The Enigma Code: An Outline of Ecclesiastes

Posted on 04 April 2008

An outline of the book of Ecclesiastes



The Book of Ecclesiastes begins with the author boldly and baldly stating his view.
His argument runs as follows:

Human existence with all its efforts brings no lasting rewards (3):

* one generation succeeds to the next leaving no significant impact on the world
left behind (4);
* all of the created order is subject to tedious, burdensome repetition (5);
* freedom is a mere illusion that masks the senseless circularity of reality (6);
* activity is expended without any recognisable effect (7);
* the most zealous research never reaches definitive, lasting conclusions (8b);
* in sum: the whole of human existence is inexpressibly wearisome (8a).

Indeed, novelty is, itself, an illusion (9-11).

The appearance of novelty (10a) is merely a reflection on the brevity of life and the
shortness of memory (10b-11). In reality, human existence does not change (9).

This is a bleak picture indeed… so we are, perhaps, bidden to enquire as to who is
speaking and who are the intended recipients of his words.

Who, then, is speaking? At first the answer seems clear: surely 1b implies the author
is Solomon? But careful investigation suggests that it is not quite as simple as this
since little is made of the allusion to the king throughout the Book and it seems more
likely that this is a deliberate literary ‘fiction’ that the original readers were expected
to recognise. Perhaps, therefore, rather than ask the question ‘Who?‘ we should ask
‘What sort of person is the implied author?‘ Here we can note several important
* it is the ‘messianic’ king: the one appointed by God as his representative on
* it is one who speaks with discernment and wisdom: the term ‘Teacher’
implies someone with considerable ability in understanding reality;
* it is a ‘prophetic’ voice: the initial words echoing the beginning of most of the
prophetic books.

To whom, then, are the words addressed? The critical phrase here is ‘in Jerusalem’.
It implies that these words are addressed to those who were accustomed to gather in
the place where the LORD ruled and where his word was customary heard and his
wisdom revealed. In other words, it is a message addressed to the people of God… to

And yet… such a message seems strangely out of kilter with what we might have
been expected from a messianic prophet invested with divine wisdom. Indeed, when
his summary is considered (2) it is even more strange! The word translated
‘meaningless’ has a range of meanings: insubstantial, transient, futile, enigmatic….
And he both excludes nothing and emphasises its extent.

The temptation, of course, is to add a ‘gloss’ that begins with ‘But….‘. A variety of
such expedients have been used over the centuries. But the passage will not allow
this. Before we go any further into this book we have to bow before the inspired
author’s judgement. Only then, he might suggest, are we likely to understand what
the divine author intends us to learn in Ecclesiastes!


The writer of Ecclesiastes commenced his book with what appears a startling
message. Addressing the people of God, he tells them, bluntly, that life is a complete
enigma. Individuals come and go without any significant impact on the world they
leave behind, nature itself proceeds in a wearyingly repetitive round, freedom is an
illusion, much effort effects nil results, the more one knows the less one grasps,
novelty is merely a consequence of corporate forgetfulness…. Such is the introduction
to his book. It provokes many questions, prompts rebuttal .... But it is in Scripture
and we must listen before we judge!

So we come to the present passage which specifically addresses one of the
characteristic features of his world and ours: the pursuit of knowledge. Clearly, the
author is no anti-intellectual. He pursued the scholar’s path, so he tells us,
wholeheartedly and with total thoroughness (13a). No stone was left unturned in his
pursuit as he plunged into the task of the polymath and he clearly regarded his
programme as superior to foolish ignorance (17). Bluntly, however, he tells us the
results of his labours:  much effort (13b) resulted in meagre returns (14).

Specifically, the complexities and contradictions of human existence remained
unchanged and rendered remedial action impossible and adequate explanation out
of reach (15)...: an untranslated exclamation at the begging of both 14 and in 16
emphasise that this was something of a surprise, but nevertheless true!

It would, of course, be possible to reply by suggesting that the problem was his:
perhaps he lacked adequate resources, opportunity, strength of inclination, simple
ability for the task… a greater man might succeed where the lesser failed! But our
author refuses such an ‘escape route’ from the dilemma he is posing. As king his
resources were beyond the reach of others (12), his qualifications for the task
impeccable (16), his commitment total and the subject matter comprehensive (17). No
one could be better qualified to reach his conclusion: a conclusion reiterated by use
of a proverb in verse 18. 

Yet the proverb is interesting as it echoes Genesis 3 (as does 13b) and with that echo
we begin to perceive the point to which our author is leading us. We live in a fallen
world, the result of which is that, for all its value, intellectual activity cannot resolve
the profoundest enigmas of life. And this, he argues is true even for the inhabitants of
Jerusalem, God’s people (12).

Several conclusions may, therefore, be drawn:

* to seek ‘meaning’ in and through life through academic endeavour is folly;
* to expect to resolve life’s ultimate enigmas (even as believers) is the height of
stupidity: there are God-imposed limits on our creaturely (and fallen) natures
that can never plumb the mysteries of God and his ways. Sometimes, the
writer might suggest, agnosticism and doxology is the way of wisdom.


In chapter 1 the writer of Ecclesiastes suggests that life is inescapably enigmatic (1:2).
He notes that individuals come and go without any significant impact on the world
they leave behind, nature itself proceeds in a wearyingly repetitive round, freedom is
an illusion, much effort effects nil results, the more one knows the less one grasps,
novelty is merely a consequence of corporate forgetfulness. In particular, he
concludes that, in a fallen world, the pursuit of knowledge (in and of itself and as the
key to answering life’s enigmas and providing a sense of personal achievement) is an
empty one!

