Qohelet: The Words of the PREACHER

PREACHER: Qohelet. Noun masculine. (Strong’s 6953).

Original word: קֹהֶלֶת

Sounds like: kohelet

The Hebrew word Qohelet only shows up in the book Ecclesiastes, which is fitting considering that the title of that book is actually a Latin transliteration of Qohelet. Ecclesia, in Latin, means church and ecclesiastes, a preacher/announcer/evangelist. Ecclesia was borrowed from the Greek word Ekklesia, meaning assembly of citizens, and ekklesiastes, meaning a participant in an assembly of citizens. (See Merriam Webster dictionary definition). So when English popped onto the scene they translated Qohelet as a Preacher. The Book of Ecclesiastes is, essentially, the Book of the Preacher.

But the word Preacher probably summons up a whole myriad of images and stereotypes, and these images probably do not align with what Solomon had in mind when he gave himself this title.

Qohelet comes from the Hebrew word Qahal (6950), meaning an assembler, collector, gatherer… someone who brings something together. Essentially Solomon was a collector and presenter of words within the community of the Israelites. He started off this writing with The words of the Assembler-Collector [Qohelet]”; he was creating a collection of words and sharing them with the community. For the English translation, a Preacher is one who collects and assembles God’s words and presents them to the community. This was how Solomon described himself in his writing:

Ecclesiastes 1:1-4

The words of the Preacher [Qohelet], the son of David, king in Jerusalem:

“Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher [Qohelet], “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What advantage does man have in all his work which he does under the sun? A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.”

If Qohelet means preacher then we have to redefine what the word preacher means to us. Yes, it was someone who collected words, sentences, ideas and compiled them to make a collection, but the preacher didn’t necessarily recite the words he had written to a crowd.  A collection could be read individually (like a commentary on the Book of Isaiah) or spoken out loud (like the message in a Sunday gathering)… but not necessarily by the one who wrote it. The preacher, in this definition, isn’t the person behind the pulpit reading a sermon; it’s the person behind the sermon, compiling the words.

The Book of the Preacher

In the writing of Ecclesiastes, Solomon was composing his thoughts on how life was, well, meaningless. At this point, Solomon was nearing the end of his life. He was a preacher-king, and he had been seeking, exploring, collecting and compiling words and sentences for a very long time: 

Ecclesiastes 1:12-18

I, the Preacher [Qohelet], have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I set my mind to seek and explore by wisdom concerning all that has been done under heaven. It is a grievous task which God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with. I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after wind. What is crooked cannot be straightened and what is lacking cannot be counted.

I said to myself, “Behold, I have magnified and increased wisdom more than all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has observed a wealth of wisdom and knowledge.” And I set my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly; I realized that this also is striving after wind. Because in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain.

Ignorance, they say, is bliss… and Solomon was anything but ignorant. The more he knew, the more weight he bore, and the harder it was to carry that burden. 

Perhaps this is not so different from how many of the world’s “preachers” feel today. It’s a daunting task to compile and present the words of God accurately and effectively. Ministers and Pastors who lead communities put themselves at risk of being crushed under the weight of their convocation. Not only do collectors and presenters of God’s message uphold the words of scripture, they also uphold their congregations. Members share their burdens with the pastor and the pastor, in turn, bears the griefs and sorrows of the people they serve. Many will, under constant community scrutiny, feel burnt out.

Solomon, in all his wisdom and wealth, eventually felt swallowed up by it all near the end of his life. The stress of being king, theologian, and writer, weighed heavily on him. His overthinking led him to one conclusion: everything was vanity… meaningless and empty.

Solomon started to see his own life as pointless, and regardless of all his wealth, prestige and creature comforts, he began to despise life:

Ecclesiastes 2:17

So I hated life, for the work which had been done under the sun was grievous to me; because everything is futility and striving after wind.

Solomon was having an existential crisis, questioning the meaning of his existence. All the work he had done in his life really didn’t matter at all. But there was a little glimmer of hope in his crisis: he recognized that there was a benefit of being a person who was good in God’s sight:

Ecclesiastes 2:26

For to a person who is good in His sight He has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, while to the sinner He has given the task of gathering and collecting so that he may give to one who is good in God’s sight. This too is vanity and striving after wind.

