An Introduction to Ecclesiastes
1 The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: 2 “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” 3 What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun? 4 Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. 5 The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. 6 The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. 7 All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. 8 All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. 9 What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. 10 Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. 11 There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.
Every person in life is on a search to find meaning and fulfillment.
Every person is seeking to find their own place in this world, somewhere that they can fit in.
Somewhere that they can feel that they make a difference…
What tends to happen is that people find something that can bring them a measure of joy
1. The Author
1. The Author
As we begin our study this morning in Ecclesiastes, I’d like to turn our attention firstly to the author of this book.
In verse 1, we read this:
1 The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:
The first descriptor that the author gives of himself in that verse is “The Teacher.”
More traditionally, this was translated as “the Preacher” (and you’ll see that if you have the KJV, ESV or NASB).
In the original Hebrew, the word is qohelet, probably meaning “participant in an assembly”, or perhaps “one who assembles” (a group).
In this context, it is evident that we have here a leader of an assembly of people, and he calls this assembly together, and will teach them from his own experiences of life.
Gather around, he says to the Israelites.
Come and listen to the words of the Teacher, and let me show you what this life has taught me.
And so this book is recorded for us in Scripture, and the teacher speaks today, not to the Israelite assembly, but to the assembly of God’s people, the church.
And this great teacher has much to tell us.
And so we’re invited to come and listen to the teacher, as he will teach us about vanity in this life, and ultimately, where we may find satisfaction in this life.
But we might ask, “Who is this teacher, and what gives him the qualification or authority to presume to be able to teach us something about life?”
To begin with, we must acknowledge that nowhere in this book did the author give his actual name.
In that sense, it could be argued that we don’t know who the author is.
Many, especially in more recent times, claim that we do not know who the author in fact.
But what he does do is give us an indication as to his identity, by using the designations “son of David” and “king in Jerusalem”
In verse 12 of chapter 1 again, he writes:
12 I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem.
So here was a king who was ruler over Israel in Jerusalem.
And here was someone who was the “son of David”.
Most likely, and what most interpreters have held to historically, was that the son that is referred to is David’s direct son, Solomon.
Certainly, this is the most fitting and probable person based on the descriptions that we find of this Teacher through the book of Ecclesiastes.
Just by way of example of the claims that the author made about himself...
He claimed to have great wealth.
He was a man of great wisdom...
13 I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven. What a heavy burden God has laid on men!
Over and over in the book, the author writes of his wisdom, of his search for wisdom, and of use of wisdom in discerning the things that take place in this life.
Indeed, the book finds itself in Scripture within the “Wisdom literature” (along with Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs)
As we consider these (and other) descriptions of this king, we certainly would be driven to conclude that the likelihood of the author being Solomon is high indeed.
The descriptions are fitting of Solomon.
In terms of wealth, we read in...
14 The weight of the gold that Solomon received yearly was 666 talents,
(666 talents = 25 tons per year)
In terms of wisdom, we read in...
29 God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore. 30 Solomon’s wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the men of the East, and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt.
24 The whole world sought audience with Solomon to hear the wisdom God had put in his heart.
In 1 Kings 10:23, we read of both the riches and wisdom of Solomon together...
23 King Solomon was greater in riches and wisdom than all the other kings of the earth.
This is the Teacher, then, that assembles the people together in order to teach them.
This great king Solomon, who I would suggest is only exceeded in history by Jesus Christ himself (in terms of wisdom, not wealth!!) is the teacher.
It was out of this perspective of being such a great king, unequalled in wealth and worldly possessions, unequaled in terms of anything that this world could offer to bring a person satisfaction, that Solomon wrote these words that he did.
I would suggest to you that his position, his wisdom and his wealth made him most suitably qualified to write in the way he did, and to give us the advice that he does.
As we work our way through Ecclesiastes, we will get the distinct impression that this is the kind of book a person would write near the close of life, reflecting on life’s experiences and the lessons learned.
Solomon probably wrote Proverbs (Prov. 1:1; 1 Kings 4:32) and the Song of Solomon (1:1) during the years he faithfully walked with God, particularly the earlier years of his life.
