Ahead of a sermon series on Ecclesiastes I am gathering our preaching team to discuss its message and how to preach from this book.
I had been heavily influenced by Derek Kidner’s excellent book, in particular his view of Ecclesiastes as preparing us for Christ through exposing the meaninglessness of this life. To my surprise, but confirming an unease I had about seeing Ecclesiastes as modern nihilism before its time, I was forced to rethink this interpretation by other material and by a closer look at the text.
In preparing for the team session I sent round some notes, which reflected this question I have about the “Ecclesiastes as pessimist” approach and its accuracy to the text in context. Below is the content of the paper sent to our preachers.
Who wrote the book?
Any of the substantial commentaries review this question thoroughly.
More sceptical writers assign the book to post-exile, pointing to its allegedly late Hebrew style and on the debatable basis of its sceptical message.
However the royal/court language, and apparent context of a time of peace and blessing in Israel/Judah suggests rather that the origin is at least pre-exilic and perhaps close to or among the royal family. I am persuaded that the author could quite easily be Solomon himself, since the links between the themes and message of the book and the events recorded of his reign, especially in 1 Kings 4 and 8, are so strong. The closest link of the title “Ecclesiastes” (literally, “the gatherer of the people”) is also to Solomon in 1 Kings 8:1, 5, 22) (the verb “to assemble”; the noun “assembly” = qahal (Heb.) = ecclesia (Gk)).
What is the purpose of the book?
See the excellent article by Philip H Eveson who first reviews the history of interpretation and then gives his view of why the author is writing. Also the detailed work in Daniel C Fredericks (Apollos OTC).
Three readings which Eveson (to me, with very well-argued reasons) is critical of:
Ecclesiastes as apologetics: moving the hearer along a pathway towards conviction of their need of God (see eg Eaton, TOTC).
Ecclesiastes as regretful testimony: Solomon in old age is repenting of living for this world and forgetting God. Again, the text as a whole does not seem to support this – 12:8-14 is not a contrast to the previous tone of the book but rather (in the third person now) a summary of its consistent message.
Ecclesiastes as pessimism preparing us for hope (Kidner, Tremper Longman). Both authors, excellent in much textual commentary, take the view that Ecclesiastes is about the “meaningless” of life IF lived without God. Von Rad goes as far as to describe Qoheleth as a bitter sceptic, “suspended over the pit of despair”. This interpretation hinges on these writers’ (disputed) translation of the word “hebel” as meaningless (on which see below).
So here is the interpretation I find most faithful to the text of this remarkable book:
Ecclesiastes as wisdom for the life of faith in the real world. It is written to be a corrective to naïve interpretations of the promises of Proverbs and Deuteronomy – the false teaching that there is a simple link of righteousness and blessing, “do good and God will bless you”. It is a reaction to simplistic views of the world of faith, rather as Job is to simplistic answers to the presence of suffering. Ecclesiastes is observing that it is not always so “under the sun”, in this life; but that does NOT mean that righteousness, the fear of God is not still the wisest and best course, or that much in this life is not to be enjoyed for its own sake.
In support of this fourth interpretation, Eveson helpfully discusses the meaning of the key repeated word “hebel”. His argument, convincingly to me, is that it consistently means “transient/temporary”, “short-lived” or “vain”. It should not be taken to imply “meaningless” (as NIV unfortunately translates it). The related noun means “breath”. A great deal of how we read and preach Ecclesiastes hangs upon which way we go on this translation of the Hebrew, and as I understand it, the weight of evidence falls upon the meaning being “temporary/transient”, not “meaningless”.
The two related phrases of Qoheleth, “under the sun” and “chasing after the wind” make this same point – not that life is pointless without God, but that this life is short – with or without him . Eveson makes the excellent point that, writing nearly 3000 years ago, we should not read his work as if coming from the pen of an enlightenment or post-modern philosopher musing on the “meaninglessness” of life – a very “modern” question. As Provan put it, “Qoheleth is not Camus”.
Rather we should read him in historical and Biblical context as a writer of wisdom for life. He is teaching us how to order personal life and surroundings according to the teaching of Scripture.
So we should almost certainly translate “hebel” as “transient” or “temporary”, and see the writer as giving us an honest evaluation of how life is experienced, as temporary and short-lived, despite its moments of joy coming from the goodness of God. The value of anything in this life is therefore real, but short-lived, and so there is nothing better than to “fear God and keep his commandments” in light of eternity.
