by Peter Pett
Commentary on Ecclesiastes
by Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons. London) DD
The writer of Ecclesiastes, who is not directly identifiable from the text, being only identified as a king of the house of David, (‘son of David’ means simply ‘descended from David’) finally makes clear that all that is important in life is to live before God and do His will. All else is vanity. Although initially he searches everywhere for meaning, significance, permanence and true satisfaction, and for long term meaningfulness in the normal course of life, he concludes that it is not to be found on earth ‘under the sun’. Instead all appears empty and transient. It is ‘vanity’ (emptiness, lacking in content, like a puff of wind). This idea pervades the whole book ( see Ecclesiastes 1:14; Ecclesiastes 2:1; Ecclesiastes 2:11; Ecclesiastes 2:15; Ecclesiastes 2:17; Ecclesiastes 2:19; Ecclesiastes 2:21; Ecclesiastes 2:23; Ecclesiastes 2:26; Ecclesiastes 3:19; Ecclesiastes 4:4; Ecclesiastes 4:7-8; Ecclesiastes 4:16; Ecclesiastes 5:7; Ecclesiastes 5:10; Ecclesiastes 6:2; Ecclesiastes 6:4; Ecclesiastes 6:9; Ecclesiastes 6:11-12; Ecclesiastes 7:6; Ecclesiastes 7:15; Ecclesiastes 8:10; Ecclesiastes 8:14; Ecclesiastes 9:9; Ecclesiastes 11:8; Ecclesiastes 11:10; Ecclesiastes 12:8-11) True meaningfulness, he concludes, is in fact only to be found in the end by knowing God, and walking with Him (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26; Ecclesiastes 3:11-13; Ecclesiastes 5:1-2; Ecclesiastes 9:7-10; Ecclesiastes 11:9; Ecclesiastes 12:1; Ecclesiastes 12:7; Ecclesiastes 12:13-14). For in the end God will call all men into judgment (Ecclesiastes 3:17; Ecclesiastes 11:9; Ecclesiastes 12:14).
So he concludes that God alone, and a proper walk with Him, can satisfy the deep cravings of the heart and mind, and make a man’s life meaningful in the long term, so that eventually his essential being is taken up to God (Ecclesiastes 12:7). And all that he writes is building up to that thought, for he climaxes with the words, ‘This is the end of the matter. All has been heard. Fear God and keep His commandments. For this is the whole duty of man’ (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
It is wrong to see this as a book which leaves us in despair and hopelessness, or indeed has that intention. This comes out essentially in chapter 5 where we are carried directly into the presence of God. There it is made apparent that while we cannot understand His ways which are beyond our ability to understand (Ecclesiastes 5:2), a theme that is found elsewhere in the book (Ecclesiastes 3:11), we are called on to trust Him and seek to fulfil His will. And he stresses that God must be taken seriously (Ecclesiastes 5:4). This is also brought out in the passages which describe the joyful life of the godly (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26; Ecclesiastes 3:11-13; Ecclesiastes 5:1-2; Ecclesiastes 9:7-10), a life which is to be persevered in even though all seems meaningless, and it is confirmed in the final chapter which promises hope for those who ‘fear God’ (Ecclesiastes 12:13). The godly are called on to live by faith and not by sight.
What we do see in the book is the search of a man seeking truth, and weighing up the alternatives as far as they can be known. He takes up ideas only to reject them. At times he talks like an atheist as his mind grapples with the various problems. At other times like a believer as he is aware of how God breaks in on man. But he finishes up by declaring his conclusion, that the whole of what man is lies in ‘fearing’ God and obeying His covenant commands (Ecclesiastes 12:13), that is, in faithfully walking with Him in accordance with the covenant, because all will at some stage be called into judgment (Ecclesiastes 12:14). It can be seen as evangelistic philosophy. He does not solve the problem of the meaninglessness of life under the sun, (after all life’s activities apart from God are meaningless), he simply overrides it on the grounds that God is above all (Ecclesiastes 5:1-2) and requires us to walk before Him and in the end all are accountable to God. The meaningless becomes meaningful in the light of eternity.
There is no doubt that Ecclesiastes has an important lesson for our materialistic, science driven society, for it brings out that all our materialism and scientific understanding is in the final analysis meaningless. Unless we get above it and find God we will indeed end up as the food of worms in the grave. In God alone can we discover meaning.
Intermingled with this process of argument are many statements which demonstrate the wisdom of the king. He does not want his listeners to think that he is just a pessimist and cynic. So he continually produces valuable pearls of wisdom with which to impress them. He wants to show himself as a genuine wisdom teacher. And he thus also continually introduces the idea of ‘the wise’. We must not always expect to find a connection between these pearls of wisdom. Such was not necessarily the style, although they were usually connected in some way, even if only vague. But life has to be lived and they are a guide as to how to live it.
Thus the philosophical quest, religious observations and the teaching of wisdom are quaintly intermingled. He is searcher, teacher and wise man. And as such he analyses life, passes on his wisdom, and above all faces men up to God as the One Who has to be approached with reverent awe, and Who will be the Judge of all men. It is this last which is his final message.
the Second Week after Easter