Ecclesiastes

1:1. “son” of David. The term “son” can signify either a political relationship or kinship (any male descendant can be called a son). In this context it associates the Teacher with one of David's royal descendants, Solomon being the most obvious candidate that comes to mind.

1:2. meaningless. As early as Sumerian literature and throughout the traditions of the ancient Near East the meaninglessness of existence, and particularly of the human plight, had been recognized: from the days of old there has been vanity (wind).

1:9. nothing new under the sun. From Assyrian royal inscriptions it appears that the kings were constantly seeking out accomplishments so they could boast they had done something that had never been done or achieved before. The king could thereby include himself among the “creators” or “founders”—ones who had established precedents. Such accomplishments included quest or conquest; building of a road, palace, temple or city; or the introduction of a new technique or celebration.

1:13. role of the sage. Sages seem to have comprised a different guild from the scribes, though their exact function and nature is obscure. They were certainly teachers, but whether they had formal training or taught formally is unknown. Sages were known in other ancient Near Eastern cultures and were sometimes counselors to royalty. For more information see comment on Proverbs 1:1.

2:5. gardens and parks. Palaces were often surrounded by a private garden planted with fruit trees and shade trees, with watercourses, pools and paths—more like a park. The arboretum often contained many exotic trees and plants. Such gardens have been excavated at Pasargadae, Cyrus the Great's capital city.

2:6. irrigation systems. Mesha of Moab (ninth century b.c.) also claims in his list of achievements to have built reservoirs for water in the king's house. The Jewish historian Josephus claims in his Jewish War that the King's Pool in Jerusalem was built by Solomon.

2:7. slavery in Israel. There were individuals in Israel who were deprived of at least part of their freedom and who could be bought and sold. The most common term for slave in Torah was ʾebed. This term, however, was vague (similar to its Akkadian counterpart, wardu), since it was used for anyone in a subordinate position to someone of a higher rank; it was thus a term for general dependence. It has often been translated as “servant.” Even patriarchs and monarchs were servants of God, and all the inhabitants of both Israel and Judah were servants or subjects of the king, including the members of the royal family. David was at one time a slave (vassal) of the Philistine king Achish, and Ahaz of Judah was servant to the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III. A chief source of slavery was prisoners of war, who were sold as slaves. However, in the Mosaic Law an Israelite could not be forced to do the work of a slave. The only way an Israelite could be reduced to servitude was because of his or her own poverty or if he or she had been given over as security for a relative's poverty. This slavery ended once the debt was paid. There is very little mentioned about the number of domestic servants and slaves in ancient Israel. For example, a census taken after the exile (fifth century b.c.) recorded over seven thousand slaves, as compared to over forty thousand free persons. A well-off family probably owned one or more domestic servants. Although a slave was considered property, he or she was also considered human and thus had certain rights. The slave was considered a part of the family, as evidenced by the requirement of circumcision. Although there was no predominance of slave labor in agriculture, the artisan trades or any branch of the economy, there appears to have been some employment of state slavery during the period of the monarchy (c. 1000-586 b.c.). David set the population to work making bricks, while Solomon used “slaves” to work in the mines at Arabah, in the factories at Ezion Geber and in the work of the royal palace and temple. Most of these slaves were Canaanites and not Israelites.

2:8. singers. Musicians were usually retained for the ruler's entertainment or for cultic ceremonies. Since both male and female singers are included here, the latter is more likely. Mesopotamia and Egypt had long histories of both popular and religious music that must have been known to the Israelites. Ancient Egyptian tomb paintings demonstrate the postures of dancers as well as a wide variety of musical instruments. Court musicians, both male and female, are attested at many royal courts throughout the ancient Near East. They are attested in texts (including, for instance, Uruk and Mari) in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, Hittite Anatolia and Egypt. They were included among permanent palace personnel, as rations lists demonstrate.

2:8. harem. The term here is usually considered a designation for concubines, but the word occurs only here and is obscure. Certainly the taking of concubines was a normal pattern of behavior for kings. Others have suggested that the word should be translated “treasure chests.”

3:5. scattering and gathering stones. Stones were cleared away from a field so that the farmer could use it for agricultural purposes (see Is 5:2). One threw stones into an enemy's field so that it could not produce yield (2 Kings 3:19, 25; Is 5:2).

3:16. corruption of the judiciary. The writer bemoans the fact that what had previously been justice has become wickedness. In other words, the normal course of the world has been overturned, a common theme in Mesopotamian literature, especially in the literary piece called the Babylonian Job. For more information see comments on Isaiah 5:23.

4:12. cord of three strands. This phrase was evidently well known in the ancient Near East. In the Sumerian story of Gilgamesh and the Land of the Living Gilgamesh encourages Enkidu as they anxiously anticipate their battle with the fearsome Huwawa. He suggests that the two of them can defend one another and so they will succeed.

5:1. options in the temple. Ancient Near Eastern literature offers similar cautions. The Egyptian Instruction for Merikare commends the character of someone who is upright in heart over the sacrifice of an evil person. An inscription from Ugarit comments on the actions of a fool who rushes to offer prayers to appease his god even though he has no sense of guilt. The options mentioned in the text contrast the direction of communication. The sacrifice of the fool usually accompanies a petition to the deity for favor or the granting of a request. What one listens to in the temple would typically be an oracle in which the deity can express favor or disfavor. The Egyptian Teaching of Ptah-Hotep spends nearly fifty lines extolling the virtues of one who hears over the foolishness of one who speaks rashly.

