Jones 1 Brian Jones Ms.

Geisler 13-14 AP English 12 April 20, 2004 An Interpretation of Ecclesiastes The phrase “everything is meaningless,” at first glance, seems to be a statement without hope. Hence, when it is repeated several times throughout the book of Ecclesiastes, the book itself may then take on a theme of hopelessness. However, the Holy Bible, like many other religious texts, is supposed to be a book filled with hope and meaning for the spiritual reader. How, then, can a disheartening and almost discouraging book such as Ecclesiastes fit into the Bible? The answer is actually a correction of the question: the book is not disheartening and discouraging. In fact, it is filled with good tidings, for both the spiritual and unspiritual reader. The author says that, even though everything is meaningless, other than pleasing God, one can still find satisfaction in what one does if one allows oneself to do so. In order to understand this concept, it is important to know who the author is. By knowing the author, one may then understand how and why the author would make such statements. After all, reasoning behind a statement is just as important as

the statement itself; and, furthermore, the reasoning may be useful Jones 2 in deciphering the statement. In this case, if the author is one who hates the idea of religion, and does not see any hope in living, then the reader should most likely take the phrase “everything is meaningless” at face value. On the other hand, if the author is one who fears and believes in God, then the reader should be searching for a deep spiritual meaning to the text. It is widely believed that the latter is the true story. The author, in fact, is viewed most commonly as Solomon, King of Israel, son of David. Though speculation, this theory is supported by several details that the author places in the book. The first point is derived from the very first verse in Ecclesiastes: “The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem” (1:1). The last two parts of the verse are quite obvious and direct in the support of Solomon’s authorship. However, the use of the name “Teacher” is the controversial point of this debate. Who is the Teacher? Why does he not use his real name? It has also been suggested that Solomon, whose name means “Peace” (Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown 35), felt that through his actions, he had brought trouble upon Israel. Because of this, he did not want to claim the identity of peace any longer. Instead, he wanted to claim the identity of a teacher:

one who, through experience and hardship, had learned valuable lessons which needed to be taught to the masses. Perhaps an investigation of the original Hebrew word may be Jones 3 of some use in determining the meaning behind the title. This use of the word “Teacher” is actually a translation of the Hebrew “Koheleth,” directly meaning “Assembler” (Jamieson 35). Surely, being King of Israel, Solomon assembled his people several times over the years of his reign. Although this term is actually feminine, it can be still attributed to Solomon, through the sense that he is an embodied form of “Wisdom”, which is also feminine (Leale 4). Perhaps, then, Solomon was trying to exclude himself from authorship, and then having the reader see the writings as coming straight from Wisdom itself. Solomon, after all, is known Biblically as the wisest man ever to live. He was blessed with God’s wisdom, which he asked for in 1 Kings: “‘Now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to

govern this great people of yours?” (1 Ki. 3:7-9) This, of course, works in parallel to Ecclesiastes: “I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven. Jones 4 What a heavy burden God has laid on men” (Eccl. 1:12-13). Through the use of this wisdom, Solomon was able to deliver the messages of God to his people. This, then, explains why he also wrote Proverbs and the Song of Solomon. These two books, though, were written earlier in Solomon’s life. If one examines the subjects covered in each book, in relation to the different periods of his life, the chronological order of the writings can be easily calculated. In the beginning of his reign, Solomon was very devoted to the Lord and His work. At this time, he also must have felt very enlightened through his newfound wisdom, and must have felt the urge to record his many proverbs. Later on, when Solomon was beginning to engage himself with several women, he was overcome with feelings of love and sensuality; which can be found in the Song of Solomon. Near the end of his life, after realizing the horrible, blasphemous acts which he had committed, he felt enlightened once again; this time through experience, as well as wisdom. At this point, Ecclesiastes was written. Due to the guilt that Solomon felt for betraying God, he

holds a unique perspective of both cynicism and spirituality in Ecclesiastes. It should then be noted that, although he believes in the Lord, he does not do so naively. On one hand, he is tired of his worldly ways, and is attempting to quickly dispose of them. On the other hand, he finds that he must be patient, and Jones 5 should let God be in control. By combining these two motives, Solomon strives to understand God’s ways. Yes, Solomon was searching to obey God. At the same time, though, he was “an independent thinker, facing and questioning life for himself” (Macdonald 85). Because of this, Ecclesiastes seems to be filled with contradiction. At one point, he wonders what he gains by being wise (2:15), but later on, he writes that wisdom is a good thing (7:11). This is merely because the book is written in chronological form. Solomon clearly states that he considered many different methods of obtaining a meaningful life, yet he could not have attempted them all simultaneously. He could not have practiced hard work and toil, and at the same time, have several slaves producing toil for him. These tests of life were all performed in turn, and the book is thereby written as a chronological recording of his theories and conclusions. The very beginning of the book, however, is an exception to this order. Serving the purpose of an introduction, it shares a common view with the conclusion: “Everything is meaningless”

