1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
2 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
3 What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
4 A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
5 The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
6 The wind blows to the south
and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
7 All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
8 All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
9 What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
11 There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after. – Ecclesiastes 1:1-11 ESV
In the original Hebrew text, the title for this book was all of verse one. But in the third century, the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament Scriptures, gave it the shorter title of Ekklesiastes, which is related to the Greek word, ekklesia, meaning “assembly.” Ekklesiastes is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word, qoheleth, which is found in verse one. There has been debate over the centuries as to what this word actually means. But the most commonly held view is that it means something like “speaker in the assembly.” The ESV and NASB translate this word as “preacher”, while the NIV and NLT use the designation, “teacher.” In all cases, it is a reference to the book’s author, Solomon, the son of David and the King of Israel. The term qoheleth has been interpreted as both a proper name and a title, but it seems most likely, from its use elsewhere in the book, that it is a title referring to Solomon’s role as a speaker before an assembly or gathering of people. As king, Solomon would have often held official assemblies where the people of Jerusalem were gathered together to hear him speak. We find one such occasion in 1 Kings 8, where his address to the people at the dedication of the temple is recorded in detail. As king, Solomon was responsible for the well-being of the people under his care. Like his father, David, he was to be the shepherd of the people of Israel. And Solomon, having been blessed with great wisdom by God, was to lead the flock of God wisely, imparting his God-given gift through leadership and instruction.
9 Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?”
10 It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. 11 And God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches or the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, 12 behold, I now do according to your word. Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you.” – 1 Kings 3:9-12 ESV
And God did as Solomon requested. But He didn’t stop there. He blessed Solomon with not only wisdom, but great wealth and honor.
13 I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor, so that no other king shall compare with you, all your days. 14 And if you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your days.” – 1 Kings 3:11-14 ESV
Solomon would be renowned for his riches and wisdom, attracting dignitaries from around the world who came to marvel at his great kingdom. This included the Queen of Sheba who, upon witnessing the wealth and wisdom of Solomon first-hand, remarked, “The report was true that I heard in my own land of your words and of your wisdom, but I did not believe the reports until I came and my own eyes had seen it. And behold, the half was not told me. Your wisdom and prosperity surpass the report that I heard. Happy are your men! Happy are your servants, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom!” (1 Kings 10:6-8 ESV).
The Book of Ecclesiastes was most likely written near the end of Solomon’s reign, when he was an old man. He had enjoyed a long and prosperous reign, free from war and marked by great prosperity and periods of expansion. In essence, this book is Solomon’s retrospective, a looking back on his years as the king of Israel. He is reflecting on all that he has seen and experienced in his long tenure as the God-appointed leader of the people of Israel. He had lived a somewhat charmed life. He had been incredibly blessed by God. His had been a life marked by opulence, providing him with unhindered access to every kind of pleasure imaginable. And, according to what Solomon records in this book, he denied himself virtually nothing when it came to material good and physical pleasures.
The book of First Kings provides us with a not-so-flattering look at the latter days of Solomon’s reign.
1 Now King Solomon loved many foreign women, along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, 2 from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the people of Israel, “You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.” Solomon clung to these in love. 3 He had 700 wives, who were princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart. 4 For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father. – 1 Kings 11:1-4 ESV
Solomon was wise, but that didn’t prevent him from making bad decisions, when he allowed his physical passions and desires to dictate his choices. His life provides a sobering look at how a man can start well and end poorly. Solomon’s life provides living proof of the truth found in the warning given by the apostle John:
15 Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. 16 For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. 17 And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever. – 1 John 2:15-17 NLT
The book of Ecclesiastes is Solomon’s attempt to use himself as an example of how not to live your life. He is like an aging mentor, providing his young disciple with sage advice learned the hard way: from poor decision-making and misplaced priorities. The opening lines of his book are filled with regret, bordering on depression. He refers to everything in life as being meaningless and full of vanity. Life is full of meaningless, repetitive cycles of happiness and joy, success and failure. Everything seems to move in a never-ending march toward an unforeseeable outcome, over which we have no control. Look closely at his words:
“All is vanity.” – vs 2
“All things are full of weariness…” – vs 8
Not exactly words of encouragement or the thoughts of a man who has a positive outlook on life. It seems hard to debate the fact that Solomon most likely wrote this book after his falling away from God. He knew he was wrong. He had turned his back on God. He had proven unfaithful to God, something his father had never done. Solomon was full of remorse and regret, and this book was his attempt to warn others, essentially telling them, “Don’t do as I did!” He is warning those in the assembly not to repeat his mistakes. But the sad truth is, Solomon’s apostasy would cause God to split the kingdom of Israel in half, and the two subsequent nations it formed would follow the lead of Solomon, proving unfaithful to God just as he had been.
But there is much for us to learn from the powerful, incredibly transparent words of Solomon. While his opening lines are filled with pessimistic words that reflect the thoughts of a man living with tremendous guilt, he will go on to provide us with a much-needed reminder that life, lived without God, is meaningless and not worth living. It is God who brings purpose to life. It is God who is meant to be the focus of life. It is God who provides meaning to the seeming repetitive nature of life. And it is because it is God alone who gives life. Like the old Doris Day song, Que Sera Sera, Solomon resigns himself to saying, “What has been is what will be.” But that is not the theme of this book. And it is not the way those who call themselves children of God should view their lives. A world without God is meaningless. A life lived without God is purposeless. But Solomon’s remorse could have been eliminated if he had only repented. What we are going to see as we unpack this book is that Solomon lived out the message of 2 Corinthians 7:10.
For the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation. There’s no regret for that kind of sorrow. But worldly sorrow, which lacks repentance, results in spiritual death.
Godly sorrow leads to repentance. But it seems that Solomon never repented of his sins against God. Yet his Spirit-inspired words, penned in the midst of his remorse over a life lived in vanity, allow us to vicariously learn a valuable lesson, without having to go through the same pain and loss. We can learn from Solomon’s mistakes. We can gain wisdom from a wise man who made some very dumb mistakes. And he will conclude with a powerful warning that is as timely today as when Solomon put pen to paper.
13 Here now is my final conclusion: Fear God and obey his commands, for this is everyone’s duty. 14 God will judge us for everything we do, including every secret thing, whether good or bad. – Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 NLT
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.