28 Jan The Big Book–Cover to Cover: Ecclesiastes
The book of Ecclesiastes seemingly fails to fit in with the rest of Scripture – it has no obvious outline, no narrative. Where proverbs offers practical guidance for living, Ecclesiastes offers musings and observations about this life.
This unusual book meets the discouraged and disillusioned in their struggle, and offers a a gentle encouragement toward that which gives meaning.
What is the purpose of all we encounter, endure, and experience in this life?
Is it truly all in vain?
Life in this world does not fundamentally change, so writes Michael Eaton, O.T. Scholar, author, and pastor of a multiracial church in S. Africa. (1)
Even a cursory study of history reveals: man’s behavior, outlook, personality, desires, dreams, and problems are fundamentally the same today as they were decades ago.
- The humdrum routine can crowd out meaning.
- Men/women experience various mid-life crises.
- Homemakers, women who work outside the home wonder if childcare, “mending life’s tears”, fixing meals, chauffeur service, school projects, late-night and teenage emotional disasters ever end.
- Singles may wonder or second guess, where is that person, even a lifelong friend on whom I can depend? Divorced / single parents may go from pillar-to-post determined to find love or press on as single.
- Young marrieds may deal with infertility.
- Couples with older children often drift apart, caring for the never-ending needs of small people, parallel lives.
- Empty nesters can “arrive” and find this chapter hollow.
- People on a career track hit a wall; in times of distress wonder, is it worth it to give so much of their life to a company?
- Have you ever felt like a Tom’s Dispensing Machine? People come and pull your handle to get what they want. That’s all you’re worth?
Soren Kierkegaard wrote:
“I saw that the meaning of life was to make a living, its goal to become a councilor, that the rich delight of love was to acquire a well-to-do girl, that the blessedness of friendship was to help each other in financial difficulties, that wisdom was whatever the majorityassumed it to be, that enthusiasm was to give a speech, that courage was to risk being fined ten dollars, that cordiality was to say ‘May it do you good’ after a meal, that piety was to go to communion once a year. This I saw, and I laughed.” (2)
Why study Ecclesiastes?
It’s a book overflowing with insight into the puzzling nature of life.
It’s a great study for teens, students, and young people.
It’s a message from a sage, the wisest man ever to live (second to Christ), and all would do well to heed his message.
From the start, Ecclesiastes presents us with a binary decision: are we a pessimist or an optimist?
Earl Nightingale believed that no one knows enough to be pessimistic.
Pessimists are skeptics, cynics, critics – this way they’re never disappointed when things don’t turn out the way they wanted.
Pessimism was well known in ancient literature. An Egyptian work from around 2300BC was entitled, “The Man Who Was tired of Life.”
James Crenshaw writes:
Life is profitless; totally absurd. This oppressive message lies at the heart of the Bible’s strangest book. Enjoy life if you can, advises the author, for old age will soon overtake you. And even as you enjoy, know that the world is meaningless. Virtue does not bring reward. The deity stands distant, abandoning humanity to chance and death. …Qohelet discerns no moral order at all. Humans cannot know God’s disposition. This argument strikes at the foundation of the sages’ universe.
(James L. Crenshaw, “Ecclesiastes: A Commentary,” (3)
Optimists view life positively, hopefully, confidently, with anticipation.
They see the dilemmas of life, but focus on the joy of life, things to enjoy, the pleasure and portion that God gives.
Title – the title is enigmatic. Ecclesiastes is a Greek translation of the Hebrew title, Qohelet, most probably from the verbal root qahal, which is used to mean an assembling of a congregation. The noun: congregation.
Author – Son of David, King of Jerusalem refers to: Solomon.
Message – Many have attempted to find the structure, form, or outline of the book – there are hundreds to choose from. One scholar suggests there are 23 commentators who virtually abandoned the task of finding any coherence in the book. (4)
While vanity is a theme, I would argue it is not the theme. I believe the message of Ecclesiastes is:
The Absurdity of Life Apart from God.
Ronald Murphy writes, “It is truly difficult to give an overall picture of the work. Qohelet’s thought is tortuous, and the danger of selectivity on the part of the interpreter is ever present.” (5)
The message, then, is perhaps best captured in Morris Jastrow’s title: The Gentle Cynic
- Vanity and Futility – breath, vapor, meaningless
- Profit or Advantage – surplus
- Portion – riches, intrinsic pleasure (generally a positive connotation, but there is no guarantee you’ll receive it)
- Toil – what you get by hard, heavy work (generally a negative connotation)
- Joy – pleasure, i.e. in eating, drinking, a zest for life – but limited by our destination: Sheol, death. This term is paradoxically tied to God giving it as one’s portion. We are to enjoy it, but we cannot control it.
- Wisdom – concentrates on the order of things and propounds sayings in order to master life.
- Under the Sun, occurs 29 times in the text: The horizontal nature of living by faith, while constrained by the flesh.
- Striving after wind, occurs 27 times in this book and no where else in the Bible.
- Under heaven, occurs 5 times
The absurdity of trying to make sense of it all:
The author declares: Everything is absurd.
Look at nature to see the absurdity of trying to make sense of it all (Ecclesiastes 1:3-7); look at man’s efforts and see the absurdity of trying to make sense of it all (Ecclesiastes 1:8-11)
He who does not learn from history is destined to repeat it. (6)
- In the quest for the good life, folly is not an option; folly is condemned. (Murphy)
This, to me, is the guardian against living in sin, not caring, not growing.
- Wisdom, while extraordinarily helpful, is not a god.
Just because we approach something wisely does not guarantee success. While Qohelet frequently applied and trusts in wisdom: experience, observation, investigation – he makes it an art. But traditional wisdom can fail. Wisdom is helpful, we want to be wise, but it’s not a god.
- Kill the myth of the greener grass.Comparison is a kiss of death to gratitude.Young men and women, it’s a lie! People compare their lives to edited versions of others’ lives and are left to believe they are lacking in some way. We cannot compare our lives this way.We have this idea that we can sin when we are in deep pain or injustice because we seek pleasure for relief, but the consequences of that sin will weigh heavier and last longer than the lust of the moment.
Enjoy the stuff of life!
If we look at life apart from God, it’s indeed absurd – but when we look at the stuff of life with God, it takes on meaning and joy, and He can enable you and me to enjoy the good stuff of life.
Michael A. Eaton, “Ecclesiastes,” in Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries,ed. D.J. Wiseman (Leicester, England & Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983), 16-17
Jacques Ellul, The Reason for Being(Michigan: Eerdmans, 1990), p. 49.
The Old Testament Library gen. eds. Peter Ackroyd, James Barr, et al. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1987), p. 23.
Eaton, p. 48. Crenshaw, p. 47, after a lengthy discussion regarding structure, writes, This discussion of Qohelet’s structure has failed to resolve a single issue, but it demonstrates the complexity of the problem.
Roland E. Murphy, “Ecclesiastes,” in Word Biblical Commentary gen eds. David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker (Dallas, Texas:Word Books, 1992) 23A:lviii.
Eaton, p. 61.
Murphy, p. lxii.