Old Testament Walk Through: Ecclesiastes

“MEANINGLESS! MEANINGLESS!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless”
(1:2 NIV).

I Why This Book?

The Book of Ecclesiastes surprises us with many thoughts which seems to contradict the rest of the Bible. So it is quite natural to ask the question why this book should at all be included in the Bible. Let us look at three comments from authoritative sources:

● Humanity’s Cry for a Saviour
“God gave Solomon wisdom and unparalleled opportunity to observe and to explore every avenue of earthly life. And, after much research and experiment, Solomon concluded that, on the whole, humanity found little solid happiness in life; and in his own heart he found an unutterable yearning for something beyond himself. Thus the book, in a way, is humanity’s cry for a SAVIOUR!

With the coming of Christ, the cry was answered. The Vanity [meaninglessness] of life disappeared. No longer Vanity. But joy, peace, gladness. Jesus never used the word vanity. But talked much of his joy, even under the shadow of the cross. Joy is one of the key words in the New Testament. In Christ humanity found the Desire of the Ages: Life; full, abundant, joyous, glorious life!” –­­ Halley’s Bible Handbook

● A Tract for Modern Times
About the book contradicting itself and a good deal of biblical teaching also, commentators of the Bible in Outline has this to say: “But we do not need to come to this conclusion if we understand it as a sort of Old Testament tract for worldly people. It is as though the author were saying, `Come on then. Let’s us see what a life without God is really like. What have you got if you only live for the things of the world? Life is futile and meaningless, frustrating and miserable. But God can make a difference!’ ” –­­ The Bible in Outline (Published by Scripture Union).

● Human Philosophy
“You do not have to go outside the Bible to find the merely human philosophy of life. God has given us in the book of Ecclesiastes the record of all that human thinking and natural religion has ever been able to discover concerning the meaning and goal of life. The arguments in the book, therefore, are not God’s arguments. . .

The writer is Solomon, and the book is a dramatic autobiography of his experience and reflections while he was out of fellowship with God. Solomon may have been wise, but he did not follow his own wisdom.

Ecclesiastes has its origin in his tragic sin of forsaking God and seeking satisfaction in philosophy and science “under the sun,” that is, based only upon speculation and thought.

The inference of the book that “all was vanity and vexation of spirit” (KJV), or “meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (NIV) is inevitable.

The message of Ecclesiastes is that, apart from God, life is full of weariness and disappointment.” ­­— From “What the Bible Is All About” (Bible Handbook) by Dr. Henrietta C. Mears.

II The Structure of the Book

J. Vernon McGee presents the book as follows:
1. Problem stated: “All is vanity (meaningless),” Chapter 1:1—3
2. Experiment made, Chapters 1:4—12:12

Seeking satisfaction in the following:
A. Science (the laws of nature), Chapter 1:4—11
B. Wisdom and Philosophy, Chapter 1:12—18
C. Pleasure, Chapter 2:1—11
D. Materialism (living for the “now”), Chapter 2:12—26
E. Fatalism, Chapter 3:1—15
F. Egoism, Chapters 3:16—4:16
G. Religion, Chapter 5:1—8
H. Wealth, Chapters 5:9—6:12
I. Morality (the “good life”), Chapters 7:1—12:12

3. Result of the experiment, Chapter 12:13, 14 All things under the sun are vanity (meaningless).

A right relationship with God, in any age, through the way He has made, brings the only abiding satisfaction. What a difference between the man “under the sun” and the man “in Christ” seated in the heavenlies far above all suns! — ­­J. Vernon McGee

III Begin at the End

This is one book which you should read as a whole to grasp its intent. Do not think of chapter divisions. And start at the end. That will give you a balanced perspective on what the author is trying to tell you through all the pessimism and human philosophy and contradictions you find in the book.

The conclusion says, “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgement, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13, 14 NIV).

Today, Christians though making a great show of religion do not emphasize much on fearing God and keeping His commandments. That is a serious failure.

IV Key Theme

Meaningless (or Vanity) The word “Ecclesiastes” means “Preacher” or “Philosopher.” This book studies the meaning of life. The “Teacher” (1:1) explores life from different standpoints. He looks at science, wisdom, pleasures, labour, promotion, religion, riches etc and finds it all meaningless.

