Like an apple tree in the middle of an orange grove stands the book of Ecclesiastes among the other books of the Bible. At first glance, it just does not seem to fit. What place does a book which flaunts the daring assertion "Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless" have in Scripture that intends to reveal the saving work of God?
Along with the book of Job, Ecclesiastes reminds us that God is bigger, and our life in this world more unpredictable, than we might think. The book invites us to take a realistic tour of life. The sightseeing stops will likely leave those who enjoy nice tidy answers a bit perplexed, if not downright frustrated.
Our guide for this adventure is introduced by the Hebrew title qoheleth. The title, which translated into Greek is ekklesiastes, comes from a Hebrew word for assembling. It suggests a type of office-bearer. Thus we have such translations as "the Preacher" (KJV, RSV, NASB), "the Speaker" (NEB), "the Philosopher" (TEV) and the one used in the NIV, "the Teacher".
The Teacher identifies himself as "son of David, king in Jerusalem" (1:1). Such an identification naturally links him with the wisest of all Israel's sages, King Solomon. Many commentators, however, believe that the Teacher was not actually Solomon but someone who wrote in the tradition and from the perspective of Solomon. (For a full discussion of Ecclesiastes' authorship, as well as other related issues, including background and date, see Michael Eaton, Ecclesiastes, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries [Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1983], or Derek Kidner, The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes: An Introduction to Wisdom Literature [Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1985]. Two other helpful commentaries on Ecclesiastes are Charles Swindoll, Living on the Ragged Edge Bible Study Guide [Fullerton, Calif.: Insight for Living, 1986], and Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes [Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1976].)
The depth of insight found in the book would certainly argue for an author endowed with the kind of wisdom God granted to Solomon (see 1Ki 3:5-12). If the Teacher was not actually King Solomon, he surely qualified as a star disciple of this master sage.
As a wise man, the Teacher represented a group whose influence and prestige grew to virtual equality with Israel's prophets and priests. Israel's wise men closely observed the interworkings of nature and human experience. From this storehouse of wisdom they made general pronouncements concerning life's most perplexing issues and counseled people who faced difficult decisions.
The three most notable works of Israel's wise men include Ecclesiastes, Job and Proverbs. Their mark on Old Testament literature may also be seen in the Song of Solomon, Lamentations and a number of the psalms (such as 1, 37, 49, 73, 127, 133). This body of writing, called wisdom literature, has a strong influence on portions of the New Testament. Jesus frequently quotes proverbs and uses wise sayings. Paul often talks about the wisdom of God (see 1 Co 1:18—2:16 as an example). And the book of James provides counsel in a style similar to Old Testament wisdom literature.
The Teacher's message seems particularly aimed at the secularists—those who seek to find life's meaning outside of a practical faith in God. With despairing perception, the author explores a grim reality he calls "life under the sun"—life outside of God's control and goodness. He addresses some of life's most sensitive questions: Where can we find satisfaction? Who is really in control? What does it take to be content? How do we live wisely?
Much of the time God is left out of the discussion. But when he is introduced, everything changes. "Life under the sun" becomes "life from the hand of God." Chasing after meaning is transformed into the pursuit of God. This exploration of life's meaninglessness outside of knowing God thus becomes an invitation to know him. In its own unique way, Ecclesiastes is ultimately an introduction to the One who "came that we might have life abundantly"—Jesus Christ himself. It highlights the dilemma voiced by Peter but faced by all of us: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (Jn 6:68).
Understandably, then, Ecclesiastes warrants special study by anyone in a formative period of life. Colleges would do well to set up a course for their freshmen and sophomores with Ecclesiastes as required reading. They could call it "Basic Living 101."
These quiet times will help you plunge into the pessimism of Ecclesiastes in order to see the hope of a God-centered lifestyle. May the Lord use your study of Ecclesiastes as an encouragement to follow him closely in this unique and perplexing adventure we call life.