Ecclesiastes seems to be an essay written by an author who introduces himself as “the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.” By which I presume we are to infer that the author is Solomon, and that we should therefore strap ourselves in for some mind-blowing wisdom. And wisdom is one of the themes threaded throughout the essay, so I guess that’s consistent.
Apparently, Ecclesiastes is considered highly quotable, since quite a number of lines and motifs from it are referenced throughout popular culture. You might, for example, recognize such staples as “There is nothing new under the sun,” and “To everything, there is a season.” There are more, but I suspect one would have to read the entire essay to pick up on all of them.
Anyway, the book starts out on kind of a bleak note with another famous phrase “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” This continues into a lamentation about how temporary and kind of pointless human lives are in a world of unchanging permanence where everything that happens now has happened before and/or will happen again, and nothing genuinely new ever happens.
From there, the narrative moves into a kind of autobiographical story about the author’s quest to find out what purpose men should have in life. It starts with his pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, which the author proclaims himself to have acquired to a degree surpassing all who came before him. But lest you think this is egotistical, he goes on to proclaim the pursuit to be vain and merely “striving after wind.” His final conclusion about the pursuit of knowledge?
“Ecc 1:18 For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.”
That’s sentiment with which I’m fairly certain many beneficiaries of modern medicine would disagree. And one which, unfortunately, seems to infect the mindset of many modern Christian denominations.
So, having dispensed with the value of seeking wisdom, the author moves on to seeking pleasure. He goes on about the masses of wealth he acquired, and the gardens he planted, and the many slaves that he bought, sold, and bred (seriously, he really does, talking about them in the same verse with his herds and flocks) and the many concubines he bedded. He claims that, while he indulged himself shamelessly, his wisdom remained as great as ever (leading me once again to question just what it is that he thinks wisdom entails), but in the end he concludes that seeking pleasure is just more vanity.
After this the author returns to the subject of wisdom and foolishness. And in his ruminations on the subject, realizes that wise men and foolish men all die and are forgotten eventually. In this section, we see kind of a prototype of the lame apologist argument that the temporary nature of a material life means that it must be meaningless and valueless. So, again, the author concludes that all is vanity with the added proviso that now he hates life.
The author moves on to a new subject then: labor. And here he kind of bitches a moans that all the products of one’s work and wisdom might somehow end up benefitting somebody else after one dies, and that this is for some reason a bad thing. Basically, his complaint is that the products of the labor or righteous men could end up going to sinners, and the products of sinners could end up going to righteous men, so neither one of them really benefits. Naturally, he concludes that labor and its products are also vanity.
Chapter 3 opens with one of the most famous passages in the Bible: the bit about how “to everything there is a season.” You may be familiar with it from the song “Turn, Turn, Turn,” by The Birds, which faithfully reproduces the words nearly verbatim. But it also gets referenced pretty routinely in other media.
From here, the essay starts getting pretty self-contradictory. There are passages that say the dead are better off than the living, but later a passage that says it’s “better to be a live dog than a dead lion.” Other passages lament that wisdom and foolishness are equivalent since everybody ends up dead anyway, in the midst of multiple other passages that claim it’s better to be wise than to be foolish. And, ironically, passages that claim only fools throw out a lot of words while the wise say little, but the author who claims to be wise beyond everybody else is presenting a rambling, wordy, contradictory, and redundant spillage of words.
It’s difficult, really, to tease out just what it is that the author is trying to say overall. I thought maybe it was just me, but I did a little research and it seems that there really is a lot of confusion as to just what the overall message of Ecclesiastes is supposed to be. Many readers can’t even agree if it’s supposed to be an optimistic or a pessimistic book. This has led some to speculate that it’s not even supposed to have a coherent message at all, but rather intended to provoke the reader into thinking about the topics on which it touches.
If that’s the case, though, I think it’s rather unfortunate that the author chose to phrase so many of his statements in very definitive terms (even the ones he contradicts). Some of them really do come off as him giving specific advice on how to live one’s life, and some of that advice is rather unfortunate indeed. Such as:
“Ecc 8:2 I say: Keep the king’s command, because of God’s oath to him. 3 Be not hasty to go from his presence. Do not take your stand in an evil cause, for he does whatever he pleases. 4 For the word of the king is supreme, and who may say to him, “What are you doing?” 5 Whoever keeps a command will know no evil thing, and the wise hear will know that proper time and the just way.”
That reads a lot like “The ‘just following orders’ defense is totally legit.” Or worse, a direct order to do whatever a king orders you to do, even if you know it’s wrong. If the author really was Solomon, then this is clearly a self-serving passage, and unfortunately a generally worded command of the sort that has helped to justify oppressive notions like “Divine Right of Kings,” for centuries.
In the end, the author does seem to advocate generally for taking pleasure in simple joys of life, though on little more justification than “because God wants you to.” There also seems to be a rather epic amount of whining that this is the case, since the author seems to think it's poor reward and kinda pointless. But this is a book that is clearly open to a great deal of interpretation. I highly suspect that another reader could easily come away from it with a far different impression than I have. So, like many of the more abstract books of the Bible, I’m going to have to advise you to read it for yourself and see if it says anything of value to you. For me, though, I can’t say that it did much.
Next stop on our magical tour of the Bible: the Song of Solomon.