Ecclesiastes Overview: Wisdom for Thinking

Introduction

1. Name

The title for this book comes from the opening phrase, ‘The words of the Preacher” (Eccl. 1:1). “Preacher” is the English translation of the Hebrew word qoholet, which is derived from the verb root qahal, “to assemble.” The literal translation of qohelet, therefore, is “the Assembler.” This may describe the process of “assembling a message” or of “assembling an audience” to speak to. It is the latter meaning which the translators of the Septuagint had in mind when they called the book ekklesiastes (from ekklesia called out). This word means “preacher” and has simply been transliterated to form our English title.

2. Purpose

To demonstrate that life viewed merely from a realistic human perspective must result in pessimism, and to offer hope through humble obedience and faithfulness to God until the final judgment.[footnote]Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 1032.[/footnote]

3. Theme

Life is meaningless without God.

4. Key Verses

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity (Eccl. 1:2)

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil (Eccl. 12:13-14).

5. Key Truths

• When we are left to mere human outlooks and efforts, life seems hopeless and meaningless.
• Human beings cannot begin to fathom the divine wisdom that undergirds and controls all things.
• Once human limitations are recognized, the faithful will gain a godly vision of life by renewing their reverence for God and loyalty to his commands.
• In the final judgment God will eliminate the perplexing anomalies of life by judging everything good or evil.[footnote]Ibid., 1032.[/footnote]

 

I. Author

There are three main views as to the authorship of Ecclesiastes

A. Traditional View

By “traditional view” we mean the view that has been generally held by the church (both Jewish and Christian) throughout history. The traditional view is that Solomon was the author of Ecclesiastes.

1. Argument

a. He was a preacher (Eccl. 1:1).

b. He was the son of David and no other descendant of David matches up to the book’s description (Eccl. 1:1).

c. He was king in Jerusalem (Eccl. 1:1).

d. He possessed great wisdom and was known as a wisdom teacher (Eccl. 1:16; cf. 1 Kings 3:12; 1 Kings 4:29-30).

e. He indulged himself in every pleasure (Eccl. 2:1-3).

f. He had great wealth (Eccl. 2:8; cf. 1 Kings 10:14-29).

g. He undertook extensive building projects (Eccl. 2:4-6; cf. 1 Kings 5:1-7:51).

h. He had a fine collection of proverbs (Eccl. 12:9; cf. 1 Kings 4:32).

i. The proverbs contained in this book are like those found in the book of Proverbs.

j. The root of Qohelet is often used in 1 Kings of Solomon gathering the people at the temple dedication.

k. The backslidings described in the book would fit the life of Solomon as revealed in Kings.

The traditional view is that this book was written by Solomon near the end of his life having been recovered from his terrible backsliding.

The evidence is strongly in favor of Solomon as the author of the book of Ecclesiastes. If the Preacher is identified as Solomon, Ecclesiastes was written from a unique vantage-point. Possessing the greatest mental, material, and political resources ever combined in one man, he was qualified beyond all others to write this book.[footnote]G Crossley, The Old Testament Explained and Applied (England: Evangelical Press, 2002), 484.[/footnote]

2. Answer

The criticisms of this view are detailed below under “The Critical View.”

B. Critical View

The critical view may also be called “the liberal view” and is generally held by those who reject biblical inspiration and inerrancy. The critical view is that the book contains a mixture of orthodox and unorthodox statements, reflecting the writing of an original unorthodox skeptic, which was subsequently updated by much later orthodox redactors.

1. Argument

a. The vocabulary and syntax is more like late (post-exilic) Hebrew and Aramaic.

b. The thoughts expressed are similar to Hellenistic thought of the inter-testamental period.

c. The historical books do not tell us that Solomon returned to the Lord.

d. How can so much godly wisdom come from one who sinned so seriously.

e. The book is full of contradictions, with orthodox and unorthodox statements.

f. The name Solomon does not appear and the book makes no explicit claim that Solomon was its author.

g. Why would Solomon use a pseudonym?

h. Solomon’s other writings (Proverbs, Song of Solomon) bear his name in their titles or opening verses.

i. “Son of David” may mean “descendant of David” or even an official in David’s court.

j. There was only one king in Jerusalem before Solomon (his father, David). However, Eccl. 1:16 suggests that there were a number of kings in Jerusalem before the time of the writer.

k. Solomon reigned to the end of his life, whereas Eccl. 1:12 implies that the writer had been king but was no longer king.

l. Qohelet speaks of the royal office as a critical outsider (Eccl. 8:2-8).

m. The book’s setting is a period of misery and vanity (Eccl. 1:2-11), death (Eccl. 3:1-15), injustice and violence (Eccl. 4:1-3), heathen tyranny (Eccl. 5:7,9-19), whereas Solomon’s age was a time of peace and splendor.

