Have you been wild swimming? Apparently, some people find plunging into freezing lakes and rivers off the beaten track invigorating. It takes their breath away, yet it makes them feel alive. In many ways getting to grips with the book of Ecclesiastes is the wild swim of the Old Testament; a shocking, yet refreshing summons to embrace life as it actually is, not as we might idly wish it were. It takes your breath away, yet it helps us truly embrace the life we’ve been given. Have you taken the plunge? Open your Bible and let me give you five reasons to listen to ‘the words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem’(1:1).
Ecclesiastes is for the people of God
In Ecclesiastes, the king of God’s people (most probably Solomon), under the codename ‘the Preacher’, is preparing us for life in a fallen world affected by the curse. He is giving us wisdom for how to live in the here and now, in this current moment ‘under the sun’ (1:2, 1:14, etc.). This is important because this book is often treated as an apologetic for the unbeliever, convincing them of the emptiness of life without God. To be sure, it has much to offer in this regard, yet we will miss the point if we don’t see that believers need to be convinced of this too! We can all chase meaning and significance in things that don’t ultimately last. The Preacher gives us words of truth and delight to keep us on course as we follow the Shepherd (12:10-11). Ecclesiastes is also a book for the whole church, from the youngest to the oldest.
Ecclesiastes helps us face the perplexity of life
Read the introductory poem in 1:2-11. It hits you in the face, doesn’t it?
‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity’.
This word is better understood to be breath, or mist, or vapour. The Preacher is not telling us that life is pointless and has no meaning; rather he is telling us that life is like that which my children refer to as ‘dragon-breath’ as they walk to school on a chilly morning. Life is fleeting and momentary and difficult to lay hold of. Also, there is a repetitiveness to life in this world, at the end of our time we haven’t contributed anything new, and we haven’t got anything left over that we’ve gained for ourselves. As the Preacher’s search for gain for himself in pleasure, work and knowledge is revealed (1-2), there is a seemingly inbuilt complexity to life that none of our best efforts can ever evade. Through all the changing scenes of life (3:1-8), there is nothing left over that is gain (3:9). There are injustices and unanswered questions (4, 11). The only things that are certain are the gradual failing of our bodies, the day of our death and the judgement of God (7, 12). This is the cold shock of Ecclesiastes, which should produce a wry smile of recognition. We can’t make life work our way. The day of our death is a fixed point. And it is good news to realise that. As David Gibson comments, ‘Being a Christian doesn’t stop this being true. Rather it should make us the first to stop pretending it isn’t true.’
Ecclesiastes helps us find joy and satisfaction in life
If this is the case, how should I treat life? The Preacher’s answer is simple: as a gift. Read 1:24-26; 3:12-13; 11:7-10. The Preacher wants us to appreciate work, food, friendship, marriage, children and sunshine, as gifts from a generous Creator. Even in a fallen world, there is a feast to be enjoyed, as we see these things not as tools to build our own little kingdoms but as tokens from the king himself that are there to serve others. Instead of clutching onto life and seeing it slip through my fingers, I can hold it with an open hand, knowing that one day it will be over. To me, this is a unique contribution of Ecclesiastes – it leaves me seeing the world and the people around me with new eyes.
Ecclesiastes makes us look up to fear God
When all is said and done, what is the point of being alive in this disorientating yet delightful world? It is to fear God and keep his commandments (12:13). That is my one sole duty. I am to draw near to him to listen as if my life depends on it, because it does (5:1-7). I am to remember him now, before my health fails and my body crumbles (12:3). And so Ecclesiastes pushes us on in the fear and knowledge of God, which is the beginning of wisdom.
Ecclesiastes makes us hunger for Jesus Christ
Look back at the poem in 1:2-11. This is true of every single person who ever lived. Apart from one. There was one teacher, a Son of David, a King who did things no-one had seen before, who did something truly new through his death and resurrection, whose work will be remembered throughout eternity. Ecclesiastes finds its fulfilment in the teachings of Jesus, and its greatest answer in the resurrection of Jesus: ‘For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain’ (Philippians 1:21). Plunge into this book and appreciate just how great the life we’ve been given in Christ is.
If you want to look further into the book of Ecclesiastes, I have found Destiny by David Gibson to be the most helpful. It is highly recommended, and I am indebted to it. For this article, I have also found the summary in the Reformation Study Bible very helpful.