Title (Eccl. 1:1)
A: Poem: All Is Vapor (Eccl. 1:2-11)
B: Wisdom’s Failure (Eccl. 1:12-2:26)
C: Poem: A Time For Everything (Eccl. 3:1-15)
D: Fear God (Eccl. 3:16-6:12)
C′: Poem: A Time For Everything Revisited (Eccl. 7:1-14)
B′: Wisdom’s Failure Revisited (Eccl. 7:15-10:19)
A′: Poem: All Is Vapor Revisited (Eccl. 10:20-12:8)
Conclusion (Eccl. 12:9-14)
Timeline (c. 10th century BC)
Introduction to Ecclesiastes
In Hebrew, the book of Ecclesiastes is called קהלת (Qohelet), which is usually translated as “preacher” and appears in the first verse of the book, “The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.” There is debate over whether Qohelet is a personal name or a title, but either way it seems to derive from the word קהל (qahal), which means to assemble. Qohelet then is the one who calls out in the assembly of the people. He is the orator who presides over the masses.
The authorship of Ecclesiastes is a much-disputed question, but the most obvious candidate is Solomon, and this seems to fit best with the material in the book. Some Jewish writers have ascribed it to Isaiah, and many critical commentators who argue for a late date of composition, (as late as the 3rd century BC) have ascribed it to someone living many years after Solomon. But I don’t find any of these arguments persuasive if we are going to take the opening line seriously that these are the words of a man who was king in Jerusalem and a son of David. Although there were some kings like Hezekiah who copied out Solomon’s proverbs (Prov. 25:1), none were associated with wisdom the way that Solomon was, and none could honestly say as it does in Eccl. 2:9, “So I became great and excelled more than all who were before me in Jerusalem.” There was none greater than Solomon until the coming of Christ, and so it’s safe to conclude that Solomon is the author of this book.
At the same time, there is an opening (Eccl. 1:1) and closing frame (Eccl. 12:9) to Ecclesiastes that sets the author outside of the words of the Preacher. Some have used this frame to allow for the Preacher to do and say things that appear to contradict biblical orthodoxy. But I think this is creating a solution for a problem that does not actually exist. Perhaps we can clear up some of this misinterpretation by studying some of the key themes in this book.
Vanity & Vapor
“Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher;
“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”
The word that gets translated as vanity (KJV, ESV, NKJV) or meaningless (NIV), is the word הֶבֶל (hevel) and is used elsewhere in Scripture to mean vapor or breath.
For example, Psalm 39:5 says,
Indeed, You have made my days as handbreadths,
And my age is as nothing before You;
Certainly every man at his best state is but vapor.
Also Job 7:16,
I loathe my life;
I would not live forever.
Let me alone,
For my days are but a breath.
We might think of hevel as the breath that we exhale, whereas ruah (wind/spirit) ר֣וּחַ חַיִּ֔ים (Gen. 6:17) is the life-breath from God that we inhale. Hevel is also the name for Abel, who was the first man to ever die. To say that everything is hevel, is to say that all of us must go where Abel went, all of us are going to exhale completely, die, and face God’s judgment. So hevel is not meaningless, as the NIV translates it, any more than breath is meaningless; and it is not vanity in the modern sense of being worthless or conceited. Hevel is vapor and connotes the elusive and fleeting nature of life under the sun. We are like dew on the grass that evaporates when the sun comes up. We are here today, and gone tomorrow, the question is, how does this view of reality affect the way we live? That is what Qohelet is going to explore. This definition of hevel as vapor is also confirmed by the book of James when he says, “For what is your life? It is even a vapor (ἀτμίς) that appears for a little time and then vanishes away” (James 4:14). So when you see that word vanity, imagine vapor or breath, rather than some vague philosophical concept of emptiness or void, this will help us read the book more faithfully.
Shepherding the Wind
One of the other key images in Ecclesiastes is the idea of “shepherding/grasping the wind.” This phrase occurs 9 times in the book (all in the first 6 chapters) and illustrates how life is utterly outside of our control. We should hear in Ecclesiastes connections to the book of Job. Wind appears 14 times in Job, and in Job 28, God alone is pictured as the one who can “establish a weight for the wind and apportion the waters by measure” (Job 28:25). At the beginning of Ecclesiastes, Solomon says, “I set my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under heaven” (Eccl. 1:13). And then in Job 28:27 it says, “Then God saw wisdom and declared it; He prepared it, indeed, He searched it out. And to man He said, ‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, And to depart from evil is understanding.’” Ecclesiastes anticipates what Job will make explicit, that God is the only one who can shepherd the wind, and because of this we should trust Him in all things. This theme of shepherding the wind also answers to a question posed at the end of Proverbs,
“Who has ascended into heaven, or descended?
