My senior year of college, one Sabbath School Quarterly exclusively focused on the book of Ecclesiastes. I’m sure I had read parts of the book before, but this was my first time ever diving into a deeper study of the book, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It found it addressing many questions I had as a Christian on a secular university campus.
My fascination with the book continued into law school, where I continued to study it, convincing a small group to study it together (they were not a fan), and teaching what I was learning to undergrads in a different bible study group.
But eventually my curiosities moved on. I didn’t touch the book for years. And then, GYC decided to anchor its theme for the 2016 convention in the book of Ecclesiastes. Correspondingly, a group organized to memorize the entire book over the course of 2016.
Almost a decade after my initial enthrallment with the book, I thought memorization was the appropriate next step. But I have found that so many times, when I am focusing on memorizing large portions of scripture, it is easy to get so lost in mastering the words, I don’t take the time to reflect and synthesize what I am committing to memory.
So this year, at the end of every month, I want to share a little of what I picked up through memorizing each chapter of the book of Ecclesiastes and share it with you. I hope you find it useful in your own study of what others have often characterized as a depressing book, and would love to hear your reflections on each chapter as well! Obviously, I’m starting a little behind with this project, so the first few posts will be expedited.
Turning specifically to Ecclesiastes 1, I feel like this really sets up the tone for much of what Solomon, or the Preacher, covers in the book. We find a couple of key terms that will return over the course of the book: “vanity of vanities,” “all is vanity,” and “under the sun.” We also are introduced to what it is that the Preacher is trying to figure out: what does anyone gain from labor? The Preacher also identifies the method by which he is seeking to answer his question. He applied his heart (i.e. his entire being) to seek and search out by wisdom. But the Preacher’s wisdom is based on his own observations, his own perceptions, and his own feelings. And yet “eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.” Finally, we see his analysis that time is cyclical, and that as a result nothing is new under the sun, there is no meaning in this, suggesting that despite what man might try to labor and do, he has no agency in changing this cycle that will happen over and over again.
Whew. Pretty easy to see why some people would dismiss this book just on the first chapter, because it’s well, depressing? But even despite this despondent view of the world, there are a few things that can stick out to us and help us avoid the same type of depression.
A Book for Believers
It says the Preacher was king over Jerusalem. That means he was in God’s city. He’s not a non-believer who is grappling with these questions, but someone who, at the very least, has a knowledge of God. That means that there is something for believers who may have intellectual quandaries that tempt our faith to gain from studying this book.
Worldview Impacts Everything
The fact that the Preacher views time as cyclical leads to his depressing conclusion that there is nothing new under the sun and that all is vanity. But not everyone views history cyclically. A different view of history changes everything. In the same way, the glasses through which we choose to view the world impacts us. At the end of the day, the only place that we can adopt an accurate worldview is through Scripture, but we see that this was something the Preacher was experimenting with leaving behind.
Methodology Impacts Everything
The Preacher was using “wisdom,” to seek out everything that was done under the sun, but that “wisdom” was based on what he could see, hear, and perceive. This does not sound unlike scientists and other empirical fields of study who value observation as the standard for discerning truth above all other methodologies. But the result of this methodology, of observation alone, leads to hopelessness. That is why it is so important to realize that what we can see, hear, perceive is only a part of what leads us to our ultimate understanding of the world. Our senses can only reveal so much. We cannot exclude God from the methodological process of discerning truth.
Identity Comes From Something Beyond the Sun
The natural world is a continuing cycle, the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom does not yield expected results. History forgets us, those who come after have no remembrance of what we do, so legacy is meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Our identity cannot come from any of these things. This suggests, then, that our identity must be based on something beyond the sun.
So to summarize, the first chapter of Ecclesiastes helps us to see the importance of worldview, of proper methods of collecting information about our surroundings, and of identity. We may have some of the same questions that Solomon will raise throughout the course of the book of Ecclesiastes, but arrive at answers with much more meaning and understanding that he was able to. In fact, that just might be the reason that the Preacher wrote this book.