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Introduction to the Book of Ecclesiastes

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General Info

When initially approaching Ecclesiastes, the book can troubling, perplexing and even difficult to understand.  Some have even questioned whether or not this book belongs in the Bible.   From the first verses, in which the author declares that everything is meaningless (1:2), it paints a picture that, at first glance, appears to be unashamedly pessimistic and negative on life.  Yet, even though the book was written about 3000 years ago, it wrestles with one of the most important topics and questions that that many still do today, the meaning of life.  We follow the author as he passionately searches for meaning and satisfaction in this temporary life, especially in view of all the injustice and apparent absurdities that surround us.  Yet, when the content is properly understood, it is one of the most rewarding books regarding the meaning of life here on earth.  In addition, the author also assures us that, because God is sovereign, our lives have meaning when we are living for Him.

The Hebrew title is Qoheleth, which means “preacher”, “teacher”, or generically, “one who calls or gathers” the people.  The word appears in the first two verses of the book and is translated as “preacher” or “teacher” in our various modern English versions.  For simplicity, we’ll us the word “teacher” on this page.  Along with Ruth, Song of Solomon, Esther, and Lamentations, Ecclesiastes stands with the OT books of the Five Megilloth, or “five scrolls.”  Traditionally, Jewish rabbis read these books in the synagogue on five special occasions during the year, with Ecclesiastes being read during Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles).  The scroll is recited on the intermediary Sabbath of Sukkot, or on the eighth day of the festival (Shemini Azeret), if the latter coincides with a Sabbath.  It is read during the morning service before the reading of the Torah.

The Septuagint (LXX), the third and second centuries BC Greek translation of the Old Testament (OT) from the Hebrew, used the Greek term ekkljsiastjs for its title, which means “preacher” and is derived from the the Greek word ekkljsia that is translated “assembly” or “congregation” in the New Testament (NT).   The English title, Ecclesiastes, is derived from the Greek word for assembly, ekklesia, that is also translated as “church” in the NT.

In our modern Christian Bible canons, Ecclesiastes is the fourth book in the Books of Poetry section (following Job, Psalms and Proverbs, and preceding the Songs).  This section follows the Books of the Law (Genesis – Deuteronomy) and Historical Books (Joshua – Esther), and precedes the Books of the Prophets (Isaiah–Malachi).  In the Hebrew Bible, Ecclesiastes and the four other poetic books are located in the third and last section known as the Writings (or Hagiographa), along with Ruth, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra–Nehemiah, and Chronicles.

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Brief Survey

As we noted above, the book of Ecclesiastes strikes a chord in people of all eras who are contemplating the meaning of life.  The key word in Ecclesiastes is the Hebrew word hebel, whose root means “vapor”, or “breath”.  It is translated as either “vapor” or “meaningless” depending on the English Bible version and is one of the favorite expressions used by the teacher concerning life in this world.  In fact, the author uses the word approximately 40 times, which is more than the total usage in all other OT books combined.  We'll include additional info on this word in the “Interpretation Hints” chapter below.

The book wastes no words with pleasantries, opening with The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless” (1:1-2).  The remainder of chapter 1 speaks of lack of satisfaction in man’s labor, the lack of anything new, and the futility of pursuing knowledge.  Next, the vanity of pleasure and riches, as well as the insufficiencies of of human wisdom are noted in chapter 2.  Chapter 3 opens with a poem declaring there is a season for everything that was made into a popular song in the 1960s.  This is followed by the immutability of God’s council and the lack of justice in human affairs.  In addition, we find a favorite passage of St Augustine, “He has made everything beautiful in its time.  He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end” (3:11-12).  Next, chapter 4 examines the inequalities of life, manifesting in oppression, work and loneliness.  In chapter 5 and 6, we see warnings against making hasty vows and the rightful and wrongful uses of riches.