Even though all of these has its place in life, he is unable to find ultimate satisfaction in any of these. There is an emptiness in all this. The word “meaningless” occurs 37 times in this book. Without God, the “Teacher” says, “everything is meaningless” (1:2).

In this context it is good to note what Blaise Pascal, French Mathematician, Philosopher and Physicist (1623—1662) said: “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus” ­­ Quote from Thinkexist.com

Note: The author actually calls himself Koheleth, a word which could mean a preacher, teacher, debater or even the leader of an assembly (1:1).

V A Disturbing Book

The Book of Ecclesiastes disturbs us. This is because it sounds too modern even though it was written nearly 3000 years ago. It asks searching questions about ourselves. Questions like, “What is life?” “What is its meaning?” “Is there a purpose for life?” “What is death?” “Why can’t I find satisfaction in worldly wisdom, riches, promotion, work, pleasures etc.?” These questions are never easily answered.

The book is an exploration of things “under the sun.” This phrase occurs 29 times in this book. The lamentation, “there is nothing new under the sun” (1:9) is an awesome piece of wisdom. Life under the sun without God is meaningless is the main thrust of this book.

Perhaps the reason why God has included this book in the Bible is to show us a reflection of what man is trying to do today. Look around you. What do you see? Don’t you find man in pursuit of science, wisdom, pleasures, riches etc.? The result of this mad pursuit has already been painted for us in this book. It reads, “Everything is meaningless!”

“We find in this book that we can never find satisfaction and happiness in this world. True happiness apart from Christ is impossible. We find dissatisfaction among the poor and rich alike, among the ignorant and the learned, among people and kings.

Ecclesiastes closes with a call to the young! Lay the foundations early. “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth” (Ecclesiastes 12:1). This book is given as a danger sign so that we may be spared having to learn the bitterness of life by finding the cisterns we have sought to be empty. The greatest proportion of men and women who are living to serve God have chosen Him in childhood.” ­­ From “What the Bible Is All About” (Bible Handbook) by Dr. Henrietta C. Mears.

VI Understanding the Structure

● Science (1:4—11)
Laws of nature like the course of the winds (v.6) and the water cycle (v.7) are mentioned here. Man is not satisfied with exploration (v. 8). Each new discovery tells man how little he knows. There is actually nothing “new” in this world. It is only a new combination of things already here long before our time (v. 10).

● Wisdom and Philosophy (1:12—18)
Here is described an experiment to understand life through earthly wisdom (v. 13). The Teacher finds that the wisdom or philosophy of this world cannot change the crooked character of man (v. 15). He also learned that “with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief” (v. 18).

● Pleasure (2:1—11)
The Teacher now experimented with pleasure. “Eat, drink and be merry” is the philosophy he tried here (v. 1). He found laughter foolish (v. 2) in the sense that it could not satisfy him. He tried cheering himself with wine (v. 3). He turned his attention to getting pleasure out of building and planting (v. 4­­6) and possessing men and flocks (v. 7).

He amassed plenty of money and had plenty of entertainment around him (v. 8). Solomon tried every means to get pleasure and we should remember as king of the land he had the power and money and resources to get it all (v. 10). Yet pleasure could not satisfy him (v. 11).

● Materialism (2:12—26)
The Teacher finds no difference between the end of a wise man and a fool; both die and both will not be long remembered (v. 16). Man cannot know whether he will be leaving the fruit of all his labour to a wise man or a fool who will follow him (v. 19).

There is a certain meaninglessness about toiling with wisdom and knowledge and skill and leaving it for someone who has never worked for it (v. 21). There is pain and grief in work (v. 23). Even if man fully focuses on enjoying today and finding satisfaction in his work, it also is meaningless (v. 24, 26b).

Fatalism (3:1—15)
The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines “Fatalism” as “the belief that events are decided by fate and that you cannot control them; the fact of accepting that you cannot prevent them from happening.”

The thinking presented in 3:1—8 seems to compartmentalize life into strict, unchangeable seasons. This, if true, will make man a victim of his circumstances; which is not true in the light of what the Bible affirms and teaches to be true. For example the younger son in Luke 15 doomed to destruction was able to come back to his father in repentance and as a result have restoration in his life. If “fatalism”were true he would never had a chance in life.

