Tucked away in the Old Testament near the book of Proverbs is an obscure little book known as Ecclesiastes (pronounced “eck-clee-see-az-tees”). Its probably safe to say that many people have never even heard of this book, much less read it. But anyone who takes the time to read through this little book will quickly find that it has much to say to anyone who lives and works in the 21st century.
In the original language used to write the book of Ecclesiastes, the author is identified simply as Qoheleth, a word that is difficult to translate but carries the idea of someone who leads or speaks to a congregation of others. Some possible translations of this word include, “The Teacher,” “The Preacher,” or perhaps even “The Leader.” In fact, the title “Ecclesiastes” is taken from the Greek form of Qoheleth that refers to one who speaks publicly in an assembly.
While its possible that Qoheleth served as a personal name, its more likely that this word was used as a sort of executive title, much as we might use a designation such as “Your Honor,” or “Your Excellency” today. Although the author of Ecclesiastes never refers to himself by name throughout the book, there is one piece of identifying evidence in the opening sentence of chapter one: “These are the words of the Teacher, King David’s son, who ruled in Jerusalem” (Ecclesiastes 1:1 NLT). This would establish the author’s identity as Solomon, the son of King David who reigned as king of Israel from 971 B.C. to 931 B.C.
While many scholars believe that Solomon personally authored the book of Ecclesiastes, there have been some objections to the idea that he was the one who was actually responsible for producing this work. Those who object to the idea of Solomon’s authorship generally believe that the style and grammar of Ecclesiastes point to a later author who wrote as if he were King Solomon. One example to support this is found in the Ecclesiastes 1:12 where we’re told, “I, the Teacher, was king of Israel, and I lived in Jerusalem” (NLT). Since Solomon served as king of Israel until he died (1 Kings 11:42-43), it would seem to be incorrect for him to say, “I… was king of Israel…”
Another objection can be found later on when we’re told, “Obey the king since you vowed to God that you would. … the king can do whatever he wants. His command is backed by great power. No one can resist or question it.” (Ecclesiastes 8:2-4 NLT). The concern here is the assumption that Solomon (as king) would not refer to himself as a third person in this manner.
We’ll look at one possible response to these objections next.
“I, the Teacher, was king of Israel, and I lived in Jerusalem” (Ecclesiastes 1:12 NLT).
Any concern regarding Solomon’s authorship of Eccelesiastes may become less of a problem if we assume that the author’s intent was to write for the benefit of a future audience. For example, the statement, “I… was king of Israel…” would help future readers verify his authority to speak following his death. His advice on how to relate to the king in chapter eight would also help instruct future generations on the right way to interact with governmental leaders. For these reasons, this study will support the traditional view that the book of Ecclesiastes was authored by King Solomon.
If you read through the Old Testament accounts of Solomon’s life, you’ll find that his reign was very prosperous and peaceful. We’re also told in 1 Kings chapter 3 that God provided Solomon with great wisdom to rule over His people. This not only included great intelligence and technical skill, but also the ability to make the right choices at the right time. In fact, Solomon’s wisdom was said to be so great that representatives from all the kings of the earth came to hear what he had to say (see 1 Kings 4:34).
Unfortunately, Solomon did not continue in the wisdom that God provided him and eventually turned away from God as he grew older. Because of this, the later years of Solomon’s life proved to be very difficult. You see, Solomon had chosen to become involved in relationships with women who did not share his faith (1 Kings 11:1-2). These relationships helped turn him away from the one true God and as a result, he began to worship the false gods of the surrounding nations (1 Kings 11:4-8). The fact that Solomon chose to reject a relationship with the one true God in exchange for these counterfeits may help to explain some of what he will write about later in this book.
As a work of literature, the book of Ecclesiastes is written in a style known as “first person narrative,” a method that allows the author to directly share his thoughts, opinions, and personal experiences. Ecclesiastes also belongs to a category of Biblical books known as “wisdom literature.” This category includes other Old Testament works such as Proverbs and Job, two books that also feature a number of spiritual insights gained through personal experience.
