Ecclesiastes, Lesson 1: Introduction, Part 1
Ecclesiastes, Lesson 1: Introduction, Part 1
I. Why Ecclesiastes?
Good morning! Please take your seat. I can’t tell you how glad I am to be here this morning (I’ve been gone for the past three weeks, in case you haven’t noticed)! Elise and I had a good and very profitable time in Salt Lake City at the church planting conference the first weekend, we enjoyed our time with family in Seattle the second week, and I was very glad to be best man in my friend Daniel’s wedding last weekend, but three Sundays is a lot to miss! Also, last Sunday, I didn’t even get to go to church, because I was travelling all day. So, I am really happy to be worshipping with you today. Isn’t worshipping God with your church family a privilege? It truly is.
We’ve come to a point in Sunday school in which it’s time to begin another book study. Many of you remember the last book study; we took two years to work through the gospel of John. Since we finished that study in January, we’ve done several topical studies together. Fred Vinton taught on relational evangelism, I taught on prayer, and Pastor Kit led a couple of shorter studies. But, having covered some of those topics, and now that everyone is back from summer travelling, I think it’s time to dive into another book study. The question that I had wrestle with was, “which one?” Which book of the Bible are we going to study next? There are so many wonderful books of the Bible that I would love to study and teach, but I finally settled on Ecclesiastes. You say, “Ecclesiastes? Why? After all, that’s kind of an obscure book, maybe difficult to understand—why not teach on Romans or something like that?” Well, Pastor Kit has preached through a couple of epistles in the last two years, and also, I think it would be good for us to take at a book of the Bible that is often neglected or misunderstood. Another reason for studying Ecclesiastes is that it is one of my favorite books in the Bible. Now, that might sound odd, but when I was a senior in high school, as part of our Christian school Bible curriculum for that year, our youth pastor took us through this little Bible study on the book of Ecclesiastes [show book]. I soaked it right up, and I’ve loved the book of Ecclesiastes ever since! One of the reasons for that is that Ecclesiastes appeals to my philosophical side. But I also love its realism and the philosophy of life that it presents.
Ecclesiastes is an excellent book for us as 21st century Americans to be familiar with. Life presents itself to us with an enticing array of open doors. We have more opportunity to make money, to buy, to study and learn, to travel, to communicate, and to experience new things—whether tasting, viewing, listening, or doing—than perhaps any other culture in the history of the world! It used to be that if you wanted to listen to a piece of music, you had to go to a particular venue and listen to it live. You had to have the time to get there and the money to pay for the ticket. You may never in your lifetime have the opportunity, for instance, to listen to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Today, however, you have the opportunity to listen to almost anything that has ever been recorded, on your smartphone, for $9.99 per month (or for free on YouTube!). In 1873, the thought of circumnavigating the world in eighty days was literally novel (and Jules Verne turned it into a novel). Today, you have the opportunity to travel to just about anywhere on the globe in under forty hours! When Elise and I were in Salt Lake City, we bought dinner one night at Whole Foods. Have you ever been to Whole Foods? The variety there is incredible! Fresh produce, fancy specialty cheeses, fish flown in from other parts of the country—the list goes on and on! In our society, you have the opportunity to taste almost anything you want to taste. We have the opportunity to read like no other society before us. I carry a 2,500-volume library on my smart phone. You can go online and view incredible high-resolution photographs of famous Bible manuscripts. You can listen to listen to scholarly lectures for free. You have the opportunity to study just about anything. In many other cultures throughout history, the only way to wealth was to be born into it. Here, on the other hand, people from all different types of cultural and economic backgrounds have made fortunes for themselves by hard work. The opportunities to earn money are astounding! And money plus technology equals the opportunity to buy almost any product or experience you can imagine, as long as you can afford it. Even if you can’t afford it, you have the opportunity to put it on a credit card so that you can have it now! We often hold up King Solomon, the author of Ecclesiastes, as the ultimate example of wealth and opportunity. But there is a sense in which we are all Solomons! In fact, we have opportunities that Solomon never dreamed of!
