Understanding Wisdom Literature | Ecclesiastes

In our first article, we took a look at how to properly interpret the book of Proverbs to glean wisdom from its pages. In the second article, we examined how to read the book of Job and what this godly man's suffering can teach us today.

Wisdom in the Balance

Ecclesiastes is the last of the three major wisdom books. If Proverbs deals with how to live wisely in God’s world, and Job deals with the fact that even if we do live wisely it doesn’t guarantee a pain-free life, then Ecclesiastes serves as another counter-balance guiding us towards wise living in a fallen world by considering the end. The three major books of wisdom in the Bible are thus meant to be read together to get a well-rounded vision of true, Biblical wisdom.

In it, some commentators discern that there are two distinct voices: the narrator who frames the story in the opening and closing sections of the book, and a character named “Qohelet” in Hebrew which is sometimes translated as "the Preacher" or "Teacher". This is because the Hebrew root pictures a gathered group coming together for worship (Num. 10:7). In the Septuagint, it was translated using the Greek root for "church" where we get our English rendition, "Ecclesiastes." (Ogden, A Handbook on Ecclesiastes, p. 16–17)

“Qohelet wrestles with the disorder in the world concerning the breakdown of the deed–consequence relationship as he examines labour, wisdom and God’s justice in a world that does not make sense. The epilogue of the book clearly points to the solution of the proper response: fear God and keep his commandments.” (Richard P. Belcher Jr, Finding Favour in the Sight of God: A Theology of Wisdom Literature, p. 14)

Many Christians read Ecclesiastes and just think "this book is a real downer". However, in the Ancient Near East, there was a tradition within Wisdom Literature of a style which may be called "pessimism literature" which goes back to at least 2000BCE in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Yet, unlike other examples of 'pessimism literature which are bleak and sensual without hope—such as the Babylonian work, Dialogue of Pessimism, where suicide is the only solution—Ecclesiastes holds the possibility of joy, faith, and assurance of God's goodness. (Carson, New Bible Commentary, p. 609)


Perhaps some of our struggle with this book as modern Christians today is that our culture tends to shy away from dwelling on anything heavy, preferring instead to be entertained and distracted from deep contemplations on topics such as death with cat videos and TikTok challenges. However, there is wisdom and even joy to be gained by considering the weightiness of much of life's futilities through the lens of faith.


Ecclesiastes shows us the complexities of life and how time, death, and chance prevent us from being able to fully understand or master it.


Ecclesiastes' Structure

Many have proposed several attempts at finding a neat structure within the book but Ecclesiastes does not have an apparent elaborate or symmetrical scheme and wanders among several topics. Perhaps considering the theme and topic of contemplating life's meaninglessness, this is an intentional and fitting feature though. However, this wandering is not purposeless and moves towards a final destination.


The book presents many opposing concepts, "wisdom" and "folly", "good" and "evil", "love" and "hate", "life" and "death". In the midst of this emerges a very practical and down-to-earth approach to life that doesn't idealize the reality of life in a fallen world and expresses a preoccupation with the lack of justice. Qohelet does not purport to have a nice clean answer to all our questions but calls us to think about how we should live in this world—to accept what God gives and enjoy it.


Parts of the book seem like an autobiographical search for wisdom and value (1:12–2:26). Other parts contain poems (1:4–11; 3:1–8), proverbs (chapters 7, 10, 11), parables (4:13–16; 9:14–15), and even what seems like prophetic material (10:16–17). "Traditionally Jews believed that after death people go to the world of the dead, Sheol, where there is no activity or mental reflection (9:5, 10)." (Ogden, A Handbook on Ecclesiastes, p. 7) Hence, there is a lot of importance on justice in this life, however, Qohelet's experience doesn't seem to match up with that, pointed out by his rhetorical questions and frustrations. This point is not lost on us as modern readers who struggle daily with these questions of meaning, purpose, value, destiny, and justice.


One or Two Preachers?

The traditional view is that it is a book that King Solomon wrote. However, nowhere in the book is that made explicit. So, while it is possible, we don't know for sure. Some have distinguished two voices within the book, that of a hypercritic speaking mainly in the first person who ends with the assertion that all is vanity, and another voice which interrupts the first with the audacity of his investigations and poses the question "what then is the remaining result of the whole of life?" What do you think as you read through the book? Does it seem like there are two narrators or voices in dialogue?

There are seven pessimistic sections in Ecclesiastes, yet they all end with an exhortation to rejoice. Qohelet is a preacher of joy in the face of life's unresolved problems. However, Qohelet's distress is too great for this. He is not offering shallow platitudes of wishful thinking. Mere pleasures are not wholeheartedly endorsed. The goal of Ecclesiastes is to drive the reader to joy but only in so much as it is found in God himself. True abiding joy ultimately is not found in this life alone.


