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"Introduction to Ecclesiastes"

MESSAGE FOR 9/30/12

This morning we begin a new series of messages from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes.  This book is part of what is called the ‘wisdom literature’ of the Bible that also includes Psalms, Proverbs and Job.  The broad purpose of wisdom literature is to help a person live life well.  Part of living life well is believing that without God, this world and everything in it is ultimately without meaning—it is vanity.  The author, who calls himself Qohelet—the Preacher uses the word “vanity” 35 times in this short book.  The Hebrew word is not easy to translate.  It carries the idea that life is a vapor, it is temporary or ephemeral.  It’s like the fog you exhale on a cold day.  It hangs in the air for a brief moment and then disappears without a trace left behind.  Vanity also carries the idea of incomprehensibility.  There are so many questions in life that are unanswerable.  Finally, it carries the idea of futility.  There is a futility in life without God that can cause a person to wonder, “Why should I put all my energies into anything in this life when in the end everything just dies or wears out?  This almost comprehensively negative tone of Ecclesiastes has caused scholars and laymen alike to describe it as; “the strangest book in the Bible.”  Or, “the most puzzling book in the Bible” or “an enigma, a mystery.”   It’s helpful to compare Ecclesiastes with other wisdom books.  Mark Dever says, “If the book of Proverbs is about wisdom for people who want success, the book of Ecclesiastes offers wisdom for people who have success.  This book is written from the perspective of a man who has known every pleasure and benefit this world can enjoy and can say from experience that it is all ultimately meaningless.  To compare Ecclesiastes with Job, Dever says, “Job learned the vanity of this world by losing it all; the Preacher saw it by having it all.[1]

Another challenge to reading this book is that it contains contradictions with other teachings of Scripture and even contradictions internally within the book itself.  These contradictions are intentionally placed into the text by God to teach a larger lesson.  By contradictions with the rest of the Bible, I mean statements like the two in Ecclesiastes chapter seven.  In 7:16, the author says, “16 Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself?  In the next verse he says, 17 Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time?”   What on earth do those two statements mean?  How can a person be overly righteous before a holy God who demands perfection?  How can a person make themselves too wise?  When the author tells us to not be overly wicked, it begs the question, what is the correct amount of wickedness we should practice?  The author also contradicts himself within the book.  In Ecclesiastes 7:1111 Wisdom is good with an inheritance, an advantage to those who see the sun.”  There we see that wisdom is a good thing but in 1:18, the author says, “18 For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.”  How can wisdom be both an advantage to those who possess it and at the same time be a source of vexation—that is-annoyance, frustration, worry and sorrow of those who are wise?

In Ecclesiastes 2:17, the author says, “17 So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.”  Two chapters later, he echoes that embittered tone.  In 4:23 he writes, “2 And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive. 3 But better than both is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.”  These verses both communicate that life is grievous and it’s preferable to be either dead or better yet, unborn than to be among the living.  But in 9:4 the author says, “4 …he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion.”  There he says that life is a good thing—better to be a living dog—(a despised creature in his culture) than a dead lion—(a majestic animal.)  What’s the larger lesson to be learned in these contradictions?  We’ll see more as we go through the book, but genuine, godly wisdom teaches that life in a fallen world is very complex and each of us have, to some measure, felt all those very different impulses at some time or another.  Wisdom literature doesn’t give superficial, black and white answers to the pain, frustration, futility and complexities of life—it addresses them head on and sometimes, there are no good answers on this side of heaven and life is riddled with contradictions.  The Bible doesn’t run from that truth—it embraces it.  Ecclesiastes is a very negative book at points because it’s also realistic from a fallen, human point of view.

The ultimate reality (on a purely human level) we must all face is life’s most vexing problem, death.  The reality and finality of death throws a wrench into everything and Ecclesiastes hammers on that truth.  On a purely human level, the reality of death makes everything vain because it makes everything we experience temporary.  When we were in England this summer, we saw a lot of history because there’s a lot of history over there to be seen.  As you walk through Westminster Abbey, where about 3000 English notables are buried, and you see the grave of (for instance) Queen Elizabeth the First, it highlights the futility death brings.  For about five decades in the sixteenth century, she was arguably the most powerful and influential person on the planet, but today--500 years later, she’s no more useful or relevant to 99% of the world’s population than the poorest beggar in England who lived during her reign.  From a strictly human point of view, death zeroes out everything.  The theme for much of the book could be stated, “Life is hard and then you die.”  The author describes living a life without God in the picture through the phrase, “under the sun.”  A life lived “under the sun,” a phrase used 28 times, conveys a life lived without taking God into account. 

