Recently Tim Challies highlighted a series of articles related to the Book of Ecclesiastes. As a long-time biblical counselor and proponent for great exegesis from particular books of the Bible, I read the articles with great anticipation. Rather than giving a clear approach to the Book of Ecclesiastes, the author challenged us to determine the emphasis. I believe this book is far too important for everyday life in Christ and, by extension, for our counseling from the Scriptures to get this wrong. Therefore, today, I am going to review the big idea of Ecclesiastes and how it can help you in daily living.
Rightly interpreted, Ecclesiastes provides both a Godward perspective and wisdom as the Christian traverses through the many pressures of life. Over the years, this has been true for my counselees and me. For instance, when our daughter Kayla died, Ecclesiastes brought great insight and comfort into my life. At her death, I was in the process of both translating the book and teaching it verse-by-verse in our adult Sunday School class.
Challies highlighted Peter Krol’s analysis of Ecclesiastes. Krol writes, “[The Book of Ecclesiastes] offers a great case study in how perception can drastically affect both interpretation and application. This fact ought to motivate us to be as meticulous as possible in observing the text within its context.” He then presents his take on the following three ways Christians typically approach the book: 1) The cynic refers to the view that says the entire book is not commendable, nor is it even godly. 2) The hedonist approach relates to both the vanity of life and the joy of God in the midst of it. In other words, even though life is meaningless, the Christian can enjoy it. 3) The apologist primarily associates the book to an expose on worldview where half the book is true and half the book is false.
I will suggest a fourth way (or at least a very revised second view – the hedonist) to approach the Book of Ecclesiastes. Essentially, the Book explains how a Christian must respond in a world where a) God is sovereign and b) the world suffers under great depravity. Different than the hedonist view mentioned above, the Book is not about a meaningless life that God allows us to enjoy in spite of its meaninglessness. Instead, the Book describes life’s purpose under God as well as provides guidance along the path.
Understanding Hebel (vanity, meaningless, or what?)
Krol further explained in a second article that one must understand the key word hebel in order to understand the book as a whole (which I agree). He writes:
But I can say that any interpretation of the book that doesn’t frontline the “unsatisfying, endless repetition of old things…” is not using hebel the way the Preacher used hebel. For him, hebel is not really about nihilism, cynicism, or purposelessness. It’s about the tedium, transience, impermanence, and dissatisfaction God built into the universe.
In this incidence, Krol missed this meaning. Instead of the word pointing to the tedium, transience, impermanence, and dissatisfaction of the universe, the word literally means “breath” and, as used in context by the Preacher, means “frustratingly enigmatic.” For the Qohelet (Preacher), life is beyond figuring out. As he seeks to understand life and the purpose of life, his search ends in frustration and mystery. As much as he desires to understand, he simply cannot. Therefore, he concludes the best thing to do for the one who walks with God is to, “Fear God and keep His commands…” – even when you do not understand the world around you.
Putting Ecclesiastes Together into Context
The Preacher begins and ends Ecclesiastes with the summary, “Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher; “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (Eccl 1:2; 12:8). Thirty-eight times Solomon uses the term hebel(frustratingly enigmatic, הֶבֶל) to describe what is hard and difficult to understand about the world around him. When one seeks to comprehend the world and understand some kind of meaning in life, all he or she is left with is a sense of frustration and mystery. This process alone of seeking to know and make sense of the world around us is frustrating.
The Burdensome Task God Gives to Men
People want to make sense of the world around them. They desire to know. Individuals are not satisfied to just live. We touch, consider, mull over, and ponder what we see, try, and learn. We do these things naturally. God built into each person the desire to put the pieces of the world together in a way that is comprehensible. At the end of the day, we want to understand today and be able to predict tomorrow.
Of his own journey, the Preacher wrote,
12 I, the Preacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 And I set my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under heaven; this burdensome task God has given to the sons of man, by which they may be exercised. 14 I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and indeed, all is vanity and grasping for the wind. 15 What is crooked cannot be made straight, And what is lacking cannot be numbered. 16 I communed with my heart, saying, “Look, I have attained greatness, and have gained more wisdom than all who were before me in Jerusalem. My heart has understood great wisdom and knowledge.” 17 And I set my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is grasping for the wind. (Eccl 1:12-17)
He desires to know and make sense of the world around him. He describes it as a burdensome task given by God to all people. As he makes his observations, he concludes, all is frustratingly enigmatic and is like chasing after the wind. He recognizes that if you were to try to catch the wind, you would be frustrated. It is impossible to catch. In a similar way, it is impossible to understand life by mere observation and participation. Why? Because in our depravity, we do not have the proper advantage point to straighten out what God has made crooked or to count what cannot be seen. The burden of every person is to make sense out of the world, even though all the pieces are not there to figure it out.
