Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes 1:1

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Ecclesiastes 1:1

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Introduction to the Book of Ecclesiastes

 In the arrangement of the Hebrew Bible, Ecclesiastes is the last poetic and wisdom book within the Writings division of the Old Testament. It has been placed there as the fourth of the five Megilloth (“Scrolls,” i.e., festival scrolls), each of which is read during a different sacred occasion. In Jewish tradition, Ecclesiastes is read on the Sabbath during the Feast of Tabernacles.

The book’s title derives from its first verse, which begins in a number of English translations with the phrase “The words of the Preacher.” The Hebrew word translated “Preacher” is used as the book’s title in the Hebrew Bible—Qoheleth (sometimes spelled Qohelet or Koheleth), from a root meaning “gather” or “collect.” As one commentator notes: “The root qhl is used of ‘gathering’ or ‘assembling’ people but not of collecting things…. There are verbal forms [of that root word such as] niqhal (‘to assemble, be gathered’) and hiqhil (‘to gather an assembly’). Thus it is likely that Qohelet is a name meaning ‘one who gathers an assembly [a convener] to address it,’ yet retaining an official force so that it can be used with the [definite] article: ‘the Qohelet’ (7:27). The meaning is easily seen in 1 Kings 8:1[-2], where Solomon gathers (qhl) the people of Israel for worship, prayer and instruction. ‘Preacher’ is as good a translation as any” (Michael Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary, TYNDALE OLD TESTAMENT COMMENTARIES, 1983, p. 23). Some, though, deeming “Preacher” as too religious a distinction or limited to public spoken exhortation, prefer the word “Teacher,” stressing the instructive function of the book. Yet “Preacher” can fit the public proclamation of godly wisdom, even if through writing rather than spoken address. Of course, it is possible that the book was originally delivered through a public spoken address. The Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, translated Qoheleth as Ekklesiastes, using this name as its title for the book. Derived from the word ekklesia, ‘[called-out] assembly, congregation, church,’ it simply means ‘preacher.’ [Adopted from the Greek] the Latin Ecclesiastes means ‘speaker before an assembly’” (The New Open Bible, 1990, introduction to Ecclesiastes).

Who is this unnamed Preacher? Evidence favors identifying him with King Solomon, though many modern scholars reject this notion—or at least the notion of his authorship. A few accept Solomon as the Preacher but consider the author of the book to be someone else who is quoting him, perhaps fictitiously—based, in part, on the recurrent phrase “says the Preacher.” However, the phrase “I, the Preacher” (Ecclesiastes 1:12) should dispel this notion—the occurrences of “says the Preacher,” then, merely meaning the author is quoting himself in the third person as a teaching and literary device.

What factors point to Solomon? Note that he is referred to as “the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (verse 1). This could just mean the son of King David, or it could mean that the Preacher was the son of David and was himself king. In any case verse 12 says, “I, the Preacher, was king….” Now, since “son” in verse 1 can mean descendant, this on its own could indicate any king of David’s dynasty in Jerusalem. But verse 12 gives a further detail, stating, “I, the Preacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem” (emphasis added). This fits only Solomon, since every Davidic king in Jerusalem after him was king over only Judah, not Israel. But some argue that the phrase “was king” here shows that Solomon could not be meant—since he was king until his death. This wording, though, would make sense from a king writing late in life after a long reign. Moreover, several commentaries point out that the phrase could be translated, “I have been king,” indicating an ongoing situation, not one that had terminated before the time of writing. And some note that the meaning could be “I became king”—as an introductory statement to his exploratory pursuits thereafter, his position giving him the means for these.

A further identifier is the Preacher having said to himself: “Look, I have attained greatness, and have gained more wisdom than all who were before me in Jerusalem. My heart has understood great wisdom and knowledge” (verse 16). What later king and wisdom teacher in Jerusalem could legitimately claim to be wiser than all before him if the illustrious Solomon, the wisest ever (1 Kings 3:11-12; 1 Kings 4:29-34), was his ancestor? Added to unsurpassed wisdom, the Preacher’s pleasure-seeking (Ecclesiastes 2:1-3), great achievements (verses 4-6) and unparalleled wealth (verses 7-10) fit no one else but Solomon. Some take the claims of greater wisdom and wealth “than all who were before me in Jerusalem” (see Ecclesiastes 1:16; Ecclesiastes 2:7, Ecclesiastes 2:9) to mean there must have been numerous kings in Jerusalem before the Preacher—precluding him from being Solomon since Solomon was preceded in Jerusalem by only his father David. Yet prior kings are not necessarily implied here—only prior wealthy and wise people. And even if prior kings are implied, it should be recognized that David and Solomon were preceded by Jebusite kings in Jerusalem.