One more thing: be sure to watch for two important phrases that are repeated throughout the book of Ecclesiastes. Those two phrases are “Under the sun,” and “Under heaven.” These seemingly unimportant terms will have a great impact on much of what The Teacher will tell us throughout this book.
Israel’s King Solomon was the richest, wisest, and most powerful man on earth during his time. He was an expert builder, a powerful political leader, an astute businessman, and a superior administrator. He was so successful with the opposite sex that he had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines (a sort of legal, live-in girlfriend). Yet despite these advantages, Solomon’s opinion of life was very different from what you might expect…
“These are the words of the Teacher, King David’s son, who ruled in Jerusalem. ‘Everything is meaningless,’ says the Teacher, ‘completely meaningless!’ What do people get for all their hard work under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth never changes” (Ecclesiastes 1:1-4 NLT and following).
Did you notice that immediately after he identified himself, the very next thing our author writes is…
- “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (NKJV)
- “It is of no use! All is for nothing.” (NLV)
- “Completely useless! Everything is useless.” (NCV)
- “Absolute futility. Everything is futile.” (HCSB)
- “Absolutely pointless! Everything is pointless.” (MSG)
How did a man who had as much as Solomon come to such a conclusion? Well, this is a theme that he will continue to restate throughout this book: “All is vanity.” Now a trip to the dictionary defines the word “vanity” as lack of real value; hollowness; worthlessness and something worthless, trivial, or pointless.” (1) Some synonyms for the word vanity in this context would include words like, futility, uselessness, or ineffectiveness.
So what occurred in Solomon’s life to give him such a cynical, fatalistic viewpoint? Well, he tells us that his opinion was developed (at least in part) by one simple question: “What do people get for all their hard work under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1:3). This is the first appearance of the phrase, “under the sun,” an expression that will be used repeatedly throughout the book of Ecclesiastes. In fact, this phrase (along with the similar term “under heaven”) appears not just once or twice, but thirty-two times throughout the twelve chapters of this book.
From a literary point of view, this terminology is important because it tells us that the author’s viewpoint is limited to our lives here on Earth and everything that occurs “under the sun.” This idea will help Solomon lay the groundwork in developing the main point of this book: a life lived without regard to God and the afterlife (or “under the sun” to use Solomon’s terminology) is ultimately pointless, useless, and fruitless.
(1) “vanity.” Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 29 Sep. 2011. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/vanity>
“What do people get for all their hard work under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth never changes” (Ecclesiastes 1:3-4).
The person who lives in the “here and now” without regard for the idea of God or an afterlife will find it difficult to argue with the conclusion that anything we accomplish in life will ultimately prove to be worthless.
For example, have you ever considered what (if any) lasting impact your work today will have? Have you ever really thought about what the average person does in a typical day and how much of those efforts will continue after he or she is gone? For instance…
- You wake up, you go to work and produce the product, provide the service, or make the sale. Then you go home.
- You wake up, you feed the children, run the house, pay the bills, cook the meals, and put the children to bed when the day is over.
- You wake up, you go to school, you go home, do your homework, go to practice, and go back home.
- Then you get up the next day and do the same thing all over again.
These things are typical of life and work “under the sun.” While its possible to find some value in the tasks of our day to day lives (as Solomon will later demonstrate), “Generations come and generations go, but the world stays just the same” (Ecclesistes 1:3 GNB). And just in case you’ve missed the point, Solomon will go on to restate this idea in a more poetic form…
“The sun rises and the sun sets, then hurries around to rise again. The wind blows south, and then turns north. Around and around it goes, blowing in circles. Rivers run into the sea, but the sea is never full. Then the water returns again to the rivers and flows out again to the sea.
Everything is wearisome beyond description. No matter how much we see, we are never satisfied. No matter how much we hear, we are not content” (Ecclesiastes 1:5-8).