Purpose

Some have suggested that Ecclesiastes shows the inadequacy of the Old Testament and its dark and pessimistic flavour points to the need for the New Testament. It essentially digs its own grave as the low point of the Bible. However, such a simplistic evaluation would put the entire Old Testament in the same boat. Qohelet's faith in the justice and goodness of God in spite of his perceptions in this world of what seems to be evidence to the contrary runs far deeper than this analysis. His exhortations to enjoy life arise from a deep understanding of human mortality.

"Conservative Christians have generally assumed that the purpose of Ecclesiastes is to show the futility of the world over against eternity; that is, the book is evangelistic. This was the view of the Reformers and Puritans - Whitaker, Pemble, Cocceius, Matthew Poole, Matthew Henry, and John Wesley." (Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, p. 271)

Ecclesiastes seems to primarily address the educated elite of the Ancient Near East, the aristocrats of those days. Thus, it has a relevant message for many who find themselves in the relative prosperity of modern western nations where the pursuit of wealth, status, and intellectual accomplishments are a real possibility. Yet its blunt realism transcends all audiences, regardless of whether they find themselves inside or outside of affluent society.


Ecclesiastes does not espouse a superficial faith that ignores the fallenness of our world. It is both a warning against secularism and a call to realism, taking seriously the futility and enigma of life. The reader "must abandon all illusions of self-importance, face death and life squarely, and accept with fear and trembling their dependence on God." (Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, p. 278) The book distinguishes what is "under the sun" and what is "on earth". The Teacher also distinguishes between what he has 'seen under the sun' and what he 'came to realize— making a distinction between observation and faith. So his calls to joy are not because of what he only sees, but what he believes despite what harsh realities he sees.


It calls for a life of robust faith and joy in the face of the grim realities of life "under the sun" and in spite of passing 'vanities' to hold on to that which is abiding. In this regard, it is very much in step with the NT exhortations to keep our eyes fixed on the eternal and not the temporal (2 Cor. 4:18, Col. 3:2). Furthermore, “Eternal life” is not merely perpetual existence but also the "sense that one’s life and work are fundamentally meaningful rather than of no lasting value." (Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, p. 277–278)


3 Key Themes to Look Out For...

There are many key themes we could pull out of Ecclesiastes, but here are 3 of the major ones to look out for.


Vanity (Hevel)

The word "hevel" is translated as "vanity" or "meaningless" and the phrase "hevel hevalim" (vanity of vanities) occurs 38 times in the book and is a main concept of Ecclesiastes. The word "hevel" seems to have a primary meaning associated with "vapour", "breath" or "breeze". It can apply to something that passes away quickly (Prov. 21:6, Psa. 78:33) or even the powerlessness of idols (Jer. 8:19, Jer. 51:17-18). It may be a play on the name Abel as Qohelet considers what has become of "ʾādām" (Adam) or "humanity" as a result of sin. While Genesis tells the story of how humanity fell from a state of life, paradise and innocence into guilt, toil and mortality—Ecclesiastes asks the question of how people now should live in the after-effects of a Post-Fall world.

"In Ecclesiastes several phrases are used parallel to [hevel]: 'chasing after the wind' (Ecc. 1:14; 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 16; 6:9), 'no advantage' (3:19; cf. 5:11; 6:8), 'nothing ... gained' (2:11; cf. 2:22; 3:9; 5:16; 6:11). Thus metaphorically this Hebrew word means what is unsubstantial or without real value." (Glenn, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, p. 976)

The word "reuth" rendered as “strive” comes from a verb describing the work of a shepherd. So it could be translated as "shepherding the wind." It shows the futility of trying to control something totally out of your ability to control or direct. Rather than giving too negative an idea, it is a way to say, "attempting the impossible." Thus the UBS Handbook on Ecclesiastes suggests, in the context of the book, to translate "hevel" with terms such as "incomprehensible, enigmatic, mysterious or impossible to understand."


Some situations which are described as "hevel" are:

  • Times when there seems to be no reward for being wise. All people die, whether wise or foolish (2:15–17).

  • Times when justice and righteousness do not triumph over evil. There seems to be no difference between human beings and animals; both die (3:16–19).

  • A "workaholic" who slaves at his work, depriving himself of pleasure but not stopping to ask what he is working for (4:7–8).

  • A person who God blesses with material blessings, but is unable to enjoy them (6:1-2).

  • Occasions when good things happen to bad people or when bad things befall the good (8:14).

We see and experience these things in our world and they raise serious theological problems for Qohelet and us today. God’s justice seems to be absent at times. So why should we work, live a good life and be wise? Why doesn't God step in and intervene when things aren't the way they should be? This is what Qohelet calls "hevel". Does this vapour of a life mean that it is worthless to work? Should we just give up on it?

