Touching on subjects like the author and purpose, Pastor David Boone begins “Meaningless? A Study in the Book of Ecclesiastes” with a broad overview of the fascinating book of Ecclesiastes. He explains there are two perspectives to reading Ecclesiastes and pastor Jesse shares a different view.
Part 1 introductory overview
If you are here for the first time this morning, you picked a perfect day to join us. Today we begin a new series in the book of Ecclesiastes and the title of the series is “Meaningless?” and there is a question mark at the end of that. So when we say it, we have to include that inflection in our voice to show that we are not affirming meaninglessness, but rather we are questioning it. As we move further and further through this series, you will see exactly why as this is one of the major themes in Ecclesiastes.
Open your bibles to Ecclesiastes (middle is Psalms, and go to the right two books).
As with any study in which we venture through a book of the bible or a significant portion of the text, we like to do an introductory overview type message to provide some background and context. We will answer the who, what, when, where, why questions. It is always helpful to understand who wrote the book, who he wrote it to, when and where it was written and his purpose for writing.
Let’s begin with the what. What exactly are we reading and studying? The bible is arranged categorically, like a library. In the library, all of the fiction books are together, all of the religion books are together, all of the books on history are together. In the same way, the bible groups books together based on their literary genre, their literary form. The first 5 books are grouped together because they’re primarily Law. Joshua through Esther are grouped together because they are primarily historical narrative. Then after Esther we have another five books grouped together Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. This group is known as the poetry and wisdom literature. The last section of the OT from Isaiah to Malachi is prophecy.
Psalms and SOS are more poetic in nature, while Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job are categorically wisdom texts – more specifically, Hebrew wisdom.
The dictionary defines wisdom as: knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgment as to action; discernment, or insight
In other words, wisdom has been defined as the ability to take knowledge (information in your head) and apply it to your life.
According to How to read the Bible for all it’s worth a brief definition of wisdom is: “the ability to make godly choices in life.”
So studying the wisdom text is going to be highly practical for us.
Now, the wisdom literature in the bible really works together to create a complete picture. In other words, if you only study Ecclesiastes to the neglect of Proverbs and Job, you are only getting a piece of the picture. If you only study Job to the neglect of Prov and Ecc, you are only getting a piece of the picture.
So we recently looked at the book of Job in our defeating depression series. We saw that Job was essentially an exception to the rule. He was an upright man, who experienced great misfortune. If Job is the exception to the rule, what is the rule? The proverbs. The book of proverbs explains the usual or typical case in life, not always, there are exceptions like Job, but what you find in Proverbs is usually the case.
(RULES vs EXCEPTIONS)
So, in order to get a well rounded and balanced dose of wisdom literature, I am going to challenge you guys during this study with the following. This is easy, you can do this.
Tomorrow is September 9th. I want you to read and meditate on chapter 9 of Proverbs. Then on Tuesday, September 10, I want you to read and meditate on Proverbs chapter 10. On the 11th, chapter 11, etc. Now, I know there is going to be a glitch in the system this month, because there are 30 days of the month and there are 31 chapters in Proverbs, but I think we can work past this. You can either read chapter 31 on the 30th along with chapter 30, or you can read it on the first of Oct along with chapter 1, or you can even skip it if you want to. But it’s okay, because it will come back around for you on Halloween.
You can read it quickly in about five minutes, but I want you to take about 15 minutes and read it slowly; after every verse or complete proverb, I want you to ponder what you have read. Think about it, see it play out in your mind.
Again, you can do this, it isn’t that difficult. You may have to do a little bit of rearranging. You may have to spend 15 minutes less looking at failblog or wimp videos or checking facebook or twitter or whatever other really important things we are doing.
I would like for you guys to do this every day as long as we are studying Ecclesiastes and I don’t know how long that will take, but you may actually like doing this so much, you may find that it is so enriching to your mind that you actually make this a healthy habit beyond our series in Ecclesiastes. Now if you fall off after a couple of days, don’t give up. Just jump right back in; don’t feel like you have to play catch up if you can’t. It’s not like you’re watching a movie and you miss part of the plot if you skip a chapter especially after chapter 10 because most of the verses are stand alone and they don’t really build upon one another. Each verse is like something you would read on the fortune in a fortune cookie, except it’s legit.
