Friday, August 26, 2011

Ecclesiastes: Hopeful, not Depressing

On August 28 I will be teaching my last session of my Sunday School class.  I have asked to be relieved of it so that I can focus on campus ministry and writing.  I will miss it, but I do feel dry.  For six and a half years I have spent 5 or more hours a week on studying for the class, and I have been unable to go on weekend trips.  However, I have been able to get into the Bible in wonderful ways.  Most of all, my class members are awesome ladies.  This is the transcript of my last lesson, a strange one to end on!

The Book of Ecclesiastes gets a bad rap.  It is not a depressing book.  It is a realistic book by a man who has seen what life had to offer and has some observations.  It is wisdom literature, so it is more about principles than promises.  So you won’t find a lot of discussion about heaven, redemption, forgiveness.  You will find a lot about world view:  how we should see, interpret, and operate in the world as it is.  Yes, Solomon wrote 3000 years ago, but it’s amazing how people haven’t changed despite all our technology. 

“A healthy balance in Bible study is maintained when the Song of Solomon is studied along with Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes focuses on the intellect of man -- his mental outlook on life. The Song of Solomon  is a book about the emotions of man -- in particular the emotion of love.” (

Ecclesiastes does not use the covenant name of God, which I will not write here because it is too sacred and I think evangelicals throw it around too much,  the “I AM THAT I AM” name that is translated as LORD in English versions.  Ecclesiastes uses Elohim, an interesting name for God because it is plural!  This is not so much a book about redemption but living and world views.  We see it on the other side, as redeemed people not of the Israelite gene pool (although I have, I am told, a little Jewish heritage, but I can’t prove it). 

  1.  There are several key words.  Vanity means “breath or vapor,” denoting transitory more than futile, I think.  Wisdom; under the sun (this world rather than the next); preacher (one who speaks to a congregation); profit; toil; beautiful. 

  1.  Why is he pessimistic?

Solomon had everything, but it was not satisfied because there is something more.

He is old and weaker and can’t even enjoy what he has.

Possessions enslave.  Our boat.

He was the wisest of men yet he still doesn’t know how it all works, from God’s perspective, because he can’t.

His wives have led him astray—all those women and not a good one!

  1.  What does Ecclesiastes say about God?

We can’t fully understand Him and His ways.  Evangelical Christians like to talk as if they know everything about God because they know the Bible.  But the Bible is God’s message to man; it’s what He wants us to know.  It’s not everything about God and everything we COULD know.  Example, John 21:25.  Therefore, I think we have to be careful about making statements about God; we could use a lot more humility.  For example, all my life I have heard the statement, “God will not hear the prayer of a non-Christian.”  That is totally false.  God can hear the prayer of whomever He pleases.  He heard the prayer of Cornelius in Acts.  What the scripture says is “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the LORD will not hear me.”  But that was a statement made by David in the aftermath of his sin, and we should be careful never to take one verse out of the Bible and build a whole structure on it.  God is answering the prayers of Muslims to bring them light and causing conversions among them, because they have so little access to the gospel in their oppressive cultures. 

Not being able to fully understand God and His ways is the ultimate frustrating.  Why?  Why do the righteous suffer and the evil seem to go unscathed?  (Ecclesiastes asks this question).  Why do the innocent starve to death, why are there so many children in Africa who are orphans because of AIDS?  Why do young people die in the prime of life?  Why don’t things work out even when we do what we’re supposed to, according to conventional wisdom?  Why can people who abuse their children having kids and people who would be great parents struggling with infertility?

Our attitude toward God should be fear, a deeply serious attitude toward His power in our lives and His commands.  Let’s not get upset about the end of Ecclesiastes:  Fear God and keep his commands (even when you are unsure of where His plan is taking you).  Yes, perfect love casts out fear, but coming to God starts with fear—we know we are sinners deserving punishment but we trust the Christ of the cross who died for our sins.  The love casts out the fear but the fear has to be there in the first place to be cast out.  We have a serious lack of fear of God in our culture.

God does not just step into human time; He controls it providentially.  There is a time for every season under heaven, but what Solomon presents is not the ancients’ pagan view of continual cycles.  3:11-15; 7:13.  He has put eternity into our hearts; we know there is more than what is “under the sun.”  We yearn for something better. 

The more we know about the world from a human perspective, the more cynical we will become; only by putting glorifying and fearing God as the end result and goal of our activity will we find any meaning.  When I read this book, I see it like Job.  Job is about a debate between his friends and Job, and then God comes in.  Everything said in the book of Job is not true.  This is Solomon’s debate within himself, his intellectual and spiritual journey; some of it is his observations that could be questionable as he is working through his thoughts to the conclusion.  Unless the principle he utters is found in other scriptures, we should take it as his musings and observations, his emotional take, not as gospel truth; for example, his reference to unfaithful women in chapter 7:26ff.  He is an old man, as the last chapter shows—he knows about teeth going missing and eyesight dimming. 

God made man upright, but all our sinners, so deal with it.

  1.  Ten life commandments from Ecclesiastes:
    1. Live in the moment; enjoy what you are doing now.
    2. Everything you own will one day belong to someone else.
    3. Don’t talk too much.
    4. Close friends are a necessity, not an add-on luxury.
    5. Wisdom is more valuable than money.
    6. Moderation is better than extremes, especially when the extremes are about you.
    7. Fear God, not what people say.  7:21
    8. Be real about your motives and your heart.
    9. Your brain is not as big as you think it is  8:17
What do you find comforting about Ecclesiastes?  For me, that I do not have to control the universe.  There is a God and I am not Him.  I get into positions where I have to run things, especially at work.  I do it all right.  But I don’t want to, not that much.  I’d rather let God drive the car. 

As I end the class, this is my message:  None of us is young, but remember your creator while you are still active and vital.  None of us needs to feel we are ready to sit down and die.  The best is yet to come.  We are not at the point Solomon describes in chapter 12.  Focus on what remains, and there are only two things that are eternal:  The word of God and people. 


Joe/Michelle Jarrell said...

Ecclesiastes " Solomon’s debate within himself, his intellectual and spiritual journey; some of it is his observations that could be questionable as he is working through his thoughts to the conclusion. Unless the principle he utters is found in other scriptures, we should take it as his musings and observations, his emotional take, not as gospel truth."

I think it is hard to not view every bit of Scripture as a command, and yet, much of it is, as you have stated, musings.

Thank you for this article.

Barbara G. Tucker said...

You're welcome. I don't want to sound in any way that I am taking a low view of Scripture. But as you say, not every single word is meant as a command, especially in the wisdom books. In Job, his friends say some things that do not apply, since they are debating his plight. Good study and exegesis means understanding what God has for us today from the word, but all of it is truth.

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