Introduction to Ecclesiastes
and Study of Ecclesiastes 1-4
July 10th


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copyright 2016

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Ecclesiastes (Overview)

In the text, the authorship of the book of Ecclesiastes is attribute to Qoheleth, son of King David, but it is generally accepted that Qoheleth was a pseudonym for Solomon, the son of David who had succeeded him as king. Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes so that others would understand that life is meaningless without God. Some Biblical experts have conjectured that the book of Proverbs was written when Solomon was a young or middle-aged man, but that he wrote Ecclesiastes when he was older. As a result, the tone is more skeptical. For example, the first set of chapters can be a bit depressing, but they offer valuable insight and lead to an uplifting ending.

The book is relatively short, with just twelve chapters. We will complete it in three days of study.

    Ecclesiastes 1-4 (A Time for Everything) July 10th
    Ecclesiastes 5-8 (Go Near to Listen) July 11th
    Ecclesiastes 9-12 (Solomonís Final Conclusion) July 12th

References used for the analysis of this book include the following sources, which are also worthy references for further study:

  • Abegg, Martin, Jr.; Flint, Peter; and Ulrich, Eugene, The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible, Harper One, New York, 1999
  • Boadt, Lawrence, Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction, Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ; 1984
  • Fee, Gordon D., Stuart Douglas, How to Read the Bible Book by Book, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 2002
  • Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version, Zondervan Bible Publishers, Grand Rapids, MI; 1993
  • Life Application Study Bible, New International Version, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, M; 1991 (with commentary from an inter-denominational team of experts)
  • Men's Devotional Bible, New International Version, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI; 1993 (with daily devotionals from Godly men)
  • The New American Bible, Sponsored by the Bishop's Committee of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Catholic Bible Publishers, Wichita, KS, 1970
  • Noroton Presbyterian Church Sermon Library, Darien, CT, hard-copies and online at www.norotonchurch.org
  • Peterson, Eugene H., The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, Numbered Edition, NavPress, Colorado Springs, CO, 2005

Ecclesiastes 1-4 (A Time for Everything)


Please refer to one or more Bible versions of your choice to read this section. We recommend that you read at least two versions for added understanding. For your convenience, we have provided six links below, each of which takes you directly to today's chapters in a specific version:

Key Verse

a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace

- Ecclesiastes 3:8 (NRSV)

Summary of Chapters

The first two chapters provide an explanation of Solomonís experiences. This is followed by some of his observations on life. The point of the book is expressed in the first few verses, for example,

    What profit have we from all the toil
    which we toil at under the sun?

    - Ecclesiastes 1:3 (NAB)

Solomon describes how each manís life is temporary. The earth existed before man and will outlast every man. He notes that a manís accomplishments are soon forgotten. At the end of the first chapter and in the middle of the second chapter Solomon laments that even wisdom itself is not satisfying as it leads to sorrow and grief.

In chapter 2, Solomon also describes in some detail how pleasure and work have been meaningless for him. He acquired massive amounts of possessions, but was not satisfied:

    I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
        I refused my heart no pleasure.
    My heart took delight in all my labor,
        and this was the reward for all my toil.
    Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
        and what I had toiled to achieve,
    everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
        nothing was gained under the sun.

    - Ecclesiastes 2:10-11 (NIV)

With regard to work, he notes that after a man works hard all of his life, he has to leave his fortune to someone else. ďAll his days his work is pain and grief, even at night his mind does not rest (2:23 - NIV).Ē Chapters 3 and 4 begin a section of observations on the world, starting with the famous set of verses 3:1-8 that begin with the introductory phrase ďThere is time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven (Eccl 3:1 -NIV).Ē In these verses Solomon lists a variety of situations in human experience, and remarks that there is a time for each one. Some situations are happy, some tragic, and some represent the end of an event, such as ďa time to search and time to give up (Eccl 3:6 - NIV).Ē Chapter 3 also provides a description of God's character and his relationship with man:

    I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.

    - Ecclesiastes 3:10-15 (NRSV)

In chapter 4, Solomon describes the hopelessness of those under oppression and the sadness of those without a friend. In one of the few uplifting segments of this section of the book, he states how much better life is with a friend: ďFor if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up (Eccl 4:10 - KJV)." Solomon adds that two are also more able to defend themselves by combining strengths, just like additional strands make a rope stronger.

Reflection and Application

Solomon humbly notes that the deeds of all men are forgotten, yet he is remembered thousands of years after his life on earth because he served as a good leader, built the temple, and authored chapters and books that became part of the Bible. His accomplishments as a ruler have faded and the temple was destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again. But his words live on and on, translated into many languages and are as applicable today as they were in 900 B.C.