2. Answer

a. The linguistic arguments for late dating are no longer persuasive.

The question of authorship of Ecclesiastes usually centers around the book’s unique language. The Hebrew of Qohelet is unlike any other of the Old Testament. Scholars have long believed the book’s language was affected by later Aramaic influences, and that this, along with other linguistic peculiarities, gives evidence of a very late date. Most scholars date the work to the third century B.C. However, recent research on Qohelet’s language has thrown this analysis into question. The grammar and vocabulary of Ecclesiastes do not appear to be postexilic, but in fact completely consonant with pre-exilic Hebrew. Though the precise question of authorship must be left open, it is no longer possible to hold to a late, postexilic date for the Book of Ecclesiastes on the basis of linguistic evidence.[footnote]B Arnold and B Beyer, Encountering the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 329.[/footnote]

The “Aramaisms” may also be explained by the unusually close political and commercial ties between Solomon and the Aramaic peoples.

The unique style of the Hebrew may simply reflect the unique genre of the book.

It seems fairly obvious that we are dealing here with a conventional style peculiar to the particular genre to which Ecclesiastes belonged. Just as in Akkadian literature, legal codes and contract tablets present a great contrast to each other in technique and style, and these too in turn differ greatly from the epistolary or historical prose from this same period, so also there grew up in Hebrew culture a conventional language in style which was felt to be peculiarly fitting for each literary genre.[footnote]G L Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (Chicago: Moody Press, 1998), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

b. Account can be taken of the two different voices in the book, without resorting to critical hypothesis of redaction. The differences may simply reflect the contrary views of the earlier backslidden Solomon and the later repentant Solomon. The differences between the first and third person verses may also reflect this.

c. The criticisms of kings need not be self-criticisms. Solomon knew the general corruptions of the monarchies of the world.

d. Scholars are increasingly retreating from the view which sees later Greek philosophical influences in the book.

e. Eccl. 1:12 may be translated in the perfect tense “When I became king…,” rather than the past tense “When I was king…”

f. Jerusalem had many Jebusite kings before David captured it and there is no reason why Solomon was not comparing himself to them in Eccl. 1:16.

g. The hard times described by Solomon may reflect episodes of hardship that characterize every period, even the most prosperous. Solomon may be describing times in general rather than any specific time or place.

h. The alleged contradictions may simply reflect the complexity of life. Sometimes the author writes something in order to refute it (Eccl. 4:5,6). Wisdom literature from Babylonia and Egypt indicates a similar tendency to combine conventional and unconventional wisdom, and to embed traditional proverbs in original material. The so-called contradictions within the book indicate that Qohelet was wrestling with the complexities of life. The number of “contradictions” is greatly exaggerated.

For whereas there are some passages in it which may seem offensive and impious, for which some few persons have suspected its authority, it must be considered that it is in part dramatical, as was said before of the book of Proverbs, and that Solomon speaks some and most things in his own name, but some other things in the names and according to the opinions of those worldly and ungodly men, as is undeniably manifest, both from the scope and design of the book, as it is expressed both in the beginning and in the conclusion of it, and from his serious and large disputation against those wicked principles and courses. And this way of writing is not unusual amongst both sacred and profane writers.[footnote]M Poole, (A Commentary on the Holy Bible, Vol.II, p.278).[/footnote]

i. Why would redactors try to salvage a work that was so unorthodox rather than reject it.

j. There were hard times, including rebellions, towards the end of Solomon’s reign.

C. Alternative View

This view which denies Solomonic authorship has been and still is held by conservative scholars. Some propose that someone who heard Solomon and took notes wrote the book. Others suggest that the author was someone who used the literary device of pretending to be Solomon as he looked back on his life. Still others hold that Qohelet may be Solomon but that the book was written by another wise man who expresses his own view in the epilogue.

It is possible therefore that sometime after Solomon’s reign an unknown sage compiled, edited, shaped and framed reflections that may have come in part from Solomon and added introductory and summary perspectives (Eccl. 1:1; Eccl. 12:9-14). However, it should be remembered that, like all wise men in Jerusalem’s royal court, this writer drew heavily upon Solomon’s wisdom in all that he wrote.[footnote]Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 1032.[/footnote]

Most of the evidence to support this view and the arguments against it are covered under “Critical View” above.

