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The Agora
Bible Commentary
Ecclesiastes

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OVERVIEW

See Lesson, Ecc, authorship.

Structure of the Book

" 'Meaningless! Meaningless!' says the Teacher [or 'Preacher', Heb "Qoheleth']. 'Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless' " (Ecc 1:2). This full phrase -- expressing the theme of the Book -- is duplicated in Ecc 12:8. These two verses (Ecc 1:2 and Ecc 12:8) form a kind of frame around the main part of the book. The main argument of the book (Ecc 1:3-12:7) takes place within the boundaries of this frame.

Both the introductory title (Ecc 1:1 only) and the conclusion (Ecc 12:9-14) are written in the third person: the Preacher is referred to as "he" (the Preacher), not as "I". In the main body of the book (Ecc 1:3-12:7), the Preacher speaks as "I" to the reader, and gives us his personal observations. There is only one place in this main body of the book in which third person speech ("he") is again introduced: Ecc 7:27: it includes the phrase "says the Preacher, or Teacher". This little phrase, occurring as it does roughly in the middle of the book, is a reminder to us that what we are reading all the way through this central section (Ecc 1:3-12:7) is a first person account, the personal observations of the Preacher.

The key word

The key word in Ecclesiastes is "hebel", which occurs about 37 times in the short book. (This is remarkable because the same word only occurs no more than a like number of times -- 33 by one count -- in the entirety of the rest of the Bible.) "Hebel" literally means "a breath", and signifies that which is "vain" or "meaningless".

Qoheleth consistently uses "hebel" with the nuance of "transient" of "fleeting" when he uses the term to describe man's life (Ecc 11:10; 6:12; 7:12; 9:9; 3:19).

Qoheleth uses "hebel" with the nuance of "perplexing" or "enigmatic" if occurrences upon earth which contradict the established moral order (Ecc 6:2; 8:10; 8:14).

Qoheleth employs "hebel" often with the nuance of "futile," "fruitless," "not beneficial."

With reference to pleasure and wisdom, Qoheleth employs "hebel" with the nuance of "profitless" (Ecc 2:1; 2:15):

Qoheleth employs "hebel" in conjunction with a feeding on or a striving after wind ("ruach") to denote a futile effort (Ecc 1:14; 2:11,17,26; 4:4,16; 6:9; cp Joh 3:8).

Qoheleth employs "hebel" in contradistinction to "yithron" (profit) and "tob" (good) and other terms which heighten the vividness of "hebel". The absence of "yithron" for activity is "profitless." The lack of "tob" in activity is "not beneficial." Among the words used in antithesis to "hebel", "yithron" -- "profit, advantage, gain" -- plays a dominant role as a term meaning "that which counts or matters", "that which results or issues from all our work". It forces upon "hebel" the special sense of "that which does not count or matter", "null", "vain", "that which yields no results". Qoheleth's goal is to find what is lastingly "tob" (good) or gives abiding "yithron" (profit, advantage). However, in his quest he finds nothing permanent in man's experience, hence his verdict -- "hebel" (eg, Ecc 1:3; 2:3,11; 3:19; 5:6).

Qoheleth's observations about the "hebel" nature of existence fall into two categories:
Qoheleth observes the cyclical patterns in nature and concludes that the meaning to life cannot be found in the created order (Ecc 1:5-8).

Qoheleth then looks at man for progress in history and technology as possibly giving the key to life, but concludes that any apparent progress is only illusionary, and that this does not hold the key to life (Ecc 1:9-11).

Qoheleth ponders the fact that the righteous and the wicked both suffer the fate of death, and concludes that this is another example of "hebel" (Ecc 2:14, cf Ecc 8:14).

Qoheleth observes the common fate of man and beast as another example of "hebel" (Ecc 3:19).

Qoheleth sees that the reordering of the present system is beyond man's control (Ecc 1:15; 7:13).

Qoheleth sees prevalent injustice in the world as another example of "hebel" (Ecc 3:16; 4:1; 5:7,8; 7:15).

