The Lesson of Ecclesiastes


Those somewhat familiar with the book of Ecclesiastes know that its headline message is encapsulated in its second verse, Ec 1:2:

[2] Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,

vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

The book’s Hebrew title is Qoheleth[i] whose meaning roughly is “an expounder of wisdom”, the narrator of the book.  For this reason, and the author’s statement in v1 that he is the son of David, it is traditionally ascribed to Solomon, who had a reputation for his wisdom.  However, the author is not Solomon, as the text has been analyzed and found to have been generated in the third century BC.  Our author is simply one who wants to invoke Solomon and so gain the patina of his renowned wisdom.

It is easy for the reader of this book to come away depressed; to find in it nothing redeeming.  The author has even been accused of being an atheist[ii].  But those who assembled the Bible and saw fit to include it in its canon presumably saw more in it than hopelessness.  After all, why include it in the canon if its only message leads to despondence?  Let’s see if we can find what they saw.


The word rendered “vanity” in the above (and most all) English translation is:

  1. הֶבֶל heḇel: A common noun referring to vanity, emptiness, meaninglessness; idols. The word is used seventy times, thirty-five of these are in Ecclesiastes. It refers to breath because of its transitory fleeting character (Isa 57:13) and is used as a symbol for life (Job 7:16). It refers to the vanity and ultimate emptiness and meaninglessness of all things in this life, whether they seem good or bad (Ec 1:2,14;2:11,15;3:19;4:4,7,8;5:7 [6]; 6:2, 4, 9; 7:6, 15; 8:10; 9:9; 11:8). Combined with itself in the plural, it means absolute meaninglessness (Ec 1:2). Idols and the vain religious customs associated with them are all delusions (Je 10:3,15). It denotes an empty, vain life (Ec 6:12). Used with the verb hāḇal, it means to carry out vain talk or action or what is empty (Job 27:12). As an adverb, it means to talk in vain, emptily (Job 35:16). To walk after heḇel means to go after or follow vanity (2Ki 17:15; Je 2:5). Anything obtained through evil is vain, such as wealth (Pr 13:11).

In addition to its use in Ecclesiastes, the term elsewhere is used to either name “idols” themselves, or their effectiveness – “worthless” (e.g. Je 8:19, Je 10:15, Dt 32:21, and Ps 31:6).  Our modern understanding of the term focuses more on the actions of the one who is vane – who seeks to make him or herself beautiful, or show off his or her wealth or talents.  Something like showy narcissism.

But our author is not talking about a personal trait.  He’s not saying he’s vain but that it’s just not working.  He’s saying that whatever anyone does in and of the world alone is in vain.  “All is vanity.”  He’s asserting that any attempt to achieve anything worldly that is lasting is futile as far as raising us above our existence; that even having achieved something in the world one is left unfulfilled[iii].  This is his characterization (as we will see) of the living of one’s physical life.  But this is not the totality of his message, as we shall also see.

The verses of Ecclesiastes 1 serve to underscore the author’s theme that the unchanging grind of existence is marked out by, e.g., the sun’s transit of the heavens each day (Ec 1:5), the wind’s blowing from all directions to ultimately return to a direction it previously had (Ec 1:6), and the rivers continuous return to the sea, though ever failing to “refill” it (Ec 1:7).  The author concludes that whatever the reader’s efforts, nothing in creation will change lastingly.  Moreover, the reader will be left in a state of perpetual unrest while he consistently tries to change or produce or write or compose or build, yet will never experience a “Eureka!” moment – a breakthrough that yields fulfillment.

But there’s another point of contrast the author is making in the verses of chapter 1 and that is between the timelessness of the cycles of the sun, the wind, and fresh water, and the transitory nature — the “breath” (heḇel) that characterizes humanity’s efforts to attain satisfaction and fulfillment.

Refining the Message

We should notice that Qoheleth isn’t saying he never enjoyed himself.  On the contrary, he was quite the party animal and seemed, even in his “toil” (building projects, etc.) to have achieved some enjoyment as these verses attest:  Ecclesiastes 2:10-11

[10] And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. [11] Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.

So our author here is not saying he never enjoyed his life and work and was only continually the victim of unhappiness.  By implication, he’s not saying that you will never experience some level of human happiness in living your life.  After all, he never mentions the birth of a child, the love of a spouse or child, or the comfort of the company of dear friends.  He is saying, as we shall see, that these works in the world aren’t ultimately fulfilling.  This is the first part of Qoheleth’s message and the one that most of us focus on.

Qohelet’s Message

Interpreters for centuries have written off Ecclesiastes as, in so many words, a “downer” myopically focused on the futility of human life.  That’s not Qohelet’s purpose.  Let’s look at some verses that seem to expose his real message.

