Next Tuesday, we will begin our Lenten study of Ecclesiastes. This is my favorite book of the Old Testament, and next to the writings of John, my favorite book in all of Scripture. Within Ecclesiastes, we are given insight into one person’s struggle to make sense of reality. I would urge you to read through the entire book before next Tuesday in order to gain a sense of the writer’s struggle and somewhat paradoxical ideas.
This is the perfect study for Lent. During this time, we are called to leave everything behind, not only our sins and foolishness, but also our righteousness, wisdom, and anything else, other than Jesus, in which we trust for our salvation. Ecclesiastes’ understanding that everything under the sun is ultimately emptiness helps us in this journey.
Traditional Judaism says that Solomon wrote the Song of Songs as a young man, Proverbs in middle age, and Ecclesiastes in old age. More modern scholarship places the writing of Ecclesiastes sometime after Ezra/Nehemiah (c.425 BC) and before the Maccabees (c.160 BC). Based upon certain words and idioms, most scholars place its composition sometime in the 4th c. BC in either the late Achaemenid (Persian) Empire or the early Ptolemaic (Greek) Kingdom.
Except for the introduction in verse 1:1 and the Epilogue in verses 12:9-14, the book is written in the first person. The book calls this person “Qoheleth” (in Hebrew) or “Ekklesiastes” (in Greek). The root of both words is for the word “assembly” and, therefore, this person is someone who addresses the assembly. Most translations call the person the “Preacher” or the “Speaker.” His actual identity is unknown. The Speaker calls himself the Son of David and King of Israel, thus trying to draw a link between himself and Solomon. This linkage, however, was fairly common in Jewish books during this time period including the “Wisdom of Solomon,” the “Odes of Solomon,” and the “Testament of Solomon.”
In Ecclesiastes, the Speaker’s philosophical point of view closely resembles the Existentialism of the 19th and 20th century philosophers of Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Fyodor Dostoevsky, or Jean-Paul Sartre. Ecclesiastes, like Existentialism, begins with the human person, not with more abstract ideas such as God or the Good or the Holy. The Speaker begins with himself and his own existence in search of some eternal meaning. He tries to make sense of his beliefs and observations and to bring them in congruence with one another. However, like his 19th and 20th century counterparts, the Speaker finds only transient meaning in his/our existence in an apparently meaningless and absurd world. He comes to emphasize the necessity of simply living in the present since the future is unknown and ultimately subject to the sovereignty of death.
WHY I LOVE ECCLESIASTES:
I love Ecclesiastes because it makes us come face-to-face with the absurd reality of our human condition – nothing really matters because we all die and we are all forgotten. Everything you do and everyone you love will one day soon cease to exist. Whether you are wise or a fool, righteous or wicked, rich or poor, or even a human or an animal, the same fate of death awaits us all so why does anything really matter? This observation of the inevitability of death undermines all meaning. In short, this observation: (1) belies the shallow platitudes of much of the Scriptures, (2) reinforces the teachings of Jesus as to the worthlessness of the things of this world, and (3) compels us to see if the rumor of the empty grave on Easter morning is true.
First, like Job, the Speaker struggles to make sense of traditional teachings in light of his observations about the world. In Deuteronomy, God instructs Moses to tell the people that if they obey the commandments (all 613) God will bless them (Deut. 28:1-14) but if they do not obey the commandments, God will curse them (Deut. 28:15-68). Deuteronomy and the history that follows from Judges to 2 Kings, teach that good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people. As Jesus’ disciples asked him about why a man was blind – “who sinned, this man or his parents?” John 9:2. Or as Proverbs says: “Misfortune pursues sinners, but prosperity rewards the righteous.” Prov. 13:21. Like the Speaker, however, our observations tell us that this Biblical teaching simply is not true. We know that often the just man gets what is due to the unjust and the unjust man what is due to the just (Eccl. 8:14) and that a righteous man may perish in his righteousness and a wicked man grows old in his wickedness (Eccl. 7:15). Good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people regardless of what Deuteronomy or Proverbs tells us. I find great comfort in seeing others struggle, like me, with biblical platitudes that are incongruent with observed reality. It is doubly comforting that this struggle is found within the pages of the Bible itself.
Second, the teachings of Ecclesiastes about this world closely resemble the teachings of Jesus about the things of this world. The Speaker tells us that our works are meaningless (2:4-11), that wealth is meaningless (5:10), and that our desires will never be satisfied (6:7). The Speaker further observes that neither a person’s wisdom nor his righteousness can save him because the same fate of death comes to one and all. (9:1-3). No matter how righteous you are, you will die and be forgotten. Ecclesiastes disabuses us of any hope we can ever have in ourselves or that anything we possess from wealth to righteousness to going to church on Sunday can be of any ultimate benefit. Everything we do is meaningless and absurd. Throughout his ministry, Jesus taught the same. For example, in the story of the rich young man (Matt. 19:16-22), we see someone who has wealth and wisdom and righteousness, and none of that is sufficient. I find Ecclesiastes as reinforcement of Jesus’ teaching that nothing of ours is sufficient.
Third, Ecclesiastes prepares us for Easter. The Speaker’s message should compel us, like Peter and John, to run towards the rumor of the empty grave. John 20:4. I imagine that if we told the Speaker about Jesus on Good Friday, he would not be surprised. The Speaker would certainly understand that the very Wisdom and Righteousness of God would have been born in poverty, suffered homelessness, felt the rejection of his family, been betrayed by his closest confidant, and suffer and die an early death at the hands of self-righteous religious leaders and unjust governmental authorities. The life of Jesus simply magnifies the absurdity of our own existence. How can misfortune pursue and overtake him who is was without any sin? The Speaker would agree that, of course, the Incarnate Wisdom of God would also suffer and die, because death comes for us all. However, what if the grave is empty, and death itself has died? What if Ecclesiastes is wrong and death is swallowed up in victory (1 Cor. 15:55)? For the only means by which anything can have any substantive meaning is if death itself has been defeated and no longer has dominion over us.
Please try to read all the way through Ecclesiastes this week. It helps to read it aloud. I look forward to seeing everyone next week.
For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. .Eccl. 3:19-20