(1:2). This introduction is then explained by the process which he used to reach such a conclusion. The process, of course, is that of testing the aforementioned methods of attaining happiness. He experienced several forms of supposed happiness; including wisdom, materialistic pleasures, and toil. None provided the lasting meaning for which he was searching. Jones 6 Solomon’s first test was that of wisdom. He studied all sorts of sciences and philosophies, created by both man and God. Man’s wisdom provided nothing. No doubt he searched for the elusive secrets of youth, life, the earth, and the heavens. Mankind has attempted to decipher such mysteries for the duration of its existence; yet it still lacks the power of eternal life and the ability to control the cosmos. Over two thousand years ago, in Solomon’s time, science was even less advanced than it is today. As such, he did not buy into the idea that man can find true wisdom. Through his experience, Solomon came to realize that man cannot control all that he sees, no matter what sciences have been created. Hence, “there is a time for everything,” he says in 3:1. The third chapter lists several different happenings that people experience in life, both good and bad. There is “a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace” (3:8). Of course, it is a widespread biblical tenet to “love your neighbor as yourself,” (Matt.

22:39), so why would it then be right to hate at some point? This question, however, is a misreading of the text. Solomon is not saying that it is right to both love and hate. He is instead saying that one should expect to experience both love and hate. These things all occur because they are a part of God’s plan, Solomon suggests, and man cannot change that. “What is twisted cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted” (Eccl. 1:15). Jones 7 Over the years, however, man has tried to become wise. Much of this has come from the use of studies and writings. Human wisdom has been studied and written upon, and those studies have in turn been studied. Solomon’s opposition against this is rephrased well by Matthew Henry: “[The Scriptures] are sufficient to guide us in the way of true happiness, and we need not, in pursuit of that, to fatigue ourselves with the search of other writings” (1051). Unfortunately, man is convinced that he can determine the ways of the universe and himself. Still, the human studies will never find an answer, so they infinitely grow. “What has been done will be done again” (Eccl. 1:9). The answers, then, belong to God. Mankind may not be able to learn His secrets on their own, but He is all-knowing. He created the universe, and He maintains it. Solomon believes that man must leave God in charge, thus ending some of man’s own

inward tension. After all, how much stress has been placed on ending wars peacefully, determining absolute morality, and setting rules that protect all people? How many of these endeavors have been successful? The former is much, and the latter is few. So, then, Solomon asks, why should man bother with all of these useless endeavors? Man should relax and let God be in charge. If bad times come, then people should not work themselves to death trying to find a solution – they probably will not be able to find one. If it is God’s will for man to survive through Jones 8 calamity, then man will survive. In terms of knowledge, people do not need to understand everything about the universe. It does not matter. Man cannot change the universe. The Interpreter’s Bible compounds on Solomon’s words by noting that “there appears to be no place where man’s freedom may exercise itself” (Atkins 44). This is what Solomon believes, and his point is that mankind should relax and not worry about understanding everything. This, of course, is not how Solomon spent his life. He wasted several years trying to uncover the secrets of the universe. It accomplished nothing for him, in the long run. If it had, then he would not have written about it so negatively in this book. The human wisdom which he tried following, including

philosophy and man-made religions, were nothing but “a chasing after the wind” (1:14). However, it is through the wisdom of God in which Solomon believes salvation can be found. Still, Solomon argues that “wisdom is better than folly” (2:13). Science is not altogether a bad thing, and Solomon agrees that it can be used to preserve the life of its bearer. This, no doubt, is a positive characteristic – though it is still only a temporary solution. On the other hand, much wisdom and knowledge are not sources of happiness. “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” (1:18) What is the purpose of learning about the wrongs that are being committed in foreign lands? Knowing of the horrible deeds committed throughout Jones 9 the world is surely not a source of happiness. The only realistic reason one would want to learn of the world’s evils would be to try to solve the problem. After all, learning about a war in the Middle East may only provoke grief in one’s heart. Why bother finding out about the war, unless one would be willing to change the situation? The fact is, Solomon argues, with more wisdom comes more responsibility. If someone knows about an evil that they can end, then they should end it. This is a basic biblical principle. All the same, wisdom is useless