The implicit theological truth that underscores this very negative view of life is that this planet and all life on it, human and otherwise, is not as God originally designed.  It is fallen, warped, twisted, shattered, broken, darkened, embattled.  On a human level, it is futile.  The New Testament text Ecclesiastes most clearly points to is Romans 8:18-20.  Paul writes, “18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope.  Many wonder if Paul wasn’t thinking about Ecclesiastes when he wrote this because the word he uses that is translated “futility” is the same word as the Greek translation of the word “vanity” in Ecclesiastes.  The author of Ecclesiastes says that life is vain, ephemeral, a mist and Paul explains that it is that way because in the fall, it was subjected to vanity. 

In chapter one, the author gives an introduction and provides the theme of the book.  He writes in verses 12-14. “12 I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 14 I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.”   The traditional view is that this book was authored by Solomon.  Since the time of Luther—who didn’t believe Solomon wrote the book, an increasing number of conservative scholars have come to the conclusion.  Now, only a very few conservative evangelical scholars believe Solomon penned this book. There are several reasons for this that can get fairly technical, but the fact that he calls himself the Preacher who was king over Israel in Jerusalem, and a son of David doesn’t require the author to be Solomon.  A son of David could be anyone in David’s line or even be a metaphor not to be taken literally. There are many reasons for this doubt about Solomon being the author, but just to cite two, in 1:16  the author writes, “16 I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.”

That is almost a nonsensical statement if Solomon wrote it because the only person who was over Jerusalem before him was King David.  Solomon would not say that his wisdom “surpassed all who were over Jerusalem before me.”  Second is in 1:12 where we read, “12 I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem.” The verb is a past tense verb in the original and some translate the verse, “I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem.”  This man says that at one time in his life he was (past tense) king over Israel in Jerusalem.  If this is Solomon, we have a problem because according to First Kings 11, Solomon died while he was ruling Israel so it’s unlikely that he’s speaking of his former reign as king.  In the end, the question of who wrote it isn’t important—the Holy Spirit wrote it through a human author just like he authored all the other books of the Bible. In chapter one, he introduces himself.  The rest of the book, until the last chapter is, with only a few exceptions, a series of reflections and musings about the vanity of this world.  As he closes the book beginning with 12:8, the author writes, “8 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity. 9 Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. 10 The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth. 11 The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. 12 My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. 13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”

Do you hear that this final section is written in the third person while the rest of the book is in first person as the author’s first-hand experience?  The Preacher he talks about here is someone other than himself.  The reason for the change in voice is--this last section gives the context for all these negative musings of Qohelet.  It gives us a lens through which to read Ecclesiastes.  In the first 11 and half chapters, the author is writing from a fallen, secular point of view—life without God is meaningless.  Because he is writing from a secular point of view, there are things in the book that are wrong—not in agreement with explicit Biblical teaching.  At the end of the book, the author explains why Qohelet writes what he does—it’s because it’s written from a God-LESS perspective.  We see a similar pattern to how this book is structured in the book of Job.  In the first two chapters, we see Job’s life from God’s view point as he and Satan discuss what will happen to him.  For the next 36 chapters after Job is afflicted, we see Job’s comforters saying many wrong things because they assume Job’s trials were an indicator that God is punishing him for his sin—which is clearly wrong.  Job also says many wrong things in trying to vindicate himself and asking for a special audience with God to get all these injustices straightened out.  His assumption is that he didn’t deserve what had happened to him and we know that, as a sinner before a holy God--that too is wrong.  But then in chapter 38, in a harsh rebuke of Job, God supplies HIS perspective on both the stupid comforters and Job.  That concluding word from God—when combined with the rest of the book, puts in perspective all the wrong things that are said earlier in the book.