Beginning with chapter 7, we see a subtle shift from the predominately negative to a more positive tilt.   We now encounter more traditional wisdom literature containing advice for living with in a supposedly meaningless world, such as the benefit of a good name and warnings against oppression, anger, and discontentment.  We also see many advantages of godly wisdom as compared to folly.  In chapter 8 and 9, we are told to be subject to earthly authorities (the king), and that, although the righteous often suffer while the wicked prosper, all share a common destiny (physical death) and all will be set right at the proper time.  Next, Wisdom again is contrasted with folly in a number of wisdom statements beginning near the end of chapter 9 and continuing through chapter 10, mostly related to the subjects of rulers and subjects and foolish talk.  The final two chapters (11 and 12) exhorts the reader to be wise in business by investing in many ventures, particularly in your youth, and to remember the Creator.

The Teacher then draws His conclusion:  “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.  For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (12:13-14).

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Key Verses

The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”  ...What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun... I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem.  I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens.  What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind!  I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind. (1:1-2,9,12-14)

I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure.  My heart took delight in all my labor, and this was the reward for all my toil.  Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun. (2:10-11)

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace. (3:1-8)

What do workers gain from their toil?  I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race.  He has made everything beautiful in its time.  He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.  I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live.  That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.  I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it.  God does it so that people will fear him. (3:9-14)

Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up.  But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.  Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.  But how can one keep warm alone?  Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves.  A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. (4:9-12)

When you make a vow to God, do not delay to fulfill it.  He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow.  It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfill it. (5:4-5)

In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: the righteous perishing in their righteousness, and the wicked living long in their wickedness. (7:15)

Ship your grain across the sea; after many days you may receive a return. (11:1)

Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them”. (12:1)

Not only was the Teacher wise, but he also imparted knowledge to the people.  He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs.  The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true.  The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one shepherd.  Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them.  Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.  Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.  For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil. (12:9-14)

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Author and Date

The author of Ecclesiastes identifies himself as a son of David who was also king in Jerusalem over Israel (1:1, 12).  This opening points to Solomon since he succeeded his father David as King and was considered the wisest human to ever live (1Kg 4:29-34).   In addition, the author states in the first chapter that, “I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem (1:12).  After the reign and death of King Solomon, the kingdom split into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah.  David’s ancestors continued to rule Judah from Jerusalem, while other dynasties ruled the Northern Kingdom of Israel from Shechem and later from Samaria.  Thus, the only two kings that ruled the United Kingdom of Israel from Jerusalem was David and Solomon.

Some have proposed that the book was was written by an unknown Jewish scribe between the sixth to third centuries BC.  This is easily refuted by examining the literary genre of the book.  Many passages from Ecclesiastes closely mirror the style of other literature uncovered from Egypt and the Mediterranean area from the centuries encompassing the time of Solomon.  Yet, literature styles from a few centuries later varied greatly when compared to Solomon’s era, and a later scribe would likely be unfamiliar with these styles.  Solomon however, would be very familiar with the literature and custom of the surrounding nations (1Kg 4:29-34).

The autobiographical information within the book (the author often refers to himself in the first person) also points to Solomon, even beyond the biographical info “son of David, king in Jerusalem” (1:1) and “king over Israel in Jerusalem” (1:12) that we’ve already mentioned.  Solomon was always teaching others by sharing his wisdom to all those who came from near and far to hear him.  It also is consistent with his indiscretions after his marriages to many foreign wives.  Solomon almost certainly wrote the book in his later years (~ 936-931 BC) in which, after he experienced almost everything in his life, he wrote to caution his younger readers against repeating his mistakes.

He also addressed much of his comments to the political elite in Israel.  Like himself, many attempted to build their lives on earthly wealth and power, rather than the things that last beyond this life.  He consistently points away from the futility of attempting to live life apart from God.  In the end, people from all walks of life can benefit from this advice.

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Historical Background and Timeline

Similarly to other Wisdom books of the Bible, Ecclesiastes contains very little internal historical narratives.  That may be by design, since most material in the books are independent of their historical era.  Nevertheless, the historical books of the Bible, Kings and Chronicles in particular, supply us with an abundance of historical data surrounding the reign of Solomon..  His father David had established his kingdom, primarily by highly successful military conquests over the many enemies who were attacking Israel.  Even though the battles began with Israel on the defense, God gave David numerous military successes that ultimately resulted with a great expansion to Israel’s territories and ushered in a golden age of peace and prosperity.