So, given the similarities between us and Solomon, what help does Ecclesiastes offer? In the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon tells us about his quest to find satisfaction and meaning in life. He explored all of the avenues I just mentioned—money, wisdom, accomplishments, experiences—and discovered that all of them were empty. They were unable to satisfy his deepest longings. So, he writes Ecclesiastes as a warning not to follow in his footsteps. It’s as if we pass Solomon in a corn maze, and he leans over and says to us, “Just so you know, all six of these paths lead to dead ends. Don’t bother with them; they’re a waste of your time.” That’s a warning that all of us need to hear repeatedly. Because Satan decorates his dead-end paths. They look so lovely—like they couldn’t possibly be wrong. But following those paths is an exercise in futility. We’ll be left emptier than ever. If you need proof that that’s the case, just look at our country. With all of the opportunities we have, we should be the happiest society that’s ever lived, right? Wrong. By and large, we are very frustrated and depressed. According to a December 2016 article from NBC News, “one in six Americans take some kind of psychiatric drugs—mostly antidepressants.” Fascinatingly, that number is much higher among Caucasians. In 2016, nearly 21% of white American adults medicated for symptoms such as depression, anxiety, or sleeping disorders! Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not trying to say that there is never a place for Christians to take psychiatric drugs. I’m sure that there can be physical conditions that make those types of drugs necessary. However, I would have to think that many of the people who take those types of drugs are more or less medicating in order cover up the symptoms associated with their spiritual problems! Tragically, we are learning by experience that what Solomon said long ago is true. Ecclesiastes 1:14 says “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and indeed, all is vanity and grasping for the wind.” Searching for ultimate satisfaction in pleasure, wealth, work, or even wisdom is like trying to satisfy your cravings for real food with cotton candy. It can’t possibly work! The harder you try, the sicker you’ll become. So, think of Ecclesiastes as a series of spiritual shots. That’s not a perfect analogy; I certainly don’t mean that this study is going to be painful (at least, I hope it’s not), but my point is that Solomon’s warnings are intended inoculate us against seeking satisfaction apart from God. That’s a message that we need to hear for our own sakes.
But it’s also a message that we need to hear for the sake of others. The book of Ecclesiastes actually equips us for witnessing! You say, “Pastor Kris, how can that possibly be the case?” Here’s how. We will never reach a society in which one in six people is on anti-depressants if we ignore the frustrating enigmas associated with living in a sin-cursed world. But thankfully, we aren’t called to do that. Ecclesiastes addresses those frustrations head-on. So, as a result of studying this book, we will be better-equipped to sympathize with cynical people and to help them make sense of the broken pieces of their lives. Remember those people I mentioned earlier, who are on anti-depressants and such? Ecclesiastes helps you as a Christian to identify with their struggles.
But what about the unbelievers who are happy and optimistic? Some say that my generation may be the most optimistic generation in the history of our country. Sadly, if their optimism is not based on the truth of God’s Word, they are in for bitter disappointment. I’m not necessarily trying to be a prophet, but I think it’s quite possible that my generation could go from being the most optimistic to being the most cynical generation. And I can’t help but wonder if that’s part of Satan’s plan—to build up false hopes, and then dash them to pieces, driving us into despair. And so that brings us back to the idea of warning. Are you getting the picture? Warning, hope, warning, hope, warning, hope—that’s the book of Ecclesiastes, and it’s all about “how should we then live?” Does that make sense? Are there any questions or comments on that?