Near the end of his life, he wrote Ecclesiastes.
He wrote Proverbs from the viewpoint of a wise teacher (Proverbs 1:1–6)
He wrote Song of Solomon from the viewpoint of a royal lover (Song of Solomon 3:7–11)
But here in Ecclesiastes, he calls himself “the Preacher” (1:1, 2, 12; 7:27; 12:8–10).
The word Koheleth carries with it the idea of debating, not so much with the listeners as with himself.
He would present a topic, discuss it from many viewpoints, and then come to a practical conclusion.
Ecclesiastes may appear to be a random collection of miscellaneous ideas about a variety of topics, but Solomon assures us that what he wrote was orderly (12:9).
9 Not only was the Teacher wise, but also he imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs.
2. The Aim (v.2-3)
2. The Aim (v.2-3)
So having considered who the author is of this letter, and how he is so suitably qualified to be teaching us what he does in this letter, we must turn our attention to what his aim is in his teaching.
What does this great Preacher seek to show his gathered audience as he teaches them?
What has he learnt through his experiences in life?
Right up front in his book, he gives people this kind of “summary” of what it is that he has learnt in his life “under the sun.”
In verse 2, we read these words...
2 “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”
The NIV uses the word “Meaningless”.
This is probably not the best way to translate.
NASB, KJV, ESV etc - translate this as “Vanity”.
Everything in this world, according to the author, is vanity.
In the ESV:
2 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
This then is a key thought throughout the book - that everything in this world, without the correct perspective, is vanity.
In Ecc 12:8, we read again...
8 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity.
Solomon used the word “vanity” thirty-eight times in this book.
It is the Hebrew word hevel, meaning “emptiness, futility, vapor.”
Solomon speaks here about things that disappear quickly.
They are there one moment, and gone the next, and they bring no lasting and meaningful satisfaction.
The same word “hevel” is used in Psalm 39:11
11 You rebuke and discipline men for their sin; you consume their wealth like a moth— each man is but a breath. Selah
4 Man is like a breath; his days are like a fleeting shadow.
In James 4:13-14, we read James speaking about the brevity of life in these words.
13 Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” 14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.
This is the idea that Preacher has in his mind.
As smoke from a fire billows up into the sky and disappears, so this life, and so everything that takes place in this life, is vanity.
What Solomon does in this book of Ecclesiastes is that he looks back on his life (a life that by any worldly standards was full) and he looks back on everything that the world had to offer, and he marvels at the utter vanity, futility of it all.
All his own endeavours in this world (and he achieved things that we can barely dream of achieving)...
All the works and labours of his hands....
All of the pleasures in this world that he engaged in (and he experienced the pleasures of this world in abundance).
But the ultimate conclusion that he comes to in verse 2, and through most of this book, is that these endeavors are futile.
They are in vain.
It is as if everything that one does under the sun is utter futility.
In verse 3, he asks the question...
3 What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun?
There is a description there of the life of man in this world being “toil under the sun.”
We as people are toiling in this world under the sun.
Through this book, Solomon discusses a host of vanities—various things that are “meaningless” when considered from this perspective of life “under the sun.”
He look at human wisdom, and advancing in wisdom and knowledge.
For example in Ecc 2:15, he writes…
15 Then I thought in my heart, “The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise?” I said in my heart, “This too is meaningless.”
He looks at labor itself, for example in Ecc. 2:17–23. In verse 17 he writes...
17 So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
He evaluates the pursuit of material goods in this life, and in Ecc 2:26 he writes...
26 To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
He evaluates the labour of the hands of people, and determines that really most of it flows from a competitive spirit.
It is simply competition.
In Ecc 4:4 he writes...
4 And I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
He looks at power and authority in the world...
He looks at the greed of man...
10 Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless.
He looks at wealth and accolades...
1 I have seen another evil under the sun, and it weighs heavily on men: 2 God gives a man wealth, possessions and honor, so that he lacks nothing his heart desires, but God does not enable him to enjoy them, and a stranger enjoys them instead. This is meaningless, a grievous evil.