Thus, in chapter 2 he looks for answers and satisfaction elsewhere: in pleasure,
material acquisition (1-17) and in work (18-26): three of the routes that human beings
often take to find satisfaction and answers to life’s enigmas. He shares his discoveries
with us. Here we address the first two.

Pleasure is pleasurable but (again in and of itself) is merely a frivolous response to
our deep-seated need for ‘reality’ (1-3). Whether the writer has baser pleasures of the
binge-drinker or the ‘superior’ pleasures of the wine connoisseur in mind (!) is not
clear and irrelevant to his application… it did not deliver (1b). We may enjoy
ourselves but enjoy ourselves to death!

The acquisition of wealth proves equally unable to fulfill our search (4-11). The
pleasures of the bottle were exchanged, by our author for the more ‘productive’ life of
material gain… as they so often are (is it a generational thing?). Growing capital (7)
an expanding bank account (8a), the ‘fringe benefits’ of success (8b) accompanied by
showy (and multiple) residences (4-6) and a large subservient work force (7) offered
the author temporary satisfaction (10). But, when all was said and done, the enigma
remained and the hollow sense of meaningless remained (11) ... so often seen in the
bitterness and hardness of the ‘successful’. 

The inescapable (interim) conclusion: death overshadows everything and
underlines the ultimate enigma of life (12-17). On the one hand our author
recognised, as the result of his all-embracing search (12) that wisdom is so much
better than folly as light is to darkness (13-14a). He does not welcome fools gladly!
But the undeniable reality is that they both end up in the grave (14b); the same fate
overtakes them both and the merits of the wise will soon be forgotten (16). Little
wonder the frustrated anger that is expressed in verse 17!

With these illustrations we may detect that the writer has subtly shifted his ground
from seeking answers to life’s ultimate questions to looking for personal fulfillment
(though they are, of course, related). Addressing those who resort to pleasure and the
acquisition of wealth and a ‘name’ he rams home the point that these neither
ultimately satisfy nor make any sense in the face of death.

So how do we apply this to ourselves?
* If the pursuit for answers to life’s enigmas is ultimately beyond the ability of
(fallen) humans, it is also true that the substitutes that we often construct to
give ‘meaning’ to life are empty and ultimately valueless.
* If death is the great leveler and reduces all human ambitions to the dust, true
wisdom, the answers to life’s enigmas and the experience of ‘personal
fulfillment’ must be found elsewhere than in those pursuits listed here!
* Consequently, we begin to perceive the writer’s point, our lives are to be built
upon his God. True wisdom is to know him and that fellowship that breaks
through the barrier of death into eternal life… a vision that those of us who
live the other side of Easter may be able to grasp a little more fully than the
writer of Ecclesiastes.
* A final word: this is more than saying we need to believe in Jesus for our
eternal security. It is to say that the shape and goals of our lives, the values
that we embrace and live by are those that find their foundation in him and
him alone… all other choices are as empty and valueless for the believer as
everyone else!


A Reminder:

In chapter 1 the writer of Ecclesiastes concludes that life is inescapably puzzling
(1:2): individuals come and go without any significant impact on the world they leave
behind, nature itself proceeds in a wearyingly repetitive round, freedom is an illusion,
much effort effects nil results, the more one knows the less one grasps, novelty is
merely a consequence of corporate forgetfulness. In particular, in a fallen world, the
pursuit of knowledge as an answer to life’s ‘big questions’ is an empty one!

Without such answers, ‘meaning’ may be sought elsewhere: in pleasure, material
acquisition (2:1-17) and in work (2:18-26). However, as to the former two, the author
concludes that the substitutes that we often construct to give ‘meaning’ to life are
empty and ultimately valueless since death is the great leveler and reduces all human
ambitions to the dust!

And so to Work

So we come to work…. And, typically of the author, he offers his deeply personal but
universal conclusion before offering his reasons:  if I am seeking satisfaction in life
through my physical endeavours such can only lead to bitterness (18a). The reasons
are (and the author is brutally and typically, even painfully, honest):

* It is others who benefit from my physical and mental efforts (18b, 21): the
pleasure is theirs!
* Work is as unending as it is unrewarding and as painful as it is vain (23);
* There is no certainty that my ‘foundational’ work will be well built upon (19);
a fool may destroy my hard-won efforts;
* So to seek satisfaction and ‘meaning’ through work can, if I am honest, only
create deep disillusionment (20.

The Sum of the Argument so Far

Answers to life’s mysteries are unobtainable through the enquiries of finite human
beings and (aiming lower) personal satisfaction in life cannot ultimately be found
through pleasure-seeking, material acquisition or hard graft… in other words, it can
be found nowhere! The world’s accelerating and unending hurry is vain.

But the author is no pessimist ... as the following verses testify; for in the brief
paragraph that follows (24-26) he begins to offer a hope that shines ever more brightly
as the book proceeds.

A Major Turning Point

Life and its pleasures are not ends in themselves nor to be mastered or used to
promote personal agendas… but, for all their perplexity, are to be received as divine
gifts. Under such circumstances, that ‘satisfaction’ that the ‘sinner’ works and strives
for is gifted to the person who ‘pleases God’.


