The name of the OT book comes from the Hebrews “Qoheleth” often translated “Preacher” or “Teacher” but apparently more immediately means “gatherer”, I suppose gatherer of true and wise sayings. Ecclesiastes is therefore a collection of wise sayings.
I have always been somewhat frustrated by this little book of the Old Testament. It seems to undermine so much of the certainty and purpose and confidence you find elsewhere in the Bible, especially in the New Testament. (Think of Paul’s purposefulness). On a superficial reading, it may even seem to undermine the sovereignty of God, leaving so much up to us, or up to chance, or the circumstances and ups and downs of life.
But not so. My wife has challenged me to read more closely, because she’s had a longtime fascination with this little gem. And with the help of a few resources (see below), I think Ecclesiastes is growing on me.
So what’s my takeaway? Why am I enjoying this book?
I’m increasingly convinced that the message of the book is to resist becoming frustrated or vexed by life’s unanswerable questions, life’s enigmas. Rather, to find joy in everything as much as possible, obeying and trusting God and becoming wise.
What are life’s enigmas, you ask? Well, the writer delves into these with shocking realism. Consider the dominance of evil, suffering everywhere we look, how might makes right, how money corrupts people, how work and toil sometimes seems meaningless, oppression everywhere. This is probably the most down-to-earth grappling with reality “under the sun”, meaning this temporary life with sin in us, sin in the world.
What do you pursue, he asks?
- you pursue pleasure? “Hebel”
- you’re a workaholic? “Hebel”
- you know how to make money? “Hebel”
- you think you’re wise? “Hebel”
- you pursue knowledge and understanding, philosophy? “Hebel”
Hebel is the Hebrew word we translate as vanity, or meaningless. That’s why I originally found this little book frustrating. What do you mean all of these things are Hebel?! Of course, not. Qoheleth, have you not read the rest of your Bible? But wait… Consider closely what he says. Qoheleth wants to undermine our pursuits of everything as an end to itself, showing that it is ultimately not going to satisfy and will not by itself make sense of life and everything. Enigmas will remain. We will live with questions unanswered, hopes and desires unfulfilled. Our only hope is to walk in the path of joy and wisdom, the path of God. Christians know the message of the whole Bible, that true joy comes only in knowing, trusting, and walking with Christ. He will not resolve all of our enigmas now. But he teaches us how to point beyond Hebel to what is lasting and beautiful: Himself.
Here are some key passages which I think underscore the message of the book:
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.
What gain has the worker from his toil? I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.
I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.
Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words.
When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands? For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear.
Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.
There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity. And I commend joy, for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.
When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one’s eyes see sleep, then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out.
Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.
Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head.
Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.
So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity.
Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.
Remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity.
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.