While the good graciously received valuable things from God, the sin-filled gathered and collected things with no value. They lived a futile existence; they were like busy little worker ants, constantly striving day after day, year after year, with nothing of value to show for it in the end. They strove for existence only and that, according to Solomon, was a meaningless existence.

Preacher as Researcher

Solomon was a knowledge seeker. Researching was the first step before collecting the words and presenting them. He investigated, tested, sought out, and put things together to try to get answers:

Ecclesiastes 7:23-29

I tested all this with wisdom, and I said, “I will be wise,” but it was far from me. What has been is remote and exceedingly mysterious. Who can discover it? I directed my mind to know, to investigate and to seek wisdom and an explanation, and to know the evil of folly and the foolishness of madness. And I discovered more bitter than death the woman whose heart is snares and nets, whose hands are chains. One who is pleasing to God will escape from her, but the sinner will be captured by her.

“Behold, I have discovered this,” says the Preacher [Qohelet], “adding one thing to another to find an explanation, which I am still seeking but have not found. I have found one man among a thousand, but I have not found a woman among all these. Behold, I have found only this, that God made men upright, but they have sought out many devices.”

Solomon, the researcher, added  “one thing to another to find an explanation”, but he did not find what he was searching for. What he did discover was that women had captured and chained him. He had fallen, and he had turned evil in the sight of YHWH. And now the grave of nothingness awaited him.

1 Kings 11:3-6

He [Solomon] had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines, and his wives turned his heart away. For when Solomon was old, his wives turned his heart away after other gods; and his heart was not wholly devoted to YHWH his God, as the heart of David his father had been. For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians and after Milcom the detestable idol of the Ammonites. Solomon did what was evil in the sight of YHWH and did not follow YHWH fully, as David his father had done.

Solomon, who had collected wives like trophies had lost himself in his obsession. He married women from foreign cultures with a vast array of foreign gods and in his weakness he bowed down to them.

But God was a forgiving God, and there was a way for redemption:

Ecclesiastes 8:12-13

Although a sinner does evil a hundred times and may lengthen his life, still I know that it will be well for those who fear God, who fear Him openly. But it will not be well for the evil man and he will not lengthen his days like a shadow, because he does not fear God.

Was it too late for Solomon? By the time he wrote the Book of the Preacher, he was left with one conclusion: the only certain thing in this life was that we would all die.  

Solomon & the Message of Death

Solomon’s entire message was essentially saying, What’s the point? Why all the hard work when it only leads to one inevitable conclusion?… Death. You might as well enjoy life while you have it, because you’re heading towards nothingness.

Ecclesiastes 9:9-10

Enjoy life with the woman whom you love all the days of your fleeting life which He has given to you under the sun; for this is your reward in life and in your toil in which you have laboured under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going.

The book of the Preacher presented a rather bleak sermon. Solomon was nearing death and his life was passing before his eyes, so to speak. All those moments of work and all those moments of hedonism in his life were vain and had little meaning in the grand scheme of things. Solomon recognized that there was a time to give birth and a time to die (Ecclesiastes 3:2), and his time to die was at hand.

It’s hard to know what Solomon believed about the afterlife. In the Torah there was the concept of going back to the family in some way… a gathering of ancestors:

Genesis 25:8

Abraham breathed his last and died in a ripe old age, an old man and satisfied with life; and he was gathered to his people.

This belief permitted more hope than the nothingness of the grave which seemed to preoccupy Solomon. What appears to be missing from Solomon’s collection of words was his father David’s great message of God’s salvation.

David’s chief spiritual advisor was Samuel, and Samuel’s mother sang a song which included this line:

1 Samuel 2:6 

Hannah: YHWH kills and makes alive; He brings down to Sheol and raises up.”