II. What is Ecclesiastes about?
The next thing I want to do with our time together is to talk about the uniqueness of Ecclesiastes and then also some of the difficulties associated with interpreting this book. So why don’t I start by asking you, what do you know about Ecclesiastes? (answers vary)
The first thing you should know about Ecclesiastes is that it is a difficult book. In fact, it’s even been referred to as “the black sheep of the Bible.” Maybe you’ve heard someone referred to as “the black sheep of his family”—well Ecclesiastes has been called “the black sheep of the Bible.” And that’s primarily because it’s filled with very pessimistic-sounding statements, some of which even seem to disagree with other parts of the Bible! For instance, there are statements that seem to deny God’s justice. Ecclesiastes 8:14 says “There is a vanity which occurs on earth; that there are just men to whom it happens according to the work of the wicked; again, there are wicked men, to whom it happens according to the work of the righteous. I said that this also is ” There are also statements that seem to call into question eternal life! For instance, Ecclesiastes 9:10 says, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going.” On top of this, there are passages that seem to promote what is known as “hedonism,” or the abandoning of oneself to a life of pleasure. Ecclesiastes 3:22 says, “So 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?”
So, for all of these reasons, different groups throughout history have struggled with what to make of this book. One group of Jewish rabbis around the time of Christ didn’t think it should be included in the Old Testament (although they were overruled by the majority of rabbis, who called for its inclusion) (see Kaiser, Coping with Change, 51). Most Jewish and Christian interpreters didn’t go that far, but they still struggled with how to interpret the book. Some of them opted for allegorical interpretation or explained away the difficult passages. Of course, it goes without saying that the liberal “Christians” who don’t believe that any of the Bible is inspired (and thus aren’t really Christians), have an absolute heyday with this book. For instance, one commentator says, “The author [of Ecclesiastes] is a rationalist, an agnostic, a skeptic, a pessimist, and a fatalist (the terms are not used pejoratively!)” (Scott, quoted in Caneday, “Qoheleth: Enigmatic Pessimist or Godly Sage?,” 24). Others have looked at the dichotomy between the negative and positive statements in the book and concluded that the author either didn’t know what he believed, was struggling with what he believed, or was trying to integrate multiple belief systems. One common theme among these liberals is that they deny the traditional view that Solomon wrote the book. So, let’s talk about that for a minute. What evidence do they give in order to prove that Solomon didn’t write it?
First, they all say that the author’s selection Hebrew words points to a later date. This is supposedly an undeniable fact. And to be fair, scholars do agree that the Hebrew in Ecclesiastes is unusual. However, we don’t know as much about the history of the Hebrew language as some scholars might want you to think. For instance, we know much more about the development of Greek. Also, there have been other scholars who have studied the Hebrew words used in Ecclesiastes and concluded that it must have been written much earlier! So, the linguistic argument isn’t conclusive.
Second, they argue that certain passages in the book indicate that Solomon could not have been its author. For instance, Ecclesiastes 1:12 says, “I, the Preacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem.” Solomon died as king of Israel. Therefore, according to the critics, the author of Ecclesiastes could not possibly have been Solomon. However, this argument is silly because the word “was” is in the perfect tense and could also be translated “have been”— “I have been king in Jerusalem.” When coupled with 1:1, this verse actually establishes Solomon as the only possible writer of Ecclesiastes. That is because 1:1 says that the author was “the son” (or descendent) of David, and this verse says that he ruled over Israel in Jerusalem. No other descendant of David ruled over Israel in Jerusalem because after Solomon, the kingdom was divided and the kings of Israel reigned from Samaria. So, Solomon is the only possible author.
Those who deny Solomon’s authorship will also point to v. 16, which says, “I communed with my heart, saying, ‘Look, I have attained greatness, and have gained more wisdom than all who were before me in Jerusalem….’” Before Solomon, David was the only Israelite king who reigned from Jerusalem. Therefore, according to the critics, Solomon could not possibly have said this. Do you see any flaws with this logic? First, it’s possible that this verse is referring not only to kings, but also to wise men living in the city. Second, the Bible actually records the names of three Gentile kings of Jerusalem prior to the time that David conquered the city. Among them is Melchizadek, who is obviously a significant Bible character. Solomon could very easily have been thinking of those men in addition to his father when he wrote this verse.