Additionally, the proverbs in this book (for example, in Ecclesiastes 7 and 10) are similar to those of the book of Proverbs, a work of Solomon. We are told specifically that the Preacher “pondered and sought out and set in order many proverbs” (Ecclesiastes 12:9). Like Proverbs, this book is addressed to “my son” (Ecclesiastes 12:12)—which here could refer to an actual son or just the reader or hearer as a pupil of the wisdom teacher.

Jewish Talmudic tradition affirms Solomonic authorship of Ecclesiastes. As noted in the Beyond Today Bible Commentary's introduction to the Song of Solomon, this tradition also says that King Hezekiah and his colleagues, presumably including the prophet Isaiah, “wrote” Isaiah, Proverbs, the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes (Baba Bathra 15a). However, with the exception of Isaiah writing his own book, this wording most likely refers to scribal and editorial work in scriptural compilation and transmission (compare Proverbs 25:1). As further noted in the Beyond Today Bible Commentary's Song of Solomon introduction, the Midrash Rabbah, a Jewish commentary written before the mid-ninth century, contends that the Song was written early in Solomon’s life, Proverbs when he was somewhat older and Ecclesiastes late in his life, the explanation being that “when a man is young he composes songs; when he grows older he makes sententious remarks; and when he becomes an old man he speaks of the vanity of things.” Indeed, the perspective throughout the book of Ecclesiastes does seem to be that of an old man looking back over his life, especially considering the description of old age in Ecclesiastes 12:1-5.

In light of the emphatic righteous conclusion of the book, if Solomon wrote it near the end of his life that could seem to indicate—even though we have no record of it anywhere else in Scripture—that he eventually came to repent of his wayward years of debauchery and going along with the idolatry of his pagan wives (see 1 Kings 11). It could well be, and we would indeed hope, that Ecclesiastes is a record of Solomon looking over his life in his old age and seeing how he had strayed and finally coming to repentance. But this is by no means clear.

The history about him in Kings and Chronicles has no mention of him repenting in the end. Rather we are left with an unflattering picture of him trying to assassinate Jeroboam, worshipping false gods to please his wives, overtaxing his people, and the prophetic sentence that his kingdom would be split in two because of his sins. It does seem odd for such an important person in Israel’s history to have repented and that not be recorded, when such a turnaround is recorded of less notable figures like Judah’s King Manasseh—a wicked ruler who came to a measure of repentance in his last days.

Some say Solomon’s repentance is recorded—in Ecclesiastes. But there is no specific statement to that effect—only that the Preacher arrived at proper conclusions after his life investigation. Nehemiah’s later account of Solomon points out only the king’s sins in being led astray—again with no mention of repentance (Nehemiah 13:26). The Jewish historian Josephus records: “But although Solomon was become the most glorious of kings, and the best beloved by God, and exceeded in wisdom and riches those that had been rulers of the Hebrews before him, yet did not he persevere in this happy state till he died. Nay, he forsook the observation of the laws of his father, and came to an end no way suitable to our foregoing history of him . . . Nor did he imitate David, although God had twice appeared to him in his sleep, and exhorted him to imitate his father: so he died ingloriously . . . So Solomon died when he was already an old man . . . having been superior to all other kings in happiness, and riches, and wisdom, excepting that when he was growing into years he was deluded by women, and transgressed the law” (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 8, chap. 7, secs. 5, 8). So, despite the descriptions of old age in the book, perhaps Ecclesiastes was written in Solomon’s earlier years, before he was so far gone. Yet it’s still possible that Ecclesiastes represents his repentance in old age without that being recorded elsewhere, as strange at that would seem to be. Or perhaps he was regretful over the course of his life and wanted to pass on the conclusions of his investigation but remained unwilling to make the needed changes personally. Or it’s even possible that he came to a time of clarity and repentance late in life and wrote this book and then still ended up turning from God after that, as utterly horrible and tragic as that would be. There is just no way for us to know.

