Overview of the Book of Ecclesiastes

Question
Overview of the Book of Ecclesiastes
Answer

Overview of the Book of Ecclesiastes

Author: Solomon or an unknown sage in the royal court.

Purpose:

To demonstrate that life viewed merely from a realistic human perspective must result in pessimism, and to offer hope through humble obedience and faithfulness to God until the final judgment.

Date: 930-586 B.C.

Key Truths:

  • When we are left to mere human outlooks and efforts, life seems hopeless and meaningless.
  • Human beings cannot begin to fathom the divine wisdom that undergirds and controls all things.
  • Once human limitations are recognized, the faithful will gain a godly vision of life by renewing their reverence for God and loyalty to his commands.
  • In the final judgment God will eliminate the perplexing anomalies of life by judging everything good or evil.

Author:

It has traditionally been argued that this book was the work of Solomon. The Teacher, who is identified in Ecclesiastes 1:1 as the one who reflects on his experiences in the book, is strongly associated with Solomon because of his lineage (Eccl. 1:1), Jerusalem kingship (Eccl. 1:12), unsurpassed wisdom (Eccl. 1:16), and unrivaled wealth (Eccl. 2:4-9). This identification has led some to place the book during the period of Solomon's apostasy, when he may have had dwelt on the kinds of thoughts expressed in this book (see 1 Kings 11:1-43), or sometime afterward, when he may have reflected on those earlier bad times.

Although it seems clear that Solomon's wise sayings deeply influenced this book, it is not indisputable that Solomon actually wrote this book. Unlike the book of Proverbs, which freely attributes much of its material to Solomon, Ecclesiastes nowhere explicitly identifies Solomon by name. Even the expression "son of David" (Eccl. 1:1) may be translated "descendant of David," or possibly "an official in David's court." In fact, the writer appears intentionally to distance himself from Solomon. It would have been odd for Solomon to say that he "was king" (Eccl. 1:12), using the past tense, for there was never a time when he ceased being king prior to his death. The statement that others had ruled in Jerusalem before him (Eccl. 1:16) also appears an unlikely - although not impossible (see note on Eccl. 1:16) - statement for Solomon to make. The book reflects on hardship (Eccl. 1:2-8), death (Eccl. 3:1-15), injustice (Eccl. 4:1-3), pagan tyranny (Eccl. 5:7, 9-19), and suffering at the hands of rulers (Eccl. 8:9). None of these descriptions fit well with Solomon. It is possible therefore that sometime after Solomon's reign an unknown sage compiled, edited, shaped and framed reflections that may have come in part from Solomon and added introductory and summary perspectives (Eccl. 1:1; 12:9-14). However, it should be remembered that, like all wise men in Jerusalem's royal court, this writer drew heavily upon Solomon's wisdom in all that he wrote (cf. Hezekiah's wise men in Prov. 25:1).

Time and Place of Writing:

The association of Ecclesiastes with the Davidic court makes Jerusalem the likely place of composition, but the date of Ecclesiastes is uncertain. If Solomon was the author of the book, it must be dated to the tenth century. The reference to the "son of David" (Eccl. 1:1) strongly suggests that the book was written after the end of monarchy in Jerusalem (586 B.C.). Thus the range of possible dates extends from 930 to 586 B.C.

Purpose and Distinctives:

The title "Ecclesiastes" derives from the Vulgate (the Latin translation of the Bible) and the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the OT) translations of the Hebrew qoheleth, which is translated in the NIV84 as "Teacher," possibly meaning "leader of the assembly"(see NIV84 text note on Eccl. 1:1).

Ecclesiastes focuses on how God's people should live on earth in the face of life's difficulties and enigmas. Ecclesiastes is thus not an apologetic to those who are ignorant of God or rebellious against him; it is wise counsel to those cognizant of, but perplexed by, God's ways. In this respect, Ecclesiastes is like the book of Job. While Job's dialogues and monologues search for understanding of God's wisdom within the circumstance of an innocent man's suffering, Ecclesiastes is more philosophical in its approach and speaks of the condition of all humans. Ecclesiastes also probes the limits of conventional proverbial wisdom (see Eccl. 12:9) by balancing expectations of justice and prosperity often raised by proverbial wisdom with the harsh realities of living in a fallen world controlled by the inscrutable wisdom of God. It also encourages fidelity to God in the perplexing difficulties that so many people face.