 

II. Date

Earliest Date: If Solomon wrote the book near the end of his life when he saw himself as an old and foolish king (Eccl. 4:13), then it was written around 930 BC.
Latest Date: The critics would argue for a post-exilic date in the pre-Maccabean period, in many cases arguing for up to 225 BC. Conservative scholars may argue for a late date, but no later than the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, when the canon was completed (c. 450 BC)
 

III. Historical Analysis

1. Timeless

Ecclesiastes has been called a timeless book. In what way can it be described thus. Firstly, although the book contains narratives, the narratives are not progressively chronological. The book contrasts two significant periods in the author’s life, a time of backsliding (then) and a time of restoration (now). Secondly, there are few details about the immediate setting of Ecclesiastes

Thirdly, the message is timeless, in that it expresses skeptical and nihilistic sentiments that are current in every age, including our own. So, though the message is timeless, it is also timely.

Ecclesiastes is the most contemporary book in the Bible. The so-called negative sections of the book amount to an exposé of the very things which dominate modern culture: sex, work, education, fame, drink. The writer creates a rogue’s gallery of satirical portraits of the hedonist (Eccl. 2:1-11), the workaholic (Eccl. 2:18-23), the plutocrat (Eccl. 5:8-17), the fool (Eccl. 7:1-8), and the unfaithful woman (Eccl. 7:26-29). Ecclesiastes stands as the ultimate critique of secular humanism.[footnote]J E Smith, The Wisdom Literature and Psalms (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996), Electronic Edition[/footnote]

2. Israel

Commentators usually focus on the person behind the narratives. However, like all the Old Testament books, Ecclesiastes was addressed to the nation of Israel. So, though we can find out much about the individual from the book, we can also find out much about the nation.

The “Traditional View” sees a description of Israel at the end of Solomon’s reign.

The Jewish tradition is that Solomon wrote the Song of Songs in his youth, Proverbs in his maturity, and Ecclesiastes toward the end of his reign of forty years. In spite of the great prosperity which characterized his reign, the people were gradually drifting away from the Lord. Solomon could see evil days ahead for his people because of their apostasy which he himself had to some degree encouraged. Ecclesiastes is at the same time the evidence of the personal repentance of Solomon, and an exhortation to his subjects to reassess the meaning of their lives.[footnote]Ibid., Electronic Edition[/footnote]

The “Alternative View” sees a description of post-exilic Israel.

The book reflects a time of despair. The promises of the covenant seem far distant, the glories of national Israel forgotten, and the shining hope of the prophets lost. But even in the midst of such desperation, the poet discovers the rich truths proclaimed in the other wisdom books of the Old Testament (Job and Proverbs). The “fear of God” is the only sure foundation for building one’s life (Job 28:28; Pr. 1:7). Ecclesiastes teaches that the only hope of enduring the present is to fear and obey God.[footnote]B Arnold and B Beyer, Encountering the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 326.[/footnote]

 

IV. Literary Analysis

1. Comparative Outlines

a. Three parts

Most commentators are agreed that it is extremely difficult to analyze the literary structure of Ecclesiastes along traditional lines. Most suggest a three part structure like the following:

Prologue (Eccl. 1:1-11)

Monologue (Eccl. 1:12-12:8)
Theory of wisdom (Eccl. 1-6)
Practice of wisdom (Eccl. 7-12)

Epilogue (Eccl. 12:8-14)

b. Chiasm

David Dorsey suggests the following chiasmic outline:[footnote]D Dorsey, The Literary Structure of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 198.[/footnote]

Title: author mentioned in third person (Eccl. 1:1)

a Poem about the brevity and insignificance of life (Eccl. 1:2-11)

b Wisdom’s failure to discover life’s meaning (Eccl. 1:12-26)

c Poem about time (Eccl. 3:1-15)

d CENTRE: fear God! (Eccl. 3:16-6:12)

c’ Poem about time revisited (Eccl. 7:1-14)

b’ Wisdom’s failure revisited (Eccl. 8:1-10:19)

a’ Poem about life’s brevity revisited (Eccl. 10:20-12:8)

Conclusion: author mentioned in third person (Eccl. 12:9-14)

c. Dialectical Structure

For those who follow the traditional three part structure, the question remains about how to analyze the large central monologue (Eccl. 1:12-12:8). As mentioned above most see it as a miscellaneous collection of proverbs.

