Ecclesiastes is not a book that many turn to in the Christmas season but I think that the message of the book fits well with the Christmas message. There are two voices in the book of Ecclesiastes. The first is that of the narrator. The narrator only speaks at the beginning of the book to introduce the teaching that follows and at the end to summarize it. The other voice is Qohelet (teacher or preacher).
Qohelet’s philosophy/theology can be boiled down to “life sucks and then you die.” Qohelet insists that all of life is hebel (meaningless or vanity). He does this for three reasons:
- Death (12:1-7) – In this passage Qohelet describes four different categories of people (strong men, male servants, female servants, women of leisure). What they all have in common is that their bodies are slowly shutting down and languishing as they march toward death. For Qohelet the inevitability of death means that all of life is meaningless.
- Inability to discern the right time (3:1-12) – This is probably the best known passage from the book of Ecclesiastes. Here Qohelet insists that there is a time for everything under the sun. Yet this passage is not as comforting as people often imagine. Proverbs also insists that there is a right time for everything. Wisdom means knowing how to say or do the right thing at the right time and in the right way. Qohelet asserts that as all things are created by God that he has created a right time for all things under the sun. The problem is that men cannot discern what the right time is; only that there is one.
- Injustice (7:15ff.) – Qohelet finally looks at the righteous and the unrighteous person and then the wise and the foolish person. He observes that there is some benefit to being righteous and wise as opposed to unrighteous and foolish. But then Qohelet also observes that both of these eventually die. Therefore he concludes that we ought not to be too righteous or too wise as death remains inevitable.
Throughout the book Qohelet tries to find meaning in different things. He searches for it in wealth, pleasure, wisdom, and work. Yet in all of these Qohelet concludes that life remains meaningless for the reasons above. This is why it is important to note that the narrator closely associates Qohelet with Solomon (though it is uncertain whether or not Qohelet is identified with Solomon). In terms of Biblical history, Solomon was the wisest and richest king that even lived who had the immense work of expanding the kingdom and building the temple and also took great pleasure. The narrator is showing that if even Solomon did not find meaning in these things then you as a reader never will by saying, “Just a little bit more.” Therefore the inevitability of death leaves the reader in despair in light of the curse.
This leads to the narrator’s theology in the epilogue. The narrator’s conclusion tells us that he is giving these teachings to his son as instruction for life (12:8ff.). He tells his son that what Qohelet says is right; life is difficult and then you die so long as you remain under the sun just as Qohelet did. However in the last two verses the narrator gives his son an above the sun perspective. He tells his son to fear God. This takes the son out of being the center of the universe. After that he says, “Keep his commandments for this is the whole duty of man.” Once the son fears God he is to maintain the relationship through obedience. Finally he reminds his son that God will bring everything to judgment. These three instructions are tied to the three sections of the Hebrew Bible. The instruction to fear God reminds of the Writings, especially the Psalms and Proverbs. The instruction to keep God’s commandments reminds of the Law of Moses. The reminder of coming judgment reminds of the Prophets. So the narrator tells his son that to escape the despair of Qohelet he must study the Scriptures to have an above the sun theology that counters his under the sun observations.
This becomes clearer in the New Testament. Paul writes to the church in Rome:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Rom. 8:18-25)
The word that Paul uses for “futility” is the Greek equivalent of Qohelet’s “meaningless.” It is the word used to translate hebel in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible). So Paul also says that the world is meaningless or futile just as Qohelet does. Paul also ties it to the curse that God placed on creation after the fall. Yet as Paul writes with an above the sun theology he says that God subjected creation to futility in hope. Futility is not the end of the story. The end of the story is redemption from the futility under the sun in Christ’s death and resurrection for the redemption of creation.
Therefore in Philippians 2:5ff. Paul writes that Christ Jesus humbled himself to take the form of man and subject himself to the futility of life. When we look at the narrative of Jesus’ birth we cannot let the choirs of angels distract us from the humble situation where he came into the world. He was born in a stable, not in a palace. He was placed in a manger, not in a soft bed. He was attended by Shepherds, not by nobles. In his incarnation the Son of God subjected himself to a futility that Qohelet and Solomon never could have comprehended. Not only that but his subjection to that futility went all the way to the death on a cross; death being the very thing that leads Qohelet to declare life meaningless. Yet in his resurrection Christ gives the hope of redemption from the meaningless of life so we cannot wallow in an under the sun perspective.
This Christmas and New Year if you read the book of Ecclesiastes I hope that you will pray that the Holy Spirit will use it to break up the idols in your life. We will never find meaning in wisdom, work, pleasure, or wealth. Meaning is only found in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and so we must turn to him in hope even while we suffer under the curse.