So that is the what. It is wisdom literature. As the imperative in the Law is thou shalt or thou shalt not, the imperative in the wisdom literature is not do or do not, but it is “think.” It’s ponder. It’s consider.
Let’s answer the who. Who wrote this?
The author does not come right out and identify himself, so we don’t know with absolute certainty. A few years back I would have said with dogmatic certainty that Solomon was the author. But, I don’t know that I would today. There are a few items in the text that give strong evidence that Solomon is the author.
In verse one we read 1 The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:
Then in verse 12, we read 12 I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem.
He identifies himself as the son of David, king over Israel in Jerusalem. The kingdom was united under Saul, David, and Solomon, but split under the reign of Solomon’s son and the ten northern tribes retained the name Israel, but their kings ruled from the capital city of Samaria, not Jerusalem; and Jerusalem was the capital city of Judah, the southern territory after the split. So for this author to be king over Israel in Jerusalem, not king over Judah in Jerusalem would incline one to think that this was during the reign of Solomon, before the division in the Kingdom. STRONG EVIDENCE THAT SOLOMON IS THE AUTHOR.
He was after all, son of David. But, keep in mind “son of David” could be any descendant of David.
12:9 says he set in order many proverbs. We know that Solomon was the primary author of the book of proverbs.
Keep your place in Ecclesiastes and flip over to 1 Kings 4. 1 Kings 4:29ff 29 God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore.30 Solomon’s wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the people of the East, and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt. 31 He was wiser than anyone else, including Ethan the Ezrahite—wiser than Heman, Kalkol and Darda, the sons of Mahol. And his fame spread to all the surrounding nations. 32 He spoke three thousand proverbs and his songs numbered a thousand and five. 33 He spoke about plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. He also spoke about animals and birds, reptiles and fish. 34 From all nations people came to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, sent by all the kings of the world, who had heard of his wisdom.
We also know that this author says in Ecc 1:16 I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me.”
So we could make a pretty good case for Solomon being the author:
Son of David
King over Israel in Jerusalem
Endowed with greater wisdom than anyone before him
Wrote numerous proverbs
On the other hand, some will point out that it probably isn’t Solomon due to:
Ecc 1:12 “was” king over Israel in Jerusalem – Solomon was still reigning as king when he died, so there was no “was”
In Ecc 1:16 I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me.”
All two of them
There was only Saul and David
Linguistics/ Timing/historical analysis – other things that scholars who are way smarter than me and know way more about linguistics, ancient cultures, and history have analyzed the text and concluded that it was probably written after Solomon with the intent to have a Solomon-esque feel to it.
So we don’t know for sure, BUT we won’t let what we don’t know rob us of what we do know
We DO know that God’s people included it in the canon of Scripture, saw it as divinely inspired, true, and authoritative, and so we do as well, and we will dive into the text and draw out some nuggets of truth and wisdom and make application.
We don’t know for sure which human hand penned the text, but we do know that he refers to himself as The Teacher (1:1, 1:12, 12:9, 12:10). A more accurate translation of that word is assembler or leader of the assembly, carrying with it the idea of The Preacher, the one who shares wisdom with the assembly. This is where we get the name of the book. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT, uses the word that we transliterate as Ecclesiastes.
WHO was it written to or for? WHO was the audience?
My own personal observation (this is not really something I have found in commentaries) the author seems to anticipate an audience broader than the scope of Israel. The reason that I believe this is the case, is that in reference to God, the author does not use the typical phrase, Yahweh your God – he doesn’t use the personal name of God with which Israel was familiar, he uses Elohim, which was the generic term “God” that even those outside of Israel would use. Additionally, there is very little reference to the Law or the covenants. It seems much broader than a lot of the OT texts that we are used to.
That leads us to the WHEN.
WHEN was this written? If indeed the author was a king in Jerusalem, it had to be sometime between around 1040 BC and 586 BC when Jerusalem fell, ending the time of the Kings. If it was Solomon, then it was written when he was King, sometime around 970-930 BC.
That takes care of the WHO, WHAT, WHEN, and the WHERE. The where is Jerusalem.
What about the WHY? What is the purpose of Ecclesiastes?
