Philip Ryken tells the story of a sociologist named Jonathan Kozol, who befriended Mrs. Washington, a single mother in the South Bronx. Mrs. Washington and her son lived in a room with three steel locks on the door in a very dangerous area, rife with poverty, injustice, violence, and drugs. She often told Kozol sad stories of children born with AIDS. She recalled an incident in which a twelve-year-old who was hit by a stray bullet at a bus stop, leaving him paralysed. Mrs. Washington had suffered physical abuse at the hand of her ex-husband and told many stories of the lack of medical care available in the Bronx. Her son marvelled that God must be incredibly powerful to create everything but lamented that he seemed incapable of stopping the evil that surrounded them.
One day, Kozol visited the woman and saw an open Bible sitting next to her on a quilt. When he asked her about her favourite part of the Bible, she replied, “Ecclesiastes. If you want to know what’s happening these days, it’s all right there.”
That probably sounds strange to most of us. How many reading this would claim Ecclesiastes as their favourite book of the Bible? Few Christians seem to be able to make sense of the book, much less claim it as their favourite. Craig Bartholomew characterises Ecclesiastes in this memorable way: “Ecclesiastes is a lot like an octopus: just when you think you have all the tentacles under control—that is, you have understood the book—there is one waving about in the air!”
But Mrs. Washington may be onto something. Ecclesiastes does speak in many ways to the life we live. Life is often perplexing (like Ecclesiastes) and seems to make little sense (like Ecclesiastes). The writer admits that life is frustrating and that meaning and lasting satisfaction can be difficult to find. Perhaps you can relate.
In this study, we commence what will probably be a 26-or-so-part study of this seemingly perplexing and oft-neglected book. My goal in this particular study is simply to introduce this book and point us in the right direction for studies to come. I will do so under four broad headings.
We must begin by addressing the motivation for this study. Why Ecclesiastes? We have come out of months in the book of Proverbs. Why move to another book in the Wisdom Literature genre? Why not an epistle or a history book or a more topical study? I want to briefly offer you six reasons that a study of Ecclesiastes is important and helpful to believers today.
First, we should study Ecclesiastes because it will help us to honestly grapple with the challenges of life. Ecclesiastes is brutally honest about life’s difficulties—“the drudgery of work, the injustice of government, the dissatisfaction of foolish pleasure, and the mind-numbing tedium of everyday life” (Ryken). It memorably captures that Monday morning sense of dread you face every week.
Second, we should study Ecclesiastes because it highlights what life is like when we choose to live without thought to God. It therefore helps us to understand a world in which so many people choose to live with no thought of God. The writer lived, for a time, with no thought to God and offers his expert opinion on what that life is like so that we can understand those who live like that and so that we don’t have to learn by experience.
Third, we should study Ecclesiastes because it confronts the great questions of life with which we all wrestle: What is the meaning of life? Why am I so unhappy? Does God really care? Why is there so much suffering and injustice in the world? Is life really worth living? If you have ever asked those questions, you will find help in Ecclesiastes.
Fourth, we should study Ecclesiastes because it will help us to worship God. As the writer confronts life’s big questions, he does so with confidence in the sovereign God who rules the universe. He helps us to grow in our knowledge of God.
Fifth, we should study Ecclesiastes because it teaches us how to pursue God rather than empty pleasure. As we wrestle with the truths it presents about God and his creation, it helps us to approach everyday life with wisdom rather than folly.
Sixth, as we will see, we should study Ecclesiastes because it helps us to see our need for the gospel.
As we commence our study, it is helpful to ask, who wrote Ecclesiastes. The book itself ascribes authorship to “the Preacher” (v. 1). The Hebrew word is qoheleth and is used throughout the Old Testament to refer to a gathering or assembly of people for worship. The author, then, is the one who has gathered people for worship and will now address them.
He further identifies himself as “the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (v. 1). From this verse, we know that the author was a descendant of David, who ruled from the throne in Jerusalem. That, of course, could be any number of Jewish kings, but the author does give further internal evidence to help us. He tells us, for example, that he was “king over Israel [not Judah] in Jerusalem” (1:12); that he had acquired surpassing wisdom (1:16); and that he had written, compiled, and arranged many Proverbs (12:9). Which descendant of David seems to fit the bill? Is it not Solomon?
There is further suggestion that Solomon was the author in 1 Kings 8, where we are told that, having completed construction on the temple, he “assembled” (qoheleth) the people of Israel together for worship at the temple’s dedication (1 Kings 8:1–2).
The author, then, was a descendant of David, king over all Israel in Jerusalem, who was famed for writing and compiling Proverbs, and known for assembling God’s people for worship. There can be no more suitable candidate that Solomon to fit this description.
We have already heard the suggestion that Ecclesiastes is like an octopus: difficult to come to grips with. Others have proposed that Ecclesiastes is “one of the more difficult books in all of Scripture one which no one has ever completely mastered” (Martin Luther) and that “two thousand years of interpretation … have utterly failed to solve the enigma” (Whybray).