Who has gathered the wind in His fists?
Who has bound the waters in a garment?
Who has established all the ends of the earth?
What is His name, and what is His Son’s name,”
If you know?
In John 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus that “just as the wind blows where it wishes, so is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). A few verses later, he references this quotation from Proverbs 30 when he says, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven.” Jesus is poking at Nicodemus’ inability to interpret Proverbs and Ecclesiastes; “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?” (John 3:10). The full quotation of Ecclesiastes 11:5 says,
“As you do not know what is the way of the wind,
Or how the bones grow in the womb of her who is with child,
So you do not know the works of God who makes everything.”
Nicodemus is face to face with the Son of Man who is in heaven, the one who is full of the spirit of God and can shepherd the wind, and yet because he does not believe, he cannot recognize who Jesus is. In order to truly see Jesus, Nicodemus must be born again.
The Illusion of Control
Much of our vexation and anxiety comes from the belief that we are the ones in control, but this is an illusion that Ecclesiastes explodes. Far from being a pessimistic or cynical book, Ecclesiastes wakes us up to reality, God is in charge, and we are not. We are finite and cannot tell the wind where to go, so we can either keep trying to hold on to what is fleeting, or we can enjoy this life for what it is: a gracious gift from a good God. Ecclesiastes then teaches us how to enjoy the vapor, to delight in our finitude through the fear of the Lord. We might think of Ecclesiastes as an extended meditation on how to obey Paul’s command to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:16-18). When we truly understand the meaning of Ecclesiastes, our lives will be characterized by joy and freedom. It will also prepare us for suffering such that we can say with Job, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
At the end of Ecclesiastes, Solomon says, “The words of the wise are like goads, and the words of scholars are like well-driven nails, given by one Shepherd.” In the gospel of John, Jesus takes this idea of the Shepherd and applies it to himself saying, “I am the good shepherd, I know My sheep, and am known by My own… other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:14,16). Ecclesiastes points to Jesus as the one who can shepherd the wind. This is part of the context behind the miracle of rebuking the winds and the sea and making them calm (Matt. 8:26-27). By literally controlling the wind, Jesus reveals himself as the one true Shepherd of God’s people. He also interrupts the endless cycle of vapor that characterized the old creation under the sun. Jesus is now the light of the world, and in his kingdom, our vaporous lives become solid and eternal.
One of the ways of thinking about Ecclesiastes is through Jesus’ Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25, and the Parable of the Ten Minas in Luke 19. In the parable in Luke, the master gives one mina (about 3 months’ salary) to ten different men and depending on how profitable they are with what he gave them, the master rewards each man by giving him rule over ten cities, or five cities, or however many minas he made on his behalf. The mina is the vapor that God has given to us, and God wants us to turn a profit on that vapor. And then, on judgment day, God will reward us according to our works. In this sense, far from being meaningless, this life of vapor is of eternal importance. The things we do here will follow us into eternity. The seeds we plant here will reap a harvest in the age to come. It is true that all is vapor, but the fear of the Lord knows what to do with it.
Nothing Is Better Under The Sun
One of the recurring and most practical take-aways from Ecclesiastes occurs 4 times and begins with the phrase, “Nothing is better…”
Nothing is better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and that his soul should enjoy good in his labor. This also, I saw, was from the hand of God.
I know that nothing is better for them than to rejoice, and to do good in their lives, and also that every man should eat and drink and enjoy the good of all his labor—it is the gift of God.
So I perceived that nothing is better than that a man should rejoice in his own works, for that is his heritage.
So I commended enjoyment, because a man has nothing better under the sun than to eat, drink, and be merry; for this will remain with him in his labor all the days of his life which God gives him under the sun.
This advice seems to culminate in chapter 9 with an extended exhortation on how to enjoy life:
Go, eat your bread with joy, And drink your wine with a merry heart; For God has already accepted your works. Let your garments always be white, And let your head lack no oil.
9 Live joyfully with the wife whom you love all the days of your vain life which He has given you under the sun, all your days of vanity; for that is your portion in life, and in the labor which you perform under the sun.10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going.
