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The Message of the Book
Ecclesiastes is a much misunderstood part of Scripture, and in these short notes it is only possible to give the briefest of surveys of a very full book. Some see in it the fatalistic views of a pessimistic mind, others that it teaches a purely materialistic approach to life, and yet others that its message is opposed to the teaching of the New Testament. All these views fail to grasp the fundamental significance of the book. It is true that the writer has little to say of eternity, that the hope found in the New Testament is missing from its pages, and that the aspect of life which it presents has not the fullness of the Christian gospel about it. This should not surprise us! There is little in the Old Testament generally regarding eternity; we must not forget the glorious revelation which came with the birth, life, and teaching of the Lord Jesus.
But what do we learn from this book? First, that man alone can find no satisfaction or fulfilment from his labour, his leisure, his possessions, or his position. Second, observation is made regarding the responsibility of mankind towards God. We are His creatures and He is the Creator, therefore we have a responsibility towards Him which is not based on rewards, nor on eternal prospects. These the believer has, but all have a responsibility to live righteously before Him simply because He made us and we owe our life to Him. This message could be summed up as: Mans responsibility to God and the benefit which results from fulfilling it. The writer rarely goes any further than this, but nevertheless instructs the reader in the important issue that any enjoyment of life can only come from fearing God and keeping His commandments.
That man is in any way responsible to God is not a popular message today. We are told that we are free agents to live our own way, by our own standards of right and wrong, fulfilling our own desires. There is no need even to recognise that God exists, nor any necessity to feel responsible to Him. Ecclesiastes shows such teaching to be false and harmful.
The Writer of the Book
The writer is described in 1.1 as "the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem". There is little cause to doubt that Solomon is in view, but the question is, "When was the book written?". We do know that the early years of Solomons glory were followed by years of unfaithfulness to the Lord and of idolatry (see 1 Kings 11.1-8). The book does reveal the writer to have engaged in great building projects and to have given himself over to mirth and pleasure (see 2.1-11). Thus, it may be that Solomon wrote this in his latter years after he repented from the sins which beset him, but there is no indication that such repentance took place. It is, therefore, perhaps more likely that he wrote the book as he surveyed the glorious years of his life before he fell into sin. If this is so it is a warning to us all that even such an understanding of life as he had is not a guarantee that we will not fail! As he is called the "Preacher" it is clear that he thought the issues of such importance that he gathered the people to hear his teaching.
The Contents of the Book
Ecclesiastes is regarded as a good book from which to take individual wisdom filled verses, and it is true that such can be found to profit. It is not, however, a gathering of sayings brought together with no plan or organisation. The structure chosen for these notes is based on words found in 2.24: "There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour". Almost similar words are found in 5.18 and 8.15, marking the division of the book into four sections, plus a prologue and an epilogue.
The Prologue (1.1-11)
The opening verses present the problem with which the Preacher was occupied. What profit is there in all the labour of life? Generations come and go, the sun rises and sets, and what was done in the past is done again, yet there is no lasting satisfaction for "the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing" (1.8). Life seems to be an endless round of unfulfilled expectations.
The Experiences of Solomon (1.12-2.26)
These verses give an account of the experience of the writer in seeking to find satisfaction and fulfilment in life. He had sought wisdom to understand and found this to end in grief. He had sought mirth, laughter, great building works, and treasure. Two aims were before him: first, to enjoy amusement (2.1-3), and, second, to enjoy achievement (2.4-8). All that his eyes saw became objects of desire and he obtained them. In this he pictured the society of the 21st century. The world pursues the same two goals and asserts that happiness is to be found in them. But, the lesson which he learned is surely that which is learned today, that all is vanity and vexation of spirit. All the works of a man will be left to the next generation, and who knows whether those who inherit them will be wise or fools. The conclusion is that there is an air of futility about life.
The Existence of Purpose (3.1-5.20)
The cycle of life (3.1-15) which has been observed by Solomon shows that there is purpose in living. Note that there are 14 verbs of encouragement and 14 of contrast. Events do not happen without purpose and there is a time for everything. This ought to produce reverence towards God for men "should fear before him" (3.14).
But what of the unrighteous dealings which are evidenced around us? Here the conclusions of life are dealt with (3.16-22). God does not only order life, He demands that we are accountable to Him and, therefore, "God shall judge the righteous and the wicked" (3.17). There is a "time" for that, just as there is a "time" for the events of life.
But many are the contradictions of life (4.1-5.17). Oppression (4.1-3), envy (4.4-6), loneliness (4.7-12), rank (4.13-16), vows (5.1-8), riches (5.9-17) are all examined and their contradictions exposed. For example, in the case of envy a man covets that which is his neighbours, or the fool simply folds his hands and does nothing. These are two contradictory approaches to life and yet true happiness is to be found in neither. A handful, less than the covetous would seek and more that the slothful would gain, with quietness, brings contentment.
The Evaluation of Events (6.1-8.15)
First, understanding contrasts (6.1-7.15) is dealt with. This section has been effectively summed up under two headings. First, prosperity is not necessarily good (6.1-12), and, second, adversity or affliction is not necessarily evil (7.1-15)11 . Wealth does not always bring happiness, and adversity can produce beneficial results that are long lasting.
This is followed by understanding character (7.16-29). The opening verses are often misunderstood. The Preacher is not teaching that there can be too much holiness, rather that legal, formal, religious, and mere outward signs of "piety" are to be avoided. The fear of God is what has to be desired!
Understanding control (8.1-14) is now dealt with. Government is necessary for an ordered society and the commandment of the king has to be obeyed. It is true that there are kings who act unrighteously and oppress the people (8.9), but the purpose of God will still be worked out, and those who so act will be called to account. We must understand, however, that without government sinful anarchy would prevail.
The Enforcing of Lessons (8.16-12.7)
This section does not introduce new arguments but emphasises lessons from points that have already been made. Despite all there is to discourage in this world there is also much to encourage and there is no need to be mournful, slothful, or unmindful of our Creator. The prize is to "live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest" (9.9); to learn that "the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong" (9.11), and to apply all our efforts to what we do, as advantages which others seem to have can be matched with application and effort; to remember our Creator when we are young and seize the opportunities of youth.
The Epilogue 12.8-14
These closing verses teach us the value of the sacred writings and the wisdom of fearing God. We have a Book far more extensive than that which was available in the days of Solomon. Practising what is taught in that Book, together with the reverential fear of God in our hearts, is still the secret of a happy life.
1 Ecclesiastes-Total Life (Walter Kaiser)