The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. - Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 (ESV)

The book of Ecclesiastes is fascinating to read. It is written by someone who identifies himself as the "Preacher" or Qoheleth. It seems clear upon reading that Solomon is the best candidate to identify with Qoheleth since his life matches so closely with Qoheleth's.

I thank Mr. Qoheleth for making it so easy to select a representative passage for the book of Ecclesiastes.

The Big Idea of Ecclesiastes

I have taught that the big idea of Ecclesiastes is the following: Only God makes life meaningful. Without God, all is vain, empty, meaningless. If Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living, then Ecclesiastes says neither is the godless one.

An Outline of Ecclesiastes

Ecclesiastes 1-2: The Fruitless Search for Vanity in the World

Ecclesiastes opens with what might be called an oracle about the repetitive nature of life, especially our experience of it. The Preacher explains afterward how he has sincerely attempted to understand life on earth. He immediately lets the reader know that life on earth is an unhappy business. The Preacher describes in Chapter 2 how he made a great effort and went to great lengths to get as much enjoyment and meaning out of life as possible. His conclusion at the end is that sustaining his life with food and drink as long as he can is about the best a man can do. It all comes from God, and all goes back to God.

Ecclesiastes 3-6: The Pursuit of Pleasure

In chapter 3, Qoheleth (the Preacher) makes a series of observations about the timeliness of different kinds of activities along with various types of injustices that happen on earth. He concludes that the best a man can do is to enjoy his work. He goes on in chapter 4 to develop the idea that even in work, there may be no pleasure since the work is unending and the end is death anyway. In Chapter 5, he remarks that all there is to do is enjoy the work we are given, but Qoheleth is increasingly despairing and almost cynical about the seeming pointlessness of life. He concludes this series of thoughts on the pointlessness of pursuing pleasure by meditating that a man never knows what will happen in his life. And after he is gone, he is not there to care about it anyway.

Ecclesiastes 7:1-12:8: The Examined Life

The rest of Ecclesiastes leaves off cynical complaints about the pointlessness of life. Instead, Qoheleth makes many observations about surprising advantages, disrupted expectations, dashed hopes, and unexpected sources of wisdom. This section demonstrates that Qoheleth, despite what he has said up to this point, is still invested in the world and helping others navigate it. He senses a certain vanity or emptiness in life but is still willing to live it.

Ecclesiastes 12:9-14: The Conclusion

Ecclesiastes ends with a simple conclusion that ties the whole book together. Qoheleth gives a series of appeals to focus on the words of the wise and to fear God above and before all else. God will judge everyone, but he has left much wisdom for us to find. We should set about pursuing it and following it because, after all, all life is from God and for God anyway. Anything not lived from, for, or to him is vanity anyway.

Benefits of Ecclesiastes

If I had to choose one benefit from Ecclesiastes, it would be the motivation to humility that comes from reading it. It is hard to read Ecclesiastes and to come away focused on the self, what I can accomplish, what I can do, what I can achieve. In revealing the vanity there is to life lived wrongly, Ecclesiastes systematically destroys the fulfillment in living for anything but God.

In this vein, Ecclesiastes uncovers the futility of setting our hope in this world. Riches will not satisfy. We cannot count on justice by our own achievement. Pleasure is fleeting.

What lasts? What is eternal? What is not a vapor, more than a momentary flash? The answer is God. Ecclesiastes trains our attention on the one true and eternal God whose divine nature gives significance to our human nature.

Ecclesiastes teaches us that this life is a vapor. Most of the things in which we find significance are not significant at all. We accord them significance, but it does not last. We make a great mistake in attributing significance and weightiness to what is light and insignificant. Ecclesiastes focuses more on how we live than on what we own. It teaches us to focus on choosing the right actions over having the right possessions. Ecclesiastes teaches us that quantity can never substitute for quality. No matter how much we acquire, we will never be able to replace the significance of the command to fear God and remember that judgment is coming.

In this way, Ecclesiastes teaches us what our lives should be about. We tend to focus on flash over substance. We tend to focus on personal desires over divine standards. We tend to focus on individual achievement over divine decree.

As we consider our lives in light of Ecclesiastes, it is good to recognize all these things, not so that we can stew in them but so that we may respond to them. Ecclesiastes is, in the final analysis, a book that calls to action. It does not remain in contemplation. It calls us to live but to live for the right thing. And in that, it is no surprise, biblically speaking, that it would call us to live for God. And as we read the rest of the Bible, we learn very clearly that living for God can only happen through Christ. Everything else is vanity and striving after the wind.

On Ecclesiastes and Living for God Through Christ