Overview of Ecclesiastes
But he can’t hold onto it forever. He’ll die someday, and who knows how his sons will handle the kingdom? Who knows what will happen to the people? Who knows what will happen to him?
This Preacher wrote, gathered, and assembled written words of wisdom: the one who assembled wisdom and assembled the people (Ecclesiastes 12:9–10). And now he’s grappling with a an age-old riddle:
What advantage does man have in all his work Which he does under the sun? (Eccl 1:3)
By “under the sun,” he means apart from God. God is in heaven, and man is on earth (Eccl 5:2). So if you deal solely with the visible, tangible, observed-cause-and-effect human experience, what are you left with? It’s a tough question. After all, the universe seems to be in a constant state of resetting itself. The sun rises, sets, and rises again. Rivers flow, but never empty. Information multiplies, but the mind is never satisfied. So in the never-ending cycles of life, what can man do? It sure looks meaningless. And the more the Preacher learns about the world, the more depressing a world it becomes (Eccl 1:18). So he explores this problem. The first portion of Ecclesiastes explore man’s situation on earth (Eccl 1:13). And the situation isn’t too great:
- The smarter you get, the harder it is to cope with the world (Eccl 1:18).
- Pleasure and riches do not satisfy (Eccl 2:10–11; Eccl 5:10;).
- Wise men and fools die alike (Eccl 2:16).
- You can’t take the results of your hard work with you when you die (Eccl 2:18–19; 5:13–17).
- What you leave behind goes to a generation who didn’t earn it (Eccl 2:18–19).
- And the results of your labor don’t really satisfy your desires, either (Eccl 2:10–11; 5:10; 6:7).
- People practice evil instead of justice (Eccl 3:16; 4:1; 5:8).
- Even obedience to God doesn’t guarantee a long, happy life (Eccl 7:16).
- And the wicked sometimes get away with it (Eccl 7:15; 8:14).
So then he turns to explain it. Why is the world this way? What can we do about it? What’s the point? He’s sure that there’s a just God (Eccl 8:12–13)—he’s seen him with his own eyes (1 Ki 3:5). But the world doesn’t always reflect God’s justice, so the Preacher explains what man can do to enjoy life, even if God’s works are not apparent:
- Eat, drink, and enjoy life, because you’re in the hand of God (Eccl 9:7–9).
- Work hard, and use wisdom while you can (Eccl 9:10, 18).
- Avoid acts of foolishness—especially when dealing with authority (Eccl 10:2, 5–6, 20).
- Take chances, pursue opportunities, and enjoy life while you can (Eccl 11:4, 8–10).
- As you live, remember who made you (Eccl 12:1).
And then the Preacher sums everything up:
The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil. (Eccl 12:13–14)
The question: in a world of injustice and pain, what’s the point? The answer: fear God, even though you might not see Him make it right.
Theme verse of Ecclesiastes
I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after wind. (Eccl 1:14)
Ecclesiastes’ role in the Bible
Ecclesiastes is an example of Old Testament wisdom literature, and it’s the fourth book of poetry in the Bible. While Psalms is a collection of songs and Proverbs is a collection of principles, Ecclesiastes is mostly long-form poetic discourse: it poses one main question at the beginning and spends the next twelve chapters arriving at an answer. The book never mentions its author by name: and it’s important to note that the author is not necessarily the Preacher.
The author opens with the words of “the Preacher,” and then concludes by wrapping up the Preacher’s words and putting his own takeaways at the end.
This isn’t a Sunday-morning-sermon–delivering preacher we’re familiar with today; rather, it’s “one who assembles.” The original Hebrew word for this role only shows up in Ecclesiastes, and probably refers to someone who assembles wisdom and teaches the people. So why is this book traditionally attributed to Solomon? The Preacher gives us a few clues:
- He is a son of David (Ec 1:1).
- He is a king (Ec 1:1).
- He ruled all of Israel in Jerusalem (Ec 1:12).
- He was a wise man of great renown (Ec 12:9–10).
There were only two kings from David’s line who ruled Israel from Jerusalem: Solomon and Rehoboam. And Rehoboam’s legacy really doesn’t fit the bill (check out the twelfth chapter of First Kings). That leaves Solomon the likely candidate, if the verses identifying the Preacher are to be taken literally. Ecclesiastes’ tone isn’t one you’d expect from the Bible. It’s melancholy and dismissive. You’ll find happier language in Lamentations (and I’m not joking). That’s because the Preacher is exploring the world according to human experience alone. Without a God working behind the scenes to execute justice, the Preacher sees life as pretty meaningless. But Ecclesiastes is encouraging nonetheless:
- We see that it’s OK to recognize flaws in the world around us. The Bible doesn’t bind us to Pollyanna-ism—there are injustices and inconsistencies that we cannot control, and we don’t have to smile through it or pretend they don’t exist.
- We can hope in a good heavenly Judge. The apostle Paul agrees that all creation was subjected to futility (Ro 8:20), and is groaning in anticipation of the coming glory that Christ will bring (Ro 8:22). We join the rest of the universe in anticipation.
Christians don’t live in the same world as the Preacher’s. We have something he didn’t experience: the continuous indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The Preacher lived in a world where God worked behind the scenes and judged everyone eventually (Eccl 12:13–14), but God is at work in us every single day. The world may be a messed up place, but if Christ is in us, we always have hope (Col 1:27)
Quick outline of Ecclesiastes
- The problem (Eccl 1:1–11)
- Exploring the problem under the sun (Eccl 1:12–8:17)
- Explaining life in the hand of God (Eccl 9–12:12)
- The conclusion (Eccl 12:13–14)