Many attempts have been made to identify the sequential structure of the lengthy speech of Koheleth which forms the centerpiece of the book. Unable to find clearly marked units arranged in a meaningful order, most commentators have opted for viewing the book as a miscellaneous collection of proverbs. They view the book as more of a notebook containing random and disjointed notes, rather than a carefully crafted essay. The book is said to have a unity of style, topic, and theme, but not a logical progression of thought.[footnote]J E Smith, The Wisdom Literature and Psalms (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

However, if we abandon traditional views of logical progression then it is possible to find a structure. The author writes from two opposite viewpoints throughout the book. First of all he describes “life under the sun” that is how the natural man views the world. Pessimism and skepticism are dominant in these sections.

However in other sections the preacher is speaking as one who knows God, and his conclusions are full of certainty and hope (eg. Eccl. 3:14). This pattern of alternating perspectives continues throughout the book. Contrast not sequence is the organizing principle.

The writer himself furnishes the clue in Eccl. 12:11 to how he has written this book. He speaks of the two types of passages found in the book—the negative and the positive—under the metaphors of “the goads” and “the nails.” The goads (the passages which view life negatively) are those which prod the reader to think, to evaluate. The “nails” (the positive, God-centered passages) are the fixed points of reference in the quest for meaning.[footnote]Ibid., Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

The key to interpreting both the form and content of Ecclesiastes is to grasp the dialectical principle underlying the book. A contrasting set of opposites organizes the entire book. There can be no doubt that Ecclesiastes expresses a grand contradiction. Life is said to be both futile and meaningful. The narrator is alternately negative and positive about life’s possibilities. One moment he wallows in despair and the next moment he endorses the very activities of life that he had declared void of meaning. For example, after telling us for nearly two chapters that pleasure-seeking, acquisition of goods, and work are “vanity and a striving after wind” (Eccl. 2:11), the writer ends the first two chapters by declaring that “there is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and find enjoyment in his toil” (Eccl. 2:24). The right interpretation of the book is one that satisfactorily accounts for this system of contradictions. Viewing the book as organized on a dialectical principle meets this criterion.[footnote]L Ryken and T Longman III (Editors), The Complete Literary Guide to the Bible (Grand Rapids; Zondervan, 1993), 270.[/footnote]

Although there is far more space given to negative passages, it is a mistake only to see the last passage as positive. There are at least 13 positive passages. They tend to have God in them (eg. Eccl. 5:18-20), whereas the negative passages are marked by the absence of God. The major theme is the meaninglessness of life without God. The minor theme is the fulfillment that a life lived with God at the centre can bring.

The positive passages are usually much briefer than the negative ones, but that is part of their effectiveness in serving as a foil. The unstated but controlling metaphor of the negative passages is the labyrinth or maze with its ever-shifting series of dead ends. By contrast, the positive passages come as a breath of fresh air. They leave us with the impression that something can be made of life if it is pursued in the right way. The brevity of the positive passages is not a sign of their unimportance but of the contrary: they decisively cut through the endless maze of frustration that prevails elsewhere. The book’s double perspective ties in directly with its persuasive strategy. The success of most literature depends on the writer’s ability to make the good attractive and to expose evil for what it is. In a variation of that strategy, the writer of Ecclesiastes has set for himself the task of making us feel the emptiness of life under the sun and the attractiveness of a God-filled life that leads to contentment with one’s earthly lot.[footnote]Ibid., 270-271[/footnote]

Negative Positive
Man cannot satisfy himself (Eccl. 1:1-2:23) God gives contentment (Eccl. 2:24-26)
Time from a human perspective (Eccl. 3:1-8) Time from a divine perspective (Eccl. 3:9-22)
Satire against pursuit of wealth (Eccl. 4:1-8) The ideal of human companionship Eccl. 4:9-12)
Fickle fame (Eccl. 4:13-16) The worshipper of God (Eccl. 5:1-7)
Satire on money’s limitations (Eccl. 5:8-17) Life with God at centre (Eccl. 5:18-20)
The tragic nature of life (Eccl. 6; Eccl. 7:1-8) The safe way to live (Eccl. 7:9-14)

After this the sections become smaller and more mixed, with Eccl. 10 being a collection of Proverbs.

