An Investigation into the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes
If the Bible were a university and all the sixty-six books of the Bible were courses of study within the scheme of that university, then we would call the book of Ecclesiastes “Philosophy 101.” Ecclesiastes is the philosophy class of Scripture, and today we’re going to enroll in this class and study this book for the next several weeks. So I invite you to turn with me to the book of Ecclesiastes today, and this morning we’ll devote our message to the first and last paragraphs of this book and to learning what this book is all about. Why did God place the book of Ecclesiastes in the middle of Scripture?
Meet the Professor
Let’s plunge right in at chapter 1 and verse 1 and meet the Professor: The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem. This word “Teacher” is the Hebrew word Qoheleth (pronounced co-hel’-it). We just returned from a tour of Israel and I asked my guide about this word, and he said it was simply a proper name for Solomon. The writer’s name was Qoheleth, which was another name for Solomon. But most commentaries say that this Hebrew word is also a title, and if you look at various English translations it is rendered Teacher or Preacher.
I’d like to suggest the best translation of this verse in its context would be Philosopher or Professor. This man is teaching philosophy course. I believe this book served as Solomon’s syllabus when he taught Philosophy 101 to students at the University of Jerusalem – at least in some form or fashion.
I don’t know if you enjoyed your study of philosophy in high school or college – philosophy courses can mess up your mind pretty quickly – but philosophy itself is very important. Philosophy is an attempt to find a unifying set of principles by which we can make sense of life. In other words, for our own mental and emotional and spiritual well-being, we need an overarching set of truths, a unifying set of values, a foundational set of principles that will allow us to synthesize knowledge.
Philosophy asks: Is there a thesis that will harmonize reality and around which the whole universe will coalesce—from the largest star to the smallest insect? Does anything hold this world together? Does anything make sense of life and tell us what’s the use of living?
This is a book with the truest kind of credibility because King Solomon had tried both philosophical avenues. He began with God, and then he departed from God—and now, in his old age he was able to compare the two pathways.
As a young man, Solomon appeared very devoted to God. He asked God for wisdom, and the Lord gave him an extremely high intellect. He was probably the most brilliant person who ever lived, apart from our Lord Jesus Christ. If you asked me to speculate about who in all of human history had the highest IQ, I would say, first, Jesus, then Solomon. This is the man who built the temple of the Lord on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem. This is the man who dedicated the temple by offering one of longest and most magnificent prayers in the Bible. This is the man who solved problems and cast vision for his people and who wrote three books in the heart of the Bible.
But this was also a man who was drawn away from the Lord because of his physical and carnal appetites. He collected a harem of hundreds of women, and the Bible says that these women turned his heart away from the Lord. He became an apostate. He became a lover of pleasure more than a lover of God. He became backslider, a deserter, a reprobate. And the experience left him empty—as empty—as Ernest Hemmingway once said—as a radio tube when the batters are dead and there is no current to plug into.
But I believe that near the end of his life, he came back to the Lord—and out of these experiences he wrote the book of Ecclesiastes to describe his journey and to teach young people to choose the best philosophy for living the best kind of life.
Here’s the Syllabus
Well, this is the approach of Ecclesiastes. Today I’d like to give you a brief overview of the entire book, and then we’ll simply deal with the first and last paragraphs, which provides a summary of the entire message of the book and helps us see how Ecclesiastes comes full circle. We’ve put an outline of Ecclesiastes in your program. As you read and study this book with us from week to week, this simple outline may help you find your way through the contents.
Prologue: Our basic philosophical problem: Everything in life seems meaningless (1:1-11)
1. Purpose: Is there meaning to life? (1:12 – 2:26). This part is autobiographical. Solomon tells us about his philosophical journey.
2. Perplexities: What about the unfairness of life? (3:1 – 6:12). Here Solomon discusses the things that perplexed him about life.