Thus, when Solomon ascended to the throne, he was able to focus on enhancing the culture.  He continued to greatly expand Israel’s territory far beyond that of his father David’s; however, rather than by military conquests, he expanded his territory primarily by diplomacy and treaties, which often including intermarrying with foreign wives (1Kg 4-10).  Solomon also enhanced his territories by engaging in commercial trade, and building projects, including including entire cities.  He also completed and dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem to the Lord.  It was also a golden age of literature and culture that actually began in Egypt a few centuries before.  Thus Solomon also interfaced with foreign nations in regards to shared literature.

Solomon is considered the wisest and one of the greatest kings to rule over the Jewish people.  Unfortunately, he also wasted a part of his life pursuing his own agenda, rather than carrying out God’s will for his life.  Thus, even though Solomon accomplished much good, Ecclesiastes represents a painful autobiography of his failures and regrets. 

Although the wisdom thoughts in Ecclesiastes are meant to be of benefit for readers of all generations, they were written during the reign of King Solomon of Israel from 971-931 BC, most likely in the latter years of his life.  See 1Kings chapters 1-11 and 1Chronicles 29 through 2Chronicles 9 for the biblical history of Solomon’s reign.

1011 BC David becomes King of Judah
1004 BC David becomes King of United Israel and Judah
971 BC Solomon becomes King of United Israel and Judah
971-931 BC Solomon writes his two Psalms, the Book of Proverbs, and Song of Songs (aka Song of Solomon), and in his old age, the Book of Ecclesiastes
~ 936-931 BC Solomon writes the Book of Ecclesiastes in his elder years
931 BC Division of the Northern (Israel) and Southern (Judah) Kingdoms

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

The overwhelming theme, purpose and theology of the book is that, apart from God, there is no meaning to our existence.  This main theme underlies and infiltrates almost every statement in the book, including all of the sub-themes.  Another primary theme that silently permeates the entire book is the reality of the fall (Gen 3) in which, not only all of mankind was cursed, but also creation as well.  The fall brought death into existence, along with adding pain and frustration to our work, severe pain in childbearing, along with many other hardships.  There are many parallels between this theme and the writings of the Apostle Paul on the subject of the fall in Romans 8:18-30.  We can’t help but wonder if Paul had Solomon the teacher in mind when he wrote these verses.  When Paul refers to the creation being “subjected to futility” (Rm 8:20), he chooses the Greek word mataiotēs, which is the same word utilized dozens of times in the Greek Septuagint of Ecclesiastes to render the word Hebrew word (hebel) for “vanity” or “meaningless”.

Yet, not all themes within the book are “gloom and doom.”  The teacher includes many several positive teachings such as “He has made everything beautiful in its time.  He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.  I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live.  That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God” (3:11-13).

Because everything in this temporary temporary world is fleeting, we can easily become frustrated and believe that our lives have no meaning.  Life is short and then we die, but God is still in control.  Thus, all things done in accordance with His will have eternal consequences.  Despite it brevity and seeming futility, we can wisely navigate our lives while also enjoying God’s many blessings in the process.

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Interpretation Hints and Challenges

To obtain a better understanding when reading Ecclesiastes, we revisit the key Hebrew word “hebel” that is typically translated as “vanity” or “meaningless” depending on which English Bible translation that we are using.  We mentioned above that this term is the choice word used by the teacher to describe the meaning of life in this world apart from God, and that this word appears approximately 40 times in the book.  This totals more usage than in all other OT books combined, so it is important to understand the author’s intended meaning.  The root of the word signifies a physical or tangible “breath” or “vapor”.  Yet, out of the approximately 80 usages of the word in the OT, it only refers to the physical meaning only 3 times.  In all other instances, the word is used to the things that are false, meaningless, fleeting or imaginary.  Many times the word is used to describe the false gods as deficient, imperfect, imaginary or helpless.  It is also used, similar to Ecclesiastes, to speak of life as meaningless or fleeting.  The traditional understanding of hebel in Ecclesiastes is not to be egotistical, but to be experiencing life as futile and without purpose or meaning.  This is similar to the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, in which hebel is translated as mataiotēs, meaning “emptiness” or “futility”. 

