Humanity has been scattered ever since the Tower of Babel, but our aspiration to make a name for ourselves on this earth has never gone away (cf. Genesis 11:1-9). All such aspirations prove futile; Solomon, as the Preacher, demonstrates why in Ecclesiastes.
The book of Ecclesiastes is the twenty-first book in most English Bibles; in the Hebrew Bible, it is part of the Ketuvim or “Writings.” Ecclesiastes claims to be the words of the Preacher (Hebrew Qohelet), manifestly Solomon (ca. 950 BCE; Ecclesiastes 1:1, 12:9-10). Many dispute Solomon’s authorship and claim it was written during the post-exilic period, perhaps as late as the Hellenistic period (ca. 450-250 BCE), yet there is nothing in the “sermon” itself which could not come from Solomon, and much of what is said in the “sermon” is rooted in experience only Solomon could have (e.g. Ecclesiastes 2:1-11). Solomon likely gave this discourse before some sort of congregation and it was written down with some beginning and ending notes added at some later point (ca. 910-586 BCE). Ecclesiastes is Solomon’s discourse on life on earth “under the sun” and its hebel, vapor or breath, thus vanity, futility, or absurdity, in the face of death.
Since the Preacher began and ended the “sermon” with the same message, all is hebel, the “vanity,” “futility,” or “absurdity” of life is its main theme (Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12:8). The Preacher began by describing the continual movement of life, that there is nothing new “under the sun,” that is, on earth (Ecclesiastes 1:1-11). The Preacher then spoke of his experience searching for wisdom and pleasure how both proved vain, futile, and/or absurd (Ecclesiastes 1:12-2:17). The Preacher lamented the end of his labors, for all he would gain would go to a descendant who did not work for it, and encouraged finding joy in one’s life, labor, and serving God (Ecclesiastes 2:18-26).
The Preacher declared how there is a time for everything, for good and ill (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8); it is for man to enjoy what God has given him, for it is only God’s work which endures for eternity (Ecclesiastes 3:9-15). The Preacher lamented wickedness and oppression on the earth, and while maintaining confidence in God’s ultimate judgment, perceived that the righteous and wicked experience the same fate by dying (Ecclesiastes 3:16-4:3). The Preacher made observations about life: the pitfalls of envy and greed, the benefit of friendship, the value of wisdom, the need to fear God and pay vows, contentment, finding it in the “small pleasures” of life, and the consequences of not finding it, and various contrasts, particularly between wisdom and folly (Ecclesiastes 4:4-7:29).
The Preacher continued by commending following the commands of the king and the blessings attended to those who fear God (Ecclesiastes 8:1-13, 10:16-20). Yet the Preacher also warned against questions which lead to no profit and much speculation, for they are a vanity, futile, and/or absurd, and only God can truly know (Ecclesiastes 8:14-17). Yet, in the end, death comes to everyone; therefore people should find ways to enjoy life daily, with food and friends, and live wisely rather than foolishly (Ecclesiastes 9:1-10:15). The Preacher also commended helping the less fortunate, while exhorting those hearing him to recognize their inability to know all of what God does, and therefore they ought to do their work and live their lives well (Ecclesiastes 11:1-7). The Preacher concludes with an exhortation to young people, to enjoy youth, but to remember their Creator when they are young, before old age and its attendant physical limitations come, and death as its ultimate end (Ecclesiastes 11:8-12:8). The book of Ecclesiastes ends with a commendation of the Preacher and wisdom and the end of the matter, to fear God and keep His commandments, since He will bring all into judgment (Ecclesiastes 12:9-14).
Understanding the words of the Preacher, especially in terms of the rest of what is revealed in the Old Testament, can prove challenging and controversial, yet his message is in Scripture for good reason. Humanity does not like facing the reality of death and the absurdities and futility of its existence; if we find Ecclesiastes depressing, such says more about our pretensions than about the naked reality of our existence. The Preacher is right: “under the sun” we must recognize that nothing we do will last forever, and it is for us to enjoy the small pleasures of life, fearing God and living wisely, and not fall prey to the grandiose pretensions of seeking permanency or immortality in this existence. Death will come to us all, but in Christ we know that death is not the ultimate end, but only the end of the beginning, and after the judgment we hold onto the hope of the resurrection unto eternal life (1 Corinthians 15:20-58). Let us live in this life in terms of the resurrection into the next, understand that life under the sun is hebel, and fear God and keep His commandments!
Ethan R. Longhenry