Ecclesiastes Lesson 2: Introduction, Part 2
Lesson 2: Introduction, Part 2
Good morning! Last week, we began our series in Ecclesiastes and covered some important items, but I didn’t get through my notes. So, this week, instead of rushing on, I decided to finish up last week’s material. Then, for the last 15 minutes of our time together, Dr. B. is going to come and talk about a well that he excavated in Israel that proves that Solomon was the author of Song of Solomon. So, that’s what we have planned for today. Let’s begin with a word of prayer.
Last week, I began by focusing on the significance of Ecclesiastes for 21st century Americans. Ecclesiastes is a good book for us to be familiar with because it warns us against the futility of seeking satisfaction apart from God. That’s a message we need to hear because we’re all wired to make good things ultimate. But whenever we try to make a good thing the ultimate thing, we end up crushing it under the weight of our expectations. According to Solomon, nothing in this world can satisfy because everything is hebel or “vapor.” We need to hear that message for the sake of our own spiritual health. However, we also need to hear that message for the sake of ministry to others. Ecclesiastes equips us to witness, because it exposes the folly of living for this world. And in order to do so, it cites the frustrations associated with living here. So, if you understand this book, you can come alongside your hurting unsaved friend and say, “Life stinks sometimes, doesn’t it?” “Ya, it does.” “Hey, did you know that the Bible addresses this sort of thing? It tells us why the world is broken, and it also says how to find satisfaction and meaning in life. Can I show you what it says?”
So, all of that has to do with the contemporary significance of Ecclesiastes. But we also talked about some of the unique features of the book. You might remember that Ecclesiastes has been called the “black sheep of the Bible.” And that’s primarily because it contains many statements that sound pessimistic, and seem to contradict other statements in the Bible, or even in the book itself! And in order to ease that tension, many interpreters have come up with inappropriate ways of handling the book. Now, last week, I think I may have been confusing when I talked about these various approaches. So, for the sake of clarity, I went back and divided them into 5 categories. Hopefully, this will help and won’t be overwhelming.
The first approach to this book is that of the rabbinical school of Shammai, from around the time of Christ. Shammai suggested that Ecclesiastes “does not defile the hands”; in other words, it isn’t Scripture and doesn’t belong in the canon. However, it was overruled by the other rabbis because of strong evidence to the contrary; and from that time on, most Jews and Christians have regarded Ecclesiastes as Scripture. So that approach doesn’t work.
That takes us to approach #2. Many rabbis and Christians throughout the centuries have allegorized the difficult passages. For instance, the carpe diem passages were taken as references to the Eucharist. Of course, those of us who hold to a literal, grammatical hermeneutic would reject this approach, as well.
Then there were the liberal critics, who arose in the 1800s and sought to tear down the Bible. Their logic basically runs along the following lines: “The Bible is not God’s Word. Therefore, Ecclesiastes is not God’s Word. That being the case, we should expect to find contradictions.” With that as a starting point, the liberals have come up with all sorts of crazy theories about who wrote the book and what he was thinking! But the claims of the liberals ought not concern us because we understand that they are operating from a different worldview. It’s not like they’re genuine Christians seeking to understand God’s Word. Their goal is to tear it down. So, although it’s good to know that these kinds of people are out there and to be aware of what they’re saying, we can generally discard their views. Does that make sense?
Next, we have what I am calling the “left-wing evangelical approach.” These people believe that Ecclesiastes is inspired. However, they also believe that some of the statements in the book contradict other statements in the Bible or even in the book itself. Of course, the difficulty with this approach is that you are left in the difficult position of having to explain how the book can possibly contain contradictions and be inspired! The men and women in this group come up with a number of different suggestions for how that could work, and to be honest, they are all somewhat complicated. I tried to explain one of those theories to you last week. I don’t know whether you understood it or not. Hopefully you did. But in general, I would say that these views fall into two traps. First, they introduce artificial distinctions into the text. For instance, one view is that Ecclesiastes is some kind of a dialogue between biblical and secular wisdom. But the problem is that the text never says, “Wisdom says this, but folly says this.” That’s an artificial distinction, because the text reads like a unified whole. The second problem with these theories is that they make it very difficult to discern which parts of the book are normative. If large portions of the book represent secular wisdom, how are we supposed to take those sections? Do they reflect truth in any way? Are we responsible to obey the commands found in those passages? If only the last two verses of the book are normative, then why write 12 chapters?