A famous French spiritual classic is entitled The Sacrament of the Present Moment: it
is a simple call to God’s people to re-orientate our lives away from the slavish pursuit
of the goal that always lies just beyond our reach (or tarnishes when touched) and to
recognize that life, for all its mysteries, is to be enjoyed as a moment-by-moment gift
from God. The writer of Ecclesiastes would surely utter a loud ‘Amen’... as would
the Saviour who lived his life in moment-by-moment enjoyment of fellowship with
his Father.


A Reminder: The Argument so Far

The writer of this book has made two major points in his introduction (chapters 1,2):

* The in-built human need for answers to questions about the meaning of life
cannot be met either through the enquiries of finite human minds nor
through those activities with which we fill up our lives so as to give us a
sense of purpose and self-worth.
* ‘Meaning’ can only be found in that knowledge that God imparts and in
receiving life as gifted from his hand. 

However, the author is well-aware that his radical diagnosis goes so much ‘against the
grain’ of human wisdom and activity and he recognises the need to emphasise and
explain his point more thoroughly…like any good preacher… and so the book

A Problematic Poem (1-8)

This passage is the most well-known in the book; for many of us as a result of the
1960’s ‘pop’ version by Joan Baez. But for all our familiarity with it no-one seems
sure as to the meaning of its comprehensive description of the realities of life! Does
the poem describe the wearying and meaningless cycle of life or does it hint, more
positively, at a divine and purposeful ordering of the world?

Yet, perhaps, that is the point…. Beginning with the ultimate realities of birth and
death (2a), the same events and experiences are ambiguous in themselves and can be
viewed differently from different perspectives and the poem may be designed to
highlight this very fact. Only the sequel will reveal the correct perspective…

A Provisional Conclusion (9-15)

The last verses of this section help us answer the question and encourage the reader
toward the author’s own conclusion (a conclusion that will be expounded throughout
the book). Especially striking here is the fact that ‘God’ is mentioned or is the
subject of virtually every verb! It helps us understand his point!

St Augustine, one of the greatest Christians who has even lived (certainly one of its
greatest minds), once said ‘our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you’. Our
author agrees! Thus he makes four points:

* Human beings have a God-shaped hole at the core of their being (11b);
* The ways of the deity cannot be mastered by human reflection and action
(11c). To attempt to ‘control’ God by comprehending him is unproductive and
burdensome (9,10);
* Lives lived in harmony with the will of God (12b) bring contentment (12a)
and the simple experiences of life, received as from God, provide satisfaction
that eludes all others (13).
* Thus, the very (threatening) regularities of life may become a pathway to God
himself (14) and a guarantee that God will call all to account and unravel
current enigmas (15).


This is not the ‘full Gospel’ but, for many, the pathway charted by the author of
Ecclesiastes is a necessary road to the Gospel… and, for the rest of us, is a constant
challenge as to where we build our own ‘foundations’. Fundamentally, life cannot be
mastered by thought or action. Such can only bring us face to face (if we will listen)
with the inexplicable and burdensome round of human existence. But when we
‘step back’ and place not ourselves but God at the centre of our existence… then
the picture changes and that for which we yearn and were created becomes reality
in our experience.


Faced with the realities of life that he has already spelled out ‘letter by letter’ so that
the point is not missed, the writer of Ecclesiastes has begun to hint that the only
answers to both the enigmas of human existence and the deep-seated longing for a
peace that meets our human restlessness, lies in God himself and the fact of life
beyond death.

The writer emphasises this point here with two illustrations: injustice (16-17) and
death (18-22). Both the illustrations and the author’s response are as pointed and
relevant today as they ever were.

* Our world is characterised by the fact that ‘might is right’ (16). Those with
power and authority should provide just judgment but the almost universal
reality is the power is used to abuse (16). Such may extend from domestic
violence, through to bullying at work, to the systematic use of the law to cloak
the de-humanising oppression of the weak by the powerful. We see such
violence everywhere, few of us escape it altogether and, for many, it can
suddenly break forth to destroy us. Yet, argues our author, the answer to the
problem of evil lies in the fact that there is a judge before whom all must
stand and one whom will disburse justice with reference to all that has taken
place amid the wearying round of human existence (17). Without belief in a
just God human existence, not least the experience of evil, has no answer.
* Our existence is haunted by the spectre of death (18-20). By his own version
of Ilkley Moor, the author emphasises that all of us will return to dust (20),
that the fate of humans appears no better than that of animals (18-19). Such, he
feels, together with all humanity, makes no sense (19b). We recognise the
force of what is being said: death, ever indiscriminate, is a ‘grim reaper’,
bringing to an end knowledge, goodness, love… so much. So how does our
author respond? His point appears to be this: attempts to control the future
are a wasted pursuit (21, 22b: a better interpretation than to assume the author
did not know about life after death) and while we have life it is best to enjoy it
as from the hand of God (his ‘lot’ or ‘portion’). Such of course, only makes
sense, if we share the author’s belief in a life beyond the grave where there
will be ‘time for every activity, a time for every deed.‘

Once again, the author is not spelling out the full Christian message or even the
complete Old Testament hope. But that is not his purpose here! He has a more modest
but no less necessary aim: to make his readers/listeners recognise ‘life is a bummer’
and fails to satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart. Only the twin beliefs in
the life to come and the justice of God can begin to offer a light in the darkness. All
other philosophies and actions fall tragically, painfully short. It is this, at the present
point, the author wishes us to take with all seriousness.

