Ecclesiastes is unlike any other Old Testament book. Quite frankly, even when you consider the New Testament, it still holds a unique place. If we take a good hard look, the closest relatives it has are Proverbs and maybe Job (another book that confounds many people who read it). The book itself is complex and perplexing because its focus is life, something that is complex and perplexing in and of itself. The main character of the book, the preacher or teacher (translated from the Hebrew word Qohelet which could easily mean “the assembler” and may be more title than name) is searching for the meaning of life. It’s less about him and more about the message though. We see that in its name which comes from his title as its translated in the LXX as ekklesiastes or “assembler.” That is a word related to the ekklesia which we often translate “church or assembly.” Therefore, both titles suggest this book is something similar to a sermon delivered by the preacher to the congregation of Israel.¹
Unfortunately, the author’s experiences have led him to believe life is a never-ending turnover of consumption. It has purpose, but finding that purpose has been rather elusive to him. This book seems to be a warning and a lesson for those who are confounded by the very same questions and answers. He makes several observations that are philosophic in nature. He invites his audience to contemplate the cyclical nature of the human existence, the fleeting duration of all we cherish, the brevity of our lives, and the inevitability of death.² After asking several questions, making several conclusions, and justifying his thoughts, he actually provides instruction on how to live meaningfully, purposefully, and even joyfully within the confines of a relationship with God. The key is to place God at the center of your life and work and accept your divinely appointed place. Then, with all your heart, trust God’s plans and learn what it means to be content.³
Throughout the book, he will investigate and elaborate on personal pursuits such as knowledge, wealth, wisdom and come to a simple conclusion, they are all vanity (from the Hebrew word hevel). That word carries with it the image of breathing out. It something that closely resembles a flimsy vapor of breath that you exhale and not the great inhale that sustains life. For all intents and purposes, it is invisible except for cold winter days. Even then, it dissipates so quickly you barely notice it.⁴ The different vanities (“breaths”) of life will be found throughout the book 21 different times.
That invisible, absurd, even futile moment is the key theme of Ecclesiastes. Since life is nothing more than a vapor, why does “what will you do with your life” even matter? To our preacher, the quest to collect, consume, and acquire is a waste of time. Only in the search for God and His truth will you find something inherently valuable. At the end of the day, he suggests we abandon all our illusions of self-importance, face death and life squarely, and accept with fear and trembling our dependance upon God.5
Even today, the readers of Ecclesiastes are asked a single question. Will you fill your life with folly and the never-ending search for something else or will you fill it with God, who can provide the only real fulfillment this world ever knows? That is a question still worth asking in 2019.
While the traditional view has been that Solomon is the author due to his authorship of the Proverbs (a literary cousin), modern scholarship wants to date this book much later and give credit to an unknown author. Many scholars feel the book has too much Greek influence in its philosophy and doesn’t quite harmonize with the rest of the Old Testament in its view of God.
Personally, I believe we need to trust the tradition when it comes to this book. In the opening verse, the preacher is called a “son of David,” and chapter 2 has a deeply profound autobiographical nature to it when you examine how much of it seems to reflect the life of Solomon. Attention must also be paid to the thoughts of 12:9 and the collecting of “many proverbs,” since Solomon wrote many of the them (see Proverbs 1:1). The attention paid to wisdom also suggests Solomon (see First Kings 4:29-30). It’s also worth nothing that the content of the book reflects someone looking back on a life long on experience but short on lasting rewards. When we consider the waste of potential his life truly was, Solomon’s experiences sound almost too-good-to-be true. As king, he had the opportunity and resources to pursue the rewards of wisdom, pleasure, and work in and of themselves. Yet the world-weary tone of the book suggests he looked back on it with regret and hope that we will now learn from his mistakes.6
When it comes to understanding the text of Ecclesiastes, we must see that the preacher is not the author. Rather, there is someone recording his thoughts for posterity sake. They position the preacher as a gentle cynic who struggles with the world but isn’t bitter towards it. The preacher is remarkably honest as he expresses his convictions and is brave enough to say what he believes to be true even if it goes against the grain of accepted thought.7 That honesty makes the book seem almost downbeat and problematic at times and causes some to give up before the final payoff in the end.
Today, I want to encourage you to love this short book of wisdom. Some skeptics scoff at Ecclesiastes because of its pessimism and miss the point completely. The message of this book is the epitome of realism. Life isn’t always kicks and giggles, sometimes it’s tough. The author of Ecclesiastes doesn’t sugar coat that truth for our sake. By drawing from the tragedy of his own life, Solomon illustrates an eternal truth – he was not created to pursue earthly interests. Instead, he was created to live a life that reflected the will of His Creator.8
When Solomon looked around his world, all he saw was the meaningless drive to collect, acheive, and sustain. When he looked around at all he’d done, he wanted more. By the time this message was delivered, he knew he needed more. He knew he was created to live a life with meaning. He knew God was the answer to that meaning.
It’s a shame he didn’t see it sooner.
¹ Denny Petrillo, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon, 4.
² Robert Alter, The Wisdom Books, 338
³ Online Article from http://www.biblestudytools.com entitled “Ecclesiastes”
⁴ Alter, 340
5 Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, 278.
6 Online Article from https://www.insight.org/resources/bible/the-wisdom-books/ecclesiastes
7 Online Article from https://www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/o/old-testament-of-the-bible/summary-and-analysis/ecclesiastes entitled “Ecclesiastes”
8 R. Smith, Ecclesiastes, (The Living Messages of the Old Testament), 239.