“I don’t read it because it scares me. All that stuff about life being meaningless,” said a student of mine recently. I asked him if he had spent time in the enigmatic book of Ecclesiastes. I thought it would give him perspective on his struggles. This is not an uncommon response. A saintly pastor in his nineties told me that he had read it three or four times. Years ago, when I commended the book, a student in my class made the kind of face you see when someone accidently tastes something bitter or sour.
Ecclesiastes has saved my life many times since I started reading it over forty years ago. Melancholy souls often find meaning there. Yet the ruminations of the Preacher have puzzled me as well. As a young Christian, I remember reading the words, “but time and chance happens to them all” (9:11).[i] How could that be? God leaves nothing to chance. But I kept the words in my soul and kept reading Ecclesiastes. No one should fear the wisdom this book offers. Let me offer five reasons why you should read and ponder this book.
First, Jesus endorsed this book as Holy Scripture, as he did all of our Old Testament. He was not merely saluting it or pointing to a religious museum piece. Jesus said that “the Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:10). That is, they cannot be destroyed or refuted. That includes the musings of the old and odd Preacher of Ecclesiastes. Jesus also proclaimed:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place (Matthew 5:17-18).
Jesus did not directly quote from Ecclesiastes, but he affirmed its divine origin and pertinence. Put more directly, Jesus wants you to read this book.
Second, the Apostle Paul likewise validated all of the Old Testament when he wrote, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).”
Despite its bad reputation, Ecclesiastes is all the things Paul says it is. Along with the rest of the Old Testament, it is essential for our “training in righteousness.” Further, in Romans, Paul alludes to Ecclesiastes when he speaks of the “groaning” of creation, which parallels Ecclesiastes idea of “vanity.”
My first two reasons are based on biblical authority. Let us now turn to the book itself.
Third, the introduction to this book is often understood wrongly.
The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:
says the Teacher.
Everything is meaningless.”
How could life be meaningless when God created it and redeems it through Jesus Christ?
The word in question is hevel in Hebrew. It literally means mist or vapor, which is a metaphor. Sadly, many translations have done violence to the metaphor, reading in meaning that is not there. Just as mist and vapor disappear quickly and are insubstantial, so is life “under the son” as the book puts it several times. Life is not absurd, having no meaning at all. That would be the teaching of atheistic existentialism. Rather, life in this fallen world is fleeting. We often cling to what passes away unexpectedly. Ecclesiastes tells us that the wise person should remember this as they live before God. Since this book does not render all things meaningless, we should not be deterred in seeking wisdom therein.
Fourth, Ecclesiastes must be understood within its genre. It is wisdom literature, along with Job and Proverbs.[ii] These books read differently than a Gospel or a letter of Paul. See for yourself. Wisdom literature gives us personal reflections rather than a systematic account of a subject. It is usually written in the form of poetry. Much is expressed in memorable proverbs or sayings, such as “the more words, the less meaning and how does it profit anyone? (Ecclesiastes 6:11)” and “better a live dog than a dead lion” (9:4). However, wisdom literature is never false or misleading. I simply must be read in the right way. For example, when the Preacher of Ecclesiastes says, “So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind: (2:19),” he is voicing part of his quest for wisdom. He is not advocating that everyone hate life! The Preacher is not done with his quest for wisdom. Ecclesiastes should be experienced within its proper genre. In fact, we should be glad that God revealed truth through so many genres.
Fifth, Ecclesiastes reveals how to live a wise life amidst our suffering, disappointments, ignorance, stupidity, and mortality. Taste and see. Consider what it says about the value of sadness (7:1-6), the timing of God (3:1-7), holiness in worship (5:1-7), the vice of talking too much (5:2, 6:11), the enjoyment of life’s simple pleasures (5:18-20), the right attitude to youth and aging (11:7-12:8), the virtues of study (12:9-11), and the sovereignty and judgment of God (12:12-14). As I suffer through my wife’s sad journey of dementia, I return to Ecclesiastes again and again and I refer to it often in Walking through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness—A Philosopher’s Lament.
Ecclesiastes is but one book of the Bible. Each book, whatever its genre, has its place as God’s revelation. He has given us the Scriptures for his glory and for the flourishing of his creation and the expansion of the Kingdom of God. Fear not the Book of Ecclesiastes, because it will help you rightly fear the Lord, which is a prerequisite of wisdom.
Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind (12:14).
[i] By “chance” the writer means events that we cannot predict or understand. He does not mean that the universe is not governed by God.
[ii] Scholars dispute what books or parts of books of the Bible should be considered wisdom literature, but there is no good argument about Ecclesiastes, Job, and Proverbs.
Douglas Groothius is the professor of philosophy of Denver Seminary and the author of Walking through Twilight: a Wife’s Illness–a Philosopher’s Lament.