Likewise the mercy of God overrules as in the case of the Ninevites who repented at the preaching of Jonah or as in the case of King Hezekiah who was given 15 more years added to his life when he wept and humbled himself and prayed to his God (Isaiah 38:5).

Verse 11, “He has made everything beautiful in its time” is an oft quoted passage. But that has to be read together with the statement that man “cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” So this verse expresses man’s inability to understand the ways of God, even though God has set eternity in his heart.

● Egoism (3:16—4:16)
Webster’s New World Dictionary defines “Egoism” as “the doctrine that self­-interest is the proper goal of all human actions.” Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines it saying, “the fact of thinking that you are better or more important than anyone else.” The Teacher finds wickedness everywhere (3:16) but he hopes that God will judge both the righteous and the wicked (3:17).

Egoism views man like a beast (3:19) and therefore fails to give human life, created in the image and glory of God, its proper dignity. The Teacher found oppression a reality under the sun and he finds the oppressors powerful (4:1).

He found that man’s envy of his neighbour is the propelling force of all man’s achievements (4:4). Man teams up with others to gain more advantage in life (4: 9—11). The Teacher finally finds promotion in life meaningless because it has no permanence (4:16).

● Religion (5:1—8)
Religion is man’s attempt to find and please God. It simply does not work out. Man cannot find peace with God through his good works (see Isaiah 64:6). Only a relationship with God made possible through the blood of Jesus shed on the cross can bring you peace with God (see Romans 5:1).

But the Teacher tried to find satisfaction in religion. He found out that you cannot play with God and speak before Him thoughtlessly (v. 2). He also warns against making vows thoughtlessly (v. 5) and also warns against delays in fulfilling vows made (v. 4). He concludes by saying that one should “stand in awe of God” (v.7).

It means that having a right relationship with God is more important than all the vows you make and dreams (not used in the modern sense of ambition or goals here) you have.

● Wealth (5:9—6:12)
Money never satisfies. Those who love money are never satisfied with their income (5:10). The abundance of the rich man permits him no sleep while the sleep of a labourer is sweet (5:12). Wealth hoarded can bring harm to its owner and it can be lost through misfortune (5:13, 14).

Man has to realize that he came naked to this world and so he will depart and will carry nothing of all that he accumulated when he dies (5:15). Some people are able to enjoy their wealth (5:19) while many others cannot enjoy it (6:2).

The Teacher also found out that man works for his mouth, “yet his appetite is never satisfied” (6:7). [Read also 1 Timothy 6:6—12 and James 5:1—6]

● Morality (the “good life), (7:1—12:12)
Chapter 7 This section introduces some wise advice and seems to centre around persons who try to do good. The Teacher starts off saying that a good name or reputation is fine. But it does not last long. When death comes it is gone (7:1).

It is good to think seriously on death since it comes to everyone (7:2). The wise learns life lessons in the house of mourning while fools have their hearts in the house of pleasure (7:4).

The end of a matter is better than its beginning (7:8), anger resides in the lap of fools (7:9), wisdom is a shelter (7:12), good times and bad times do come from God, man cannot know anything about his future (7:14) are all lessons presented here.

The Teacher cautions to avoid extremes in life (7:18) and not to listen to every word people say (7:21, 22). The entire thrust of the above passage seems to focus on the man who will not take a strong stand for the right, but is happy to compromise, take life easy and walk down the middle road.

Life Application: We are reminded of the lukewarm—neither hot nor cold­church of Laodicea of whom Jesus said, He will spit out of His mouth (see Revelation 3:16). If you’re someone who would fit into this category, know that He still stands at the door knocking. There is still an opportunity for you to open the door for Him (Revelation 3:20) and enjoy His fellowship. He loves you, therefore He disciplines you (Revelation 3:19).

Chapter 8
He concludes at the end of Chapter 7 that man has departed from the right (7:29) in spite of the good beginning that God gave him in life. Then goes on to Chapter 8 where he talks about the power of wisdom to brighten a man’s face (8:1), obeying the law (8:5), the proper time and procedure for every matter (8:6) and the fact that wickedness will not release those who practice it (8:8).

The Teacher seems to hold on to the hope that it will go better with God­-fearing men (8:12 b); but soon seems to conclude that there is not much difference between the righteous and the wicked (8:14, 15).

