Introduction to Ecclesiastes
Read carefully the following verses in Ecclesiastes - 1:2,14; 2:10-11,17-20; 3:19-20; 4:2-3; 8:14; 9:9-12. At first glance this sounds more like something Nietzsche or Madelyn Murray-O'Hair might say rather than the Bible. These statements appear to have more in common with an existentialist philosopher like Jean Paul Sartre than Solomon. The rabbis who lived in the age of the OT often wrestled with such texts. They debated whether or not Ecclesiastes "defiled the hands," i.e., whether or not it was an inspired and canonical book which conveyed holiness when handled. The question is still being asked today. J. Stafford Wright asks quite pointedly,
"ought the book . . . to remain in the Bible? Would it not be better to admit straight away that the contradictions and unorthodox statements that have delighted skeptics and puzzled devout minds would have been far better employed in writing for the Rationalist Press Association than for the Library of the Holy Spirit. It is a question that must be faced. If there is not satisfactory interpretation of the book --- satisfactory, that is, from the Christian standpoint --- there is no logical reason for retaining it in the Bible" (133).
Many who have argued on behalf of E have proposed differing ways of dealing with its difficult statements. Older Jewish expositors simply put a question mark after those statements which seemed to advocate a life of mindless pleasure. The refrain, "there is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink," was made to read, "is there nothing better . . ." Others suggested that Solomon wrote the book in a state of depression and sinful rebellion, having been driven from his throne in Israel because of disobedience.
I do not believe we need to resort to such extreme measures in order to make sense of the book or to defend its rightful place in the canon.
A. The Title
The title of the book is taken from a description of the man who authored it. Seven times (1:1,2,12; 7:27; 12:8,9,10) he is called, according to the NIV, the "teacher". In the NASB and KJV it is translated the "preacher". The Hebrew word behind these English renderings is Qoheleth, a word which denotes the idea of an assembly or gathering. The word Ecclesiastes is simply the Greek equivalent found in the LXX. Although many insist that since the meaning is ambiguous we should simply call him "Q", I will follow the NIV and refer to him as the "Teacher". But who is he?
B. The Author
The traditional view is that Solomon wrote E. In favor of this identification are 1:1,12, as well as the correspondence of details concerning the "Teacher" with what we know to be true of Solomon from the book of 1 Kings. Against Solomonic authorship are two factors. First, 1:12 uses the past tense. It is argued that this conflicts with 1:1 which says the "teacher" is now king in Jerusalem. Thus, could it be that someone else wrote the book from Solomon's perspective? That is to say, he seeks to put in his own words and style what Solomon would have written had he addressed himself to the subject. But v. 12 can easily be taken as saying, "I have been King, and still am . . " Second, 1:16 doesn't seem to make sense in view of the fact that only David was King in Jerusalem before Solomon. But he could be including all pre-Davidic rulers and authorities and not merely kings. Or he could also be including the line of Canaanite kings that preceded him.
For a capable defense of the view that Solomon did not write the book, see the commentary by Tremper Longman III. I should point out, however, that although Longman does not believe Solomon wrote the book, he does believe that Koheleth (whoever he was) adopted a Solomonic perspective on life.
C. The Message
Terms often used to describe the message of this book include nihilistic, pessimistic, fatalistic, skeptical, cynical, materialistic, existentialistic, and just about every other "istic" you can think of! In the 4th century a.d., Jerome wrote a commentary on E to convince a Roman lady named Basilica that she should embrace monasticism! According to Jerome, the purpose of the book "is to show the utter vanity of every sublunary enjoyment, and hence the necessity of betaking one's self to an ascetic life, devoted entirely to the service of God."
Others have taken the opposite approach. Since life ultimately has no meaning, since all human endeavors in the end are but vanity and a striving after wind, all the more reason to get all the gusto you can! Indulge yourself now, today, in every fleshly pleasure, for tomorrow you die!
Many evangelicals have argued for yet another approach. In general they have said that the book contains the uninspired thoughts and the pursuit of happiness on the part of the natural or unsaved man. Emphasis is placed on the phrase "under the sun" (1:3,9,14). This phrase, we are told, indicates that the author concerns himself only with the things of this world, things under the sun (not above it). God, revelation, and the world to come are ignored. Experience of this world alone leads only to pessimism and despair. Thus, this is a description of how the unbeliever, not the believer, thinks. Or, at best, it is a sub-Christian perspective on life. Chuck Swindoll takes this viewpoint:
"This is a good time to clarify Solomon's perspective, especially since it's the same perspective most people operate from today. To quote from his own testimony, it is an 'under-the-sun' perspective. Time after time, Solomon mentions his horizontal, strictly human viewpoint. In virtually every major section of his journal he uses the words 'under the sun' and 'under heaven' . . . Because he seldom looks 'above the sun' to find reassurance, life seems drab and depressing, hopelessly meaningless. In spite of the extent to which he went to find happiness, because he left God out of the picture, nothing satisfied. It never will. Satisfaction in life under the sun will never occur until there is a meaningful connection with the living Lord above the sun. Nevertheless, we, like Solomon, continue to try to find meaning in life, only to wind up on a dead-end road called Emptiness."
