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Book of Ecclesiaste

Summary of the Book of Ecclesiastes

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.

Author and Date

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).

Purpose and Teaching

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?

    1. Humans cannot by all their striving achieve anything of ultimate or enduring significance. Nothing appears to be going anywhere (1:5-11), and people cannot by all their efforts break out of this caged treadmill (1:2-4;2:1-11); they cannot fundamentally change anything (1:12-15;6:10;7:13). Hence they often toil foolishly (4:4,7-8;5:10-17;6:7-9). All their striving "under the sun" (1:3) after unreal goals leads only to disillusionment.
    2. Wisdom is better than folly (2:13-14; 7:1-6,11-12,19; 8:1,5; 9:17-18; 10:1-3,12-15; 12:11) -- it is God's gift to those who please him (2:26). But it is unwarranted to expect too much even from such wisdom -- to expect that human wisdom is capable of solving all problems (1:16-18) or of securing for itself enduring rewards or advantages (2:12-17;4:13-16;9:13-16).
    3. Experience confronts humans with many apparent disharmonies and anomalies that wisdom cannot unravel. Of these the greatest of all is this: Human life comes to the same end as that of the animals -- death (2:15; 3:16-17; 7:15; 8:14; 9:1-3; 10:5-7).
    4. Although God made humankind upright, people have gone in search of many "schemes" (for getting ahead by taking advantage of others; see 7:29; cf. Ps 10:2; 36:4; 140:2). So even humans are a disappointment (7:24-29).
    5. People cannot know or control what will come after them, or even what lies in the more immediate future; therefore all their efforts remain balanced on the razor's edge of uncertainty (2:18;6:12;7:14;9:2).
    6. God keeps humans in their place (3:16-22).
    7. God has ordered all things (3:1-15;5:19;6:1-6;9:1), and a human being cannot change God's appointments or fully understand them or anticipate them (3:1;7;11:1-6). But the world is not fundamentally chaotic or irrational. It is ordered by God, and it is for humans to accept matters as they are by God's appointments, including their own limitations. Everything has its "time" and is good in its time (ch. 3).

Therefore wisdom counsels:

    1. Accept the human state as it is shaped by God's appointments and enjoy the life you have been given as fully as you can.
    2. Don't trouble yourself with unrealistic goals -- know the measure of human capabilities.
    3. Be prudent in all your ways -- follow wisdom's leading.
    4. "Fear God and keep his commandments" (12:13), beginning already in your youth before the fleeting days of life's enjoyments are gone and "the days of trouble" (12:1) come when the infirmities of advanced age vex you and hinder you from tasting, seeing and feeling the good things of life.

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).

Literary Features

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).

Outline

  • Author (1:1)
  • Theme: The meaninglessness of human efforts on earth apart from God (1:2)
  • Introduction: The profitlessness of human toil to accumulate things in order to achieve happiness (1:3-11)
  • Discourse, Part 1: In spite of life's apparent enigmas and meaninglessness, it is to be enjoyed as a gift from God (1:12;11:6)
    • Since human wisdom and endeavors are meaningless, people should enjoy their life and work and its fruits as gifts from God (1:12;6:9)
      1. Introduction (1:12-18)
        1. Human endeavors are meaningless (1:12-15)
        2. Pursuing human wisdom is meaningless (1:16-18)
      2. Seeking pleasure is meaningless (2:1-11)
      3. Human wisdom is meaningless (2:12-17)
      4. Toiling to accumulate things is meaningless (2:18;6:9)
        1. Because people must leave the fruits of their labor to others (2:18-26)
        2. Because all human efforts remain under the government of God's sovereign appointments, which people cannot fully know and which all their toil cannot change (3:1;4:3)
        3. Because there are things better for people than the envy, greed and amibition that motivate such toil (4:4-16)
        4. Because the fruits of human labor can be lost, resulting in frustration (5:1;6:9)
    • Since people cannot fully know what is best to do or what the future holds for them, they should enjoy now the life and work God has given them (6:10;11:6)
      1. Introduction: What is predetermined by God is inalterable, and people cannot fully know what is best or what the future holds (6:10-12)
      2. People cannot fully know what is best to do (chs. 7-8)
      3. People cannot fully know what the future holds (9:1;11:6)
  • Discourse, Part 2: Since old age and death will soon come, people should enjoy life in their youth, remembering that God will judge (11:7;12:7)
    • People should enjoy thei life on earth because their future after death is mysterious, and in that sense is meaningless for their present life (11:7-8)
    • People should enjoy the fleeting joys of youth, but remember that God will judge (11:9-10)
    • People should remember their Creator (and his gifts) in their youth, before the deteriorations of old age and the dissolution of the body come (12:1-7)
  • Theme Repeated (12:8)
  • Conclusion: Reverently trust in and obey God (12:9-14)

 


From the NIV Study Bible, Introductions to the Books of the Bible, Ecclesiastes
Copyright 2002 © Zondervan. All rights reserved. Used with permission.