Finally, the critics will argue that several passages in Ecclesiastes that reflect negatively on the king or on human government could not have been written by the king, who controlled the government. But I see no reason why a king could not have reflected negatively on kings or on human government in general, especially if he is writing primarily from the perspective of a wise sage. Also, if Ecclesiastes was written during the time when Persia ruled Israel, as the critics suggest, these passages may be even more difficult to understand. Israelites living during that period had little if any contact with the distant foreign kings! It would seem odd, given those circumstances, for the author of Ecclesiastes to focus on how to conduct oneself with reference to the king.
There are, of course, other arguments that the critics cite, but those are the main ones along with their rebuttals. Also, I should point out that the view that Solomon wrote the book coincides perfectly with the description of all that the author pursued in chapters 1-2, with the fact that this is a wisdom book (Solomon obviously being the wisest man in all the world and the author of Proverbs), and even with the fact that the author is referred to as Qoheleth, or the gatherer of assemblies, because 1 Kings 8 uses a related word quite often to describe how Solomon gathered the people to hear his speech at the dedication of the temple. (We’ll probably talk more about that next week.) So, suffice it to say that despite the claims of the critics, there is a very solid case for Solomon’s authorship of this book. Of course, the question then arises, “When did Solomon write it?” It couldn’t have been early in his life, because the various quests described in chapters 2-3 seem like they would have taken some time. However, the Bible also says Solomon turned from God when he got older. That’s why many interpreters throughout the ages have suggested that perhaps Solomon repented of his sin in old age, and then wrote Ecclesiastes to help others. Now, that’s an argument from silence, because the historical books don’t say anything about it. However, it does seem to be a plausible theory. Does that make sense? Are there any questions or comments about those things?
Sadly, many evangelical scholars have in some way or another caved to the pressure exerted by the liberals to reject Solomon’s authorship of Ecclesiastes. For instance, in his popular commentary on Ecclesiastes, Tremper Longman suggests (see if you can follow this) that the book is divided up into three parts. The prologue (1:1-11) and epilogue (12:8-14) are written by an unnamed narrator. The rest of the book is an extended quotation from an anonymous, skeptical Jewish teacher who identifies with Solomon in chapters 1-2 in order to advance his argument. Longman says that the narrator uses this speech as a literary “foil” or “teaching device” “in order to instruct his son (12:12) concerning the dangers of speculative, doubting wisdom in Israel” (Longman, Ecclesiastes, 38). So, according to Longman, the author of Ecclesiastes disagrees with much of what this “other teacher” says, but he includes the extended quotation anyway in order to teach some important lessons about the dangers of speculative wisdom. Now, without going into all of Longman’s argumentation, do you see any problems with this view? Here are a couple that I see.
First, it is very difficult for me to imagine such a long speech and such a short redaction, especially given the fact that Longman assumes this wisdom teacher to be an unbeliever!
Second, Longman’s approach puts us in the difficult predicament of trying to discern how much of 1:12-12:7 to believe and obey. If we are not to believe or obey any of it, then this book would seem to be unnecessary. But if we are to believe and obey some of his statements and not others, how are we to decide which ones to accept and which ones to reject?
Longman would counter by referring to the chapters in Job that are spoken by Job’s friends. He says, “Just as in the book of Job, most of the book of Ecclesiastes is composed of the nonorthodox speeches of the human participants of the book, speeches that are torn down and demolished in the end.” How would you respond to that question? My response would simply be that Job is different. Within the framework of the Job story, it’s obvious that Job’s friends are out of line, and God rebukes them for it. Ecclesiastes, on the other hand, is not a narrative. And the epilogue does not “tear down and demolish” the rest of the book; in fact, it does just the opposite! It reaffirms the book’s teaching, and even claims inspiration for it (Eccl 12:9-12a)!