David was taught that YHWH could raise people up out of Sheol. All went to the grave (Sheol), but those who clung to YHWH wouldn’t stay there:

Psalm 86:11-13

David: Teach me Your way, O YHWH; I will walk in Your truth; unite my heart to fear Your name. I will give thanks to You, O Lord my God, with all my heart, and will glorify Your name forever. For Your lovingkindness toward me is great, and You have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.

Did Solomon forget these teachings of great hope passed down by his father? Was he too blinded by despair to remember God’s promise of salvation? Did he feel like his sin was too great?

At the very end of his preaching Solomon said this:

Ecclesiastes 12:5b-8

For man goes to his eternal home while mourners go about in the street. Remember Him before the silver cord is broken and the golden bowl is crushed, the pitcher by the well is shattered and the wheel at the cistern is crushed; then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it. “Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher [ha-Qohelet], “all is vanity!”

There was hope in the final moments of his sermon. Solomon proclaimed that there was an eternal home where the spirit would would return to God… but the point of this so-called meaningless life was still a mystery to him.

Although this was not the end of the scroll, this was the end of this Preacher’s sermon.  Solomon began his preaching with “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” and bookended it with the same phrase, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” 

Moses as Preacher

Of course Solomon wasn’t the first collector of words, and he wasn’t the last. In the earliest days of civilization God commissioned people to collect words and present them.

Moses was called by God to write down many things. He wrote down historical accounts (Exodus 17:8-16), and he wrote down God’s laws and ordinances (Exodus 24:3-4a), and near the end of his life, YHWH commissioned Moses to write a song:

Deuteronomy 31:19-22

YHWH: “Now therefore, write this song for yourselves, and teach it to the sons of Israel; put it on their lips, so that this song may be a witness for Me against the sons of Israel. For when I bring them into the land flowing with milk and honey, which I swore to their fathers, and they have eaten and are satisfied and become prosperous, then they will turn to other gods and serve them, and spurn Me and break My covenant. Then it shall come about, when many evils and troubles have come upon them, that this song will testify before them as a witness (for it shall not be forgotten from the lips of their descendants); for I know their intent which they are developing today, before I have brought them into the land which I swore.” So Moses wrote this song the same day, and taught it to the sons of Israel

The song of Moses is an incredible poem. The entire piece can be found in Deuteronomy 32:1-43. Here are a few excerpts:

Deuteronomy 32:4, 18-19, 36-39, 43

The Rock! His work is perfect, for all His ways are just; a God of faithfulness and without injustice, righteous and upright is He…

You neglected the Rock who begot you, and forgot the God who gave you birth. YHWH saw this, and spurned them because of the provocation of His sons and daughters

For YHWH will vindicate His people, and will have compassion on His servants, when He sees that their strength is gone, and there is none remaining, bond or free.

And He will say, ‘Where are their gods, the rock in which they sought refuge? Who ate the fat of their sacrifices, and drank the wine of their drink offering? Let them rise up and help you, let them be your hiding place!

See now that I, I am He, and there is no god besides Me; It is I who put to death and give life. I have wounded and it is I who heal, and there is no one who can deliver from My hand’.

Rejoice, O nations, with His people; for He will avenge the blood of His servants, and will render vengeance on His adversaries, and will atone for His land and His people.”

Immediately after the song was sung, Moses had a message to share:

Deuteronomy 32:45-47

When Moses had finished speaking all these words to all Israel, he said to them, “Take to your heart all the words with which I am warning you today, which you shall command your sons to observe carefully, even all the words of this law. For it is not an idle word for you; indeed it is your life. And by this word you will prolong your days in the land, which you are about to cross the Jordan to possess.”

Moses was giving a commandment: take to heart all the words. These words which he collected and presented needed to be consumed and enveloped into the hearts of the people; these words were life giving.

Yeshua as Preacher

Yeshua (Jesus) continually collected and presented words from Hebrew scripture. In the gospel accounts He quoted from twenty-four different books of the Tanakh… most commonly Psalms, Deuteronomy, Isaiah and Exodus. He frequently referred back to events that occurred in Scripture such as Noah’s Ark (Luke 17:26-27), Moses and the brass serpent (John 3:14-15), Jonah and the great fish (Matthew 12:38-41)… and just as frequently He quoted directly from scripture.

