Ecclesiastes

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The book of Ecclesiastes asks the question, 'How can we live a meaningful life?' The author expresses frustration that work, pleasure and even philosophical investigation bring little satisfaction and feel empty. He concludes that life has problems that are impossible to surmount or comprehend, but it can be worthwhile if you concentrate on everyday joys: time spent with friends and family and in the worship of God.

Reading time: 30 minutes
Short of time? Just read 1.1–2.26; 4.1–16; 9.1–18
Wisdom literature

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1.9)

1For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: 2a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted. (Ecclesiastes 3.1–2)

9Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 10For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. (Ecclesiastes 4.9–10)

Much of the book of Ecclesiastes can feel depressing and hopeless; the author looks at the world with an unflinching realism. It is important to read chapters 9–12 in order to realise that the book is not wholly bleak.

The author is identified in the book as the ‘teacher’, and while a few passages hint that the teacher might be a king (particularly Solomon) most scholars opt for the author being an unknown wise teacher from Judah.

What do we know about him?

Nothing beyond what is in the book

There are several views about when the book was written. Some think it comes from the early post-exilic period (i.e. the fifth or fourth century BC) while others think it is much later, around 250 BC.

What were people feeling?

There is little in the text to suggest what the people might have been feeling.

Other books set around this time

Hard to say as the date is so uncertain.

Wisdom literature. The book contains the distilled wisdom of what feels like an elderly and somewhat bad-tempered teacher who is struggling with a sense of life's pointlessness. 

1.1–2 Introduction
1.3–2.26 The search for meaning
3.1–22 Human futility
4.1–16 Human oppressions
5.1–20 Remember God is in heaven
6.1–7.29 Death comes to us all
8.1–17 The limits of human knowledge
9.1–12.14 Finding hope in the reality of life

There will be lots of names you will not know; don’t worry if you can’t place them all. The key ones are given below.

Place

Jerusalem

The names of people and peoples

Israel

Other words

Post-exilic period, vanity, Sukkoth, Sheol, wisdom tradition

The book sets out to provide an unvarnished, warts-and-all take on the meaning of life. Look out for this theme as you read and see whether you agree with the author’s take.

Jews read Ecclesiastes during the joyful Feast of the Booths (also called Sukkoth) and stress the theme of joy in the book. If you look carefully below the surface of the text, you might be able to notice this theme running throughout Ecclesiastes.

‘Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity’ (1.2). Different translations use different words for 'vanity'. It translates a Hebrew word which means vapour or breath and hence means something that is pointless and empty. The word recurs throughout the book; look out for it as you read and see why the author uses it so much.

The author of Ecclesiastes is content to say human beings do not and cannot understand the world, so we might as well get on with living. Reflect on this theme as you read – do you find it convincing?

  • Were there any parts of the book that you particularly liked or that inspired you?
  • Were there any parts of the book that you disliked or that troubled you?
  • What did you think the book was about?
  • Do you think Ecclesiastes tells it like it really is, or is it overly pessimistic? Did you find it a breath of fresh air or rather depressing?
  • Many people today would relate to the apparent meaninglessness of life described by the ‘teacher’. Did you find anything in Ecclesiastes that might help people who feel like this?
  • The teacher may not be entirely happy, but has learnt to live with this. How important is happiness to you? If you had the chance, what might you want to say to the teacher?
  • Did you read anything in the book that touched you, expanded your faith or made you think more deeply about your life and how you live it? 

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