The book of Ecclesiastes is considered one of the most difficult books to understand by scholars, yet remains a favorite Bible book among younger Christians. Why is this? What is the discrepancy? Filled with passages that are admittedly hard to unravel, Ecclesiastes offers a fresh, modern-feeling insight into the deepest longings of the human spirit. As any young student begins to grow up and leave home, he or she will end up wrestling with the questions, “What is the point of my life? How can I find purpose in all of it all?” It is here that the book of Ecclesiastes shines as a light into the soul which longs for answers. The author of Ecclesiastes is not afraid to ask hard questions and to face the reality of the world in which he finds himself. Old Testament scholar Tremper Longman explains, “[The author of Ecclesiastes] expressed the uncertainty and anxieties of our own age… This issue is the fundamental one that all sensitive human beings must address.”
R.L. Schultz explains that the author “sets out to analyze and assess the activities of life ‘under the sun’ in order to discover what has lasting value in such a world.” If the intention of the author is to show how a life of self-fulfillment and pleasure apart from God is impossible and ultimately meaningless, then one can understand why a pessimistic view seems to be taken. Thebookis giving readers an honest assessment of life.
What the author discovers is that life is complicated. However, his purpose is to illumine the complications of life in order that the reader would seek a God-centered approach to life instead of a man-centered approach. Theauthors desire was to, as Gleason Archer explains, “convince men of the uselessness of any worldview which does not rise above the horizon of man himself.” Archer goes on to state that viewing personal happiness as the highest good is foolishness in light of the glory of God and His creation. The purpose set forth in Ecclesiastes can be seen in tracing three primary themes of the text; 1) The quest for meaning in life, 2) The fear of God, and 3) Enjoying life as a blessing from God.
Meaning In Life
Ecclesiastes opens with the well-known refrain “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity (1:2).” Likewise, the book closes with this refrain (12:8); the body of the book, then, is intended to explain why this slogan is important to the author. The slogan is not slowly introduced after a series of arguments, but acts as a shake-up, a wake-up call for the reader, as he is thrust into the midst of thisquest for meaning in life. Meaning that, so far, has eluded theauthor. He explains how he desired to find true meaning in seeking after wisdom (1:13), hedonistic pleasures (2:1), and wealth (2:8), yet in these pursuits, he finds meaning to be lacking. Therefore, he concludes that life is vain, life is futile. “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun (2:11).” Thomas Schreiner explains how the author’sexperience had the opposite effect than what he had hoped for; pleasure did not remove the feeling of emptiness in life. In fact, Schreiner explains, “The absurdity of life was even more evident, for, after satisfying every desire of the heart, it was plain to him that pleasure does not remove the ennui of life.” Instead of finding all of life’s meaning and fulfillment in the natural world, thewriter slowly learns to be content in life with God at the center.
The Fear of God
Throughout biblical wisdom literature, the themes of evil people triumphing and good people suffering is often contemplated. This is most clearly seen in the retribution principle. The retribution principle stated simply is, “If a person is righteous, he will prosper; if a person is wicked, he will suffer.” Although this principle does find biblical warrant, as in Deuteronomy 28, problems arise when one makes the principal a cut and dry, black and white rule that must always be held to. Ecclesiastes gives readers hope that while the wicked may prosper in life, they will give account before God. “Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him. But it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God (8:12-13).”
Therefore thebookencourages readers to remain faithful to God, to fear God, and to trust God. In doing so, the people can be sure that, as Schreiner explains, “Ultimately, one’s fear of God will be rewarded, even though one cannot see how this is so during this futile life under the sun.”
Enjoyment of Life’s Blessings
Throughout Ecclesiastes, the reader is encouraged to take delight in the good things of life. “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil (2:24; cf. 3:12-13; 5:18; 7:14).” This has caused some to believe that thebook’sphilosophy of life is too similar to Epicurean ideals. However, upon closer examination, thewriter is not raising up joy and pleasure as the end goals or some type of divine fulfillment. Rather, in the middle of toil and trouble, heis encouraging God-fearing people to find joy in good things as blessings from God. As James writes, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights (James 1:17).” As he encourages enjoyment, he reminds the reader “for apart from [God] who can eat or who can have enjoyment (2:25)?” Therefore, the book’sadmonition to enjoy life cannot be misconstrued as a materialistic, hedonistic worldview. Instead, it must be recognized that, as John Walton affirms, “Enjoyment of life comes not in the quest for personal fulfillment, but in the recognition that everything comes from the hand of God.”
Life lived apart from God is meaningless and is cause for a pessimistic outlook. However, when one submits to the truth of God, when one remembers Ecclesiastes admonition that “God is the one you must fear (5:7)”, even the drudgery of life has purpose.
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By Pastor Nick Jones
Maranatha Baptist Church
1320 E. Saguaro Dr. Globe, AZ