Ecclesiastes is fascinating for all who ask the fundamental questions: What is the purpose of life? What brings happiness? How can I live a meaningful life?
Scholars, sages and people seeking answers to the fundamental questions throughout time have turned to the pages of the book of Ecclesiastes for help and guidance. Ecclesiastes is a book of wisdom literature, and it as relevant today as it was when written nearly 3,000 years ago.
“Herman Melville called it ‘the truest of all books,’ and another American novelist, Thomas Wolfe, described it as ‘the highest flower of poetry, eloquence and truth, . . . the greatest single piece of writing I have known” (A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible, 1993, p. 268).
Meaning of the word Ecclesiastes
The word Ecclesiastes essentially means “the preacher” and is a translation of the Hebrew word koheleth.
According to the New Bible Dictionary, the ending of the Hebrew word “probably denotes an office that is held, in this instance the office of a caller of assemblies. Hence ‘Preacher’ or ‘Teacher’ is a reasonable translation” (1982, p. 295).
Who wrote Ecclesiastes?
The first verse of the book tells us that the author of the book is called “the Preacher” and that he was the son of David and a king in Jerusalem.
Considering the internal evidence in the book, Gleason Archer concludes, “No other descendant of David measures up to these specifications but Solomon himself. It has therefore been the traditional view, accepted by Jewish and Christian scholars alike, that Solomon, the son of David, wrote the book in its entirety . . .
“Until the rise of nineteenth-century criticism, it was generally accepted by both the synagogue and the church that this book was a genuine work of Solomon” (A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 1974, p. 478).
On pages 479-487 Dr. Archer examines the linguistic evidence presented by the critics for a late date of composition. He concludes, “It is fair to assert that the so-called anachronisms are all capable of an interpretation reconcilable with Solomonic authorship. We have already seen that the linguistic data do not permit any certainty in dating, whether early or late, and that the most plausible explanation is that Ecclesiastes is written in a particular style conventional for its own genre” (pp. 486-487).
Solomon became king in Israel after the death of his father David. God appeared to Solomon and asked this question, “What shall I give you?” (1 Kings 3:5). Solomon could have asked for riches, power or the defeat of his enemies; but instead he asked for wisdom that he might be able to help his people (verse 9). God then blessed him with wisdom and understanding beyond what any person had ever had before (verses 10-12).
Today, we can read about the wisdom of Solomon in several books of the Bible, namely, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs and the Song of Songs (Song of Solomon).
When we read the book of Ecclesiastes, we are reading about the experiences of a man who was given wisdom from God. This wisdom is true for all people and all ages, especially in answering the biggest questions concerning the meaning of life itself.
What is Ecclesiastes about?
The book of Ecclesiastes has been summarized in various ways.
“The theme of the book is a search for the key to the meaning of life. The Preacher examines life from all angles to see where satisfaction can be found. He finds that God alone hold the key” (New Bible Dictionary).
“The purpose of Ecclesiastes was to convince men of the uselessness of any world view which does not rise above the horizon of man himself. It pronounces the verdict of ‘vanity of vanities’ upon any philosophy of life which regards the created world or human enjoyment as an end in itself” (Gleason L. Archer Jr., A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 1974, p. 475).
“Life as man lives it, without God, is futile, meaningless, purposeless, empty. It is a bleak picture . . . [But] God never intended man to leave him out of the picture . . . He intended man to find ultimate satisfaction not in life but in him” (Eerdman’s Handbook to the Bible, 1973, p. 362).
“The theme of the book, far from being a problem, is a virtual summary of the biblical worldview: life lived by purely earthly and human standards is futile, but the God-centered life is an antidote” (A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible, 1993, p. 269).
Outline of Ecclesiastes
There are 12 chapters in the book of Ecclesiastes, and many of the verses are familiar to even casual readers of the Bible.
Ecclesiastes 1 sets the stage for the main purpose of the book. It discusses the seeming futility of human life, which comes and goes in cycles. We are born; we live; we work; we grow old and die. The earth and its cycles continue generation after generation, century after century; and nothing seems to change. Verse 9 tells us that there is nothing new under the sun. What’s it all about? Isn’t there something more to human life than this endless cycle?
In verse 13 we are told that Solomon was determined to use the wisdom given to him by God to find out the answers to these eternal questions.
Ecclesiastes 2 relates to us some of the things that Solomon sought to bring satisfaction to his life: mirth, pleasure, wine, building projects, gold and silver, entertainment of every sort, and diversions of every kind. Yet it all left him unfulfilled and empty inside.
Ecclesiastes 3 is perhaps the most familiar of all the chapters, since it deals with these endless cycles in a more poetic way. Modern songs have been written using these very words:
“To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to gain, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace” (3:1-8).
Ecclesiastes 4 through 6 deal with the vanity and frustration of many of life’s pursuits, such as:
- Endless toil that seems to lead nowhere (4:4-8).
