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Ecclesiastes : Its Meaning and Purpose

Ecclesiastes may appear self contradicting and even espousing heretical positions.  However, once the reader understands the writer's purpose his orthodoxy becomes clear.

Ecclesiastes 9:5-6
“For the living know that they are to die, but the dead no longer know anything. There is no further recompense for them, because all memory of them is lost.

Does it deny the resurrection?
What does it teach?

Ecclesiastes is written from the perspective of a counselor to someone who finds the sad realities in life depressing. His response is not a theological dissertation on suffering. Rather it is a pastoral response to a person’s emotional needs.

The Bible is a library of books.  The authors of these books employ many different styles of writing. They each were written for a purpose unique to that particular book.  The key to understanding Ecclesiastes is to interpret it within the context of its genre.  The purpose of Ecclesiastes to help a person who is deeply depressed.  It is a pastoral letter to someone who is going through a profound crises. 

It is written from the perspective of a godly counselor or psychologist, not from the perspective of a professor teaching theology.  A psychologist who is trying to help someone who may be on the brink of committing suicide, is not going to start with a theological debate on doctrine.  He is not going to begin with a three part doctrinal speech and then build to a logical conclusion based on those premises as to why a person should not commit suicide.  Rather, he is going to start where the person is at and gently build a relationship that honestly admits the sincerity of the other person’s suffering.

The author is realistic about man’s suffering, and yet still calls him to be faithful to God.

The author presents an honest account of the sufferings and the cold hard realities of life.  After giving multiply examples, each time he gives consoling advice and sage wisdom that follow like a rhythm of soft waves on a calm lake.  He avoids platitudes and he does not minimize the pain.  And yet, his advice is helpful and shows much wisdom.  He honestly admits to the sufferings and tells the reader to enjoy whatever simple pleasures that do come with life, and beyond that he should simply obey God and trust in Him.

When a person is undergoing great suffering he does not need another to come along and logically or theologically explain away his sufferings.  The suffering person, the reader, needs the second person – Qoheleth – to come and acknowledge the suffering and to come and suffer with him. 

 Romans 12:15
“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”


Does Ecclesiastes Deny the Resurrection ?

Ecclesiastes 3:19 - 20
“For the lot of man and of beast is one lot; the one dies as well as the other. Both have the same life-breath, and man has no advantage over the beast; but all is vanity.”  Both go to the same place; both were made from the dust, and to the dust they both return.”

 Ecclesiastes 9:4-6
“But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. 5 For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward; but the memory of them is lost. 6 Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and they have no more for ever any share in all that is done under the sun.”

This is not a denial of the resurrection.  This is only intended to be a statement of what happens on the natural level.  It is not intended to be understood as a declaration denying the afterlife or the supernatural.

For example,

Matthew 27:46  
“Jesus cried out in a loud voice, … ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me ?’ ”

And yet, we can know for sure Jesus did not believe God the Father had really forsaken Him.  Read confirmation of this point here.

The Bible quotations above are merely honest reflections of the feelings and sufferings that we experience on the natural level. These statements that are not intended as a declarations of absolute truth.

A careful reading of Ecclesiastes reveals the author was not even intending to address what does or does not happen in the after-life.  So, it could not possibly be a denial of the resurrection.  See

Ecclesiastes 3:21
“Who knows if the life-breath of the children of men goes upward and the life-breath of beasts goes earthward?”
Ecclesiastes 10:14
“Man knows not what is to come,
for who can tell him what is to come after him?”

Ecclesiastes 11:5
“Just as you know not how the breath of life
fashions the human frame in the mother’s womb,
So you know not the work of God
which he is accomplishing in the universe.”

Although the author of Ecclesiastes confines himself to what it known on the natural level, we have confirmation especially in the New Testament that there is an afterlife, a resurrection of our bodies for final judgment before God.

2 Corinthians 3:14
“But their minds were hardened; for to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away.”

The vague teachings of the Old Testament are made clear by the New Testament.

John 6:49-51
“Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

John 8:51
“Truly, truly, I say to you, if any one keeps my word, he will never see death.”

In Christ we will never die.

Luke 9:28-31
“ … he (Jesus)  took Peter, John, and James and went up the mountain to pray.  While he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white.  And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.”

At the transfiguration we learn how Moses and Elijah are concerned with what is happening on earth.

Matthew 22:32
“ ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.”

Revelation 6:9-11
“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne; 10 they cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before thou wilt judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell upon the earth?”

And in Revelations we see that death does not equate to non-existence. Rather, we see how those who have died have immortal souls who are very much concerned with what is happening on earth.

Qoheleth, the author of Ecclesiastes, is writing for a reader who is deeply depressed and perhaps is considering suicide.  He approaches the patient as a counselor, not as a theologian.  He wisely avoids the debate of the existence of the afterlife.  The Pharisees believed in it, but the Sadducees did not. (cf. Acts 23:7-8)  A deeply depressed patient needs a solution to his immediate problem based on where he is at theologically at that point in time.  He does not need a theological debate.