In interpreting Ecclesiastes, it is easy to get hung up on all the negative statements, but we should read them in the context of the whole.  Solomon often balances the negatives with the positives, such as “There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve.  This too, I say, is meaningless.  So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad.  Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun” (8:14-15).

Likewise, don’t attempt to overthink or look for hidden theological meanings in the text.  Read the book for what it is, a teacher encouraging the people to find meaning in the life that is graciously given by God.  Yes, we will experience both the good and bad, and all will die, but nothing can happen in our lives apart from the sovereignty of God.  We cannot always understand His purposes, but we can rejoice that He loves us and His mercies are new every morning (Lam 3:22-23).

Typically, one of the most important aspects to interpreting and understanding the Wisdom and Poetic books is to understand the literary type or genre of the writings themselves.  Fortunately, this is not as critical in regard to Ecclesiastes as with the other books in this category.  The book is a mixture of poetry and prose, but it is not always easy to distinguish between the two when translating from the Hebrew.  While portions of the text are clearly poetry and other portions are clearly prose, it can be difficult to make a distinction between the two genres in some portions.  Many of the text sections appear as prose in some English translations and as poetry in others.  Since the vast majority of Ecclesiastes is on the border between prose and Hebrew poetry, this is only a minor issue.  For those who would like more info on the characteristics and interpretation of Hebrew poetry, see our Wisdom and Poetical chapter of our Biblical Genre section.

Finally, we offer some advice for first time readers of Ecclesiastes.  I have some friends who, when reading a book, turn and read the end of the book first.  Their reasoning is that, if the book doesn’t have a good ending, they won’t waste their time reading it and being disappointed.  We think that first-time readers of Ecclesiastes might consider employing the same method, not to avoid disappointment, but for a better understanding.  Since the book is best interpreted in light of its conclusion, we suggest reading the last two chapters (11 and 12) first, then go back and read the entire book.

Did Solomon repent of his sins?

We often encounter the question of whether or not Solomon ever repented of his pursuit of foreign wives who influence led him to allow the worship of pagan idols in the kingdom during his reign (1Kg 1-13).  The short answer is that the Bible. particularly the historical books, does not specifically give us a direct answer.  We do know that Solomon was chosen by God.  In 1st Chronicles 28:4-7, King David is speaking to the Israelites regarding God’s revealed plan that He had chosen Solomon rather than David to build His house (the Temple).  God said to David in verse 7, “Solomon your son is the one who will build my house and my courts, for I have chosen him to be my son, and I will be his father”.  Regarding Solomon ’s repentance, a number of his autobiographical statements in Ecclesiastes, written in his old age, could be interpreted as repentance (eg 8:11-13), and his confession that all the hearts of men are evil would have also included himself.  Thus, the book, in addition to warning of the dangers of repeating the mistakes of his younger days, may have also been intended as Solomon’s repentance and even a recommitment to his trust in God, particularly in light of his concluding summation that, “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.  For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (12:13-14).  I realize that I've repeated this verse several times on this page, but it is the summation and key to understanding the book.

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Ecclesiastes is one of the more difficult books synthesize and outline, and several alternate approaches have been proposed.  We chosen a two-part composition consisting of: [1] A thesis that all is meaningless (1:1–6:12), and [2] the wisdom for living with in a supposedly meaningless world (7:1–12:14).

1:1 - 1:11 Everything is Meaningless
1:12 - 2:26 Wisdom, Pleasures, and Work are Meaningless
3:1 - 3:22 A Time and Season for Everything
4:1 - 4:16 Oppression and Work
5:1 - 5:7 Fulfilling Vows to God
5:8 - 6:12 Meaningless of Earthly Riches
7:1 - 7:29 Wisdom and Folly Contrasted
8:1 - 8-9 Obedience to Human Kings
8:10 - 8:17 The Wicked and Righteous; Futility of Knowing God’s Ways
9:1 - 9:12 Death Comes to All
9:13 - 10:20 Wisdom Better than Folly
11:1 - 11:6 Diversify
11:7 - 12:6 Advice for the Young
12:7 - 12:14 Concluding Thoughts from the Teacher

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