What are the main messages and themes?
The creation and its fallenness. Contrary to some commentators, Ecclesiastes is full of references to other parts of the Bible, especially to Genesis 2 and 3. Creation is celebrated in its potentiality and diversity, but is also mourned over in its decay and transience. “Dust you are and to dust you will return” (3:20) directly seems to quote Genesis 3:19.
The relevance of this today is multiple: it is a critique of materialism (the present is not our ultimate hope or home); also of the health and wealth gospel (God does not promise perfect life or health); it refreshes us that the Bible describes life not with rose-tinted spectacles (as sceptics accuse) but as it really is, a mixture of life and decay; it helps us to have realistic expectations of life and God, and so is an antidote to disappointment with God when things “go wrong”.
Time and its brevity. Along with the key word, “hebel” described above, other common ideas are the short and cyclic “seasons” of life (especially in the famous poem of ch. 3), the idea of how “few” or short are our years on earth, and the reality of ageing (11:7-12:7) Parallel teaching that this life is short and temporary are found throughout the OT and NT (Isaiah 40:6; Psalm 39:4-6, Psalm 90:12; Job 7:6-7 & 14:5 James 4:14.)
Other key themes which seem self-explanatory upon reading the book are:
Wisdom lies in doing what is good
Contrast of good and evil
Joy and pleasure (a bigger theme than many commentators acknowledge)
Sovereignty and responsibility (God gives good gifts, time and wisdom, but his ways are ultimately above comprehension for us, and it is best to seek godliness, not understanding)
Where is Jesus in Ecclesiastes?
We have a gospel as NT believers and our task as preachers is to teach the message of the book (see some ideas on that above), and also how it points ahead to Christ.
Jesus entered our fallen world and suffered its futility like us. He suffered death to take the curse of sin (mortality) on our behalf, releasing us from its ultimate grip and giving the hope of resurrection that makes the temporary and fruitless nature of this life look pale (2 Corinthians 4:16-18). So our realism is mixed with hope.
This life, as Ecclesiastes says, makes us yearn with creation for eternity, for something that lasts, just as Romans 8:18-24 teaches. In Christ we know that redemption is coming not just for our mortal bodies but for all of creation, and it is secure through the love of Christ – nothing can separate us from the love of God in Him. We groan, but without yearning; we grieve, but not as those without hope (1 Cor. 15; 1 Thess. 4:1-12). The Preacher prepares us for the resurrection by making us face the brevity of this life.
Eveson’s concluding section entitled “The Preaching” expands some of these ideas.
Structure of the book
Again much-debated: some say there is none owing to the repetitive/cyclic nature of material! Subsections are listed by commentators, totalling anything from 12 to 36! Fredericks gives a useful structure in around 13 sections.
However AG Wright came up with this one in 1968 which has been very helpful:
1:12-6:9 Part One: Intro followed by six sections each beginning “vanity” or “chasing the wind”
6:10-11:6 Part Two: Meditation on the themes of “who can find out?”/”who can know? – the elusiveness and value of wisdom
11:7-12:7 Poem on youth/old age
12:8-14 Epilogue in the third person
(see Murphy (below) p.xxxviii)
What are the best commentaries or articles to help preachers?
Article, “Preaching from Ecclesiastes” Philip H Eveson
Daniel Fredericks, “Ecclesiastes” in Apollos OTC Vol. 16
Others (shortest to longest)
Goldsworthy (in Gospel and Wisdom) good overall summary, though sees no sequence to the book and thinks author is later than Solomon
Kidner (BST) – good, excellent on meaning of verses, but see above comments on the purpose of the book
Michael A Eaton (IVP OTC) – good solid reference; but see comments on message/purpose above
David Gibson “Living Life Backward” – helpful on the frustration theme and NT fulfilment.
Roland Murphy (Word) – very good on pre-critical interpretation of the book, structure and textual work – a bit more technical. Takes a similar line to Eveson & Fredericks on “hebel”
Philip Graham Ryken (Preaching the Word series) – good on application and finding Jesus in Ecclesiastes; but see comments on message/purpose above
Tremper Longman (NICOT) – solid; but see comments above