It cannot be read as if it were a catechism or theological treatise on the afterlife.  He begins with an honest admission about the hardships of life.


Ecclesiastes 1:2-3
“Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth,
vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!
3 What profit has man from all the labor
which he toils at under the sun?”

Notes from NAB :
“Vanity of vanities: a Hebrew superlative expressing the supreme degree of futility and emptiness.”

Ecclesiastes 1:16-18
“Though I said to myself, “Behold, I have become great and stored up wisdom beyond all who were before me in Jerusalem, and my mind has broad experience of wisdom and knowledge”;
17 yet when I applied my mind to know wisdom and knowledge, madness and folly, I learned that this also is a chase after wind.
18 For in much wisdom there is much sorrow,
and he who stores up knowledge stores up grief.”

He identifies with the despondent.

Ecclesiastes 2:17-19
“Therefore I loathed life, since for me the work that is done under the sun is evil; for all is vanity and a chase after wind.
18 And I detested all the fruits of my labor under the sun, because I must leave them to a man who is to come after me.
19 And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the fruits of my wise labor under the sun. This also is vanity.”

Qoheleth offers sparse and occasional words of comfort about everyday realities and suffering that come with life. Life often has cycles, times of happiness and times of sadness.  The author encourages his patient, the reader, to await a better time.

Ecclesiastes 3:1
“1 There is an appointed time for everything,
and a time for every affair under the heavens.
2 A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant.
3 A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to tear down, and a time to build.
4 A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
5 A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them;
a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces.
6 A time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away.
7 A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to be silent, and a time to speak.
8 A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.”

Ecclesiastes 3:12
“I recognized that there is nothing better than to be glad and to do well during life.”

Ecclesiastes 5:15-18
“As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil, which he may carry away in his hand. 16 This also is a grievous evil: just as he came, so shall he go; and what gain has he that he toiled for the wind, 17 and spent all his days in darkness and grief, in much vexation and sickness and resentment?”

This is followed with the simple consolations …

 “18 Behold, what I have seen to be good and to be fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life which God has given him, for this is his lot.”

Ecclesiastes 7:17-19
“Be not wicked to excess, and be not foolish. Why should you die before your time?”
18 It is good to hold to this rule, and not to let that one go; but he who fears God will win through at all events.
19 Wisdom is a better defense for the wise man than would be ten princes in the city …”

Ecclesiastes 11:6
“In the morning sow your seed, and at evening let not your hand be idle”

Work is especially beneficial to the one who is depressed.

 Ecclesiastes 11:9-10
“Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth; walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.   Remove vexation from your mind, and put away pain from your body …”

Qoheleth is careful not to test or challenge the faith of the suffering person.Finally, Qoheleth concludes with the reality of death using several metaphors for it.

Ecclesiastes 12:5-8
“Because man goes to his lasting home,
and mourners go about the streets;
6 Before the silver cord is snapped
and the golden bowl is broken,
And the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
and the broken pulley falls into the well,
7 And the dust returns to the earth as it once was,
and the life breath returns to God who gave it.
8 Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth,
all things are vanity!”

See notes on  resurrection  above.

While gently suffering with him, Qoheleth points gently toward God and our obligations toward Him.

Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 
“The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man.  For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”







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Is the author of Ecclesiastes pessimistic or negative ?

I believe the author seems negative, but is not at all negative himself nor in his teaching.

One of the hallmarks of the Jewish covenant theology is a recognition of all the good things God has done, and the obligation of gratitude toward Him. He is commanded to constantly give thanks.
Psalm 30:12
“O Lord my God, I will give thanks to thee forever.”

Even when the Jews lived in exile in the Babylonian captivity they were still expected to praise and thank God.

So, if the author was truly negative then there is no good explanation as to how he was blessed by God’s grace to have wisdom. There would be no good explanation as to how his book made it into the Bible.

Therefore, a very strong argument could be made that he was not negative in order to have been so blessed with God’s grace to be an author of a Book in the Bible..

So, how do we explain the “negative” focus of some of his statements ?
The author only seemed to be negative, but was actually a very holy person with a healthy outlook on life. He himself was not negative.

How do we explain that ?
Because he was ministering to a very negative or depressed person.

Notice, he does NOT start out with a negative outlook and then use theological principles to progress to a really positive message at the end. That is how we would expect a good person to give a normal teaching on suffering.

Ecclesiastes is not your normal type teaching. Suffering is a recurring motif throughout the Book. And after each example of suffering good advice is given. I think a person really has to have some understanding of Psychology or how to deal with a suffering person in order to understand his approach. Most likely this author was not young.  He certainly was not simplistic.

He identifies with the suffering person. He affirms his suffering and does not write it off with some platitude. He is gentle. He does not overly challenge the suffering person. He gives sound simple advice on how to deal with REAL suffering.

His response is not a theological dissertation on suffering.  It is a pastoral response to a person in great need.