I have often heard the book of Ecclesiastes referred to as a book that records wisdom from the perspective of one who does not know or care about God. I have also heard Bible college and seminary professors refer to it as a book about despair or pessimism about the whole of human life.
Finding out who wrote it and why would go a long way toward figuring out if these ideas about Ecclesiastes are correct, so i undertook the task for a paper in seminary a few years ago. I was surprised by what I found out. It turns out that the book was written as a kind of kingly autobiography to pass on a lifetime of wisdom to the next generation of leaders – usually the king’s own sons. It has a foreword and an afterword by a trusted colleague or editor, just like many modern books do.
In short, this is not the type of book that is meant to pass on an overly pessimistic world-view. Otherwise nobody would want to take the throne after him.
What surprised me even more was who wrote the book. What is normally translated as “the Preacher” or “the Teacher” is more likely his proper name, “Qoheleth.” He tells us that he was the wisest king who ever ruled in Jerusalem and that he cultivated the arts and civil engineering more than any king before him. Most of us have been taught that this has to mean Solomon – but how many Israelite kings ruled in Jerusalem before Solomon? Exactly one: David his father.
I was surprised to learn that there is one king in David’s lineage who is honoured even more highly by God in the Bible than even David: King Hezekiah. Shocking? Here’s what 1 Kings 18:5-7 has to say about him: “5 Hezekiah trusted in the LORD, the God of Israel. There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him. 6 He held fast to the LORD and did not cease to follow him; he kept the commands the LORD had given Moses. 7 And the LORD was with him; he was successful in whatever he undertook.
For this and other reasons mentioned in my previous post, my money is on Hezekiah as the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes. (I’m not the first to mention him as the likely author. That honour goes to an ancient Jewish Rabbi mentioned in the Talmud).
So who we have as the author is one of the most successful followers of God in ancient Israel. One who managed to do things for God that even David and Solomon could not accomplish (taking down high places and idol worship, for instance). He seems to have been even wiser than Solomon in the wives department, having neither multiple wives nor a foreign wife. He led his people successfully through the famous Assyrian siege of Jerusalem with no lives lost by divine miracle. And, unlike Solomon, he never left God. In short, the most successful man of God you can imagine wrote his autobiography to pass on wisdom to his sons and posterity.
This is the man who is supposed to be so negative about life and God? I don’t think so.
Yes, there are many things in the world that are empty and meaningless in themselves. He lists, among others,
- pleasure through laughter and wine
- being foolish
- being wise in a world of fools
- being a great builder and project manager
- being rich and famous
- losing riches in bad investments or scams
- an unjust justice system
- oppression of the poor and helpless by the rich and powerful
- living alone
- living with a troublesome spouse or family
The problem with any of these comes when you confront the reality of death. If this is all there is, our toil and labour mean nothing. Our lives mean nothing if death is the end.
When we die, we no longer have control of whatever resources we acquired during life. We have no idea what our kids will do with their inheritance. Will they use it to build a good life or squander it? We don’t know.
Will anyone remember me after I die? Maybe a few will for one generation. If I make enough of an impact in life, maybe two or three generations will, but most likely not.
Each time Qoheleth talks about something that he considers a vanity and a chasing after wind he comes back to the one simple thing that a person can do to enjoy life. Eat, drink and find satisfaction in your own work. This enjoyment of your food, drink and work comes as a gift from God, and is not possible without God’s direct blessing.
In fact, he says, “To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This, too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”
This is why godly wisdom triumphs in the end. It is based on a foundation of fear of the Lord. The difference between the wise and the fool isn’t necessarily in the amount toil in life. It may be that both work equally hard. It is the simple gift of enjoying the simple things in life that comes from God. Enjoy the food and drink that working provides for you. Enjoy the fellowship of like-minded people who love God as you do.
As he points out in 3:7-9, “Everyone’s toil if for their mouth, yet their appetite is never satisfied. What advantage have the wise over fools? What do the poor gain by knowing how to conduct themselves before others? Better what the eye sees than the roving of the appetite. This too is meaningless, a chasing after wind.”
The message is pretty simple. Be content with what you already have. If more comes your way, fine. Be happy with that, too. That’s a message that certainly runs counter to the consumer age we live in.
He also adds one piece of wisdom about how to face an unfair world. Chapter 3 brings the famous “there is a time for everything” poem that has been immortalized in a song by Simon and Garfunkel. It turns out that there is a time for another thing a little later in the chapter. “I said to myself, ‘God will bring into judgment both the righteous and the wicked, for there will be a time for every activity, a time to judge every deed.’” (3:17) Knowing that God plans to make it right in the end can help us keep our sanity in a crazy, mixed-up and increasingly godless world.
This mediation on final judgment is a clue that Hezekiah believes that death is not all there is. Somehow God has a planned time and place for making everything right in the world and for judging the good and the evil in the world. There is vindication for obedience to God as well as a very different reward for disobedience.
So, what do workers really gain from their toil? Hezekiah replies,
(3:9-14) “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil – this is the gift of God.”
[Eating and drinking is not everything he has in mind here, as we will see in the next verse.]
“I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him.”
This is why it is better to do good and be happy while we live. What God does is what endures forever. Doing his will here on earth not only pleases him, it also cooperates with that which endures forever. God’s will is forever. Somehow Hezekiah knew that, no matter how things look, God is going to take care of his faithful people in the end. He stayed with God till his peaceful death, and was greatly honoured by both his people and his God.
The final words of his editor (12:9-14) capture the flavour of his main point well. Life is only worth living in relationship with our God, the Creator. His editor notes that these words were written by a very wise man. It is important to pay attention to them. The last two verses of the book sum up Hezekiah’s own life mission. “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.”
Jesus, who inspired King Hezekiah long before His own human birth, knew well what the message of that ancient wise king meant. He rephrased it in such memorable terms as
“Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Matt. 6:33) as well as
“Do not store up for yourself treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt. 6:19-21)
He also made sure that his first apostle to the Gentiles, Paul, was aware of Hezekiah’s main point, “But godliness with contentment is great gain.” (1 Tim 6:6)
This is a time when King Hezekiah’s message needs to be heard in the church with full voice. There are more ways than ever to waste our lives chasing after the wind. Between the pursuit of wealth and ever-more gadgets we could spend a lot of time and money chasing things that don’t mean anything of eternal value.
Not only does the ancient sage talk about using wealth unwisely, he also talks about what to do when things start going badly.
(11:7-10) “Light is sweet, and it pleases the eyes to see the sun. However many years anyone may live, let them enjoy them all. But let them remember (consider) the days of darkness, for there will be many. You who are young, be happy while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all theses things God will bring you into judgment. So then, banish anxiety from your heart and cast off the troubles of your body, for youth and vigor are meaningless.”
Our age worships youth and vigour. But youth and vigour don’t last very long.
God’s work, however, lasts forever.
Wouldn’t it be much better to put our time and money into doing the will of our lord, Jesus Christ?