Survey of Ecclesiastes
Book Type: The fifth book of Wisdom; the twenty-first book of the Old Testament; the twenty-first book of the Bible.
Author: Traditionally considered to be King Solomon.
Audience: Ecclesiastes was written as both self-reflection and to record wisdom to the Jewish people. Assuming that the words are those of Solomon, they were likely written toward the end of his reign. Here, he takes the role of a teacher or preacher speaking to students. He seeks to provide wise sayings that easily register with the readers without much additional explanation. The summary message is that God is the only source of true meaning, and the true purpose for our lives. This, the author has discovered through self-experiments and great cost. In Jewish tradition, Ecclesiastes was read on the day of Pentecost.
Date: If written by Solomon, Ecclesiastes was written during his reign between approximately 970—931 BC. Given its descriptions of hedonism, materialism, and frustration, it would have been penned near the end of Solomon's life.
Overview: While the book of Proverbs is meant to be understood in small pieces, this is not the case with Ecclesiastes. Much of the book is rhetorical—meaning it is stated in order to explore a certain idea. The final verses show the ultimate conclusion this train of thought will lead to.
Ecclesiastes includes 12 chapters broadly organized around Solomon's search for the true meaning of life. After a brief preface in Ecclesiastes 1:1¬–11, Solomon's four-part experiment unfolds. The book begins with an introduction (Ecclesiastes 1:12–18), followed by seeking meaning through pleasure (Ecclesiastes 2:1–11), through wisdom and folly (Ecclesiastes 2:12–17), and through work and rewards (Ecclesiastes 2:18—6:9). This focus on work is the longest section of the book, concerned with the tentative nature of the rewards of one's efforts.
Solomon's conclusions are then discussed in chapters 6—12. Solomon explains the limitations of wisdom in chapters 7—8. Themes of prosperity, suffering, justice, evil, wisdom, and rulers all have their place, yet these all create limits on what a person can know about the future.
In chapters 9—11, Solomon expresses concern over human mortality. He notes that all people die, can do nothing from the grave, do not know when they will die, or what will happen in the future. This could lead to despair, yet Solomon notes that purpose, meaning, and enjoyment of life are based on honoring God and living for Him. This, instead of pleasure or work or wisdom, is the best strategy for a life well lived (Ecclesiastes 11:7—12:8). He concludes his investigation with closing words of advice as well as information about himself as the author (Ecclesiastes 12:9—14).
Key Verses (ESV):
Ecclesiastes 1:2: "Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity."
Ecclesiastes 1:8: "All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing."
Ecclesiastes 1:18: "For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow."
Ecclesiastes 2:1: "I said in my heart, 'Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.' But behold, this also was vanity."
Ecclesiastes 2:11: "Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun."
Ecclesiastes 3:1: "For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven."
Ecclesiastes 12:1: "Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, 'I have no pleasure in them.'"
Ecclesiastes 12:13: "The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man."