Background on Ecclesiastes

Author

The author identifies himself as the Preacher (or Teacher).

While the book is technically anonymous, Solomon is the most likely candidate.

Theme

Everything is meaningless “under the sun,” and the only source of true meaning and joy is God.

Background

In the first chapter of Ecclesiastes, the author identifies himself as the Qoheleth (the Preacher or Teacher). Thus, strictly speaking, the book is anonymous; however, the Preacher does give us a hint as to his identity. He is said, in the first verse, to be the “son of David, king in Jerusalem.” The Hebrew word for “son” can be used to mean either a literal son or a descendant of, so the author technically could be simply a descendant of David (Hezekiah is, therefore, a possibility). However, the argument for Solomon’s authorship is quite clear. Many of the actions that Solomon describes in this book mirror the sort of accomplishments that are recorded of Solomon in 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles. In addition, the Preacher makes many claims to great, vast wealth and unparalleled wisdom, which is recorded in detail in the two books previously mentioned. Once we come to accept Solomon as the author, we then must ask when it was written. According to Jewish tradition, Solomon wrote Song of Songs in his youth, compiled Proverbs in his middle years, and wrote Ecclesiastes near the end of his life. If that is true, then this book is of near infinite value because it is the final reflections of one of the wisest men to ever live (1 Kings 4:29).

Purpose

If it is true that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes near the end of his life, then it can be interpreted as Solomon’s return to the faith. We are told in 1 Kings that Solomon was led astray from the LORD by the false gods of his wives (1 Kings 11:4). Thus, Ecclesiastes could be Solomon’s final reflections on life and whatever conclusions he has made. Even so, why should we care? Why were the dying words of Solomon important enough to be considered Scripture?

Primarily, we can believe that Solomon’s words are recorded here to show us that wealth, success, and prosperity do not ultimately satisfy. Many Christians read Job with amazement. Job was a man that had everything going for him. He loved God, loved his wife, loved his kids, and God blessed him with plenty of wealth. However, in one day, Job loses it all. For centuries, people have read Job’s story, not because in the end his wealth is returned to him, but because even in the midst of horrendous circumstances, Job remains faithful to God. The message of Job is that even when we have nothing, God is everything. But what about the converse? What if we are given everything? Does God then become useless?

Ecclesiastes is the answer to that question. Solomon was a man to whom God had given everything. He was the epitome of the American dream. In terms of political power, Solomon was greater than the President of the United States. In terms of religious authority, Solomon had more than the Pope. In terms of intelligence, Solomon had more than Einstein. In terms of wealth, Solomon surpassed Bill Gates. In terms of women, Solomon was the original Hugh Hefner. We are told that the daily provisions for his personal staff were enough to feed 35,000 people (1 Kings 4:22-23). That’s 35,000 servants that waited on him, hand and foot. Solomon had it all. In addition, God granted Solomon a peaceful reign on the thrown of Israel for forty years (1 Kings 11:42). That is the longest time of peace that Israel has ever seen! Not only did countries not attack Israel, but also during Solomon’s reign, they came from all across the globe just to give him money.

So one would think that Solomon lived the good life and died the happiest man alive, but then we get Ecclesiastes. His final words to us are that “all is vanity.” Everything is meaningless “under the sun.” Ultimately, Solomon’s goal is to simply show us that a life without God is a life without purpose. Solomon records numerous times in the book that “there is nothing better” than for a person find his or her enjoyment in God. “Apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” If everything “under the sun” is meaningless, then let us find our meaning from One is above the sun.

Misunderstandings

I have rarely spoken with anyone about this book who did not find it at least a little depressing. I have even heard people claim that it was their favorite book because it reminds them just how futile life really is. To an extent, these things are true. Ecclesiastes is not the happiest book that one may read, true. It does a great job of describing the futility of life, also true. However, I do not find Ecclesiastes depressing, nor do I believe that it is one gigantic downer. Instead, Ecclesiastes is one of the world’s first philosophical works. Many people, including myself, would call it the greatest work of philosophy ever written. In fact, it appears to me that what most people call depressing is actually the presentation of life’s difficult questions. No other book calls us to face the reality of our mortality and depravity like Ecclesiastes. It addresses the human condition in such a way that Solomon is attempting to give words to experiences that are beyond words. Ecclesiastes is not an easy book, and it will not be content with simply being a “good read” or an interesting book. This book does not need to be depressing, but if we study it well, Ecclesiastes will cut through any shallowness in our souls, leaving behind a desperate need for God to provide our lives with meaning, satisfaction, and joy.

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