Ecclesiastes — Lesson 1

Introduction to Ecclesiastes

I. Why study this book?

A. Ecclesiastes is the most often quoted Bible book by three groups of people:

1. Atheists & religious skeptics.

2. Jehovah’s witnesses.

3. Why these two groups? Due to a limitation put on the book by the author himself – it looks at the world under the sun.

4. People quote Ecclesiastes without even knowing they are doing so!

a) Seventies Pop Music Group “Chicago” Song: “Does anyone really know what time is it, does anyone really care, if so I can’t imagine why, we all have time enough to die.”

B. Ecclesiastes has been called:

1. The only book of pure philosophy in the Bible.

2. The greatest of all philosophy books.

3. The truest of all books. (Melville in Moby Dick).

4. The greatest single piece of writing I have ever known and the wisdom expressed in it the most lasting and profound. (Thomas Wolfe in You Can’t Go Home Again).

C. Yet this book is often ignored – why?

1. Christians have come to insist that God’s word should be immediately “practical” – where we define what is practical.

2. “Ecclesiastes lacks every indulgence of our present day maudlin self preoccupation. Instead of being warm, uplifting and positive, its message is cold, harsh, and negative.”

3. The Bible is not a self-help book for modern man. God’s word is not principally about man, but about God.

4. The Goal of Ecclesiastes: Destroy man’s belief in himself and in all his endeavors apart from God.

5. In Ecclesiastes the issue is joined between man’s ways and God’s ways.

a) Are we building the kingdom of God for the glory of God, or are we building the kingdom of man for the glory of man?

b) Ecclesiastes undermines every prop on which we might rely apart from God.

II. Ecclesiastes in a book for Modern Man:

A. It is an existential book – the first existential book. It is a book about the situation of humankind in a universe seen as purposeless or irrational.

1. All other ancient philosophy books disputed what the meaning of human existence is. Ecclesiastes alone dared to ask what if it has no meaning at all.

2. Toynbee says that our Western civilization is the first that does not teach its citizens why they exist. Modern man knows more about little things than any past civilization, but less about the big things.

B. Ecclesiastes exposes the greatest fear of modern man. What is that greatest fear?

1. Fear of Death? Fear of Hell? No. Those were the greatest fears of ancient man. Modern man denies death and has bought into the idea that death is the final end – so why fear it?

2. The greatest fear of modern man is the fear of meaningless – the fear of nothingness.

3. H. L. Mencken: “The basic fact about human experience is not that it is a tragedy, but that it is a bore. It is not that it is predominantly painful, but that it is lacking any sense.”

4. Thoreau: “Most men lead lives of quiet deperation.”

5. Nihilism – “Nothing-Ism”

a) Nothing has meaning or significance ultimately.

b) We move from Big Bang to Big Bang.

c) The only real question left is suicide.

d) Nihilism has two enemies: Theism and Naïve Humanism.

C. Ecclesiastes takes head on the reigning philosophies of modern man.

1. Pop psychology.

2. Bland assurances of peace when there is no peace.

D. Ecclesiastes recognizes the practical result of the vacuum that exists in modern man – hedonism.

1. Grab the gusto! Seize the day! Eat, drink, and be merry!

2. When ultimate ends disappear, only toys remain.

3. Modern man pursues pleasant recreations on the deck of the Titanic.

E. The laboratory of Ecclesiastes is a secularized world.

1. A secularized world is a world that is centered on man. Religion is a subset of life. The sacred is allowed to exist – but it is defined by the secular.

F. The method for determining truth (epistemology) in Ecclesiastes is wholly secular.

1. Solomon is an empiricist in this book. His god is nature and nature’s god. He claims no special divine revelation for the source of his knowledge.

a) This is not to say, of course, that Ecclesiastes is not inspired by God. It is inspired – word for word – just like the rest of the Bible. The method of the book, however, is different from the rest of Scripture. This book does not rely on divine revelation to back up what it says – it looks only to that which is under the sun.

2. Ecclesiastes is the only book in the Bible in which God is totally silent.

a) The author appeals to no divine revelation, but only to nature human reason and observation.

b) Ecclesiastes is revelation by darkness, rather than revelation by light – but it is still the revelation of God.

c) In Ecclesiastes God reveals to us exactly what life is like when God does not reveal to us what life is like.

