Good advice that stands the test of time—those things we all know are true, tips that help us live the good life—we call wisdom. But, one lifetime is not enough to master the fine art of living. Distilled over centuries, the biblical book of Ecclesiastes offers us the time-tested advice of Israel’s sages. This is the best of wisdom, with echoes of East and West—from Zen and Tao to Merton and Moore—all rolled into one.
In Ecclesiastes, Bible scholar Choon-Leong Seow creatively translates and carefully interprets one of the world’s most profound, most enduring collections of ancient wisdom. Sometimes joyful and exultant, other times cynical and fatalistic, the ancient author Qohelet (“Teacher”) wrestles with the ups and downs of real life. Even today, we recognize and repeat the sayings of this treasure-trove of apt advice. The book begins and ends with the infamous claim, “‘Vanity of vanities,’ says Qohelet, ‘vanity of vanities! All is vanity!’” In between, the sage leaves no stone unturned in the search for meaning.
Focusing the best tools of modern scholarship on the biblical book, Seow’s commentary overflows with insights about the meaning of the original text and its relevance for today. As the wisdom of biblical Ecclesiastes has stood the test of time, so shall Seow’s Ecclesiastes become a classic.
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“The word is the first that one encounters after the superscription (1:1). It appears thirty-eight times in the book. Its literal meaning is ‘breath, whiff, puff, steam,’ or the like, a meaning that one should certainly keep in mind as one interprets Ecclesiastes. It refers to anything that is superficial, ephemeral, insubstantial, incomprehensible, enigmatic, inconsistent, or contradictory. Something that is hebel cannot be grasped or controlled. It may refer to something that one encounters or experiences for only a moment, but it cannot be grasped—neither physically nor intellectually.” (Page 47)
“The author of Ecclesiastes was an unknown sage who took the pen name Qohelet, a name that may have meant ‘Gatherer’ (see Notes at 1:1). He probably composed his work in Palestine some time between the second half of the fifth and the first half of the fourth centuries b.c.e.” (Page 38)
“So the issue in our passage is not human intention or timing, but human activities in predetermined times and seasons.” (Page 170)
“The preoccupation that God has given to people to keep them in their place is this ‘eternity’ in their hearts that inevitably confronts the reality of each moment. That is the irony of the human’s situation. Humanity can expect to know the appropriateness of what God has done only in its moment, in its time, but one cannot hope to discover what God has done ‘from the beginning to the end’ (v 11). Qohelet is thinking here of the effort of people to bypass the moment in order to grasp the totality of existence. Mortals cannot discover that sort of thing, however. Humanity knows of eternity, but can only cope with activities in their time. The eternity in human hearts only serves to underscore the ephemerality of the moment that each person experiences.” (Page 173)
Choon-Leong Seow is Henry Snyder Gehman Professor of Old Testament Language and Literature (Presbyterian), Princeton Theological Seminary.