Monday, May 18, 2020

Did Solomon Write Ecclesiastes?

Some time ago, when our church’s Men's Society studied Ecclesiastes, there was considerable debate as to who wrote it. Traditionally, it seemed clear that the author was Solomon. Yet the study guide used [Rev. M.J.C. Blok, “
Ecclesiastes: The Advent Congregation, The Study, 2007] asserts that “all commentators agree that Solomon could not have written this book.”

Rev. Blok claims that the author was merely someone who pretends to be Solomon, writing about 700 years after Solomon. A similar position is taken by many other modern Bible scholars. Tremper Longman (The Book of Ecclesiastes, 1998) sees a parallel with fictional Akkadian royal autobiography. Longman even goes so far as to submit that the Preacher is an unorthodox God-criticizer, and that just the last few verses, added by an orthodox editor, are genuinely inspired.

Yet, until the last few centuries, most commentators took Solomon to be the author of Ecclesiastes. Indeed, this was a prime consideration for including it in the Old Testament cannon. This view was held also by Calvin [cf Institutes, Bk.III, Ch.XXV, V], and by the Synod of Dordt (1618/19), which approved the Belgic Confession (Art.4 lists Ecclesiastes as a Book of Solomon).

Even today there are still commentators defending Solomonic authorship, such as Duane Garret [Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, 1993] and Benjamin Shaw [Ecclesiastes: Life in a Fallen World, Banner of Truth, 2019]. Philip Ryken [Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters, Crossway, 2010] finds this to be the most natural reading of the Biblical text. According to Ryken,
"From the earliest days of the church, many teachers have identified Solomon as the Preacher. After wandering away from God and falling into tragic sin, Solomon repented of his sinful ways and returned to the right and proper fear of God. Ecclesiastes is his memoir — an autobiographical account of what he learned from his futile attempt to live without God. In effect, the book is his final testament, written perhaps to steer his own son Rehoboam in the right spiritual direction." 
Why does it matter who the author was? First, the identity of the author, and his historical context, are significant factors in how one interprets the book and views its message. Second, if the author is not Solomon, what is one to do with all the author’s clear associations with Solomon? Isn’t this deceptive? How is that to be squared with an inspired, inerrant, trustworthy Bible? Can we no longer take the Bible at face value?

Biblical Evidence
Although Solomon is not explicitly named, the author claims:
1. to be  the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (Eccl.1:1), “king over Israel” (1:16). 
2. "I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me” (1:18)
3. "I made great works, built houses…, had great possessions…many concubines…surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem” (2:4-9).
4. He “taught the people knowledge…arranged many proverbs…”(12:9).

Who else could this be but Solomon? Solomon is the only king were referred to in the Old Testament as "the son of David" (1 Chr.1:1). Moreover, all later kings in David's line ruled in Jerusalem only over Judah, not Israel.

Some commentators object that references to oppression (e.g., 4:1; 5:8; 7:7) don’t fit with Solomon's time. However, in Prov. 28 & 29 Solomon makes similar references to oppression, and the Israelites complained of the heavy yoke put on them by Solomon (I Ki.12). Solomon's reign, though peaceful, was not free of oppression or evil.

It has been argued that "surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me" (1:16) implies there were many kings over Jerusalem before the author. Hence this could not be Solomon, who was preceded only by David.

Note, however, that the text doesn't specifically limit the rulers to Israelites. Many others (including Melchizedek) ruled over Jerusalem before Solomon.

Furthermore, a parallel text (I Chr.29:25) describes Solomon as bestowed with majesty "as had not been on any king before him in Israel". In fact, God promises Solomon wisdom “so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall rise after you” (1 Kings 3:12), and riches and honor “such as none of the kings who were before you, and none after you” (2 Chr.1:12). “None after you” entails that, after Solomon, no king could be greater than all those before him.

More arguments of this nature, and their rebuttal, can be found in Garrett's book (mentioned above).

