Understanding the Book of Ecclesiastes
Prior to getting started with the study of Prophecy in the Bible, we need to set some boundaries. The teachings held by some groups depend upon verses found in the book of Ecclesiastes. Can they be trusted? Why, or why not?
Solomon (King David’s son and the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes) spent many years trying to find the meaning of life. In the first 11 chapters of the book of Ecclesiastes, he reported many proverbs – things that seem to be common sense, but, under scrutiny, they are not always true. (This is why not all proverbs are to be followed. See Ezekiel 18:1-4)
Proverb: a brief popular saying (such as “Too many cooks spoil the broth”) that gives advice about how people should live or that expresses a belief that is generally thought to be true, Mirriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary
An example from Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun”, Ecc 1:9. It is like the more contemporary phrase, “It’s the same old drag every day!” Although commonly accepted and never called a lie, neither of these statements is factual. Actually, tiny changes are occurring all the time. (Like the loss of our hair and the increase in our weight!) See our article on Change Blindness.
Many false doctrines have their basis in the teaching of these first 11 chapters of the book. The phrase “under the sun” is often by Solomon. In Ecclesiastes, it describes events as they are seen from man’s eyes (vice God’s view). From our view, everything seems futile and a waste of time. A prime example is Solomon’s statement (Ecc 3:19) that “the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both… (v.20) All go to the same place.” Indeed, from man’s view, this is all there is… we are born and we die. It is the same with humans and with animals. But the New Testament clearly teaches that some souls will go to heaven while others will burn in the lake of fire. (Rev 21:15)
Purpose of the Book
God’s purpose for Scripture is to help us understand – the Bible is not meant to be confusing. Evidently, the purpose of these chapters in the Bible is to expose the “meaningless” of life, as viewed exclusively from man’s viewpoint. A life (such as Solomon’s) lived without God is futile, vain, and meaningless.
In the first portion of the book, Solomon tells us how he tried to find meaning in all manner of human endeavors, from the folly of chasing wisdom (Ecc 1:17,18), to pleasures of the flesh (Ecc 2:1), to fun, alcohol, and other follies (Ecc 2:2,3). He tried good works (Ecc 2:4-6) and wealth and it’s benefits. He tried various sexual delights, (vv. 7,8). He went so far as to say, “I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure” (v.10). But Solomon found no lasting benefit in any of them. He wrapped up his feelings: “[E]verything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun” (v.11).
Understanding the Book of Ecclesiastes requires reading the last chapter of the book, where the picture changes drastically when we “remember [our] Creator”, (Ecc 12:1). Our lives cannot be viewed exclusively from “under the sun” (man’s understanding). We must keep God (the Creator) in the equation if life is to make sense. And, when viewed from ABOVE the sun, (e.g., from God’s eyes), a man’s life clearly has purpose and meaning. In Ecc 12:13 Solomon states that after one has heard all the facts, “here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. (14) For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.“`
So, the bottom line for Christians today: The book of Ecclesiastes has real value but it has to be read with care and discernment. A major portion of the book is a compendium of Solomon’s false steps toward fulfillment. And his repeated statement of the futility of trying to live a fulfilling life outside of God. In common language, Solomon is saying, “I have been a bad example. Don’t follow my mistakes.”
That concept is summarized in the last chapter. Therefore, any doctrine that depends on a very literal reading of verses from the first 11 chapters (man’s viewpoint – not God’s) is automatically questionable. Only Solomon’s comments in the last chapter can be accepted as stating the plan of God.
This article is another illustration of how context can reverse the true meaning of a verse. To learn more about using context in your study of the Bible, visit our article on “Using Context in the Bible. ”
Now that you have a better understanding of how to study the Bible, begin your study with our series of articles on the Judgments which individuals must face. The first article is “What Happens When I Die?“