Again, though, a number of modern scholars reject Solomonic authorship of Ecclesiastes on various grounds. Besides those issues already addressed, some ask why Solomon would use a pseudonym rather than his own name as in Proverbs and the Song of Songs.

Perhaps, we may conjecture, he wanted to stress his role as wisdom teacher above his kingship and fame. After all, part of his point was to show the worthlessness of personal glory in this life. His most valuable contribution was not his notable reign but the wisdom and lessons he would pass on to later generations. The New American Commentary says in its introduction to the book: “The use of the name ‘the Teacher [or Preacher]’ indicates that the author is distancing himself from his role as absolute monarch and taking on the mantle of the sage. Both the name ‘the Teacher’ and the use of third person [references to himself]…allow him to do this. The device is certainly a literary success. What emerges from Ecclesiastes is not a royal pronouncement but the reflection of a wise man who ‘has been’ king. As we read the book, we are more and more absorbed in the words not of ‘King Solomon’ but of ‘Solomon-become-“the-Teacher”’” (Duane Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, 1993, p. 264). It could also be that if the book was written late in his life, Solomon may have been concerned that his name now had a bad association.

Or it may be that the title Preacher was simply a well-known one for Solomon in his day even though we have no record of that. Recall that Solomon gathered the nation at the time of the temple’s dedication during the fall festival season, gave a religious address to those assembled and led them in public prayer and worship. Perhaps this became a regular practice during the annual Feast of Tabernacles. Or even if not (or if such a practice lapsed during Solomon’s wayward years), it could be that the king late in his life addressed the assembled nation at the Feast with a grand speech that was recorded as “the words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (Ecclesiastes 1:1). Whether Solomon preached just once at the temple’s dedication, regularly at Feast-time or just once again near the end of his life with the substance of the book of Ecclesiastes, this could explain why Ecclesiastes (the words of the Preacher) came to be read among the Jews during the Feast of Tabernacles or Sukkot, besides just thematic association.

(On that note, the Jewish JPS Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes states: “Thematic motives were suggested for reading Ecclesiastes in Sukkot. These are that Koheleth recommends rejoicing, which is the mood of Sukkot; that he declares the transience of human life, which is symbolized by a temporary booth; and that autumn is the season evocative of mortality”—Michael Fox, 2004, p. xv. We touch on this further in our comments on Ecclesiastes 12:8. Others have included a suggestion related to the rejoicing commands of the Feast in concert with the temporary wealth of second tithe being spent during it on the desires of the heart—cf. Deuteronomy 14:25-26—raising cautions from what the richest man of his day pursued and its results.)

In any case, the pseudonym of Preacher certainly does not rule out Solomon, for why would any king use a pseudonym? In Solomon’s case, we know that he did preach to the people on at least one occasion—and this was probably not an isolated incident—thus justifying the term.

Of course, some contend that the writer was not really a king at all and was presenting himself in the guise of Solomon as a literary device or surreptitious means to wider acceptance and advancement of his work. One argument is that the perspective of some passages in Ecclesiastes supposedly could not come from a king who was in a position to deal with injustice. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary lists these as: “e.g., sorrow for the oppression of the weak (Ecclesiastes 4:1) and for corruption in government (Ecclesiastes 5:8-9), the proper attitude to the king from the subject’s point of view (Ecclesiastes 8:2-5; Ecclesiastes 10:20), and unworthy rulers who do not properly distinguish good subjects from bad (Ecclesiastes 9:1-2). If Solomon felt so strongly about these wrongs, surely he would have put them right” (Stafford Wright, “Ecclesiastes,” Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Frank Gaebelian, ed., 1991, introduction to Ecclesiastes). But the same commentary then counters: “This is far from conclusive. A king or president may be aware of mismanagement by local authorities, however much he may want to rectify it. Solomon had a number of local officers (1 Kings 4:7-19); and, as always happens, complaints from his subjects would come to his notice from time to time. Unfortunately, he sagged in his moral actions as he grew older, both in the concessions he made to his pagan wives (1 Kings 11:4-6) and in his treatment of his subjects (cf. 1 Kings 12:14). Some men know what is wrong and make a profession of repentance but never clinch a decision by putting things right. With local rulers of considerable influence, Solomon probably found himself in the position of his father, David, who excused a murder with words: ‘These sons of Zeruiah are too strong for me’ (2 Sam[uel] 3:39). On the positive side, according to a fair translation of [Ecclesiastes] 5:8-9, the rule of a king is contrasted favorably with the rule of power-hungry governors and their servants”—though there is dispute over the translation here.