All of these observations support the traditional view that Solomon wrote the whole book. You say, “Pastor Kris, why are you taking so much time with this stuff? It’s complicated and honestly, sort of boring?” I take time with it because this stuff is out there. If you do any sort of personal study on Ecclesiastes, you’re probably going to run into it. In fact, even the New Scofield reference Bible suggests a position similar to the one I just shared. And Scofield himself said—if you’re a big C.I. Scofield fan, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but he said, “It is, therefore, as idle to quote such passages as 2:24, 3:22, etc., as expressions of the divine will as it would be to apply Job 2:4, 5 or Genesis 3:4” (Scofield, quoted by McCabe in “The Message of Ecclesiastes,” 86). (2:24 and 3:22 are two of the so-called “hedonistic” passages that I mentioned earlier, and Job 2:4-5 and Genesis 3:4 are quotations by Satan!) Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not trying to say that C.I. Scofield was a heretic. As far as I know, he was a godly man and was greatly used by God; but sadly, he got this one wrong. I bring that up just to illustrate the prevalence of this sort of idea about the book of Ecclesiastes. Does that make sense? Are there any questions or comments about that?
So, the correct approach to Ecclesiastes is to say that Solomon wrote it all; therefore, we have to accept and obey all of it. However, in order to take the book that way, you have to deal with all of the difficult statements Solomon makes! You can’t just write them off by saying that they were written by the “skeptical wisdom teacher,” whereas the statements that you like were written by the frame narrator. You no longer have that “out.” Does that make sense? So, during the course of our study, we will deal with the statements in this book that seem at first glance to contradict statements found elsewhere in the Bible. We’ll also deal with the statements that seem to contradict other statements within the book itself. Let’s talk about those for a moment. Within the book of Ecclesiastes, you have lots of very negative-sounding statements, but then you also have some very positive-sounding statements. And sometimes these negative and positive statements appear back-to-back! For instance, Ecclesiastes 9:9 says, “Live joyfully with the wife whom you love….” Aw, that sounds so sweet, doesn’t it? I bet that would go good on an anniversary card. But what till you hear the rest of the verse! “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 isyour portion in life, and in the labor which you perform under the sun.” Man! What a downer, right! “Live joyfully with the wife whom you love… because your life is meaningless and you’ve got nothing better to do anyway!” Now, just to be clear, that’s not what Solomon is saying. But that certainly sounds like what he’s saying, doesn’t it? Or how about this one? In Ecclesiastes 7:1, Solomon says, “A good name is better than precious ointment….” Aw. “And the day of death than the day of one’s birth!” What!? The day of my death is better than my birthday! I think I take offense at that! But then listen to Ecclesiastes 9:4. Solomon says, “But for him who is joined to all the living there is hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion.” (Someday I think I’m going to make a calendar of Ecclesiastes, just for a joke, and include some of these highly motivating verses on it.) “Even a living dog is better than a dead lion. Now I’m ready for the day!” But in all seriousness, which is better, Solomon, to be dead or to be alive? Because it seems like you’re saying two different things. Finally, there’s this one, which is probably one of the most famous controversial passages in Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes 7:16-17 says,
“Do not be overly righteous,
Nor be overly wise:
Why should you destroy yourself?
Do not be overly wicked,
Nor be foolish:
Why should you die before your time?”
So, which is it, Solomon? Do you want me to be wise or foolish? Righteous or wicked? “Well,” Solomon says, “Just don’t be too much of either.” We’ll talk more about what that means when we come to it. But for now, I just want to point out the seeming contradictions. What are we dealing with here? Was Solomon schizophrenic?
No, and this is where we actually get into the theology of the book of Ecclesiastes. You see, the polarity in this book actually goes back to Solomon’s world view. Solomon knew that on the one hand, the world was created by God, and as such, it is filled with goodness and beauty. However, on the other hand, Solomon was fully aware of the fact that creation has been cursed. This world is not random; it’s broken. And the Bible tells us why. In Genesis 3:17-19, God says to Adam, “Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat of it’:
Cursed is the ground for your sake;
In toil you shall eat of it
All the days of your life.
Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you,
And you shall eat the herb of the field.
In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread
Till you return to the ground,
For out of it you were taken;
For dust you are,
And to dust you shall return.”
