EDITOR’S NOTE: This groundbreaking series is being offered in celebration of a previously top-secret project and now unprecedented new 3-Volume book series (over 10-years in the making) from best-selling scholar Dr. Thomas Horn and biblical history and theology majors Donna Howell and Allie Anderson: THE MYSTERY OF JESUS FROM GENESIS TO REVELATION—YESTERDAY, TODAY, AND TOMORROW
Shifting our attention to Ecclesiastes—especially after being immersed in the instructional tone of Proverbs—is a sharp, almost painful transition. Up to this point, our book has been positive, focusing on the beautiful picture of our Savior and how He is the magnificent, majestic answer to everything.
If you must, put your hands over your ears and imagine you don’t hear the deafening noise of the squealing breaks as our book screeches to a halt on the highway of happiness, but whatever you do, don’t stop reading. Ecclesiastes is not only necessary for believers despite its seemingly endless negativity, it’s crucial because of its negativity. Without looking deeper, the entire book feels like a long rant about how everything in the world is “meaningless” and every pursuit in this life is “vanity.” (Seriously. Have you read it?!) Those who believe Jesus’ “forsaken” inquiry at the cross was the most uncomfortable moment in the Word probably haven’t yet read Ecclesiastes…
The outline of all twelve chapters (without repeats) of Ecclesiastes spells a message about like this: human efforts in every area are vain; self-indulgence doesn’t satisfy; hard work is merely chasing after the wind; mankind has no advantage over animals (or beasts) because, in the end, they both die; there is much evil and oppression in the world; wealth and honor don’t amount to much; having everything the heart desires doesn’t make one content; the wicked can live long lives and prosper; both the wise and the foolish end up dead in the ground; nobody is truly righteous; humanity will never fully understand the mysteries of God; no one will ever find gratification in the pursuit of wisdom; everybody’s gonna die; and everyone faces judgment…but we should still follow God’s rules. (We’re not kidding. That’s how the book ends. The number of times Solomon declares something is “meaningless” can be a bit overwhelming—especially for readers who are who new to the book. See Ecclesiasties 1:14; 2:1, 11, 15, 17, 19, 21, 23, 26; 3:19; 4:4, 7, 8, 16; 5:7, 10; 6:2, 4, 9, 11, 12; 7:6, 15; 8:10, 14; 9:9; 11:8, 10.)
In short, nothing really matters and life has no meaning.
Just remember, we didn’t write it.
But before we assume Ecclesiastes has no merit other than to depress people, it’s important to understand that we can find out one of the most important fulfillments of Christ by studying this book! Also, the book’s not only about pessimism, as we’re about to address. The “good news” of Ecclesiastes comes with understanding that the shockwave caused by the book’s “meaninglessness of the whole universe” claims were intentional.
The writer knew very well what he was doing and how to get people’s attention…with a form of literature that is now extinct across the globe.
Whoa, wait just a second, you guys. Are you saying there’s something about Ecclesiastes that Christians typically don’t know? Are you suggesting there’s some mystery behind the book that has yet to be unlocked, and you authors know about it?
As a matter of cold, hard fact, that is precisely what we’re saying…and it’s a doozy of a secret! However, we don’t want to keep this secret locked. We hope the true purpose behind Ecclesiastes—a purpose inadvertently hidden throughout centuries of the Church’s historical emphasis on only reading the canonical books—will be brought out into the open by folks just like you. Let’s dig in, and you’ll see what we mean.
As stated, Solomon is considered the author of Ecclesiastes, according to tradition. As a man of excessive wealth and one who appeared to have full access to every material luxury available, it’s incredibly significant that he couldn’t find gratification in any single thing. But, unlike a lot of folks since the time of Adam who fake piety and pretend to be happy with life because they think it sounds sanctimonious and pleasing to God, Solomon didn’t attempt to censor how he really felt about life and the world, and he certainly didn’t worry about who he might offend with his directness.
In that sense, Ecclesiastes forces believers to be honest. How often do we hear, “Hey, how you doin’?” In many cases, that universal form of greeting produces an outright lie: “Good! You?” We say it, though, because it’s polite and expected, but it isn’t always true. Solomon, considering his mindset at the time he was writing Ecclesiastes, would likely have said, “What does it matter how I’m doing? Every activity and endeavor of life is irrelevant, trivial, tedious, and hollow, and in the end, we die. You?”