if all it brings is sorrow. Because wisdom did not provide the lasting happiness which Solomon sought, he then turned to what he calls “pleasure”: things which would obviously seem to provide at least temporary happiness. One such pleasure was laughter. Surely, one would think that happiness would come from the use of humor. It obviously does, but only temporarily. For all time, mankind has used humor as a form of escape. Laughing can be an especially powerful defense mechanism in times of calamity. When in the midst of tragedy, humans have often been known to joke about the situation, in order to divert their attention from the seriousness of the problem. Unfortunately, the problem is not solved through laughter. After the joke has been told and the laughter has died, the situation still exists. In the end, the laughter has changed nothing. Jones 10 Solomon’s other pleasures included producing great projects for himself. He constructed a great palace for himself, along with several other houses. Also, he planted gardens and vineyards, along with parks and reservoirs. His property expanded and was beautiful. Still, it was all for himself, just like human wisdom. Solomon wanted to give himself credit for becoming the wisest man in the world, as well as having the most wonderful

property. Again, he refused to do his work for God, or even for other men. Once the work was finished, all Solomon could do with his projects was to look at and appreciate what he had given himself. Still, what purpose does that serve? According to Solomon, “nothing was gained under the sun” (2:11). However, these were not the only pleasures Solomon gave himself. The king bought slaves, both men and women, who could carry out his every whim. Unfortunately, this produced nothing but boredom. The slaves did everything for the king; the king himself had nothing to do. He was not required to perform even the most mundane of daily activities: serving his own meals, determining what to wear each day, or performing any kind of physical labor. Being a normal human being, Solomon surely did not want to be bored for all of his days. So then, he rhetorically asks, what is the point of having slaves to do everything? On the other hand, the slaves were not the only people Jones 11 Solomon found to work for him. He also acquired a harem which could satisfy any of his sexual desires – “the delights of the heart of man” (2:8). Of course it is the delight of the heart of man; still, after fulfilling these desires, Solomon was left empty-handed. The relations which he would hold with all of these women were surely satisfying at the time; but, in the end,

they had no permanent effect on him. The harem did not provide meaning in his life. Of course, along with wisdom and projects, it should be noted that sex is a wonderful concept in the eyes of human society. Due to the impact of pro-sex psychologists such as Sigmund Freud, and the impact of the modern sex-oriented culture, modern readers can find an enormous amount of relevance in this story. In fact, it is almost as though the ultimate goal of humans is to have sex – which, by following the pattern, would then explain why it provides no meaning. As Solomon found with all his other sources of joy, sex was yet another human ambition. In the end, it provided nothing. All of these “pleasures” which Solomon sought and accomplished were, again, all about him. He did not think of others in deciding what to do with his life. He did not think of God when determining what he wanted. After accomplishing his goals, he was still left with a meaningless life – a life in which he was still searching for true, permanent happiness. Indeed, Solomon had spent years toiling on the great Jones 12 projects which he had set out to do. He was angry, and “hated life” (2:17) because of all the time he had wasted trying to be a hard worker. One would think that working hard to achieve a goal would be very meaningful afterwards, but this turned out not to be the case. In fact, all his toil provided nothing but

pain and grief. Solomon worked very hard for many years, but it did nothing for him once his work was done. On top of this, he seemed to have given himself an endless amount of work – a typical symptom of man’s yearning for meaning. However, by giving himself an infinite list of things to do, his ultimate goal in working could never be reached. This was indeed the case, and therefore, any ultimate meaning in all of his toil could never be within the reaches of possibility. Another large flaw in the idea of toil, Solomon finds, is that the accomplishments that toil produces are not in the hands of the original worker forever. As it turns out, great projects are often handed down to someone who took no part in the work. This especially holds true in the case of royal succession. 2:21 speaks of this, and tells the reader that the work may be mistreated by a future owner of the project. Of course, if the project will be mistreated in the future, then there is clearly no point in trying to achieve a project’s goal; it will never be achieved in the hands of a poor owner. So it is with a sinner and a follower of God. 2:26 discusses Jones 13 the sinner, whose purpose is to gather and store up wealth, which will then be handed over to the follower of God. The sinner’s work, then, is pointless. Again, however, one finds