Yeshua’s sermon on the Mount was public preaching; He presented a collection of words, and wove in numerous quotes from the Torah (Exodus 20:13, Exodus 20:14, Exodus 21:23–25, Leviticus 24:19-20, Deuteronomy 5:18, Deuteronomy 19:21, Deuteronomy 23:21, Deuteronomy 24:1, Numbers 30:2).

In the sermon most of these Torah references were introduced by Yeshua’s words, “You have heard…” and then His response “but I say…” Yeshua challenged people’s perceptions of the ancient precepts. As King He had the right to challenge and change the laws but many did not yet understand His role as Messiah. What Yeshua delivered, quite frankly, was a shocking and radical presentation of words.

Matthew 5:38-39

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.

In the days when Yeshua delivered this message, all of Israel was under Roman military occupation. There were Jewish rebel movements gathering to fight the Romans. Although many were moved by what He had to say, there were others who were completely offended by it. Who was this pacifist man who spoke against rebellion AND refuted Mosaic law? 

Matthew 5:43-46

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy,’ but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” 

Only part of you shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy was from scripture. Leviticus 19:18 said to love your neighbour as yourself, but a commandment to hate your enemy was not to be found in the Tanakh. Somehow, over time people started to see hating an enemy as a benefit of their faith. For the average Jew in Yeshua’s day, they felt quite entitled to hate the Romans. You and I would probably feel the same. There certainly didn’t seem to be anything to love about them.

But vengeance was God’s alone. He would take care of evil. According to Yeshua, humans were meant to be His compassionate and loving reflections on earth. Yeshua was aware, more than anyone, that people could and would mould ancient words to validate their own beliefs. Distorting and defiling scripture was not a new thing. Yeshua’s preaching brought people back to the core of the message: love your neighbour, pray for those who persecute you, have faith in the God of your Salvation because the Kingdom is at hand.

Peter as Preacher

After Yeshua’s death and resurrection His apostles took up the challenge to be collectors and presenters of Yeshua’s ministry. Peter stands out as one of the great preachers in the early days of the Messianic church. Only weeks after the crucifixion Peter gave an impassioned sermon (Acts 2:14-36) which clearly presented Yeshua as the long-awaited Messiah. Peter collected passages from six different chapters in the Tanakh (2 Samuel 7:12, Psalm 16:8-11, Psalm 89:3-4, Psalm 110:1, Psalm 132:11, Joel 2:28-31) and presented them to make his point: the Jesus who had been crucified was the Messiah they had been waiting for; and now the Holy Spirit lived within them. Peter’s message was simple, the delivery was not; it was a detailed and effective argument, and in the account we are told that three thousand people were baptized after hearing his message (Acts 2:41).

Peter was a Qohelet; he was a collector of words and he continually emphasized the importance of them in his letters:

2 Peter 3:1-2

This is now, beloved, the second letter I am writing to you in which I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the words spoken beforehand by the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Saviour spoken by your apostles.

This was the task, appointed by Peter: dive into the Scripture; read the words of the prophets and the words of the Messiah, delivered by the apostles. You may not be called to be a Preacher, a collector and presenter of the words, but you are called to be a reader of the collection. Preachers are supportive and helpful, but they should never be used as an excuse for not reading the Bible yourself. Peter was reminding us of the importance of reading and remembering the words!

Hereford Cathedral. Photo by Stephen Radford (unsplash.com).

Paul as Preacher

Collecting words wasn’t so hazardous, but presenting words, when it comes to the Bible, was, and is, a risky thing. I’m keenly aware that there are many possibilities to mess it all up:  putting emphasis on spots not meant for emphasis, taking words out of context and out of its historical narrative, crafting an argument by cherry picking random verses, displaying only the feel-good passages and omitting the uncomfortable ones.

Paul was aware that there was a set standard that preachers needed to follow:

2 Timothy 1:10-11, 13-14

…but now [God] has been revealed by the appearing of our Saviour Messiah Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and an apostle and a teacher… 

Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Messiah Jesus. Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you.

