Theme and Interpretation
The theme of Ecclesiastes is the necessity of fearing God in a fallen, and therefore frequently confusing and frustrating, world. The unique character of the book, however, has led to its being interpreted in widely diverse ways: as a statement of pessimism, optimism, religious and philosophical skepticism (either the Preacher’s own or a skepticism assumed for the purpose of demonstrating the futility of an irreligious point of view), faithful belief, heterodoxy, and orthodoxy, to name only a few. Such contradictory understandings of the book are made possible by several of its distinctive features:
- The book’s refrain “vanity of vanities” is open to very different interpretations (see Key Themes, below), and one’s understanding of this important thematic statement will significantly influence one’s interpretation of the book as a whole.
- The attempt to identify any consistent message in the book encounters difficulty because of a number of alleged contradictions within it (e.g., wisdom “preserves life” in Eccles. 7:12 but fails to do so in Ecclesiastes 2:16; death is preferable to life’s misery in Eccles. 4:2 but life is superior to death in Eccles. 9:4–6).
- The Preacher makes a number of statements which, on the surface, appear highly unorthodox (e.g., Eccles. 7:16) and at odds with other biblical statements (compare, e.g., Eccles. 2:16 with Prov. 3:18, or Eccles. 11:9 with Num. 15:39). While the book’s epilogue (Eccles. 12:9–12) affirms the Preacher’s wisdom, a number of scholars have asserted that these closing verses misrepresent his teaching and his purpose in writing, and therefore conclude that they are to be viewed as a misguided later addition that was intended to make the heterodoxy of the book more palatable to the original readers.
According to the basic interpretative approach adopted here, the Preacher is not to be viewed as some kind of skeptical iconoclast but rather as a teacher of orthodoxy, whose musings on God and human existence present a consistent message that is to be viewed as standing within the broad stream of the biblical wisdom tradition. The epilogue faithfully distills the weightiest themes of the book (see Key Themes, along with the note on Eccles. 12:13–14). In several instances the book affirms themes from elsewhere in the Wisdom Literature (compare Eccles. 5:2 with Prov. 10:19; Eccles. 5:15 with Job 1:21; Eccles. 7:1 with Prov. 22:1; Eccles. 8:12 with Prov. 1:7; Eccles. 10:3 with Prov. 13:16), most notably the importance of “the fear of the Lord” (see ESV Study Bible notes on Eccles. 3:14; 5:7; 12:13–14), thus indicating its basic agreement with the larger biblical message.
At the same time, however, the Preacher is distinctly original and creative in his thought and manner of expression and is not merely restating what other sages have taught. As a genuine wisdom teacher, he has a gift for penetrating observation and for stating things in a profound and challenging manner that spur the listener on to deeper thought and reflection. Many of the difficulties or paradoxes in the book can be reasonably explained in terms of:
- His provocative style;
- The general method of wisdom teaching, which can state apparently contradictory principles (e.g., Prov. 26:4–5) and leave it to the listener to work out which principle applies in a particular situation; and
- The fact that, rather than focusing primarily on stating general truths that are applicable to most situations (as is the tendency with the teaching of the book of Proverbs), the Preacher devotes much of his attention to examining unique individual situations (e.g., Eccles. 4:7–8; 5:13–14; 9:13–16), which can represent deviations from what one might normally expect (e.g., Eccles. 4:13–16; 9:11).
Thus, while he does not deny the validity of the general depiction of reality found in the Wisdom Literature, the Preacher is also keenly aware of the complexities of life in a fallen world, which result in many individual exceptions to the “rules” of biblical wisdom.
One can see the Preacher’s most distinctive contribution from the way he uses the term “find out” (see ESV Study Bible note on Eccles. 3:11). Every human being wants to find out and understand all the ways of God in the world, but he cannot, because he is not God. And yet the faithful do not despair but cling to God, who deserves their trust; they can leave it to him to make sense of it all, while they seek to learn what it means to “fear God and keep his commandments,” even when they cannot see what God is doing. This is true wisdom.
Like the rest of the Bible’s Wisdom Literature, Ecclesiastes is concerned with imparting wisdom and knowledge to the people of God (Eccles. 12:9–11) and teaching them to fear the Lord. The speaker’s designation indicates that he is addressing an assembly of some kind (see Author & Date), though his counsel in Ecclesiastes 5:1–7 would seem to suggest a setting outside of the temple. The socioeconomic diversity of his audience is indicated by his remarks directed toward royal counselors (e.g., Eccles. 8:1–9) as well as common farmers (e.g., Eccles. 11:6).
History of Salvation Summary
The history of salvation is the grand overarching story of the Bible; embracing it gives coherence to all of life. It calls each of God’s people to own the story, and it dignifies each one with a role in the further outworking of the story. Nevertheless it is impossible for any human being to fully grasp how his or her decisions will contribute to God’s grand scheme; and Ecclesiastes helps people to see that they do not have to understand this. Each of the faithful, by “fearing God and keeping his commandments” (Eccles. 12:13), participates in ways that he cannot “find out,” trusting that God will take care of the big plan. Despite the fact that the Preacher is a great king and a teacher of true wisdom, he ultimately surpasses Solomon and others (Eccles. 1:16; 2:7, 9). From a Christian theological perspective, reading the biblical story line as a whole, one can see analogies between the Preacher and Jesus Christ who is the “Son of David” (Matt. 1:1), king (Matt. 2:2; Acts 17:7; Rev. 17:14; 19:16), “wisdom from God” (1 Cor. 1:24, 30), and “one Shepherd” (Ezek. 34:23; 37:24; John 10:11, 16), in whose ministry “something greater than Solomon” has arrived (Luke 11:31).
Taken from the ESV® Study Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright ©2008 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. For more information on how to cite this material, see permissions information here.