What’s up with Ecclesiastes?

by | Apr 16, 2024 | Ask the Pastors

QUESTION

There seem to be some pretty troubling statements in Ecclesiastes about how we are supposed to think and live. For example, Ecclesiastes 8:15, which was read in church this past Sunday, says, “There is nothing good for a man under the sun except to eat and to drink and to be merry.” I thought we weren’t supposed to approach life that way…

ANSWER

Ecclesiastes is a challenging book to read and interpret. It is a book of wisdom literature, a genre that tends to be harder for us to understand when compared to other genres in Scripture like historical narrative or law. Ecclesiastes also illustrates the immense challenge of enjoying earthly pleasures while avoiding the trap of holding them too dearly. You can read a little more about that in this week’s reading guide.

Here are three important keys to understanding Ecclesiastes.

1. Keep the end in view.

We can look at reading the book of Ecclesiastes like traveling on a philosophical journey guided by King Solomon. This journey’s path has many twists and turns (some might even say excursions off the path!), and in order to not get lost, we have to keep the destination in view. Our destination comes in the form of an explicitly stated conclusion, but that conclusion does not come until the very end of the book:

The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:13–14

Solomon’s final conclusion must inform our understanding of any other part of Ecclesiastes. Keeping it in mind will help guard us from straying into error. In particular, we must be wary of plopping down into the middle of Solomon’s thought process and interpreting every statement as giving us clear declarations of truth or clear moral guidance. Many of the things Solomon says along the way are only true from a certain point of view. Sometimes that point of view is a purely earthly perspective that, for the sake of argument, forgets or excludes the eventual conclusion that “God will bring every act to judgment.” If this life is all there is and God is not going to judge us in the end, then life is indeed meaningless and there’s nothing better than to eat, drink, and be merry. (Such an earthly perspective is highlighted whenever Solomon uses that famous repeated phrase, “under the sun.”) But if we keep the eventual conclusion in mind, we will understand that giving ourselves over to worldly pleasure is not actually what the Holy Spirit is recommending to us through Solomon.

Keeping the end in view will also help us identify places throughout the book where Solomon is saying true and wise things. For example, we can discern that 3:14 is true as it foreshadows the final conclusion: “I know that everything God does will remain forever; there is nothing to add to it and there is nothing to take from it, for God has so worked that men should fear Him.”

2. Understand the difference between indicative statements and moral imperatives.

“Indicative” statements are statements about how things are or about something that happened. These are different than “imperative” statements, which tell us what to do or not to do. Indicative statements are descriptive. Imperative statements are moral, telling us how to live.

Wisdom literature contains a lot of indicative statements that we have to be careful not to confuse with moral imperatives. Like the book of Proverbs (also wisdom literature), Ecclesiastes is taken up largely with indicative observations about how the world works. More than Proverbs, however, Ecclesiastes is also taken up with statements of the way things were in Solomon’s mind at particular points along his philosophical journey. We get to see his inner conflict as he grasps at the meaning of life, and at what that means for how a man is supposed to think and live.

In this context, properly distinguishing between indicative statements and moral imperatives will help us understand, for instance, that just because Solomon says he tried something does not mean he commends it. The beginning of chapter 2 illustrates this well:

I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure. So enjoy yourself.” And behold, it too was futility. I said of laughter, “It is madness,” and of pleasure, “What does it accomplish?” I explored with my mind how to stimulate my body with wine while my mind was guiding me wisely, and how to take hold of folly, until I could see what good there is for the sons of men to do under heaven the few years of their lives. I enlarged my works: I built houses for myself, I planted vineyards for myself; I made gardens and parks for myself and I planted in them all kinds of fruit trees; I made ponds of water for myself from which to irrigate a forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves and I had homeborn slaves. Also I possessed flocks and herds larger than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. Also, I collected for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I provided for myself male and female singers and the pleasures of men—many concubines.

Ecclesiastes 2:1–8

The above passage is not a scriptural commendation of pushing our limits with alcohol, amassing riches, buying slaves, or having sex with lots of women. And we should not take Solomon’s extensive exploration of these things as an example for us to follow so that we too can gain wisdom. In fact, if we are wise, we will be content to take warning from Solomon’s own assessment of the limitless pursuit of earthly pleasures: “It too was futility.” In this passage, Solomon is telling us things that happened (indicative), not telling us how to live (imperative).

We should consider this distinction between indicative and imperative even when Solomon states a philosophical conclusion, as in Ecclesiastes 2:15: “Then I said to myself, ‘As is the fate of the fool, it will also befall me. Why then have I been extremely wise?’ So I said to myself, ‘This too is vanity.'” If we keep the end in mind and remember that Solomon is on a philosophical journey, we should understand that intermittent conclusions like this one may be incomplete, or even just plain wrong. Solomon is simply reporting honestly what he thought to himself at a particular point along his journey, and such a statement is not necessarily intended to give us clear moral guidance about what we should be thinking. We should be especially careful when Solomon leads into a statement with “I said (to myself)…”

Ecclesiastes does contain moral imperatives that tell us how to live. Most notably, Solomon’s final conclusion is a very clear imperative: “Fear God and keep His commandments.” He then explains why this imperative is his conclusion by giving a universally true indicative, a statement of truth that “applies to every person”: “For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.”

3. Remember that Ecclesiastes is part of God’s bigger progressive revelation.

As we read the Bible from cover to cover, we get to see the mysteries of God unfold throughout the course of human history, especially in the lives of His chosen people. We sometimes call this gradual unfolding of God’s plan “progressive revelation.” Simply put, this means Abraham knew more about God’s plan than Noah did, Moses knew more than Abraham did, David knew more than Moses, and the apostles knew more than David, since they knew Christ Himself, in whom all the fullness of God has now been revealed.

This progressive nature of Scripture means the authors of the Old Testament often had a shadowy and incomplete understanding of the mysteries of God. In the case of Ecclesiastes, Solomon’s understanding of the world is incomplete. That’s not to say his understanding is untrue, but we should acknowledge that his graspings at the meaning of life could only go so far without a fuller knowledge of Jesus Christ, through whom and for whom all things have been created (Col. 1:16).

The Apostle Peter teaches this when he writes:

the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you, in these things which now have been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things into which angels long to look.

1 Peter 1:10–12

You and I have the great blessing of being able to interpret the Old Testament in light of the New. If we’re struggling to understand something in the Old Testament, it is right and good to guide our understanding according to the New Testament’s teaching. Here are a couple of places that can help guide our interpretation of Ecclesiastes:

Then [Jesus] said to them, “Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.” And He told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man was very productive. And he began reasoning to himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?’ So is the man who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”

Luke 12:15–21

This parable of Jesus is the book of Ecclesiastes in a nutshell. In it, the rich man’s view of life was reasonable, but only if God’s judgment were not coming. Jesus, just like Solomon, ends by reminding us to keep our eyes on eternity and not to get lost in the pursuit of earthly treasures.

The Apostle Paul even engages briefly in an Ecclesiastes-like hypothetical in 1 Corinthians 15:32: “If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Paul, when assuming a godless and materialistic view of the world for a moment, comes to the same conclusion as Solomon. But thanks be to God, the dead are raised, and this life is not all we are living for!

The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:13–14

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. All rights reserved.

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