As the book continues the light will become greater and offer a clearer perspective.
Only the New Testament stories of Jesus will provide 20-20 vision. But before we
reach those heady heights we must first grasp with our minds and hearts the solemn
challenge brought before us here!


The message so far
* The writer of Ecclesiastes, addressing God’s people as spokesperson and
messianic representative (1:1) has concluded that human existence does not
make sense (1:2-11). No human answers/philosophy can be conceived to
answer life’s enigmas (1:13-18) and no strategies for ‘self-realisation’
adopted to ameliorate the situation (2:1-23). Certain regularities can be
discerned that might be seen to offer a basis for human decision-making (3:1-
8) but injustice (3:16-17) and death (3:18-21) tend to make a nonsense of all
human calculation. 
* At the same time, an emerging and, at this point, secondary theme has begun
to emerge. Hinted at in 2:24-26 it is more fully outlined in chapter 3. Simply
put, the existence of a benevolent and just God and the fact of life beyond
the grave means that life is to be received as God’s gift (3:9-15) and the
enigmas of life faced in the knowledge that resolution alone lies in the fact
of life beyond the grave (3:16-22). Without such convictions there are no final
answers to life’s enigmas!

The point of the present chapter

All of which brings us to the present chapter that forms the concluding part of the first
section of the book, the first twelve verses of which are self-consciously structured
into three parallel parts (1-3,4-6,7-9) followed by a conclusion (10-12). 13-16 tie up
the ‘loose ends’ at the end of the first part of the book. Recognising this structure will
help understand the message. First of all, the author says:

* The world is, for many, a miserable, comfortless and hopeless place (1,2)
which, if possible, were better avoided (3).
* The world is characterised by either a destructive, competitive ‘dog eats dog’
attitude (4) or the self-cannibalism of the drop-out (5) both of which are best
rejected (6).
* The world is dominated by irrational self-interest (7,8) whereas mutual help
is preferable (9). This answer to all three sections is then embellished:
* Companionship brings relief from life’s burdens and trials (10-12). The
illustrations here may be metaphorical: adversity, temptation and grief is best
faced in fellowship with others.

But why does the author make these points at this juncture of his argument? The best
answer would seem to be this: in an enigmatic world where such attitudes and actions
prevail, those whose hope is in God and whose security lies beyond the grave will
live by very different standards…. 

All of which brings us to the final three verses (13-16). Translation and interpretation
of these verses is very difficult. However, what is clear is that it describes the short-
term popularity of the ‘great’. It is an appropriate ending, a reminder that the world’s
values offer only temporary satisfaction… far better to live for God and for others
than for self.


It is easy to read Ecclesiastes as fundamentally directed to the ‘unbelieving’ world,
offering a trenchant expose of the folly of a life apart from God. But is far more
than that!  It addresses us as the people of God, reminding us of the on-going
temptation to place the world and its values above trust in God and living in faithful
obedience to him in the knowledge that only fellowship with him (both now and in
eternity) can meet the deepest longings of the human heart.


The author of Ecclesiastes has sought to argue that life (and death) makes no sense
apart from the twin beliefs in a God of justice and in an afterlife where the enigmas of
our present experience find resolution. It might be supposed, therefore, that he would
encourage the pursuit of religion. The present section, however, demonstrates that it is
not as simple as that! Simply put, there is right and wrong religion and the author is
anxious that his readers make the right choice! To encourage the correct choice he
makes several, ever relevant, points:

Thus, we need to be sure that:

* We approach God with the right attitude and in the correct manner (1).
Sacrifices lay at the heart of the religion with which our author was familiar.
But sacrifices could be made unguardedly, thoughtlessly: that is, in breach of
God’s word and in moral defiance of him.
* Our prayers are uttered from the heart and with proper recognition that God
cannot be manipulated (2). Thus hasty and impulsive language that lacks
reflection can often descend into language that tries to get God ‘on-side’. The
essence of prayer, however, lies elsewhere in bringing our needs to God and
saying ‘your will be done’. It is to defer to divine wisdom not assert our own.
* The language of our worship is not that of the deluded dreamer (3,7,
beginning). The failure to listen leads to verbal dysentery and words empty of
content and meaning. Before we speak to God (another controlling
mechanism?) we do well to listen to him first; scary though this might be!
* We are people of integrity (4,5). It is God who does not tolerate fools gladly
and there are none so foolish as those who say one thing and do something
else… especially in their dealings with God! This subject is of sufficient
importance to our author that he expands his point, emphasising that our
excuses will seem as lame as any hoaxers when called to account (6). In sum,
then, we must be sure that:
* We fear God (7,end). These last few words sum up all that has been said here.
A proper recognition of the one before whom we come should prompt the
correct attitude to worship and every approach to God and should ensure
our obedient listening and faithful living.

If we transpose these lessons into ‘New Testament’ language, we are reminded that:
* God is far bigger than we are! We are not the boss and our business is not
merely our own ends!
* God makes himself known to us (by his Spirit) in Scripture when we are
ready to listen;
* He has set before us the one and only way to approach him through Jesus;
* Through him, we are to live in integrity and obedience.

In the context of this book the point our author makes is that only by such a path
will the deepest longings of the human heart be met and the answers to life’s
enigmas and strivings be realised. His message is timeless!


The author of Ecclesiastes has sought, thus far, to emphasise
* That the human search for ‘meaning’ cannot be met even by the most
thorough-going search or the various activities in which ‘satisfaction’ are so
often sought.
* That life and death are puzzles without answers apart a) from faith in a God
who is just, b) in a life to come where inequities and enigmas are resolved and
c) through receiving every experience in life as ‘from God’.
* Most recently, that while ‘religion’ is the answer, it needs to be ‘true’ religion.

