Old Testament Survey - Lesson 41


When you dig into the book of Ecclesiastes, you'll find it's all about figuring out what life's really about—why we're here, what we're supposed to do, and how to be happy. It's written by a mysterious man named Koheleth, who may be King Solomon. He reflects on the human condition, marked by skepticism, disillusionment, and existential questioning. Koheleth's introspective journey navigates themes of wisdom, pleasure, justice, and theodicy, ultimately leading to a sobering realization of the futility of life. However, amidst the bleak outlook, glimpses of hope emerge, advocating for a theocentric worldview that finds joy in embracing the divine order, fearing God, and living in obedience to His will. The book alternates between Koheleth's gloomy thoughts and another more traditional narrator. It shows the struggle between feeling hopeless and keeping faith. He concludes that true fulfillment lies not in the pursuit of self-gratification, but in surrendering to God's sovereignty and finding purpose in serving others.

Daniel Block
Old Testament Survey
Lesson 41
Watching Now

I. Introduction to Ecclesiastes

A. Title and Authorship

B. Historical and Literary Context

C. Structure and Style

II. Koheleth's Quest for Meaning

A. Goal of Koheleth's Experimentation

B. Assumptions about Life

C. Methods of Searching for Profit

D. Rewards and Frustrations of Koheleth's Efforts

III. Perspectives on Life and Meaning

A. Optimistic and Pessimistic Views

B. Koheleth's Message and its Interpretations

C. Narrator's Framework for Understanding

IV. Lessons and Insights from Ecclesiastes

A. The Fear of God and Wisdom

B. Meaning in Worship and Work

C. Finding Fulfillment Beyond "Under the Sun"

D. Theological Perspective on Life

E. The Challenge of Selflessness and Joy

F. Conclusion: Resting in God's Fulfillment

  • Learning about the First Testament's language, geographical, and cultural contexts, and how these factors contribute to its frequent misinterpretation and underappreciation in modern times.
  • Gain insights into the literary and cosmic foundations of grace and glory in the Torah, understanding its role as more than law.
  • Learn that to be made in God's image entails embodying divine qualities and functioning as His representative on Earth, which extends a universal dignity upon all humans and shapes a theological ethic that influences how you treat others.
  • Genesis 1-3 frames human response to divine creation, emphasizing human dignity, work's moral role, free will's consequences, and the persistent grace amid sin.
  • This lesson reviews the Israelite covenant, understanding its stages, implications, and its role in God's redemptive plan.
  • Gain insights into Abraham's covenant with God, exploring his faith and God's promises.
  • Learn how the Exodus from Egypt marked Israel's transformation from a family to a nation under Yahweh.
  • Understand how the covenant at Sinai transforms Israel from slaves into a treasured nation destined for a divine mission, fulfilling God's ancient promises.
  • This lesson covers the covenantal expectations at Sinai. The covenantal agreement provided a constitutional and ethical framework for societal living, focusing on community rights and responsibilities.
  • In this lesson, you gain insight into how the tabernacle was both a physical manifestation of God's presence and a profound symbol of His grace, emphasizing the holiness and detailed guidance He provided to the Israelites for worship and daily life.
  • Gain insights into Deuteronomy, recognizing its focus on teaching rather than legislation, and understanding Moses' role as an instructor of Yahweh's will.
  • In this lesson, you explore how to interpret the First Testament's historiographic writings, emphasizing the divine inspiration and literary artistry that guide the selective storytelling and theological themes.
  • Learn how the books of Joshua and Judges illustrate the fulfillment and failure of Israel's covenant with Yahweh, highlighting divine promise, cultural assimilation, and the cyclical nature of faith and apostasy.
  • The Book of Ruth, highlights divine providence, social justice, and personal righteousness while exploring the role of Boaz as a pivotal figure in maintaining the lineage of King David.
  • Samuel had a significant yet complex role in Israel's history; judge, priest, prophet, and crucial figure in establishing monarchy.
  • Learn of David's central role in the Bible, understanding his unique portrayal and the extensive attention he receives compared to other figures.
  • Learn about the Davidic covenant's role in shaping biblical history and theology, emphasizing its eternal impact on Israel and beyond.
  • The books of Kings and Chronicles use historical events to underline theological themes, highlighting the role of scribes in documenting Israel’s history.
  • In this lesson on 1 and 2 Kings, review the downfall of Israel through kings' forgetfulness of God's covenants.
  • Learn about Solomon's temple's historical and theological significance, its divine design and purpose, and its role in Israelite worship and communal life.
  • Gain insights into the transformation and resilience of the Judean people during their exile in Babylon from 586-539 BC, exploring their struggles and adaptations in a new socio-political and religious context.
  • Learn about Daniel's exemplary life in Babylon, his integrity, and his prophetic visions, which highlight divine sovereignty and the vindication of the faithful amidst calamities.
  • Review the Persian period's impact on the Jewish diaspora, analyze the Book of Esther's literary and theological significance, and reflect on divine providence and cultural identity.
  • Explore the crucial roles of Ezra and Nehemiah in reconstructing the Jewish community and faith post-exile, understanding their historical significance, source materials, and theological insights.
  • Gain insight into the roles and significance of prophets in ancient Israel, learning about their historical context, and their critical function in guiding and correcting the nation through direct communication from Yahweh.
  • Learn about the lives and ministries of prophets Amos and Hosea, their calls for justice and return to divine covenant amidst Israel's political and spiritual turmoil, through prophetic books that blend personal biography with national prophecy.
  • This lesson reviews Jonah's struggle with divine grace and Micah's advocacy for justice and the messianic hope.
  • In this lesson, you learn how Isaiah's vision portrays the Messiah as king, servant, and conqueror, emphasizing his divine roles and global mission.
  • Learn of the political and social contexts of Jeremiah and Ezekiel's exile, including Babylon's rise, Jerusalem's fall, and the crisis of faith portrayed in Lamentations, emphasizing hope amid despair through God's faithfulness.
  • Learn about Jeremiah's life and prophetic ministry, navigating challenges with kings, themes in the Book of Jeremiah, and profound passages on true religion and a future covenant, offering lessons on prophetic burdens, God's faithfulness, and spiritual transformation.
  • Explore Ezekiel's life as a priest in exile, his bizarre actions, and profound messages revealing Yahweh's passion and eternal promises of judgment and restoration.
  • Learn about Nahum and Joel's prophecies on judgment, hope, and Yahweh's character. Explore the day of the Lord and the expansion of the covenant community.
  • Explore Obadiah, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah's prophecies. Discover themes of judgment, faith, and restoration in God's plan.
  • Gain insight into Haggai's role in motivating temple rebuilding during the Persian rule. His brief yet impactful ministry fosters hope and action amid community disillusionment, recoginizing God's presence and reign.
  • Gain deep insight into Hebrew poetry: its forms, parallelism, acrostics, and emotional depth. Explore its celebration and lamentation of Yahweh's glory.
  • Gain insight into Psalms which reflect diverse emotions and experiences. Structured into five divisions, attributed to various authors, their interpretation involves understanding Torah context, literary devices, and applying timeless principles to life.
  • Explore biblical wisdom's depth: from practical skill to moral insight, rooted in the fear of Yahweh. It contrasts with secular knowledge, emphasizing God's order and universal application.
  • Engage with Proverbs to unravel its diverse wisdom, from aphorisms to discourses. Understand its practical guidance for righteous living and leadership.
  • Discover the Song of Songs, a rich exploration of love's nature. From its allegorical interpretations to its celebration of covenantal love, it examines human relationships with wisdom and depth.
  • The book of Job offers insights into faith and suffering, exploring theological themes and character dynamics. It emphasizes trust in God amid life's most difficult trials.
  • Uncover Ecclesiastes' profound journey from despair to hope. Koheleth's existential ponderings contrast with the narrator's faith, urging a shift from worldly pursuits to finding fulfillment in God's sovereignty.