It is a philosophical approach in attempt to discover the meaning of life. The Teacher shares his ponderings, his findings, his conclusions with his audience in hopes of sharing what life is all about.
This is typical of the wisdom literature, which seeks to answer the question how do we get the most out of life? How do we live the fullest life, the good life, the right life, the best life possible?
According to Grasping God’s Word the 3 main points are:
Apart from God, life is meaningless. Wisdom is not bad, but it does not provide meaning in life.
Wisdom does not explain the apparent contradictions in life; it only points them out. Therefore, people should simply trust God
Life, therefore, is not a puzzle to be completely understood, but a gift to be enjoyed.
Again, I want to point out that Ecclesiastes is not a very straightforward book, so if you were to listen to one pastor preach through it, you may get one message, but if you listen to a different pastor preach through it you may get a completely different message. In fact, to quote How to Read the Bible for all it’s Worth (pp 242-243):
“Ecclesiastes is a wisdom monologue that often puzzles Christians, especially if they read it carefully. There is a good reason for this, because Ecclesiastes is a very difficult book to read, with several passages that seem self-contradictory and others that seem contradictory to the whole of biblical revelation. This confusion has led to polar-opposite interpretations, as can be seen from two of the recommended commentaries in the appendix. Professor Longman (along with one of us) understands Ecclesiastes to be an expression of cynical wisdom, which serves as a kind of “foil” regarding an outlook on life that should be avoided; Professor Provan (along with the other one of us) understands the book more positively, as an expression of how one should enjoy life under God in a world in which all die in the end.”
Again, Ecclesiastes is kind of tricky because many of the things written in it seem to contradict other passages in Scripture and there are even apparent contradictions within the book itself. For example in one place the author, the teacher, seems to say that it’s better to be dead than to be alive, but in another place, he seems to say that it’s better to be alive than to be dead. That’s why it is important for us to take the book as a whole and why we can’t simply take A verse and draw conclusions from that verse alone.
All of the Teacher’s conclusions along the way work together to formulate the ultimate conclusion at the end of the book.
I have spent the past few months really saturating myself in this book, I have been through it between ten and fifteen times trying to get a really big picture a broad overview so that I can grasp the theme, the flow, the essence.
And from my perspective, if I were to sum up the essence of Ecclesiastes, if there is one point, one theme, I would simplify it in this: enjoy the journey of life. Many of the elements in life that humans tend to value as the end goal (wealth, position, power, knowledge, pleasure) are not really the ends in themselves, but a means to an end and if one values those things as the end he will find that they are, in a sense, meaningless.
But life itself is not meaningless; it is a gift from God to be enjoyed.
While I, personally, agree with the positive view that life itself is not meaningless, but a gift from God to be enjoyed, Jesse leans toward the cynical foil view. Since Jesse and I have such different views on the book, we decided that it would be fun to tag team this series and share from our own perspectives to give you guys a more well rounded view and perspective than if either one of us alone were to preach through it. I am excited about where we are going.
I’m extremely excited to go through this study together. The wisdom literature has a very special place in my heart because when I first became a believer, the pastor of the church I was attending at the time as a young and immature believer, the pastor spent a month in Proverbs and issued a challenge to us – the same challenge I gave you: read through a chapter of proverbs every day for that month.
Many of you know this story, but this was before Bre and I were even dating, and when he said read a chapter in the book of proverbs every day, I leaned over to Breann and I said, “Where can I get that book?” She didn’t know how to respond. She said, “What book?” I said, “That book he’s talking about, the book of Proverbs.” She thought I was kidding. She smirked and said, “It’s in the bible.” I felt pretty stupid. But I took that challenge very seriously and I read a chapter of Proverbs every day in my trusty old KJV. And when I finished Proverbs, I decided to keep reading; guess what the next book was? That’s right, Ecclesiastes.
So Ecclesiastes was the second book I ever read in the bible as a believer. And I tell you what. As I read through Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, it was a huge witness to me of the truth of the Bible. As I read through these texts I found that so many questions about life and meaning and purpose were answered and addressed. I found myself saying over and over, “DUDE, YES! Exactly.” This book that continually states meaningless is a book that I find extremely meaningful.
My hope is that as we journey together through Ecclesiastes and as you spend time with the word on your own in Proverbs, I hope that you, too are blessed.