Qoheleth also sees the moral order overturned in his experience and concludes that this is "hebel" (Ecc 8:14).

Qoheleth laments that the profit from his labor will be left to another and is hence "hebel" (Ecc 2:18).

Qoheleth sees the fact that the future after death is darkness (Ecc 11:8) and thus "hebel".

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Qoheleth observes all human endeavors by which a man seeks "profit" and "good" to give meaning to life, and concludes that they are all "hebel" (Ecc 1:14, 12:8).

Qoheleth concludes that toil is "hebel" because it is motivated by greed, does not yield happiness, and is impermanent.
Qoheleth concludes that wealth is "hebel" because it does not satisfy nor bring enjoyment, but rather brings anxiety (Ecc 2:4-10, 4:17, 5:9):
  1. Wealth is "hebel" because it brings anxiety rather than fulfillment (Ecc 5:10,11).
  2. Wealth is "hebel" because it can be easily lost through a rash vow, through oppression or through a bad investment (Ecc 5:1-6,8,9,14).
  3. Wealth is "hebel" because rather than give satisfaction, it demands increased vigilance to keep it (Ecc 5:12).
  4. Wealth is "hebel" because it brings misery (Ecc 5:6).
  5. Wealth is "hebel" because a man may not enjoy it (Ecc 2:26; 4:8).
  6. Wealth is "hebel" because it does not satisfy (Ecc 5:9).
Qoheleth concludes that wisdom is "hebel" since, rather than give meaning to life, it gives only a temporary advantage.
  1. The pursuit of wisdom yields grief and is thus "hebel" (Ecc 1:18).
  2. Wisdom is "hebel" because its advantages are seen in this life only (Ecc 2:15).
  3. Wisdom doesn't guarantee success since its advantage can be thwarted by various means, such as unpredicted misfortune (Ecc 9:11), sin and folly (9:18; 10:5-7), and improper timing (Ecc 10:8-11). It is thus "hebel" (Ecc 10:10).
Yet wisdom is not valueless. It has great relative advantage in this life (Ecc 2:14; 4:10-14; 8:1-9; 9:14-18).

Qoheleth concludes that pleasure-seeking in its various forms is "hebel" because it ultimately accomplishes nothing (Ecc 2:2):
  1. Sensual gratification, while pleasing for the moment, yields no lasting benefit (Ecc 2:3,8,11).
  2. The pleasure derived from the accomplishment of ambitious undertakings is only temporary (Ecc 2:4-6,11).
  3. The pleasure derived from great wealth brings no lasting satisfaction (Ecc 4:4-10,11).
  4. The pleasure derived by fools is of the briefest nature (Ecc 7:6).
  5. Pleasure is "hebel" since it yields no "yithron" (profit, advantage) (Ecc 2:11).
Qoheleth concludes that fame is "hebel" since it is short-lived, depending on the masses who have only the briefest memory (Ecc 4:13-16). [Cited generally from M. James Sawyer]

Theme

Ecclesiastes has been called "the book of Solomon's call to the Gentiles" (BM 78:17).

It has also been subtitled "The things that won't work!" (RS).

Where is the meaning of life? The meaning of life is found...
  1. NOT in wisdom...
  2. NOT in withdrawal...
  3. NOT in weeping...
  4. NOT in wine...
  5. NOT in wind...
  6. NOT in worship without obedience...
  7. NOT in wickedness...
  8. NOT in weapons of war...
  9. NOT in writing...
...but in walking uprightly.

Conclusion: Fear God, and keep His commandments.

The book of Ecclesiastes is a book for deep study and meditation. It is concerned with the age-old search for happiness and satisfaction. What is good? What is real? What is worthwhile? What is the great purpose and meaning of life?

Its theme is summed up in its opening and closing verses. It begins with: " 'Meaningless! Meaningless!' says the Teacher. 'Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless' " (Ecc 1:2).

And it ends with: "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" (Ecc 12:13,14). We note from the italics in the KJV that the word "duty" is not in the original. The thought is really broader and deeper. Literally it says: "This is the whole man" -- that is, this is everything for man -- all his meaning and purpose -- all his life and happiness.

