Sunday, June 3, 2012

ECCLESIASTES : Overview



It has taken me a long time  to get started  on a sermon  series  on  this book  of the OT, mainly  because it is not an easy book  to preach on. It  has a reputation  of being  pessimistic .  What is the first thing you remember  as you think of the book of Ecclesiastes ?  Most likely this verse  : “Vanity of vanities , says the Preacher , vanity of vanities ! All is  vanity.” (1:2) . The last  thing you want to hear  is a pessimistic  analysis of the world in which you live . For that,  you have  the daily news !
In my repeated reading and studies of this book over the years , I must admit however,   that it has not left me with a  pessimistic perspective of life. I would rather say that it has impressed upon me   a  very realistic view of life!  This book  shows  us   that the things we chase after so very frequently,  routinely fail to satisfy  us. They are  like   mist – like  vapor – a key word in Ecclesiastes  (and perhaps better words  to use than “vanity“ )  , as I will demonstrate  in the course of our expositions .  The experiences  of life   on this earth, under the sun can make  you very cynical , if you take life at face value. Much of what you experience in life is not fair; much of it is unexplainable . People are often  puzzled how God can allow certain circumstances  to happen . But this book is an excellent help  and guide through the  difficulties  common to man in this life  . It will teach us  to seize  and to enjoy  the special moments  given to us by God in this life on earth and under the  sun.  It will teach us  to resign ourselves to the sometimes mysterious providences of God  in this life . In fact , this  book  will show us  how  faith in God alone can take us beyond  cynicism and despair  .  
Apparently , the Jewish synagogue traditionally reads Ecclesiastes on the third day of the Feast of Tabernacles ( late September or early October). It  is  a festival  recalling Israel’s wilderness experience ( Lev 23:34-43). Reading such a book  during a festival of great joy tells us that  Judaism does not consider this  to be a pessimistic book .
Today , I simply want to introduce you to this  God inspired  portion of Scripture. I want you to get “ a feel for it”,  as  we  consider  the title , the type of book ,  the themes and  the theology of  Ecclesiastes. 

       A.    THE TITLE : “ECCLESIASTES”

The original Hebrew title  for the book is  Qoheleth”. Translated  it means  “Preacher“ – one who  delivers sermons before a “qahal” (a congregation). The Greek translation and equivalent   of the OT title  is “Ecclesiastes” . The  ekklesia  is  the n assembly/ gathering /congregation   of people, being called together by the congregational  preacher – the  ecclesiastes”.  The word  qoheleth  is not  found in any other OT book , but it is used 7 times in this book  ( 1:2,12 ; 7:27; 12:8,9,10).

·         Author : Solomon : Internal and contextual evidence support  Solomon’s  authorship .  The first verse  tells us  that the author was  the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (1:1),   and again in 1:12 : “I , the Preacher have  been king over Israel in Jerusalem”.   Only four kings ruled over Israel  ( the 12 tribes) in Jerusalem: Saul , David ,Solomon , Rehoboam.  After Rehoboam , the kingdom was divided into a Northern ( 10 tribe) and a Southern ( 2 tribe) kingdom . Subsequent kings in Jerusalem no longer ruled over the whole  of  Israel, but only over Judah ,  the Southern kingdom. By way of deduction we may therefore  argue that this author was  Solomon , since  we know that  Solomon   was the king endowed  by God with  unusual wisdom and knowledge.  His knowledge  and wisdom became legendary  ( 2 Chronicles 1:7-13) . Compare also  Ecclesiastes 1:16  with 1 Kings 3:12[1]    Ecclesiastes 1:16  I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.”
1 Kings 3:12 ( Solomon speaking)  “… behold, I now do according to your word. Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you.”

·         The Date  : If  Solomon was the author , the date  would be  approximately  940-932 B.C.
No other king in Israel matches the qualities of Solomon.
  
       B.     THE TYPE OF BOOK  : WISDOM LITERATURE

Ecclesiastes is  classified  as ‘ wisdom literature’ .   Five  OT books are classified as  wisdom literature : Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs.  What  makes this  a unique  corpus of literature in the Bible ?  Wisdom literature   focuses on existential and ultimate questions about God, humanity, creation, and  the nature of evil and suffering. 
 
      C.     THE THEMES OF ECCLESIASTES

I will not try to give you  an  outline  Ecclesiastes .  Some  have done that , and I  could  give you  their [2] outlines . Others have simply refused to give an outline , saying  that the book defies logical analysis [3].  That view may be  a little extreme, since  the  general aim of the book is clear. It  is  the connection of thoughts that  are  not always easy to follow .  We must remember that  Hebrew thinking and literature   (  which is  circular , repetitive, emphasizing one point  from a number of angles ) is not like Greek thinking ( linear, progressive  and to the point ). I will apply the Hebrew  thought form in my preaching , and  I will  endeavor  to allow the book to unfold its own logic  and wisdom .
  