The universe is broken because God cursed it. People die because of sin. Solomon doesn’t state that explicitly, but that is the theological presupposition that he brings to the table. Because of the curse, work in this world will always be frustrating. You spend all day cleaning your house, and 30 minutes later, the kids have mess it up again. You spend thousands of dollars and four years of your life pursuing a college degree, and then get end up getting a job in a different industry. You scrimp and save for retirement, and then the stock market crashes… meanwhile, your lazy neighbor who sits around drinking beer all day wins the lottery! And it makes you want to pull your hair out! Solomon says, “Ya, that’s life in this fallen world! This universe is broken! Things don’t work the way they’re supposed to.” So, what’s the answer? In a nutshell, the answer is this: “Accept it, and move on. Don’t waste your life worrying about those things. Instead, be humble and enjoy God’s simple gifts. Be wise, because life typically goes better for wise people than it does for fools; but above all, fear God and keep His commandments.” That’s basically the advice Solomon has to offer. It’s not some kind of high flying, philosophical, mumbo-jumbo. It’s just simple life tips. Be happy. Enjoy the moment. You’re never going to get it back. Love God. Serve Him. Trust Him. That’s what Solomon has to say.
I should also note that despite all of the seemingly-negative passages, Ecclesiastes is meant to be a book that inspires joy. It is customary within Judaism to read this book on the third day of the Feast of Tabernacles, which is meant to be a very joyous occasion. Why? Because when we accept life as it truly is, we’re able to be truly happy. That’s why I like the subtitle of the slide I put up earlier: “Ecclesiastes: facing the truth and finding joy.”
Before we close, you might be wondering, “Pastor Kris, what about Christ and the gospel?” Well, think of it this way: Ecclesiastes is like one piece in the overall puzzle that makes up the Bible’s theology. If you tried to separate Ecclesiastes from everything else God has to say, it would certainly be incomplete. But when you put it alongside the other portions of Scripture that fill in all the other gaps, you get the beautiful picture that is the Bible’s theology. So, let’s take a minute to talk about the connections between Ecclesiastes and the New Testament. In many ways, Ecclesiastes is a description of the brokenness of this world, and we’ve already said that this world is broken because of the curse. But have you ever considered this? Have you ever considered that even the curse was an act of mercy? You say, “Pastor Kris, what do you mean?” Well, can you imagine how difficult it would be to witness if life were completely smooth? Why would anyone want to be saved? You see, the frustrations of life are actually pushing you to Jesus. That’s true whether or not you’re a believer! The frustrations in your life are meant to remind you that this world is passing away, that it’s pointless to hoard wealth on earth, because it’s all going to burn anyway. I love Ecclesiastes 3:11. It says, “He has made everything beautiful in its time.” Now listen to this next part. “Also He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the word that God does from beginning to end.” God gave you this innate longing for something more so that you would reject this sin-cursed world and seek Him. Isn’t that beautiful? But there’s more. Turn over to Romans 8:18-23 (Romans 8:18-23). Notice the word “futility” in v. 18. The idea of that word is “frustration.” It’s very similar to the word “vanity” that Solomon used so often in the book of Ecclesiastes. God subjected creation to vanity, but He did not leave it without hope, because one day, all of creation will share in final redemption. The curse will be lifted, and creation will function the way it was always supposed to work. Do you see how the fate of the entire universe is connected to the fate of humanity? And because God’s plan is to redeem His chosen people, we know that creation itself will also be redeemed. There will come a day in which the frustrations spelled out in the book Ecclesiastes will no longer be the experience of people living on earth. And you and I will enjoy those wonderful days! Praise God! Finally, Ecclesiastes asserts that ultimate satisfaction is found only in relationship with God. But we have to go to other passages to learn that the only way to God is through Jesus the Son. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” All believers in both testaments are saved the same way: by grace through faith on the basis of Christ’s work.
Next week, we’ll dive into the first passage in Ecclesiastes, and I trust that you will come to love this book. If you’re interested in doing some additional study at home, I would be happy to recommend a couple of simpler commentaries that I think you would really enjoy.