This is an easy book to misunderstand. Here’s my summary of the book of Ecclesiastes.
It is okay that much of life doesn’t make sense because there are simple God-given pleasures to enjoy (Eccl. 3:13; 5:19) and, ultimately, the fear of God and obedience to Him are what matter most (Eccl. 12:13-14).
Explanation of Main Idea
The “teacher” in the book of Ecclesiastes observes that life is filled with “absolute futility” (Eccl. 1:2; 1:17; 1:23, et. al). A person works (Eccl. 1:3), is occupied (Eccl. 1:13), learns, enjoys pleasure, amasses wealth and possession (Eccl. 2:8) but ultimately experiences the same fate, death, as everyone else (Eccl. 2:15), even the animals (Eccl. 3:19). Everyone dies regardless of their morality or religion or intelligence or riches (Eccl. 9:1-3).
He also observes much injustice and oppression in the world (Eccl. 4:1-2); so much so that it would be better never to have been born (Eccl. 4:3). All “labor and skillful work” (Eccl. 4:4) is classified as coming from a heart of jealousy. Loneliness is rampant even among the wealthy (Eccl. 4:8). Possessions never satisfy (Eccl. 5:10-11) and wealth is temporary (Eccl. 5:13-16). Life has no guarantees. A good person dies young and an evil person lives long (Eccl. 7:15). Fools get positions they don’t deserve (Eccl. 10:8).
Because of all this, the teacher concludes, it is best to simply enjoy what God has given, namely, working, eating your meals, and enjoying your family (Eccl. 9:7-10). Additionally, the “author” of Ecclesiastes, which is a different person than the teacher, offers an important conclusion, and that is to “fear God and keep His commands” (Eccl. 12:13), recognizing that every act, including “every hidden thing” will be subject to judgment (Eccl. 12:14).
Ecclesiastes was written to help us understand that even though life doesn’t make sense all the time, or even most of the time, it is still the best option to trust and follow God. It is an honest, raw look at the futility of effort, the emptiness of wealth, the presence of injustice, and the certainty of death presented by one who is extremely intelligent and wise (Eccl. 12:9).
The conclusion presented by the author of the book relates strongly to it’s purpose and is found in Eccl. 12:13: to “fear God and keep his commands”.
- Life doesn’t make sense.
Ecclesiastes says what we are afraid to say. It looks at life and points out the inconsistencies and the paradoxes that don’t make sense. Whether it’s the accumulation of wealth that is somehow not enjoyed (Eccl. 6:1-2) or evil people living long while the good die young (Eccl. 7:15), this book is filled with observations that we ourselves have seen and with which we have struggled.
- Enjoy your life.
Several times (Eccl. 2:24-26; 3:12-13; 5:18-20; 8:14-15; 9:9-10; 11:7-12) the teacher concludes that, because of the unpredictability and futile nature of life, it is best to simply embrace the joys of life as a gift from God. These include work, eating, and family.
- Everyone dies.
There is a beating drum of death in Ecclesiastes. Rich or poor, wise or foolish, young or old, moral or evil, everyone dies (Eccl. 2:16; 3:19).
- Above all else, fear God and keep His commands.
This is the powerful conclusion to the book offered by the author in Eccl. 12:13. In light of the futility of life, the best option is to keep your eyes on God and your life in line with His word as we remember that all will be judged (Eccl. 12:14)
How Does This Relate To Us?
Ecclesiastes, although it was penned centuries ago, is extremely applicable to our culture. It helps us make sense out of futility, it teaches us to ponder death, and it reminds us to fear and obey God.
Today, the rich get richer and the poor sink deeper. Babies are aborted, drug use increases, homosexuality is mainstream, politics reek of corruption. Senseless school shootings are common, terrorism exists, there’s corruption in politics, children are being abused and killed, teenagers harm themselves and experiment with drugs and sex, and there is immorality among clergy. Ecclesiastes tells us not to shake our heads in dismay or to throw up our hands in futility but to fear God and obey His commands as we enjoy the simple pleasures of life and do what is put before us. It is a powerful message.
Secondly, Ecclesiastes would have us ponder the fact that we are going to die. In our North American culture we don’t often think about or talk about our impending death. We know we are going to die. We know our family members and friends will die. We know our co-workers and neighbours will die. It would be valuable to spend some time contemplating this sobering fact.
Lastly, we are reminded that above all else we are to fear God and obey His commands, which are found in the Bible. We should live this way not just because it is the right way to live, but also because one day we will be judged (Eccl. 12:14). By fearing God and obeying His commands we will be living in such a way that those who are lost and are contributors to the futility and sinfulness with be touched by the love of God through our lives.
- The “teacher” in Eccl. 1:2 and throughout the book declares that everything is “futile” or “meaningless”. Do you think he’s right? Why or why not?
- What was the teacher’s attitude toward his own wisdom and possessions based on Eccl. 2:9-11?
- Considering life’s futility, what advice did the teacher give based on Eccl. 2:24-26? Why do you think he gave this advice? What would be the alternative to living this way?
- What is the conclusion of Ecclesiastes based on Eccl. 12:13-14? Is this the teacher’s conclusion?
Life Application Questions
- Read Eccl. 2:17. Have you ever felt like that? Have you ever hated your life?
- Read Eccl. 2:24. What simple pleasures in life do you enjoy the most? Do you enjoy your work? Why or why not? If not, what work would you enjoy more?
- What should be our attitude toward youth based on Eccl. 11:9-12:1?
- In what ways can you prepare yourself for the day of judgement? See Eccl. 12:13-14