·         The main point of the book  is found in its conclusion : see 12 : 9-14 , and in particular  vv 13& 14

·         Key words : In terms of getting to  know and appreciate the message of Ecclesiastes , it is also important that we should get to know the key  words or concepts   (i.e. those used repetitively)
      1 .       Vanity (ESV; KJV) ; meaningless (NIV); - used 38 times . The Hebrew word ‘ hebel’ translates literally   as vapour or mist , and outside of Ecclesiastes, the word is often translated as ‘ breath  ( Ps 62:9; 94:11; 144:4)or ‘vapour’ ( Prov 21:6). Thus it  reads literally ‘ vapour of vapours, all is vapour.”  We will deal with this   word more extensively once we get to the exposition of the text.  Interestingly , the name of Adam’s second son ‘ Abel’  is derived from the root   of this word, and he was “ the first  human to suffer death ( Gen 4:2) , the first to know the reality  of life’s  vapourousness. In  the end , every last one of us is Abel ( hebel” [4])
    2.      Under the sun: used  29 times . Under the sun” describes  typical life upon this earth. Solomon’s observations are limited to life ‘under the sun’ , here in time and space .Life under the sun  is  pre messianic , says Peter Leithart , when the  Lord will rend  the veil of the heavens and the sun will give way to the blight of the Lamb. ( Rev 21:23) [5]
     3.       Striving/chasing after the wind :  (literally  shepherding the wind) – a very vivid metaphor which helps us to understand our lack of control over the world and over our own lives . “We can no more bring the world under our control than we can guide the wind into a paddock for the night.” [6] Thank God that Solomon  believes that  there is life  after  this life under the sun . For Christians there is Life in the Son   NOW and forevermore ! Thankfully  Solomon  knows  that God  will bring  all wickedness to judgment ( 3:16-17). In the time  after the time under the sun, there will be a judgment!
    4.      The name of  “God “ is mentioned 40 times. I will  comment on   this in closing as we consider the theology of Ecclesiastes.
      5.      The “heart “  is  mentioned 40 times .  We remind ourselves that out of the heart are all the issues of life, either for good or for evil . (     ) A major question we shall come up  against time and again is this : “Where is your heart rooted and settled under the sun ?”. Believe me , this is a most  important question .
      6.      Wisdom/ wise occurs 52 times .This is the primary purpose  of  Ecclesiastes – to teach us true wisdom ; a reliable worldview . You will note that wisdom  ,philosophy , the pursuit of knowledge,  reason  in itself  and without God gets you nowhere  ( cf 2:12)
      7 .       Rejoice/ joy   occurs 17 times . It is one of the major themes of this book – how to find joy  under the sun and in the midst of many perplexing trials . Among  a number of  themes , this book  is  meant to lift your spirits. It is one of the stated  aims : “The Preacher  sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth ( Eccl 12:10)
    8.      Other  important words :  good ( 52 times) ;  time ( 37 times); trouble ( 33 times); evil (30 times) ; eat and drink ( 6 times)

       D.    THE THEOLOGY OF ECCLESIASTES

The Word ‘ theology’ proper  refers to  the doctrine of God  - “ theos & logos” i.e. the word about God .  It is  of course the  word of God  (the truth about God)  in relation to us (mankind) , and the truth about us in relation to God .
In   this regard  ( and in a nutshell)  Solomon develops  3  foundational theological  truths  about   God and man :

1.       Mankind  is always in search of  happiness and  enduring  substance  ( e.g. 2:24; 3:12,22; 5:18; 8:15; 9:7-9; 11:7-10) . This is not wrong  in itself , provided that we realize and understand …

2.      God is  King. Divine sovereignty and  often mysterious providences  characterize  human  existence under the sun ( 3:11) .  In this respect we must remember that :
(i)               Life is lived in a fallen world ( 1:13b; 7:29; 8:15b)
(ii)           Good ( 2:24,25; 3:10 ; 5:18-20 ; 6:2 ; 7:14 ) and  trials  ( 3:18 ; 6:2b; 7:14) come from His hand.
(iii)     God must be approached  reverently ( 5:1) and  cautiously  with our words ( 5:2), knowing that our words are counted ( 5:4)
(iv)       God must be feared  ( 5:7;  12:13 ) and those who fear Him need not to be  afraid of Him ( 8:12) ; the wicked must always fear God in an ultimate sense (  8:13)
(v)             God always has the last word  ( 7:13)
(vi)       God is the  sovereign  Creator  and He can ultimately not be  made subject to our whims and fancies  ( 5:2 ; 9:7; 11:5)
(vii)          What He does is perfect ( 3:14)
(viii)         God is the Giver and Taker of Life  (5:15;  12:7)
(ix)            He will judge the righteous and the wicked  ( 3:17;  11:9; 12:14)

3.       In the light of  your knowledge of God be wise how you live
(i)              Be content  with  where  you are at – in whatever circumstance ( 7:10)
(ii)            Remember that all things on earth are temporary . Don’t fix your heart on them . It is a striving after the wind.
(iii)           Enjoy whatever you have from God.  ( 2:24; 3:12; 5:18-20; 7:14;8:15 ;9:7; 11:8)
(iv)           Be cautious  ( 5:1-7 ; 8:1-9 ; 10:8-11
(v)              Don’t be overly righteous  ( 7:16,17;20; ) and don’t scheme too much  ( 11:10)



[1] Compare also Ecclesiastes 2:4-6 with 1 Kings 9:17-19;  Ecclesiastes 2:7-9  with 1 Kings 10:14-20 ;  Ecclesiastes 12:9-10 with  1 Kings  4:32)
[2]  E.g. Stuart Olyott  on Ecclesiastes ( Welwyn Commentaries)  p.14,15 ; William D. Barrick  ( Focus on the Bible Commentaries) pp 24 27
[3] E.g.  G.S Hendry in the  New Bible Commentary ( 3rd ed,) p.571
[4] Peter Leithart :Solomon amongst the Postmoderns , p.67
[5] Ibid . p. 100
[6] Ibid. p 68

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