Introduction to Ecclesiastes

INTRODUCTION TO

ECCLESIASTES

The Bible is never shy about confronting painful truths or hard questions. The book of Ecclesiastes faces the issue of how we can find meaning in life in light of the seemingly futile nature of everything. It will not allow the reader to retreat into superficial answers. It does not answer this problem by comforting us with hollow slogans. To the contrary, its motto is “Everything Is Futile.” But by forcing us to face the futility of human existence, it guides us to a life free of empty purpose and deceitful vindication.

“All things are wearisome, more than anyone can say. The eye is not satisfied by seeing or the ear filled with hearing”.

“All things are wearisome, more than anyone can say. The eye is not satisfied by seeing or the ear filled with hearing” (1:8).

CIRCUMSTANCES OF WRITING

AUTHOR: According to 1:1 and 1:12, the author was David’s son and a king over Israel from Jerusalem. Also, 12:9 speaks of the author as a writer of proverbs, so Solomon appears to be the author. Many scholars believe that Ecclesiastes was written too late in Israel’s history for this to be true, and they want to date the book at least five hundred years after Solomon’s time (later than 450 BC). However, strong evidence attests that the book does come from the age of Solomon. For instance, it displays a great knowledge of literature from early Mesopotamia and Egypt.

One example is that the book shows an awareness of the “Harper Songs,” poetry from Egypt that is much older than the age of Solomon. Ecclesiastes 9:7-9 is similar to that poetry, and it also resembles a portion of the famous Epic of Gilgamesh from Mesopotamia. It makes sense that Solomon, who had close contacts with Egypt and whose empire stretched up to the Euphrates River, would know and reflect on such texts. It is doubtful that an anonymous Jew writing five hundred or more years later, when Egyptian and Mesopotamian glory had faded and when Judah was a backwater nation, would have had access to these texts or could have understood them. By contrast, Ecclesiastes shows no similarities to the Greek philosophy that flourished in the fifth century BC and later. All of these conditions point to the traditional view that Solomon authored this book.

BACKGROUND: Ecclesiastes is Wisdom literature, meaning that it is in the part of the Bible especially concerned with helping readers cope with the practical and philosophical issues of life. It has roots in the Wisdom literature of Egypt and Babylon. Books like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are the biblical answer to the search for truth. Proverbs is basic wisdom, giving the reader fundamental principles to live by. Ecclesiastes, by contrast, is for a more mature reader. It engages the question of whether death nullifies all purpose and meaning in life.

MESSAGE AND PURPOSE

Ecclesiastes shows us that since we and our works are futile—that is, destined to perish—we must not waste our lives trying to justify our existence with pursuits that ultimately mean nothing. Put simply, Ecclesiastes examines major endeavors of life in light of the reality of death. The book warns us about the pursuit of several different purposes in life.

1. Intellectual accomplishments. Ecclesiastes affirms that wisdom helps us cope with life, but it denies that acquiring knowledge as such is meaningful. Ultimately, the wise person and his works, like the fool and his deeds, perish.

2. Wealth and luxury. Wealth does not give life purpose. Those who pursue riches sometimes waste their lives in bitterness, anxiety, and toil. Money does matter, and Ecclesiastes affirms that we need a strategy for maintaining a basic level of prosperity. But wealth of itself is a fraudulent substitute for true contentment.

3. Politics. Political power is inherently corrupting, and the worst evils in the world are committed by cruel or incompetent people with power. At the same time, government is necessary. Ecclesiastes counsels the reader on how to survive in a world of political competition, and thus how to have a stable, peaceful life.

4. Religion. Zeal for religion also comes in for criticism in Ecclesiastes. Its two warnings are that we should not try to impress God, and we should not wear ourselves out with irrational excess.

Positively, Ecclesiastes recommends that we do two things in light of the brevity of our days.

1. Enjoy life. This is not a philosophy of hedonism, nor does it involve neglect of other duties because there is a time for everything under the sun. But a life without enjoyment is no life at all.

2. Fear God. This is an honest humility before God arising from an awareness of our weakness and sin. It includes awareness of our dependence on him and a remembrance of the fact that he is our judge.

