Introduction to Ecclesiastes
The book of Ecclesiastes is really a journal. It is the personal journal (or diary) of one man's journey through life. In this journal the writer observes several important things about his own life:
- He notes his own loss of enthusiasm for life in general. He is very pessimistic, even depressed.
- He records his feelings and observations as he purposefully searches for joy and satisfaction in life apart from God.
- He sets forth his conclusions based on his lifetime experiences.
This is the true story of a man who cut the cord; who did it all; who went to the horizon of every experience he desired or imagined and, who left us notes about what he felt and learned. It is a great book because it teaches not from a theoretical perspective but from a full life experience.
The book doesn't name the author but refers to him as the "preacher" and because of this the book is called "Ecclesiastes" which means, "One who calls the assembly" by the authors of the Septuagint (Greek transactions of Old Testament). The writer also identifies himself as:
- A king in Jerusalem - 1:1
- Wisest person who had ever ruled over Jerusalem - 1:16
- Builder of great projects - 2:4-6
- Man of much wealth - 2:8
- Possessor of a large harem - 2:8
These references, among others, can only be attributed to Solomon because only he, among the Jewish kings, fits this description.
925 BC (30 centuries ago and it is still relevant As well as a good argument for the uniqueness of the Bible as an inspired book.)
Theme - Chapter 1:2 (Vanity)
We see vanity as pride, however the term actually means "breath." The writer of Ecclesiastes uses this word metaphorically to mean purposelessness or meaninglessness.
The point is that whatever man does apart from God (without regard to Him in asking, thanking, serving etc.) amounts to nothing in the end … like a breath. The reason he gives for this conclusion is that life (without God) is simply a repetitious cycle of events - it does not give nor does it possess lasting value or satisfaction.
And I set my mind to seek and explore by wisdom concerning all that has been done under heaven. It is a grievous task which God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with. I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after wind.
- Ecclesiastes 1:13-14
The conclusion is that for a man without God, life, when examined, will be found to be empty and meaningless. Many since Solomon have come to the same conclusion and have tried to inject, with their own philosophies, some sort of meaning to life that does not factor in the presence of God. For example:
- Materialism (life is about gathering and using resources)
- Existentialism (life is what you make it)
- Positivism (life is whatever works best for you)
- Postmodernism (life is the sum total of our history)
Think of Ecclesiastes as a journal or a diary written by a man who is consciously examining his own life's journey while he is experiencing it. He is on the outside looking in at himself.
Introducing the journey - 1:1-11
The journey of life is seen as wearisome, an endless repetition of events that are meaningless when examined. The author comes to this conclusion before he begins and then explains how he got there.
Pursuing and exploring - 1:12 - 6:9
Here Solomon describes his attempts at finding ultimate value and enduring happiness apart from a consistent walk with God. He records the areas he explores as well as his findings:
- 1:12-18 - The pursuit of knowledge and wisdom ends in much grief and increasing pain.
- 2:1-11 - The many paths of pursuing pleasure and acquiring possessions are futile and unprofitable.
- 2:12-17 - To live wisely or foolishly are equally empty since both end in death.
- 2:18-3:22 - The work ethic is examined and found to be full of grief and emptiness in the end because you cannot keep what you earn.
- 4:1-6:9 - Even the accumulation of power and wealth through oppression are not satisfying and lead to frustration and dissatisfaction.
Reflection and Summary - 6:10 - 12:14
Solomon draws a general conclusion from his observations of a life lived under the sun. The expression (under the sun) means here on earth without God.
- Lasting purpose and fulfillment can be found only in a trusting relationship with God - nothing less will do (6:10-11:6).
- The young should remember and serve God while they are young before age and death overtake them (11:7-12:8).
- The bottom line principle for a meaningful life is to fear God and keep His commands (12:9-14).
Introduction - 1:1-18
Solomon's father, David, had fought many wars in order to secure Israel's borders and bring peace upon the land. He also left a great estate which made Solomon wealthy as he began his reign.
This wealth increased as tax money, normally used to provide for wars and armies, was left for Solomon to invest into other pursuits. Great riches plus relative peace provided Solomon with the luxury of experimenting with various pursuits in order to find true happiness; happiness and satisfaction without regard to God.
Chapter 1:1-11 establishes at the outset his conclusions concerning this search.
1The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
2"Vanity of vanities," says the Preacher,
"Vanity of vanities! All is vanity."
3What advantage does man have in all his work
Which he does under the sun?
After identifying himself, Solomon goes on to state the basic premise of the book. That in life, when all is said and done, there will be nothing left that will give us a sense of accomplishment and gratification. When all of his effort is over here on earth, there will be nothing "left over" that will satisfy man. His point is that life on a purely human level (no matter how greatly lived) will be, in the end, worthless.
In the next verses he presents various examples to support this premise. Four examples of futility:
1. The passing of the generations
4A generation goes and a generation comes,
But the earth remains forever.