Well, doesn’t this sound like an exciting book...
Something to really lift the spirits!!
We’re not going to find this book being preached in the prosperity Gospel church are we?!
But friends, I wonder if you have ever encountered that thinking in your own mind.
What is the purpose of life?
Why is it that you labour and strive in this world, hoping to achieve something of significance, at least in your own little world, but it just seems to be of such little value.
You feel so insignificant.
Your life seems so insignificant....
You set yourself a goal in life, and you work towards it, and perhaps even achieve it, but does that bring lasting fulfillment?
It may bring a momentary joy and sense of accomplishment, but ultimately that disappears, and then you’re on to the next achievement...
What is the purpose of this life, particularly when we look at all the trials?
What is the purpose of all ones efforts and achievement, only to have it fail, or perhaps to have it fade away, or perhaps to have your efforts benefit someone else who didn’t even put in the hard work!?
These are the kinds of questions that people ask in life, and if you haven’t asked them yet, the likelihood is that you will still ask the question, at least if you’re honest with yourself.
Whether Solomon considers his wealth, his works, his wisdom, or his world, he comes to the same sad conclusion: all is “vanity and vexation of spirit” (2:11).
But friends, I think this is precisely what makes Ecclesiastes so applicable.
It must surely resonate with us, if we honestly evaluate the way life seems to go in this world.
It really is a practical book for us today (as it has been a practical book in every day of human history).
The world continues to chase after satisfaction through whatever means they can find.
Ultimately, all of this will be vanity...
But that’s not really the end of the story in this book.
There is a phrase that occurs in this book repeatedly: “Under the sun.”
You will find this important phrase twenty-nine times in Ecclesiastes, and with it the phrase “under heaven” (1:13; 2:3; 3:1).
It really defines the outlook of the writer as he looks at life from a human perspective and not necessarily from heaven’s point of view.
He applies his own wisdom and experience to life in the world, and attempts to make sense of things from that perspective.
As we read this book, we must keep Solomon’s viewpoint in mind: he is examining life “under the sun.”
And the important point that we must recognise and learn through this study is that unless we have the correct perspective and the correct focal point in this life, then this life truly is vanity, a chasing after the wind.
G. Campbell Morgan summarizes Solomon’s outlook with these words:
“This man had been living through all these experiences under the sun, concerned with nothing above the sun … until there came a moment in which he had seen the whole of life. And there was something over the sun. It is only as a man takes account of that which is over the sun as well as that which is under the sun that things under the sun are seen in their true light” (Fleming H. Revell Company, 1961, p. 229).
As we come to this study in Ecclesiastes, we may think that the author of this book is overly pessimistic.
But if we truly understand the important point being made through the book, and the importance of what the Preacher is seeking to teach his audience, we will come away, I believe, with a deeper sense of the importance and significance of living our lives for Christ alone.
Yesterday, we watched the movie “American Gospel” together, and one of the key pictures that is brought across through that film is the prosperity Gospel teaching, wherein it is taught that God wants you healthy, God wants you wealthy, and God wants you prosperous.
Now if we’re good Bible believing Christians, who understand the entire message of the Scriptures properly, we won’t believe that.
At least we will say that we won’t believe that.
But how often don’t we practically live out a kind of prosperity Gospel because we ourselves are seeking for those very things that the prosperity Gospel offers.
Now we probably won’t say it outright that we desire those things.... but if we had to honestly look at ourselves and what it is that is bringing us joy, or where we are seeking joy and satisfaction from, do we not in our hearts have this same desire?
You see the prosperity gospel is so well followed after partly because it plays to the desires of people.
This is what they want.
And you and I, within our hearts, are very little different to any other person in terms of our heart desires.
In the Scriptures, we have the account in John 4 of the Samaritan woman coming to the well in order to draw water.
As she approaches the well, there she finds Jesus, resting as he is wearied from a long journey.
