There are three books in the Bible written by Solomon: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs. The Jewish tradition says that he has written
1. Song of Songs in his youth;
2. Proverbs when he is middle-aged;
3. Ecclesiastes when he is old.
There is something to be said for that when we know the course of Solomon’s life:
1. In Song of Songs he describes his feelings for the woman with whom he wants to share his life and how he and she come together.
2. In Proverbs he is married. He speaks to his son and about his son’s mother.
3. The book of Ecclesiastes he will have written when he has become old and unfaithful to God, but by grace has also been restored in his relationship with God.
In Ecclesiastes he writes about his experiences in life without fellowship with God, that is, about the period in which he deviated from God. He lives a life ‘under the sun’ without a direct, open connection with heaven. This has led him to ask questions of sense: What is the meaning of my life? Is there anything that makes my life valuable? What is real wisdom? How should I give death a place in my existence? What place does God have in my life? In his book, the Preacher invites us to think about these questions.
The philosophers of the world have made it their profession to think about these kinds of questions. Only, in their folly they do so without involving God. Therefore, all their philosophical reflections are of no use to anyone. Learning about their imaginations is only tiring (Ecc 12:12). They would do well to learn from the Preacher.
The Preacher is a philosopher who has not given up faith in God. That makes him a real wise man. God is present in the background in everything he contemplates. It is impossible for every thinking person to ignore Him. The Preacher certainly believes in God and also takes Him into account. After all his investigations, he finally ends up with God.
His intention with this book is to warn us not to fall into the same mistakes as he did. He does this by passing on his experiences to us – and especially young people.
Ger de Koning
Middelburg, November 2016, translated October 2020
Introduction to the book of Ecclesiastes
The Preacher is Solomon. After a good start as king, Solomon later in his life makes a deep fall. In his heart he turns away from God, the Source of all grace (1Kgs 11:4). In his good years he pointed out to his son to keep his heart (Pro 4:23) and to beware of strange women (Pro 2:16). However, he himself has not guarded his heart and has fallen into the pit of strange women. We see in Solomon what the most wise man on earth can come to when he forgets his constant dependence on God.
It is inevitable that Solomon is restored after his fall. There are some arguments that show that he remained “Jedidiah”, the beloved of Yahweh (2Sam 12:25):
1. Solomon is a picture of the Messiah in His kingdom of peace. Therefore it is unthinkable that he would eventually have been rejected anyway.
2. We also see that the concluding comment on his life is about his wisdom, not about his deviation (1Kgs 11:41).
3. Furthermore he is mentioned in one breath with his father David when it comes to the way both have gone (2Chr 11:17).
4. We also see that the historian of 2 Chronicles ignores the sins of Solomon, which would not have been right if they had not been forgiven.
Another argument is that the origin of the book of Ecclesiastes can only be explained if we hear in Solomon a man speaking who has returned to God. After his striving after wind, he got his wisdom back from God. In what he says in Ecclesiastes 7 (Ecc 7:26), he seems to confess his wrong way. Everything speaks for the fact that the book came into being after the writer has found his only and full satisfaction in God again.
It is conceivable that by his bad example he has led others to go astray. Also and in particular them he wants to teach. Now that he has come to repentance, he wants to warn others of this disastrous path. Someone who has returned from a wrong path will desire to warn others of going astray (Psa 51:12-13; Lk 22:32).
The theme of the book is wisdom. The word “wisdom” or “wise” occurs almost fifty times. This is not innate wisdom, but wisdom gained and obtained through experience; we can also say that it is about wisdom gained and obtained through pain and shame. It is wisdom to behave wisely in this life (Ecc 7:12). The elder teaches the young person on the basis of his experience. He shares his acquired experiences with the young people.
The book of Proverbs is also a book of wisdom. That book is about the wisdom we need to be able to go our way safely until the end. The book of Proverbs leads man in the light of the fear of God, so that he may stay in it. Ecclesiastes leads man through the darkness of the world without God, but also shows bright spots, which shine brighter as darkness increases. Perhaps we could say that Ecclesiastes is the introduction to Proverbs, or that Proverbs begin where Ecclesiastes stops.
The book can best be summarized with the words that the Lord Jesus addresses to the Samaritan woman who comes at the well of Sychar to draw water: “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again” (Jn 4:13). The well of Sychar is a picture of a dry, deceptive world where no permanent happiness can be found. In that world we are being guided by the Preacher. Most of the people look like the poor Samaritan woman before she had that memorable encounter with the Lord Jesus. They hew for themselves cisterns that can hold no water (Jer 2:13), meaning that they search for satisfaction in the things of the world that can never give the satisfaction they are looking for.
The book describes all kinds of efforts to become happy, but it is always in vain. In general, five aspects of life are tried out to see if the possession of it gives lasting happiness: wisdom, pleasure, possession, power and piety. Solomon examines these things to see if the possession of any of these things gives the heart lasting happiness and constant satisfaction.
They are not sinful things. It is about being busy with things God gives to enjoy and what the result of that pleasure is. However, the heart does not rise above creation and therefore remains unhappy. When it comes to finding the true meaning of life in what creation offers in pleasure, the disappointment is great. It always appears that all things on earth are labelled ‘vanity’ or ‘meaningless’ because of their temporariness.