There were some in the ancient Hebrew tradition who wondered whether Ecclesiastes should be accepted as inspired. They wondered whether a book so seemingly disjointed and pessimistic could be authored by God. Jim Winter has said that Ecclesiastes “often reads like the diary of despair” while Gerhard von Rad describes the author as a bitter sceptic “suspended over the abyss of despair.” But, in fact, the writer’s apparent pessimism is deliberate. He writes to warn us about what life is like apart from God. Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart have called it “a brilliant, artful argument for the way one would look at life—if God did not play a direct, intervening role in life and if there were not life after death.” In other words, Ecclesiastes reveals what life looks like for an atheist.
First Kings 11 tells us that there was a time in his life when Solomon’s many idolatrous wives turned his heart away from the Lord. For a time, he lived as if the true God were not real. Ecclesiastes seems to be something of a memoir of this time when he sought meaning and satisfaction apart from God but found it impossible. He writes to warn others—perhaps most directly his son, Rehoboam—of what it is like to live without God. The reason that Christians so often find this book perplexing is precisely because we don’t try to live life apart from God. If we did, Ecclesiastes would make far more sense!
The key word in Ecclesiastes is “vanity,” used five times in v. 2 alone. In total, the Hebrew word occurs 38 times in these twelve chapters. Properly speaking, the word is used of a breath—like the visible mist briefly caused by hot breath on a cold day. Solomon uses this word time and again to highlight what life is like apart from God: It is both transitory—here today, gone tomorrow—and insubstantial. There is no eternal life apart from the God of the Bible and whatever is accomplished in this life is ultimately meaningless. Thirty-three times, Solomon calls this life “under the sun.”
Throughout the book, Solomon highlights possession after possession and experience after experience that are “vanity.” The vanities of Ecclesiastes include our efforts (1:14; 2:11, 17, 19); the fruit of our efforts (2:15, 21, 26); pleasure (2:1); life itself (3:19; 6:4, 12; 7:15; 9:9); youth (11:10); success (4:4); wealth (4:7–8; 5:10; 6:2); desire (6:9); frivolity (7:6); popularity (4:16; 8:10); injustice (8:14); and the future (11:8). Simply put, everythingis meaningless apart from God (1:2; 12:8). If you think you will find lasting satisfaction in life under the sun—that is, life lived apart from the God of the Bible—you are in for disappointment. There is no sustainable joy in life apart from God.
Are you encouraged yet? Does 2020 suddenly seem a whole lot more positive? Are you psyched for a six-or-more month study in absolute futility? Or are you thinking of all the more positive and uplifting things you will be able to do on a Sunday evening?
If you are tempted right now to tune out for the duration of this study, let me encourage you not to. The truth is, life is only meaningless if you live it apart from God. Solomon’s real burden in Ecclesiastes is to show you that you don’t have to have that kind of life. If you think you will find lasting satisfaction in money, pleasure, knowledge, or power, yes, you will find only futility. If you never look past life as it is lived “under the sun,” you will indeed be left empty and unhappy. But life that is lived in the sight of God is different. When we live life with an eternal perspective for the glory of God—fearing God and keeping his commandments (12:13)—we find meaning, beauty, and eternal significance in the things we do.
Solomon’s goal is a pastoral one. Ryken captures it well: “Like a good pastor, [Solomon] shows us the absolute vanity of life without God, so that we finally stop expecting earthly things to give us lasting satisfaction and learn to live for God rather than ourselves” because “we will never find any true meaning or lasting happiness unless and until we find it in God.”
I said earlier that one of the reasons we should study Ecclesiastes is because it shows us our need for the gospel. You see, Ecclesiastes shows us the vanity or futility of life under the sun. And there is a very significant reason why life under the sun is futile. Paul tells us why in Romans 8. He tells us that, because of human sin, “the creation was subjected to futility” (v. 20). Here is the astonishing reality: Not only is life under the sun futile apart from God; life under the sun is futile because of God. God subjected the creation to futility because of human sin. And it is God’s role in the futility of life that is often so perplexing.
There is a scene in one of the recent Superman films in which Superman confronts Lex Luthor. Recalling the abuse he suffered as a child at the hand of his father, Lex says, “I figured out way back that, if God is all powerful, he cannot be all good; and if he is all good, then he cannot be all powerful.” Mrs. Washington’s son similarly wondered why the God powerful enough to create everything seemed impotent to stop the evil he saw all around him. Millions of others have wrestled with the same dilemma. And it is a dilemma that makes perfect sense—under the sun.
You see, mere recognition that God exists is insufficient to answer our nagging questions. It is by submissionto the God who exists that we find hope in this life. Paul argues that the futility to which creation has been subjected can and will only be lifted in Christ. The futility of creation is the result of God’s curse, but Christ took that curse upon himself so that the curse could ultimately be lifted. Christians receive a taste of that when they bow the knee to Christ and eagerly wait in confident hope that, when Christ returns, the curse will be fully lifted as God’s people, and all creation with them, are glorified.
If you choose to live life under the sun, there is no ultimate meaning because there is no ultimate hope. But if you choose to fear God and keep his commandments (12:13)—that is, if you choose to bow your will to Jesus Christ in the gospel—life, while still hard and at times perplexing, takes on new meaning because you now have an eternal, rather than a temporal, perspective.
So stick with us as we journey through Ecclesiastes. As we study this book together, we will find that, while life seems vain, it actually has profound meaning. And we will see not only that life has meaning but why it has meaning.