Ecclesiastes

What Is the Background of Ecclesiastes?

Time: 20 Minutes

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The Background of Ecclesiastes

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Author

The author of Ecclesiastes calls himself “the Preacher” (Ecclesiastes 1:1). Some interpreters have concluded that this was Solomon, while others think he was a role-playing writer later than Solomon. Either way, the book claims that its wisdom comes from the “one Shepherd” (Ecclesiastes 12:11), the Lord himself.

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Theme and Interpretation of Ecclesiastes

The theme of Ecclesiastes is the necessity of fearing God in this fallen, confusing world. Each human being wants to understand all the ways God is acting in the world, but he cannot, because he is not God. And yet the faithful do not despair but cling to God, even when they cannot see what God is doing. The Lord deserves his people’s trust. They can leave everything to him while they seek to understand what it means to “fear God and keep his commandments” (Ecclesiastes 12:13). This is true wisdom.

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Key Themes

1. The Tragic Reality of the Fall

The Preacher is painfully aware that the creation has been damaged by sin (Ecclesiastes 7:29; Romans 8:20, 22). He speaks as one who eagerly awaits the resurrection age (Romans 8:23).

2. The “Vanity” of Life

The book begins and ends with the exclamation, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2; 12:8). The phrase pictures something fleeting and elusive. All the endeavors and pleasures of earthly life are only temporary. When one sees the consequences of sin in this fallen world, one is left in utter frustration, anger, and sorrow. The more one tries to understand life, the more mysterious it becomes (Ecclesiastes 1:12–18).

3. Sin and Death

By sinning, human beings forfeited the righteousness they originally had before God (Ecclesiastes 7:29), and thus all people are sinners (Ecclesiastes 7:20). Death was a result of the fall. The Preacher is only too aware of this dreadful reality that affects everyone (e.g., Ecclesiastes 2:14–17; 3:18–21; 6:6).

4. The Joy and the Frustration of Work

God gave Adam work to accomplish prior to the fall, but part of the punishment of his sin was that his work would become difficult (Genesis 2:15; 3:17–19). Both realities are seen in the Preacher’s experience, as he finds his work to be both satisfying (Ecclesiastes 2:10, 24; 3:22; 5:18–20; 9:9–10) and aggravating (Ecclesiastes 2:18–23; 4:4–8).

5. The Grateful Enjoyment of God’s Good Gifts

The Preacher spends a great deal of time commenting on the twisted realities of a fallen world, but this does not blind him to the beauty of God’s world (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Nor does it cause him to despise God’s good gifts of human relationships, food, drink, and satisfying labor (Ecclesiastes 5:18–20; 8:15; 9:7, 9). These are to be received humbly and enjoyed fully as blessings from God.

6. The Fear of God

The fact that “all is vanity” should drive people to take refuge in God, fearing and revering him (Ecclesiastes 7:18; 8:12–13; 12:13–14).

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Outline

I. Introduction and Theme (1:1–3)
II. First Catalog of “Vanities” (1:4–2:26)
III. Poem: A Time for Everything (3:1–8)
IV. Fear God, the Sovereign One (3:9–15)
V. Second Catalog of “Vanities” (3:16–4:16)
VI. Fear God, the Holy and Righteous One (5:1–7)
VII. Life “Under the Sun” (5:8–7:24)
VIII. The Heart of the Problem: Sin (7:25–29)
IX. More on Life “Under the Sun” (8:1–12:7)
X. Final Conclusion and Epilogue (12:8–14)

The Global Message of Ecclesiastes

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Life in a Broken World

The book of Ecclesiastes explains the world in all its complexity, confusion, and frustration with striking honesty. “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity,” declares the Preacher, echoing the cries of many who have seen, experienced, and recognized the dreadful fallenness of our world (Ecclesiastes 1:2). The global reality both then and now is that our broken world is filled with oppression of the powerless (Ecclesiastes 4:1), oppression of the poor (Ecclesiastes 5:8), and violation of justice and righteousness (Ecclesiastes 5:8). There is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9), no lasting earthly glory (Ecclesiastes 1:11), no ultimately fulfilling pleasure (Ecclesiastes 2:1–11), and no certainty in life except that it will end in death and judgment (Ecclesiastes 2:14–16; 3:18–20; 6:6; 12:14).

In a fallen world there are many painful and complicated questions, but the message of Ecclesiastes is that there is an answer. That answer is not an easy one, but it is simple: fear the Lord (Ecclesiastes 3:14; 5:7; 12:13–14). Though this world is filled with oppression and injustice, ultimately it will be well for those who fear God (Ecclesiastes 8:12) and it will not be well for the wicked (Ecclesiastes 8:13).