We could say: the heart remains stuck in the blessing and does not end up at the Source of the blessing. A clear example can be found at the beginning of the Bible. God has told man not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In her answer to the serpent, however, Eve does not speak of the tree, but of the fruit of the tree. This indicates that her attention has shifted from the Source of blessing to what is presented to her as a blessing. Then we are on the territory of Ecclesiastes.
Christians may wonder how the emphasis in this book on the use and enjoyment of life can be harmonized with the New Testament commandment not to love the world (1Jn 2:15). The answer is that the teacher – the Preacher – fully agrees with John’s statement: “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts” (1Jn 2:16-17). There can hardly be a better explanation of the whole theme of this book. The findings that the Preacher puts down in this book confirm that life in the world can only be meaningful if man remembers his Creator (Ecc 12:1).
The Preacher puts the life in which it is all about the own ‘I’, opposite the life in which it is all about God. Alternately we deal with the two classes of mankind. The one class consists of those who fear God (Ecc 3:14; 5:7; 7:18; 8:12-13; 12:13), the righteous (Ecc 3:17; 7:15-16,20; 8:14; 9:1-2), the good (Ecc 9:2), and the wise (Ecc 2:14; 4:13; 10:2). The other class consists of sinners (Ecc 2:26; 7:26; 8:11; 9:2,18) and the wicked (Ecc 3:17; 7:15; 8:10,12-14; 9:2). Sinners and wicked people are the deliberate villains. There is also mention of the fool, of fools and of folly (Ecc 2:14-16; 10:12-13). The fool is one who is wicked and evil (Psa 14:1; 53:1). It is someone who makes no effort to discover the will of God because he completely ignores God and pretends as if He does not exist.
The Preacher shows himself to be a master in seeing through all kinds of ideas, such as those concerning the value of knowledge and wisdom, getting lost in amusement and pleasure, the importance of hard work, controlling your own life, and striving for justice and righteousness. He knows what he is talking about: he has been going around among the people and went to farmers and workers, has been in the homes of the rich, has visited places where justice is spoken, and has been present at funerals and weddings. Wherever he has shown his face, he has listened to what has been said, and he has taken a good look at it.
Therefore his conclusion is not based on a superficial observation. He draws his conclusion after thorough research and deep reflection. If after all his research he has the message that everything is vanity, just like a breath, then he knows what he is saying. He concludes that nothing is permanent, nothing is lasting. Everything has a limited tenability or has only a short-term effect. For example, you can strive for justice, but you will see that justice continues to stumble on the streets. He does not say that hard work is pointless, but that all the toil of man produces nothing lasting. Our ideals are just like our breath in the fresh air in the morning: we see a beautiful little cloud for a moment and then it is gone, dissolved and intangibly disappeared.
Division of Ecclesiastes
I. The pointlessness of nature, wisdom and wealth (Ecclesiastes 1:1-2:23)
1. The theme: Everything is frustration (Ecclesiastes 1:1-3)
2. The frustration in nature and history (Ecclesiastes 1:4-11)
3. The frustration of wisdom (Ecclesiastes 1:12-18)
4. The frustration of unlimited richness (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11)
5. The ultimate frustration: death (Ecclesiastes 2:12-23)
II. The Divine order of life (Ecclesiastes 2:24-3:22)
1. Everyday life to enjoy (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26)
2. God’s plan for life (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)
3. The parts and the whole (Ecclesiastes 3:9-15)
4. The consequences of mortality (Ecclesiastes 3:16-22)
III. The frustration of politics (Ecclesiastes 4:1-16)
IV. The frustration of life (Ecclesiastes 5:1-7:29)
1. Silent before God (Ecclesiastes 5:1-7)
2. Money and death (Ecclesiastes 5:8-20)
3. The unfulfilled life (Ecclesiastes 6:1-9)
4. What is good? (Ecclesiastes 6:10-12)
5. Practical advices for daily life (Ecclesiastes 7:1-14)
6. Moderation is recommended (Ecclesiastes 7:15-22)
7. Bad relationships (Ecclesiastes 7:23-29)
V. Life in view of death (Ecclesiastes 8:1-9:18)
1. The inevitability of death (Ecclesiastes 8:1-14)
2. Life to enjoy (Ecclesiastes 8:15-9:10)
3. Insecurity and injustice (Ecclesiastes 9:11-18)
VI. Proverbs (Ecclesiastes 10:1-20)
1. Wise relationships (Ecclesiastes 10:1-7)
2. Wise management (Ecclesiastes 10:8-11)
3. Wise speech and thoughts (Ecclesiastes 10:12-20)
VII. Wisdom for the future and present (Ecclesiastes 11:1-10)
1. The insecure future and present behavior (Ecclesiastes 11:1-6)
2. The secure future and present behavior (Ecclesiastes 11:7-10)
VIII. The frustration of old age (Ecclesiastes 12:1-8)
IX. Epilogue (Ecclesiastes 12:9-14)
1. The credibility of the author (Ecclesiastes 12:9-12)
2. The conclusion of the matter (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)