During Sukkot we are instructed to read Ecclesiastes, which is the English title of this wisdom book derived from the Greek Septuagint’s translation of the original Hebrew, “Koheleth.” The word Koheleth (1:1; 7:27; 12:8) suggests one who has a function as teacher or preacher in the assembly. This is a difficult book to understand and I have prepared this message as a companion for you as you read the book for yourselves.
Before we look at the theme of Ecclesiastes, we should understand that there is conflict among scholars as to the date and author of this book. An almost universal agreement, even among conservative scholars, thinks that Ecclesiastes was not written by Solomon. Solomon’s name is never mentioned in the book.
Some of the arguments against Solomon as the author are that Koheleth speaks as if he were a subject rather than a ruler (4:13; 8:2; 9:14-16; 10:16-17,20) in a time of oppression (4:14), injustice (5:8), and social confusion (10:6-7). Furthermore, these scholars claim that the language of the book is clearly late, being the closest to post biblical Mishnaic Hebrew of any book in the Bible. From these and other clues, scholars conclude that a later writer used a literary device, the “didactic (teaching or morally instructive) autobiography” to present his teaching, probably between 300 and 200 B.C. E. However, some scholars including myself continue to argue for Solomon as author, thinking this is the only way 1:1 can be interpreted.
Eccl 1:1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
As mentioned the literary character of the book takes the form of a “didactic (teaching or mortally instructive) autobiography” which recounts Koheleth’s project “to study and explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven” (1:13 NIV). Koheleth undertook great building projects, enjoyed the best of life’s pleasures, and achieved the pinnacle of human success. Still, he concluded that all this, including work and play, is merely “vanity.” Koheleth loosely maintained the form of the autobiography (2:9,24; 3:10,16; 4:7; 7:15; 9:13) as a device to weave together a great many wisdom forms and reflections on life, elaborating the theme of vanity. He concluded with an allegory on death. The autobiography is framed by the observation, which began the book: “Vanity of vanities … all is vanity (1:2; 12:8), and the book ends with a short third person epilogue, which puts Koheleth and his difficult book in theological perspective (12:9-14).
The content of Ecclesiastes is a book that focuses upon the limits of life to teach wisdom. The point of view is that of the Solomon-like Koheleth whose wealth, wisdom, and glory placed him at the upper limit of human success. From his royal pinnacle, Koheleth surveyed life and judged it to be vanity because of the inescapable limits G-d, and sin place on even the most successful human being. Contrary to what most people who read Ecclesiastes determine this book cannot be dismissed as the disillusioned pessimism of one whom life had cheated.
This book is a sermon, and most people come away with the idea that Koheleth’s view of life is pessimistic, but in truth, it is bone-shattering honesty. At the very outset, it takes us upon a mission that is the quest of the natural man for the chief good. Though it is difficult to pick out and systematize this book into logical points in our English translation, nevertheless after diligently studying it, we find it is written in orderly movements of a planned progression.
We can break it down into three main points.
Personal Experiment is explored in the first two chapters where Koheleth sought the chief good by man’s wisdom as opposed to G-dly wisdom. With increased knowledge came increased sorrow. Then he sought the chief good in pleasure both physical and aesthetic, but found in the end only emptiness in the soul. He concluded that wisdom exceeded pleasure, as light exceeds darkness, but in the end both resulted in death for death overtakes both the wise man and the fool. His conclusion is that “There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink and the he should make his soul enjoy good in his labor (2:24);” and he perceives that this is from the hand of G-d. If we were to stop our reading now and place our trust in what we have read then it would seem that we should enjoy our animal appetites for there is nothing better, and unfortunately that is the way many people interpret this book or at least find it perplexing.
In chapter three, four and five we see Koheleth pursues his quest by General Observation of the world and human affairs. Here he finds himself up against an impenetrable mystery of Divine Providence. Inexorable as it is inscrutable. A fore fixedness of events from which it is easy to fall into a kind of religious fatalism. He finds society disfigured by injustice, inequalities, enigmas and superficialities (v. 4) from which he can only turn away saying, “Surely this also is vanity and striving after the wind.” Right here is a good spot to explain the word translated vanity from the Hebrew word hevel whose literal meaning is “breath” or “breeze.” The author uses this word metaphorically, often with the added phrase “striving after wind,” to express the transience, weakness, and nothingness of human life. We see the “preacher” pondering the specter of Divine Providence on one hand and the relentless human pursuit of possession, position and ambition on the other, and he comes to the same conclusion as before: “Behold that which I have said holds good, that it is well for a man to eat and to drink, and to enjoy the good of all his labours wherein he laboureth under the sun, through the brief day of his life which G-d hath given him, for this is his portion” (V. 18). Again, he does not leave us with much encouragement or hope in our quest for the chief good.
