Finally, there are a number of themes to consider in the book of Ecclesiastes. The ESV Study Bible lists six. These include:
- The Tragic Reality of the Fall.
- The ‘Vanity’ of Life.
- Sin and Death.
- The Joy and Frustration of Work.
- The Grateful Enjoyment of God’s Good Gifts.
- The Fear of God.
These six themes rightly observe the contents of the book. Yet, they do so in a thematic way that doesn’t sync with the biblical framework of creation, fall, and redemption. Therefore, let me suggest a four-fold scheme that augments these themes and helps us see the rudimentary features of the gospel in Ecclesiastes.
Creation: The Goodness of the World
Despite its ostensibly negative view of life—“Meaningless, meaningless.’ says the Teacher, “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless'” (Ecc 1:2 NIV)—Ecclesiastes has a very positive view of creation. For instance Ecclesiastes 3:1-11 is very aware of the particulars of creation and its intended beauty. Ecclesiastes 3:11 states, “He has made everything beautiful in its time.” This statement comes on the heels of an elongated list of creation’s contents. Read Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 slowly and meditate on the complexity and comprehensiveness of the creation it describes.
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
In addition to this poem, the whole book celebrates the goodness of creation. Food, drink, and marriage are all lauded as good things to be enjoyed while men live on the earth (3:12-13; 5:18-20; 7:14; 8:15; 9:7,9). Likewise, work, for all of its hardships, is commended as good (2:10, 24; 3:22; 5:18-20; 9:9-10). Men are to work with all of their might as long as they live (Ecc 9:9-10). This is part of God’s original design; something that is still visible in the fallen world.
Futility: The Frustration of the Fall
As good as creation is, it is undeniably fallen. Work that is meant to be satisfying, is also frustrating (2:18-23; 4:4). In Ecclesiastes 1:1-11 we hear and feel the effects of this fallenness.
The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.
This opening volley of despair permeates the rest of the book and is mirrored by a final, futile crash, “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, all is vanity” (12:8). Thirty-eight times the word “vanity” (hebel) is used. This word has the meaning of ‘breath’ and in some contexts takes on the meaning of futility, but as William Dumbrell points out its meaning is not monochrome. He writes.
Hebel occurs thirty-eight times and is the key refrain for the first half of the book. Customarily in the OT, hebel = breath (Job 7:16; Ps 39:5, 11; 62:9). This also appears to be the major connotation of the term in Ecclesiastes (at 3:19; 6:12; 7:15; 9:9; 11:8). In conformity with such a basic meaning, C. L. Seow . . . suggests a meaning of ‘what cannot be controlled,’ which fits the contexts of Ecclesiastes well. There are cases in which hebel may imply futility (cf. 5:6; 6:4; 11), but these are few. The root meaning that underlies the term and this analysis of human existence is beyond human grasp or understanding (cf. 1:15; 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 16; 6:9) (Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel, 284-85).
Accordingly, Ecclesiastes informs us that the glory of this material world is light weight. Under the sun, all is vapor and vanity. And the greatest vanity is the duration of our short lives. Like James says, life is a vapor (4:14). Congruently, Ecclesiastes portray death as the greatest futility, and sin is its universal cause (7:20, 29; cf. 2:14-17; 3:18-21; 6:6). All in all, the futility of which Paul speaks in Romans 8:20 is on full display in Ecclesiastes. And its vivid language is meant to heighten our awareness that the time we have under the sun is short. Therefore, we must consider how to spend it well.
Fear God: Elements of Redemption
Complementing futility is the key command: Fear God and keep his commandments (12:13). This is how Solomon concludes his book and it is the solution to the problem of a meaningless life. Whereas the world is subjected to futility because of sin, God’s wise word calls men to search, seek, and find wisdom. This search for wisdom will ultimately lead men to the Lord. Consider a few verses that call forth this journey of wisdom.
1:13. And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.
2:3. I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life.
7:14. In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him.
8:16-17. 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.
12:1. Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”. . .
In the end, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. And there are numerous places in Ecclesiastes where descriptions of God lead the reader to fear God.