Cp Luk 17:26,27; 2Ti 3:1-5: The Last Days will be a time of unprecedented pleasure-seeking. "What's it all about?" A realization of the emptiness of such pursuits turns one to Christ: as the only lasting satisfaction.

Two "incomplete answers"

"Two books fill a vital place in the scheme of revelation by raising questions to which the full answers are only to be found in Christ. Exploring life fearlessly, they seem to baffle the believer with doubts and difficulties, yet they really pave the way to a deeper faith by bringing into full light the problems which only the Gospel can wholly solve.

"Job leads through the problem of suffering to the wider problem of man's relation to God. Is it a simple profit-and-loss account in which well doing is rewarded and wrong doing punished? Obviously it is more than that, since a righteous man can suffer and know that he is not guilty of the secret sins his friends attribute to him. Still more is that evident when the Son of God himself suffers on the cross; but the cross deepens the problem only to solve it, since the way of life is opened up in the risen Christ, who becomes the Mediator between God and men foreshadowed in the speech of Elihu.

"Ecclesiastes probes the problem of man's relation to his own life. What is it worth when lived as an end in itself? What other end is there by which life can be related to something outside itself? The field of inquiry is wider than in Job since it covers the experience of life generally and not only the particular experiences of loss and pain; but in the same way it raises fundamental questions to which only partial answers can be given within the book's own limits -- the final answers are in Christ" (LGS).

The "contradictions" in Ecclesiastes?

"It has been observed that often "the Preacher is using a strategy that we might term, 'Yes... but...' He presents one truth and agrees with it -- but only in certain respects. He is prepared only to go so far with it because he realises there are other angles and other truths which qualify or contextualize the first. Thus, it may be true that it is good to be diligent or to be wise (indeed it is true); but there are other aspects which must also be considered, as the Preacher is quick to point out. [This] is a phenomenon which appears again and again throughout the book. It may be true that there is a time for everything, but if humans do not know when that time is, and if they cannot fathom the eternity which is God's, then they are hopelessly at sea unless God condescends to help them out.

"Interpreters have agonised over paradoxes and apparent contradictions in Ecclesiastes throughout the centuries, and where they have become unstuck it is often because they have failed to realise truth can be expressed in contradictory statements. One statement can be true to a certain extent. Another statement, which is apparently contradictory, can be true in another sense. Put the two together, and one begins to develop a complete picture.

"This is somewhat akin to the position we find ourselves in when we discuss freewill and predestination, or when we ask the extent to which God is involved in controlling people's lives and the extent to which we take the initiative in controlling our own destiny. There is truth in both: God directs and we have free will. The precise sense in which they are to be reconciled is not spelled out for us in scripture, and we are to take encouragement and instruction from both truths. Many arguments arise because of apparent overemphasis on one side or the other, but it is when they are taken together that we can begin to perceive the truth of the matter. Likewise in Ecclesiastes, the apparent contradictions are the Preacher's way of expressing truth. There are different ways of looking at things, different perspectives and levels, and this means that apparently contradictory statements can turn out to be simultaneously true and can express the whole truth in a way that one simple statement could not. This is very important to remember" (MV).

Outline

  1. The title: Ecc 1:1
  2. The theme stated: All is meaningless: Ecc 1:2.
  3. The futility of human efforts without God: Ecc 1:3–11
  4. The test of practical experience: Ecc 1:12 – 2:26
  5. Men's opportunity limited by time: Ecc 3:1–22
  6. Human futility greatly increased by oppression: Ecc 4:1–16
  7. The futility of insincere worship: Ecc 5:1–9
  8. The futility of riches: Ecc 5:10 -- 6:2
  9. The futility of human desires: Ecc 6:3 – 11:6
  10. Advice and warning to youth: Ecc 11:7 – 12:7
  11. The theme restated: All is meaningless: Ecc 12:8
  12. Conclusion: Fear God, and keep His commandments: Ecc 12:9–14

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