The effect of these developments is to bring the two themes of the book into the closest possible tension. Here is life as we know it – of a mingled web, good and evil intertwined.[footnote]Ibid., 272.[/footnote]

The juxtaposition of two worldviews and lifestyles is mediated through a whole structure of localized contrasts—between enjoyment and lack of enjoyment, wisdom and folly, change and permanence, youth and age, expectation and disappointment, human and divine perspectives.[footnote]Ibid., 275.[/footnote]

2. Original Audience/Message

The identifying of the original audience is not so important, as the book is one of the least “historical” in the Bible (see above). However, if we take the view that the author is Solomon, then it is easy to conclude that he is addressing the nation of Israel which is beginning to take the backsliding course he has just returned from. He is highlighting the negative effects of life without God and the positive effects of a life lived with God at the centre.

Those who take a non-Solomonic view of authorship and ascribe it to a late period tend not to see a national aspect to the message. Rather they see the book as an old experienced man addressing a young inexperienced man. The message is the same as above: The negative effects of a life lived without God and the positive effects of a life lived with God at the centre.

3. Genre

a. Wisdom

The book is classified under the category of “wisdom literature” (see “Introduction to the Poetic Books”). It is written by a close observer of life in a philosophical style with the special aim of reaching the young (Eccl. 11:9; Eccl. 12:1)

b. Poetry

It is composed in both poetic and prose form. However, even the prose sections have many poetic characteristics (parallelism, imagery, emotiveness)

Ecclesiastes is an affective book. Even the narrative sections are lyric in their effect as they make us feel the futility of the protagonist’s latest quest for satisfaction. The persuasive strategy in Ecclesiastes is not to conduct a logical argument but to instill a feeling or mood that finally leads us to agree with the writer’s verdicts on life.[footnote]L Ryken and T Longman III (Editors), The Complete Literary Guide to the Bible (Grand Rapids; Zondervan, 1993), 275?[/footnote]

c. Satire

Satire (the exposure of human vice or folly) also figures prominently in Ecclesiastes. This is not to deny that the speaker feels pain and regret over the failure of life to match its initial promise to satisfy human longings. To say that the book is satiric is only to say that it exposes the inadequacy of the successive lifestyles with which the speaker futilely experimented. The negative sections of the book add up to an extended satiric exposure of the very things that dominate our own culture, making Ecclesiastes the most contemporary book in the Bible. Ecclesiastes is a satiric attack on an acquisitive, hedonistic, and materialistic society. It exposes the mad quest to find satisfaction in knowledge, wealth, pleasure, work, fame, and sex. Satiric portraits include the hedonist (Eccl. 2:1-11), the workaholic (Eccl. 2:18-23; Eccl. 3:7-8), the devotee of money (Eccl. 5:8-17), the fool (Eccl. 7:1-8; Eccl. 10:1-15), and the faithless woman (Eccl. 7:26-29). The satiric norm is the divine perspective that allows a person to avoid the dead ends that conspire against people when they limit their gaze to life under the sun. Above all, then, Ecclesiastes stands as a satiric “critique of secularism.”

 

V. Thematic Analysis

1. Important phrases

a. Under the Sun

This phrase, which appears 30 times, describes a “worldview.” It describes life lived at ground level, life lived without a heavenly dimension, life with no higher horizon than what can be seen with the eye. As such, it represents the humanist, man-centered and atheistic worldview. This is why Ecclesiastes has been described as “the book of the natural man.” Care should be take to discern whether the author is speaking from this perspective and viewpoint before deciding whether he is approving or disapproving of what is written.

The purpose of Ecclesiastes was to convince men of the uselessness of any world view which does not rise above the horizon of man himself. It pronounces the verdict of “vanity of vanities” upon any philosophy of life which regards the created world or human enjoyment as an end in itself…Having shown the vanity of living for worldly goals, the author clears the way for a truly adequate world view which recognizes God Himself as the highest value of all, and the meaningful life as the one which is lived in His service.[footnote]G L Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (Chicago: Moody Press, 1998), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

b. Vanity of vanities

“Vanity” and its derivatives occurs 38 times. Its root form means “to breathe.” The word is used to describe that which vanishes quickly. It is used to describe what is insignificant and worthless. This is an objective description of the general futility and meaninglessness of any earthbound life. It is without substance and quickly passes away as a vapor, as a breeze.