III. Ecclesiastes is a book on ethics:

A. There are three basic questions regarding ethics:

1. Social ethics

a) This is the only ethical questions considered by modern ethicists because they have no answers to the other two.

b) Ship Metaphor: Ships in a fleet must know how to avoid bumping into each other.

2. Individual ethics

a) Ships in a fleet must know how to stay shipshape and avoid sinking.

3. The summum bonum – the highest or chief good.

a) Ships in a fleet must know why the fleet is at sea – what is its mission?

IV. The Structure of Ecclesiastes is odd:

A. It seems to ramble from subject to subject.

1. One commentator said that no one will ever succeed in giving a satisfactory outline of the contents of Ecclesiastes!

2. Its mood rambles as well – gloomy for awhile and then eat, drink, and enjoy life!

B. It is much more tight and logical than it seems, however.

1. Recall what Mark Twain said about the music of Wagner – it is much better than it sounds!

2. The rambling in Ecclesiastes is deliberate – life rambles to nowhere apart from faith in God.

C. The entire argument in Ecclesiastes is summarized in the first three verse, amplified for 12 chapters, and then summarized again at the end.

1. Verse 1: The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.

a) This verse gives us the title and the author.

b) The word “Preacher” is Qoheleth.

(1) It’s root word is assembly or congregation.

(2) Perhaps an assembler or one who calls the assembly – hence the preacher.

(3) The Greek translation of the Old Testament chose the word Ekklesia – church or assembly. Hence the title of book – Ecclesiastes.

2. Verse 2: “Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher; “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”

a) This verse gives us the conclusion.

3. Verse 3: What profit has a man from all his labor in which he toils under the sun?

a) This verse gives us the argument for the conclusion.

4. Verses 13-14 repeat this basic argument:

a) 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. I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and indeed, all is vanity and grasping for the wind.

V. Vanity of Vanities, All is Vanity

A. What does this word mean?

1. Hebrew: a chasing after the wind.

2. It means useless, profitless, futile, meaningless, empty.

B. Why was Solomon perfectly suited to write this book?

1. He was wise.

a) Wisdom is required to detect vanity. Vanity cannot detect itself.

b) Pascal: “Anyone who does not see the vanity of life must be very vain indeed.”

2. He had the resources to explore to the end every avenue of life apart from faith in God. Riches, Pleasures, Worldly Wisdom.

C. Ecclesiastes gives us picture of our life – not apart from God – but apart from faith in God.

1. The author does not give us a picture of life without God because only a fool says in his heart there is no God.

2. The author shows us what is like apart from faith in God.

3. And the answer? Life apart from faith in God is like a set of chattering teeth you buy in a joke shop – every part of that toy is there for a purpose, but the whole thing is utterly meaningless.

4. The life of modern man is like those chattering teeth – full of sound and fury but signifying nothing. Their heads are filled, but their heart is empty.

5. Short run purpose is no compensation for long range purposelessness.

D. Ecclesiastes is the book that modern man fears more than any other.

1. It shows the great hole in his life. It blows his cover.

2. It is the small child telling the emperor that he has no clothes.

3. The world tries to cover up the truth in Ecclesiastes with a million diversions, but Ecclesiastes pushes those diversions aside and shows us the elephant hiding in our living room.

4. How does modern man hide that elephant?

a) Diversions – cover it up.

b) Propaganda – call it names.

c) Indifference – who cares?

d) Pursue happiness – elephant does not make us happy.

(1) The pursuit of happiness is one of our great inalienable rights and, according to Malcom Muggeridge, one of the silliest ideas ever propagated.

e) Subjectivism – what elephant? Truth is defined by me and there is no elephant.

E. This is the paradox about which Paul wrote:

1. Phil 3:8 – Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ.

2. Solomon did not know the positive half of the paradox, but he knew the negative half better than anyone.

VI. What profit has a man from his toils under the sun?

A. The word “toil” refers to any work, not just hard work.

B. The key phrase is Under the Sun.

1. The method of Ecclesiastes is simple observation.

2. The word photograph means “light writing” – and this is how Ecclesiastes examines the world – but unlike the other books in the Bible Ecclesiastes has no faith flashbulb!

3. Ecclesiastes is the truest picture of the surface ever written.

4. Ecclesiastes is the contrast to the rest of the Bible. It is the question to which the rest if the Bible is the answer.

5. This is how atheists must view the world. And we should be thankful for the writings of atheists – they show us the shape of God by his absence more clearly than many authors do by his presence. Atheists show us the silhouette of God!

