Ecclesiastes is part of the “Wisdom Literature” in the Old Testament. Wisdom literature attempts to wrestle with the big questions about the meaning of life and how to live life well. Ecclesiastes is not a godless book, but it describes what a godless universe looks like - devoid of meaning - and what life under God’s provision looks like in this world.
A long-standing tradition says that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes around 900 BC. However, a common critique would say that based on linguistics within that timeframe, the Hebrew and Aramaic suggests a different timeframe (closer to 200BC) and author. However, Solomon is the most likely candidate to have authored this book simply based on tradition and being one of the sons of King David blessed with wisdom from God. According to 1 Kings, Solomon wrote and collected thousands of proverbs. We can conclude that he wrote Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon.
Finding an outline or a discernible organizing theme in Ecclesiastes is notoriously difficult. It is more of an exploration than an explanation of the meaning of life.
Chapters 1-2 deal with exploring the world and coming to realize that all is vanity.
Chapters 3-5 discusses the sovereignty of God in the vanity of life.
Chapters 6-11 describes God working behind the scenes in the life of humanity to bring about his purposes.
Chapter 12 contains a summary of the book.
Ecclesiastes deals with the meaninglessness of life apart from an understanding of God. Without a God-centered understanding of the world, all things will be meaningless, monotonous, and depressing. God provides meaning, direction, and joy in life despite the evil we see around us and ourselves.
There are parts of Solomon’s description of reality that sound existential to our ears. The author describes everything as “vanity of vanities” and “meaningless” outside of understanding God’s purpose for humanity. The exact same thing can be said for the worldview that is existentialism. The difference is Ecclesiastes is not about “meaning-making” (as in existentialism) but about receiving the meaning from God. Meaning is given to creation and humanity by God.
This book is also powerful because it deals with “real life” - not what we want life to look like based on our modern-westernized worldview. Ecclesiastes addresses the hardship of life, war, toil, and pain. It embraces the reality of hardship and also addresses God being at the center.
Despite its hopeless beginning, Ecclesiastes ends with the hope that God will (one day) right every wrong and judge with perfect justice.
“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).
Joy At the End of the Tether - Doug Wilson
Brittany Proffitt lives in Dallas, TX, holds a BA in Religion, and is a student at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. She is passionate about Scripture and how God’s Word impacts individuals’ hearts and lives.