Few books of the Bible are more difficult to deal with than Ecclesiastes. Sandwiched in between the beloved Proverbs and Song of Solomon (equally beloved for different reasons), Ecclesiastes has the poetic eloquence of both of those books with little of their life-giving positivity. While it’s not quite correct to say that Ecclesiastes is completely devoid of a positive outlook on life, the book’s reputation is not without merit – Ecclesiastes is a sobering and gloomy book that is not afraid to give a brutally honest account of life in a broken world, perhaps only rivaled by the oft-forgotten book of Lamentations.
The word “Ecclesiastes” is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word קהלת, or “Qoheleth”, and if the word “Ecclesiastes” strikes you as being familiar to the Greek word “ekklesia”, you’d be correct. Working in reverse, the word “ekklesia” refers to a congregation of the people of God, and “Qoheleth” roughly translates to “teacher” or “preacher”1. Thus, Ecclesiastes is an address to the people of God given by a teacher or preacher (I will use preacher here) of God’s people. We will tackle the identity of Qoheleth next week, but for this enough to establish the purpose of the book – God is giving an address to his people through the words of a leader of his people. But why are these words so harsh and (seemingly) hopeless?
We just ended one of the most difficult years in modern times, and while there is hope for the end of the pandemic on the horizon, we cannot know what 2021 will bring. While 2020 contributed to the brokenness that was already in the world, the year mostly revealed to us how corrupt the world already is, and as our liturgies, livelihoods, and loved ones were taken from us, we learned that our hope in meaning and satisfaction from life is a fragile and fleeting hope. Under the sun we can (and should) expect tears amid trials that never seem to end. Ecclesiastes, as divinely inspired Scripture, gives word to these frustrations and longings, warning us of the futility of hope in transient vapor under the sun while pointing us to fear the Lord who is above the sun and who has sent his Son to secure for us a future under a new sun.
1: Ryken, Philip Graham. Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters. Preaching the Word. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2010.