Most scholars against Solomonic authorship argue on the basis of linguistic evidence supposedly pointing to a late date for the book—the Persian period or later. They allege a high number of Aramaic words and constructions, some taking the language as a Hebraized Aramaic. They also point to apparently Persian words—pardes (occurring in the plural in Ecclesiastes 2:5, translated “orchards” or “parks”) and pitgam (“sentence” or “decree” in Ecclesiastes 8:11). Some even see the Hebrew of the book as transitional to Mishnaic Hebrew of the late Second Temple period.

But conservative scholarship has challenged such linguistic evaluation. As The New American Commentary states: “In a major study [Daniel] Fredericks argues that Ecclesiastes cannot come from the postexilic period. His work [Qoheleth’s Language: Re-Evaluating Its Nature and Date, 1988], together with other recent studies, calls for a major reassessment of the date of the book…. Fredericks contends, for example, that no grounds exist for asserting Mishnaic Hebrew influence” (p. 258). He “argues that the language is a preexilic northern dialect. He suggests that features of this dialect were later incorporated in Mishnaic Hebrew, thus the similarity with Qoheleth” (Expositor’s, introduction to Ecclesiastes). Furthermore, “Fredericks examines forty-eight alleged Aramaisms and concludes that only seven terms are of Aramaic origin, of which four are attested elsewhere in early biblical Hebrew. What Aramaisms do exist, however, by no means prove that Ecclesiastes is a late work. Aramaic itself existed from early times; and in the Bible, Aramaisms are especially likely to occur in wisdom and poetic texts” (NAC, pp. 259-260). Moreover, as noted in our introduction to the Song of Solomon (against which similar arguments have been made), Aram, ancient Syria, was incorporated into David’s empire, which Solomon inherited. He and his cosmopolitan court were no doubt familiar with its language and may have adopted terms from it into Hebrew speech.

As to the apparent Persian loanwords, this was also addressed in our introduction to the Song of Solomon, as that book also contains the word pardes. The New American Commentary further notes on Ecclesiastes: “The presence of the two Persian words seems to be irrefutable proof of a late date for the book, but here too the matter is not as settled as it appears. [Scholar Gleason] Archer says the words could be of Sanskrit origin and that they may have entered the language during Solomon’s period of extensive foreign trade…. The word pitgam alone is slender evidence since we in fact have no idea when it entered the language. Fredericks notes that Persian influence and vocabulary spread through the ancient Near East long before the establishment of the Persian Empire and that the words need not have entered Hebrew via Aramaic, as is commonly assumed” (p. 260).

Another possibility is that a later editor such as Ezra, who lived in the postexilic Persian period, updated the text of the book in places where Solomon’s language had become archaic and not readily understandable.

It should also be noted that some scholars have contended that the book’s language shows Phoenician or Canaanite influence—implying a rather early date. But “the theory of Phoenician provenance for Ecclesiastes has been rejected by scholars who argue that the peculiar linguistic features of the text are best explained in the context of biblical Hebrew” (pp. 260-261). Of course, Solomon was in a close alliance with the Phoenician king Hiram of Tyre, and we might expect some regional linguistic similarities.