that God is integral to having a purpose. The sinner works for himself and gains nothing, but the one who pleases God finds lasting happiness. A similar occurrence happened to Solomon’s father, David. 1 Samuel tells the story of how David came to power in the throne of Israel. The king before him, Saul, was a decent king, but his heart was against the will of the Lord. Because of this, Saul was killed in battle, and David became the king. David, being a good servant of God, received the country which Saul had been improving for years. The people loved him because of his good heart and will to do the Lord’s work. Unfortunately, later generations wanted to uproot David out from the throne – including members of his own family. As a king, he was hated by

many whom did not know of his earlier exploits. Solomon finds a story such as this to be a sad one, because it shows that advancement is meaningless (Eccl. 5:13-16). The

glory of being a high rank is merely temporary, he says. After one’s reign is over, future generations will forget the great deeds that were accomplished by that king. Then, the king’s successor will come to power and do great things, and he will be forgotten by even later generations. This cycle continues not Jones 14 only in royal terms, but in the business world, as well as the world of celebrities. Great people are often forgotten, so it is

highly difficult to make a permanent mark on society. Because the glory of advancement does not last, it too becomes a meaningless effort. Even the riches that are enjoyed during one’s peak of fame are meaningless. Due to the corrupt nature of man, the demand for money never ceases. One reason for this behavior is the basic economic principle of supply and demand. If someone has found a good way to make money, and consumers want more of the product, then the person will obviously raise the prices. This way, the cash flow will increase and inflate on an infinite track. Greed, of course, is the driving force of supply and demand – not to mention one of man’s deadliest sins. It should be noted that Matthew 6:24 warns, “You cannot serve both God and Money.” Another flaw with the growth of wealth is the potential of loss. The more money someone accumulates, the more sorrow they shall experience upon the loss of this money. This can be seen in the modern world on several different occasions. Lottery winners, for example, have been known to win large amounts of cash – and then unwisely spend it all in a matter of weeks. Surely, someone who wastes five thousand dollars will be more regretful than someone who wastes only five dollars. This is merely common sense. Certain celebrities, in the same fashion, have been

Jones 15 reduced to nothing after squandering their fortunes – the fortunes that were brought about only from their fame and success in the world of pop culture. Still, at the time of possessing wealth, it is commonly believed that the possessor holds power. This may be true, to a degree; but the rich can not change everything. A rich man can not change the fundamental laws of the universe – no man can. The Bible, however, indicates that God has the power to do so. God is omnipotent, and with God all things are possible. In fact, He controls the universe; and trying to defy His will would be an act against Him. This said, if a rich man attempts to gain total control, he is in violation in the Lord’s eyes. Hopefully, by now one should be able to notice a definite pattern in the flaws of everything Solomon tested. It has already been discussed that all of these were man-oriented. Solomon did many things to give himself credit and glory, but found that he received no real glory from any of them. It seems, though, that almost everything man does is for himself. Interestingly enough, this is actually supported in older translations of Ecclesiastes. The translations, though differing in word choice, do not contradict each other, however; they complement each other. In the words of Pastor Joseph Chambers of North Carolina, Bible readers are “cast upon a sea with varying

compasses each reflecting a different nuance of what the Scripture instructs” Jones 16 (Maxwell 86-87). The King James Version, along with several other translations, uses the word “vanity” in place of “meaningless” throughout Ecclesiastes. This clearly denotes the vain, self-promoting behavior of man. At the same time, though, the vanity shows that this behavior will not produce the desired effects, such as everlasting power and glory. Man’s behavior does indeed produce happiness, but only temporarily. The appreciation of a project’s greatness can only last so long. Even if someone never runs out of happiness from his deeds in his lifetime, still one thing will end this happiness: death. Death is key in Ecclesiastes. When one dies, his wisdom and deeds no longer affect him. They no longer matter, nor can they provide any more happiness to their deceased possessor. However, one must not forget that this is all coming from the Holy Bible, and this end can be avoided through God. If one is chosen by God to enjoy eternal life in His Kingdom, then the life shall not end, and the happiness may continue. This would then imply that the only way meaning can be found in life is through God. With this eternal life, happiness can be enjoyed and never lost. Wisdom, toil, memories of one’s life, and the relationships that one has held with others may