The Hebrew literary form “X of X” indicates the superlative and intensifies an idea. For example, the “Holy of Holies” is the most holy place, the “king of kings” is the greatest king, and the “Song of Songs” is the best of songs. The vanity and meaninglessness in this book’s motto is intense and all-encompassing: “Everything is utterly meaningless.”[footnote]B Arnold and B Beyer, Encountering the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 327.[/footnote]

J E Smith tabulates the ten vanities as follows:

The Ten Vanities

1. Eccl. 2:15–16
2. Eccl. 2:19–21
3. Eccl. 2:26
4. Eccl. 4:4
5. Eccl. 4:7
6. Eccl. 4:16
7. Eccl. 5:10
8. Eccl. 6:9
9. Eccl. 7:6
10. Eccl. 8:10,14
Human Wisdom
Human Labor
Human Purpose
Human Rivalry
Human Avarice
Human Fame
Human Insatiety
Human Coveting
Human Frivolity
Human Awards

[footnote]J E Smith, The Wisdom Literature and Psalms (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996), Electronic Edition[/footnote]

c. Vexation of spirit

This describes the subjective experience of the earthbound life. The consequences are many (see table below), but may be summed up in the phrase “vexation of spirit.”

The Pursuit The Consequences
Godless learning cynicism (Eccl. 1:7,8)
Godless greatness sorrow (Eccl. 1:16-18)
Godless pleasure disappointment (Eccl. 2:1,2)
Godless labor hatred of life (Eccl. 2:17)
Godless philosophy emptiness (Eccl. 3:1-9)
Godless eternity unfulfillment (Eccl. 3:11)
Godless life depression (Eccl. 4:2,3)
Godless religion dread (Eccl. 5:7)
Godless wealth trouble (Eccl. 5:12)
Godless existence frustration (Eccl. 6:12)
Godless wisdom despair (Eccl. 11:1-8)
GODLY FEAR FULFILLMENT (Eccl. 12:13,14)

[footnote]Nelson’s complete book of Bible maps and charts (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

2. The Search

Restlessness continually characterizes the writer. This is expressed in different ways as he tries out what the world offers: “I turned” (Eccl. 2:12); “I went about” (Eccl. 2:20); “I returned” (Eccl. 4:1,7; Eccl. 9:11); “I considered” (Eccl. 4:4,15; Eccl. 9:1); “I proved” (Eccl. 7:23); “I applied mine heart” (Eccl. 7:25; Eccl. 8:16); “I found” (Eccl. 7:27,28,29). Each time, for all his effort, he came to the same sad conclusion: “all is vanity and vexation of spirit.” His restless search was wide-ranging.

a. The search for satisfaction (Eccl. 1:12-2:26)

He searched for satisfaction in money (Eccl. 5:10-6:9), pleasure (Eccl. 2:1-3), success (Eccl. 2:4-17), work (Eccl. 2:18-23; Eccl. 4:4-12), fame (Eccl. 4:13-16). One of the reasons these things cannot satisfy him is that life is short and death is sure. The Preacher seems to be constantly aware that death is chasing him and one day soon will catch up with him (Eccl. 12:7). The shadow of death, therefore, falls on all human activity. So does the shadow of sin (Eccl. 7:29). The message is pointed and clear. Life is swiftly ebbing away. Everyone must turn to God while there is still time

b. The search for justice

Disturbed by the inequities of life he searched for justice but could only find corruption and injustice (Eccl. 3:16-22, Eccl. 4:1-16; Eccl. 5:8-9; Eccl. 8:9-17).

Ecclesiastes is like the book of Job. While Job’s dialogues and monologues search for understanding of God’s wisdom within the circumstance of an innocent man’s suffering, Ecclesiastes is more philosophical in its approach and speaks of the condition of all humans. Ecclesiastes also probes the limits of conventional proverbial wisdom (see Eccl. 12:9) by balancing expectations of justice and prosperity often raised by proverbial wisdom with the harsh realities of living in a fallen world controlled by the inscrutable wisdom of God. It also encourages fidelity to God in the perplexing difficulties so many people face. In the end, however, the conclusion of Ecclesiastes is very similar to that of Job. Despite our inability to understand fully the good wisdom of God, our appropriate and wise human response is to “fear God and keep his commandments” (Eccl. 12:13; see note on Job 28:28). That is, we are to submit to God and demonstrate our awareness of his supreme wisdom by obeying his law, trusting that he is full of wisdom and goodness in spite of the enigmas life presents even to those who know him.[footnote]Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 1032.[/footnote]

c. The search for wisdom

The Preacher was one who searched for wisdom in order to impart it to others. Wisdom/wise is used 49 times. Wisdom is contrasted with folly (Eccl. 7:1-14). It is portrayed in a positive light in every sphere of life and for every age of life (Eccl. 5:1-6:9, Eccl. 9:11-12:8). However much of the time the Preacher is speaking of merely human wisdom, which although better than folly, cannot be the full and final answer. True wisdom, that wisdom which descends from above, always leads sinners to fear God (Eccl. 5:7; Eccl. 8:12) and keep his commandments (Eccl. 12:13).