Paul was appointed preacher, apostle and teacher and he knew the importance of representing God’s word accurately and sincerely. Only with the Holy Spirit’s guidance could Paul retain the standard of sound words and present those words of truth correctly. As a collector and presenter of words, no one stands out in the New Testament more than Paul… he was a hard working, prolific and almost tireless preacher.

The Power of Words

Solomon, the self-titled Qohelet, knew the risks of presenting words and ideas to a public audience. He understood the importance of being a preacher under the guidance of the Shepherd and he recognized the power of words:

Ecclesiastes 12:11

The words of wise men are like goads, and masters of these collections are like well-driven nails; they are given by One Shepherd

A goad is a provoker that stimulates a reaction, like a prod or staff used to drive an animal. Preachers use words to elicit a reaction and to drive people towards YHWH. Well-driven nails strengthened that connection… like holding a wall to the foundation… and well-delivered words did the same thing.

Solomon’s Book of the Preacher was not all doom and gloom. Although he questioned the point of life, he did realize he had job worth living for… and maybe that was enough. The following words were a post-script to Solomon’s sermon. It was kind of like a “dear reader” moment, or perhaps like the short bio of a guest preacher found in the church bulletin:

Ecclesiastes 12:9-10

In addition to being a wise man, the Preacher [Qohelet] also taught the people knowledge; and he pondered, searched out and arranged many proverbs. The Preacher [Qohelet] sought to find delightful words and to write words of truth correctly.

Solomon was at the end of his life, but in recalling his purpose as a preacher he could see the good found in his hard work. This should be the goal of all who collect the words of Scripture and try to make sense out of them: find the delightful words & use them correctly. But not everyone does this.

When it comes to collecting and sharing the words of scripture, many are using the words like ammunition to highlight an agenda or to validate their own opinion. This is not using words correctly. Scripture can shine on its own just fine without a collector or a presenter. However, when the words are used sincerely, a preacher magnifies the word of God and allows it to flourish and grab onto the hearts of the people. 

The only way to use the words of Scripture correctly is to wholeheartedly rely on God, and to pray earnestly for humility, wisdom, and guidance to get it right. The reason to preach is not just to spew out ideas; it is to connect people to YHWH and to strengthen their relationship with the God who loves them.

The Preacher’s Conclusion

Preaching was a noble profession, with great responsibilities, but Solomon signed off with a warning:

Ecclesiastes 12:12

But beyond this, my son, be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body.

Collecting and assembling God’s words was, and is, a great calling, but it can easily become overwhelming and exhausting. We need to pray for the preachers in our lives!

In the end, according to Solomon, all we really needed to know was written in his conclusion:

Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.

Every act, by every human, would be called to judgement one day. But those who have kept God’s commandments and who have the deepest, awe-inspired, respect for YHWH… they would be redeemed.

To all the Preachers…

During this time of isolation, collectors and presenters of God’s words have a great opportunity to reach a wide audience with their words of hope. My hope is that every preacher, teacher, pastor, minister and researcher out there feels revived and refreshed by the word of God, and not overwhelmed by the words of people.

I’ve been under the guidance of so many fantastic qohelet (collectors and presenters of God’s Word) in my lifetime: Gerry Hallman, Ruth Snider, Bob Cotie, Brian Magnus, Jim Tice, Mark McCready, and, presently, Mike Hamilton. In my years as an undergrad, I also had an inspiring New Testament professor, Dr. Tom Yoder Neufeld, who was a marvellous collector and presenter of Biblical words, sentences, and ideas. These people have brought life to ancient texts, highlighted its continuous relevance, delved into complex passages, and brought understanding to the strangeness and immense beauty of the Bible. 

To all who are Qohelet (collectors, assemblers and presenters of God’s words)…

…Keep on studying, collecting and presenting the incredible message given to us in the Bible. This message tells us that, despite our failures, YHWH loves us; He deeply, truly, loves His creation and He wants to save us. Let your presentation of words be beacons of light to a nation under a cloud of darkness, because life is not meaningless. If we let it, our lives can be beautiful and productive expressions of God’s love and salvation.

Next week: Mother

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