We can see the smile fading from the other person’s face as their countenance falls and they walk away. (These authors understand this greeting is as common as “hello,” and we understand that the one asking isn’t usually genuinely soliciting a long and literal answer, so we’re not suggesting that our readers need to feel guilt for participating in this jovial exchange in this way. We’re merely using this illustration to magnify the brutal honesty of Solomon’s writing.)
In another sense, however, once we’ve decided to be as crudely honest as Solomon was in this work, Ecclesiastes addresses the symptom of the human condition that we all face. Although there are, without doubt, happy moments in life—Christmas morning, theme-park vacations, fancy dinners, marriage proposals, puppies and kittens, ice cream, frolicking at the beach, or that one time you (insert your “cheery memory” here)—life’s disappointments can come hard and fast, reminding us all too soon that the contentment we find on this planet is fleeting. Nothing—absolutely nothing—can fill us with gladness on a permanent basis if it originates from this world. Most of us don’t like admitting this, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
But what if Ecclesiastes isn’t what people think it is? What if there is another explanation for its murky, dreary words?
|A fact many don’t know (because unfortunately, it’s never taught anymore) is that Solomon was following a writing style customary in the ancient Near East, literally termed “pessimism literature” (alternatively, “pessimistic philosophy”). Today, some readers take in the words of Ecclesiastes and think, Man, what is this guy’s problem? But the tradition of pessimism literature traces back to at least 2000 BC, as antique Egyptian and Mesopotamian texts show.[i] (Related works include the Egyptian The Good Fortune of the Dead, A Dispute Over Suicide, and The Satire on the Trades.)
Specific to Egypt, rulers would explore the unanswered questions of life, blame their many gods for being unfair, characterize the heroes of their religion as being distant and aloof to the problems of the world, and finally, through the process, attempt to find answers to the social and political problems they confronted in daily life. Thus, the purpose of pessimism literature was ultimately to explore difficulties and then show transparency to the people while the government worked out a fix for them (although it could be debated whether the “answers” led to any real solutions, and some of these texts never arrived at remedy at all). It’s irony at its finest, but the result of these writings was optimistic: Negativity, doubt, and cynicism were the framework upon which a positive message could be constructed. More simply: You can’t fix a dilemma until you admit that you have a dilemma. Beginning in or around ancient Egypt, kings would use pessimism literature to address these problems, make sure everyone knew it was “the gods’ fault,” and then produce an optimistic response, kind of like a “State of the Union Address” would for Western politicians today.
The writer of Ecclesiastes, however, doesn’t blame God for the predicament of this mortal plane. In fact, the very end of the book reveals great hope (note that references to “the preacher” are believed to be King Solomon):
And moreover, because the preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yea, he…set in order many proverbs. The preacher sought to find out acceptable words: and that which was written was upright, even words of truth. The words of the wise are as goads [sticks that the ancients poked animals with to make them move; the word-picture here is that the words of the wise provoke people to action], and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd. And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh. Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:8–14)
In the end, God knows who is up to no good, and that activity will be revealed in eternity. Fearing the Lord and obeying what He asks of us is, Solomon says, “the whole duty of man” in this beautiful arrangement.
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The whole duty of man.
We don’t have to do anything else. We have the easy part, while God took on the hard part. Our sole requirement while we occupy bodies of flesh is to trust God and let Him do what He’s perfect at. Again, it’s ironic, but the point is: Life can be as easy and as enjoyable as that! It’s a pleasure to serve God, so if we live to accomplish that, then life is pleasurable!
Solomon’s whole goal, in following the tradition of the “pessimism literature” of his day, was to produce a holy counterpart to Israel’s secular, pagan neighbors! Its work is “a reply to the unrelieved pessimism of much ancient thought.”[ii] Though the “tone” and “attitude” of Ecclesiastes rubs us wrong in the contemporary Western world, that is most certainly not how it would have landed with original readers who were familiar with that type of literature. Solomon’s bookworms would have seen Ecclesiastes as an exploration of humanity similar in tone to other literature of the day, and they would have recognized its God-fearing tone and inflexible insistence on serving Yahweh as the answer to all of life’s hardships. Ecclesiastes serves the purpose of exalting our One and Only God above all others.