Qohelet's voicing of his frustration unabashedly gives validity to our own struggles with these questions. Far from the life of faith being void of these struggles, it shows that it is well within the norms of our experience of faith. Qohelet realizes that there are many questions which he cannot answer and things which he cannot understand. Our condition and life experience is not ideal or perfect, and these situations are what he calls "hevel".


Good (Tov)

The Hebrew word "tov" or "good" is what centers these calls to enjoy life and its related idiomatic expressions such as "see good" or "do good". 286. Examples of "tov":

  • “I know that there is nothing better [tov] for them than to be happy and to do good [tov]” (3:12; see also 8:15)

  • “It is good [tov] and proper to eat, to drink, and to see good [tov] (5:17)

  • “When times are good [tov], be in goodness [tov, enjoy]” (7:14)

  • “go ... eat ... drink with a heart of joy [tov]” (9:7)

  • “let your heart cheer [tov] you in the days of your youth” (11:9)

This concept of "tov" occurs throughout the book also in thematic questions like,

"For who knows what is good [tov] for man ...?" (6:12), and in the Teacher's advice that "a

a good name is better than precious ointment" (7:1; see also11:6). Qohelet is not adopting a

sort of "YOLO" (You Only Live Once) mentality, or prescribing nihilism or trying to say we're all doomed anyway so we might as well live a little while we can. Rather, given the centrality of this concept of "tov", his message is more positive. When Qohelet says, "there is nothing better for man than to...", he really means that enjoying the life God has given us is our best course of action.


Commenting on Ecclesiastes 3:12-13 Duane A. Garrett says that,

"This verse does not mean that we should just forget about our longing for eternity and try to have a good time. 'I know' does not introduce a conclusion; rather, it begins a premise, an additional piece of information, or a concession. The Teacher admits that we do not regard the alternatives of life and death, joy and sorrow, and love and hate as indifferent matters. While he urges the reader to accept personal mortality for what it is, he recognizes that life and joy and love are preferred by all. He further acknowledges that the ability to enjoy life—both moments of recreation and labor—is a gift of God. The paradox is that one cannot genuinely face personal mortality and finitude without first facing God’s immortality and infinite power." (Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, p. 299–300)

Gain (Yithron)

What is the goal of Qohelet's search? He seeks to find out what gain is there if

any to all that happens "under the sun". In the third verse, he asks a key question: "What

does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?" This word "yithron"—

"gain"—is the goal of his search.


It occurs ten times as a noun in Ecclesiastes (1:3; 2:11, 13 (twice); 3:9; 5:9, 16; 7:12; 10:10, 11), with other forms of the root (3:19), the participle (6:8, 11; 7:11), and adverbial forms (2:15; 7:16; 12:9, 12) also used. In chapter 2:1-10, Qohelet lists his achievements—fame, fortune and pleasure—but declares that "there was nothing to be gained under the sun." (2:11) They were not "gain" (yithron). So the "gain" which Qohelet is searching for is not material nor does it seem to be available "under the sun" in an earthly way. Furthermore, in chapter 6, he declares that even a wise man has no yithron over a fool because both die (6:8).


This concept of "gain" is maybe best understood as that which is of "lasting benefit."


It is important to note that the traditional view in the OT was that when a person

died, all passed to Sheol or the place of the dead. Parts of their law (for example Deut 7:12-

15) taught that God rewards people in this life according to their deeds. However, seeing

that the wicked prosper, the good cannot enjoy their blessing, and all people—whether wise or foolish, even humans and animals—have the same fate of death in the end, Qohelet is frustrated with this view. It just doesn't line up with his life experience. So he sets out to find what is yithron—of true lasting benefit.


This quest for meaning beyond just merely what is found in this life is one which rings true throughout history and cultures. It reaches from the pages of the OT to transcend language boundaries, ethnicities, societal positions, education, titles and genders—hitting to the heart our deepest questions in life.


Perhaps Qohelet's dilemma is still ours today. He knows that life is full of questions with no answers, yet he still believes in God. There is something deep inside him that testifies to the value of justice, righteousness and wisdom. However, the life of faith must be realistic about life's difficulties and enjoy it despite the mystery we find ourselves in—unable to explain everything satisfactorily. Qohelet's conclusion that yithron (gain) cannot be found on earth opens the hope that there may be lasting hope in a world to come. Thus, it points us forward eschatologicallly in terms of our ultimate hopes for eternal gain.

Living Life Backward book by David Gibson

One of the main points of the book is to get us to consider the end of life in order that we might live in light of that. It encourages us, essentially, to live life backward. A very helpful book to interpret Ecclesiastes is one by David Gibson, Living Life Backward: How Ecclesiastes Teaches Us to Live in Light of the End. This was an excellent study through the book of Ecclesiastes which I highly recommend!


Key Takeaways

This study of Ecclesiastes should lead us to three main conclusions.