In the end, however, the conclusion of Ecclesiastes is very similar to that of Job. Despite our inability to understand fully the good wisdom of God, our appropriate and wise human response is to "fear God and keep his commandments" (Eccl. 12:13; see note on Job 28:28). That is, we are to submit to God and demonstrate our awareness of his supreme wisdom by obeying his law, trusting that he is full of wisdom and goodness in spite of the enigmas life presents even to those who know him.

The Teacher's words are arranged in three cycles (Eccl. 1:3-3:8; 3:9-6:7; 6:8-12:7), each of which begins with a similar phrase: "What does man gain?" (Eccl. 1:3), "What does the worker gain?" (Eccl. 3:9) and "What advantage has a wise man?" (Eccl. 6:8). Each cycle contains an introduction (Eccl. 1:3-11; 3:9-21; 6:8-12), followed by variously arranged sections. Words are positioned to build textual units and are used in multiple senses to provoke meditation on the book's ideas. While repetition of topics and words builds concentric structural units, there is progression of thought in Ecclesiastes. The writer pairs the themes of work and wisdom. His first cycle contains three pairs of sections (Eccl. 1:12-15 and Eccl. 1:16-18; 2:1-11 and Eccl. 2:12-17; 2:18-26 and Eccl. 3:1-8) presenting the conclusion that although the employment of human labor and understanding provides the satisfaction of accomplishment, the profit achieved for a human being is canceled by death.

The paired themes of work and wisdom are subsequently elaborated in the book's second and third cycles, respectively. The second cycle (Eccl. 3:9-6:7) develops the theme of human labor, contrasting it with God's perfect, enduring works and counseling enjoyment of the simple blessings God provides in this life, even in the face of human oppression. The third cycle (Eccl. 6:8-12:7) elaborates the theme of human wisdom, contrasting it with the inscrutability of God's ways. This cycle advises the audience to enjoy life and work diligently, even though effort and righteousness may not be appropriately rewarded in this life.

The author's conclusion that death renders all labor and efforts to acquire superhuman wisdom vain (Eccl. 1:14, 17; 2:11, 17) does not imply, as some ancients thought, that people should abandon society and cultural efforts. On the contrary, the writer instructed God's people to enjoy life-despite its apparent futility, harsh realities and uncertainties-and to work with full vigor (Eccl. 9:7-10). This realistic approach views life as a gift from God (Eccl. 3:13; 5:19) for those who fear him and keep his commands (Eccl. 5:1-7; 12:13-14).

Ecclesiastes grapples with the question of how people should live in fidelity to God (Eccl. 6:12) in a world in which the good Creator (Eccl. 3:11, 14) and just Judge (Eccl. 3:17) sovereignly ordains that "bad" things happen to the righteous (Eccl. 7:13-14) as well as to the wicked, rather than that each individual will receive his or her deserved recompense in this life (Eccl. 8:14; 9:1). Faith in God's wisdom despite human inability fully to discern it is to be exercised not only in the face of human oppression (Eccl. 3:22-4:3), but also in the face of the constant futility that death brings (Eccl. 9:7-10).

Christ in Ecclesiastes:

This book relates to Christ and the New Testament in a number of ways. First, in his first coming, Christ, who is the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24, 30), revealed wisdom to those who followed him (Col. 1:9; 2:23; 3:16). Through faith in Christ we have access to God's wisdom (Jas. 1:5) beyond the understanding of Old Testament believers. As Ecclesiastes calls for fear and obedience (Eccl. 12:13), the New Testament echoes these themes (Acts 6:7; 9:31; 2 Cor. 5:11; 9:13; 10:5; 2 Thess. 1:8; 1 Pet. 1:2; 2:17; Rev. 14:7; 15:4; 19:5) in its call to embrace the gospel of Christ as the very wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:21-24; Col. 1:9-12, 28; Jas. 3:13-17). Second, even though Christ has come, Ecclesiastes reminds us that God's elect still live as aliens in this world (1 Pet. 1:1). Although we have been forgiven of our sins and made alive in Christ, we still live amid profound frustrations and tensions until Christ brings an end to this present evil age. Until then, the enigmas of life are often so great that we do not even know how to pray, but we can gain confidence in our struggles knowing that the Spirit of Christ who knows the mind of God prays for us (Rom. 8:18-23). Third, the New Testament assures us that the final judgment mentioned in this book (Eccl. 12:14) will come when Christ returns in glory (Rev. 19:1-21). At that time the good wisdom of God, so often hidden from human sight now, will be clearly revealed.

Introduction Material:

Introduction to the Poetic and Wisdom Books

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).