As mentioned earlier, Ecclesiastes teaches us what the Apostle Paul commands, “Rejoice always!” (2 Cor. 6:10, Phil. 4:4, 1 Thess. 5:16).
Suggestions For Reading Ecclesiastes
#1. Read It Twice In A Row
Ecclesiastes (like all of Scripture) is a book that rewards careful re-reading. Read it all at once if possible, and then read it again. Look at the literary structure and pay attention to how the second half of the book revisits and comments on some of the poems in the first half. For example, the famous poem on “A Time For Everything” in Ecclesiastes 3:1-15, gets revisited in Ecclesiastes 7:1-14, with Solomon concluding,
“In the day of prosperity be joyful,
But in the day of adversity consider:
Surely God has appointed the one as well as the other,
So that man can find out nothing that will come after him.”
So pay attention to how these later sections of the book answer back to the questions Solomon posed earlier.
#2. Pause and Answer the Preacher’s Questions
I went through the book and noted 32 questions that Solomon asks in Ecclesiastes (see below). It is an interesting exercise to pause and think about how you would answer each question. Then compare your answer with how Solomon deals with it.
Questions that Ecclesiastes Poses:
- What profit has a man from all his labor, In which he toils under the sun? (Eccl. 1:3)
- Is there anything of which it may be said, “See, this is new”? (Eccl. 1:10)
- I said of laughter—“Madness!”; and of mirth, “What does it accomplish?” (Eccl. 2:2)
- Then I turned myself to consider wisdom and madness and folly; For what can the man do who succeeds the king? (Eccl. 2:12)
- “As it happens to the fool, It also happens to me, And why was I then more wise?” (Eccl. 2:15)
- How does a wise man die? (Eccl. 2:16)
- Then I hated all my labor in which I had toiled under the sun, because I must leave it to the man who will come after me. And who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? (Eccl. 1:18-19)
- For what has man for all his labor, and for the striving of his heart with which he has toiled under the sun? (Eccl. 2:22)
- For who can eat, or who can have enjoyment, more than I? (Eccl. 2:25)
- What profit has the worker from that in which he labors? (Eccl. 3:9)
- Who knows the spirit of the sons of men, which goes upward, and the spirit of the animal, which goes down to the earth? (Eccl. 3:21)
- I perceived that nothing is better than that a man should rejoice in his own works, for that is his heritage. For who can bring him to see what will happen after him? (Eccl. 3:22)
- “For whom do I toil and deprive myself of good?” (Eccl. 4:8)
- Again, if two lie down together, they will keep warm; But how can one be warm alone? (Eccl. 4:11)
- Do not let your mouth cause your flesh to sin, nor say before the messenger of God that it was an error. Why should God be angry at your excuse and destroy the work of your hands? (Eccl. 5:6)
- When goods increase, They increase who eat them; So what profit have the owners Except to see them with their eyes? (Eccl. 5:11)
- Just exactly as he came, so shall he go. And what profit has he who has labored for the wind? (Eccl. 5:16)
- Do not all go to one place? (Eccl. 6:6)
- For what more has the wise man than the fool? (Eccl. 6:8)
- What does the poor man have, Who knows how to walk before the living? (Eccl. 6:8)
- Since there are many things that increase vanity, How is man the better? (Eccl. 6:11)
- For who knows what is good for man in life, all the days of his vain life which he passes like a shadow? (Eccl. 6:12)
- Who can tell a man what will happen after him under the sun? (Eccl. 6:12)
- Consider the work of God; For who can make straight what He has made crooked? (Eccl. 7:13)
- Do not be overly righteous, Nor be overly wise: Why should you destroy yourself? (Eccl. 7:16)
- Do not be overly wicked, Nor be foolish: Why should you die before your time? (Eccl. 7:17)
- As for that which is far off and exceedingly deep, Who can find it out? (Eccl. 7:24)
- Who is like a wise man? (Eccl. 8:1)
- And who knows the interpretation of a thing? (Eccl. 8:1)
- Where the word of a king is, there is power; And who may say to him, “What are you doing?” (Eccl. 8:4)
- Because for every matter there is a time and judgment, Though the misery of man increases greatly. For he does not know what will happen; So who can tell him when it will occur? (Eccl. 8:6-7)
- No man knows what is to be; Who can tell him what will be after him? (Eccl. 10:14)