Read the Passage: Ecclesiastes 1
Author and Date: The term “Ecclesiastes” means “preacher” or “one who calls an assembly.” This title is derived from the author’s description of himself in Eccl. 1:1–2. Note that while the author refers to himself as “the preacher” seven times in this letter, the book is technically anonymous. Yet, as tradition holds, the author is almost certainly Solomon, for the writer identifies himself as “the son of David” (Eccl. 1:1), the “king over Israel” (Eccl. 1:12), and one who “set in order many proverbs” (Eccl. 12:9; cf. 1 Kings 4:32). Moreover, this book mirrors aspects of Solomon’s life as is detailed in 1 Kings 1–11. The content of this book indicates that Ecclesiastes was likely written toward the end of Solomon’s life, which occurred in roughly 931 BC. Observe that the book of Ecclesiastes was traditionally read in its entirety by the Jews on the Day of Pentecost.
Theme and Purpose: Solomon wrote the book of Ecclesiastes out of his own experiences and expectations. Recall that Solomon’s life was marked by unparalleled wisdom (cf. 1 Kings 1–10), but also by incredible foolishness (cf. 1 Kings 11). In many ways, Ecclesiastes is a painful autobiography, as in this book Solomon warns his readers about the perils of foolishness and human wisdom, as he points them toward the fear of the Lord and the wisdom of God (cf. Eccl. 12:13). In this text Solomon explores some of life’s most challenging questions and issues, each of which relates to the broader question, “What is the meaning of life?” In short, in this book Solomon writes that a worldview or philosophy of life not centered upon God is futile; seeking happiness through pursuing wealth, pleasure, or knowledge apart from God is pointless (cf. Matt. 16:26); and earthly goals and ambitions produce only emptiness and frustration when pursued for their own ends. While Solomon’s conclusions can seem dark at times, his purpose is not raw skepticism, but an honest observation and evaluation about life in the fallen world. Interestingly, in this book Solomon repeatedly gives exhortations to recognize and to enjoy the gifts of God in one’s life, such as food, drink, health, and wealth (cf. Eccl. 2:24; 3:11–13, 22; 5:18–19; 8:15). A key word in Ecclesiates, which appears 38 times, is the term “vanity.” Vanity may seem like a nebulous word, and it oftentimes is in English, yet, in using the term here Solomon means to communicate three specific and related things: (1) the duration of life is short (or fleeting and brief), (2) the meaning of life is elusive (or enigmatic and incomprehensible), and (3) the actions of life are repetitive (or futile and meaningless). The term “vanity” carries one or more of these three meanings each time it appears in the book of Ecclesiastes.
Structure and Outline: On account of its ironic style, the book of Ecclesiastes can be a difficult book to outline and to understand; however, a suggested thematic outline is as follows:
- The Preacher’s Identity (1:1–11)
- The Preacher’s Investigation (1:12–6:12)
- The Preacher’s Conclusions (7:1–12:8)
- The Preacher’s Advice (12:9–14)
Patterns of Life (1:1–11)
Solomon begins his autobiographical report by identifying himself in regard to his position (cf. Eccl. 1:1) and by giving a thesis statement, which is, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (Eccl. 1:2). Remember that when Solomon uses the term “vanity” in this book, he is generally communicating that life is short, elusive, and repetitive. While he sometimes focuses upon only one aspect of vanity, in his initial thesis statement, Solomon means all three. In Eccl. 1:3–4, 8 Solomon observes the vanity of labor. As Ecclesiastes unfolds, he will spend more time investigating the vanity of labor than any other issue in this book (cf. Eccl. 2:18–6:12). Next, in Eccl. 1:5–7 Solomon notes the vanity of patterns within the created order, including the circuit of the sun, the blowing of the wind, and the flowing of rivers. In Eccl. 1:9–11 Solomon writes rather bleakly that nothing in life is new or will be remembered.
Search for Meaning (1:12–15)
In Eccl. 1:12–15 Solomon takes a step back from his introductory salvo about vanity and reveals the personal context that led him to conclude that all is vanity. Here Solomon declares, “I set my heart to seek and search out wisdom concerning all that is done under heaven” (Eccl. 1:13). In other words, the content of this book is not theoretical; rather it is the practical result of Solomon’s own search for wisdom among “all the works that are done under the sun” (Eccl. 1:14). Next, Solomon restates his conclusion that “all is vanity and grasping for the wind” (Eccl. 1:14). Observe the surprising fact that God’s covenant name, Yahweh (or LORD), does not appear in the book of Ecclesiastes. When Solomon refers to God, then, his focus is upon the works of God in creation rather than upon God’s covenant relationship with man. For the most part, Solomon’s search for wisdom in this book is confined to the material world.
Liability of Wisdom (1:16–18)
With free access to and an inexhaustible supply of divine wisdom, it is unclear why Solomon turned to seek worldly wisdom via empirical study. The text does not report if Solomon’s search was sparked by sin, curiosity, or some other reason; however, it was foolish and perhaps even sinful for Solomon to set his “heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly” (Eccl. 1:17). Indeed, one does not need to experience sin in order to understand that it is wrong. Eccl. 1:18 is a surprising verse, as here Solomon declares, “In much wisdom is much grief, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” We might expect Solomon to conclude that pursuing worldly wisdom is vanity; however, it is surprising to read that wisdom itself is a burden. Solomon’s point here seems to be that wisdom allows one to see both foolishness and sin in the world, which might otherwise be hidden.
- What is true wisdom? How does divine wisdom differ from worldly wisdom? Do you consider yourself to be a wise person?
- Is Solomon correct with his claim that the duration of life is short, the meaning of life is elusive, and the actions of life are repetitive?
- What evidence can you detect among lost friends and family members that indicate the material world is not ultimately fulfilling?
- If God gave Solomon heavenly wisdom at the beginning of his reign (cf. 1 Kings 3:12–14), why did he time searching for worldly wisdom?
- Do you agree with Solomon’s statement in Eccl. 1:17 that wisdom itself can be a burden upon mankind?