In the present section, he returns again, but more fully, to stress the folly of the pursuit
of possessions and the blessings that attend trust in God. Evidence for each is offered
on the basis of personal observation and experience (with which it is not difficult to
add our own testimonies!)

The pursuit of wealth and honour as a path to ‘success’ is an empty one (8-16).

* It is characterised by moral corruption as one level of the hierarchy after
another abuse and manipulate to gain a maximum stake in the ‘profits’ (8-9).
* It is self-consuming. It attracts parasites and creditors (10), brings
sleeplessness and anxiety (11,12), its possession is uncertain and brief (13)
and it guarantees neither ‘light’ nor ‘happiness’ nor ‘health’ nor ‘peace’ (16).
* It is foolish. We can take from life no more than we received at birth (15,16).

The enjoyment of God’s gifts amid the demands of life brings joy (17-20).

Simply put, there is another way to experience life.

* Life is God’s gift to us and its pleasures, even wealth, are to be enjoyed
freely as from him (18,19). Rather than pursue the unreachable goal,
everything is to be welcomed as from God’s gracious hand.
* Life may be short (18,end) but not because it lacks meaning but because it is
utterly satisfying and absorbing (20).

These words need to be placed in the wider context, especially the immediately
preceding verses. The true fear of God (5, end) no longer views life as something ‘I’
must master but the sphere in which he is glorified through our service and we are
blessed through receiving his daily gifts of life. Success is not found in our
achievements but enjoying his mercies.

How then do we apply this to ourselves?

* The pursuit of anything other than God is idolatry and reaps the fruits of all
idolatry, moral corruption and selfish but failed ambition.
* The enjoyment of life begins with the ‘fear’ of God and the willing welcome
of his gifts… above all the merciful gift of his Son.


Despite the difficulty of translating much of this chapter (a fact reflected in the
various translations) the main message is fairly clear and the fact that it concludes the
first section of the book while preparing for the second half is generally agreed.

Chapter 5 concluded with the author stressing the fact that life, with all its privileges
and pains, can only be fully enjoyed when received, gratefully, from God. The point
of chapter 6 is to convince the doubter that this is true!

Life that is lived without the pleasure that God alone gives is no more than a hell-
hole (1-6).

Crucial to the understanding of these verses is 3b,4. In the ancient world the failure to
experience life and generate offspring to preserve one’s name was regarded with
horror and something of a curse. Our author does not deny this! However, he makes
the point that something else is even worse: to experience life to the full and to fail to
enjoy it is doubly tragic.

The illustration(s) provided describe a person ‘blessed’ by God with ‘good’ things:
wealth and status (2a), a large family (much cherished in the ancient world, 3a), a
long life and a splendid funeral (3b: the translation is particularly difficult here but
this seems the point). One thing, however, is missing: contentment is withheld by God
(2b) and even a lifespan twice that of Methuselah (6) ends in the grave with this need

Life lived in striving for the unattainable is a miserable existence (7-9).

Again, the author makes his point by a ‘shocking’ example. Wisdom and wealth were
treasured in the ancient world (as today). The author of Ecclesiastes does not demur.
However, when such are pursued as ‘an end in themselves’ much effort results in nil
rewards. Arduous endeavour (7), knowledge (8): an insatiable appetite for the
‘world’s’ riches and status (9) leaves an ‘aching void’.

Life lived in antagonism with God is a fruitless endeavour (10-12).

Here the author identifies the fundamental problem of much human existence. Foolish
self-mastery characterises the experience of life of many (10): but neither actions (10)
nor words (11) nor strategic planning (12) can provide an escape from the ordering of
one who is ‘stronger’. It is by walking ‘hand in hand’ with God’s providential
leading that satisfaction and pleasure is to be enjoyed. Those who live closest to
God have ‘solid joys and lasting treasure’.


Once again the author probes painfully into the realities of life that we so often try to
evade. We all are inclined to seek happiness in those ‘good’ things that only satisfy
when enjoyed hand-in-hand with God. It is they that become an end in themselves
rather than the God who liberally supplies them. However, divorced from the giver,
they prove to be a ‘poisoned chalice’ that eternity itself cannot resolve! Powerfully,
we are bidden to seek God and submit to him for, there alone, is true freedom and


With these verses we are immediately alerted to the fact that the form of discussion
changes: earlier discourse is replaced in 1-12 by short, pithy proverbs ... not unlike
those found in the book bearing that name.

And yet…. there appears to be a substantial difference. Here the sayings seem to be
‘subverted’ and traditional sayings (for example 1a) shockingly (!) qualified in the
face of death (so, 1b). What then is this passage intended to teach us?

* To be wise is preferable to fame: and wisdom is learned by facing death ‘in
the face’ (1-6).

There is no suggestion in verse 1 that fame is, in itself, bad or that its pursuit is
necessarily wrong; nor that a ‘slap up’ meal (2) or fun and laughter (3-5) are
rebuked here. The point that is made is that these can sometimes become ends in
themselves and means to avoid the unpleasant but inevitable facts of life… and
death. Such is mere noise and empty frivolity (6) that avoids reality and fails to
‘lay the lessons to heart’ and live appropriately. Our society offers many means to
avoid taking life seriously… and offers short-cuts when facing reality proves
uncomfortable and painful. Recognising the pitfalls and facing up to reality are the
first steps to make the best use of life.
* To be wise is preferable to wealth: yet even wisdom has its limitations (7-12).