Other people are remembered for their historic deeds, inventions, sacrifices, and leadership. In our time, there have been many people who served God who shall be remembered for many years, including Dietrick Boenhoffer, who boldly faced off against the Nazis, C.S Lewis, who explained the mystery of faith in contemporary terms, and Mother Theresa, who served the undesirables of India with her own hands. Our deeds may never be as significant as these great men and women, but the best we can do is to seek to serve God, listen for his call regarding our specific mission, and carry it out.

Work and pleasure can be good and can be consistent with Godís plans for us. The key is to ensure that God is at our center, not our work or pleasure or pride or anything else. If we work as if working for God, then we are chasing the right things. If we rest and seek pleasure on the Sabbath instead of working, then we are fulfilling one of Godís commandments. If we seek pleasure with our own spouse and donít covet others, then we fulfill God's desire for us.

The verses of these early chapters of Ecclesiastes have apparently captured the attention of many poets and lyricists. There are two rock and roll songs that come to my mind when I read these. One is a song written by the group Pink Floyd, titled "Breathe," which includes the following lyrics:

    Run, rabbit run
    Dig that hole, forget the sun
    And when at last the work is done
    Don't sit down
    It's time to dig another one

    For long you live and high you fly
    But only if you ride the tide
    And balanced on the biggest wave
    You race towards an early grave

    - Roger Waters (6 Sept 1943 - Current)

The other song that comes to mind is "Turn, Turn, Turn," which was written by Pete Seeger (3 May 1919 - 27 January 2014) and made famous by the Byrds. The authorship of this song was just one of many accomplishments by Seeger, who was instrumental in the growth in popularity of folk music in the latter half of the 20th Century. He figured it was time to resurrect this home-grown American form of music and travelled the country seeking songs and sharing music with others.

After Seeger's death, President Obama said he was "America's tuning fork." Fellow musician and folksinger Billy Bragg wrote that: "Pete believed that music could make a difference. Not change the world, he never claimed that – he once said that if music could change the world he'd only be making music – but he believed that while music didn't have agency, it did have the power to make a difference." (1) Seeger's composition of "Turn, Turn, Turn" made a difference as it has been widely recorded and enjoyed for decades in concert theatres, churches, outdoor amphitheaters, and other places. Seeger humbly noted that all he did lyrically was add six words to the scripture. In fact, "the song is notable for being one of a few instances in popular music in which a large portion of scripture is set to music (2)." The song begins with the opening verse from chapter 3, and puts to music many of the following verses, such as:

    A time to be born, a time to die (Eccl 3:2a)
    A time to plant, a time to reap (Eccl 3:2b)
    A time to kill, a time to heal (Eccl 3:3a)
    A time to laugh, a time to weep (Eccl 3:4a)

A footnote in the New American Bible notes that "The fourteen pairs of opposites (in verses 3:1-8) describe various human activities. The poem affirms that God has determined the appropriate moment or ďtimeĒ for each. Human beings cannot know that moment; further, the wider course of events and purposes fixed by God are beyond them as well (3)."

When we hear these verses put to music, it helps us to further understand what Solomon was saying. When all we do is work, we are no better than the rabbit or any other animal. God ordains a time for all things. Our role is to accept his timing, enjoy the pleasures of the moment, or endure the toils of work or war, take time to rest and trust that he is with us.

All of these times are best when shared with a friend with whom we can laugh, cry, or share the burden. For some of us, our spouse is our best friend. We may also have other friends who can help pick us up and team up to defend our cause. Nearly any time is a good time to make new friends or see the old.

For further reflection, we recommend a YouTube video that features the Byrds singing "Turn, Turn, Turn," with background images from nature and architecture. The Byrds were led by singer and guitarist Roger McGuinn (13 July 1942 - Current) and were well known for their rock n roll songs of the 1960s such as "So You Want to be a Rock N Roll Star," and "Eight Miles High." However, they also wrote and performed a number of faith-based songs, such as "I LIke the Christian Life," which can be found on the album, "Sweetheart of the Rodeo."

"Turn, Turn, Turn," The Byrds


Questions and Prayers for Further Reflection

    Related Questions

    1. What is the activity that you spend most of your time doing?
    2. To what extent do you enjoy doing your work?
    3. What gift from God do you enjoy most?

    Recommended Prayer
    Father in heaven, we acknowledge you as the Creator and the original teacher. Help us to pursue eternal life with you and stop chasing the winds of earth.

    Suggested Prayer Concerns
    Friends

    Footnotes

    (1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Seeger#Death, 10 July 2014
    (2) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turn!_Turn!_Turn!, 10-Jul-2014
    (3) New American Bible, footnote following Ecclesiastes 3

    Looking Ahead

    Tomorrow's reading: Ecclesiastes 5-8 (Go Near to Listen)

    Comments and Questions
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