Why is this book in the Bible?
Some ask why the book of Ecclesiastics is even in the Bible? It is kind of depressing in places. But I believe that is the whole point. One way to summarize the book would be to say: “The consequences of living a life apart from God.” If we just live life and take God out of if, some of the things he expresses in the book would be things that we would experience and feel. And we see “God removed” a lot in this world. Even in our own lives, the farther and farther we get away from God, the more we get depressed, the more we focus in on the injustices, the bad. We begin to see life as a burden instead of seeing God in His creation and His glory in so many things.
Ecclesiastics can also be summarized by stating that it presents a worldview of those who ignore God or leave Him out of their lives. We see this so much in our world today. So much hopelessness, suicides, so much bad that is happening in our world. The sentiments echoed in this book are the philosophy and state of mind of so many people. But thank the Lord that we do have a hope. We have a sure firm foundation. As a result, the things that it talks about that bring fear or despair, they will not affect us if we put our faith in Him.
Intro to the book, the author
Ecclesiastics is the Greek name for this book. It is from the Greek, ekklesia, which means church, or assembly, people getting together to worship. The book also refers to the teacher, the leader, the guide, the sage. He is sharing wisdom from a religious perspective.
There is no consensus as to who wrote the book. Most scholars think it was king David’s son who also became king, Solomon, or that the person who wrote it acted like he was Solomon. As is the case for most of the books of the Bible, many theories are put out there as to who wrote it and why. To continue talking about the book, I will assume it was written by Solomon.
If Solomon is the author
1 Kings 3:7-14 is the good place to start: “Now, O LORD my God, you have made me king instead of my father, David, but I am like a little child who doesn’t know his way around. And here I am in the midst of your own chosen people, a nation so great and numerous they cannot be counted! Give me an understanding heart so that I can govern your people well and know the difference between right and wrong. For who by himself is able to govern this great people of yours?”
The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for wisdom. So God replied, “Because you have asked for wisdom in governing my people with justice and have not asked for a long life or wealth or the death of your enemies—I will give you what you asked for! I will give you a wise and understanding heart such as no one else has had or ever will have! And I will also give you what you did not ask for—riches and fame! No other king in all the world will be compared to you for the rest of your life! And if you follow me and obey my decrees and my commands as your father, David, did, I will give you a long life.”
Solomon’s petition, when God asked what he wanted, was for wisdom to govern this people. God is pleased with this request and promises to give him more wisdom than anyone ever has had or ever will have. Of course it is not the wisdom that God has, it is finite, and it is for a specific purpose. As we read through the book of Ecclesiastics we see that there are times when Solomon wishes he had even more wisdom. That is seen in quite a number of verses, for there are still many, many things that he does not know or understand, and that frustrates him at times. Again, that is true because the wisdom God gave him was for a specific purpose, and not divine, all-knowing wisdom. It was not to the extent, say, that he could answer all the questions God posed to Job in Job 38-41.
We know that despite all this wisdom, there are examples of him doing some very unwise things, such as at the end of his life marrying many foreign women who worship idols. 2 Kings 11:1: Now King Solomon loved many foreign women. Besides Pharaoh’s daughter, he married women from Moab, Ammon, Edom, Sidon, and from among the Hittites. 11:4-6: In Solomon’s old age, they turned his heart to worship other gods instead of being completely faithful to the LORD his God, as his father, David, had been. Solomon worshiped Ashtoreth, the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech, the detestable god of the Ammonites. In this way, Solomon did what was evil in the LORD’s sight; he refused to follow the LORD completely, as his father, David, had done.
Solomon took his eyes off the Lord and put his attention and efforts to the false gods of his wives, and we know that these idols cannot give peace, the kind of peace and comfort that only knowing and serving God can give. Those who turn their back on God can become completely confused. The same thing can happen today as we think of the many false gods of this world that people look to instead of the One True God. These false gods do not satisfy, and can lead people down all kinds of paths that are destructive, and can negatively affect their mental health. We can see that happening to Solomon in this book.
