Ecclesiastes 1:1


The opening verse attributes the wide assortment of poetry, proverbs, and autobiographical material that make up much of Ecclesiastes to an enigmatic figure whose character is as complex as his writing is frequently abstruse. Whether as actual author or fictionalized persona, the “Teacher” is credited as the source of most of the material in Ecclesiastes (see 7:27; cf. 12:9–14). Whoever he is or was, the alleged author of the instructional and (auto)biographical material is the book’s spokesperson. He bears the title qōhelet (“Teacher”), whose verbal root means “to assemble.” This would suggest one of two roles for the person behind the title: to convene an assembly (Deut. 4:10; 1 Kings 8:22)—assumed in the Latin transliteration of the Greek ekklēsiastēs (“member of the assembly” or “citizen”)—or to collect wisdom sayings in codified form (cf. Eccl. 12:11). The latter sense corresponds well to the statement in 7:27, in which Qoheleth’s task is described as “adding one thing to another to find the sum.” Like an auditor taking an inventory, the “Teacher” sees himself as an investigator who collects and codifies a wealth of observations, both his own and those mediated by tradition. His mission is to find the sum of things, to arrive at a unified account of all that occurs “under the sun.”

Whether as a convener of assemblies or an assembler of sayings, “Qoheleth” is the author’s nom de guerre, and Solomon is his alter ego. Together, the title and the person are integrally related to Qoheleth’s self-characterization as the consummate royal sage (1:12–2:12). But this kingly guise later becomes his foil. As royal sage, Qoheleth has the indisputable credentials to conduct an investigation of the world; he is the unsurpassed student of wisdom and thus the teacher of teachers. And yet, as he will soon discover, such a glorified persona proves to be only a façade on wisdom’s level playing field.

That Qoheleth is introduced as king, Solomon in particular, is understandable (see Introduction). According to 1 Kings, Solomon was known for his intellectual acuity and moral discernment, at least during the outset of his reign. His prayer for wisdom at Gibeon (1 Kings 3:1–15), his inventive solution to the contested infant (vv. 16–28), his prodigious literary output, and his encyclopedic knowledge of nature (4:32–34) all attest Solomon’s legendary status as the archetypal royal sage of biblical lore. This son of David became the glorious exemplar for all kings in matters of sagacity. Yet only in the first two chapters, beginning with 1:12, does Qoheleth actually develop his Solomonic connection. Like the godlike Gilgamesh, who comes to embrace his mortality, Qoheleth later seems to shed his royal garments, stripping himself, as it were, of the trappings of royalty. His royal identity is only simulated, reflecting a crisis of identity. But whether as king or commoner, victor or failure, Qoheleth offers the results of his investigation—his penetrating observations and advice—to posterity. Qoheleth’s royal persona, in short, serves only as his point of departure; it establishes his credentials for the investigative task at hand. Beyond that, Qoheleth’s royal identity is largely irrelevant. Indeed, it becomes his straw man.

Christian tradition has long recognized that there may be more to Qoheleth’s role than simply that of penetrating cynic. Ever since Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible in 1534, the Hebrew title qōhelet has typically been translated “the Preacher” (see kjv, rsv). Although the modern reader may be hard pressed to find anything particularly homiletical or uplifting about Qoheleth’s words, Luther, drawing from earlier tradition, evidently saw something about the sage’s discourse that bore sermonic potential. For Luther, the act of preaching entailed “throw[ing] oneself in the way of Satan’s many teeth” (Campbell, p. 384), not a terribly comforting image for anyone who mounts the pulpit on a Sunday morning! But perhaps Qoheleth would agree. There is indeed something confrontational, even self-endangering, about preaching and teaching, and it begins by reckoning with the pathos of our God-given lives.

Proclaiming the Word, Qoheleth reminds us, is about courageously confronting the bewilderingly complex and convoluted world in which people live and move and have their being in God. A sermon, consequently, is not worthy of a hearing unless it reckons with the torturous contingencies of human existence, the turmoil of life, as well as the joy and peace given in Christ. Unless preaching—or more broadly theological education—touches people at these common levels of experience, taking account of both the void and the vitality of life before God, the proclaimed message is simply dead on arrival. Speaking only from the top down, from a pedestal rather than from a pulpit, yields only patronizing pronouncements delicately suspended above the fray of the living, unreachable and irrelevant. The preacher must also be a keen observer of life from the bottom up, as well as a discerning interpreter of the Word given from on high. Qoheleth would remind us that as the Word became flesh, flesh is also made word, a living testimony to divine providence and human creatureliness. Qoheleth’s own life—his story and observations—is just such a testimony. His “sermon” is not from the mount but from the depths.

Opening one’s eyes to both the painful wrenchings and surprising gifts that comprise the mystery of life is what Ecclesiastes is all about. Qoheleth is no ivory-tower recluse, “collecting” his thoughts in the privacy of his study. Rather, the sage courageously ventures forth to investigate what is truly real in all its messiness and mystery. By entering fully into the fray of human existence, the ancient sage is able to “tell it like it is.” Qoheleth’s odyssey is not a happy journey, but it is an enlightening one. He reminds those who are called to proclaim the Gospel that preaching requires interpreting both the Word and the world. Only by confronting life in all its vicissitudes and death in its totalizing scope can one experience the fullness of the mystery of God. Tempting as it is for contemporary preachers, Qoheleth does not evade the void amid the vibrancy of life; indeed, he enters it fully and experiences a greater appreciation of what life holds “on this side.” Contrary to what is commonly preached, life is not simply a journey of edifying experiences, a pilgrimage of glee. It is also about confronting inevitable despair, disillusionment, and, yes, death face to face, the via negativa. Ecclesiastes, in short, covers the gamut of life down under, that is, “under the sun” and under God. His is a theology from below, not for liberation’s sake but for navigating the turbulent waters of the living of these days in reverence to God. Qoheleth is a teacher for preachers who has lived to tell about it all . . . barely.