Ecclesiastes: The Preacher
Key Texts: Chapter 1:2, & 12:13
“Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”
“Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.”
The Hebrew word translated preacher, which appears in the 1st verse, gives us our English word ecclesiastical, which refers to church matters. The word in the original Hebrew defines someone who addresses an assembly. Therefore the writer of this book is presenting an address, under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost.
The identity of the author has proved to be controversial even among conservative Protestant scholars. To the reader Solomon appears to be the obvious candidate from the opening words where the preacher is “the son of David, king in Jerusalem.” Nevertheless we must admit that his name is never specifically stated, as is the case in both Proverbs and the Song of Solomon. Edward J. Young held that the book was written in the days of Malachi and that the writer personified wisdom as preaching to a corrupt society and the personification of wisdom was Solomon. He maintained that the characteristics of society mentioned in this book did not correlate with the days of Solomon.
It must be said, however, that this view denying Solomon’s authorship is awkward and departs from the obvious statement in the 1st verse. Charles Bridges held that the theory which supposes that a later author penned the work under the pseudonym of Solomon was “utterly unworthy of inspiration.” This seems to me, to be the opinion which carries the greatest weight as it draws its authority from the words of scripture claiming a son of David, who was king, as the author.
All of the internal evidence of Ecclesiastes appears to indicate that Solomon was in old age at the time of writing. He reflects upon his building projects which occupied some 25 years of his life (2:4-10), his immense wealth (2:8) and his immoral relationships (7:26-27). In addition his poignant picture of old age (12:1-7) would indicate that he was in more mature years reflecting upon the passage of his life. Bishop Reynold commented that in Ecclesiastes Solomon “..seemeth to have written it in his old age, when he took a more serious view of his past life.” From this perspective this rather unique book has much to teach us as we ponder the discoveries that Solomon made when contemplating the successes and failures of a lifetime.
Ecclesiastes is one of the most philosophical books in the Bible and for that reason it is considered one of the most difficult to grasp.
The view of life that is presented in this book appears at face value to advocate fatalism (a belief that nothing that happens can be avoided to the total abdication of human responsibility) and hedonism (love of pleasure); 2:24, 3:1, 12-13, 18-22, 4:18-19, 7:15-16, 9:11-12, 11:6.
These statements, however, cannot be measured in isolation from other aspects of Solomon’s philosophy of life. The key word, vanity, is employed over and over to show that everything man accomplishes and achieves is empty. At his very best man is a failure. Solomon discovered this in his long march through life. At the end of the 1st chapter he concluded that even his great knowledge and wisdom only served to intensify his sorrow. This is perhaps the reason why he declared that much study is a weariness to the flesh as he neared his final conclusion, 12:12. Through the course of this book Solomon described laughter as madness, 2:2, and such was the emptiness he discovered in this world he described himself as hating life, 2:17. He saw sorrow as something which was better than laughter and the house of mourning a better environment than the house of feasting, 7:2-3.
Taking these various aspects of Ecclesiastes together, Solomon appears to be advocating the idea that we must simply get on with life, enjoy ourselves while we have time but in the final analysis all is doomed to failure. The picture is grim and depressing.
What was his purpose in depicting life in this light?
1: To give us the worldly man’s view of life.
2: To show us that life without God is empty and without hope.
Having eloquently depicted the abject failure of humanity to satisfy himself, Solomon’s final conclusion brings us to man’s purpose so aptly summarised in the first answer in the Shorter Catechism:
“Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man” (12:13).
Chapter 1:1-11 The Preacher’s Problem
Solomon’s begins his sermon with several striking observations. Using the passing of generations, the course of the sun, the flowing of the rivers and the passage of the winds as his introduction he observes that man is never satisfied with seeing or hearing (v9). It is as if man is caught up in a river of time where his course has been decreed and there is nothing he can do to alter his miserable destiny (v10). Having observed life in this light Solomon has a problem. What is the purpose of our earthly sojourn?
Chapter 1:12-18 The Preacher’s Purpose
Solomon now unfolds his purpose; “…to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven” (1:13). He is intent on investigating the purpose of life; something which philosophers have set themselves to do in the centuries that have since passed into eternity.
Chapters 2-4 The Preacher’s Path
Solomon now reflects upon his own life, his immense achievements. Yet as he reviewed his life’s work he not only hated his life but he hated his labour and what he had accomplished. In old age he had little satisfaction; all was vanity and vexation of spirit.
He sees man caught in the river of time.
Chapter 3:1-8 is one of the most memorable in the Authorised Version.
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; A time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; A time to mourn, and a time to dance; A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; A time to get, and a time to lose; A time to keep, and a time to cast away; A time to rend, and a time to sew; A time to keep silence, and a time to speak; A time to love, and a time to hate; A time of war, and a time of peace.
Man is born for success and failure and the shadow of sorrow and tragedy appears to cast darkness over his existence. Even Solomon’s own life was marred by this kind of failure and hopelessness.
Chapters 5-12 The Preacher’s Presentation
The remainder of the book is an application to all men based on the outcome of Solomon’s investigations. There are many memorable passages in this section:
Respect for God’s House 5:1
Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God, and be more ready to hear, than to give the sacrifice of fools: for they consider not that they do evil.
The value of a good name 7:1
A good name is better than precious ointment
Dead flies in the ointment 10:1
Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour: so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour.
Casting bread on the waters 11:1
Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.
Appeal to youth 12:1
Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them;
All of this would indicate that as Solomon’s sermon continued perspective was taking shape despite all the darkness of life. Spiritual values are coming into focus as the only true source of happiness.
This culminates in the blessed summary of 12:13 which shows us that Ecclesiastes is indeed a book of inspired philosophy.
Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.