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September 7, 1991

Pondering the Nagging Inconsistencies of Life

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Introduction to Ecclesiastes
King Solomon received the gift of wisdom at the beginning of his reign (see 2 Chronicles 1:7-12). But while he certainly used the wisdom God gave him, he pursued—with focused passion—everything but that God-given wisdom. He went after pleasure, knowledge, great projects, wealth, fame, and whatever else his heart desired. He could afford anything, and he denied himself nothing.
Near the end of his life, however, Solomon turned his attention back to the God-centered priorities he had focused on decades earlier. In the process, he wrote the Book of Ecclesiastes to help young leaders coming after him to stay centered on the kind of thinking that a God-life entails. The book covers a wide range of subjects, all relating to the uncompromising pursuit of a complete and meaningful life. Topics include ambition, accomplishments, the mundane routine of life, pleasure, wisdom, work, wealth, and the place of God in it all.
Solomon is a deep thinker with a philosophic bent who addresses with enthusiasm the hard topics of life that other authors often shy away from, such as, “Why do people who are unjust continue to flourish?” or, “If God’s in charge, why are people still oppressed?” Because he takes this approach, however, his content in Ecclesiastes is sometimes misunderstood. Some people come away with the impression that he’s just a cynical person who’s out to prove that nothing really makes sense.
It’s easy to think that way. Two verses into the book, he proclaims, “Meaningless! Meaningless! . . . Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). But although Solomon sometimes comes across as having a dark, fatalistic view of life, he really doesn’t. He is simply brutally realistic and honest. That’s a good thing because he’s talking to leaders who, by their very nature, want to fix things. Unfortunately, as he points out time and time again, many things—such as corruption, bribery, and evil—simply can’t be fixed. No matter who you are or where you are, you’ll never solve these issues. The only solution, he ultimately asserts, is to trust that God knows and will take care of them eventually.
In order to understand the content of Ecclesiastes properly, we must understand its structure. It is comprised of four sections, and the key to understanding each one comes at the end of each of the sections, not at the beginning. The first section, Ecclesiastes 1:1—2:26, covers reality checks and concluding options. The second section, Ecclesiastes 3:1—5:30, discusses God’s presence in all details of life. The third section, Ecclesiastes 6:1-8:15, addresses evaluating appearances, judging character, and affirming government. And the final section, Ecclesiastes 8:16-12:14, ties up the loose ends.
The first three sections end with the refrain that we are to eat, drink, and find satisfaction in our work because it is a gift from God (See Ecclesiastes 2:24; 5:18; 8:15). The fourth section in Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 ends with Solomon’s overall conclusion: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.” To keep yourself from getting confused or disillusioned as you read Ecclesiastes, it might be helpful to read the end of each section before you dive into the book and to keep reminding yourself of those conclusions as you work through each chapter.
Perhaps more than any other book in the Bible, Ecclesiastes addresses an individual in a work context. The refrains at the end of each section clearly assert that work is a gift from God, and as Solomon addresses the young leaders in his class, he is overtly pushing a theology of integration. He is very comfortable talking about pleasure, justice, ambition, wisdom, and other parts of life that integrate with our work life.
Ecclesiastes is not a speed-read; it’s a book to study for a period of time. If you roll through it quickly, you’re going to come away very confused. Don’t forget— you’re dealing with the distilled teaching notes from a life that’s been lived to the fullest, and like any rich set of teaching notes, they need to be reflected on and thought about versus quickly read and then passed by.

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