Posted by Josh Kirby August 24, 2015
Ecclesiastes explores a wide range of concepts, including the cyclical nature of life and experience, the challenges and limitations of wisdom and experience, the fleeting nature of pleasure, success, possessions, wealth, and work, and the certainty of death.
Ecclesiastes is written in a direct and, at times, somewhat shocking tone. Much of the book presents a dark view of life, a seemingly inevitable pessimism. There is a certain mystery shrouding Ecclesiastes. The author seeks to see all of life through the spectrum of wisdom (1:13, 16) and yet much of life refuses to make sense. There is more to Ecclesiastes than what is on the surface, however. Ecclesiastes compliments and balances the other wisdom books and fills an important role in the canon of Scripture.
Within the wisdom genre, Ecclesiastes is the most philosophical and existential book. It also may be the most modern. It gives the appearance of having been written with our time in mind. Though written centuries ago, it well expresses the skepticism of modernity. It is easy for a troubled and searching soul to find something relatable in Ecclesiastes.
There are at least three key words and phrases in Ecclesiastes.
- The first is vanity, found 31 times in the book. Vanity indicates that which is meaningless or worthless. The Hebrewword literary is translated vapor and comes from a word which means to breathe. Thus, the author refers to that which is here for a moment and then vanishes; that which is ephemeral, with very little substance. Ecclesiastes contains a “vanity bracket” – the book begins and ends with a consideration of vanity (1:2; 12:8).
- The second is the phrase under the sun, found 38 times in the book. Under the sun indicates that which is on the earth, exposed to the daily rising and setting of the sun.
- The third is the phrase striving after wind, which is found 10 times in the book. Imagine a person running around trying to catch the wind with his bare hands. He will try and try and try but always will come up empty and exhausted. That’s the absurd idea of striving after wind.
The book of Ecclesiastes opens with a poem about the cyclical nature of life and experience (1:2-11). The rest of the book is essentially the author’s search for satisfaction. There is no logical procession of thought by which the book is held together, but the book can be divided into two general sections:
- Satisfaction sought experientially (1:12-2:26)
- Satisfaction sought philosophically (3:1-12:8)
In the first section, satisfaction is sought in some of the usual ways – pleasure, laughter, alcohol, work, and sex. But the search is ultimately fruitless. The author’s conclusion on these matters is as follows:
- “So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 2:9–11, ESV)
- “So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.” (Ecclesiastes 2:17, ESV)
- “What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 2:22–23, ESV)
In his observations of life and experience the author comes to several disturbing conclusions:1
- Work is meaningless (2:17)
- People die like beasts (3:18)
- Mourners are uncomforted (4:1)
- The unborn and dead are better off than the living (4:2-3)
- Virtue goes unrewarded, even forgotten (4:13-16)
- Wealth does not necessarily bring enjoyment (6:1-2)
- Life is dreadfully and irretrievably cussed (7:13)
When the author does not find satisfaction in experiences, he seeks to find it through philosophy. The author turns to “wisdom and madness and folly” (2:12). In this context the author considers:2
- The times and meaning of life (3:1-15)
- Injustice (3:16-4:3)
- The futility of human effort (4:4-16)
- The oppressive political system (5:8-9)
- Life and wealth (5:10-6:9)
- Man’s ill-fated lot (6:10-12)
- The futility and fate of all (8:10-9:3)
- The decay experienced in old age (12:1-8)
What, then, is the author’s conclusion? – “Vanity of vanities…all is vanity” (12:8) and a striving after wind. Ecclesiastes vividly captures the despair of a broken world. And yet, there is balance within the book. Alongside his direct and somewhat shocking conclusions about life, the author accounts for the influence of God with the following observations:3
- When God is considered, satisfaction and fulfillment in life are possible (2:24-25; 3:12-12, 22; 5:18-19; 8:15; 9:7-9; 11:7-10). These passages are sometimes referred to as the “enjoyment refrain.”
- For all its variables, changes, and chances, life is God’s gift to people (3:1-15; 5:18; 9:1-2, 9-10).
- God makes everything beautiful in his time and has put eternity into people’s hearts (3:11).
- Certain difficulties of life are tests from God (3:18).
- Daily life is difficult, but there is life with God to be cultivated (5:1-7).
- God has revealed his will and way that we may live a life according to his purpose (12:11-13).
- The final statement of Ecclesiastes summarizes the message of the Old Testament.
- “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13–14, ESV)
In short, the message of Ecclesiastes is that true satisfaction is not found in what this world has to offer, but is found only in acknowledging and respecting God, his will, and his way. Or, to use the language of the book, satisfaction is found nowhere “under the sun,” but only beyond the sun, with God. Life may seem chaotic, but God is in control. He is all-wise and all-powerful. He has apportioned to people their lot and must be feared, for he will judge every deed.
1Motyer, Alec. The Story Of The Old Testament. Ed. John Stott. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2001, 160 Print.
2 Bullock, C. Hassell. An Introduction to the Old Testament Poetic Books. Chicago: Moody, 1988, 195-204, Print.
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