So that brings us to view #5, which I’m calling the “conservative approach.” Those who take this approach hold that a) Ecclesiastes is inspired, and b) it does not contradict either itself or other parts of the Bible. The difficulty with this approach is that you have to wrestle with the problem passages. However, those who take this view maintain that there are good explanations for each of those passages. That’s not to say that they all interpret those passages the same way; but they agree that the passages can be interpreted in such a way that they do not contradict other teachings in the Bible. Does that make sense? Any questions or comments about those things?
II. New Material
Now, last week, we also asked the question, “Who wrote Ecclesiastes?” and I concluded rather dogmatically that Solomon wrote the whole book. However, I did want to make one clarification as it relates to the author. It’s important to recognize that there are multiple perspectives in Ecclesiastes. For instance, in the first two verses, the author refers to “the preacher” in the third person (1:1-2). Then, in v. 12, the preacher speaks for himself (v. 12). So, what are we to make of these two perspectives? The best explanation is that the use of multiple perspectives is a rhetorical device. In the prologue and epilogue, Solomon steps into the role of narrator for dramatic effect. However, there is another possible explanation, and that is that perhaps someone else, like maybe one of Solomon’s scribes, added the prologue and epilogue to what Solomon had already written. Now, I don’t like that explanation, because it doesn’t seem to make sense that Solomon would write most of the book and then someone else write the two most-important passages; but there’s not necessarily a huge problem with that view. Does that make sense? Interestingly enough, there are also two perspectives within the portion of the book spoken by the preacher! That’s because sometimes, Solomon tells the story of his quest for satisfaction that took place years ago, and sometimes he steps away from the story to relay a bit of wisdom. For instance, notice the different perspectives in the first and last verses of chapter 2 (2:1, 26). So, you have basically three perspectives: the narrator, young Solomon, and old Solomon, and differentiating those perspectives is pretty important. Does that make sense?
Now, before Dr. B. comes, let’s talk about Solomon’s theology. Solomon’s theology is rooted in Genesis 1-3. First, Solomon knows that God created this world, and that He created it “very good.” Sin marred that goodness, but it didn’t destroy it. Solomon recognizes that there’s still a lot of beauty in this world, and he encourages us to enjoy God’s gifts. Second, Solomon knows that God made man in His image. As a result, human beings experience this innate longing for eternal things. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says that God put eternity into our hearts. Third, Solomon knows that mankind fell into sin and that creation has been cursed. The world may appear to be random, but it’s really not. It’s actually just broken. And the Bible tells us why that is. 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. That is the presupposition that Solomon brings to the table.
There are three effects of sin and the curse that show up in Ecclesiastes. First, because of the curse, work will always be frustrating and at times, even futile. Solomon says in 5:11, “I returned and saw under the sun that—The race is not to the swift, Nor the battle to the strong, Nor bread to the wise, Nor riches to men of understanding, Nor favor to men of skill; But time and chance happen to them all.” Second, because of sin, our understanding is clouded. Solomon says in 8:17, “Then I saw the work of God, that a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. For though a man labors to discover it, yet he will not find it; moreover, though a wise man attempts to know it, he will not be able to find it out.” This world is full of enigmas that we cannot unravel. Finally, because of sin, everyone dies. Solomon says in 12:7, “Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, And the spirit will return to God who gave it.”
Is that discouraging? Well then, consider this: despite this seemingly-negative message, Ecclesiastes is meant to inspire joy. And it does so by pushing us to God. Ironically, the results of Solomon’s quest “under the sun” force us to look “beyond the sun” to find meaning and purpose in life. As C.S. Lewis once famously said, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”
Before we close, you might be wondering, “Pastor Kris, what about Christ and the gospel? Are they present in Ecclesiastes?” Well, think of it this way: Ecclesiastes is like one piece in the 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 then again, that goes for any book of the Bible! However, when you put Ecclesiastes alongside the rest of the Bible, you get a beautiful theological picture. So, let’s take a minute to talk about just one of the connections between Ecclesiastes and the New Testament. 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 actually the same word that’s translated “vanity” in the Greek translation of Ecclesiastes! God subjected creation to vanity, but He did not leave it without hope. That hope is called “redemption”; and it’s based on Christ’s work. One day, the curse will be lifted, we will be glorified, and creation will function the way it was always supposed to work. One day, the frustrations spelled out in the book Ecclesiastes will no longer be our experience. Praise God! Thank you, Jesus.