclesiastes. This week on the website, we’ll be posting 5 introductory articles, one each day, explaining some of the background issues surrounding the book that there isn’t time to cover on a Sunday morning. The schedule of what’s coming up:
Monday: Bibliography (a working list of the resources I’ll be using in my study of the book)
Tuesday: Author & Date (Who wrote the book and when?)
Wednesday: Genre (What type of book is it?)
Thursday: Provenance & Destination (From where & to whom was the book written?)
Friday: Purpose & Theme (Why was the book written?)
The Case for Solomonic Authorship
For the better part of two millennia, it was assumed that King Solomon was both “the Teacher” mentioned in the book of Ecclesiastes and the book’s author, and there are several pieces of evidence that appear to point in that direction. First, is the way the Teacher is described in Ecclesiastes 1:
“The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem.” (Eccl. 1:1, HCSB)
“I said to myself, ‘Look, I have amassed wisdom far beyond all those who were over Jerusalem before me, and my mind has thoroughly grasped wisdom and knowledge.'” (Eccl. 1:16, HCSB)
Taken woodenly, “son of David, king in Jerusalem,” would have to be Solomon as he was the only one of David’s sons to inherit his father’s throne. This line is also strikingly similar to the opening verse of Proverbs, which is plainly identified as being Solomonic:
“The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem.” (Eccl. 1:1, HCSB)
“The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel” (Pr. 1:1, HCSB)
The narrator’s reference to his audience as “my son” (Eccl. 12:12) also corresponds with Solomon’s tendency to do the same in Proverbs. Further similarity can be drawn between the theme of vanity in Ecclesiastes and a similar theme in Psalm 127, which is also attributed to Solomon (though it should be noted that different Hebrew words for vanity are used). The Teacher’s description of himself in Ecclesiastes 1:16 has also often been compared to the Chronicler’s description of Solomon:
“The LORD highly exalted Solomon in the sight of all Israel and bestowed on him such royal majesty as had not been bestowed on any king over Israel before him.” (1 Chronicles 29:25, HCSB)
Another aspect of this apparent self-identification is the title “the Teacher” (Hebrew: Qohelet) which comes from a Hebrew root (qhl), whose verb form is “to assemble” and whose noun form can refer to an assembly or congregation. Jewish commentators in the early Middle Ages pointed to 1 Kings 8 to show that “Qohelet” was a veiled reference to Solomon:
“At that time Solomon assembled the elders of Israel, all the tribal heads and the ancestral leaders of the Israelites before him at Jerusalem in order to bring the ark of the LORD’s covenant from the city of David, that is Zion. So all the men of Israel were assembled in the presence of King Solomon in the seventh month, the month of Ethanim, at the festival.” (1 Kings 8:1-2, HCSB, emphasis mine)
“Then Solomon stood before the altar of the LORD in front of the entire congregation of Israel and spread out his hands toward heaven.” (1 Kings 8:22, HCSB, emphasis mine)
Finally, the Teacher’s pursuit of all that this world has to offer (Eccl. 2:4-9), and apparent success in those pursuits (at least by earthly measures), seems to line up with what we know of Solomon from Scripture.
Finding enough evidence to accept the traditional claim of Solomonic authorship, James Bollhagen suggests that Solomon wrote Song of Songs as a young man, Proverbs in the prime of his life, and Ecclesiastes as an old, repentant man reflecting back on an idolatrous life that had failed to live up to its youthful promise.
Since Solomon’s reign stretched from about 970-930 B.C., Ecclesiastes would have been written toward the end of that period.
The Case against Solomonic Authorship
The first major Christian denial of Solomonic authorship came from the reformer, Martin Luther, who, after initially affirming Solomon as the author, later suggested it was more probably written by Sirach (author of the deuterocanonical book, Wisdom of Sirach) in the 2nd century B.C. (about 800 years after Solomon). More recent scholarship has widely denied that Solomon could have written the book, though there are still a number of people who argue for the traditional view.
While the case for Solomonic authorship summarized above appears straightforward, it’s far from a slam dunk. For one thing, the phrase “son of David” could just as likely refer to any male descendant of David as one of his immediate sons. Secondly, the Teacher’s claim to “have amassed wisdom far beyond all those who were over Jerusalem before me” (Eccl. 1:16, HCSB) rings hollow if Solomon were the author because he was merely the 2nd Israelite king to rule over Jerusalem (and just the 3rd King of Israel, period). While it’s possible that he was including the Jebusite kings who ruled the city prior to David’s conquest of it (cf. Eccl. 2:9), it’s far from clear that that was the case. It’s also not clear why Solomon would reveal himself as the author of Proverbs but hide behind a pseudonym in writing Ecclesiastes, especially if he then made the opening verses so strikingly similar as to give away his identity.