If this interpretation isn't correct, what is? J. Stafford Wright provides what I believe is the most cogent explanation. The teacher, he writes, examines for us the meaning of life, turning it
"over and over in his hands so that we see it from every angle. And he forces us to admit that it is vanity, emptiness, futility; yet not in the sense that it is not worth living. Koheleth's use of the term 'vanity' describes something vastly greater than that. All life is vanity in this sense, that it is unable to give us the key to itself. The book is the record of a search for the key to life. It is an endeavor to give a meaning to life, to see it as a whole. And there is no key under the sun. Life has lost the key to itself. 'Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.' If you want the key you must go to the locksmith who made the lock. 'God holds the key of all unknown.' And He will not give it to you" (140).
An important passage is 3:11 where we read that "God has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end." In other words, God has put an insatiable curiosity or longing in our hearts to understand the meaning of life, to comprehend what makes sense of it all, to see the beauty, rationale, motive, and purpose of everything that occurs, but He refuses to satisfy that desire. Much the same idea is found in 7:14 and again in 8:17. Wright explains:
"This is not pessimism. It is the solemn truth just as true today in Christian times as it was in the days of Koheleth. That eternal WHY hangs over our lives. It meets us at every turn. Our fondest hopes are shattered. Why? The Nazi hordes overrun Europe. Why? God allows the War. Why? A brilliant young Christian life is swept away, while a good-for-nothing wastrel is miraculously delivered. Why? Why? Why? Where is the sense in it all? And yet must go on looking for the sense. It is incredible that life should make no sense" (141).
All of us look for that one key that will make sense of the whole. But the moment we think we have it, something happens that does not fit the scheme at all. "We go through the world with him," says Wright, "looking for the solution to life, and at every turn he forces us to admit that here is only vanity, frustration, bewilderment. Life does not provide the key to itself" (142).
He looks for the meaning to life in Nature (1:5-9). But nature is a closed system, an endless cycle of sunshine, wind, rain, rivers, etc. The key is not in nature. Neither is the key in Mankind or their efforts (1:3-4). The process of history and the progress of science yield only an endless chain of one generation after another, groping for satisfaction through this and through that, but to no avail. He looks at Wisdom (1:12-17; 2:13-17), but not even the most brilliant and insightful and discerning people in history can make sense of it all. He explores the world by indulging in its most satisfying physical pleasures (2:1-11), but again to no avail. He runs the gamut of sensual delights and his verdict is the same: "Vanity and a striving after wind." Neither hard work nor more money nor folly nor even death itself (both the wise and foolish die, both the rich and the poor) can provide the answer.
So what does Koheleth counsel us to do? It may surprise you: "There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and tell himself that his labor is good. This also I have seen, that it is from the hand of God" (2:24). "I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and to do good in one's lifetime; moreover, that every man who eats and drinks sees good in all his labor it is the gift of God" (3:12-13).
His point in all this is that the most we may know for certain is that there is a divine plan,
"even though individual steps in the plan remain a mystery, and must be accepted by faith. But man must never lose the realization that there is a plan, and he must never begin to treat the common things of life, his food and drink and work, as though they were not the gifts of God. Hence man must learn to serve God from his youth and he must remember that there is to be judgment [11:9-10]. . . . In other words, Koheleth advises young men to enjoy their lives, but not to forget that their pleasures should be regulated by a sense of accountability to God. They should put away all that would harm mind or body, and remember that youth is not the whole of life; it will give place to middle age, old age, and death" (145).
Ecclesiastes, to come to the point, is the journal, the travel log, if you will, of one of the wealthiest, wisest, and most godly men who ever lived, in which he describes for us his unending search for the key to life. It is Solomon's attempt to explore and exploit every conceivable option under the sun, hoping to find that one key, or perhaps a multiplicity of keys, that will unlock and explain all the enigmas of human existence, that will make sense of what seems so senseless, that will give purpose and meaning to what seems to be lacking in both. The problem is that life has lost the key to itself. Only God has it, and he won't give it to anyone! Notwithstanding this fact, Wright issues this counsel:
"Go on looking for the key that will unify the whole of life. You must look for it: God has made you like that, sore travail though it be. But you will not find it in the world; you will not find it in life; in revelation you will find the outskirts of God's ways; in Christ your finger tips touch the key, but no one has closed his fingers on it yet. No philosophy of life can satisfy if it leaves out Christ. Yet even the finest Christian philosophy must own itself baffled. But do not despair. There is a life to be lived day by day. And in the succession of apparently unrelated events God may be served and God may be glorified. And in this daily service of God, we may find pleasure, because we are fulfilling the purpose for which God made us. That was Koheleth's philosophy of life. Was he wrong?" (149-50).