Life Under the Sun

The book of Ecclesiastes can seem like the black sheep in the family of Biblical books. Don Carson gives an excellent brief intro to this book in his devotional For the Love of God (Apr 14):

THE AUTHOR OF ECCLESIASTES IS (in transliterated Hebrew) Qoheleth, pro- nounced Ko-hellet or Ko-helleth. The word is connected with the idea of assem- bling, and “Qoheleth” probably means something like “leader of the assembly” or even “one who addresses the assembly.” Probably the assembly was religious (we would say “ecclesiastical”), yet Qoheleth is also an academic, collecting and formulating sayings (12:9-12). As a result, some Bibles render the expression “the Preacher”; the NIV supports “the Teacher.” One commentator suggests “the Professor.”

Qoheleth refers to himself as “king over Israel in Jerusalem” (1:12). But which king? He claims, “I have grown and increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me” (1:16), which seems to rule out everyone but Solomon. On the other hand, it would be very strange for Solomon to write such words, since there was only one Davidic king over Jerusalem before him. So while some commentators think Qoheleth is Solomon, others point out that Solomon is not named and suggest this may be a religious leader who, as part of the dra- matic argument he sets forth, stylizes himself as a super-Solomon: the wisest con- ceivable man, on a search for self-fulfillment, would still return destitute, crying out that everything is meaningless (1:2).

Just as many parts of Job cannot be insightfully or wisely read without grasp- ing the flow of the book as a whole, so also with Ecclesiastes. Qoheleth sets him- self to explore the significance of everything “from below,” looked at from the vantage point of fallen humanity. In short, his stance is “under the sun” (1:9) or “under heaven” (1:13). He is a defender neither of naturalism nor of atheism, but he ruthlessly explores what can be said of various ostensibly “good” things when looked at one by one, “under the sun.” His theme is set out in the introduction (Eccl. 1:1-11). “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaning- less! Everything is meaningless!’” (1:2). This gets at the heart of the expression traditionally rendered “Vanity of vanities . . . all is vanity” (KJV). The word sug- gests a wisp of air, the merest vapor, utterly without significance. In this book the Teacher probes domain after domain of life, domains that so many people value and cherish and even worship, and concludes, from his stance “under the sun,” that everything is meaningless. By the end of the book, after scraping away the detritus of life, he hits bedrock—God himself. And here and there along the way he allows us glimpses of a divine perspective that transcends meaninglessness. But he takes his time getting there, for we must feel the depressing weight of all quest- ing visions that do not begin with God.

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