At this point, you may be thinking—why are we spending any time on this very negative book?  This sounds like a great way for mass depression to break out in the church.  Of what practical value is it for us?  First, from a general perspective, we know that Second Timothy chapter three says, “16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”  That means that Ecclesiastes is profitable to us—it helps us to be equipped for every good work.  Also, broadly speaking--the wisdom literature in the Bible is very helpful to us as we live life—God can use these writings to help us live lives that honor him.  In addition, wisdom literature—like the book of Ecclesiastes—can be difficult to understand. It’s my hope that by God’s grace, our time in Ecclesiastes will whet your appetite and give you more appreciation for the wisdom books of the Bible and provide you some tools to better understand their meaning.  Beyond those general reasons to give some time to Ecclesiastes are four more specific ones that I trust by God’s grace will help us in our walk with God as individuals and as a church.

The first specific reason it’s good to dig into this book is because—it helps us persevere in trials.  Some might think, “We all know that life is hard—we don’t need a weekly reminder of it from the pulpit.”  We DO all mentally apprehend that life is hard, but I’ve met very few believers who have internalized that truth in a way that encourages them when they are experiencing the trials of life. If a person has truly internalized that life is not supposed to be easy and afflictions are the norm, then when tragedy strikes—their high school honor student is “senselessly” killed or crippled in an accident with a drunk driver— they will be far less likely to respond by asking, “Why me?”  They already know—life is full of tragedy and no one should expect to be exempted from it.  Internalizing the truth of Ecclesiastes in times of trial will insulate us from thinking, “This shouldn’t be happening to me” and “It just isn’t fair.”  People who’ve really internalized these truths won’t go to those places—at least, not for long because they will know that life isn’t fair and will more likely ask “why shouldn’t this be happening to me.”  They won’t react to tragedy by being angry with God or become embittered for the rest of their life as so many people do who have been beat up by life. 

One huge reason many of us DO feel compelled to respond that way to pain is because in our prosperity and with our access to so many things designed to decrease our pain and suffering and increase our comfort-- we come to believe the lies of a prosperous culture like:  Life just shouldn’t be this hard!”  People in Haiti don’t say that.  Suffering is an anomaly—life is typically very good with only brief stretches of pain”—not for most of the world it’s not and we have no right to expect that.  Or worst of all, “I don’t deserve this.”  Ecclesiastes and the wisdom literature blow those false assumptions to smithereens.  When we internalize that life really IS hard—and for some people—MUCH of their life is hard—and that suffering is not an anomaly, but can be, and often is, an ever-present companion.  Finally, when we internalize the truth that everyone deserves to suffer far more than we do, those lies lose their power to control and embitter us in times of trial.

We live in a culture where suffering is seen as unusual—an infrequent visitor.  According to the Bible, THAT’S the anomaly!  The reality check the book of Ecclesiastes gives us is essential for believers who live in an increasingly adversarial culture where religious persecution is almost certain in our future.  If you are skeptical of that, who here even five years ago would have guessed that our country would be arguing about the definition of marriage?  Our national descent into moral depravity has happened very rapidly.  Who knows what the church may be confronted with in five more years?  It’s always healthy for God’s people to have a Biblical theology of suffering.  In the coming years, it may very well be necessary in order to remain faithful to God.  If, when in times of suffering, we can process that in part by thinking, “God said it would be this way,” we’ll be much more able to honor God and remain faithful in times of trial.

A second reason for studying Ecclesiastes is—it helps us see the foolishness of heavily investing in this world.  We all know that loving the world and the things in it is sinful and that believers are to love God so much that we hang onto the things of this world loosely.  In spite of knowing that truth, in the midst of our materialistic culture, it’s a great challenge for even the most devout among us not to at times make our joy dependent on our possessions, career, our reputation or other people.  Qohelet reminds us of the foolishness of this by telling us that even things we consider good are also meaningless.  In 11:10 he says that “youth and vigor” are meaningless.  In other places, the Preacher says that wealth is meaningless as so is achievement and pleasure.  He even says that wisdom is meaningless and “everything to come” is meaningless.  These are things that are in many ways good, yet the Preacher calls them meaningless. 

The point is—it’s easy to invest your life in these “good things” of this world and end up on your death bed with profound regret that--because you didn’t understand the comparative vanity of even good things, you foolishly made your life about them—and those “good things” make our life meaningless if we make them ultimate things and live for them.  It’s vanity--emptiness to heavily invest in the things of this world.  Yet, the ocean of vanity that is the North American culture tells us that these things ARE ultimate things.  We’re naïve if we assume we can’t and haven’t been influenced by this vanity we swim in.  One scholar writes, “Ecclesiastes is the most contemporary book in the Bible.  The so-called negative sections of the book amount to an expose of the very things which dominate modern culture:  sex, work, education, fame and drink.  The writer creates a rogue’s gallery of satirical portraits of the hedonist…the workaholic…the wealthy… and the unfaithful woman…Ecclesiastes stands as the ultimate critique…” of that which this world places ultimate worth.[2]  This book has always been relevant to the present age.  The author of Moby Dick, Herman Melville who lived in 19th century America, called Ecclesiastes “the truest of all books.”

