This year the talks at KYCK 2010 are going to be from the book of Ecclesiastes. You know… that obscure OT book that seems really depressing and confusing… the one which you don’t hear about except when someone quotes Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 or 4:9-12 totally out of context (and usually at a wedding)… Hopefully that’s not your experience, but that’s the book of Ecclesiastes.
Throughout the ages lots of good Bible loving people have been confused by it, so you’re in good company! But it’s really not a hard book, and here’s a couple of things to keep in mind as you read it for yourself and hear the talks at KYCK 2010.
The very first thing to make a note of is that there are 2 voices in the book of Ecclesiastes.
- The voice of the Narrator (1:1-11 & 12:8-14)
- The voice of the Teacher (1:12 – 12:7)
The voice of the Narrator:
The is the voice you hear at the beginning and the end of the book (1:1-11 & 12:8-14). His voice summarises the main theme of Teacher in the introduction (1:2) “Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless“. And he weighs up and evaluates the words of the Teacher in the conclusion (12:8-14) particularly in 12:10 where the Narrator views the task of the Teacher to be a good attempt at understanding life under the sun, but ultimately he failed to reach his goal (I prefer the translation of the NASB here “The Teacher sought to find delightful words and to write words of truth correctly.“).
The Narrator also gives a warning to his son (and the reader) about the words of the Teacher. He says (1:11-12) the words of the wise are like goads and nails: ie. a bit sharp and prickly. The Teacher shows us that adding to them is dangerous and endless study [searching for meaning] is a weariness.
The Narrator then puts the book into perspective and gives the reader a framework for understanding the Teacher’s words “The conclusion of the matter: “Fear God and keep his commandments”.
The voice of the Teacher:
This is the voice of despair and pessimism at life under the sun. He’s a man searching in vain to find meaning in the world that exists under the sun. He’s frustrated with the limitation of human understanding. He’s despondent with the brevity of life. And he’s almost paralysed by his own inability to fathom the ways of the God he believes in. So the Teacher is someone who believes in God (even though he never mentions the personal name for the God of Israel – YHWH).
He’s not an Atheist but he is searching for meaning in life from a purely human perspective… That is, looking at life from “under the sun” and not from God’s perspective. This should set some alarm bells ringing for people who have read the other classic wisdom book of the OT: Proverbs. Because “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (wisdom).” (Prov. 1:7), and that means looking at the world from God’s perspective. We should be careful what we do with the words of the Teacher.
Even though the book has an almost overwhelming theme of pessimism from the voice of the Teacher, it’s actually not a pessimistic book in itself… because it’s the conclusion in 12:13 that shapes the book as a whole.
Here’s some other factors to consider:
Is the Teacher king Solomon?
Probably not. The voice of the Teacher is unlikely to be the actual voice of King Solomon (or any king of Israel for that matter). Instead, it’s a type of fictional biography written in Solomon’s persona (which seems to have been a completely acceptable genre in the Ancient Near East (ANE). However, the identification of the Teacher with Solomon does mean that we need to take the Teacher and his views seriously and not just dismiss his words as the ravings of a foolish mad man.
So, if it’s not actually written by king Solomon, and the Teacher ‘s observations aren’t from God’s perspective… What is Ecclesiastes doing in the Bible?
The purpose of Ecclesiastes:
Well, there 2 purposes of the book. They are:
- To help the reader identify with the Teacher’s pessimistic view of life under the sun and to see how life is meaningless when this is the only view of life. This helps us see life is meaningless we don’t view the world from God’s perspective, and it moves us towards trusting God and his sovereignty over all life.
- To help the reader see the satire of the Teacher’s observations as he flip-flops in his ‘wisdom’ and ultimately does not fulfill his goal to “understand by wisdom all that is done under the heavens” (1:13). This helps us to see a reflection of our own foolish attempts at wisdom and understanding, and again we are moved toward trusting God and his sovereignty over all life.
What did ecclesiastes mean to people in the OT?
For the OT reader, the conclusion is that life viewed from under the sun leads to meaninglessness and that worldly wisdom is foolish. Therefore “Fear God and keep his commandments” means as it does elsewhere in the OT (esp. Deuteronomy, Job and Proverbs) to trust God who can see more of life than we can, and look at life from his perspective.
What does Ecclesiastes mean to people in the NT (to us)?
The NT reader draws the same conclusion that life viewed from under the sun leads to meaninglessness and that worldly wisdom is foolish. But “Fear God and keep his commandments” now means trust Jesus. The NT reader can unpack what “Fear God and keep his commandments” looks like because Jesus has revealed the wisdom of God and showed us life from God’s perspective in more fullness.
Reading Ecclesiastes with a friend or teaching the book:
When you read or teach the book you should help people identify with the truthfulness of the Teacher’s observations of life under the sun (that life bites and then you die!). Often when I read Ecclesiastes I find myself agreeing with the Teacher and saying “Yes! I get what you mean! Life does feel like that sometimes...”. But… you can’t stop there. You also need to see the foolishness of such a limited view and move beyond the words of the Teacher to the words of Jesus. Jesus shows us how to view this world so that we may indeed fear God and keep his commands, that is, we are shown how to be in a trusting relationship with God through Jesus.
In a way, Ecclesiastes is quite an evangelistic book because the Teacher’s view on life identifies well with a world that has always struggled to find meaning apart from the fullness of God’s revelation. Ecclesiastes is able to make that connection with the contemporary world and then point them to fear God, keep his commands, meaning: look to Jesus and trust him.