Earlier in this work, we talked about God leading Abraham all the way up the mountain to sacrifice his son, Isaac, to illustrate His rebuke of such a practice. It was an Almighty “smackdown” of what the pagans of Ur (Abraham’s former culture) were up to. God wasn’t endorsing, or even entertaining the idea of, human sacrifice. He used the journey up the mountain to make His replacement sacrificial system stick with Abraham in a way he could never forget. Here, Solomon leads readers all the way up a mountain of pessimism well known to his readers and the pagans of his day to find answers to human problems to rebuke the negative attitude brought on by relying on one’s self to find answers! It’s an Almighty “smackdown” of the way kings in Solomon’s day and age would handle the problems of the people. Solomon wasn’t endorsing, or even entertaining the idea of, the pursuit of happiness through “gods” or human means. He used the journey of his book to make his optimistic teaching stick with his readers in a way they can never forget!
And, in the end, God is always the answer.
Ha! Who knew Ecclesiastes was written to dispute and defy the hopelessness of those who adhered to the pagan religions? (If you’re a pastor, please preach this!)
To be fair, this is not all to say the rest of the book that reads in a melancholy way wasn’t honestly felt and personally experienced by the author. The darkness is so expertly articulated it could only come from one who had gone through tremendous dissatisfaction. And from what we know of Solomon, he really did have it all, so for him to say that nothing on earth meant anything in the light of eternity stands as the highest example of how earthly pursuits really are, well, vain. He was, as they say, “a real man” for saying so during a time when retributional justice (refer to the study of Job) was the expectation of the Hebrews.
But the miracle of the book is in Solomon’s unwavering conclusion that he does actually have the answer…whereas the neighboring kings did not. They were doomed to continue searching, expecting that this tweak to the law over here or that adjustment of governmental policy over there would bring answers the people could believe. The fact that pessimism literature ever became a distinct form of writings for the royals is proof that it never worked. If it had, there would have been one book everyone could consult for guidance on addressing the problems of life, and there wouldn’t have been any need for multiple manuscripts. In other words, the existence of so many differing texts is a testimony of their failure.
Perhaps now you can understand why there is only one pessimism-literature category of books in the Bible. It was the answer; no other “explorations” were necessary.
Do you see? Solomon was being optimistic! He had the answers nobody else had! Ecclesiastes is so misunderstood…
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As far as what any of this has to do with Jesus, the answer is probably obvious, but we will state it anyway, because it’s just too good not to: If all of life absent God is “meaningless,” “vanity,” and a “chasing after the wind,” then the presence of God in our lives causes the opposite. Life with God is not meaningless, he’s the meaning of it all; living apart from Him is not vanity, it’s exceedingly valuable; and tackling life without the Lord—which is futile, like chasing after the wind—brings abundant life, and it’s worth every effort we make to chase after Him! Ecclesiastes was, of course, written before the promised Messiah arrived and completed the work of salvation on the cross, so Solomon’s book bleeds with an even more powerful message of evangelism than it did then.
But don’t take our word for it. As one scholar notes:
[Ecclesiastes] is thus both an evangelistic tract, calling secular people to face the implications of their secularism, and a call to realism, summoning faithful Israelites to take seriously the “futility,” the “enigma” of life in this world. It forbids both secularism (living as though the existence of God has no practical usefulness for life in this world) and unrealistic optimism (expecting faith to cancel out life as it really is). Negatively, it warns us that “faith” is always a contrast to “sight” and does not provide us with a short cut fully to understand the ways of God. Positively, it calls us to a life of faith and joy.[iii]
If ever there was a book that saw reality for what it is in relationship to God, Ecclesiastes is it. Jesus is the conqueror of all life’s frustrations. Without the Gospel, life is pointless. All is meaningless and vain, just as the wealthiest and wisest king of Israel said. The world is insecure, chaotic, and temporary. Revisiting the outline of Ecclesiastes with fresh perspective shows us just how true that is. Again, with just the pessimistic bits that many question, and avoiding material that is repeated in several areas, let’s look at the harsh words “the preacher” has to say about this temporal life, with contemporary rephrasing:
A generation comes and goes, and many are forgotten; the sun rises and sets, just to go back to where it rose; the wind blows in all directions, simply to return to its circuit; the streams lead to the sea, but the seas are never full; the eye never sees, and the ear never hears, enough to satisfy them; those who have gone before us have already experienced essentially all there is to experience in the world and there is nothing new under the sun; things are crooked and lacking; the very pursuit of wisdom exposes the lack thereof forever, leading to a vexed, exasperating thirst for more that no man can ever satiate; the increase of knowledge is the increase of sorrow (Ecclesiastes 1).