5:2. swearing of oaths. This verse most likely refers to the swearing of oaths, for rash oaths were known to be a problem. The swearing of an oath was considered a very serious matter in ancient Israel. An oath was always sworn in the name of a god. This placed a heavy responsibility on the one who swore such an oath to carry out its stipulations, since he would be liable to divine as well as human retribution if he did not. Oaths were used in legal proceedings and for political treaties and covenants. Client kings and dominant kings alike were required to abide by their oaths to support each other.

5:3. dreams. Dreams in the ancient world were thought to offer information from the divine realm and were therefore taken very seriously. Some dreams given to prophets and kings were considered a means of divine revelation. Most dreams, however, the ordinary dreams of common people, were believed to contain omens that communicated information about what the gods were doing. Those that were revelation usually identified the deity and often involved the deity. The dreams that were omens usually made no reference to deity. Dreams were often filled with symbolism necessitating an interpreter, though at times the symbols were reasonably self-evident. The information that came through dreams was not believed to be irreversible, but a dream could be a cause for concern, if not alarm. This verse would then best be read, “As a dream is accompanied by many worries, so a fool's speech comes with many words.”

5:4. vows. Information concerning vows can be found in most of the cultures of the ancient Near East, including the Hittite, Ugaritic, Mesopotamian and, less often, Egyptian. Vows were voluntary agreements made with deity. The vows would typically be conditional and accompany a petition made to deity. They were cultic commitments to God in which the worshiper promised to undertake a certain action if God answered his or her request. Artifacts used as votive offerings have been found at various archaeological sites in the Levant. Moreover, votive stelae from Phoenicia and literature (prayers and thanksgiving texts) from Mesopotamia, Egypt and Anatolia show evidence of vow-making. For more information see comment on 1 Samuel 1:11.

5:6. temple messenger. Scholars are not certain as to who this temple messenger was, as there is no other biblical reference to the office. From this verse we can assume there was a temple official whose job was to make sure that worshipers had fulfilled their vows. Similar functionaries may have been referred to on Phoenician inscriptions.

5:8. corrupt bureaucracy. The king in the ancient Near East was required to protect the legal rights of his people. The royal bureaucracy was thus responsible for justice and righteousness. Too often, however, reality was much harsher. By the time everyone (local officials all the way up to the temple and palace) got their share of the farmer's crop (in the form of produce taxation), bare subsistence was all that was possible.

5:17. eating in darkness. If one works in the fields from sunup till sundown, then both breakfast and supper are eaten in the dark. Thus those who desire wealth will not have fulfillment.

6:3. importance of proper burial. In Mesopotamia those who had not been properly buried were condemned to wander the earth aimlessly as spirits and to bother the living. This idea is implied in the horror observed in biblical texts concerning individuals who died in a violent manner without proper burial. Most ancient peoples believed that proper, timely burial affected the quality of the afterlife. See the comment on 1 Kings 16:4. In the Gilgamesh Epic Enkidu, having returned from the netherworld, reports to Gilgamesh that the one who died unburied has no rest and that the one who had no living relatives to take care of him could only eat what was thrown into the street. A Babylonian curse relates burial to the uniting of the spirit of the dead with loved ones. We know that even Israelites believed that proper burial affected one's afterlife, because they, like their neighbors, buried their loved ones with the provisions that would serve them in the afterlife most often pottery vessels (filled with food) and jewelry (to ward off evil), with tools and personal items sometimes added.

6:6. all go to the same place. In Israelite understanding (reflected also in many of the surrounding cultures) the choices were not heaven or hell but life or death. This verse is talking about human destiny, and therefore the place where all went was Sheol, the abode of the dead. For more information about afterlife beliefs see the comments on Job 3:13-19 and the sidebar on Isaiah 14.

7:1. fine perfume. Banqueters in the ancient world were often treated by a generous host to fine oils that would be used to anoint their foreheads. This provided not only a glistening sheen to their countenance but also would have added a fragrance to their persons and the room. For example, an Assyrian text from Esarhaddon's reign describes how he “drenched the foreheads” of his guests at a royal banquet with “choicest oils.”

7:6. crackling thorns under the pot. The thin wood of thorn bushes produces a lot of noise that draws attention as it bursts quickly into flame. In reality, however, it makes very poor firewood and gives off no lasting heat.

7:7. bribery in Israel. Gift-giving was common in ancient Israel. Sacrifices and other offerings were considered gifts to God. Gift-giving between individuals was also important, although in some cases gifts were considered improper (because of the motive of the giver), causing the gift to be considered a bribe. It is in this context that the Israelites were commanded not to take gifts (i.e., bribes) since they “blind the wise” (see comment on Ex 23:8). As evidenced by the preface to the Code of Hammurabi (c. 1750 b.c.) and the statements made by the eloquent peasant in Egyptian wisdom literature (c. 2100 b.c.), the standard of behavior for those in authority was to protect the rights of the poor and weak in society. An efficiently administered state in the ancient Near East depended on the reliability of the law and its enforcement. To this end every organized state created a bureaucracy of judges and local officials to deal with civil and criminal cases. It was their task to hear testimony, investigate charges, evaluate evidence and execute judgment (detailed in the Middle Assyrian Laws and the Code of Hammurabi). The temptation for judges and government officials to accept bribes is found in every time and place. In the ancient Near East taking bribes became almost institutionally accepted in bureaucratic situations, as competing parties attempted to outmaneuver each other. However, at least on the ideal level, arguments and penalties were imposed to eliminate or at least lessen this problem. Thus Hammurabi's Code 5 placed harsh penalties on any judge who altered one of his decisions (presumably because of a bribe), including stiff fines and permanent removal from the bench.