- Transience (3:1-15)
- Injustice (3:16-22)
- Oppression (4:1-6)
- Loneliness (4:7-16)
- Irreverence (5:1-7)
- Inequality (5:8-12)
- Obscurity (6:1-12)
3. Proverbs: How can we live wisely? (7:1 – 11:8). In this section of the book, Solomon reverts back to one of his favorite forms of teaching and gives us some practical instructions for living with philosophical integrity.
4. Preaching: A message for young people (11:9 – 12:8). The last major section of the book is an appeal to young people to choose the right and the best philosophy. Here Solomon comes full circle and shows us, from his perspective, how all the issues he raised can be solved on a philosophical level.
Conclusion: The summation of the whole matter (12:9-14)
The Prologue of Ecclesiastes: Grappling with the Problem
Solomon begins with the core problem of life. Without God, life cannot and does not and never will make sense. Look at verse 1: The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”
The Hebrew word for “meaningless” conveys the idea of fleeting. Life is over so quickly. I was with a couple last week and they told me I had married them five years ago. I remember their wedding so well, but I thought it had happened last year, or in just the last year of two. I couldn’t believe that five years had sped by. Life is very fleeting, and therefore, it there’s nothing more to it, it is very futile. Without God, there seems to be no meaning to life. There seems to be no purpose. There seems to be no use. Everything is absurd and purposeless and devoid of meaning.
Verse 3 continues: What do people gain for all their labors at which they toil under the sun?
The Philosopher is going to come back to this subject over and over again—at how hard we work. We are working people. We labor and toil and expend energy and go about the drudgeries of daily labor. What’s the use? What good does it really do? This is a major theme in Ecclesiastes. He will give us the answer later, but for now he’s bringing up his questions.
And now, he’s going to talk about the endless cycles of nature, and he has the same question. The world spins around and around and around—but does it make any sense?
Verse 4 says: Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. All things are wearisome, more than one can say.
The earth and the cycles of nature just keep doing the same thing over and over again. The sun rises and the sun sets. The wind blows here and it blows there. The rains fall, the rivers empty into the ocean, the water evaporates, and the rain falls again. Endless cycles… life just goes around and around… day follows day… generations come and generations go… and what’s the meaning of it? What’s the use? Does life make any sense?
Solomon went on in verse 8b: The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. No matter how much we see or hear, it doesn’t lead us to a satisfying conclusion. Our questions remain unanswered.
Verse 9 says: What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. And here we come to one of the phrases that we’ll see over and over in the book of Ecclesiastes—“under the sun.” That is a phrase that implies a worldview in which God is excluded. It means “apart from heaven.” It means, “This is a worldview limited to what we can see under the sun, one that excludes God and excludes the perspective of heaven.” If all you have is what is under the sun, then this is all you have—vanity of vanities, meaninglessness, hopelessness, absurdity, and despair.
Verse 10 says: Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.
In other words, as far as we know everything will always be as everything has always been. The earth will keep right on going, and everyone in every generation will die. Look at the concluding verse of the Philosopher’s prologue, as we get to the crux of his dilemma: Verse11: No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.
This is truly perplexing to a thoughtful philosopher. The German philosopher, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, said: “Should I eat and drink, only in order to hunger and thirst again, and eat and drink, merely until the open grave under my feet swallows me up as a meal to the earth? Should I create more beings like myself, so they can eat and drink and die, and so they can leave behind beings of their own, so that they can do the same as I have already done? What is the point of this continual, self-contained and ever-returning circle… this monster continually devouring itself in order to reproduce itself, and reproduce itself in order to devour itself?”
In other words, our lives have no meaning and no significance. Before we are born, nobody knows about us. After we die, no one will remember us—at least not for long. The earth moves in constant, eternal cycles; generations come and go; no one knows about us before we’re born and no one will remember us after we’re dead. It is as though we really don’t exist. We have no meaning in life. Life is meaningless, absurd, empty, vain, and pointless.
