For the past few months, I have been preaching on the prophetical ministries of Elijah and Elisha. We concluded our study of the two prophets last week. This Lord’s Day, we are commencing a series of pulpit messages on the Book of Ecclesiastes. The following brief introduction gives us some background information pertinent to our study of this intriguing book.
The Book of Ecclesiastes is one of five poetic books in the Old Testament. Comprising one fifth of the Old Testament, these five books – Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon – are personal in character and contain some of the most profound literature of human history.
Anyone reading Ecclesiastes for the first time may find it perplexing and difficult to understand. It seems to be a strange mixture of faith and fatalism. “At times the author seems to be resigned to all the frustration and futility of life; at others he appears to be telling us to enjoy ourselves while we can; and all the way through there are plenty of hints that God knows what is going on, that we must trust and serve Him, and that one day we will answer to Him” (The Bible in Outline).
o Unity of the book
Because of these seeming contradictions, some scholars believe that the book is the work of several authors, each presenting his own view of life. However, many conservative commentators have endorsed the single authorship of the book on the grounds that “the author looks at life from several angles, deliberately at times raising the arguments that would occur to his readers. Nevertheless, he is always firm in his conclusions. The unity of the book is shown by the central argument that emerges throughout the whole book” (Course on the Old Testament Poetic Books: FEBC 1998 – Rev Charles Seet).
o Title and Authorship
The title of the book, “Ecclesiastes” is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word “Qoheleth” or “Koheleth”. It refers to a preacher or teacher who calls for a assembly. This word is found in the first and second verses of the book (as well as in Chapters 1: 12; 7: 27; 12: 8-10): “The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. 2 Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity” (1: 1-2).
We note that the author actually called himself “Qoheleth” or “The Preacher”. Though Solomon’s name does not appear in the book, it is clear from the first two verses that he identified himself as the author – “the son of David, king of Jerusalem”. Both Jewish and early Christian writers attributed the book to him. Moreover, the references to his great wisdom in Chapter 1: 16 (cf I Ki 3: 12), his vast building projects in Chapter 2: 4-6 (cf I Ki 7: 1-12) and his abundant wealth in Chapter 2: 7-9 (cf II Chron 9: 13-28) also support this view.
o Date of writing
It is believed that Solomon wrote the book in his old age – probably around 930 – 945 BC – when he seemed to take a more serious view of his past life. In Chapter 2: 1-11, he described his great works and riches, indulgences and sensual pleasures. In Chapters 11 and 12, he wrote of his experiences with the onset of aging. He addressed Chapters 11: 9 – 12: 1 to young men that they might learn from his experiences. Hence, we can safely conclude that Ecclesiastes was written by Solomon towards the end of his life.
In his opening and parting statements, Solomon highlighted the vanity and futility of life. Without God, life is empty and meaningless. The key words “vanity” and “under the sun” are mentioned 35 times and 29 times respectively in the book. “Vanity” is a translation of the Hebrew word “hebel” meaning a mere breath or a vapour. It refers to anything which is fleeting or empty. These key words suggest that without God, all our earthy pursuits are vain.
In his book, the author pondered over the meaning of life. He sought to answer the question: “What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?” (1: 3). Having been richly blessed with great wisdom and wealth, the Preacher had the means and resources to explore all avenues in his search for satisfaction. But after years of extensive experiments, Solomon discovered that all his efforts to seek out pleasure, knowledge, human wisdom, wealth, fame and power had proven fruitless. At death, man leaves this world and all its pleasures to meet his Maker: “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it. 8 Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity” (12: 7-8).
The Preacher concluded his sermon on a sober note. To be happy and satisfied, one must “fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. 14 For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil” (12: 13-14). (… to be concluded)