Others have argued that the book was not of Hebrew origins on the basis of it never using God’s covenant name YHWH (only using Elohim, the more general name for God) nor referring to God’s relationship with Israel. Still others, though, counter that Solomon was stressing the dilemma not just of Israelites but of all human beings—and their need for a relationship with the Creator. Some also suggest that Solomon may have been writing to not just a national but an international audience, including the Aramaean and other nations then subject to him as well as his Phoenician and Egyptian allies and others beyond. Recall that the Queen of Sheba had come asking him difficult questions (1 Kings 10:1), and no doubt other rulers and dignitaries sought out his wisdom as well. Even if the substance of the book was delivered to the nation of Israel while gathered at the Feast of Tabernacles, it is possible that there were many foreign dignitaries visiting at the time. Or the book might have been written down in slightly different language from what was spoken to the people—possibly to make it more understandable to an international audience. Or maybe there were two versions, a Hebrew and an international one, that were later melded into one. There’s no way to actually know. The point is that the objections are not unanswerable.

Gleason Archer, after examining the different opinions on the language and setting of the book, concludes: “Only one reasonable alternative remains. That period when Israel enjoyed the closest relations with Tyre and Sidon, on both the commercial and the political levels—and cultural as well (it was a Phoenician Jew [actually Phoenician Israelite, his father of Tyre and his mother of Naphtali] named Hiram [or Huram] who designed and produced all the art work connected with the temple in Jerusalem, and large numbers of Phoenician artisans and craftsmen worked under his supervision)—was unquestionably the age of Solomon, that period when wisdom literature was most zealously cultivated. This was the era when Solomon composed his Proverbs, and he may have had a hand in popularizing the venerable Book of Job. From the standpoint of linguistics, then, and from the standpoint of comparative literature and the known proclivities of the age, Solomon’s period in the tenth century B.C. must be regarded as the most likely time for the composition of Ecclesiastes” (New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, 1982, pp. 257-258).

And all in all, Solomon himself is the most reasonable choice for the author of Ecclesiastes. Indeed, it just can’t be anyone else if the author’s self-references in the book are accepted at face value.

A number of scholars, though, have surmised that the book must have more than one author. One reason for this assessment is the difference of literary forms in the book, especially the insertions of groups of proverbs. The main basis for this opinion, however, is the perception that the book is inconsistent or contradictory in its messages. Expositor’s explains that “among the multiple authorship theories, the simplest postulates three writers…. The original writer (Qoheleth ‘the Preacher’) was a rebel against piety and held a pessimistic view of life in relation to God [essentially saying that serving God and righteous living are worthless]. His thoughts were toned down—or even contradicted—by an orthodox redactor [i.e., an editor with a more normative biblical view] who emended the text. He [it is supposed] belonged to the Hasidim (‘holy ones,’ ‘saints’), who were forerunners of the Pharisees. Another writer of the regular Wisdom school, a hakam (‘wise man’), incorporated a series of traditional proverbs. This is the simplest division of the book [among such theories], but others claim to have discovered more writers at work.”

The same commentary, however, does not accept this view of multiple authors. As to varying literary forms and arguments, it says: “A specific, unifying function is fulfilled by a small number of leading concepts to which Koheleth returns again and again, concepts such as ‘vanity,’ ‘striving after wind,’ ‘toil,’ ‘lot,’ etc. Nor can the modern reader escape the quite dispassionate—in contrast to Job—restrained solemnity and weight of his diction…. This commentary [Expositor’s] assumes a single writer, Qoheleth, except possibly for the closing verses [which are a subject of further debate, though the conclusion fits with the whole]. It recognizes that the author looks at life from several angles, deliberately at times raising the arguments that would occur to his readers. Nevertheless, he is always firm in his conclusions. A central argument emerges throughout the book.”

Indeed, to see that there is a single author with a consistent message, it is important that we understand what that message is. The overall point will help us to see how he makes his case in the various sections of his treatise.

People today have various ideas about the book’s meaning. Many think it a hopeless message— telling us to just accept that all is worthless, unfair and beyond our control and that there’s no point to life, at least none that we will ever understand. This notion is derived, for starters, from the opening words of the book, “‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher; ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity’” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). And the sentiment is affirmed throughout, even just before the conclusion (Ecclesiastes 12:8). Indeed, the word “vanity” (in the sense of futility, not self-exaltation and conceit) dominates the book, appearing 38 times. It is a translation of the Hebrew hebel, which means “breath” or “vapor” (see Isaiah 57:13), signifying something insubstantial or transitory, nothingness, emptiness, worthlessness or futility. The term is used elsewhere in regard to “useless” or “worthless” idols (Psalm 31:6; Jonah 2:8). As we will see, the word in Ecclesiastes refers to trying to find happiness and meaning in the various aspects of life without a proper godly foundation and perspective.