That’s the way the book of Ecclesiastes begins. It’s rather depressing, isn’t it? Yet that’s the worldview of secular humanity and of atheistic humanism. That’s the worldview of the practical atheism that is gripping our society. If all you have is what is “under the sun” there is no existential meaning in life. And if there is no existential meaning in life, you have two options. You can either kill yourself in sheer despair, or you can anesthetize yourself with distractions and amusements and entertainment until you die.
I want to be very clear about this. Our culture today and our media today and our universities today are essentially atheistic. They may not say that but that’s the worldview or the philosophy under which they are operating. I’ve just finished a powerful book by the British philosopher and Christian scholar, Dr. Os Guinness, entitled Impossible People. He said, “We face a solemn hour for humanity at large and a momentous showdown for the Western church. At stake is the attempted completion of the centuries-long assault on the Jewish and Christian faiths and their replacement by progressive secularism as the defining faith of the West and the ideology said to be the best suited to the conditions of advanced modernity. The gathering crisis is therefore about nothing less than a struggle for the soul of the West and the place of faith in the life of advanced modern societies.”
Autonomous, Absurd, and Absolute
Now, aggressive atheism gives us three things.
First, it give us autonomy. If there is no God, there are no rules and we can write our own. There is no authority. There is no one to tell us what to do or how to live. There is no one to establish character and conduct. There is no absolute morality. So we are free to do whatever we want, free to write our own rules, free to craft our own gods, free to write our own standards of morality.
But second, this worldview offers absurdity. Life becomes meaningless and makes no sense because it is so fleeting and temporary, and this is the whole point of Ecclesiastes. Now, I’ve had atheists and secularists argue with me about this. They say, “I don’t believe in God or I don’t know if God exists, but my life still has meaning.” Yes, but not for long. You can find temporary meaning and fulfillment, but it’s the kind of fulfillment people experienced as the band played on the deck of the Titanic as the ship collided with the iceberg.
The more honest atheists admit this. Friedrich Nietzsche was haunted by this, and he could never escape the implications of his godless philosophy. It literally drove him crazy. Here’s a little paragraph by Nietzsche: “In some isolated corner of the universe, poured out shimmeringly into unaccountable solar systems, there was once a star upon which clever animals invented knowledge. It was the most arrogant and hypocritical minute of world history, but it was only a minute. After nature drew a few breathes, the star grew stiff with cold, and the clever animals had to die.”
This is the inescapable dilemma of atheism and secularism. And it is so frightening to me when I realize this is the dominant philosophy the world is pouring into our children through education and entertainment.
So aggressive atheism gives us autonomy and absurdity, but it also gives us absolutism, which means discrimination and intolerance. We see scores of examples of this every single day in the United States and the Western world.
- Last week, a Christian named Russell Vought, who graduated from my alma mater, Wheaton College, went before Congress. He is a nominee for deputy director of the White House office of Management. Senator Bernie Sanders grilled him over his Christian faith and said about him: “I would simply say, Mr. Chairman, that this nominee is really not someone who this country is supposed to be about.” According to Senator Sanders, a person’s Christian convictions disqualifies them for public service.
- In Canada, private Christian schools are concerned that the Canadian government is going to censure certain scriptures about sexual ethics from their student handbooks. Imagine that. The secular government is assuming the role of forbidding a private Christian school from including biblical passages about sexual ethics from its own student handbooks.
- Last week in East Lansing, Michigan, a Christian farmer was banned from the city’s farmers’ market because of his Christian views about marriage.
- In North Carolina last week, a graduating African-American high school was denied his diploma because he mentioned God in his graduation remarks.
- In the United Kingdom last week, the head of the Liberal Democrats party in the UK resigned from his position and left political life because he was hounded from the public arena because he was an evangelical Christian. Tim Farron said, “A better, wiser person than me may have been able to deal with this more successfully, to have remained faithful to Christ while leading a political party in the current environment. To be a political leader—especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017—and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, has felt impossible for me.” He said, “We are kidding ourselves if we think we live in a tolerant, liberal society.”