The point here is that, however beneficial wisdom (discernment) may be (11,12) it
cannot expect answers to all of life’s questions. Tragically, the abuse of power and
money (the author might have added, sex) can overthrow all sanity (7). Wisdom,
however, recognises such limitations and avoids both premature conclusions (8,9)
and the exaltation of the past (10). In our world the same enigmas exist and defeat
all attempt to find adequate explanations… but:
* The fear of the Lord is the beginning and end of wisdom (13,14).

His ordering of his world transcends finite minds and human invention (13).
Present reality and future experience, the good and the bad, are outside human
control and are ‘gifted’ to encourage reflection and submission (14). A truly wise
person, submits to God rather than usurp him and is ready to learn from
experience rather than live ‘in denial’ and indulge in foolish self-driven
manipulation of God.


The author of Ecclesiastes assumes the reality of God. He also has a sufficiently
‘big’ view of God such that he does not think it necessary to defend him. Further,
he has a realistic view of humanity: finite, sinful, prone to self-assertion and
unreality. Wisdom begins, he suggests, by getting our thinking straight on these
matters… then life and death can be faced and the present life received and
explored (within the parameters of God’s self-revelation) as a pathway to the life
to come.


Students of this passage in Ecclesiastes have found it as confusing as any in the book.
This is understandable: the author appears to say a number of apparently contradictory
things… or things he contradicts elsewhere. However, the difficulties become less if
we recognise that a) he may be deliberately confusing because he is describing a
confusing situation and b) he may, in fact, quote a view that he then counters or

So what does he teach?

* We live in a morally ambiguous world (15-18). An attempt to lead a good life
appears to offer no benefits. Premature death may intervene in the case of a
good life and a wicked life be prolonged (15). Ironically, the author comments
that it might seem best to hedge ones bets (16,17). In fact, however, he
recognises that while the fear of God may not offer all the answers, it is the
preferable course. Since God is God, this ought to be an adequate answer!
However, the author recognises our tendency to challenge deity and to want
answers to proceed further.
* We live in a morally perverted world (19-22). If the fear of the Lord is the
beginning of wisdom (18) and such wisdom is a genuine boon (19),
fundamental to wisdom is the recognition that all human beings are morally
skewed (20-22). Thus the problem of a disordered world lies not at the feet of
God but of its corrupted inhabitants that have ‘skewed’ its proper
functioning. Thus, the author concludes:
* We live in a world where I am the problem that requires an answer! (23-29)
The language here is reminiscent of the words with which the book started. It
appears to suggest that something of a conclusion is reached at this point (23-
25). Two conclusions are emphasised:
a) the enigmas of our world are the consequence of sin having entered
the world and corrupted all its inhabitants… including me (27-29). The
writer’s language here is heavily influenced by the first three chapters of
Genesis. God’s world is good. Its corruption is down to the endless and
devious stategies by which human beings live as a result.
b) the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (26). To listen to
God and follow his ways both pleases God and brings deliverance. For
the writer, this meant to live in the light of the Old Testament promises.
For us it means to trust in the one to whom they pointed. Either way,
the enigmas of our world are best faced by facing ourselves and by
seeking that help that only God himself can provide.


Too often we face the perplexities of the world and place God in the dock. The
writer of Ecclesiastes recognises that this involves an arrogant failure to
recognise that the roles of plaintiff and defendant are, in fact, reversed. Such
‘wisdom’ leads to a recognition of our condition and need and to seek the One
who is God’s answer to our need.


The writer of Ecclesiastes has no doubt that there is a value in human reflection and in
the appropriate use of the knowledge gained. Thus, though the book contains much
irony, he may not be speaking anything other than his convinced belief in verse 1:
there is a deep satisfaction to be gained from mastering an area of study or thought!
Thus, the present chapter outlines two major conclusions reached by such

Knowledge may offer us certain limited advantages (1-11). 


* Human reflection may assist us in discerning business practice (2-6): not
least it is best not to antagonise one’s superior and to follow the protocols of
the work place even if it does not produce personal happiness. Such examples
of the benefits of knowledge may be deliberately banal. What is offered is
scarcely ‘earth shaking’. Neither is the next point he makes:
* Human reflection teaches that good sometimes effects self-damage while
evil can prompt both adulation and copying (9-11). This is something of a
negative conclusion as it exposes the limitations of ‘knowledge’ to master
one’s environment and to explain experience adequately. Wisdom has its place
but…. It follows, then,
* Human reflection (at its best) does, indeed, warn against the arrogance of
presumption (7-8). The future is as impossible to grasp as the wind and no
actions can be undertaken to alter it.