Linguistic Factors
The prime argument against Solomon for Blok, and many other commentators, is that linguistic factors date Ecclesiastes to 250-300 BC, after the exile. This is based on the presence of a score of Aramaic words, a few Persian loan-words, and some grammatical features found more often in later Biblical Hebrew.

But more recent scholarly evaluation finds such evidence to be ambiguous; all can be plausibly accounted for also with Solomonic authorship. For example, Daniel Estes ("Handbook on the Wisdom Books and Psalms", Baker, 2005, p. 273) argues that the linguistic similarities to Aramaic reflect the close ties to Phoenicia and Syria that Solomon maintained during his reign.

For a detailed, recent review of the linguistic evidence see the JESOT(2015) paper by Russell Meek, who judges,
The book’s language is an unfair measure of its authorship and date; it is simply too ambiguous to provide irrefutable evidence of either Solomonic or non-Solomonic authorship.”
Thus linguistic factors do not rule out Solomonic authorship.

Inerrancy Questions
In his review Meek concludes:
"Despite the ambiguous nature of the evidence, the arguments presented above for a date of composition in the early period of Israel's monarchy are more compelling than those that argue for a significantly later date. Most especially...why would a book composed after the monarchy purport to give advice for dealing with the monarchy? And why would the author claim to rule over Israel from Jerusalem if he never did? Given the clear monarchial tone, the book would certainly be disingenuous if it were written...when there was no monarchy in Israel. Furthermore, despite the ambiguity of the passages that imply Solomonic authorship, there are more clearly Solomonic than the "anti-royal" passages are non-Solomonic. Finally, one must not discount the strength of the argument from church history, which by and large held to an early date for the book's composition until very recently."
Although Meek, on the balance, favors Solomonic evidence, he cautions against making this an issue of inerrancy.

Nevertheless, if the Preacher is not in fact Solomon but merely someone who pretends to be, is this not deceptive? Blok, Longman, and others argue that no deception is involved because the Preacher has purposely left the mask of Solomon transparent, so that we can easily see through it and realize that it is not actually Solomon who is speaking.

But if this mask is indeed so transparent, and merely an ancient, accepted literary device, why was this not obvious to ancient commentators, who generally identified the Preacher as Solomon himself, rather than a mere pretender? Is it not more likely that the alleged mask is just a modern invention superimposed on the text by liberal scholars who have already rejected Solomon?

Moreover, the Belgic Confession (Art.5) affirms that we should "believe without any doubt all things contained" in the Bible. So, for example, when the Preacher claims to have been king over Israel in Jerusalem, should we not accept this as it is written? Especially when we are assured, at the end of the book that the preacher "uprightly wrote words of truth" (12:10)?

In conclusion, I find the denial of the Solomonic authorship of Ecclesiastes to be not only unwarranted on both Biblical and linguistic grounds, but also a challenge to Biblical authority. 

Confessional Note
Although the original Belgic Confession refers to Ecclesiastes as a "book of Solomon" (Art.4), the Canadian Reformed Churches dropped this, and made other changes, in 1983 when it adopted a revised Belgic Confession.

I have no objection to changing our confessions, should this be Biblically warranted, which I am not convinced was the case here. Even so, such changes should be duly noted. The CanRC Book of Praise purports to contain the Belgic Confession adopted by the Synod of Dordt in 1618/19. This is not really true. The changes made by the CanRC should at least be marked with footnotes, giving the reasons why.

Most Reformed churches, however, have kept this reference to Solomon (including the Dutch Reformed [Vrijgemaakt] Church of which Rev. Blok was a minister). Unhappily, too many Reformed ministers nevertheless reject Solomonic authorship.

1 comment:

Steve Drake said...

As an aim to answer some of life's most challenging questions, especially where they seem contrary to Solomon's expectations and ours, Ecclesiastes stands proud. I love particularly his description of the "vanities" of life and to remember your Creator (12:1); that we are God's property so should serve Him from the days of our youth and to fear God and keep His commandments (12:13), all the way to the end of it. Such wisdom from God through Solomon in Ecclesiastes is refreshingly beautiful.