[This is the second part of a three-part series outlining a theological introduction to Ecclesiastes].
If Solomon is the author (see part one), the date is pretty easy to determine (10th Century B.C.). A better question might be—on the basis of Solomon’s wise but foolish life—when did Solomon write this?
The book itself portrays an aged and chastened king calling young men to avoid the mistakes he has had made. From Solomon’s life we have much to learn, and the point that Solomon wants to drive home on the basis of his own life is twofold:
- Fear God and keep his commandments
- Beware the vanity of material pleasures
This is the counsel of an older man, whose pain drives him to warn others of his mistakes.
The title of the book Ecclesiastes (Gk. ekklēsiastēs; Hb. Qoheleth) comes from the word for “assembly” (Qahal). In other words, Ecclesiastes is a book of sermonic wisdom. The ‘preacher’ (1:1; 12:9), more literally a collector of words (12:11) and/or people (cf. Ps 42:4), addresses the congregation and preaches a message of practical wisdom to a people suffering in a fallen world.
Genre: Wisdom Literature
Ecclesiastes is a wisdom book. It is filled with proverbs, but unlike the book of Proverbs which lists individual proverbs in a rather disjointed way—which is the nature of aphorisms, not an indictment against God’s inspired arrangement—Ecclesiastes “clusters” proverbs together and weaves together a narrative plot line (ESV Study Bible). The ESV Study Bible makes this comment:
This mini-anthology is strongly unified by recurrent words and motifs. The phrase “under the sun” or its equivalent occurs more than 30 times. The Hebrew words translated “vanity” (hebel; see Key Themes, point 2) and “find” (matsa’; see Theme and Interpretation of Ecclesiastes) appear throughout the book and suggest the fleetingness of any human being’s grasp of the full meaning of events. To keep the reader rooted in the real world, the author repeatedly uses the imagery of eating, drinking, toil, sleep, death, and the cycles of nature.
Using this imagery, Solomon teaches personal wisdom, but he also engages the whole created realm. The book does not recount much redemptive history, God’s covenants with Israel, or any particular theme of salvation. However, in taking a long extended look at creation ravished by the Fall, Solomon prepares the reader to seek God and his grace. It gives wisdom by teaching its hearers to take inventory of their fleeting lives (cf. Ps 90:12).
Purpose: Ecclesiastes Adjusts the Wisdom of Proverbs
At the same time, the wisdom of Ecclesiastes counterbalances the purely deuteronomic wisdom of Proverbs. In other words, in Proverbs, the teaching basically affirms this maxim: If you do good and keep God’s covenant, you will be blessed; if you do bad and break God’s covenant, you will be cursed.
Proverbs personifies this truth with a whole cast of characters—the righteous and the wicked, the diligent and the lazy, etc. Still, in the end, the reader may be left with the impressive that if I just guard my heart (Prov 4:23) and stay away from the harlot (Prov 5), I can live long in the land. Unfortunately, this is only half true.
As Ecclesiastes shows, even the one who appears to be blessed with prosperity will in the end amount to nothing. In the case of Solomon, outward blessings do not perfectly reflect covenantal obedience. Sometimes, for his own reasons, God chooses to bless people who do not honor him. This was the dilemma of Psalm 73 and Habbakkuk. By comparison, In Job’s case, personal suffering does not always come from unrighteous actions. Sometimes God permits his children to suffer for reasons beyond our understanding or control (see John 9; 2 Cor 12).
Ecclesiastes teaches that because no man is truly righteous (Ecc 7:29), no one can stand in the judgment (12:14). No one is a Psalm 1 man (save Jesus Christ). In a fallen world, everything is vain, a chasing after the wind (Ecc 1:2). Because man has sought out many schemes (7:29), all that he does under the sun will be taken from him. Therefore, along with Job, Ecclesiastes adjusts how God’s people ought to think about true blessing.
In its content, Solomon presents truths that must be held in tension to rightly appreciate God’s work in a fallen world. For instance, in Ecclesiastes 7:12, he indicates that wisdom gives life, but earlier he states that wisdom fails to give life (2:16). This is not a contradiction but a call to think more deeply. Likewise, Ecclesiastes 4:2 says that death is preferable to life’s trouble, but before tying the rope into a noose, Ecclesiastes 9:4-6 teaches us that life is better than self-extinction. These paradoxes are currency of wisdom literature, and make us reflect on the world God has made, which man has mangled.
In the end, Ecclesiastes calls us to fear the Lord and keep his commandments, for this is the life of blessedness. Still, on the basis of all that is found in Ecclesiastes, blessedness is not found in the wealth we acquire while on earth. The life of blessing—what Jesus calls the abundant life (John 10:10)—is to know God himself. The reason why Ecclesiastes is written is to awaken a discontentment with the world and to press readers towards the infinite God who has set eternity in the hearts of men (3:11). This is how Ecclesiastes teaches us to find wisdom.
Soli Deo Gloria, dss