A quest for pleasure is superficial, leading only to emptiness; houses, vineyards, gardens, parks, pools, servants, livestock, silver, gold, women (or men)—none of it matters; hard work is just toil that never pays more than a salary, which cannot serve man other than to fill his pockets with the money he will spend on the items that titillate his hunger for fulfillment; the wise man breathes his last breath the same as the fool; life is to be hated when there is nothing to gain from it (Ecclesiastes 2).
Humanity cannot comprehend the cyclic timing of God’s creation; even the most righteous have some wickedness in their hearts; as beasts die, so, too, do people, so one is not superior to the other if this earthly life is all that counts (Ecclesiastes 3).
The oppressed are everywhere, and many will never have a friend to dry their tears; toil and hard work never lead to an end, as one must simply continue to work for life; people are lonely; even kings fail their kingdoms despite their best efforts, leaving nothing but a failed legend and a spotted record of their lives and reign (Ecclesiastes 4).
It’s no surprise that there is an abortion of justice on earth; monetary investments often don’t pan out; nothing we accumulate in this life can follow us into the next, so there is no point in such collection (Ecclesiastes 5).
There is much evil in this world to burden mankind; without regard to an eternity, life means as much as a passing shadow (Ecclesiastes 6).
The fullness of wisdom is always far from us; the perfect spouse or human companion cannot fix or fulfill this overwhelming search for more (Ecclesiastes 7).
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No one has power over death; war will always be waged between mere humans; sickness and disease will forever affect our health while we live; the praises of mankind’s achievement are only vanity; justice against evil in this life takes too long, encouraging the wicked to continue in their iniquity; malicious people can still live longer and more prosperously than the meek and righteous; good people get what bad ones deserve, and bad people get what good ones deserve, so we may as well give up and eat, drink, and be merry; we will never understand all that transpires in this life (Ecclesiastes 8).
Being righteous or evil, wise or foolish, clean or unclean, obedient or disobedient to the Law and sacrifices, keeping or breaking promises—nothing can purchase an extension of this life or guarantee we will not be forgotten by those who come after us; not even our wisdom can be carried past the grave; we cannot rely on our expectations, because the unexpected will occur as soon as we do (Ecclesiastes 9).
Foolishness has a payoff against wisdom, just as dead flies in an expensive perfume makes it stink; foolishness makes its home in high places, just like a prince who walks the road like a slave; one who digs a hole will fall into it, while one who tears down a wall will be bitten by the snake whose home was disturbed; the person who cuts stones at a quarry will be hurt by the stones, and this is true of the person who splits logs; a dull blade requires more physical strength to wield; the snake charmer who takes too long to charm a wild snake will be bitten, and the advantage of the charmer is lost; woe to the kingdom whose king is a child; the lazy person’s home will spring a leak; no gossip will ever remain a secret forever (Ecclesiastes 10).
If you throw your bread into the water, it will come back to annoy you upon the waves in a few days, so instead, share your substance, because nobody knows what’s about to happen; full clouds will rain; a tree that falls will lay there; those who merely sit and watch the wind will not sow, and those who merely sit and watch the rain will not reap; we can’t fully understand how a baby’s bones are knitted together in a mother’s womb, so we can’t understand the ways of God who makes them; a long life may understandably bring rejoicing, but it will also bring days of darkness and despair; everyone looks forward to inevitable judgment; so stop worrying about things like youth, because it is in vain (Ecclesiastes 11).
