"Ecclesiastes? Ugh — that’s just doom and gloom! I’d rather study some other Bible book." Now wait a moment. I know it’s not proper to begin by telling your reader that he’s wrong — but in this case, you are! The writer of Ecclesiastes wasn’t the soured, cynical old man who was down on life that some make him out to be. He wasn’t the world’s most inveterate pessimist. Sure, many (perhaps, most) of the lines he wrote are pessimistic, but Qoheleth (Solomon turned preacher) has an essentially positive purpose. His pessimism centers on “life under the sun.” Indeed, as you read the book with an eye focused on what he’s really up to, you’ll find him to be a relaxed, rather easy-going person. He’s been through it all — the bad and the good — and, in repentance, has come to terms with life. God’s terms, that is. Actually, there is much that, when interpreted correctly, can only give a believer confidence and joy in the face of trouble.
“It’ll take some doing to convince me of that!”
Okay. Let’s take a hard look at the book. First, note that its name, “Ecclesiastes” (“preacher”), was given by the translators of the Greek Septuagint, The original Hebrew, Qoheleth, means “one who assembles people.” Solomon gathered his court (and possibly others) together to preach to them: “being wise, Qoheleth taught the people knowledge…. The preacher sought to find pleasant words, true words, properly written” (12:9–10; I use my own translation throughout this article). He wanted his words, when published, to become “goads, like nails driven by the masters of collected sayings” (12:11). The dialect in Ecclesiastes indicates that he wrote not only for Israel, but for the Phoenician world as well. The booklet, among other things, was evangelistic, composed for unconverted readers both at home and abroad.
Next, consider the words “under the sun.” This often-occurring phrase describes living with nothing more than worldly goals in view. It pictures someone feverishly wearing himself out in pursuit of vain activities, because that’s all he has to live for. In contrast, Christian living is a measured life, “under the Son,” who was prefigured for Solomon in types and ceremonies. Solomon wants to move people from the former way of life to the latter: “Now listen to the conclusion of the whole matter: fear God and keep His commandments because this applies to every person” (12:13). So, he concludes with a stern warning: “God will bring every work into judgment, including all that is hidden, whether it is good or whether it is evil” (12:14). This doesn’t mean that people are justified by works but that in the judgment works will be evidence of whether or not they are saved. New Testament teaching agrees (see Matt. 25:31–46; Rev. 20:12–15).
“But was Solomon really easy-going and reconciled to life? And what does he offer Christians?”
In this remarkable book, Solomon tackles ultimate questions — the same sort that, when you take time to think seriously, you raise today. He asks, “Why bother to exert any effort, since its results are temporary and, therefore, vain? Why seek money, fame, power, and possessions that fail to satisfy? Why trouble yourself about anything when the wicked and the wise alike end up in the grave?” His answer? God providentially deals with people just as He sees fit. Solomon wants you to rest quietly by faith in the will of a sovereign God!
His frequently-used word, “vanity,” means that life under the sun is “empty,” because it is not permanent. That theme permeates the book. He says, “A generation passes away and another generation comes along” (1:4), that “there is no memory of former things” (1:11), and that as a person “came” into the world at birth, “so shall he go” out of it taking nothing with him (5:16). In chapter 3, verses 1–15, Solomon lists some things that continually change. People are born, then die, plants are planted, then pulled up, things are torn down, others built up. Things are sewn, others ripped; some things are kept, some are discarded; there are seasons to weep and times to laugh, periods to mourn, occasions at which to dance — and so on. Life arcs back and forth. Nothing stays put. Because of this, we should hold things loosely. Efforts to bring about permanence are frustrating and utterly fruitless.
Solomon says that amassing wealth and possessions is foolish because you can’t take them with you. Instead of placing hope in anything under the sun, he urges you to trust in its Creator. How does that improve life? Well, not only will it make a difference in the judgment, but it provides a present philosophy of life that frees you from worry and fretting. Because God has set “eternity in a person’s heart” (3:11), you can look forward to a time when temporary things will be forgotten. And some day, God’s purposes — which seem to make no sense now — will be understood: “He has set eternity in a person’s heart without which he cannot find out the work God does from beginning to end” (3:11). You can relax your mind — all will be made known in His time.
Because what you do here has eternal consequences, you must take care and be all the more diligent about your efforts. But you must not expect the rewards that come from completion before their time. Nor should you foolishly labor to find lasting satisfaction in anything in an impermanent world.
Since, as Solomon made clear, expending effort at attempting the impossible is vanity, he advises quiet living, responsible, moderate labor that will achieve what may rightfully be accomplished, and the enjoyment of God’s simple gifts. He wants you neither to worry about tomorrow nor to work yourself to death today! Listen to this enlightening passage:
“There is nothing better for a person than to eat and drink and make himself see good in his labor. This I saw was from the hand of God” (2:24; see also 3:12–13; 5:18; 8:15; and 9:7–8).
In these verses one theme constantly surfaces: enjoy food and drink and the simple pleasures of life. But consider, even these don’t last: you eat and are satisfied, only to hunger again (his frequent mention of food and drink exemplifies the temporal nature of things). Stop fretting over what can’t be changed. Have a good meal and a good time (remembering that whatever you do will be brought into judgment some day; see 12:9).
So, what is Ecclesiastes all about? After living extravagantly, after working excessively to achieve lasting fame and fortune, after indulging himself in sin, Solomon could only say, “I was sickened with life…yes, I was sickened by all my labor.” Why? Because he recognized that, in the end, all he did was nothing more than “vanity and vexation of spirit” (2:17–18).
Solomon wrote to help you see this. Does Ecclesiastes goad you to think about life as believers should? If not, read it again — and again, and again. It’s worth taking the time to do so!