all be enjoyed forever, if one is among God’s chosen. It should also be considered that, in God’s kingdom, “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Rev. 21:4). By pleasing God, one Jones 17 can experience true, everlasting happiness. God can also provide purpose for man – bringing glory to the Creator. This process never ends, and man can always have something else to do to please God. All of life is an opportunity to do so. By following the basic tenets of His Word, such as treating others with kindness, one can fulfill His commands anywhere. This can be universally applied, not only at church, but also at school, the workplace, or during a hobby of some sort. It all comes down to having a Godly state of mind wherever one is. Even though it may seem like work, living for God actually allows time for relaxation. As Solomon says, there is a time for everything. God has a plan, and a follower of God will let Him be in control. Even if death is near, an individual striving to please God may look forward to what is to come: the aforementioned eternal life. Although this is all part of the spiritual side of Ecclesiastes, one may find both religious and non-religious application in Solomon’s words. Yes, God brings meaning to life,

because He provides eternal life. Those that do not believe in God’s ways do not believe in His eternal life, so they cannot find an eternal way to bring meaning to their lives. However, they can still agree with what Ecclesiastes is saying. In fact, it is an existentialist book, until God is put into the picture. Jones 18 The possibility of both religious and non-religious messages in the book stem from the difference between meaning and satisfaction. Meaning is permanent: it drives individuals with a purpose, and produces long-lasting happiness. Memories, for example, are only meaningful if they can always be cherished. Satisfaction, on the other hand, is merely temporary. It cannot be denied that sex, riches, and education can provide happiness for at least a short time. Some of this life’s satisfactions can only be temporary, such as sex. Others, such as wisdom, are meaningless only if they are not temporary. Again, it all comes back to pleasing God. It is still very important to remember that many things in life can be enjoyed for at least a short time. In this fashion, both spiritual and non-spiritual readers can be comforted by this book. The point that Solomon is trying to make, then, is that people should relax and try to enjoy life. This is the central idea in the book. “A man can do nothing better than to eat and

drink and find satisfaction in his work” (Eccl. 2:24). The journey of life is more important than the end or the start, especially if one is not following God – the destination of death and the afterlife is completely irrelevant. An individual following God should let Him be in control, and relax. A person that enjoys life will not induce as much stress on himself as Jones 19 otherwise, thus causing a healthier lifestyle. Life can be simple and stress-free with this philosophy of enjoying life. It can be enjoyed on a day-to-day basis. A man may be alive one minute, and dead the next, so man should take what he has been given and enjoy it; such an attitude can go a long way in terms of meaning and satisfaction.

Jones 20 Works Cited NIV [New International Version] Bible. Pocket-Size Edition. N.p.: The Bible. Atkins, Gaius Glenn. “The Book of Ecclesiastes: Exposition.” The Interpreter’s Bible. Ed. Buttrick, George Arthur, et al. Vol. 5. New York: Abingdon Press, 1956. Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible. Vol. 3. McLean: MacDonald Publishing Company, n.d. Jamieson, Robert, A.R. Fausset, and David Brown. A Commentary: Critical, Practical and Explanatory, on The Old and New Testaments. Vol. 2. Chicago: Fleming H. Revell, n.d. Leale, Thomas H. “A Homiletic Commentary on the Book of Ecclesiastes.” The Preacher’s Complete Homiletical Commentary on the Old Testament. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1892. Macdonald, D.B. The Hebrew Philosophical Genius. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1936. Maxwell, Joe. “King James-Only Advocates Experience Renaissance.” Christianity Today, vol. 39, no. 12. October 13, 1995. Holman Bible Publishers, 1995.

Jones 21 Annotated Bibliography Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible. Vol. 3. McLean: MacDonald Publishing Company, n.d. By focusing on only a few verses at a time, Matthew Henry is able to combine practical application, devotional insight, and scholarship on the Holy Bible. Volume 3 covers from the Book of Job to the Song of Solomon. Henry implements the use of cross-reference frequently throughout the commentary, relying on a “whole Bible” effect to properly illustrate several biblical principles. The overlapping themes of the Bible are very easily illustrated in Henry’s commentary, and verses are dissected into their various meanings. On the whole, this book is a good source for understanding the Holy Bible. Atkins, Gaius Glenn. “The Book of Ecclesiastes: Exposition.” The Interpreter’s Bible. Ed. Buttrick, George Arthur, et al. Vol. 5. New York: Abingdon Press, 1956. The Holy Bible, being a very abstract and confusing text, has derived several different sources of commentary and examination. This book provides multiple sources on every book of the Bible, including an introduction, an exegesis, and an exposition. The exegesis, the exposition, and the original biblical text are all split up into three different sections of each page; making it easier for the reader to compare certain

verses to certain parts of the reference material.

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