Bible scholar Walter Kaiser Jr., in his Everyman’s Bible Commentary series book on Ecclesiastes, says: “Qoheleth was working on the problem of man’s attempt to find meaning in all aspects of God’s good world without coming to know the world’s Creator, Sustainer and final Judge. For central to all of man’s concerns is this problem of integrating life and truth. The issue appears to have come to a head in Ecclesiastes 3:11: ‘{God} has made everything beautiful in its time; he has also put eternity {‘olam} into man’s heart so that he cannot find out what God has done from beginning to the end.’ And there the issue hangs. Man has a capacity and desire to know how all things, men, and ideas fit together—the end from the beginning—and yet he cannot know until he comes to know the One who built man in His own image with the capacity to understand who he is as a man, what he means, and what is the worth of things, even life itself. Life, in and of itself, even God’s good world with all its good, God-given gifts, is unable to deliver meaning and joy when it is appropriated in a piecemeal fashion…. Life, in and of itself, is unable to supply the key to the questions of identity, meaning, purpose, value, enjoyment, and destiny. Only in coming to know God can one begin to find answers to these questions” (Ecclesiastes: Total Life, 1979, pp. 16-17).

Archer points out: “This work is a masterpiece of philosophical insight that must be taken together as an organic whole, rather than its being taken out of context…. A careful synthetic study of Ecclesiastes brings out the true purpose and theme of its author. After he has tried every other avenue to the highest value in human life, Solomon gives his personal testimony as to the emptiness and disgust that resulted from his tasting to the full all that the world could offer him in the way of satisfaction and pleasure. It all turned out to be futile and unworthy, completely lacking in ultimate satisfaction…. The key term throughout the book is tahat hassemes (‘under the sun’). The whole perspective [not ultimately of the book but of what is being examined] is of this world. The natural man who has never taken God seriously falls into the delusion that ‘this world is all there is.’ Well then, replies the Preacher, if this world is all there is, let us find out by experience whether there is anything ultimately worthwhile in this world— anything that yields real satisfaction” (p. 254-255). Or actually rather, the Preacher says this experimentation has already been done and that no one else needs or ought to do it. He’s conveying what he’s already observed and learned, as Archer further comments: “The result of his extensive experiment, carried on under the most favorable conditions possible, was that nothing but meaninglessness and profound disappointment await the secularist materialist. All his ambitions, though fully achieved, all his lusts, though fully indulged, lead only to revulsion and nausea. For him life is [to quote Hamlet] ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ The message that comes through loud and clear in Ecclesiastes is that true meaning in life is found only in a relationship with God. Unless there is in man’s heart a sincere regard for the will of God and an earnest desire to carry out His purposes, man’s life will end up a meaningless tragedy. ‘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’ (8:12, NASB [New American Standard Bible]). This life takes on real meaning only as an arena of opportunity for man to serve God before he steps out into eternity” (p. 255).

The NKJV Study Bible’s introduction to Ecclesiastes says: “The Book of Ecclesiastes is one of the most misunderstood books in the Bible. Christians have tended either to ignore the message of the book, or to regard it as the testimony of a man living apart from God. This is unfortunate, for the book asks relevant, searching questions about the meaning of life, and it declares the utter futility of an existence without God. Like all Scripture, the Book of Ecclesiastes benefits and edifies God’s people. Negative descriptions such as ‘cynical,’ ‘fatalistic,’ or ‘existential’ do not do the Book of Ecclesiastes justice. There is too much evidence of robust cheerfulness throughout its pages. ‘So I commended enjoyment’ (Ecclesiastes 8:15) is a recurrent theme that pervades the book; in fact, the Hebrew words for ‘gladness’ and ‘being glad’ appear seventeen times in Ecclesiastes. The underlying mood of the book is joy: finding pleasure in life despite the troubles that often plague it. Those who fear and worship God should experience this joy; they should rejoice in the gifts God has given them” (2007).