So even nature seems to follow the commonplace routine of our day to day lives. The sun rises and sets, the wind blows in circles, and the rivers run into the seas- but the rivers never seem to run out and the seas never seem to fill up. This tiresome, monotonous activity is something that leads to Solomon to observe that, “Everything is boring, so boring that you don’t even want to talk about it” (Ecclesiastes 1:8 NCV).
“History merely repeats itself. It has all been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new. Sometimes people say, ‘Here is something new!’ But actually it is old; nothing is ever truly new. We don’t remember what happened in the past, and in future generations, no one will remember what we are doing now” (Ecclesiastes 1:9-11).
In the scale of human experience, there is very little that is truly “new” in the sense of something that has never existed before. The reality is that a lot of what we call “new” is really just something old that’s been packaged in a different box. One reason for this is that fact that people often don’t know or remember what happened to others in previous generations- or to use the words of Ecclesiastes 1:11, “There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow” (NKJV).
To illustrate the truth of this Scripture, take a moment to think about your family members who have preceded you. Some may know very little (if anything) about their family, while others may be able to provide many details about parents, grandparents, or other family members.
But what about your great-grandparents; the mother and father of your grandparents? Do you know anything about them? How about the parents of your great-grandparents; do you even know their names? Well, unless you’ve done some genealogical investigation, the chances are probably good that most of us know very little about the family members who preceded us less than a hundred years ago.
This essentially means that all of the day-to-day details of our ancestor’s lives- their hopes, dreams, aspirations, and everything that made them who they were- passed away with them. They only live on in the memories of those who knew them and perhaps a few old letters or photographs.
But this sad reality doesn’t only apply to people of other generations because what is true for them will be true of us as well. While today’s age of social media may allow us to document our lives at great length, eventually there will be no one left who ever knew our generation personally. There will be no one left to speak of the countless hours invested in our lives and dreams under the sun- or as Solomon says, “There is no remembrance of men of old.”
This depressing reality will help lead our author to try a different approach- and we’ll look at that approach next.
“I, the Teacher, was king of Israel, and I lived in Jerusalem. I devoted myself to search for understanding and to explore by wisdom everything being done under heaven. I soon discovered that God has dealt a tragic existence to the human race. I observed everything going on under the sun, and really, it is all meaningless—like chasing the wind. What is wrong cannot be made right. What is missing cannot be recovered.
I said to myself, ‘Look, I am wiser than any of the kings who ruled in Jerusalem before me. I have greater wisdom and knowledge than any of them.’ So I set out to learn everything from wisdom to madness and folly. But I learned firsthand that pursuing all this is like chasing the wind.
The greater my wisdom, the greater my grief. To increase knowledge only increases sorrow” (Ecclesiastes 1:12-18).
This passage finds Solomon taking another approach in his attempt to find meaning in life. To do this, our author will use what we might refer to as the tools of analysis and evaluation. In other words, Solomon will begin to engage in things like research, appraisal, reason, and critical assessment in his attempt to discover life’s meaning- and he will apply those tools in a number of different ways…
- He starts by telling us exactly what he plans to do: “I set my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under heaven” (NKJV).
- His tools will include the instruments of observation and examination: ”I have seen all things that are done under the sun…” (NKJV).
- Finally, his search will be powered by the engine of his intellect:“My heart has understood great wisdom and knowledge” (NKJV).
Although Solomon possessed a great mind and a strong desire to know the truth, one thing he discovered is that knowledge by itself failed to infuse life with real meaning. In fact, it could be said that Solomon actually discovered that the opposite was true, for he found that, “The more you know, the more you hurt; the more you understand, the more you suffer” (Ecclesiastes 1:18 CEV).
So it seems as if he’s hit a dead end- but The Teacher is determined to press on. And even though he has considered and dismissed things like labor and academic achievement in his attempt to find true happiness, there are still other avenues left to be explored- and we’ll travel those avenues with Solomon next in chapter two.