Introduction to Ecclesiastes

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

Ecclesiastes brilliantly captures the toil and joy, fleeting success and unanswered questions that we all experience in our work. It is one of many Christian workers’ favorite books of Bible, and its narrator — called the Teacher in most English translations — has a lot to say about work. Much of what he teaches is succinct, practical and smart. Anyone who has ever worked on a team can appreciate the value of a maxim such as, “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil” (Ecclesiastes 4:9). Most of us spend the largest portion of our waking lives working, and we find affirmation when the Teacher says, “I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun” (Eccl. 8:15).

Yet the Teacher’s picture of work is also deeply troubling. “I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after the wind” (Eccl. 2:11). The almost-overwhelming preponderance of negative observations about work threatens to swamp the reader. The Teacher opens with “vanity of vanities” (Eccl. 1:2) and ends with “all is vanity” (Eccl. 12:8). The words and phrases he repeats most often are “vanity,” “a chasing after wind,” “not find out,” and “can’t find out.” Unless there is a larger perspective to temper his observations, Ecclesiastes can be a very dreary book indeed.

The task of making sense of the book as a whole is difficult. Does Ecclesiastes really portray work as vanity, or does the Teacher sift through the many vain ways of working to find a core set of meaningful ones? Or, to the contrary, are the many positive maxims and observations negated by an overall assessment of work as “a chasing after wind”? The answer depends in large part in how we approach the book.

One way to read Ecclesiastes is to take it as simply a tossed salad of observations about life, including work. Under this approach, the Teacher is primarily a realistic observer who reports the ups and downs of life as he encounters them. Each observation stands on its own as a bit of wisdom. If we draw useful advice from, say, “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil” (Eccl. 2:24), we need not be too concerned that it is followed shortly by, “This also is vanity and a chasing after wind” (Eccl. 2:26).

The reader who wishes to take this approach is in good company. The majority of scholars today do not recognize an overarching argument in Ecclesiastes, and even among those who do, “there is hardly one commentator who agrees with another.”[1] But there is something unsatisfying about such a piecemeal approach. We want to know, “What is the overall message of Ecclesiastes?” If we are to discover that, we must look for a structure to bring together the wide range of observations living side-by-side in the book.

We will follow the structure first proposed by Addison Wright in 1968, which divides the book into units of thought.[2] Wright’s structure commends itself for three reasons: 1) it is based objectively on the repetition of key phrases in the text of Ecclesiastes, rather than on subjective interpretations of the content; 2) it is accepted by more scholars — admittedly still a tiny minority — than any other;[3] and 3) it brings work-related topics to the foreground. We do not have time to reproduce Wright’s arguments, but we will indicate the repetitive phrases that delineate the units of thought he proposes. In the first half of the book, the phrase “a chasing after wind” marks the end of each unit. In the second half, the phrase “not find out” (or “who can find out?”) performs the same function. Wright's structure will contribute directly to our overall understanding of the book.

There is another term, “under the sun,” which cannot escape our notice as we read Ecclesiastes. It occurs 29 times in the book, but nowhere else in the Bible.[4] It is reminiscent of the term, “in the fallen world,” derived from Genesis 3, which describes the world in which God’s creation is still good, yet severely marred by ills. Why does the Teacher use this phrase so often? Does he mean to reinforce the pointlessness of work by conjuring an image of the sun circling endlessly across the sky while nothing ever changes? Or does he imagine there might be a world beyond the Fall, not “under the sun,” where work would not be in vain? It is a question worth keeping in mind as we read Ecclesiastes.

In contrast to human life under the sun, the Teacher gives us glimpses of God in heaven. Our toil is fleeting, but “whatever God does endures forever” (Eccl. 3:14). These glimpses begin to give us an understanding of the character of God, which, perhaps, will help us make sense of life. We will note what Ecclesiastes reveals about God’s character as aspects arise, then take a look at them together towards the end of the book.

In any case, Ecclesiastes makes a vital contribution to the theology of work through its honest, unvarnished look at the reality of work. Any thoughtful person who is engaged in their work, whether a follower of Christ or not, will connect with it. Its refreshing honesty opens the door for deep conversations about work, more so than the tidy prescriptions for doing business God’s way so commonly encountered in Christian circles.