In fact, this theme is not merely recurrent but part of a refrain that appears six times throughout the book, essentially stating, “Eat and drink and enjoy the good of your labor, for it is the gift of God” (see Ecclesiastes 2:24; Ecclesiastes 3:12-13; Ecclesiastes 3:22; Ecclesiastes 5:18-19; Ecclesiastes 8:15; Ecclesiastes 9:7-9).

Because of this, some have considered that the message of the book is hedonistic—saying basically that all is meaningless anyway so just go have a good time while you’re alive. This is assuredly not what the book is advocating. Solomon does want us to recognize that God gave good things for our enjoyment and that we should avail ourselves of these. But while this is important to grasp, it is only part of the book’s message, as we are also told that “sorrow is better than laughter, for by a sad countenance the heart is made better” (Ecclesiastes 7:3). There must be regular sober reflection about the problems of life in this world so that, with right perspective and way of life, the commended enjoyment may have its proper place. Expositor’s states: “The refrains do not mean ‘Do what you will.’ Man is accountable to God, not simply to himself; he has a duty to work and moral responsibilities to society. The book contains warnings against self-indulgence that exploits others for personal advantage (e.g., Ecclesiastes 8:8-9).” Indeed, Ecclesiastes ends with a powerful mandate and warning. And that is where we should look to best understand the book’s intent.

The NKJV Study Bible is quite right in assessing the book’s themes when it states: “Sometimes it is better to read the end of a book to understand better the direction in which the book is headed. This is certainly true of Ecclesiastes. The book should be interpreted in light of its conclusion: ‘Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all’ (Ecclesiastes 12:13). To fear God means to revere, worship, and serve God—to turn from evil and turn in awe to the living God…. It does not involve dread, but instead a proper respect for and obedience to our Creator. Why should we respect and obey God? The Book of Ecclesiastes answers this question in its concluding verse (Ecclesiastes 12:14): God will judge everyone—both the righteous and the wicked. Life cannot be lived with abandon, as if God will not see or remember the deeds of the past. For on the final day, he will call forth all men and women to account for their actions. The admonition to fear God and the expectation of divine judgment are the two great themes that conclude the book and provide an interpretive framework for the rest of it (see Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).”

Contrary to those who think that this pious epilogue has been appended by a later writer to the end of a book with no such themes, let it be noted that these ideas are expressed earlier in the book. The need to fear God is also found in Ecclesiastes 3:14, Ecclesiastes 5:7, Ecclesiastes 7:18 and Ecclesiastes 8:12-13. And the fact of an appointed time when God will execute His justice is also mentioned in Ecclesiastes 3:17, Ecclesiastes 9:1 and Ecclesiastes 11:9.

There is the sense of an orderly argument in Ecclesiastes. Many assume the book to be a hodgepodge of thoughts, but the repeated refrains are conclusive statements that advance the case being made, showing progression, and the treatise ends with an overall summary conclusion. Some agree that there is a vague, general progression but assume various digressions throughout. Yet others are sure that what some take to be digressions are central to the point being made. Indeed, Solomon certainly knew that he was presenting difficult matters. Why would he veer off on tangents that would confuse his audience? It seems far more likely that all is on target in a unified argument.

Yet the chain of such an argument has been a matter of dispute. Many outlines have been proposed. Kaiser states: “Without citing all the scholarly apparatus, we can summarize the key divisions among scholars to be between those who argue for two sections (of equal parts: six chapters each; or unequal parts: four chapters and eight) and those who find three sections (of four chapters each)—or even four divisions…. The twofold division is based on the principle that the first part of Ecclesiastes contains the theoretical portion and the second the practical aspects of the subject. Therefore, the vanity of earthly things is established in part one, and then part two points out what duties and obligations such truth should elicit from mankind. It is true that the book becomes more practical and filled with exhortation toward the end, but the separation between doctrine and practice is not that sharp in the book. Practical applications are being made already in Ecclesiastes 2:24-26; Ecclesiastes 3:10-15, Ecclesiastes 3:17, Ecclesiastes 3:22; and Ecclesiastes 5:1-7, Ecclesiastes 5:18-20” (p. 20).