- In Ecclesiastes 3:14, God is portrayed as totally sovereign; his works enduring forever. As a result, man whose life is fleeting ought to fear God.
- In Ecclesiastes 5:7, the distance between God and man is mentioned. Since God is in Heaven and man is on the earth, man ought to fear God and keep his words few.
- In Ecclesiastes 7:14-18, Solomon writes of how prosperity and adversity come from God. As the sovereign bestower of all good gifts (cf. James 1:17), man should fear the Lord.
- In Ecclesiastes 8:12-13, Solomon reiterates the coming judgment of the wicked. Even when it appears that the wicked are getting away with murder—metaphorically and literally—God will avenge. Therefore, fear the Lord.
- In Ecclesiastes 12:13-14, the book concludes with a pronouncement that God will judge all men. All that matters on that day is how a man or woman has responded to God. Solomon’s final charge is simply this: Fear God and keep his commandments. For this is the whole duty of man. The point could not be clearer. After all he has reflected upon and written, the fear of the Lord is the one enduring thing that all men must do. To fail to fear God is the great sin. It leads to everlasting judgment.
To summarize, the redemptive message in Ecclesiastes comes in the description of who God is and the call for men to fear this great and mighty God. God has set eternity in the hearts of men, and the created world is designed to fuel men’s praise for the infinite God and to frustrate man’s desires. To cite Augustine, “No man will find rest until they find rest in Thee.” God designed it that way. Creation in its beautiful but broken condition is meant to lead us to God, who we must fear so that we have nothing to fear (Exod 20:20; cf. Ps 25:14).
New Creation: How Ecclesiastes Points us to Christ
The last thing to see in Ecclesiastes is that there are points of contact between the images, language, and author and the telos of Scripture himself, Jesus Christ.
First, in Ecclesiastes 1:1, the author speaks of himself as the Son of David, king in Jerusalem. This verse gives us historical context, but it also relates to the special promise that God made to David that his sons would reign forever (Ps 89) and that his royal throne would be forever in Jerusalem (Ps 132). While the historical markers in 1:1 place Ecclesiastes in time and space, the significance of David and Jerusalem point ahead to Jesus Christ, who is the greater king from the line of David.
Second, as the greater royal son, Jesus comes to supersede Solomon, the wisest and most powerful ruler in Israel’s history. While other kings (Josiah, for instance) may have been more faithful to the covenant, no king—David included—was as world-renowned for his splendor and wisdom. For this reason Matthew will say: “The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here” (12:42). In Christ, all the treasures of wisdom can be found (Col 2:3); he was and is the true wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:30), and in wisdom, God brought Christ into the world to establish his kingdom. To set it in Ecclesiastes, we can say that all that men lack in wisdom, righteousness, life, and desire, Christ has come to fulfill.
Last, Christ is the one true shepherd. Whereas Ecclesiastes 12:11 enigmatically declares that the source of this book comes from the one shepherd—an Old Testament image regularly applied to YHWH—the New Testament makes it plain that Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd (John 10:11, 14). He speaks to his sheep by name and he leads them in paths of righteousness by laying down his life for them that he might raise them and declare them righteous. Laying the Old Testament next to the New, it seems obvious that Christ takes on God’s mantle as the shepherd of Israel (and the nations). He is the source of all wisdom and he is leading his people to a new heavens and new earth where he will feed them, clothe them, and give them pasture (Rev 7:15-17).
In these three ways, we can see a definite shadow of Christ in Ecclesiastes. In the darkness of a fallen world, life may seem depressing, meaningless, and short, but Ecclesiastes teaches us how to reckon with that haunting sensation. At first, it confirms our worst fears. It speaks openly about the grinding futility of life. It confirms our greatest fear—we will all soon perish and be judged. But in the very same context, it also shines a light to the future (our past) that Christ will come as the good shepherd to lead his people into an everlasting kingdom.
With this vision in place, we can find hope in Ecclesiastes because it calls us to turn away from the endless onslaught of material things to find greater life in the person and work of Jesus, the David king who is greater than Solomon.
Soli Deo Gloria, dss