I could give you a hundred examples; but it simply seems odd to me that a such a philosophy, which is in its essence autonomous, absurd, and absolutist, should take such powerful hold on the Western world, and I only have one explanation for it. It is as demonic as it can be. The god of this age—the devil—has blinded the minds of unbelievers. The Bible says:
But take note of this. In the last days perilous times will come. For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, lovers of pleasure for than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof. From such turn away…. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have been convinced of, for you know those from whom you learned it. And how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures that are able to make you wise unto salvation through Jesus Christ. All Scripture is breathed-out by God….
The Conclusion of the Matter
And that brings us to our conclusion. But I want to end my message today by tell you what I believe to be the rest of the story. Evidently late in his life Solomon made a right turn. The prologue of Ecclesiastes is not the conclusion of Ecclesiastes. The prologue sets forth the philosophical enigma of life, but the rest of the book works on resolving the puzzle. And the epilogue gives us the conclusion. Ecclesiastes 12:13 says:
Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.
It seems clear to me that in the last years of his life, King Solomon realized how his atheism and secularism and backsliding had devastated his soul and he turned back to the Lord. The book of Ecclesiastes represents the university course he developed to teach young people the importance of finding the one working philosophy for life that really works.
This week in his column, Christian thinker Eric Metaxas told the story of a woman named Sarah Irving-Stonebreaker, who was one of the brightest academics in the growing atheist community. She won the University Medal and a Commonwealth Scholarship to undertake her Ph.D. in History at King’s College, Cambridge.
After Cambridge, Sarah attended some lectures at Oxford by the atheist intellectual and Princeton ethics professor Peter Singer. This is the man who advances the notion that some forms of animal life have more worth than human beings. As an atheist, he sees no basis for any intrinsic human dignity. In his lecture, he asserted that nature provides no grounds for believing that a human being is any more valuable than a snake or a snail.
This is classic atheism. In fact, we have the same thing here in the book of Ecclesiastes, chapter 3.
But there was something about Dr. Singer’s lecture that shook Sarah Irving-Stonebraker. She later said: “I remember leaving Singer’s lectures with a strange intellectual vertigo. I began to realize that the implications of my atheism were incompatible with almost every value I held dear.”
A few months later, at a dinner for the International Society for the Study of Science and Religion, someone asked Sarah a question: “Do you believe in God.” When she equivocated, she said, “Do you really want to sit on the fence forever?”
She said, “That question made me realize that if the issues about human value and ethics mattered to me, the response that perhaps there was a God or perhaps there wasn’t was unsatisfactory.”
Later she moved to Florida to conduct research and she began attending church as a seeker. She was overwhelmed by Christians living out their faith, feeding the homeless, running community centers, and advocating for the disadvantaged. Finally she read Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, and one night, she said, “I knelt in my closet in my apartment and asked Jesus to save me, and to become the Lord of my life.”
An atheist who was led to Christ by listening to a fellow atheist and by questioning the implications of her own meaningless philosophy.
Let me close with another quote from the book I mentioned earlier by Os Guinness. He said: “We serve an impossible God, and we are to be God’s impossible people.”
“…impossible people gain their strength from an impossible God who is greater than all, who can be trusted in all situations and who strengthens his people to stand even against death. Despite everyone and despite everything, we are called to stand, and stand we must as God’s impossible people. However sweet the seduction, however popular and powerful the tide, however plausible the different gospel, however scornful or brutal the attacks, and however fearful the threats, impossible people stand, faithful only to Jesus, our Lord and our God. So may it be in our time.”
Solomon started strong, strayed, encountered a disillusionment he couldn’t explain and with which he could not live; and he learned the lesson of the ages. The only working philosophy that really works is to acknowledge our Creator, fear God and keep His commandments, and follow our Lord Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth–and on to Heaven.
 Os Guinness, Impossible People (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2016), 22.
 Os Guinness, Impossibel People (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2016), 223.
 Os Guinness, Impossibel People (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2016), 216-217.