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The English title of this book is Ecclesiastes and the meaning in the Greek is “Preacher.” The Hebrew translation means “one who calls or gathers” the people. Both these translations speaks of the one who addresses the Assembly which is the preacher.
Author and Date
There is no question that Solomon was the author of the book of Ecclesiastes. He titles himself as the preacher and the son of David in the first verse of the book. Also in verse 12 he states that he is the King over Israel. (1:12) This moral odyssey is a record of the observation of Solomon’s (1 Kings 1-11) life and the one who taught his people knowledge and who had written many proverbs. Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes in the later years of his life probably in 931 BC. Solomon was warning his people to not walk through life on their own human wisdom. Solomon exhorted the people to live by the revealed wisdom of God. (12:9-14)
Background and Setting
Solomon was a man who possessed extraordinary wisdom which is revealed in his book of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. His father David recognized the wisdom that his son had acquired, (1 Kings 2:6, 9) even before God had given Solomon an additional portion. After the Lord had given Solomon a wise and discerning heart,” (1 Kings 3:7-12) Solomon gained renown for his insightful decisions. (1 Kings 3:16-28) All the kings of the earth were drawn into his courts to hear his wisdom. (1 Kings 4:34) Along with his proverbs like his father David Solomon wrote songs. (1 Kings 4:32) Solomon’s wisdom as Job’s wealth surpassed all “of the sons of the east.” (1 Kings 4:30; Job 1:3)
The book of Ecclesiastes is profitable to all who will listen, not in the experiences of Solomon, but in the principles that he expressed as a result. The aim of Solomon is to answer some of life’s most challenging questions. Especially where they seem to be contrary to Solomon’s expectations. Some have, unwisely, taken the book to be filled with skepticism. In spite of Solomon’s behavior he never lost his faith in God. (12:13, 14)
Theme and Message
A life that is not centered on God is purposeless and meaningless. Without God nothing can satisfy. (2:25) With God at the center of life along with His good gifts are to be greatly received and used and enjoyed to the fullest. (2:26; 11:8) The book of Ecclesiastes contains philosophical and theological reflections of an old man whose life was meaningless because he had not relied upon God.
The Futility of all Endeavor
Verses1-3 What can people achieve during their lives?
In these verses we learn the main subject of Ecclesiastes. What a person really achieves with all his hard labor in life. Jesus asked a similar question in Matthew. “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26) The teaching of Jesus was that there is no profit if man does not have a right relationship with God. Without God at the center of our life all accomplishment is meaningless in the end. Even in the wealth that one may acquire in life it is meaningless as it does follow him to eternity. At death nothing will matter except a right relationship with God the Father.
Solomon’s life is the example that the book of Ecclesiastes uses to teach that lesson. Solomon was Israel’s greatest King and the nation prospered under his rule. Solomon was extremely wise and was famous among the kings of the earth.
Solomon achieved many great things in his life time and he worked hard and was very successful. (2:4-9) Many in the world are wealthy and successful but without God at their center they have achieved nothing. The book of Ecclesiastes tells us the truth of Solomon’s life and it expresses God’s opinion of Solomon’s greatness.
Solomon had a close relationship with God in his younger days but towards the end of his life he was not loyal to God. Towards the end of his life Solomon had begun to serve false gods. (1 Kings 11:7-10) After Solomon had died the great things that he had done did not last. War came upon the nation of Israel and the county lost much of its wealth. The new king that followed Solomon lost much of his authority.
Even a King as great as Solomon cannot achieve things that can last. To the people Solomon was a very powerful King but in the eyes of God he was weak. In the end Solomon was just a man and all people must die.
In verse 2 vanity is repeated five times to emphasis it in the strongest manner. Vanity is translated as vain and means without purpose. This is Solomon’s description of the labors of man, that all he accomplishes is without purpose. Other translations use the word as meaning breath. A man’s labor is as weak as his breath because all men die. The word breath then becomes a picture of the weakness of people. On the other hand God’s work is compared to a great wind or a powerful storm. (Psalm 29; John 3:8; Acts 2:2) When we compare our breath to the power of a storm we realize the weakness of our breath. Even the power of a great King is weak when we think of the power of God
Ecclesiastes does not say much about God’s work in people’s life. The subject of the book is what people can achieve without a right relationship with God. In the beginning of the book we are reminded of a person that did have a right relationship with God. The person was King David Solomon’s father, (1:1)
David did not gain that relationship with God because of his own works. (Romans 4:4-8) David had that relationship with God because he truly loved God. (1 Kings 11:4) This is the desire of God that as He loves us He wants us to love Him. (Mark 12:29-30) The people who love God do the work of God and not their own, and they do it under the power of the Holy Spirit. (Galatians 6:8; Ephesians 6:10-11)
Verses 4-7 Who can change the world?