Firstly, pride in oneself should be abandoned

Death comes to us all and is the great levelling of the playing field. For the affluent or elite and for the average person, this means a humble acceptance of their limitations to achieve "gain" (yithron) and to comprehend the vast enigma of life.


Second, life should be enjoyed as a gift of God.

"The book counsels that while avoiding the temptation to consider pleasure to the point of being the goal of life, one should not miss the fleeting joys life affords. This too is an act of humility, for it is an admission that one’s work is not as important as one might wish and that it has no eternal validity." (Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, p.278)

This is ironically the antidote to our culture's mad quest for health, wealth and prosperity which traps many in the hamster wheel of futility going nowhere in a hurry. Money and power sought for the pleasure we think it may provide often end up robbing us of the personal contentment and true enjoyment of life's pleasures in light of a faith rooted in God. How many stories do we know of those who have toiled hard to build earthly empires but lost their health and families in the process? We think that the OT pagan gods of Mammon are a thing of the past, however, some still sacrifice their children to Mammon as they neglect family in exchange for material gain and chasing the wind. Humanity's condition has not changed much, the idolatry has perhaps just changed brand names from Mammon to Channel and Gucci.


Thirdly, we must recognize, in light of the vanity of all these earthly pursuits, our dependence on God and revere Him rightly.

While God can and does give material blessings on this earth, they are not ends in themselves. To see them as ultimate ends in themselves would be equal to stopping and taking pictures of the signpost pointing you to the Grand Canyon and missing the awe-inspiring gaping crevice in the earth! These material blessings should point us forward and upward to their source and our eternal hope - the consummation to which history is moving forward.


Ecclesiastes takes us on a journey to explore the reality of the life of faith lived out by considering the negative argument—apart from God, all is vanity and shepherding the wind. Life's ultimate meaning cannot be found in things on earth, but these and the inner cry for something more point us toward a reality bigger than our temporal existence. How we live in light of eternity then becomes the big question for the life in light of faith.


WISDOM AND CHRIST

All three of these wisdom books are necessary for us to gain a balanced view of wisdom from the Bible. But there is one more connection we have to recognize. All of Scripture points to Christ, and that includes the wisdom literature as well.


The Cross and Job

How do we know God’s love and good character?


For us today, this is best seen in the Cross of Jesus Christ. The only true example of a truly righteous and innocent man suffering that brought about the greatest good in the world. However, that was no ordinary man - Jesus was the God-Man. God in the flesh. If there ever was an example of an egregious injustice - it is the crucifixion of Christ - the only totally sinless and fully righteous man. Yet, as Peter says, this was according to “the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23) to bring about His sovereign plan of salvation by grace to sinners who cannot save themselves.


Indeed, the apostle Paul confirms that "we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ [is] the power of God and the wisdom of God." (1 Cor. 1:23-24)


In Job, he expresses his need for an arbiter to bring him together with God (9:33). He feels trapped and does not know how to bring his case before God so that he can be acquitted. This desire for an arbiter between Job and God is exactly what Jesus is for us also. “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.” (1 Timothy 2:5-6) Indeed, we can say with even more certainty than Job did:

“For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last, he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh, I shall see God.” (Job 18:25-26)

Jesus Christ - Wisdom Embodied

There are also connections between the character of Wisdom and Christ:

  • Both Wisdom and Christ are presented as instruments of creation (Prov. 3:19, ‘by wisdom’; John 1:3, ‘through him’; and Col. 1:16, ‘by him’ and ‘through him’). When Paul says that “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Col. 1:15), he is using the language of Proverbs 8.

  • Both Wisdom and Christ are street preachers proclaiming their message in public places, calling people to follow them, and warning of the dangers if people reject their message.

  • Both Wisdom and Christ are like banquet hostesses sending forth messengers, inviting people to a banquet of substantial food, experiencing opposition from sinners and promising life to those who come to the banquet.

  • Both Wisdom and Christ existed with God before all things, descended from heaven, offered blessings in the symbols of food and drink, sent out invitations for people to join them and were rejected by the masses. But Christ is greater than Wisdom because he is specifically identified as the Son (John 1:18), equal with God his Father (John 10:30), the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15), the one who will reconcile all things to himself (Col. 1:20).

This is simply to point out that as we read our Bible, we must read it Christologically. This does not mean that we try to find Jesus in every verse, but rather recognize that the point of all of Scripture is to point us to Christ. All of Scripture points us to Jesus Christ as the center of our worship and salvation - including wisdom itself. Because in Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3). Jesus Christ embodies the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:30). When he was on earth, his predominant form of teaching was a form of wisdom called the parable, which in Hebrew is masal also translated as “proverb”.


Thus, the Wisdom who beckons us in Scripture is none other than Jesus Christ. Will you hear his voice?


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