A third reason to study this book is: it helps us empathize with the lost people around us.  Jesus says the lost are “like sheep without a shepherd, harassed and helpless.”  Their lives are meaningless and vulnerable to destruction, but it’s hard for us to keep that truth in our head when many of them seem to be doing better than we are.  When the truths in Ecclesiastes become part of us—they equip us to look at someone like Donald Trump and be genuinely heartbroken for him. They remind us that everything this fallen world values is rendered meaningless by death, among other things.  For instance, today Trump is a real estate magnate, cultural icon, celebrity and high profile political consultant.  And none of that will matter one bit to him, the moment he passes from this life to the next.  And on his deathbed as he peers into what is for him an unknown eternity, he will say with the writer of Ecclesiastes that it has all been vanity.  In 50 years all his big, impressive buildings will probably have been purchased by someone else and everything with his name on it will have been removed and replaced with the name of the next wealthy owner.  In 100 years, he may be the subject of college term papers written in Economics class on the American economy 1980-2020.  And in 200 years, he’ll be nothing more than an asterisk on the pages of history and his life will be completely irrelevant to anyone living on this planet.

Because Ecclesiastes is inspired by God, that tells us this is the way he looks at people who are vainly pouring themselves into the sieve that is this world.  And if this is the way God views these lost people, that should be our attitude as well.  There are people all around us dying every day… having lived completely empty lives.  They may be externally happy, prosperous and well respected—but apart from God—their lives are vanity—a vapor that is here one minute and gone the next.  The miserable plight of the lost breaks God’s heart and as we come to see that plight more fully in Ecclesiastes, by God’s grace it will break ours as well.

Finally, studying the book of Ecclesiastes causes us to hope in the supremacy and perfections of Christ.  Tremper  Longman helps us see this.  He says, “On one level…Qohelet is exactly right.  The world (“under the sun”) without God is meaningless.  Death ends it all, so he alternated between “hating life” (2:17) and taking what meager enjoyment God hands out (2:24-26)…Qohelet has rightly described the horror of a world under curse and apart from God.  What he did not have was hope.  As we turn to the New Testament, we see that Jesus Christ is the one who redeems us from the vanity, the meaninglessness under which Qohelet suffered.  Jesus redeemed us from Qohelet’s meaningless world by  subjecting himself to it.  Jesus is the Son of God, but nonetheless he experienced the vanity of the world so he could free us from it.  As he hung on the cross, his own father deserted him (Matt.27:45-46).  At this point, he experienced the frustration of the world under curse in a way that Qohelet could not even imagine.  “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.”  As a result, Christians can experience deep significance precisely in those areas where Qohelet felt most oppressed.  Jesus has restored meaning to wisdom, labor, love and life.  After all, by facing death, Jesus conquered the biggest fear facing Qohelet.  He showed that for believers death is not the end of all meaning, but the entrance into the very presence of God.”[3]  Ecclesiastes in this way powerfully points to Christ.  As we go through Ecclesiastes, we’ll regularly be turning to the New Testament to see just how this book shines a spotlight on Christ as our vanity-destroying Savior.

Maybe you’re here today and you’ve never trusted in Christ—you don’t know God and have not been redeemed from your sin and from the meaninglessness—the emptiness, the vanity of this world.  If you haven’t, do that today—place your trust in Christ—accept him as your Savior who, with his blood purchased you out of the slave market of sin--both the penalty and power of sin.  As we move through this book, may God grant us the grace to help us persevere in trials, see the foolishness of investing in this world, empathize with lost people and most of all—see the supremacy of Christ in delivering us from the vanity of this lost, fallen world.


[1] Dever, Mark.  “The Message of the Old Testament.”  Crossway, 2006, p. 528, 536.

[2] Smith, James E. “The Wisdom Literature and the Psalms,”  Old Testament survey series, Joplin, MO, College Press Pub Co. electronic edition

[3] Longman, Tremper.  NICOT, The Book Of Ecclesiastes, p. 40.

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