In Ec 2:24-26 we read:

[24] There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, [25] for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? [26] For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.

Here our author introduces one’s connection to God as the key determinant of his satisfaction in his life: “wisdom and knowledge and joy” are identified as gifts of God to those who follow (“please”) Him.

In chapter 3 we’re exposed to Qohelet’s rhetorical pattern of a narrative whose elements are:

I saw evil/something bad (e.g. Ec 3:16)

I remembered traditional wisdom (Ec 3:17)

I reflected on the contrast between the two (Ec 18-21)

Therefore, I rejoiced. (Ec 3:22)

In ch 3:16-22 we read:

[16] Moreover, I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness. [17] I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work. [18] I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts. [19] For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. [20] All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. [21] Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth? [22] So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Who can bring him to see what will be after him?

Later in chapter 8, we have another instance of this literary pattern, Ec 8:10-15:

Seeing an evil thing

[10] Then I saw the wicked buried. They used to go in and out of the holy place and were praised in the city where they had done such things. This also is vanity. [11] Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil.

Remembering Traditional Wisdom

[12] Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him. [13] But it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God.

Reflecting on the Contrast

[14] There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity.

Here the evil he sees is the wicked being buried with honor, and being commemorated fondly.  The tradition he recalls is that “it will be well with those who fear God”.  The contrast between the two images is that the wicked will not be well.

Finally, we see the author’s conclusion of joy despite this contrast in Ec 8:15:


[15] And I commend joy, for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.

And here we sample for the first time the author’s basic understanding that God is the giver of life and its gifts that are their reward.  He started by saying “there is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his soul” (Ec 2:24).  He then observes (Ec 3:12-13)

[12] I perceived (or “know”) that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; [13] also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.

And finally in Ec 8:15, above, he commends joy.  He started with concluding, moved on to state it as a truth he knew, and concludes this pattern of verses by recommending man enjoy himself because the simple pleasures of eating and drinking and being joyful are God’s gifts to mankind on earth (“under the sun”).


Qohelet isn’t some kind of dour philosopher of futility.  None of his observations concerning the futility of building things up only to turn them over to someone else – potentially a fool – upon one’s death seem to distress him.  He understands that there is good and there is bad; for example having wisdom vs. being a fool.  He seems to implicitly understand that seeking our fulfillment in the world, apart from God, is the definition of futility.

No the insight he is here trying to impart to us is that there is a way we are to look at our fleeting lives and that is to enjoy them. They are God’s gift, after all.  Our interaction with the world cannot define our basis for fulfillment.  A person, he seems to be saying, can only achieve true satisfaction and fulfillment by walking with his God.  So live life and experience its enjoyments, for life and its joys are the gift of God.

He concludes with a call to the essentials, Ec 12:13-14:

[13] The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. [14] For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.

The author of these closing verses, I would argue, must have been intimately familiar with the writings of the prophets: Moses (the “Deuteronomist”), certainly but also Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

[i] 6953. קׂהֶלֶת qōheleṯ: A noun meaning a collector of wisdom, a preacher. This word is the active feminine participle of the word qāhal (6950), meaning to gather or to assemble. Thus, the root meaning appears to indicate a person who gathered wisdom. The word has a feminine form because it referred to an office or position, but it was usually used with masculine verbs and always referred to a man. Qōheleṯ only occurs in Ecclesiastes: three times at the beginning and end of the book and once in the middle (Ec 7:27).It is also the Hebrew name of the book. The word Ecclesiastes is a translation of this Hebrew word into Greek and referred to someone who addressed a public assembly. This is another meaning of the word based on the fact that the preacher had gathered knowledge to speak about life. Solomon used the word to describe himself as one who gathered wisdom (Ec 12:9,10; cf. 1Ki 4:32-34[5:12-14]); and as one who spoke to people about wisdom (Ec 12:9; cf. 2Ch 9:23).

[ii]Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 2nd (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), p. 214. This is also the view advocated by Longman (Raymond B. Dillard and Tremper Longman III, An Introduction to the Old Testament [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994], p. 254).

[iii] There is another Hebrew word that means, effectively, “vanity”.  7723. שָׁוְא šāw’: A masculine noun meaning emptiness, vanity, evil, ruin, uselessness, deception, worthless, without result, fraud, deceit. The primary meaning of the word is deceit, lie, or falsehood. Idols were declared worthless with the usage of the noun in Jeremiah (Je 18:15). These idols were those that led the people of God to forget Him.

But our author never uses this term.  He seems, in consistently using the heble/hevel term, to be focusing on its transitory nature – that the results of our efforts ultimately are forgotten with our death, and so constitute nothing more than vapor or “breath”.

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