I would like to highlight some of these passages where Solomon is expressing what it is like to life a life without God, without His peace, His joy, His comfort, His hope. He tries to understand the world without considering God, or, as we will see, even at times considering God part of the problem. The “god of this world” can confuse us and make life seem worthless. It is probable that Solomon did not understand much about spiritual warfare, or the role of the devil in this world. It is not talked about too much in the Old Testament, other than Genesis 3, Job 1-2, the passage from Isaiah 14:12, etc. In contrast there are well over one hundred verses or more in the New Testament talking about the god of this world, the prince of this world, the confrontations Jesus had with evil spirits, the power satan has over people (Acts 26:19), the devil, the principalities and the powers, etc. For the most part, the people of the Old Testament did not understand this, thus did not understand why there are so many injustices in this world.
Cycles can be good or depressing depending on your perspective
The book starts out, specifically in 1:4-9, talking about things that, depending on your perspective and heart, can either be amazingly wonderful things that God has created and ordered or really tedious depressing cycles that do not go anywhere or accomplish anything. We can think of these verses as referring to circles. Circles that can be good or depressing depending on your perspective. Generations come and generations go, but the earth never changes. The sun rises and the sun sets, then hurries around to rise again. The wind blows south, and then turns north. Around and around it goes, blowing in circles. Rivers run into the sea, but the sea is never full. Then the water returns again to the rivers and flows out again to the sea. Everything is wearisome beyond description. No matter how much we see, we are never satisfied. No matter how much we hear, we are not content. History merely repeats itself. It has all been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new.
“Generations come and go. The sun rises and sets then does it all again the next day. The wind blows south then north, in circles. Rivers run into the sea but it is never full.” How does Solomon view these “marvelous, wonderful” happenings? Wearisome beyond description. Never satisfied. Never content. Repeating itself. All down before! Nothing truly new! This is actually a perspective that some have of this world. Their souls are tainted by all the suffering, injustices and wrong in the world. This is especially true when people leave out God or blame God. Again, this is the main theme of Ecclesiastics. What the world is like, what our life is like, if we leave God out of it all.
Chapter three, in one of the best known passages in the book, Solomon reflects on the cycles/circles of a time for everything: a time to be born and a time to die. A time to plant and a time to harvest. A time to kill and a time to heal. A time to tear down and a time to build up. A time to cry and a time to laugh. A time to grieve and a time to dance. A time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones. A time to embrace and a time to turn away. A time to search and a time to quit searching. A time to keep and a time to throw away. A time to tear and a time to mend. A time to be quiet and a time to speak. A time to love and a time to hate. A time for war and a time for peace.
In English many poems rhyme. In Hebrew, one way to get this type of poetic affect is to use parallelism or contrasts. For example, Psalms is full of this, like God being high and lifted up. Two concepts that are practically synonymous. Jesus’ discourse with Nicodemus, among others, also uses Hebraic parallelism. In Solomon’s list here, he is using contrasts to form his poetic prose: born/die, plant/harvest, kill/heal, etc. In the following verses he states that while God does make all things beautiful in His time, he concludes in vs. 12-13 that: there is nothing better than to be happy and enjoy ourselves as long as we can. And people should eat and drink and enjoy the fruits of their labor, for these are gifts from God. Solomon is observing the world, and while He knows there is a God, and He has a plan, much of life seems a burden and so people should try and be happy and enjoy themselves. While the theme is living a life without God, at other times it seems like he believes God has ordained to make life difficult, then at others, that fearing God is the best thing.
If Solomon wrote this near the end of his life, then he knew what it was like to be close to God, and what it was like to be far from Him. But if he did come back to God in the end (which even the evilest king Manasseh did, 2 Cron. 33:12-17), then the book of Ecclesiastics could be understood as being written at times from the viewpoint of recognizing God as God, but at other times, what it is like to live a life without taking God into account. At times we see God in a good light, while at others we note a type of fatalism, seeing God as ordaining a rough life and there is nothing we can do about it, as in 3:10: I have seen the burden God has placed on us all. We see quite a lot of bitterness entwined in this book, bitter at God for the way things seem to happen in this world. Despite His wisdom, many times he still just does not get it!