Such knowledge is beneficial but strictly limited. To claim more for human
knowledge and insight is, the author implies, foolish (and as the sequel suggests)
impious! By way of contrast, the author then points out that true wisdom teaches that:

Faith prevails where wisdom fails (12-17)


* Faith holds on to the fact that fearing God is a ‘wise move’ (12-13). There is
a knowledge that transcends human enquiry and is confident of the final
resolution of life’s enigmas. The puzzling nature of human experience that
human thought cannot comprehend is best seen as a witness to the necessity of
* Faith recognises that despite the perplexing questions of human existence
satisfaction can be experienced in receiving God’s gifts in life (14-15).
Rather than seek to control life (and God!) it is best to enjoy that which God
ordains. The world reveals both the finiteness of humanity and the
incomprehensible greatness and merciful generosity of God, it testifies to God
not humanity as sovereign.
* Faith recognises the hand of God in his world despite human inability to
master the knowledge of God (16-17). There is sufficient evidence of God’s
presence to offer confirmation of his existence and power: but he does not
reveal his all to humans and cannot be mastered by human enquiry or


Here is a believer not unaware of the perplexities of life. But where such perplexities
are often used as a basis for unbelief, he sees the limitations of knowledge and the
experiences of life as testimony to the reasonableness and necessity of faith. He
invites us to submit to God, his ways and his self-revelation… a self-revelation that
finds its centre in the Lord Jesus.


It will be difficult to understand this section if it is not read in its wider context. The
author is a believer who struggles to find adequate answers to the great enigmas in
life. Faith is not sight and fully satisfying answers are not forthcoming to those who
live by faith.

Thus, while faith affirms that the ‘earth is the Lord’s’ and acknowledges his
sovereign rule (1a) this provides no foreknowledge to the believer as to how his or
her life may turn out.

* life itself may be lived happily or under ‘darker skies’ unaffected by the
inherent ‘goodness’ or other of that life (1b).
* Further, the inevitable human destiny (the grave, 2a, 3a) is not apparently
affected by a person’s conduct, religious observances or social values (2b).
* Indeed, such might well (and does) encourage burgeoning evil, destructiveness
and despair (3) in the face of death…
* Even though there is something in the human make-up that makes us cling
onto life and (paradoxically) recognise it inherent ‘rightness’ and value. The
fact that life ends… with no further prospect of personal development (5a), the
loss of the memory of even the good as the years pass (5b), the (sudden)
ending of those things that enrich (and sometimes harm) life (6) seems an

Perplexing (and painful and short) though life may be, faith lives in humble trust
and, rather than question the future, where possible welcomes and enjoys the
present; however enigmatic life may appear (9b).

And blessings aplenty there are:
* God’s favour is seen in his daily provision of our needs and in those supplies
that bring a ‘mellowness’ and contentment to life (7);
* To contentment is added (8) comfort: the pleasures of a new wardrobe (8)!;
* Further companionship is emphasised (9a).
* Finally, there is activity (10). Physical effort, mental reflection and the
application of knowledge are all potentially deeply satisfying.

Yet… preoccupation with the pleasures of life must not disguise life’s frustrations:
* Talents and merit, physical and mental efforts seem to be ‘rewarded’ on the
basis of mere chance (11);
* The visit of disaster or the ‘grim reaper’ utterly unpredictable (12);
* Fame and fortune (however much deserved) is fleeting (13-16).
* And goodness and wisdom is a fragile plant (17,18).


While, as we know, the ultimate security of our author lies in the reality of life after
the grave, he does not duck the perplexing realities of life… but for all their
encouragements to abandon faith, he does not allow them to do so. God is greater
than our experience and his blessings are present even in the midst of the severest
buffetings. His shadow may be perceived as he passes but he always remains out of
sight… but he IS there… as Jesus himself knew!


Throughout his book the author of Ecclesiastes has sought to demonstrate that:

* A self-driven life will neither find all the answers to life’s ultimate questions
nor bring lasting satisfaction. The complexities of life run well beyond
human comprehension and a life lived without God leaves a ‘void’ nothing
else can fill;
* Life, with all its complex and unanswerable problems, is best received (and
where possible) enjoyed but, humbly, as under God’s sovereign hand… in
recognition that all those things that puzzle will find their complete answer in
the age to come.

All of which brings us to chapter 10 which, more than any other chapter in the book,
reads like much of the book of Proverbs…. Wise words drawn from the experience of
life. Thus, the writer implies,

* While certain questions and answers lie beyond the grasp of the human
mind this does not mean we cannot learn important lessons from our
observation and experience (see, especially, 10,11).

Folly is often self-evident, except to the person themselves (2,3) and foolishness is
the result of laziness:
a) mental laziness (15) is seen by its self-destructive, ignorant, boasting (12-14),
while lacking the ability to plan wisely (14). Such mental laziness is often
b) accompanied by moral failings (16,17) and
c) general indolence (18) and
d) is driven by carnal needs, stimulants and, above all, the pursuit of money (19).

Meanwhile wisdom is accompanied by
a) discretion (20)
b) calm reflection (4) since a calm response to a situation can resolve many a
problem where resort to anger is destructive

* while guidance for life can be gained by such knowledge and experience, the
existence of evil can destroy and undermine the wise choice and action.
Perhaps this, especially, is mentioned here to avoid the reader slipping back
into self-mastery.

Thus, an individual can destroy much good by one foolish action and the wisdom
of many can be undermined by the folly of one (1), we often live in a topsy-turvy
world where folly is found where wisdom should exist, and wisdom where one
might expect ignorance (5-7) and sometimes human effort appears to receive a
poor reward (8-9). 

All of which may be good, sound, advice. But where is God and the Gospel in a
chapter that does not even mention his name? Perhaps in its stubborn refusal of self-
mastery, in its insistence on humility in the face of life’s experiences, possibly in its
expose of those traits that so often characterise society that has abandoned God,
possibly in the encouragement to eschew indolent thinking and develop discretion.
The implication may well be that where we come to a right mind, a proper humility,
we are ready to look beyond ourselves to seek our creator and the one whom alone
can make final ‘sense’ of a world that we can only sketchily and imperfectly grasp for
ourselves… the message that the Book repeats over and over again!


