Author: Probably Solomon
Date: Tenth Century B.C.
The author of Ecclesiastes calls himself Koheleth (the preacher). His exact identity is not known, but traditionally he is identified with Solomon, king of Israel. Ecclesiastes is a difficult book to understand, partly because it is structurally disjointed, but mainly because it seems to have two different sets of ideas in it. It reads a bit like a collection of sermon notes rather randomly put together, leaving it to the reader to decide what to make of it all.
Basically there are two interpretations to the book. One sees the book as a pessimistic statement of life that represents the true view of the preacher. He has tried everything, and all is vanity. His conclusion is to live life to the fullest, die, and pass into a state of eternal nonexistence where there is no feeling or consciousness and from which there is no return. Interpreters who adopt this view explain the optimistic passages, those that imply a belief in God or in justice, as later additions. Such an interpretation has a certain appeal to it, especially in our skeptical age, but it runs so counter to everything else the Old Testament says that it ought not to be taken too seriously.
The other interpretation sees the book as a sermon, or a series of sermons on the vanity of life. The preacher adopts a secularized point of view in order to show that if one lives according to those rules, all he or she can expect is disappointment. In this view, the statements that speak of the meaninglessness of life represent the secularism of the preacher’s day, and not his own view. His outlook is expressed in the passages that speak of belief in God and trust in him. In order to make his point, the preacher shows that life lived apart from God, no matter how desirable it might seem, is in the end frustrating and unsatisfying. He shows that wisdom, material possessions, sensual pleasure, wild parties, power, and prestige cannot satisfy. The best a secular philosophy can come up with is something like this: Life is short, full of uncertainty, meaningless, and void of any real peace of soul. Because death ends everything, we should simply live now and when we die be done with it. Having said all this, the preacher has proved his point; life lived apart from God is a hopeless affair.
But that is not the whole story. Throughout the book, running alongside the secular philosophy of despair, is the assertion that God sees through our pretensions and sorrows and will meet us in love if we want him (3:17; 8:12; 11:9; 12:14). Koheleth’s conclusion to the whole matter is this: “Fear God, and keep His commandments” (12:13). That is not a bad evangelistic message.
Theological Themes in the Book of Ecclesiastes
Two theological points stand out in the Book of Ecclesiastes. First, the power and redemption of God are the ever-present background for all that is said. God is there, always available, waiting for the moment when wayward seekers after pleasure realize that this world cannot really satisfy. Second, there is the fact that life is not able to meet our needs if we go at it in the wrong way. Not being ultimate, it cannot provide for our ultimate longings and needs. If, however, we see life as under God’s control, it may be used by us in the proper way. The world makes a very good servant, but a very hard taskmaster.
Outline for the Book of Ecclesiastes
- Preface Ecclesiastes 1:1-11
- The futility and oppression of life Ecclesiastes 1:12-4:12
- The vanity of life in all its forms Ecclesiastes 4:13-7:14
- Secular philosophy and its failure Ecclesiastes 7:15-10:3
- Summary of the vain life and how to overcome it Ecclesiastes 10:4-12:14