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Why do some firmly believe Ecclesiastes is the greatest and wisest book in the entire Bible?


Kohelet means “to gather” so early translators decided that it meant to gather people together and teach them wisdom. In latin such a gathering is an “ecclesia” and the one doing the gathering was the “ecclesiastes”. At the end of the book an early biographer put a closing note that said Kohelet “pondered, searched out, and set in order many proverbs.” This would seem to suggest he was a gatherer of wisdom first and foremost, even though he also loved to teach the people his wisdom. 

As for Thomas Wolfe, many writers, composers and playwrights have found Kohelet to be an inspiration for their art. Some, like Herman Melville (author of Moby Dick) see in Kohelet a deep fountain of wisdom while many others see Kohelet only as a pessimistic and bitter old man. Unfortunately it is the later view that prevails in the last 100 years or so. 

Part of the issue with a negative view of Kohelet is that we miss the fact that the reason he writes is to answer one very specific question, “What do we gain from all our hard work?.” In his search he contrasts the pursuit of gain through various means (pleasure, money, education) and finds there is no lasting gain in any of those pursuits. His conclusion, which he repeats throughout the book, is that we should learn to enjoy the daily journey instead of setting our sites on some future goal that will only let us down. He writes, “So I commend the simple pleasures of living for there is nothing better under the sun than to eat and drink and enjoy life.” He uses “eat and drink” as a summary statement for all the good things that come our way in a day. 

I have spent many years studying Kohelet, translating his words and lately I have memorized the book to perform it on stage. Although I started out with a negative view of his writing I now I agree with Thomas Wolfe, Kohelet is a great book, I love his wit and sarcasm.


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