There are noble people who are in the world, or who have been in the world, that have wanted to change the world to what they think would make it a better place. They lived their lives in hard labor to being about the changes that they desired. In their efforts they brought change and along the way they helped many people. In their efforts they still did not achieve satisfaction for what they had done. They found that there were many more things they could do but were not able to accomplish them. And there were many more people that could not help. The improvements that they did accomplish were not permanent and they passed away. They had tried so hard to change the world but in the end all remained the same.
The forces in this world are much greater than the powers of men and women. The sun itself produces more heat and light than all the fuels of the earth. The winds of the earth are stronger than the armies of the earth. Water can change the earth far more than any king or ruler. These powerful forces were operating in the world long before any man lived. And they will continue long after a man has lived.
But these earthly forces cannot change the world as they follow the laws establish by God from the very beginning. Day after day they repeat the same actions and they complete a cycle ordained by God. The sun circles the earth and the winds blow back and forward across the earth. Clouds form over the seas and bring its rain to the earth watering the rivers that return it to the sea.
God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1) and only God can change it. (Romans 8:19-21) In the future God will make a new heaven and a new earth and only then will the troubles of the earth come to a permanent end. (Revelation 21:1-4)
Verses 8-11 Can our Desires Ever Satisfy Us
The fathers and mothers, the movers and the shakers, desire to achieve something good in their life time. They work to make life better for the ones who follow after them. We too may have the same desires but the task becomes much too hard for us to achieve. Even though we work hard we cannot even satisfy our own immediate desires. Even when we do something that will make the future people’s lives better they will not appreciate the sacrifice we have made. In time they will forget that we even existed.
Our desires are an expression of the best things that we can hope for. In our imaginations we desire to find the solution to all the world’s problems. But, there is something very wrong about our desires. Our desires have become wrong and evil and have become the problem to the world instead of a solution. (Galatians 5:19-21) We find that we are weak and cannot control our own desires and often find that our evil desires control us. (Romans 7:17-20)
When the solutions that we have tried have failed we fall into a desperate state. We find that our own efforts cannot save us and we find ourselves in a state of slavery as this is the way of the world. (Galatians 4:3) We search for new solutions but there are none to be found, as we are caught in the cycle of the world and nothing can rescue us.
There is hope, with God all things are possible. (Mark 9:23) God is an infinite God and can do things that are new. (2 Corinthians 5:17) God can make people who are trapped in sin into His children. (Galatians 4:3-7) God can free us from the bondage of sin. (Romans 8:1-2) God can change the desire of our heart and lift us up in the power of His Holy Spirit. (Galatians 5:22-23)
Verses 12-15 Why is Life so Hard
King Solomon was known across the world for his wisdom. He had studied hard to become wise and now he wanted to use his wisdom to help other people. He had seen how hard the people had struggled and often because of their foolish decisions. He believed that he would be able to help his people.
Solomon soon realized that he had given himself to a very hard task. The task was so hard and difficult that he knew that he would never be able to complete it. The problems of the people were more numerous than he could count. He learned that it would be impossible for him to right every wrong.
The greatest thing that is wrong in this world is the state of people’s hearts. Their attitudes and desires, and their thoughts were not in line with God’s Word. (Romans 3:9-20) The heart of a person is what governs their deeds. (Mark 7:20-23)
It is the sinful nature of men that God ruled that people must work hard for their whole lives. (Genesis 3:17-19) It is not God’s plan that people should not have rest. (Exodus 20:8-10) Even so for many people life seems to be a constant struggle. (Psalm 90:7-10) The labor of the people is to provide for their families and it is hard to do what seems right and necessary. It was hard for Solomon to even think of all these matters of the people.
Jesus made an impressive offer in Matthew. (Matthew 11:28-30) Jesus invited the people to serve Him and learn His wisdom. Jesus would not give them things to do that were to difficult for them. Jesus offered them comfort and rest from their labors.
Verses 16-18 Does Wisdom Improve a Person’s Life
People error with foolishness and stupid behavior, as it does not improve anyone’s life. This is an undeniable fact as people suffer much because of foolish decisions.
Solomon decided to study the behavior of people and he paid attention to the foolish and unwise. Solomon was a man of study but this study brought him no pleasure. He saw how the people were wasting their lives and binging trouble for themselves. Yet they did not want to change, they did not want to become wise.
Solomon looked at his own situation and realized that he was hopeless too. His purpose was to use his wisdom to save people from their troubles but the people did not want his wisdom. Solomon was unable to convince the people that wisdom was a good thing. When Solomon had learned these things the knowledge of it made him sadder over the people and their troubles. The response of the people was to not become sad as their king because of wisdom.
Most people do not have a relationship with God and they do not even want to know God. They think that knowledge is God’s word and that His laws would make them sad. They would learn what God thought of their state of being and knowing that they were guilty of disobedience would make them sad.
The Psalmist said that the study of God’s word would bring them delight. (Psalm 1:2) Wisdom for the truth of God’s Word is the power to change lives. (Proverbs 3:13-16) This wisdom is not the foolishness of the world’s wisdom and the true wisdom comes only from the Lord. (Job 28:28; Proverbs 2:6)