On the Interpretation of Ecclesiastes: Some Common Interpretations Offered

The question of how shall we interpret the Ecclesiastes is in some ways related to the larger issue of Old Testament interpretation. Ecclesiastes has suffered greatly because of the reductionism; but the bulk of the Church’s mistakes on Ecclesiastes are due mostly to silencing. Ask yourself: When was the last time you heard a sermon on Ecclesiastes that wasn’t about Ecclesiastes 3, or Ecclesiastes 12:1ff? That’s right; for the Church, Ecclesiastes is, sadly, a closed book.

I have always been more or less amused when the most preachers and Christian writers try to wrestle with the book. How it is that they manage to explain away its contents? There are several answers.

1. Life stages. One fellow from the Plymouth Brethren camp actually told me this funny theory that I would call the “life stages theory.” According to this line of thought, the special characteristics of the book should be explained by noting that this book corresponds to the “later” stage of the life of King Solomon. That is, the Song of Solomon would correspond to the younger stage; the Book of Proverbs to the maximum height of Solomon’s prestige, power and wisdom; and Ecclesiastes would come as a book of reckoning, written after a deep reflection on the events told in 1 Kings 11. In this way, one could explain the pessimism and cynicism of many verses of the book. Of course, this is pure speculation, and I note it here only due to its novelty value. However, it seems that this is a widely held notion among preachers in my country.

2. Under the sun. This view is maintaned by the Scofield Reference Bible among others (see, for example, the note on Ecclesiastes 9:10), and states that Ecclesiastes reflects the viewpoint of the life “under the sun”, i.e., a life without the trascendent dimensions of existence, or rather, a life without obedience to God. This is often put in contrast to traits deemed consistent with a godly life; you can see often some of the darker musings of Ecclesiastes being contrasted with other statements from the Gospels or the Psalms, or even with Ecclesiastes 12:9-14.

This has the advantage of being based on a study of the text, and of trying to be fair to its message. Furthermore, it has gained widespread acceptance in the evangelical community. However, it fails to treat the book as an unity, and is guilty of imposing a preconceived worldview into it, trying to cast the book into its pious mold. Because of these reasons, this view cannot be considered as adequate.

3. All is meaningless. This school of interpretation is based on two premises: a) an existentialist point of view, that maintains that everything is meaningless, that death is the defining event in the life of a human being (hello, Mr. Heidegger!), and we are responsible for our actions; and b) a disjointed approach to the book that maintains that Ecclesiastes, as we have it in its current canonical form, is the result of the work of several editorial hands that tried to alter in some way the real intent of the original work to make it more palatable to prevalent theological opinion. Thus, we have a book that is totally laden with pessimism, angst, and lack of meaning. Everything else is ignored because it is “editorial.” Some proponents of this line of thoughts are the Roman Catholic scholars Gianfranco Ravasi and José Vílchez.

This line of thought is refreshing in the sense that it does try to make a sincere approach to the darker parts of Ecclesiastes, instead of “explaining away” those passages. However, it tampers with the integrity of the Holy Scriptures, and under the pretense of discerning some ancient editorial work, it puts itself into the role of editor, putting away everything that might not be in line with this particular approach. Therefore, it is also inadequate.


Now, how are we going to understand Ecclesiastes? If we are to offer a good understanding of our book, this must be done honestly, without conscious presuppositions, and trying to take into account the nature of Ecclesiastes as a whole, with its light and its darkness.


  1. It helps if you can step outside Western thought. That’s a tall order, even of those who are pretty sure they know what it means. I would agree it was written late in Solomon’s life, but I’m not sure Canitcles is early, so much as it represents his early interests. I doubt Proverbs was published that much earlier than Ecclesistes, though it was surely begun early — the book seems to say that itself. You probably already know I think of Scofield — a crooked scoundrel, though bright and intelligent, who found a sponsor willing to let him do what he liked. The sponsor had his own agenda, which included a massive marketing campaign making lots of money.

  2. Ed: thanks for the insights. It might be true that stepping outside of Western thought could help; but in fact I am undertaking my project on Ecclesiastes from my own standpoint, and you know that I am schooled in Western thought. What we should do is, perhaps, get rid of the Western stuff manifest in the Enlightenment and afterwards.

    About the paternity of the book, I tend to agree with the Solomonic authorship, and I will be writing about it.

    Regarding Scofield, you might be right; but remember, that I just used his note on Ecclesiastes 9:10 as an example. The view I denote as “Under the sun” is really widespread in Evangelical circles.

  3. I wasn’t talking about whether Solomon was the author, but where in his lifetime the works appeared. As for Scofield, the viewpoint(s) so widespread in Evengelical circles often come from his reference Bible. He is the cause of much Evangelical silliness, not just this particular item.

  4. Ed: you have a good point about the issue of Solomonic authorship. There is an interesting body of more or less contemporary ancient Near Eastern literary works that express the same “existentialist” themes, so the concept of the book wouldn’t be strange to its intended audience.

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