Intro Notes to Ecclesiastes
King Solomon—reportedly the world’s wisest human ever—searches for the meaning of life. Like it’s a science project.
He writes up his finding:
There is no meaning. Humans exist. Then they die.
The contrarian’s Bible
This is one of those contrary books that doesn’t belong in the Bible, some Jewish scholars have said.
For one, it’s not kosher teaching. Human life is meaningless? He says it a lot. That’s depressing. Who would want to read a book like this on a rainy Monday morning after getting fired on Friday?
Besides, the book could sound like an insult to God. He created us. For what? We go from diapers to diapers, then dead. Saints or sinners, no difference. Dead.
And for another, the writer is a flake, to paraphrase Jewish scholars. They criticize him for sometimes saying one thing and later saying the opposite.
“I have a prescription for that craziness.
That’s the best thing you can do for yourself.
Eat, drink, and have fun” (Ecclesiastes 8:15).
“Laughing is insane. And having fun makes no sense” (Ecclesiastes 2:2).
If we need a reason not to laugh
“It’s better to go to a funeral
With a lot of people crying
Than to party with a lot of food.
We’re all going to end up dead.
We might as well accept it”(Ecclesiastes 7:2).
Did the writer know God?
Some Christian students of the Bible say the writer didn’t know much about God, if the man’s writing is any clue. So, they conclude that the point of the book is to show how bleak life is for people without a spiritual connection to God—and without the hope of an afterlife.
Yet the man mentions God scores of times, and he does it with respect:
- “Eat and drink—and to find a job you enjoy. All three, I concluded, are gifts from God” (Ecclesiastes 2:24).
- “If we stay on God’s good side, he’ll reward us with knowledge, wisdom, and joy” (Ecclesiastes 2:26)
- “Whatever God does will last forever” (Ecclesiastes 3:14).
Why are we here?
This writer is a Thinker. If nothing else, he seems to set aside all the sermons and Bible studies he has ever heard lectured into his face. And he chooses to ask the honest questions, which are often life’s hardest questions.
He wants to know why we’re here.
Why do we live, only to die? Why don’t we make a difference? Why will everyone forget us?
Tragically, this writer might say, if pressed: God isn’t big on answering “why” questions.
Without answers to these questions, the writer can’t make sense of life when the best that comes from it is ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Quite the downer. But with surprising uplifts. A bit like a dark hero in a novel. He knows he’s going to die, but he’s going to have good times before the bad times come.
Solomon’s bullets of wisdom
Let the good times roll.
- Enjoy your food and drinks (Ecclesiastes 2:24)
- Find a job you enjoy (2:24)
- Enjoy your life because you’ll be dead too soon (9:9)
- Eat, drink, and have fun” (8:15).
But this writer respects his Creator. And his final words show that he wants us to do the same.
- Respect God (12:13)
- Obey his laws (12:13)
“David’s son, the Scholar and King of Jerusalem, offers these observations” (Ecclesiastes 1:1). That’s a triple-dip clue pointing to David’s son and successor, King Solomon.
First dip: Solomon was David’s one son of many who became king.
Second: A Bible writer quoted God as saying he would make Solomon the wisest person in the world and in human history, past, present, and future (1 Kings 4:31).
That tracks with the title he gives himself in Ecclesiastes. In Hebrew, it’s Koheleth (co HELL et). A koheleth could be someone who convenes a meeting or teaches a class or gives a speech to an audience. English words that might describe this person: Teacher, Preacher, Scholar.
Third: Bible writers credit Solomon with writing 3,000 proverbs, which are often fortune-cookie-size snippets of insight and advice, like many in Ecclesiastes (1 Kings 4:32).
“Ecclesiastes” comes from the Greek word ekklesia, which means “assembly,” or “meeting.”
Solomon, not the writer?
Rabbis in Roman times (and the New Testament) generally seemed to accept Solomon as writer, though some opposed including this short in the Jewish Bible. Later scholars noticed Persian words in the text, which they said could date the book to 500 years after Solomon. Some scholars said they see Greek influences in the writing.
The oldest tattered piece of the book to survive is dated in the 100s BC. It was found among the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, in dry caves by the Dead Sea in the 1940s.
The story, whether fiction or fact, takes place during the lifetime of King Solomon. He ruled Israel for a generation, from about 970-930 BC.
Without using the name of “Solomon,” the writer identifies himself as King Solomon. He does this with strong hints (Ecclesiastes 1:1, 12, 16; 2:7, 9). For one, “I had more of everything than anyone in the history of Jerusalem (2:9). One Bible writer backs that up by reporting that Solomon was the richest king in the world (2 Chronicles 9:22).
The story seems to take place mainly in Israel, probably in the king’s palace in the capital city of Jerusalem.
Yet, this writer says he has been around the block a time or two. Some of his observations come from traveling:
“If you travel to a land where rulers treat people horribly and they reject justice, don’t be surprised. That’s how it works. One official covers for another—from the bottom to the top” (Ecclesiastes 5:8).
This book pits the wisest man who ever lived against the hardest question of all time. Solomon wants to know what on earth we’re doing here.
In other words, given the fact of death, what’s the point of life? Why bother?
“Nothing really matters because we all end up at the same place. Dead…What happens to good people will happen to sinners” (Ecclesiastes 9:2).
Wise as the writer says he is, he can make no sense of life.
But he does offer some advice:
- “Enjoy life” (Ecclesiastes 3:12).
- “Love God and obey his laws” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).