Furthermore, while chapter 1 is often seen as providing the greatest support for Solomonic authorship, it also contains one of the biggest problems, for in verse 12, the Teacher states that there was a time when he was no longer king. More modern translations smooth out the problem by rendering the verse as:
“I, the Teacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem.” (Eccl. 1:12, HCSB; see also NASB, ESV, NET)
The traditional translation of this verse, however, is that given by the KJV, NKJV, NLT, and LEB:
“I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem.” (Eccl. 1:12, LEB; emphasis mine)
Ancient Jewish interpreters went so far as to construct a legend that Solomon had abdicated his throne in his old age in order to reconcile this verse with Solomonic authorship, but Scripture itself gives no hint that Solomon ever abdicated. The simplest reading of Ecclesiastes 1 is that the Teacher is a descendant of David who was once, but is no longer, king, and this would appear to preclude Solomon.
The Teacher goes on to give further impressions throughout the book that he is not the sitting king of Israel. Three times the king is portrayed as an oppressor or a bully (Eccl. 4:1-3; 5:8-9; 10:20), and in the first two passages the Teacher expresses helplessness over the situation. Surely if the king were so distressed by the level of oppression his people faced, he could have simply stopped oppressing them rather than writing a lament of their suffering. In fact, the whole persona of the king of Israel is dropped early in the book, with the last reference to the Teacher’s royalty coming in chapter 4.
Finally, even if the Teacher were a reference to Solomon, the book is framed by an introduction and conclusion that is written in third person, as though the author/narrator is merely presenting the wisdom of the Teacher. While it’s possible that Solomon chose to write the introduction and conclusion in such a way, the presence of the third person in the middle of a quotation in Ecclesiastes 7:27 is harder to explain. In Hebrew, as in English, it would be unusual for someone quoting themselves to identify themselves as the source of the quote mid-sentence instead of at the beginning or end.
If Solomon was not the author of Ecclesiastes, the possible date range expands greatly, from immediately following his death about 930 B.C. to sometime in the 2nd century B.C. Occasional attempts to pin down a time frame based on linguistics or philosophical influence are unconvincing to say the least.
I find the evidence against Solomonic authorship to be stronger than that in favor of it, and it seems to me that there are three possible alternatives that do justice to the text:
1) The book was inspired or influenced by Solomon, but not actually written by him. It’s clear that the author/narrator intends to depict the Teacher at least as a Solomon-type figure, if not Solomon himself, so perhaps Solomon’s pupils edited his teachings after his death or they were rediscovered during or after the exile and edited for a (post-)exilic community struggling with questions of life, identity, and purpose.
2) The book was written by another Israelite leader who lived and ruled after Solomon. It’s impossible to identify exactly which leader that would be, and the only specific suggestion that I’ve found somewhat convincing is Zerubbabel, who helped lead the return to and rebuilding of Jerusalem after the exile. Craig Bartholomew summarizes the argument for Zerubbabel (before rejecting it):
“The ‘author’ of Ecclesiastes presents himself as Davidic, and in the history of Israel in the sixth century BC an outstanding Davidide was Zerubbabel. He was a founder and leader of the postexilic community and an organizer of the restoration of the temple. In the biblical texts of this time the temple is described as the ‘house of God,’ a description we also find in Ecclesiastes (4:17). Zerubbabel does not appear in the story of the consecration of the temple, an absence that according to Weinberg is best accounted for in terms of the Achaemenid tendency to remove high-ranking officials lest they become too powerful. Such a fate resonates with Qohelet as one who looks back to a time when he was influential. In Jewish tradition, Zerubbabel was also a wise man and a skillful teller of parables. This connects with 12:10, in which Qohelet is described as skillful with words. A distinctive of Ecclesiastes is its abundance of economic and political vocabulary—such terms would have been well known to Zerubbabel, engaged as he was in the economic and political matters of his time. Zerubbabel’s being born and brought up in Babylon could explain the presence of Persian words and Aramaisms.” (pp. 53-54)
3) The book is a literary construct–fictionalized but perhaps drawing from a true-to-life example like Solomon. This would make the book something like an extended parable or fable. Though it’s not a perfect analogy, a common comparison is made between Ecclesiastes and the 19th-century Uncle Remus stories, where a frame narrator tells stories of Uncle Remus telling folktales.
I hesitate to completely disregard 1500+ years of tradition so the first option is where I would lean (with the next two options listed in order). There is much in Ecclesiastes that we can imagine Solomon writing, but it just does not appear that he actually wrote it. However, regardless of who the author, narrator, and Teacher were/was, Ecclesiastes’ meaning, truth, and place in the canon are secure and are not dependent upon being connected to Solomon. In the words of Craig Bartholomew, “We simply cannot be sure who wrote the book. In our interpretation of it the main concern must be to ascertain what the author has actually written, whoever he was” (p. 54). Whether it was written by Solomon in the 10th century B.C., Zerubbabel in the 6th century B.C., Sirach in the 2nd century B.C., or anywhere in between, Ecclesiastes is Scripture (and was accepted by the church from the very beginning, as evidenced by Paul quoting from it and alluding to it in Romans) and as such “is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17, HCSB).
Craig G. Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 43-54.
James Bollhagen, Ecclesiastes, Concordia Commentary (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2011), 6-14.
Tremper Longman III, The Book of Ecclesiastes, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 2-11.
Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns, eds, Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 121-124.