Jesus is alone there, and his disciples have gone into the town in order to purchase food for them, and Christ sits here at this well alone when the Samaritan woman approaches him.
The first thing we notice about this picture is that this woman is an outcast… she was coming alone to the well.
And she was coming at an unusual time - in the middle of the day.
This indicates to us that she was a social outcast - she was not gathering water with everyone else - which was usually a social gathering for the women, where they would talk together.
But she also lives in this time when sexual purity laws were very strict.
And as we learn, she had already had 5 husbands, and was now living with a man who was not her husband.
This was someone who had been searching for meaning in life herself.
One husband… hopes and dreams for this husband…
These don’t materialise.
No doubt there was hurt and pain in this woman’s life as she went through a divorce.
Then she married the second man.
Again, hopes and dreams that this man will bring some fulfilment in her life.
Yes again, it all ends in divorce and the associated hurts and pains that come with that.
And so she tried yet again with the third, fourth and fifth husbands… all ultimately failing.
And now she is with a man, unmarried… Alone and an outcast.
But as this conversation unfolds,
Jesus asks her to draw water… that is unusual.
9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” 11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?” 13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
Here then is the place where living water could be obtained, leading to never thirsting again!
Christ wasn’t saying here that she would never have to drink again physically.
He was saying that He Himself was the only one who could give true satisfaction in the world, true contentment.
People are searching high and low for contentment, for something to quench their continual thirst...
But there is only one place that this contentment may be found - in Christ.
Gerrit Gustafson, in his book “The Adventure of Worship” writes these words concerning our being called to worship God...
[God’s] rule, the exercise of His liberating power, is saturated with worship. You may be thinking, Who would refuse such a call? But before you sign on the dotted line, consider the next few thoughts. There is a disturbing, even dangerous, aspect to this call to worship… The call to worship is also an invitation to war. It is conscription into holy subversion. Not only are you going to see the true Heir enthroned, but you will also be involved in deposing a treacherous phony who, through an international scan involving a massive network of puppet pretenders, has convinced much of humanity to value and worship what is actually worthless. As you begin to route increasing quantities of worship toward God’s throne, you will be removing it from this jealous imposter and inspiring a rage that can only be understood by knowing the twisted passion of his heart: to supplant God as the ultimate object of worship. [2006:15]
Satan seeks to draw our eyes away from the worship of God, and to bring us to worship those things in life which cannot bring satisfaction.
In fact, this is precisely what happened in the Garden of Eden, as Satan tempted Eve to take of the forbidden fruit.
Adam and Eve in God were perfectly at peace with God, and they lived in the pinnacle of joy and satisfaction.
But Satan offered them something more… something better… he suggested that they could have greater satisfaction through eating of this fruit and becoming like God.
And so they ate… thinking that this would be better.
Instead, that one simple step cast the entirety of humanity under a curse....
And yet, humanity has not stopped searching for satisfaction outside of God.
In the book of Jeremiah, God says through his prophet:
11 Has a nation ever changed its gods? (Yet they are not gods at all.) But my people have exchanged their Glory for worthless idols. 12 Be appalled at this, O heavens, and shudder with great horror,” declares the Lord. 13 “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.
Have you perhaps dug your own cisterns, trying to find water, trying to hold water where it cannot be held?
That answer may not be that readily apparent - certainly the Israelites believed that they were worshipping God, when He says they were not at all.
I want to encourage us, as we begin our study in this book of Ecclesiastes, to truly evaluate ourselves, to search deeply within our hearts, and pray that God would truly show us our own hearts, to see if we are satisfied in Christ.
I don’t ask us to do this in order to make us feel guilty.
The point is for us to realise that we cannot find satisfaction outside of Christ.
And until we can recognise where we are truly placing our trust, we will not be in a position to turn our focus to Christ alone.
Augustine of Hippo wrote: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.”
May prayer as we embark on this study in Ecclesiastes, is that we would recognise that our rest will only come as we rest in Christ.
The meaning of life is found only in the true worship of the living God through His Son Jesus Christ.
May we recognise this all the more in our own lives, to the praise of His name!