Overview of Ecclesiastes

So for the past few weeks we’ve been taking high level looks at the more poetical books of the Bible. We’ve discussed Psalms which is basically a book of poems. We’ve discussed Proverbs, which is a book of wisdom. Now we’re going to look at Ecclesiastes which is somewhere between those two—poetry and wisdom.

Unlike Proverbs and Psalms, Ecclesiastes is basically set up as the writings of one particular man, his ramblings and musings about life and God. In Jewish tradition, this writer is called “Koheleth.” In most English translations it’s translated as something like “Teacher” or “Rabbi” or “Preacher.” It is generally accepted that Solomon wrote this book—since in the very first chapter it called this teacher a son of David and king of Israel. However, it’s also possible this book was compiled later and attributed to Solomon—which was a pretty common thing to do back then. Why did people do that? Well it’s basically a writing/story telling technique. By making people think of Solomon you’re making them think of wisdom and that’s what the author wants you to get from this book: wisdom. Whether it’s written by Solomon or not, the wisdom in this book is what matters and what the writer is trying to get across.

So please open your Bibles and turn to Ecclesiastes. Which is just past Psalms and Proverbs. We’re only going to look at some famous sections and not all twelve chapters!

Can someone read Ecc. 1:1-11? It may seem like a lot but this section is in poem form so it’s actually pretty short.

The words of the Teacher,[a] the son of David, king in Jerusalem.

2 Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,[b]
    vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
3 What do people gain from all the toil
    at which they toil under the sun?
4 A generation goes, and a generation comes,
    but the earth remains forever.
5 The sun rises and the sun goes down,
    and hurries to the place where it rises.
6 The wind blows to the south,
    and goes around to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
    and on its circuits the wind returns.
7 All streams run to the sea,
    but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
    there they continue to flow.
8 All things[c] are wearisome;
    more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
    or the ear filled with hearing.
9 What has been is what will be,
    and what has been done is what will be done;
    there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there a thing of which it is said,
    “See, this is new”?
It has already been,
    in the ages before us.
11 The people of long ago are not remembered,
    nor will there be any remembrance
of people yet to come
    by those who come after them.

This section introduces us to one of the major themes of Ecclesiastes and why Ecclesiastes is sometimes viewed as a bit of a depressing book. “Vanity of vanities!” verse 2 says and this is something that is repeated a lot in this book. Now when you think vanity, you may think like…being obsessed with looks. A vain person is someone who is obsessed with how they look and vanity is just another form of that word. But that’s not the only meaning of the word and that’s not what this author means. What he means here is “futility.”

If you like Star Trek you may have heard that work before from the Borg, “Resistance is Futile” meaning resistance is pointless. That is the meaning the author has here. Vanity here means worthless or futile or pointless. My Jewish translation of the Bible translates verse 2 as:

“Utter futility!—said Koheleth—Utter futility! All is futile!”

Basically “life is pointless!” is what the author is exclaiming and the next few verses go on to expand why he is feeling this sort of existential crisis. He says people work hard, they toil under the sun, every generation comes and goes and works hard and tries to build something…but they come and go and the earth remains. The sun rises and sets, not even caring about the humanity beneath it. The wind blows and blows with no point. Streams and rivers go to the sea, but it’s not like they can fill it up so what’s the point? All these things are pointless!

And then perhaps the most famous part right here is when he says basically whatever you do whatever has been there is nothing new under the sun. You’ve probably heard that phrase before “Nothing new under the sun.”

Basically this whole section is the author being like “What is the point of existence. We live so we can die and no one is ever going to remember us.”

That’s….super depressing. Like I said this is one of the more depressing books of the Bible. But this emotion that the author is expressing here, is something people feel a lot. We feel like we work hard and nothing changes. We fight for justice and against poverty, but still there is injustice in the world and still there are people starving to death. We fight to change the world to make things better, and then it seems like in another generation everything reverts back. We work hard and who will remember us in the end? That we even existed?

This is a common human emotion, and the author here is human and he’s expressing that. And this is what I mean when I say every emotion you may ever have you can find something in the Bible that correlates to it, even this level of existential crisis where you’re wondering what the purpose of life even is.

The author’s feelings here are summarized in Ecc. 2:17. Can someone read that?

17 So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

The message translates this as “I hate life. As far as I can see, what happens on earth is bad business .It’s smoke—and spitting into the wind.” Basically, another refrain of “what is the point?”

There is one other super famous section of Ecclesiastes. Someone please read Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.

3 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

2 a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
3 a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5 a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6 a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
7 a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8 a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

This is up there as one of the most famous verses in the Bible, the sort of thing that’s quoted a lot even by people who don’t believe in the Bible. For everything there is a season. It’s pretty straight forward, there is a time for everything—birth, death, laugh, cry, be sad, be happy—there will be times in your life where you feel or experience all of these things. They are like seasons. You’re not experiencing death or sadness or famine or war because you did anything wrong (most likely). Just like no one causes Winter to come. It just does. It’s just a season. And without winter, we wouldn’t appreciate spring. We all go through seasons of life, but they’re just seasons. And they too will pass. So if you’re in a season of sadness or war, a season of peace and laughter is coming! There is hope in that.