CONTRIBUTION TO THE BIBLE

Ecclesiastes must be read with care because some of its verses, if read in isolation, seem to contradict other biblical teachings. It seems to deny the afterlife (3:18-22), to warn us against being too righteous (7:16), and to recommend a life of pleasure (10:19). But the real purpose of Ecclesiastes is to force us to take our mortality seriously and thus to consider carefully how we should live. Ecclesiastes knocks away all the façades by which we disguise the fact that life is short and all our accomplishments will pass away. In this sense, Ecclesiastes anticipates the NT teaching that only God’s grace, and not excessive zeal, saves us.

STRUCTURE

Ecclesiastes does not have the kind of structure we usually look for in a book of the Bible. At first glance it seems to move to and fro among various topics in a way that seems almost incoherent. It has no simple hierarchical outline, and it often jumps rapidly from one topic to the next. But a closer look reveals a structure that alternates between two perspectives: that of human existence apart from God and that of existence lived before God. If Ecclesiastes were music, it would be seen as antiphonal. The resolution of the tensions that permeate Ecclesiastes is found in the affirmation that the most important thing in life is to “fear God and keep his commands” (12:13).

OUTLINE

I.God and the Futility of Life (1:1-2:26)

A.The humdrum of life (1:1-11)

B.The Teacher’s quest (1:12-18)

C.The emptiness of pleasure (2:1-3)

D.The emptiness of possessions (2:4-11)

E.The limits of wisdom (2:12-17)

F.The emptiness of work (2:18-23)

G.Pleasure, possessions, wisdom, and work in God’s perspective (2:24-26)

II.Time and Eternity (3:1-22)

A.The rhythm of time (3:1-8)

B.Eternity in time (3:9-15)

C.Eternity and death (3:16-22)

III.Society (4:1-16)

A.A place of injustice (4:1-6)

B.A place of comfort (4:7-12)

C.The more things change (4:13-16)

IV.Religion (5:1-6:12)

A.Authentic religion (5:1-7)

B.Wealth: God’s perspective (5:8-6:12)

V.Wise Sayings (7:1-29)

A.Proverbs (7:1-14)

B.The value of moderation (7:15-22)

C.Wisdom’s limitations (7:23-29)

VI.Wisdom as Prudence (8:1-10:20)

A.Health (8:1)

B.Authority figures (8:2-5)

C.Timing (8:6-7)

D.Realistic expectations (8:8-9)

E.Reverence for God (8:10-13)

F.Inequities (8:14)

G.Enjoyment (8:15-9:10)

H.Wisdom’s limits (9:11-18)

I.Wisdom preferable to folly (10:1-20)

VII.Invest in Life (11:1-10)

VIII.Aging and Death as Teachers (12:1-8)

IX.The Teacher’s Objectives and Conclusion (12:9-14)

4000-2000 BC

Light wooden plows, Mesopotamia 4000

Copper smelting, Mesopotamia 4000

Irrigation developed, Mesopotamia 3500

Epic of Gilgamesh 2700-1400

The Instruction of Ptah-Hotep, Egypt’s Old Kingdom 2575-2134

Chinese Literature, First of Seven Periods 2000-600

2000-1800 BC

Abraham 2166-1991

The Man Who Was Tired of Life, Egyptian 1990-1800

The Complaints of Khakheperre-Sonb, Egyptian 1900

Egyptians develop an alphabet of twenty-four signs.

Egyptians use the flooding of the Nile to their agricultural advantage by building systems of irrigation.

1800-1500 BC

The Admonitions of Ipuwer, Egypt 1600-1400

The Satirical Letter of Hori, Egypt 1570-1070

Declarations of Innocence from the Egyptian Book of the Dead 1530-1500

1500-1200 BC

Moses 1526-1406

Heavy import and export trade, Egypt 1500-1000

Words of Ahiqar, Egypt 1500-500

Events in Joshua 1406-1380?

Events in Judges 1380?-1060?

Epic of Gilgamesh is recorded. 1200

1200-800 BC

The Harper’s Song for Inherkhway, Egyptian 1160

The Babylonian Theodicy, Mesopotamian 1100

David becomes king over all Israel. 1003

Solomon becomes king. 970

Proverbs 970

Song of Songs 970?

Ecclesiastes 935?

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