The Art of Reading “Ecclesiastes”

“Vanity of vanities! All is vanity,” says the Preacher. Ecclesiastes 1:2

Thus begins Ecclesiastes, perhaps the most complex and unusual book in all the Bible. Residing between Proverbs and Song of Songs, the book of Ecclesiastes examines life “under the sun” and what that life could possibly mean through the eyes of Qohelet, the Preacher. The opening line speaks of life’s vanity, which is the Hebrew word “hevel,” and could be translated “futility” or “meaningless.” And Ecclesiastes is admittedly dark and, at first reading, seems quite pessimistic. The introduction to the book mentions life’s futility and declares that there is “nothing new under the sun.” The author then goes on to rehearse the grand accomplishments of his life and confesses that at the end of all his success and human achievement he “hated life, for the work which had been done under the sun was grievous to me, because everything is futility and a striving after wind (1:17). Thus I hated all the fruit of my labor for which I labored under the sun, for I must leave it to the man who comes after me (18).” And so he goes on, bitter and cynical and wondering about the purpose of all this bluster and effort.

And this leads to the question, “So, how am I to read Ecclesiastes so that it is edifying to me as a believer?” Is it just a collection of pessimistic musings of an old and disillusioned man or is there something more to it than that? First, there is certainly more to Ecclesiastes than the mere doleful musings of a cynic. Second, I believe there is a definite approach to reading the book that will yield growth and edification and even delight in its reading.

THE APPROACH:

The first thing that must be acknowledged if you are going to read and study Ecclesiastes is that you must be prepared to address Qohelet’s (the Preacher) observations and conclusions. I am here emphasizing being prepared. If you are not prepared to wrestle with Qohelet’s ideas, you will leave your reading of Ecclesiastes confused and discouraged, and maybe cynical and a little outraged.

The first time that I read through Ecclesiastes as a relatively new believer, I said to the man who was discipling me, “That book does not belong in the Bible! What the author says in there is just flat wrong! Why is this book even in the Bible?” I said this because I was not deep enough in the Scriptures to understand the purpose of the book and because I did not have a framework for reading and understanding the book.

How, then, do we approach Ecclesiastes?

TWO CRITICAL TASKS:

In my opinion, the student of Ecclesiastes needs to accomplish two critical tasks:

  1. First, the student must carefully go concept by concept through the book and seek to grasp and acknowledge the points Qohelet is making in each passage. His observation is usually ‘true,’ at least from the natural perspective, and even his conclusions are true for those who live “under the sun.” So, in order to address the Preacher’s points, the reader must take the time to understand and acknowledge the point Qohelet is making.
  2. Having honestly understood Qohelet’s point and having felt his emotions, the believing reader must recognize that Qohelet is only seeing the world in the horizontal dimension and is even seeing the horizontal dimension without the First Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ anywhere in view. The second task of the believing reader, therefore, is to refute Qohelet with Truth that has come to light through the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. So, we see that Ecclesiastes is the voice of the world in its misery crying out for an answer and it presents the believer with an opportunity to give that answer (1 Peter 3:15) by proclaiming the excellencies of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:9) and the glories of the gospel.

FURTHER COMMENTS ON ECCLESIASTES:

What is so troubling about reading what Qohelet has to say is that what he says is usually correct. It is not as though we can dismiss him as a fool or condemn him as a heretic. These options are not open to us. Qohelet accurately expresses the feelings of futility and hopelessness in even the grandest of human achievements and activities, feelings that are common to all children of Adam. We have all felt those same feelings and have asked the question with a sigh, “Does anything I do really matter or make a difference?” That is the haunting question Qohelet asks. The challenge for the reader is to see his dilemma and then to be able to give him an answer that is not trivial or irrelevant. The only answer to Qohelet’s questions is not found “under the sun” in some human philosophy or wisdom or religion or knowledge, but is found “in the Son,” in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, the One who for a short time appeared “under the sun” (Hebrews 1:1-3; 2:9; John 1:14) to effect the salvation of His people by His death and resurrection. Qohelet expresses the worries, the fears, and the feelings of futility of those who are outside of Christ, and the believer needs to hear those cries and to empathize with those cries, and then to refute those fears and those conclusions with the power and the joy and the hope and the victory contained in the gospel.

APPLICATIONS:

First, as I stated at the beginning of this article, the believer must be PREPARED for this exercise. That is, the believer must be PREPARED to hear the very human cry that is behind the cynicism and the fears of those outside of Christ. As a fellow human, the believer must genuinely see himself as a human beset by the same weaknesses (Hebrews 5:2), and so be able to feel the same feelings. So, the believer must be PREPARED to translate expressions of fear and anger and hostility into their real source, which is often the disappointment and frustration of a life that seems to be meaningless. But the believer must also be PREPARED to refute these feelings with TRUTH, that in Christ, God has provided an answer to human misery and guilt and shame and failure and regret and meaninglessness. In Christ, God has given us a garland instead of ashes and the oil of gladness instead of mourning (Isaiah 61:3). The believer must be PREPARED to herald the glories and the endless riches of Christ. Ecclesiastes, then, calls the believer to be PREPARED.

Second, Ecclesiastes provides the believer with a veritable gymnasium of training for evangelism. In the quietness of your own easy chair, you can virtually interact with many in the world without the risks of saying the wrong thing or of being rejected. You can rehearse and role-play how you would respond to real, live, breathing people without needing to face them. So, you can hone your skills in evangelism, of hearing a person’s heart or of hearing their fears and frustrations and then responding with empathy as you explain the good news that has come through the glorious Lord Jesus without ever leaving your living room. Of course, you WILL leave your living room and you will charge out into the fray and engage with the world with the gospel, but you can do so with a greater measure of confidence and preparedness having met with Qohelet and having answered his questions.

CONCLUSION:

The book of Ecclesiastes is given to us to help us hear the world as it cries out for answers and to be able to feel those same human feelings of futility and vanity and “hevel,” but to respond with the clarion call of hope and joy that has been provided for us in the Lord Jesus.

SDG       rmb       4/20/2019

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