With this passage the author begins to draw his argument to a conclusion. The
language is highly poetic and (like much poetry) difficult to tie down the precise
meaning. Yet, in the light of the book as a whole, it is perhaps not as perplexing as it
might appear at first reading (and the allusive nature of the language may be because
it is intended to encourage re-reading and reflection).

God’s world is inscrutable (11:1-6): That God is at work in his world is apparent to
the person who reflects on it but perceiving his purpose is beyond human
comprehension (5). Thus, our experience of life reveals nothing is guaranteed (1),
careful planning is no guarantee against mishap (2) since we are subject to ‘fate’ (3)
and life has to be lived without guarantees (4,6).

Life is to be lived in the ‘real world’ (11:7-10).
* In itself there is much that is good, pleasant and to be enjoyed (7,8a). Equally,
perplexing darkness is a fundamental fact of life with which only a fool fails
to reckon (8b).
* Both emotional and aesthetic pleasures are part of the joy of being human…
(9a)  but they are to be appreciated within the moral bounds that God has
placed upon them and under the awareness that God is our judge (9b).
* The brevity of youth should not preclude the enjoyment of it (10)! The verse
is difficult to translate but ‘vanity’ can be rendered ‘brief’ and produce this
interpretation; one that is consistent with the passage as a whole.

Life is to be lived in the awareness of God (12:1-8). The passage appears to invite
the reader, in the face of the inevitable return of the ‘soul’ to its creator (7), to chart
life, from its inception, upon the recollection of God (1). On the basis of all that God
has done and provided for us (see above), this is entirely worthy and worthwhile.

Verses 2-6 are the most graphic description of decay and dissolution until ‘earth’s
dark shadows flee’ in the Bible; perhaps better ‘felt’ than ‘explained’. We feel the
‘cold draft’ and the encroaching darkness depicted here. The writer’s point surely
being that, in the face of such inevitable and fast approaching (8) facts, we need to be
prepared for the meeting with our Creator and live our lives happily, yet, solemnly on
account of it. 


One is struck by the shear realism of our author. Our world is a good world, brim-ful
of things to enjoy… and best enjoyed in recognition of God and in accordance with
his purpose. Here then is no kill-joy! At the same time, there are no guarantees,
except death and judgment. Life itself is precarious and puzzling and the inevitable
fact of decline and death an ever present reality. So life is to be enjoyed as from the
hand of God and death anticipated in fear of him.

A final point: our author was a ‘believer’ and as we draw toward the close of his
discussion we begin to recognise that his book is designed to ‘explode’ our self-
sufficiency and our failure to face life and death ‘in the face’. There is a God who
has lavished his blessings upon us not by ‘right’ but as a gift and who bids us
reckon our lives in the light of the fact that he is our creator, benefactor and judge.

But, herein, lies a challenge! We have noticed his apparent failure to ‘point us to
Jesus’. We have explored several reasons for this in the course of our studies.
Certainly the book can be read as ‘pre-evangelistic’. Yet there may be another reason:
writing as a believer to believers, the redeemed to the redeemed, he may just be
pointing out that we, too, can live in neglect of God and the realities of life!


Books often contain endorsements: these can both encourage our attention or offer
‘authorisation’ (as with the titles of a number of religious books which the authorities
confirm are ‘orthodox’). The present verses offer both to the book that we have been
reading. As such, they tell us both why we should read the book, why we should
attend to its contents and provide a final challenge to us all to recognise the need to
listen and respond to its message.

Here is someone whose words demand our attention because:

* He is well-qualified and his concerns were personal rather than professional
(9a). There are people whose skills are entirely directed toward the realm of
scholarship; but here is someone who was only interested in using his
considerable abilities for the benefit of others.

* He was thorough in his research and comprehensive in his analysis (9b).
Here are no ‘half-baked’ ideas from an ill-equipped and ill-informed mind. He
knew what he was talking about… his ability and knowledge were without

* He was not merely interested in eloquence but in the integrity of what he
wrote (10). Intellectual and pastoral qualifications, thoroughness of research
and analysis and the integrity of the author are emphasised: here is someone
whose advice merits our attention and action.

* Here is one whose words were divinely authorised (11, end). Those who
edited his works recognised that they came with divine authority; there was
something ‘special’ and ‘supernatural’ about them.

* Though his words bring pain they ensure we walk on the correct path (11a).
Ancient drovers used nails and staffs to keep animals on a straight path.

But before a final summary of his message is given we are given a warning: the
author’s words are adequate to the purpose of challenging us to a response.

* They do not need supplementation (13a) and

* we should resist the temptation to ‘put off the decision’ on the grounds of
the need for further, wearying, research (12).

What, then, are we to learn from our study of this book:

* To honour, submit and enjoy the friendship of God, in response to his
kindness and mercy (13b). We may not understand all his ways but the author
is convinced that enough can be known to respond to God with that worship
that is the ‘chief end of man’.

* To live before him in the recognition that he does care how we live and that
we are answerable for our actions (14).

Of course there are other things the author could have told us. But lest he fire too
many bullets and miss the target, he has gnawed away at these particular truths. But
he leaves us both challenged, and ready (if we have been listening) to ask further
questions… above all, how can I grow in my knowledge of God and how may I
discover his will for me? If his book has prompted such questions and encouraged
this search, the author would (doubtless) be content, his work done.