This “Overview of Ecclesiastes” can be listened to as a podcast here.
This book was argued over for its place in the Hebrew canon by ancient rabbis because their difficulty to reconcile it with the rest of Scripture.
Author and date: identified as “the preacher” (1:1, 12; 7:27; 12:9-10). From 1:1 and 12:9-10 it seems obvious that this is Solomon (reigned 969-932 BC). It has been argued that the vocabulary and syntax depict a later date with Aramaic and Persian loan-words. However, such opinions ignore Solomon’s international associations (1 Kings 4:34; 2 Chr 9:23).
Purpose: “Ecclesiastes records man’s struggle to find meaning and fulfillment in life. The basic theme is that life is empty and meaningless apart from a right relationship with God. Unless a man comes to know the Creator, nothing in the creation can bring him peace and satisfaction. Everything will be ‘vain’ (1:2; 12:8). All of man’s pursuits will eventually leave him discontent and empty.”1)Paul Benware, Survey of the Old Testament, Moody Publishers (Chicago, IL: 2003), pp. 178-179
- The “preacher” קֹהֶלֶת (qoheleth) or Ecclesiastes means “one who calls an assembly”
- “Vanity” הֶבֶל (hebel) indicates something is empty of substance or value and passing as temporal as a vapor. Presented in a superlative “vanity of vanities” is to mean “most futile, or empty,” like the “holy of holies” is the most holy place.
- “under the sun” things on earth as being cursed by God (Gen 3:17-19)
- “Vanity” 28 times (Ecc 1:2, 14; 2:1, 11, 15, 17, 19, 21, 23, 26; 3:19; 4:4, 7, 8, 16; 5:10; 6:2, 9, 11; 7:6, 15; 8:10, 14; 9:9; 11:8, 10; 12:8). Note the main block that expresses vanity is ch. 2 indicating endeavors for worldly pleasure is vain (1:3).
- “Under the sun” 27 times (1:3, 9, 14; 2:11, 17, 18, 19, 20, 22; 3:16; 4:1,3, 15; 5:13, 18; 6:1, 12; 8:9, 15, 17; 9:3, 6, 9, 11, 13; 10:5). Again the main block of repeating this phrase is in ch 2.
- “My heart” 9 times (1:13, 16, 17; 2:3, 10, 15, 20; 8:9; 9:1). This phrase is again most repetitious in ch 2.
- “eat…drink… God giveth” (2:24; 3:12-13, 22; 5:18; 8:15; 9:7-10).
- 3:11 “He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.
- 6:12 “For who knoweth what is good for man in this life, all the days of his vain life which he spendeth as a shadow? for who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun?”
- 9:11 “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”
Outline (subdivisions based on Hebrew paragraph divisions):
I. The Vanity of Godless Living (1:1-11)
II. Demonstration of Vanity from Human Achievements (1:12-6:12)
III. Demonstration of Vanity from Human Wisdom (7:1-11:8)
IV. Conclusion: Rejoice in Life with Fear of God (11:9-12:14)
Preamble 1:1-11 vv. 11
First half of the Book 1:12-6:11 vv. 102
Center of Book 6:12 v.1
Second half of the Book 7:1-12:8 vv. 102
The Epilogue 12:9-14 vv. 6
The preamble with the epilogue equal 17 verses (11 + 6 = 17). The first and second halves is also divisible by 17 (6 X 17 = 102). This leave 6:12 as central verse. “For who knoweth what is good for man in this life, all the days of his vain life which he spendeth as a shadow? for who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun?”
A. Title: Author mentioned in third person (Ecc 1:1)
B. The brevity and insignificance of life (Ecc 1:2-1:11)
C. Wisdom’s failure to discover life’s meaning (Ecc 1:12-2:26)
D. Regarding time (Ecc 3:1-15)
X. Fear God (Ecc 3:16-6:12)
D’. Time revisited (Ecc 7:1-14)
C’. Wisdom’s failure revisited (Ecc 7:15-10:19)
B’. Life’s brevity revisited (Ecc 10:20-12:8)
A’. Conclusion: Author mentioned in third person (Ecc 12:9-14)
The underlining premise is similar to what we find in Job (and all Wisdom literature in the Bible [Job 28 cf. Ecc 8:17]). Searching out creation for wisdom or satisfaction will not yield a complete understanding or satisfaction. The preacher expresses the futility of attempting to understand the full meaning of events that occur without understanding the scope of God’s plan for the world.
We are dependent on God’s revelation to make sense of all that go on “under the sun.”
To properly understand this book, it must be grounded in Biblical revelation of man’s sin brought God’s curse on earth (Ecc 7:20, 28). It is erroneous to claim that the book is written from a secular perspective. “But it must be remembered that much of this book is written from the perspective of secular human reasoning. These are the thoughts of the man who lives ‘under the sun.’”2)Paul Benware, Survey of the Old Testament, Moody Publishers (Chicago, IL: 2003), p 180
The question of the value of man’s labor (1:3 “What profit hath a man of all his labour
which he taketh under the sun?”) is viewed through the fact God created man as His vice-regent on earth to uphold the dominion mandate (Gen 1:28; 2:15 but through sin brought God’s curse (Gen 3:17-19, cf. Ecc 2:22-23 Thus, labor is strenuous and ultimately unsatisfying (Ecc 2:4-6). Nor does wisdom provide any ultimate advantage (2:14-16)
This book has no secular philosophy. God as the Creator is providentially in control of His creation (Ecc 3:11, 14; 7:14; 9:1; 11:5). Because of Adam’s sin, God imposed a curse on creation. The preacher has an emotional struggle comprehending the fact that the creation was made crooked and cannot be set straight by man (Ecc 1:14-15; 7:13). However, we are to enjoy the gifts of God (Ecc 2:24; 3:12-13, 22; 5:18; 8:15; 9:7-10) as we are to fulfill the dominion mandate.
- There is pleasure in accomplishing labor (Ecc 2:10).
- Learning skills makes it easier to succeed (Ecc 10:10).
- There is security for those who fear God over the wicked (Ecc 8:12-13).
- However, because the curse nothing is promised for ones works but death (Ecc 9:11, 12:1-7)
- Though bad things happen to good people due to the Fall, the conclusion of the matter is “Fear God” (Ecc 2:24; 12:9-14)