Discovering Ecclesiastes

Ecclesiastes is a fascinating entry in the Old Testament (OT) wisdom literature. It has solicited a variety of impressions, some interpreting the book as presenting a disenchanted, existential, and meaningless view of life, some going so far as to view the book as being uninspired and outside the biblical canon.

Certain statements in the book do sound disenchanted and pessimistic. The book opens by announcing, “Vanity of vanities … vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (Eccl 1:2), which seems to suggest that life is a meaningless experience. “Do not be overly righteous, nor be overly wise: why should you destroy yourself” (Eccl 7:16), for instance, seems to encourage a half-hearted approach to life. And the declaration that “a man has nothing better under the sun than to eat, drink, and be merry” (Eccl 8:15) seems to promote the pagan philosophy of hedonism, which upholds personal pleasure as chief goal in life.

At the same time, Ecclesiastes provides us with some of the more repeated, well-known verses OT verses. “To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven” (Eccl 3:1). “For there is not a just man on earth who does good and does not sin” (Eccl 7:20). “Remember now your Creator in the days of your youth…” (Eccl 12:1), and “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is man’s all” (Eccl 12:13).

So, how should we understand Ecclesiastes? What is the purpose of this book and what can we learn from it?

Background Information

Though the author’s name is never given, this book provides enough information for us to safely identify the author. He identifies himself as “the son of David, king in Jerusalem” and calls himself “the preacher” (or “the teacher,” qoheleth) (Eccl 1:1) and as “king over Israel in Jerusalem” (Eccl 1:12). He also described himself as someone who excelled in wisdom and material prosperity, just as King Solomon had done (Eccl 1:16; 2:4-10; cf., 1 Chron 29:25). Though modern, recent scholarship has suggested otherwise, voices from Jewish and church history have consistently understood Solomon to be the author of this book.

Solomon seems to have written this book from the vantage point of old age, after many years of life experience, offering advice and wisdom to younger men who could learn from his experiences (Eccl. 11:9; 12:1).

For those who suggest that Ecclesiastes presents a godless or secular view of life, we should simply acknowledge in this book, Solomon mentions God more than forty times. It is interesting to observe, however, that all of these references use Elohim (a more generic title for God) and never Yahweh (God’s personal, covenant name). As Rob Bell points out, “this choice of vocabulary focuses the reader on the subject of God’s relationship to mankind in general and His natural revelation.”

That the book intends to explore God’s relationship to mankind is further indicated by how the word for mankind (adam) appears as many times as Elohim. Two other prevalent words in this book, vanity (emptiness) and labor (travail), emphasizing the effects of the Fall in our relationship with God and experience of life on Earth.


It’s difficult to outline this book. Perhaps the relatively disorganized format is intended to reflect the meaninglessness that the author describes throughout? That said, the following outline by Chuck Swindoll seems to be a reasonable way to organize the book.

  • Introduction (1:1-11)
  • Investigation and Discoveries
    • Personal Pursuits (1:12-6:12)
    • Conclusions (7:1-11:6)
  • Admonition (11:7-12:8)
  • Conclusion (12:9-14)

See his full outline here.

Key Takeaways

Rather than offering an existential, meaningless view of life, Ecclesiastes offers a realistic view instead. It acknowledges on one hand the frustrations and limitations of life “under the sun,” on a cursed planet as sinful people. It does not seek avoid these problems or hide from them – an honesty which we all should find refreshing.

This book acknowledges that apart from God, life “under the sun” seems meaningless – and indeed is meaningless. Yet, in relationship with God, everything in life offers a measured and legitimate purpose and value. Only once we have learned to fear God, by trusting in him completely and submitting to his ways, can we learn to accept life’s challenges and enjoy life’s blessings and pleasures with joy.  

As we prioritize our relationship with God and view everything through the lens of his sovereignty, providence, and justice, we can enjoy the experiences of life for all they are worth. As we do, we should neither dismiss these experiences as worthless nor expect to receive too much satisfaction from them.

We should also acknowledge that not every experience or question in life has a clear or available answer. Some things remain known and understood by God alone, such as when we will die and why inequities and injustices occur.

What’s more, we must recognize that our life here on Earth, though real and important, is brief and passing. Everything we experience and do here is temporal and is therefore of limited significance. For this reason, we will benefit the most from life if we live with eternity in view, not hoping to receive too much from this life while looking forward with anticipation to the next (Eccl 3:11).

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