So remember the Creator while you’re young before all these disappointments hit you and you find yourself saying you find no pleasure in your days; people go to their eternal home, and mourning is in the streets at their passing; when their spirits return to the God who gave them life in the first place, all these things will be revealed as vanity, nothing but vanity; as I taught my people knowledge, weighing and studying and compiling proverbs carefully, I set out to write happy thoughts and words of delight, but instead I wrote truth; the words of the wise inspire people to action, and the words of wisdom I have provided this world are as solidly fixed as a nail fully driven in; beware of anything beyond wisdom, because books will always abound in number, but worthless knowledge makes people weary; in the end, as a final statement, I leave you with this: Fear God, keep His commandments, because this is the sole purpose and duty we have in this life—God sees all, and ultimately, He will expose every deed, whether good or evil, because nothing is secret on judgment day (Ecclesiastes 12).
So is Solomon cynical? Absolutely, a thousand times, yes. Is he negative? Not even a little bit. He’s honest about worldly pursuits that do not take the afterlife into consideration.
Can we find any good news or positive thinking in the Ecclesiastes?
Well, apart from the most obvious message that the Father, and now the Son in our time, is the answer to everything (which should be enough by itself)…now that you mention it, yes.
One major, reoccurring statement in Ecclesiastes is the benefit of wisdom. As only a few examples among many: “Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness” (2:13). “For the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money, and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of him who has it” (7:12); “Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good” (9:18).
Solomon also provided specific patterns for how wisdom works in practical ways, like his comment about the lazy homeowner: “Through sloth the roof sinks in, and through indolence the house leaks” (10:18).
He recognized the good things that come in life (see? he acknowledges happy moments!) are from God and should therefore be enjoyed: “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God” (2:24); “Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do” (9:7; this verse refers to the reward of those who charitably care for the poor). And this sort of enjoyment is brought up a surprising number of times for a “pessimist” (see: 3:12; 3:22; 5:18; 8:15; 11:7–12:1).
Amazingly, the wise king endorsed random acts of enjoyment between his discourses about “vanity”: “Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun. So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all” (11:7–8).
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In perhaps the most powerful and oft-referenced portion of the book, Solomon acknowledged the seasons and “the time for everything under heaven,” expressing that God has everything under control, He “has made everything beautiful in its time,” and “whatever [He] does endures forever” (3:1–8, 11, 14).
It’s also critical to note that, when Solomon is at his most negative, he speaks in the past tense: “So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind” (2:17); “And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive” (4:2). “Hated,” “thought”: The fact that these feelings are in the past tells us that, when he reaches the finale, he will have overcome these struggles with a new message: There is hope for one who trusts in the sovereignty of Yahweh!
We’ve said it before, and we reserve the right to say it as many times as needed until we all can grab hold of this truth and put it into practice: We must not isolate any verses from their context, nor should we draw sensitive or offensive conclusions from our scriptural studies without knowing the material’s historical and cultural background. To do otherwise results in nothing less than a violent abuse of Scripture.
Everything “the preacher” said was true. All the horrible things he said about our experience as mortals may not make us feel the warm fuzzies, but they are nonetheless words of pure, unadulterated, undiluted fact: Life without Christ is as depressing, abysmal, unfulfilling, superficial, unsatisfying, unrewarding, thankless, and fruitless as the worst volumes of the pessimism literature state. The breath in our lungs will cease, and all we can plead for is…an afterlife that balances it all and finally settles the score.
Thankfully, we have that in Christ. He is the answer to all our blessed hope, and His gracious role in our world simply never stops giving.
We hope this reflection has changed the way readers will view Ecclesiastes in the future. Yet, it is not the only one of Solomon’s writings that is often grievously misinterpreted. In fact, the wise king created quite a humdinger with the Song of Solomon.
UP NEXT: Jesus in the Song of Solomon
[i] Fee, Gordon D., & Hubbard, R. L., Jr. (Eds.)., Eerdmans Companion to the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: Eerdmans, 2011), 365.
[ii] Carson, D. A., R. T. France, J. A. Motyer, & G. J. Wenham (Eds.), New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition (4th ed., Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity, 1994), 609.
[iii] Ibid., 610.