The heavy burden of having too much wisdom
Another thing that jumps out in Ecclesiastics are all the issues that come to his life because of all the wisdom he has. Usually we think of wisdom as only a positive thing, but there can be a lot of bad side-effects of having that much wisdom. Many of these negative aspects of wisdom jumped out to us as we were working on the translation into Mixtec. For example 1:16-18: I said to myself, “Look, I am wiser than any of the kings who ruled in Jerusalem before me. I have greater wisdom and knowledge than any of them.” So I set out to learn everything from wisdom to madness and folly. But I learned firsthand that pursuing all this is like chasing the wind. The greater my wisdom, the greater my grief. To increase knowledge only increases sorrow.
It says he learned everything from wisdom to madness and folly. He was learning not only good amazing things, but also all the awful stuff that there is to be learned. Another way to state this is: “I know all the good, but I also now know all about the evil and vile things of this world.” This is also a dangerous issue that our world is facing today. All the things we are or can be exposed to via television, the internet, video games, social media etc. Shows like “Criminal Minds” and the like expose us to the most awful sides of human nature. Many dark thoughts and ideas enter into our minds. Not to mention many movies, current events and human behavior that the vast majority of people in the past were never openly exposed to. We live in dangerous times, In that aspect, we are probably more “learned”, shall I way “wise” to such a wide array of goings-on than even Solomon. So many things that in the very recent past we could never have even imagined.
Solomon did not always like all this extra wisdom and knowledge that he obtained either, calling it madness and folly. It is like chasing the wind (especially trying to be as wise as God in a positive way). Such wisdom increased his sorrow and grief. As mentioned earlier, his wisdom was for a specific task, to be a good king, and he would never know “everything”, and that became frustrating to him. But not only that, he would learn things that he probably, like many of us, wished he had never been exposed to. As king, he had to judge cases where he learned some of the worst things that people can do. As 1:18 states, he would had rather been in ignorance of these things than to have to consider all the absolutely dark and evil things that people come up with and do.
This lament about having access to all these things probably includes his own pleasure. I have tried everything, had everything a man could possibly want or desire (the most desirable women, riches, power, fame), but none of it truly satisfies (without God). These are some of the negative sides of wisdom, and most likely something that was weighing on him, especially if he looks at it from a human perspective and not God’s. The same thing can happen to us. All these things we are exposed to can weigh us down and depress us. It is hard to escape from it. As king, Solomon was exposed to the best and the worst that the world had to offer. And it obviously negatively affected him as well. One of the most revealing commercials of our culture, and something Solomon faced, is the mantra: “I want it all, and I want it now.” (Even though there was no Dr. Pepper in Solomon’s time.)
The most wise, but still frustrated for all he still does not understand
7:23-25a states: I have always tried my best to let wisdom guide my thoughts and actions. I said to myself, “I am determined to be wise.” But it didn’t work. Wisdom is always distant and difficult to find. I searched everywhere, determined to find wisdom and to understand the reason for things. This verse really brings out his frustrations of only having limited wisdom, wisdom in order to be able to do what God called him to do, and not all-encompassing wisdom, say like the wisdom God has. His wisdom was to govern the people, but there were boundaries to this wisdom. He was wiser than any person living at that time or anyone who would ever live, but he probably still knew next to nothing about spiritual warfare, the depths of the human heart, the answers to the questions in Job 38-41, how to understand a woman, etc. This was very frustrating to him. He wanted wisdom and deeper understanding about many things which were not part of his calling.
