This summary of the book of Ecclesiastes provides information about the title, author(s), date of writing, chronology, theme, theology, outline, a brief overview, and the chapters of the Book of Ecclesiastes.
No time period or writer's name is mentioned in the book, but several passages suggest that King Solomon may be the author (1:1,12,16; 2:4-9; 7:26-29; 12:9; cf. 1Ki 2:9; 3:12; 4:29-34; 5:12; 10:1-8). On the other hand, the writer's title ("Teacher," Hebrew qoheleth; see note on 1:1), his unique style of Hebrew and his attitude toward rulers (suggesting that of a subject rather than a monarch -- see, e.g., 4:1-2; 5:8-9; 8:2-4; 10:20) may point to another person and a later period (see note on 1:1).
The author of Ecclesiastes puts his powers of wisdom to work to examine the human experience and assess the human situation. His perspective is limited to what happens "under the sun" (as is that of all the wisdom teachers). He considers life as he has experienced and observed it between the horizons of birth and death -- life within the boundaries of this visible world. His wisdom cannot penetrate beyond that last horizon; he can only observe the phenomenon of death and perceive the limits it places on human beings. Within the limits of human experience and observation, he is concerned to spell out what is "good" for people to do. And he represents a devout wisdom. Life in the world is under God -- for all its enigmas. Hence what begins with "Meaningless! Meaningless!" (1:2) ends with "Remember your Creator" (12:1) and "Fear God and keep his commandments" (12:13).
With a wisdom matured by many years, he takes the measure of human beings, examining their limits and their lot. He has attempted to see what human wisdom can do (1:13,16-18; 7:24; 8:16), and he has discovered that human wisdom, even when it has its beginning in "the fear of the Lord" (Pr 1:7), has limits to its powers when it attempts to go it alone -- limits that circumscribe its perspectives and relativize its counsel. Most significantly, it cannot find out the larger purposes of God or the ultimate meaning of human existence. With respect to these it can only pose questions.
Nevertheless, he does take a hard look at the human enterprise -- an enterprise
in which he himself has fully participated. He sees a busy, busy human ant
hill in mad pursuit of many things, trying now this, now that, laboring away
as if by dint of effort humans could master the world, lay bare its deepest
secrets, change its fundamental structures, somehow burst through the bounds
of human limitations, build for themselves enduring monuments, control their
destiny, achieve a state of secure and lasting happiness -- people laboring at
life with an overblown conception of human powers and consequently pursuing
unrealistic hopes and aspirations.
He takes a hard look and concludes that human life in this mode is "meaningless," its efforts all futile.
What, then, does wisdom teach him?
Therefore wisdom counsels:
To sum up, Ecclesiastes provides instruction on how to live meaningfully, purposefully and joyfully within the theocratic arrangement -- primarily by placing God at the center of one's life, work and activities, by contentedly accepting one's divinely appointed lot in life, and by reverently trusting in and obeying the Creator-King. Note particularly 2:24-26; 3:11-14,22; 5:18-20; 8:15; 9:7-10; 11:7 -- 12:1; 12:9-14 (see also any pertinent notes on these passages).
The argument of Ecclesiastes does not flow smoothly. It meanders, with jumps and starts, through the general messiness of human experience, to which it is a response. There is also an intermingling of poetry and prose. Nevertheless, the following outline seeks to reflect, at least in a general way, the structure of the book and its main discourses. The announced theme of "meaninglessness" (futility) provides a literary frame around the whole (1:2;12:8). And the movement from the unrelieved disillusionment of chs. 1 - 2 to the more serene tone and sober instructions for life in chs. 11 - 12 marks a development in matured wisdom's coming to terms with the human situation.
A striking feature of the book is its frequent use of key words and phrases: e.g., "meaningless" (1:2;2:24-25), "work/labor/toil" (see note on 2:10), "good/better" (2:1), "gift/give" (5:19), "under the sun" (1:3), "chasing after the wind" (1:14). Also to be noted is the presence of passages interwoven throughout the book that serve as key indicators of the author's theme and purpose: 1:2-3,14,17; 2:10-11,17,24-26; 3:12-13,22; 4:4,6,16; 5:18-20; 6:9,12; 7:14,24; 8:7,15,17; 9:7,12; 10:14; 11:2,5-6,8-9; 12:1,8,13-14 (see notes on these passages where present). The enjoyment of life as God gives it is a key concept in the book (see 2:24-25 and note, 26; 3:12-13 and note, 22; 5:18-20; 7:14; 8:15 and note; 9:7-9; 11:8-9).
From the NIV Study Bible, Introductions to the Books of the Bible, Ecclesiastes
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