- The fleeting nature of popularity (4:13-16).
- The unsatisfying pursuit of money and things (5:10-17).
- The haunting reality that no matter how much we gain of this world’s goods, we all will have it end someday in the grave (6:6).
Ecclesiastes 7 deals with the relative unfairness of life. Solomon sees many wicked people who seem to prosper and many good people who seem to suffer in life (7:15).
Ecclesiastes 8 and 9 revisit the sober thought that death comes to all. “For the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, their hatred, and their envy have now perished; nevermore will they have a share in anything done under the sun” (9:5-6).
The question for the reader is whether we will believe the words of Solomon and seek meaning in our lives by finding God and walking in all His ways. Only when we do will we find our true purpose in life and the peace, happiness and fulfillment that we all seek.Ecclesiastes 9:10 is a verse often quoted to encourage hard work: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might.” But the reason for this is again in the context of death: “For there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going.”
Solomon concludes that “time and chance happen to them all” (9:11).
Ecclesiastes 10 and 11 cover a variety of subjects, including how easily a reputation can be ruined (10:1), the need for prudence (10:8-10), the effects of ethical and unethical governments upon a nation (10:16-17), and the uncertainty of life (11:1-8).
Ecclesiastes 12 is a particularly interesting section because of its use of graphic metaphors to describe the aging process. Solomon calls old age “difficult days” in verse 1 and then proceeds to describe a man at the end of his life.
Remember your Creator in the days of your youth
Chapter 12 begins with, “Remember now your Creator in the days of your youth, before the difficult days come” (verse 1).
Some have wondered if he isn’t really describing his own body that was now weak and frail as a result of the life he had lived—a life that included having 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3) and the pursuit of wine, madness and folly (Ecclesiastes 2:3, 12).
The sad lesson of Solomon’s life is that he allowed this pursuit of all of life’s pleasures to turn his heart away from God. “For it was so, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned his heart after other gods; and his heart was not loyal to the LORD his God, as was the heart of his father David” (1 Kings 11:4).
Look at some of the metaphors in Ecclesiastes 12:3-5 and what they possibly represent:
- The keepers of the house tremble—the hands begin to tremble and shake.
- The strong men bow down—legs growing weak and weary.
- The grinders cease—loss of teeth.
- Those that look through the windows grow dim—eyesight failing.
- When one rises at the sound of a bird—inability to sleep and the slightest noise becomes bothersome.
- They are afraid of height—even a step or a curb can become an obstacle.
- The almond tree blossoms—the hair turns gray.
- Desire fails—loss of romantic love and passion; possibly referring to lack of pleasure in life in general (see 12:1).
Solomon concludes in verses 7 and 8 by saying, “Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it. ‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher, ‘all is vanity.’”
The reader is left with the sense of Solomon’s futility. It seems he was still wondering, Is this all there is to life? Is there nothing beyond this very temporary, fleeting existence than a life that is here and gone in a moment? We are born one day, live for 60, 70 or 80 years and then we die.
The conclusion of the whole matter: what is the main message of Ecclesiastes?
Thankfully, the book of Ecclesiastes does not end with chapter 12:8. The final few verses give us the answer to all these questions. Let’s look at them in some detail.
“The Preacher sought to find acceptable words; and what was written was upright—words of truth” (12:10). Even though Solomon wrote many proverbs and books, he gave a lot of thought to the concluding remarks of this book.
The main lesson of the whole book is reached in verse 13: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter.”
What follows is the conclusion that Solomon drew from living life as fully as any person had ever lived life before. He did it all—more than any person who had ever lived—and was now about to tell us what is the most important thing we can do with our lives.
Fear God and keep His commandments
“Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all [the whole duty of man, King James Version]” (verse 13, emphasis added).
To fear God, which means to respect God highly and honor Him, is the most important and fulfilling thing any human being can do in his or her lifetime.
We show this godly fear by keeping God’s commandments. The psalmist said he loved God’s law, and it was his meditation all the day (Psalm 119:97). The apostle John wrote that the way we show our love for God is by keeping His commandments (1 John 5:3).
The apostle Paul echoed the same conclusion that Solomon came to when he wrote in the first letter to the Corinthians, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable” (1 Corinthians 15:19).
Paul said that if this life is all there is, then we would all be justified in concluding that this life at its best is only futile. However, Paul knew—and Solomon knew—that there is a life to come.
“But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:20-22).
Finding your purpose
The great news is that there is life beyond this physical existence and that everyone who has ever lived will live again. Everyone who has not had a chance will be offered the opportunity to embrace God’s way and receive the gift of everlasting life.
The question for the reader is whether we will believe the words of Solomon and seek meaning in our lives by finding God and walking in all His ways. Only when we do will we find our true purpose in life and the peace, happiness and fulfillment that we all seek.
For more about the meaning of life, see the article “Purpose of Life.”
For a quick link to all the other books of the Bible, see “Books of the Bible” on the Learning Center.