Things Do Not Happen Like You Assume They Should
Part of the Preacher’s frustration stems from the fact that things do not happen the way you assume they should. For instance, you work hard all your life to ultimately leave it for someone else – who may be wise or foolish (Eccl 2:18-23). If you seek pleasure and a sense of meaning from life, you end up empty in the end (Eccl 2:1-11). In fact, ultimately the wise person and the foolish person both go through similar life events and people forget them both when life is over (Eccl 2:12-16). All of this is frustrating.
He points us to God’s plan as an example of what is frustratingly enigmatic.
13 Consider the work of God;
For who can make straight what He has made crooked?
14 In the day of prosperity be joyful,
But in the day of adversity consider:
Surely God has appointed the one as well as the other,
So that man can find out nothing that will come after him.
15 I have seen everything in my days of vanity:
There is a just man who perishes in (in spite of) his righteousness,
And there is a wicked man who prolongs life in (in spite of) his wickedness. (Eccl 7:13-15)
God’s work or plan differs greatly from what we expect or assume. God appoints good days next to bad days and bad days next to good days. We do not know what is next. In fact, frustration builds if you try to determine how it all works or what is next. How is it that a good man can die young or a wicked man live long? This does not make sense. This is a frustrating mystery.
Therefore, Understand Life from God’s Perspective
Enjoy what you have in life as it is God’s gift
The Preacher provides us a perspective on life. Whatever you have today is God’s gift to you. It is your portion. Therefore, be grateful to God and make the most of it for His glory. Enjoy eating, drinking, working, and personal relationships (Eccl 2:24; 3:12-13; 3:22; 9:9-10). Whatever you have today is what God has given you for today. How it connects to yesterday is a mystery. How it connects with tomorrow is a mystery as well. All you know is that today you have it and are responsible for what is in front of you.
All of life fits in God’s plan
To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven… (Eccl 3:1-15)
God brings seasons of life upon every person. The Preacher provides fourteen examples of seasons of life. His conclusion: God makes everything fitting or appropriate. Whatever season it is, that season fits in your life as part of God’s plan. Again, this is where life can be very, very frustrating. Although in God’s plan everything fits, in life we do not understand how it fits. In fact, God places darkness in your heart such that even when you try, you cannot see what comes next or how it is connected to what happened last. This is frustratingly enigmatic.
Therefore, fear God and obey Him
In a world you cannot understand, even though it is hardwired by your Creator to seek to understand, what are you to do? How should you respond to life’s circumstances, mysteries, and uncertainties? Fear God and obey Him. The Preacher writes:
13 Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter:
Fear God and keep His commandments,
For this is man’s all.
14 For God will bring every work into judgment,
Including every secret thing,
Whether good or evil. (Eccl 12:13-14)
Our only option as we seek to live in a world where God is sovereign, does not let us see around the corner toward tomorrow, yet has a plan that He is working out in life is to fear God and obey Him.
To fear God means that we trust Him, stand in awe of Him, and respect His character and works. Jerry Bridges used to refer to this as reverential awe. Because of what we know about the character of God, we trust Him. Even when we do not know how today’s portion fits in life, especially in light of yesterday and what is possibly going to come tomorrow, we trust Him.
Obey His commandments
As we trust God, we learn to better obey Him. Obedience is hard when we realize that it may not turn out the way we want it to turn out. It is hard when we are frustrated. Obedience is hard when we do not understand God’s greater plan. Yet, we must obey Him. We recognize God will ultimately judge us and everyone else around us. In the end, nothing escapes God. All those issues that frustrate us and the people who sin against us or cause us suffering in some way, God will judge. Our position is not of judge; instead, we are to respectfully obey.
Ecclesiastes Pushes Us toward Sanctification
Ecclesiastes helps us. The point of the Book is not that God built tedium, transience, impermanence, and dissatisfaction into the universe. It is not simply about the unsatisfying, endless repetition of old things. The point of Ecclesiastes is that God built into each one of us a desire to make sense of the world around us even though by design in our depravity we cannot. Therefore, God wants our observations of the world – and of our lives individually – to bring us from a place of pride to humility. He desires for us to simply fear/honor/respect Him and obey Him. When we do this, our lives will be ordered correctly. We will grow in sanctification. We will respond to life’s pressures for His glory and honor, in ways reminiscent of Romans 8:28-29 and James 1:2-12.
As the old hymn writer John H. Sammis put it in 1887, “Trust and obey for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”
 Robert V. McCabe, “The Message of Ecclesiastes,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal (Volume 1 1 (1996): 85-112). Also invaluable to my understanding of Ecclesiastes is my colleague Stephen Schrader, who teaches Hebrew.
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