Life Application: We need to understand that this is the Teacher’s observance of what is “under the sun.” In contrast, God shows us a different picture in Malachi. His answer to the thought that there is no difference between the righteous and the wicked is given in no uncertain terms: “And you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not” (Malachi 3:18 NIV). God wants you to know that there is a day coming when He will set things right (Read also Malachi 3:13—17).

Chapter 9
This chapter sounds a note on hope (9:4) saying that “Anyone who is among the living has hope —even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!” At the same time the Teacher comes up with some conclusions that are incompatible with faith. He seems to advocate that the same destiny overtakes all (9:3). It is simply not true because death is not the end for a believer. The Teacher seems to say that living happily (9:9) and working furiously might lend some meaning to your otherwise meaningless life (9:10).

It is simply not true because God created the Sabbath to teach us not to worship work but God alone. The Teacher again seems to exalt the role of luck or chance in life (9:11) and the reality of hard times that fall unexpectedly on men (9:12). For a believer, luck or chance cannot explain the happenings in his life, because it is God who orders his steps. The Teacher also relates the parable of a poor but wise youth who saved a city with his wisdom but was not remembered afterwards (9:13—16).

Chapter 10
A little folly, says the Teacher, can make a wise man into a fool in no time (10:1). Do not walk out from the presence of the one in authority, your boss, when he is angry because calmness can lay great errors to rest (10:4). All hard work alone may not give you success, since in life you often find the undeserving promoted (10:7).

Work can bring its own dangers (10:8, 9 / occupational hazards), but skill brings success (10:10). Be careful of even what you think, it might be reported (10:20). In this chapter, the Teacher seems to be overwhelmed by the injustice of life.

Chapter 11
“Cast your bread upon the waters” (11:1) seems to come from the terminology of a farmer sowing his seed. The Teacher asks us to do good for after many days you’ll find it being rewarded. Opportunities of today may not exist tomorrow, so do all the good you can today (11:2). Try to be a blessing, like the rain, at the place where you find yourself in (11:3).

Do not be overawed by difficult circumstances (11:4). Keep on doing good even though you may not know which will bring you returns (11:6). Youth is the time of opportunities, at the same time know that God will bring judgement (11:9).

Remember Your Creator in the Days of Your Youth (12:1)

Chapter 12
A poetic description of highest literary excellence. The point is that days of trouble come sooner than expected. Then the days of opportunity are lost. No more strength is left. No more enthusiasm remains. Fear takes over. No more pleasure remains in the common joys of life. The Teacher says, before all this happens, “Remember Your Creator in the Days of Your Youth” (12:1).

Life Application: God wants your best and not your leftover years. Offer Him your best, and He will give His best to you. That does not mean that you are going to enjoy prosperity all the days of your life because Jesus asked you to count the cost before you make your decision to follow Him (see Luke 14:28—30 and 9:57—62).

VII The Conclusion (12:13, 14).

Study and knowledge do not satisfy man, but wearies him in the end (12:12b). The conclusion of Solomon’s experiment is recorded thus: “Fear God and keep his commandments.” This is the whole duty of man says the Teacher. He reminds us that judgement is coming (see also Hebrews 9:27).

Food for Thought
Have you ever thought on the meaning of life? Have you ever wondered why you are on planet earth? Are you here by accident? Is there a purpose to your life? Where are you going? What is the meaning of death? Why should God be part of my life?

Have you ever found life “meaningless!”? Can Science explain life? Can Knowledge make you a better person? Is Entertainment the answer to the vacuum in your heart? Can Work give you satisfaction?

Are you a puppet of Fate? Have you been at the receiving end of Injustice? Will Promotion give you permanent happiness? Can Riches protect your life from all dangers? Will you Remember Your Creator in Your Youth? What does “Fear God and Keep His Commandments,” mean to you?

Related Posts:
Ecclesiastes 7:8a The End, Is Better Than Its Beginning
Ecclesiastes 11:1 Cast Your Bread upon the Waters
Ecclesiastes 11:4 Watch Not the Wind or the Clouds
Ecclesiastes 11:6 For You Do Not Know Which Will Succeed
Ecclesiastes 12:1 Remember Your Creator in the Days of Your Youth