The Ecclesiastes is a very strange book; written by a wise king, this book includes strange things which seems contradictory to biblical teachings – for instance, the writer hates life but congratulates death (Ecc. 4:2); the writer believes nothing is better than eating, drinking and being merry; and money is the answer of many problems. Also, there are many secular writers who believe the Ecclesiastes is a “great piece of writing”, while early rabbis discussed whether this book should be included in the Bible simply due to the strange teachings.
However, the reason to be enthusiastic is that (1) they are from the secular world, and (2) they do not understand the book. Kohelet, the writer the Ecclesiastes, is often translated to “the teacher”, “the philosopher”, or – in my interpretation – “the philosopher teacher”. It is because there is profound message in the book.
As an overview, the 12 chapters of Ecclesiastes ask about FOUR questions, give THREE callings in life, demonstrate TWO ways of life, and give ONE divine counsel.
A. FOUR Big Questions of Ecclesiastes
The Ecclesiastes asks about FOUR questions that will be covered in the following days.
The first question is: Why is Life So Frustrating? It is about the struggle of life. It will be covered in chapter 1-3.
The second question is: Where Does Life Come From? Chapter 4-6 will discuss about the source of life.
The third question is: How is Life To Be Lived? It is about the stewardship of life which will be covered in chapter 7-11.
The forth question is: What Is Life All About? It is about the significant of life; it will be discussed in chapter 12.
This book is not a simple answer since life is complex and confusing, but the writer leads us to explore these questions so that we can deal with the enigma of life.
B. THREE Important Calls in Life
The Ecclesiastes does not call to Jews only but to all Christians in churches.
1. The call to Reality
It is a wake-up call to address the pragmatists in us. In Ecc. 1:1, the word “vanity” comes from the Hebrew word hebel, which can be translated to “vapor”, “breath”, “not substantial” or “empty / emptiness”. From the context, “vanity of vanities” literally means “empty of meaning”; and the writer repeats the word to emphasize the depth of such meaningless.
But why the writer uses such a pessimistic introduction? It is because, if we do not understanding the bad news first, we will not appreciate the good news. In the Gospel of John, Jesus told Nicodemus the bad news first (that he has to be reborn again but not from mother’s womb; John ch.3); only after he received the bad news, Jesus told him the good news (anyone can be reborn from the Spirit). The “bad news” in fact leads us walk out of false belief so that we can understand the good news.
2. The Call to Wisdom
The Ecclesiastes addresses the philosopher in us. In Ecc. 1:3, the word “gain” in Hebrew can also be translated as “leftover”, “surplus” or “profit”. So, what profit man can have through work? It is about dealing with the concept of “success”. Like workaholic, we work hard to find the meaning of life. We believe that in things we possess may find meaning of life. So we work till tired; we are being sucked out of life. But the Ecclesiastes tells us that work is not the answer to life. We have to be wise in our living – it is not a matter to just “be busy in life”, but we have to think of “what are we busy for”.
3. The Call to a God-Centered Life
The Ecclesiastes also addresses the spiritual being in us – it asks us to put God into our life formula, for life without God is terrible. God wants us to have good life, to find satisfaction in Him, to have meaning and purpose in life. But we want BETTER life; men never satisfy. What is most important in life? It depends on what we love. Jesus told us not to love the world. We should not love temporary things but eternal things. Paul told us to “set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” (Colossian 3:2) We have to put God to be the center of our life.
C. Two Ways of Life
1. Life “Under the Sun”
The writer describes a materialistic orientation in life as life “under the sun”. The phrase “under the sun” is used over and over again – in 1:3, 9, 14; 2:18; 6:12; 8:15, 17; 9:3; 12:2 etc. Why the writer so pessimistic? It is because everything is “under the sun” and these earthly value cannot satisfy us.
2. Life “Under the Hand of God”
We can choose a life “under the sun”, but we can also choose a life “under the hand of God” – a spiritual orientation in life. In Ecclesiastes, life without God is a contradictory of terms: without God, life "under the sun" is spiritually barren, philosophically sterile, existentially meaningless, and therefore ultimately futile. Early reformers concluded how life ought to be lived in two Latin words: coram Deo, meaning “before the face of God”. It means that we live life with the presence of God, with fear of God. We live with the sense of accountability before God.
D. One Divine Counsel
The Ecclesiastes comes to one grand conclusion: fear God and keep His Commandments. This is the key to life, key to success. This counsel consists of two parts: (1) fear God, and (2) keep His Commandments. One may think that he can keep His Commandments without fearing Him; but, in realty, you will truly keep His Commandments only if you truly fear God. The key theme of the wisdom literature is to fear God.
We are searching for meaning in life; the search for philosophy is ultimately the search for reality. The world is illusion and in deception so that we cannot see clearly. Something we think important in our life is actually not important in eternity; however, something we neglected may be of utmost importance in eternity. We must find the ultimate reality – the kingdom of God. If you find ultimate reality, you will find the ultimate purpose; if you find the ultimate purpose, you will find ultimate meaning of life.
I am the third generation of Christian in my family, but Christianity meant very little to me. I left God in the age of 12 to 16, and I was most rebellious at 14. I used be the best student at school, but I failed many subjects at 14 because of my rebellious thoughts. My mother cried for me, my father called me a “gangster”, and my grandfather took me to church so that the pastors can pray for me. I was rebellious because I found no meaning in life.
But God changed me at 16. When I found that Jesus is someone real, someone true to follow, someone Who loves me and dies for me, I returned to Jesus. I saw this kind of king, savior and love, that I finally find meaning of life. Jesus is the answer of life.
I used to ask a naughty question: if Jesus is the answer of life, then what is the question? But I later realized that Jesus is an answer not of a question but of a problem – the problem of unbelief and sin. My life is lost until I find Jesus. Jesus is the true meaning of life. If you understand He is king, you will understand true reality, then purpose in life and, ultimately, meaning of life.
“Vanity of vanities”, it is a life “under the sun”. But life under the hand of God is beautiful. And Jesus is the answer to the search of meaning of life.