d. The search for meaning

The Preacher shared the philosopher’s desire to find out the meaning of life.

Generally speaking, there are two main schools of thought in philosophy: empiricism and rationalism. Empiricism says that human experience, especially of the senses, is the only source of knowledge. That is, man can know only what he experiences. Rationalism says that human reason is the prime source of knowledge and of spiritual truth. That is, man can know only what he can mentally grasp. A study of Ecclesiastes shows truth vainly being sought for in both ways: “I made”; “I got”; and so forth (Eccl. 2:4,7, KJV) – empiricism. “I set my mind to know” (Eccl. 1:17) – rationalism. The conclusion in both quests is stated over and over again: “All is vanity.” Such a frustration serves to show that if truth is to be known, it must come by revelation from God. The God-centered life view which Solomon teaches in the book came from divine revelation.[footnote]I L Jensen, Jensen’s Survey of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1978), 295.[/footnote]

e. The search for balance

Some say the author was a pessimist, and others say he was an optimist. Some say he was a hedonist, and others an aesthetic. The truth is that the book is partly about the search for the middle way between these extremes (Eccl. 7:15-24). It is the story of a search for the “golden mean.”

Although there are numerous negative statements, there are at least thirteen positive affirmations about life (Eccl. 2:24f; Eccl. 5:18; Eccl. 8:15; Eccl. 9:7-10). He wanted people to enjoy life and get the best out of it. The author was pessimistic about obtaining happiness without God but was optimistic about achieving happiness with God, even if he had little else.

Qoheleth manifested the moderate spirit. Although eager for enjoyment and pleasure, he was content with the present (Eccl. 7:10). Cognizant of injustice and concerned with its causes, he was nevertheless cautious about extreme measures to correct it (Eccl. 8:1–9; Eccl. 10:8–11). He was conciliatory (Eccl. 10:12–14) and not given to anger or hasty action (Eccl. 7:8–9). In religion, this man of mind and means was neither unduly pious nor iconoclastic (Eccl. 7:15–25). Again his motto was moderation. His was not the popular religion, but a fundamental faith in the sovereign God, illuminated by experience. Unlike Job, he had no strong theological tenets to prove or defend. The, basic element of his religious faith was the “fear of God” (Eccl. 5:7; Eccl. 12:13). This disposition did not obligate one to verbose prayers and profuse vows, but only to obedience (Eccl. 5:1–7; also Eccl. 12:13). Thus Qoheleth’s life and philosophy were marked by a moderation in religion as well as in politics and personal conduct. He walked a tight line between despair and arrogance, balanced only by the fear of God.[footnote]?[/footnote]

f. Summary

The author has been questing and searching for meaning and satisfaction. And at last he succeeds. He finds “the end of the matter” (Eccl. 12:13).

He is sharing, as it were, the mistakes of direction which had sidetracked his pursuit of the goal during his lifetime. Here then are warnings to fellow travelers of byways and dead end alleys that lead nowhere and accomplish nothing of significance. The passages bemoaning the futility of life under the sun reflect his former despair while the quest was in progress, before he reached the goal.[footnote]J E Smith, The Wisdom Literature and Psalms (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

3. The fear of the Lord

The bottom line and fundamental principle of the Preacher was “the fear of the Lord” (Eccl. 3:12; Eccl. 12:13). This was his conclusion.

