UNDER THE SUN -
OR UNDER THE SON?
A fresh look at Ecclesiastes
by Lionel Fitzsimons
This author can remember hearing only one or two messages preached from the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible. In one way, this is understandable; in another way, undesirable.
Understandable, because it is a difficult book, among the last to be accepted into the Canon of Jewish Scriptures, the Tanakh (which Christians call the Old Testament). This was because of its world-weariness, its pessimism, and its limited appreciation of the covenant God of Israel, Jahweh (pronounced Yahway). This Name is never employed by Ecclesiastes in its references to God. The history of Israel never features either.
Like Esther, and a few other books, disputed among the Jews before being accepted into the Canon, it is never clearly quoted or used in the New Testament.
Another name not mentioned in the text, is that of Solomon. For this and other reasons, most modern scholars (as against all the older ones) assert that he is not the author. They consider the Hebrew style and vocabulary to be much later than those of Solomon’s time. The text includes a few words in Aramaic, the common language of the Captivity in Babylon, and of the re-establishment of Israel in the Promised Land..
Some therefore suggest that a much later author has created a ‘super-Solomon’ to whom the wisdom of that later age could be ascribed, thereby giving it more authority.
It is quite possible (see 1:1, 12:9-14) that Solomon’s original writings have been edited since. But the idea that he had nothing to do with the book seems very far-fetched, as the commentary will later show. The Teacher’s description of his own life and lessons have the ring of personal testimony about them. Here, we can surely believe, is the authentic voice of Israel’s most magnificent (if not most godly) king.
Technical Note: On the question of Ecclesiastes using a few Aramaic words and phrases; Aramaic had a long history. The patriarch Abraham is described as “a wandering Aramean” in Deuteronomy 26:5, and down through the centuries, the language of the Syrians of Damascus had influenced Hebrew-speakers among other peoples. Certainly, at the time of Hezekiah, before the Captivity and Exile of Judah, court officials, if not the ordinary people, understood Aramaic (2 Chronicles 18:26). Kenneth Kitchen has a long article on this in the New Bible Dictionary (IVP).
Despite the scholarly problems, it is undesirable that comparatively few
messages are delivered from it today. Ecclesiastes, especially its first few chapters, is
extremely relevant for modern man. We live in an age which doubts the existence of
any absolute truth (except in science!), an age of futility, of spiritual emptiness Most
of us have tried, or are still trying, to satisfy ourselves with material possessions,
sensual pleasures, or superior knowledge. We’re seeking for happiness, or at least for
a meaning to life. In doing so, we’ve tried, or are still trying, all sorts of “broken
cisterns, that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13).
Here in Ecclesiastes is a writer who begins by showing us just how fruitless
our search will be. An author, who convinces us at some length that we’ll never find
what we’re looking for, “under the sun”. This phrase occurs again and again. It
means, ‘within the limitations of our earthly life’. It implies ‘without taking God into
account’. He goes on to show that to leave God out, is a big mistake.
Ecclesiastes is not laid out systematically. It contains apparent contradictions,
and has even been accused of Epicurean philosophy. We deal with these problems
later . The NIV Study Bible sums it up very well:
“The argument of Ecclesiastes does not flow smoothly. It meanders, with jumps and
starts, through the general messiness of human experience, to which it is a response”.
We cannot call it an evangelistic message. It is intended to create a conviction
of need, not an eternal hope. Thank God it is not the only Scripture we possess! But it
could, for example, be preached more often as a preparation for the Gospel. If this short study, practical rather than scholarly, can help us to consider this, it will serve
some purpose. At the end of most chapters, I have made a suggestion for the outline
of possible message/sermons. This is not a substitute for how the Holy Spirit may
want you to think about, learn from, or speak about the book!
I have mainly used the well-respected and popular New International Version
of the Bible. I have consulted several commentaries and study guides, but have
occasionally given a different understanding of the text, or a different emphasis. The
sermon outlines or headings are sometimes also taken from the NIV.
In the final chapter of this study, Solomon’s pessimism and uncertainty are
answered from the Gospel. This is the essential response to Ecclesiastes’ negativity.
Jesus Christ is not only the fulfilment of the Tanakh/Old Testament’s Law and
Prophets, He fulfils the Wisdom books like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, too.
“Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24); “…Jesus
Christ has become for us wisdom from God; that is, our righteousness, holiness and
redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30).
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