In chapters 9 through 12, we have the quest reviewed and concluded. The preacher surveys the way he has come and now says: “For all this I laid to my heart, even to explore all of this, that the righteous and the wise, and their works, are in the hand of G-d” (9:1). A key phrase or truth he expounds is that “All things come alike to all.” Rich men get richer and poor men get poorer. Justice is perverted and the righteous suffers. Since life is vanity, (or a mere breath in time) what then is good? Koheleth’s answer has two points, which are repeated several times in the book (though many commentators overlook this aspect of the book’s teaching). The first point is summarized by him at the end of the book:
“Fear G-d, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man” (12:13).
G-d’s sovereign actions are beyond human ability to change (7:13);
G-d has done this “that men should fear before him” (3:14).
It is G-d who has set the limits on human life and knowledge (7:14).
Thus, Koheleth’s world is “vain,” but only in the sense noted. It is not a world without G-d. Apart from G-d, “who can eat and who can have enjoyment?” (2:25 NASB). Even if a person experiences injustice (3:16; 5:8; 7:15; 8:14), G-d is still a just Judge (3:17-18) who acts in His own time (8:6; 11:9). For Koheleth, worship of G-d and vows made to Him are matters of utmost seriousness (5:1-2,4). Since G-d judges sin (5:6), people should avoid foolish talk and “fear G-d” (5:7). “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 G-d, who fear Him openly. But it will not be well for the evil man and he will not lengthen his days, like a shadow, because he does not fear G-d” (8:12-13 NASB; compare 7:18).
The book infers that human limits are various: humans cannot make straight what is crooked (1:15); what is lacking cannot be numbered (7:13); nor can humans remove injustice (3:16) and oppression (4:1-2; 5:8) from the earth. Sometimes good people receive evil while the wicked prosper (7:15; 8:14; compare Ps. 73). Therefore, humans are unable to achieve their dreams and ambitions because of sin and because of their limited knowledge, power, and goodness. In his focus on limits, Koheleth, like Job, attacked those who selectively misuse traditional wisdom to promote a false gospel of unlimited success for the “righteous.” This concept alone is enlightening and has inestimable value for us in today’s religious market place of prosperity and antinomian teaching. Even if humans do seem to succeed, as Koheleth himself had, even this is vanity, because their knowledge is limited and imperfect: “no man (adam) can find out the work that G-d maketh from the beginning to the end” (3:11). Moreover, even the best, richest, and wisest life is ended by death. Thus even the greatest goods and achievements, indeed, “everything under the sun” must be labeled as “vanity.”
The inescapable conclusion is that all things pass away. Koheleth’s view of life was much like that of the G-dly psalmist who prayed, “Lord, make me to know mine end … that I may know how frail I am. Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before thee: verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity (hevel)!” Elsewhere, the Bible conveys this view of human limits by the imagery of grass, which grows and whithers while the Word of G-d alone endures forever (Ps. 90:5-6; Isa. 40:6-8; Jas. 1:10-11; 1 Pet. 1:24). May I make a quick reference here for in this light; it is quite mistaken to translate hevel as “meaningless” as does the NIV throughout Ecclesiastes.
Koheleth’s second point is: humans do not have sovereign control over life, being limited by vanity in all its forms, especially death. Because of this, they should enjoy life and its ordinary pleasures of work and play, food and drink, love and family, all as gifts from G-d (2:24-26; 3:12-13; 5:18-20; 9:7-10). If there is resignation in Koheleth, it is that of one who has left the riddles and painful mysteries of life in G-d’s hands, while accepting its limited joys with sober thanks.
Now let me conclude. There are indeed verses and paragraphs when taken by themselves that seem contradictory to Scripture, but we must remember that this sermon is an argument with each section giving an ad interim conclusion. We have to remember their place in the progress of the argument. The standpoint of the argument as a whole and the nature of the inspiration of the book. This is a book of humanity, “under the sun,” a symbol of physical life and it is written from the standpoint of human reason. In short, it shows that if properly exercised, human reason will lead us to acceptable truth, and that is the vanity and folly of living merely for earthly things. If we follow his argument carefully, we will have to conclude that only fear of G-d and keeping His commandments will stand good for us in the end. Ecclesiastes teaches us the emptiness of everything apart from G-d. This book should guide us away from the love of this world. It says to us: “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world: for all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of G-d abideth for ever: (1 John 2: 15-17)
May we abide by G-d’s word; the Living and the Written.