Ecclesiastes 1:1-2, “The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”
It is a strange joy to have the privilege of opening this joint study of the book of Ecclesiastes for Servants of Grace. It is a joy because this is the Word of God. It is a book of great wisdom, wisdom born out of experiences which most of the world will never have. As such, it is an invitation to learn at the feet of the wisest man who ever lived, learning lessons that due to our fruitless pursuits, we would never learn. We would be tempted to pursue things that we think would bring us joy only to find the joy does not last and quite often is not even the joy we thought it to be. So it is a joy to approach this text. It is a strange joy in that, at times, this can be a depressing sounding book. I found it no small irony that as I opened up a commentary on my Kindle, it listed that there are 666 passages that have been highlighted in this book. Many might read this book and come away no more encouraged than if they had just seen the mark of the beast. However, our goal as we look at this will be to see a perspective we would never see and then to wisdom to an even higher perspective. For while there is nothing new under the sun, those of us in Christ do not need to be limited to an “under the sun” perspective. Perhaps through this study, our eyes might be lifted to see that there is no purpose under the sun, but there is a great purpose beyond the sun.
I recently came across two books that seem to fit right in with the modern idea of success. Ask just about any parent what they hope for in their children, and they will tell you, “I just hope they turn out right.” If one were to probe this a bit further, you would be likely to hear something to the effect of that they find gainful employment, a family (grandkids are always hoped for) and that they might not need to call on mom and dad for help once they have left the nest. Go a little further into the business world, or perhaps even within the church world, and the talk moves into the realm of having a successful business, with actual meaning that the business grows unendingly.
One of these books I came across actually bills itself as the advice Solomon would give you to have a thriving business, the secrets to Solomon’s success can be understood and applied in a modern context. Ironically, the reality is that Solomon has a few other thoughts about success and whether it can be achieved without God. Ecclesiastes is not the easiest book to read, nor is it the most uplifting. If you are looking to be discouraged and are tired of watching the news, read Ecclesiastes. Even amidst the vanity of vanities and the striving after the wind, there is good news for us in this book. There is the hope that while there is nothing new under the sun, there is a great deal that is new beyond the sun, in that the Kingdom that God will be established, on which the work has already begun. Yes, life makes no sense outside of God. However, with God, there is hope, there is joy, and there is a future that is not as fleeting as a blowing wind or a setting sun.
To get us off on the right foot with this book, it is crucial that we take a look at two keywords from the first two verses. The practical nature of this article will, hopefully, show up as this study of Ecclesiastes on Servants of Grace continues. For now, though, we have to do a bit of technical groundwork which will serve as the foundation for this book and this study.
The first word is the word, which is the Hebrew title of this book: Qoheleth, that not everyone who reads this knows Hebrew, and as such, I will refrain from getting too technical here, but it is worth considering this word for our study. Qoheleth is the word that is used to refer to the author of this book. English translations will use the word “preacher” or “teacher” in their translation of this word, but the general idea of the word to the writer of Ecclesiastes is a collection of sayings.
The traditional position of scholars is that Solomon is the Qoheleth that Solomon is the dispenser of these collected thoughts. The evidence for this is fairly strong, while any evidence against this few is rather scarce. The Qoheleth shows a great amount of wisdom, a wealth of experiences as well as a large amount of wealth.
The Qoheleth is also referred to as the son of David, King of Jerusalem, which points to Solomon a bit more directly as the successor to David. It is not essential to insist that Solomon is the author that he is the Qoheleth who can share all his learning under the sun. However, it gives the book a bit more weight philosophically and practically if it is spoken out of Solomon’s experience as the wisest and the richest king this side of King Jesus.
The second word we must consider in any study of Ecclesiastes is the word that shows up the most throughout the book: “vanity” or “meaningless.” It is this word that is worthy of greater study than we can consider in this brief article, but we will try and touch on a few points.
The Hebrew word for this is hebel. The word is most often translated as “vanity,” but it carries the meaning and image of a puff of smoke, vapor or blowing of the wind. It is meant to be a picture that carries throughout the book the brevity of our lives and the meaninglessness of this life. Solomon uses the word in a variety of contexts, each giving a different shading or direction of meaning. The fact that one works only to pass things on to another generation is seen as hebel.
The fate of the righteous matches the fate of the wicked (or is at worse) seen as hebel. The pursuit of wisdom, the pursuit of pleasure, the pursuit of anything all ends up as hebel. In all of this, Solomon leads his readers to follow his experiences in life and learn that nothing this world offers, even at the highest level of achievement, is worth anything; it is all hebel.
As can be seen in the rest of the book, however, there are glimmers of hope; the reality that, for the follower of God, life is not limited to just under the sun. There is hope for a future with God, but without God, there is only hebel. Stay tuned as we continue in this fascinating book and see glimpses of gospel hope on the depressive stained pages of Ecclesiastes.