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.
“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
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.
“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”
Does Ecclesiastes Deny the
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.”
“But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living
dog is better than a dead lion.
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
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.
“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
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
“Who knows if the life-breath of the children of men goes upward
and the life-breath of beasts goes earthward?”
“Man knows not what is to come,
for who can tell him what is to come after him?”
“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.
“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.
“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.”
“Truly, truly, I say to you, if any one keeps my word, he will
never see death.”
In Christ we will never die.
“ … 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
At the transfiguration we learn how Moses and
Elijah are concerned with what is happening on earth.
“ ‘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.”
“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
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.
“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?”
from NAB :
“Vanity of vanities: a Hebrew superlative expressing the supreme
degree of futility and emptiness.”
“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
18 For in much wisdom there is much sorrow,
and he who stores up knowledge stores up grief.”
He identifies with the despondent.
“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.
“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.”
“I recognized that there is nothing better than to be glad and
to do well during life.”
“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
17 and spent all his days in darkness and
grief, in much vexation and sickness and resentment?”
This is followed with the simple consolations …
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.”
“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 …”
“In the morning sow your seed, and at evening let not your hand
Work is especially beneficial to the one who is
“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.
“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
While gently suffering with him, Qoheleth points
gently toward God and our obligations toward Him.
“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.”