Wisdom is not the most important thing, it does not fill the “void”
He was trying to understand things which surpassed or were outside the boundaries of the wisdom God had given him. Wisdom in and of itself cannot satisfy. It cannot fill the void. It cannot replace God in ones life. So as he got farther way from God, especially in the later part of his life, wisdom, pleasure and all the things he had access to could not satisfy him, could not fulfill the deepest longings of his heart. The same with us. We all have that “void” in our life that can only be filled by God. Most try to fill it with so many different things (both healthy and unhealthy), but in the end, we will only feel hollow until we put God in His rightful place in our lives. There are many things that we will never understand until we are face-to-face with the Lord. Then we will realize that all those things didn’t really matter anyway. The only thing that matters is knowing Him and being with Him.
Fear God, you will be better off (than I have been recently)
Another theme of the book is fearing God, a concept mentioned six times. 8:12: But even though a person sins a hundred times and still lives a long time, I know that those who fear God will be better off. If Solomon wrote this book, and he wrote it toward the end of his life, then he knows the difference between a life lived fearing God, and one lived not fearing God. A hollow life that follows idols which would indicate a time in his life when he did not fear God. A time when he got completely off-track, and that kind of life would lead to a doom and gloom attitude and viewpoint. But now, near the end, he seems to have come to his senses to say that those who fear God are better off.
One final theme I will mention (and I am leaving many out) is the concept of eternal life. Many passages in Ecclesiastics give us the impression that Solomon did not have a strong belief in or understanding of eternal life. This seems to be true of much of the Old Testament. They almost never refer to heaven like in the New Testament, the place that you are waiting for that will bring you into the eternal presence of God. There are many verses in the Old Testament about going to Sheol, which does not seem to be a very hopeful place to go. Solomon gives us the idea that you might as well enjoy life here since Sheol is not going to be much fun. 9:3-4: It seems so tragic that everyone under the sun suffers the same fate. That is why people are not more careful to be good. Instead, they choose their own mad course, for they have no hope. There is nothing ahead but death anyway. There is hope only for the living. As they say, “It’s better to be a live dog than a dead lion!”
If a person lives a life without God, without hope, what do they have to live for? Just enjoy things as much as they can while they are alive? Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you die. This was not only true in the past, but many people in our day feel the same way. In the face of that worldview, may those who know God be a light to show others that there is another way, there is hope, there is something more once we die. Of course we need to continue to reinforce our own faith, to cultivate a strong foundation so that we do not lose hope when things get difficult.
The most important thing: Best to fear God and obey His commands
Solomon ends the book, after talking about a life lived for the most part leaving out God, or a life seeing God as a burden, by saying what one should do. Instead of doing what I did, do this. This could be considered his final conclusion, his main point of the book. Don’t live life like I did for a while, leaving God out of it and doing my own thing. I had access to wisdom, power, riches, fame and all types of pleasure but lost sight of the most important thing. I got bitter in regards to God. 12:13-14: That’s the whole story. Here now is my final conclusion: Fear God and obey his commands, for this is everyone’s duty. God will judge us for everything we do, including every secret thing, whether good or bad. Life can become very depressing if we focus on the evil, the injustices, the questions that fill Psalms, Proverbs and Job where they ask why do the wicked seem to prosper more than the righteous. We can turn our backs on God and get bitter towards him, like what seemingly happened to Solomon. In spite of what we see with our eyes, let us follow this last advice to fear God and follow His commands and not get captured by the snares of the devil and the worthless things of this world.
The rest of the story
In the New Testament we get the rest of the story, of how Jesus came to show us the truth, to fill us with his Holy Spirit and true wisdom. We can be filled with the power to overcome sin, to serve Him and have the blessed assurance of forgiveness of sins and eternal life. All the wonderful things we have access to because of what Jesus did for us.
May we never attempt, to any degree, to leave God out of our lives or let any root of bitterness take hold of us. Keep following Him, fearing Him, obeying His commands and guarding all that Jesus and the rest of His followers teach us in the New Testament. In this way we do have access to more wisdom than Solomon if we apply it to our lives and keep God as the most important part and never turn our backs on Him.