People are born merely to die and nothing changes this. Why be, if all that is going to happen to you is that you will cease to be?
2. The cycles of nature
5Also, the sun rises and the sun sets;
And hastening to its place it rises there again.
6Blowing toward the south,
Then turning toward the north,
The wind continues swirling along;
And on its circular courses the wind returns.
7All the rivers flow into the sea,
Yet the sea is not full.
To the place where the rivers flow,
There they flow again.
8aAll things are wearisome;
Man is not able to tell it.
The ceaseless system of nature also demonstrates that activity, in and of itself, produces nothing of ultimate value. For example:
- The sun rises only to set.
- The wind blows but goes nowhere.
- The rivers fill the seas only to evaporate into rain and repeat the cycle.
- This cycle of nature goes on and on to the point of weariness.
3. The curiosity of man
8bThe eye is not satisfied with seeing,
Nor is the ear filled with hearing.
When man's curiosity is aroused he seeks answers, but the more he knows the more questions he raises. As far as knowledge is concerned, there is no end or satisfaction to it.
4. The absence of something new
9That which has been is that which will be,
And that which has been done is that which will be done.
So there is nothing new under the sun.
10Is there anything of which one might say,
"See this, it is new"?
Already it has existed for ages
Which were before us.
11There is no remembrance of earlier things;
And also of the later things which will occur,
There will be for them no remembrance
Among those who will come later still.
Solomon has observed that there is nothing really new, only that people forget what has gone by or are not aware of it. Even the great "discoveries" are merely insights to what already is there (e.g. gravity).
New inventions are better ways of doing things we have already done. Solomon uses these four examples to drive home the point that: "life under the sun" when examined is really meaningless. This conclusion could be very discouraging, and many have reached it and stopped there without searching further. As I mentioned before: They have merely created philosophies of life to help them live with this conclusion.
Solomon, however, pursued his investigation to a much more satisfying, workable and logical conclusion. He deduced the following:
- There is nothing under the sun that has meaning and satisfaction, and lasting value cannot be found in what is visible.
- If nothing satisfying or of lasting value can be found in what is visible, then these things must be sought after in the realm of the invisible.
Solomon's conclusions are based on the idea that for every universal, innate need of man there is an available and corresponding satisfaction. For example:
- Hunger - Food
- Sex - Sex partner
He proposes that the search for meaning, for satisfaction, for lasting value, for life beyond death is a universal human experience and can be satisfied - but not by anything material, human or earthly, only by something spiritual, Godly and heavenly.
Excerpt from the book "Living on the Ragged Edge" by C. Swindoll:1
Some years ago, C.S. Lewis penned words that are directly relevant to the conclusion of Solomon. Note carefully what he said:
Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire for which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it to suggest the real thing.
Interestingly enough, it was the desire to satisfy his longing for joy that eventually drove C.S. Lewis to Jesus Christ. He writes about this experience in his book, "Surprised By Joy."
In verses 12 to 18 Solomon explains how he has reached the conclusions that he has just stated.
12I, the Preacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13aAnd I set my mind to seek and explore by wisdom concerning all that has been done under heaven.
At first in verses 12-13a, Solomon had been blessed with great wisdom (I Kings 4:29-34). Not just the wisdom of common sense but a capacity for study, memory, discernment and an application beyond what was known to man. He writes that he decided to apply his great mind to the task of investigation by experiencing all the different "lifestyles" or approaches to life that were common to men, and note the results.
13bIt is a grievous task which God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with.
This would seem like an interesting life experiment to be involved in but Solomon soon discovers that "it is an unhappy business." He had, what he thought was a life adventure, and discovered that it just was not so.
In the next few verses he describes what this exercise has taught him:
14I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after wind.
That all the lifestyles, their settings and what they produce are meaningless.
15What is crooked cannot be straightened and what is lacking cannot be counted.
Nothing can be changed; there are so many things wrong with the world that they cannot be numbered.
16I said to myself, "Behold, I have magnified and increased wisdom more than all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has observed a wealth of wisdom and knowledge." 17And I set my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly; I realized that this also is striving after wind.
Even the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge by immersing oneself in each lifestyle turns out to be meaningless and "chasing after wind."
18Because in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain.
The constant desire to increase in human knowledge brings grief and pain because you cannot learn what you need to know in order to produce peace, joy, security and meaningfulness of the whole by simply increasing your fund of knowledge and wisdom of the parts. This constant increase only brings more difficult and complex questions that produce frustration, anxiety and discouragement. The whole cannot be known without God, and to try to know it through knowledge alone is futile.
Ecclesiastes is a valuable book for many reasons, but one reason in particular is because it documents a very wise man's search for meaning and value "under the sun" and his eventual understanding that some things you cannot know, and will never be discovered here on earth.
The next section of his journal begins a description of four different "lifestyles" that he immersed himself in and what he concluded from each.
1C.S. Lewis Mere Christianity (New York, MacMillan Publishing Company. Inc. 1952), Page 120