This world is filled with both blessings and challenges, neither of which provides ultimate answers or clarity about the meaning of life. If this world is all there is, then all is vanity. But when we trust the Lord in the face of circumstances that discourage us from doing so, we have a sure hope that we will one day be restored to him. Indeed, from a whole-Bible perspective, there is one who is the way (John 14:6), who is the comforter (2 Corinthians 1:3), who is wisdom itself (1 Corinthians 1:24). We will not easily figure God out, nor can we fathom all that he does (Ecclesiastes 3:11). He is not a subject to be scrutinized or solved, nor are his ways easily comprehended (Ecclesiastes 8:17). But God has spoken to us in his Son, who gives us the words of eternal life (John 6:68).

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Purpose in Life and the Purpose of Life

The message of Ecclesiastes is that however difficult things may be because of the curse upon mankind in this fallen world, there is purpose and grace for all. There is enduring hope and satisfying life as we walk with God. The very gifts of God that, apart from God, prove hollow and disappointing, can be enjoyed truly and satisfyingly—not as the main purpose of life but as a means to know God in a deeper way. Our message to the world is that there is purpose in life regarding the blessings we receive from God such as food, drink, and work, but that these blessings are not the purpose of life.

Purpose in Life

There is a proper place, time, and perspective for each season in life and for each blessing from God (Ecclesiastes 3:1–8). The blessings of common grace are to be recognized as coming from the very hand of God. Work and its enjoyment are blessings from God (Ecclesiastes 2:24; 3:22; 5:18–20). There is purpose in life for work, but neither work itself nor the hoarding of possessions are the purpose of life. When work becomes the governing purpose of life, when envy is our driving force, or when we seek satisfaction in wealth, we are left disappointed (Ecclesiastes 2:18–23; 4:4). There is purpose in life for other gifts of common grace such as food, drink, and relationships (Ecclesiastes 2:24–26; 3:12–13; 5:18–20; 8:15; 9:7, 9). The proper enjoyment of such gifts comes from God, who alone satisfies (Ecclesiastes 3:13; 5:19).

The Purpose of Life

This then is the purpose of life: to fear God, who is sovereign (Ecclesiastes 3:11, 14), holy in heaven (Ecclesiastes 5:2, 7), and judge of all (Ecclesiastes 12:13–14). He is the Giver of gifts and the one who grants even the ability to enjoy these gifts (Ecclesiastes 5:19). In receiving such gifts of life we are to find our greatest joy in him (Ecclesiastes 5:20).

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The Global Church’s Mission to a Broken World

The book of Ecclesiastes provides a brutally honest and refreshing message for the global church to proclaim to the world. In one sense the Christian message is other-worldly, yet it also addresses the sober realities that face each society and every individual in every generation. The message of the gospel not only affirms the disappointments of life, it also offers the only true hope for meaningful living.

The Giver and the Gifts

There is a Creator to be worshiped (Ecclesiastes 12:1). He has made all things. Life is to be enjoyed as being from him and to him. The world must recognize the blessed common grace they have received in creation, life, work, and possessions. They should enjoy such blessings, but not as the purpose of life. The global church has a message of hope for a world that is “striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14). Clinging to the gift rather than worshiping the Giver is meaningless. The wealthy are not to be envied, for they find neither ultimate satisfaction nor eternal security in their wealth (Ecclesiastes 5:10–17). It is far better to enjoy fellowship with the Giver rather than simply enjoying his gifts, however good they may be.

The Ultimate Gift

Enjoyment of God is available ultimately because he sent his Son to die on behalf of sinners. There is none who is righteous before God (Ecclesiastes 7:20). No one can escape death (Ecclesiastes 2:16; 9:3, 12). God’s ways cannot be easily or fully fathomed (Ecclesiastes 3:11), but he has indeed revealed himself clearly and gloriously in the person of his Son Jesus Christ (John 14:9). In the Son we have seen the one who both demonstrates and also empowers what it means to truly fear and enjoy God. There is grace abundant for all who recognize the vanity of their selfish living and remember and fear their Creator (Ecclesiastes 12:1) and Redeemer (Isaiah 54:5).

A Sure Hope

While Ecclesiastes sobers us with the reminder that this fallen world is filled with injustice, it also offers hope. Christians are to be active in seeking justice and encouraging the oppressed within society (Isaiah 1:17). But we need not despair at the imperfect justice of this world because God will bring final and perfect justice one day (Ecclesiastes 3:17). For the oppressed and the victims of injustice this is indeed good news. It is not vanity to fear and follow God (Ecclesiastes 8:10–13). To those in the global church who suffer under persecution for the sake of the gospel there is the comfort that God does indeed see them, take care of them, and remember them.

A Sovereign Lord

There is one who is in control. God is in control when times are good and when times are bad (Ecclesiastes 7:14). We are not in control—which is a great blessing, despite the ways in which we often seek to control our lives. Our message to the world is to abandon striving after control and to embrace the one who is in control. Every building and work of art will one day turn to dust, but there is one who is eternal and whose works last forever (Ecclesiastes 3:14). Our message to the world is to abandon the quest for self-glory and the accumulation of possessions and to embrace the blessed and wise God-centered life of sober hope.

This is the glorious Christian vision for life that the church must embrace and display for the world to see.

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Crossway Publishers

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