C. Solomon considers five toils of man – all of which are vain; each lacks the gain that man seeks from it.

1. Wisdom

a) Ecclesiastes 1:12-18

b) Philosophy is the love of wisdom, so this is where Solomon began his search for meaning.

2. Pleasure

a) Ecclesiastes 2:1-11

b) If the mind can’t make me happy, then maybe the body can.

c) Pleasure inevitably becomes boring, which is why pleasure leads to addiction.

d) Solomon links Hedonism with Materialism – they are bedfellows.

3. Power and Riches

a) Ecclesiastes 2:8 – part of his experiment with pleasure

b) Kierkegaard: “If I had a servant in my employ who, when I asked for a cup of cold water, brought instead the world’s costliest wine, I would dismiss him; for true pleasure consists not in getting my wine but in getting my way.”

c) We are more threatened by a loss of power and control than by a loss of pleasure.

d) A thirst for control – Augustine said that the deepest and darkest motive for sin is the desire to be like God in power.

e) “He has everything that money can buy – and nothing that is can’t”

4. Altruism

a) Ecclesiastes 4:9-11

b) Philanthropy, Social service, Working for others – especially for posterity.

5. Conventional Naturalistic Religion

a) Ecclesiastes 7:14-17

b) God as a thing to acknowledge rather than as a person to love and listen to and long for.

D. Why are they vain? Solomon lists five sources of the vanity.

1. Sameness and indifference of all things.

2. Death as the certain and final end of life.

3. Time as a cycle of endless repetition.

4. Evil as a perennial and unsolvable problem.

5. God as an unknowable mystery.

VII. And the answer?

A. It must be something beyond the sun!

B. Ecclesiastes is the question to which Christ is the answer.

1. If there is nothing but vanity under the sun, our only hope must be beyond the sun.

2. If a man who had everything, investigated everything visible, then the one thing needed must be invisible.

3. The solution to the vanity of vanities is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords!

God's Plan of Salvation

You must hear the gospel and then understand and recognize that you are lost without Jesus Christ no matter who you are and no matter what your background is. The Bible tells us that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) Before you can be saved, you must understand that you are lost and that the only way to be saved is by obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 1:8) Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6) “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)

You must believe and have faith in God because “without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6) But neither belief alone nor faith alone is sufficient to save. (James 2:19; James 2:24; Matthew 7:21)

You must repent of your sins. (Acts 3:19) But repentance alone is not enough. The so-called “Sinner’s Prayer” that you hear so much about today from denominational preachers does not appear anywhere in the Bible. Indeed, nowhere in the Bible was anyone ever told to pray the “Sinner’s Prayer” to be saved. By contrast, there are numerous examples showing that prayer alone does not save. Saul, for example, prayed following his meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:11), but Saul was still in his sins when Ananias met him three days later (Acts 22:16). Cornelius prayed to God always, and yet there was something else he needed to do to be saved (Acts 10:2, 6, 33, 48). If prayer alone did not save Saul or Cornelius, prayer alone will not save you. You must obey the gospel. (2 Thess. 1:8)

You must confess that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. (Romans 10:9-10) Note that you do NOT need to make Jesus “Lord of your life.” Why? Because Jesus is already Lord of your life whether or not you have obeyed his gospel. Indeed, we obey him, not to make him Lord, but because he already is Lord. (Acts 2:36) Also, no one in the Bible was ever told to just “accept Jesus as your personal savior.” We must confess that Jesus is the Son of God, but, as with faith and repentance, confession alone does not save. (Matthew 7:21)

Having believed, repented, and confessed that Jesus is the Son of God, you must be baptized for the remission of your sins. (Acts 2:38) It is at this point (and not before) that your sins are forgiven. (Acts 22:16) It is impossible to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ without teaching the absolute necessity of baptism for salvation. (Acts 8:35-36; Romans 6:3-4; 1 Peter 3:21) Anyone who responds to the question in Acts 2:37 with an answer that contradicts Acts 2:38 is NOT proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ!

Once you are saved, God adds you to his church and writes your name in the Book of Life. (Acts 2:47; Philippians 4:3) To continue in God’s grace, you must continue to serve God faithfully until death. Unless they remain faithful, those who are in God’s grace will fall from grace, and those whose names are in the Book of Life will have their names blotted out of that book. (Revelation 2:10; Revelation 3:5; Galatians 5:4)