Kaiser favors the division into four parts, which we will also generally follow: “This division of Ecclesiastes is as follows: Part I, Ecclesiastes 1:2–2:26; II, Ecclesiastes 3:1–5:20; III, Ecclesiastes 6:1–8:15, IV, Ecclesiastes 8:16–12:14. The most obvious advantage the above fourfold division has is that each of the first three sections climaxes with a formal refrain that is given in almost identical terms: ‘To eat and drink and to realize the benefit of one’s labor’ is all a gift from God (Ecclesiastes 2:24; Ecclesiastes 5:18; Ecclesiastes 8:15)” (pp. 20-21). Other occurrences of the refrain fall within these discourses rather than at the end. There are also apparently subdivisions within these major discourses. As we will see, not only should the meaning of the book be discerned from its overall conclusion, but the point of each section and subsection can be discerned from the section conclusion—each of which tell us to enjoy life as God’s gift.

As Expositor’s says: “Life in the world is subject to frustration; but man can still accept his circumstances, even enjoy them, and find strength to live life as it comes…. We are to glorify God in the common things of life; i.e., we are to make the fullest use of the present moment. There may be times of stress and strain and special calling; but the norm is to eat, drink, and live our lives as those who gladly rejoice in God’s good gifts and intend to use them to his glory. This is the theme of the refrains.” 

The well-considered overall outline Kaiser presents is as follows:

I. Enjoying Life as a Gift From God (1:1–2:26)
          —Introduction (1:1-3)
     1. The Restlessness of Life Illustrated (1:4-11)
     2. The Pleasures of Life Tested (1:12–2:11)
     3. The Purposes of Life Examined (2:12-23)
          —Section Conclusion (2:24-26)
II. Understanding the All-Encompassing Plan of God (3:1–5:20)
      1. The Principle: God has a plan that embraces every man and woman and all their actions in all times (3:1-15)
     2. The Facts: The anomalies and apparent contradictions in this thesis are examined and reflected upon (3:16–4:16)
     3. The Implications: Certain cautions and warnings must be raised lest a hasty calculation lead men and women to deny the reality and existence of God’s providence and plan (5:1-17)
          —Section Conclusion (5:18-20)
 III. Explaining and Applying the Plan of God (6:1–8:15)
     1. Proper evaluation of a man’s outward fortunes helps to explain the apparent inequalities of divine providence (6:1–7:15)
     2. Proper evaluation of a man’s character helps to explain the apparent inequalities in divine providence (7:16-29)
     3. The removal of a large proportion of the apparent inequalities in divine providence comes from righteous government [or rather, as we will see, dealing wisely with government] (8:1-14)
          —Section Conclusion (8:15)
IV. Removing Discouragement and Applying God’s Plan to the Lives of Believers (8:16–12:14)
     1. The remaining mystery in this subject must not diminish human joy (8:16–9:9[/10])
     2. The remaining mystery in this subject must not prevent us from working with all our might [with wisdom and diligence] (9:10–11:6)
     3. The daily reminder of our imminent death and the prospect of facing our Creator and Judge should [impact] all our God-given joy and activity (11:7–12:8)
          —Section and Overall Conclusion (12:8/9-14)

Jesus Christ said of those who will follow Him, “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). This applies not only to eternal life after death, but to life today. We find this also in the Feast of Tabernacles, and we’ve already seen a connection between the festival and this book, with its having been read on the Sabbath during the Feast. Indeed, we find this theme in the Sabbath as well. As one author writes: “The purpose of Sabbath is not simply to rejuvenate yourself in order to do more production, nor is it the pursuit of pleasure. The purpose of Sabbath is to enjoy your God, life in general, what you have accomplished in the world through his help, and the freedom you have in the gospel—the freedom from slavery to any material object or human expectation. The Sabbath is a sign of the hope that we have in the world to come” (Tim Keller, “Wisdom and Sabbath Rest,” June 28, 2011). This is right in line with the message of Ecclesiastes when properly understood. In a relationship with God through Christ—fearing God, keeping His commandments, properly considering life, enjoying God’s blessings and believing in His promises—we can experience the fulfillment human beings ultimately long for. Ecclesiastes points us in that direction.

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