Book Of Ecclesiastes
The first two or three verses give the subject of this book. "Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?" This expression 'under the sun' occurs no less than twenty-eight times in the twelve chapters, and gives the character of the book. It describes life 'in Adam,' and seeks an answer to the questions, What is best for man? how should he spend his life to be happy on earth? The writer speaks as a human philosopher in his wanderings. Sometimes he gets near the truth, but at other times he is far removed from it. Hence some passages state man's false conclusions: cf. for example, Ecc. 3: 18-22; Ecc. 7: 16, 17; Ecc. 8: 15. The direct divine teaching is contained in the last few verses of the book. The last two verses answer the searchings of Ecc. 1: 13; Ecc. 2: 3.
Solomon, who is the writer, goes through his experience both of wisdom and of riches, of labour, and of all that his heart as a man could desire (and who can come after the king?); and records it by inspiration, so that when he proves it all to be but vanity and vexation of spirit it is not the mere utterance of a disappointed man, but divinely recorded conviction. The actions are characterised by being done 'under the sun,' and without any thought of their being performed Godward. Man is not regarded as in direct relationship with God, though responsible to his Creator. The name of Jehovah does not once occur.
Ecc. 1, Ecc. 2.
"The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing," therefore Solomon searched his heart (Ecc. 1: 13, 16; Ecc. 2: 1, 3) as to mirth, wine, wisdom, folly, and great works. His heart was in despair, and he concluded that there was nothing better than for a man to enjoy good in his labour and in the gifts of God.
Man is shown that he is in a time state: there is a time for everything 'under the heaven,' but only 'a time.' God made everything beautiful in its time: He hath set 'the age' in man's heart. Ecc. 3: 11. (The word rendered 'world' in the A.V. in this verse is olam, often translated 'ever' and 'everlasting.' Some translate 'he hath set eternity in their heart,' but the sense doubtless is that man's heart can only naturally embrace the age characterised by time.) "No man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end." God is working out His own end during this time state: man lives in time, but what God does shall be for ever. God will judge the righteous and the wicked, but as far as man's real knowledge extends he dies as the beast dies. This is only man's conclusion drawn from beholding what takes place under the sun.
Sorrow is expressed for the oppression and injustice that exist in a sinful world, with no effectual comfort and remedy. The poor, the rich, and the sluggard are spoken of, and the evil results of folly in private affairs (Ecc. 4: 7-11), and in political life. Ecc. 4: 13-16.
Piety is brought in, and conduct in the house of God; caution as to vows, and a call to fear God. He is above every oppression on the earth, and takes knowledge of it all. In Ecc. 5: 9-17 agricultural life is contrasted with commercial life, with its anxieties and varying fortunes. Again the writer concludes that it is good and comely to eat and drink and enjoy the good that God gives.
There is vanity in connection with having riches and not being able to enjoy them; respecting children, old age, and the wanderings of man's desire: life is a shadow.
Divers things are compared: the better things are a good name, sorrow, the rebuke of the wise, the end of a thing, and wisdom. The strange sight in Ecc. 7: 15 makes the writer try a middle course between righteousness and wickedness, still retaining a certain fear of God. But in that middle course he was wrong: wisdom was far from him. Wisdom has its difficulties, which man cannot solve. He learned that there is not a just man upon the earth that sinneth not: God made man upright, but they sought out many inventions.
Kings should be respected: they are God's ministers to repress evil. The sinner and the righteous are contrasted, and it is well with them that fear God; but the work of God, in His providential dealing, is mysterious and past finding out.
Things happen alike to the righteous and the wicked;both die. Hence the writer wrongly advises a life of self-indulgence, for God appears indifferent to all that is done. A 'poor wise man' delivered a city by his wisdom, but he was forgotten.
Observations on wisdom and folly. Wisdom has its advantages for this life, both to the wise man himself and to others. It is not good for a land for its king to be a child and the princes incapable.
Exhortations are given to cast 'bread' and 'sow seed' on all occasions and in all places: all will not be lost. The works of God cannot be fully known: the more that is known shows how much there is unknown. The wisest arrives as it were at a blank wall, beyond which all is unknown. The young man is advised to enjoy himself while he yet lives, but God will bring him into judgement for all.
The Creator is to be remembered in the days of youth. Decrepitude and death are described: man is overtaken by death ere he has found out true wisdom. In Ecc. 12: 8 the gropings of the philosopher under the sun are over: he comes back to his starting point, "Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; all is vanity." A distinct division follows. Sinful man should not expect happiness except in God. "The whole of man " (not his duty, but the one thing for man, the one principle of life), is to "fear God and keep his commandments." God will bring every work into judgement.
Such is a slight sketch of the contents of the Book of Ecclesiastes. There is no question therein of grace or of redemption. It is the experience of a man, and he a king with wisdom and riches, respecting human life, with an attempt to solve all the anomalies that exist in the world, while viewing them 'under the sun.' They can only be solved, or peacefully left unsolved, by the wisdom which cometh from above. It is only in the N.T. that we get 'new creation,' that rises above the perplexities of fallen humanity, and reveals 'eternal life' that is in God's Son.
The Book of Ecclesiastes has been a great puzzle to many of the learned. They cannot understand how a king like Solomon could have had such an experience or have written such a book. They judge that it must have been written long after, as when the Jews were under the rule of the Persians, and that Solomon was only personated by the writer. It is plainly seen in their arguments that they overlook that which runs through the book, and which is the key to its being understood, namely, that all is viewed from man's point of view, expressed as 'under the sun.' When Solomon rises above this, as he does in the Proverbs, how different his experience, and the wisdom is divine. Then he speaks much of Jehovah, the name of relationship, which name, as said above, does not occur in the Book of Ecclesiastes.