For thousands of years, Bible students have been perplexed in attempting to come to grips with the book known as Ecclesiastes. What do we make of it? How is it meant to be applied? Should this really have a place in the canon of Scripture? Well now, finally, I have the definitive answer for all of them.
That’s not true, actually.
But as my Sunday school class studies Ecclesiastes, I have also been studying it on my own, wrestling with these questions and “chasing after the wind,” so to speak. In the process I have come to love this book deeply, and have come to a few tentative conclusions as well. So, in complete agreement with Qohelet (the “Preacher” or “Teacher,” who I assume to be Solomon or some other Davidic king – it makes no difference for my purposes) that “there is nothing new under the sun” (1:9), and in full view of my almost total ignorance of scholarship on Ecclesiastes, nevertheless I thought I would write about some of my grappling with the text.
It seems to me that making sense of Ecclesiastes, as a Christian, is entirely dependent on perspective. We have to understand the worldview from which Qohelet is writing so that we can understand why he’s saying what he’s saying. The assumption typically made by a person reading Ecclesiastes is that, like every other biblical author, Qohelet is a godly man trying to live in accordance with God’s decrees and in dependence on His grace and guidance. If that assumption can be set aside, it will greatly relieve the pressure of trying to understand how a ‘godly, obedient man’ could say that sorts of things Qohelet says in light of broader divine revelation (i.e. the other Hebrew scriptures).
My initial attempts to come to grips with the worldview and perspective of Qohelet lead me to some tentative conclusions: Qohelet appears to be a Davidic king in the decline of both his reign and his life (12:1-8). He has lived a life of almost atheistic indulgence (2:1, 8) and though certainly familiar with God’s decrees, he has pursued his own quest for wisdom and worldview. In a sense, he has rejected God’s authority and has become his own authority. I see this evidenced in the fact that even when he speaks truth, it is as though he has come to ‘truth’ on his own and by his own authority: “I perceived…” (cf. 1:17; 2:14; 3:12, 14); “I know…” (8:12); “I commend…” (8:15). It is almost as though he has placed himself in a seat of judgment over God’s wisdom.
I also see this evident in the fact the Qohelet says things that no man living under God’s decree could possibly say. For example, in 7:16-17 Qohelet says, “Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time?” Would not a godly man be compelled to say something more along the lines of, “Be as righteous as you possibly can be!“; and “Do not be wicked at all!“? There is more evidence I could adduce here, but it might be best to read Ecclesiastes for yourself and see whether this approach bears the weight of the book or not.
In the end, I imagine Qohelet to be a king in the decline of his life and reign, recounting for his son the wisdom he has come to by the end of a life lived, in large measure, apart from God’s rule (this would fit, interestingly enough, with the portrait painted of Solomon in 1 Kings 11). A scribe records Qohelet’s words from a chair next to his bed. In 12:9-12, Qohelet speaks in the third person, as he did in 1:1-2, and recounts his quest for wisdom. And, in a supreme act of arrogance, Qohelet counsels his son, “Beware of anything beyond these [words of mine]” (12:12), as though there were no other divinely-inspired books to be studied; as though his son should beware of God’s teaching, which is dubious, but should rely heavily on his father’s conclusions.
In the end, however, the scribe recognizes that Qohelet’s ‘words of wisdom’ embody the very same thing he had spent a life striving to avoid: meaninglessness, vanity, and emptiness, and so he decides that the best way in which to use this compendium would be to commend it as an example of where a quest for wisdom and knowledge apart from God will eventually lead. To make sure that readers do not read Ecclesiastes as instruction he includes, as an epilogue a warning and exhortation, “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.”
Thus, we are invited to consider the words of Ecclesiastes, some of which we should rightly reject as the fruit of a vain quest for worldly wisdom, and some of which we should accept as the result of common grace. With this perspective I can commend Qohelet as wise, for example, in 10:4, even as I think he is foolish in 10:5-7.
With this perspective, then, there is an excellent evangelical use to which we can deploy Ecclesiastes. Namely, we can use it as an evangelistic tool for ungodly, intellectual strugglers – state college philosophy majors and armchair theologians who are searching for meaning in life and are reaching out for some answers to the big questions but are doing so in rejection of the only true Authority. Qohelet appears to be an earnest and sincere, though ultimately frustrated, seeker. Therefore, we can use Ecclesiastes as a tool to help such people see where their search will inevitably lead, and to urge them to consider God in Christ as the summation of all wisdom and truth.
…For your consideration.
(The above photo is a picture Leslie cunningly snapped of me this morning as I perplexedly studied Ecclesiastes before I showered and shaved. I go through several razors a day. We own lots of stock in Gillette.)