I have no idea whether you have ever studied the book of Ecclesiastes, which I have chosen for our first study. If you have, you won’t need much introduction. I know, however, that at your age I knew exactly nothing of the book and so I shall assume that you know as little as I did at your age and begin from scratch.
I think I shall begin by mentioning why I am interested in this book. When I was a freshman in college (I went to Trinity), our very first assignment in philosophy was to use any resources we wished, including our ministers, but to study this book of Ecclesiastes and then retell the book as if we were explaining it to a six-year-old. I was always interested in teaching and so this was just a sort of assignment to spark my interest.
The book came alive to me through this study and I have always had an extra interest in it ever since. Six years later, as a fledgling teacher, I had to take my turn in leading chapel exercises for the entire school, grades one through nine, and I chose to restudy Ecclesiastes and speak on it for the chapel. And now, this past year in Ladies’ Society it was decided to study the book in depth, my first time of studying it so carefully, and so I am right now again immersed in the book and enjoying the study thoroughly.
Like all three of Solomon’s books (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon), this book has a host of interpreters and interpretations. Some of the interpreters – even some good ones – do not even consider Solomon to be the author. Some consider him the author but have varying interpretations as to when in his life he wrote this book. So this is a book which is not clear-cut even though the central message is clear.
The purpose of the book is clear. Solomon, as the King-Preacher in Jerusalem, feels responsible for the lives of his people. As a king who meets people of fame from all over the world, he encounters every sort of motive for living and every sort of reasoning as to which is the best way of living, the way to find meaning in life. So he seeks to investigate this matter very thoroughly, to study life from every single viewpoint and to answer the question: where is meaning in life to be found? Is there any value to our work in this life?
Solomon studies work from various aspects of unbelief and consistently draws one conclusion: apart from God, there is no meaning in life. Apart from Him, all is vanity and vexation of spirit. The only meaning in life is to believe in God Himself, in serving the Creator of the heavens and the earth.
Solomon never enters into the idea of redemption from sin through a Saviour. The necessity of this redemption is obvious because, as a matter of fact, no one does perfectly serve the Creator, no one perfectly seeks God. Solomon does not enter into this because his is the very practical question: is it possible for there to be meaning in life? And the rest of Scripture is necessary for the fullest answer of all: yes, but only in Christ!
That will give you an idea of the book we are about to study. If you manage to read through it once before you receive my next letter, you will find that much of it is at first puzzling but, given this idea of the book plus given a Christian outlook, the book is not an enigma.
I thought the idea of the book was well captured in a cartoon I saw on the walls at Trinity when I visited back there some years later. Obviously, Trinity students were still being told to study Ecclesiastes and summarize it in some form. One art student had chosen to summarize it by the use of four cartoons, using the ill-fated Charlie in the cartoons. In the first three cartoons, Charlie had tried three ways of finding happiness (I forgot now what they were), and each one had resulted in his usual failure. In the fourth cartoon, Charlie was seen hugging the Scriptures and…at last a smile of happiness was crossing his face. Here was the answer! Here was meaning to life! Here was happiness!
That’s the way it really is, isn’t it? Sometimes we forget this in the pressures of daily life and think we can find happiness in other ways – through fun and games, through the things money buys, through popularity – the devil can lead us in so many devious ways. But always we must return to the fundamental truth: we are not here to serve ourselves, but God! We cannot find peace and joy in the things of this earth, but only in God! God alone makes life worth living!
1. Can you recall any former studies or sermons on Ecclesiastes? If so, name what you recall.
2. Try asking six people what Ecclesiastes is about. See once how many (a) have no idea; (b) know only chapter 3 and/or chapter 12; or (c) feel the book is a dark and pessimistic book on the vanity of life.
3. What do you believe is the theme of Ecclesiastes?