There’s a modern saying I’ve heard, “This too shall pass. It may pass like a kidney stone, but it’ll pass.” Basically meaning that everything is temporary, and it may hurt like all get out while it’s here—because kidney stones are super painful—but in the end it will be over, and you’ll survive it.

So you can see even though the author is feeling like everything is pointless, there is a hope in this. Because this feeling of futility? It’s just a season. And it will pass and soon he will feel like he has a purpose again.

Someone please read Ecclesiastes 3:16-22.

16 Moreover I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, wickedness was there, and in the place of righteousness, wickedness was there as well. 17 I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for he has appointed a time for every matter, and for every work. 18 I said in my heart with regard to human beings that God is testing them to show that they are but animals. 19 For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. 20 All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. 21 Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth? 22 So I saw that there is nothing better than that all should enjoy their work, for that is their lot; who can bring them to see what will be after them?

The author starts out this section by saying that things there are bad people everywhere it seems. Where there should be justice, instead there is injustice. Where there should be goodness, there is badness. He sees corruption everywhere he looks—people who are supposed to be good and just and fair are instead wicked and not doing what they’re supposed to be doing. And it can seem like there is no justice on the earth and the same fate is in everyone’s future (death), but in the end God will judge and there will be justice for the good and the bad.

“All are from the dust and all turn to dust again.” This is also a famous verse that as we’ve already talked about is often quoted at Lent and on Ash Wednesday. God made us from dust and in the end we will die and go back to dust.

Also I just think this section is interesting because he’s like “who knows if humans go to heaven and have afterlife’s and animal’s don’t! For all I know animals are in heaven too” is basically what he’s saying. So next time someone tells you your dog isn’t in heaven, just quote this section of Ecclesiastes and be like “you can’t know what happens to animals when they die.”

And then the very last section is another theme of this book, “Enjoy your work because that is your lot.” You’re on this earth and you have to work so you might as well enjoy it!

So what is the point? This author seems really depressed like there is no point to life except death. Now there are a couple of things here for us to keep in mind as Christians. We’ve talked about before, but ancient Jewish people had no concept of heaven and hell. They thought when you died everyone went to this place called Sheol, which was pretty much just a place of sleep. We as Christians believe in heaven, basically that Jesus came so we may have *eternal life*. Because of Jesus we can live forever, but in heaven where there is no toil or strife. Jesus describes heaven as a feast, as a house with many rooms. In Revelation John says Jesus “will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” So yes this author is stuck in the order and cycle of life and death where there is a season for everything, even death. But Jesus came to abolish death and we will live in a world one day with a new order where the only seasons will be life and laughter and joy.

We’re not there yet, but it’s coming.

This author of this book however was way before Jesus so he didn’t have a concept of this joy and hope Jesus is bringing.

That said, the author still comes to the idea that maybe the point of life is just…obey God and enjoy life the best you can. Someone read Ecclesiastes 9:7-10.

7 Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. 8 Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. 9 Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.

Enjoy life! The author says, because that’s what God wants you to do. God wants us to enjoy life.

Sometimes even as Christians we can get stuck in this idea that that’s not true. That God put all these rules on us and sucks all the fun out of life. But that’s not true. God wants you to have joy and true freedom. In 2 Corinthians 3:17 Paul says “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” In Galations 5:13 Paul says, “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free.” Peter says in 1 Peter, “Act as free men.”

In John 8:36 Jesus says, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” Jesus came to set us free. Free from sin. Free from death. We are no longer bound. We are free. And God wants us to enjoy that freedom, to enjoy this life we have!

It can be hard to remember this, because humans like rules. We like to make rules and like to say if you don’t follow rule X, Y, Z you are not a Christian. But that’s not true. There is no set of rules you can follow that will get you into heaven. The only thing we are called to do is love—and that’s not a limitation. We’re called to do something to love God and love others. And as long as we are doing that, as long as we’re loving God, then we’re naturally going to want to please him. Not because there is some rule, but because we love him and want to do what he would find good. If you’re truly loving your neighbor, you don’t need rules about what you have to do in regards to your neighbor, because when you love them you would never hurt them.

It’s freedom.

Love life! Live with freedom and joy! That is what it means to be a Christian, and ultimately it is following God and Jesus that is the purpose of this life.

But if at times life seems futile, that’s okay. That’s a natural human emotion, just like is expressed by the author here. And you can go back to Ecclesiastes and know you are not alone in how you feel. But remember that feeling of futility is just a season, and it to shall pass and you shall feel the purpose and freedom of God again.