True wisdom will then recognize the provisional nature of much of our experience, and will accept that our experience of a fallen world and the evil within is soon to pass. The book may then be read as a positive assessment of faith that is able to look beyond such limitations, and to conclude as it does that the duty of humankind is to fear God and to keep God’s commandments.[footnote]W J Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 285[/footnote]

The author closes this book by stating that there is a God who will hold us accountable for the deeds of our lives. Life “under the sun” will be judged from a heavenly perspective. Thus the book ends on a positive and encouraging note, because one’s accountability before God means that the course of our lives is of eternal significance. In spite of frequent observation and experience of life’s apparent futility, the author exhorts his readers to grasp by faith the sovereignty, goodness, and justice of God and to enjoy all the facets of life as His gift.[footnote]Nelson’s complete book of Bible maps and charts (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

The theme of the book, far from being a problem, is a virtual summary of the biblical worldview: life lived by purely earthly and human standards is futile, but the God-centered life is an antidote.[footnote]L Ryken and T Longman III (Editors), The Complete Literary Guide to the Bible (Grand Rapids; Zondervan, 1993), 269.[/footnote]

We have in succession the man of science and the man of pleasure becoming fatalist, materialist, epicurean, stoic; speaking in each character much truth, and interposing some earnest enlightened interludes, the fruits of his maturer wisdom; and at last we have the noblest style of man – the humble and penitent believer.[footnote]J Angus, The Bible Hand-book, p.591.[/footnote]

 

VI. New Testament Analysis

1. Contrasts

There are no prophecies, theophanies, types or Messianic prophecies in Ecclesiastes. However, life under the sun is painted in stark contrast with life under the Son of God.[footnote]Wilkinson and Boa, Talk Thru’ the Old Testament, 172.[/footnote]

Life under the sun Life under the Son
Eccl. 1:3 What advantage is work under the sun? He which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ (Phil.1:6).
Eccl. 1:9 Nothing new under the sun Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new (2 Cor. 5:17).
Eccl. 1:14 All deeds are vanity under the sun Be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord (1 Cor. 15:58).
Eccl. 2:18 The fruit of labor is hated under the sun Being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God (Col. 1:10).
Eccl. 6:12 Man is mortal under the sun That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life (Jn. 3:16).
Eccl. 8:15 Pleasure is temporary under the sun For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure (Phil. 2:13)
Eccl. 8:17 Man cannot discover God’s work under the sun Now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known (1 Cor. 13:12)
Eccl. 9:3 All men die under the sun God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son (1 Jn. 5:11)
Eccl. 9:11 Strength and speed under the sun God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty (1 Cor. 1:27).
Eccl. 12:2 Life under the sun will cease That ye may know that ye have eternal life (1 Jn. 5:13).

2. New Testament Parallels

New Testament Ecclesiastes
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted (Mat. 5:3,4) It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart (Eccl. 7:2).
But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking (Mat. 6:7) Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few (Eccl. 5:2).
Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal (Mat. 6:19,20) A man to whom God hath given riches, wealth, and honour, so that he wanteth nothing for his soul of all that he desireth, yet God giveth him not power to eat thereof, but a stranger eateth it: this is vanity, and it is an evil disease (Eccl. 6:2)
And he spake a parable unto them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided? So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God (Lk. 12:16-21). A man to whom God hath given riches, wealth, and honor, so that he wanteth nothing for his soul of all that he desireth, yet God giveth him not power to eat thereof, but a stranger eateth it: this is vanity, and it is an evil disease (Eccl. 6:2)
Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry: for that shall abide with him of his labor the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun (Eccl. 8:15)
For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil (Eccl. 12:14)
The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit (Jn. 3:8) As thou knowest not what is the way of the spirit, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child: even so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all (Eccl. 11:5)
I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work (Jn. 9:4) Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest (Eccl. 9:10)
Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man (Col. 4:6) The words of a wise man’s mouth are gracious; but the lips of a fool will swallow up himself (Eccl. 10:12)
Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath (Jam. 1:19) Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God, and be more ready to hear, than to give the sacrifice of fools: for they consider not that they do evil (Eccl. 5:1)

3. Christ the wisdom of God

Christ is the fulfillment of all the wisdom literature. He is God’s wisdom and reveals wisdom to those who follow him (Col. 1:9; Col. 2:23; Col. 3:16).

4. Fear God and keep his commandments

The New Testament echoes the conclusion of Ecclesiastes (Ac 6:7; Ac 9:31; 2 Co 5:11: 9:13: 1 Pe. 1:2; 1 Pe. 2:17; Rev 14:7; Rev 15:4).

 

VII. The Message of Ecclesiastes

Original Message: Israel should learn that the godless life is empty, frustrating and punishable, but the God-centered life is full, satisfying and rewarding.
Present Message: The Church should learn that the godless life is empty, frustrating and punishable, but the God-centered life is full, satisfying and rewarding.