It's been a long while since I've written anything about Ecclesiastes. In previous posts, I discussed the book's setting in the leadership structure of ancient Israel, and also the title of the book. But now I want to get around to talking about how Ecclesiastes works, what it's actually saying and how. What follows is a short overview of my take. See what you think:
1. Unlike the practical wisdom book of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes is an example of reflective, speculative wisdom. Instead of asking about how to live one’s life, this book asks about the meaning of life. The one other Old Testament book in the speculative-wisdom category is Job.
2. Ecclesiastes explores a specific question: What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun? (1:3 NIV). I take this to mean something like: What is the point of a life well lived, a life characterized by productive work? Is there a lasting benefit? What aspect of ourselves will survive death and the ravages of time? As one would expect, since this question serves as the program for Ecclesiastes, the author repeats it several times. (See, for example, 2:22, 3:9, 5:16, and 6:8).
3. In response to his own question, the author of Ecclesiastes offers an initial, standard answer, which sounds hopeless and bleak: "Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless." (1:2). For the time being, I'll stay away from the question of what is the best English word for the Hebrew hebel, translated "Meaningless" here. Whatever the right word is, it's important to note that Ecclesiastes often repeats this first, most-basic conclusion announcing the enigma or futility of the search for significance in life. (See, for example, 1:14; 2:1 and 11, etc.). The book ends in 12:8 in much the same way as it began in 1:2. Connected to his general conclusion is the author’s frequent observation that the pursuits of human life amount to a chasing after the wind (1:14, 17, 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 6, 16 ).
4. The author’s experiences and observations have led him to his pessimistic conclusion. A few examples:
- Famously (or infamously) the author appears to be agnostic about life beyond the grave: Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth? (3:21).
- He denies that anyone can predict the future with any kind of accuracy: a man cannot discover anything about his future (7:14).
- He insists that the search for true, never-fail wisdom is also futile: Whatever wisdom may be, it is far away and most profound – who can discover it? (7:24).
- Sorting out what seems to be clear and well-known is apparently an impossible task. "Who knows the explanation of things? asks the wise man" (8:1). No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all his efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its meaning. Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend it (8:17).
Here, the legitimate enjoyment of good things is brought within the circle of God's will for humanity. This is the single most important contribution that Ecclesiastes makes to the biblical witness: that taking pleasure, today, in your work, in good food and drink, and in your family, is not only approved by the Almighty. In fact, happiness and joy are an important aspect of the revealed will of God for human life.
Does this look convincing? What are some of your own thoughts and reactions to Ecclesiastes?
Note about Study and Sources:
At different times over the last 20 years, I've taken a series of runs at Ecclesiastes. One time I read it almost every night for about a month. When it comes to really getting a handle on a particular book of the Bible, or any text for that matter, there's just no substitute for careful, repeated, sometimes-slow reading. Anyone who's tried this knows exactly what I mean. There are some books that probably should be read in a hurry. But a book like Ecclesiastes is deserving of meditation. In addition to reading Ecclesiastes, I've spent some time with a few of its better interpreters. Two authors in particular have helped me to get a handle on this book: the late, great Robert Gordis, and an Old Testament specialist from the current generation, Graham S. Ogden.