This Old Testament Survey course offers a deep exploration of the Old Testament's literary structure, divine covenants, and historical context. Lessons cover the Pentateuch, emphasizing its narrative over legalistic interpretations, and extend through key biblical figures like Abraham and Moses. Topics such as the covenant at Sinai, the concept of imago Dei, and the tabernacle rituals highlight the continuity of God's grace and the ethical implications of divine laws. The course critically addresses common misconceptions, the role of the Torah as instruction, and the portrayal of God’s plan, underscoring the relevance and complexity of these ancient texts.

Dr. Daniel Block 
Old Testament Survey
Lesson Transcript


We've come to the end of this survey of the First Testament, or shall we call it an introduction to the First Testament. Our concern has been as much to give us insight into how to read the Bible as insight into what the Bible is. Well, now we come to the last book in our agenda, Ecclesiastes.

Let's begin with the title of the book, the meaning of the words of Koheleth, son of David, king in Jerusalem. This is difficult to understand. First, Koheleth is a feminine participle form of kahal, which means to call an assembly.

Well, is this the word of one who calls an assembly? Literally, that's what we would expect, but who's the woman doing it? But this explains why the word assembly, kahal, assembly, explains why some translations read the words of the preacher, New American Standard, or the words of the teacher, NIV. The feminine form is a riddle. Why is such an enigmatic designation used? To whom does the modifier son of David, king of Israel, refer? Tradition says Solomon, but this is far from clear.

Furthermore, if the author had intended a reference to Solomon, why doesn't he come out and name him? He names David. The name Koheleth seems to be an artificial creation. It provides the author with a literary method, in my view, of critiquing the reign of Solomon, who by the time of the writing of this text had gained a legendary reputation for more than one thing.

Part of it was his wisdom, but there were other parts of his life that also became legendary. When was this book written? Well, it's clearly a wisdom text, and its author was obviously a wise person, a collector of proverbs, a teacher, a writer. But the book is neither a collection of proverbs nor a coherent address by a master to his pupil.

The first-person autobiographical style gives it the appearance of, shall we say, a confessional. This is what I have found to be true in life, but it is extremely difficult to tell when it might have been written. Scholars have appealed to the style and diction of the language, such as archaisms, old words, and Aramaisms, to defend both an early Solomonic and a late, as late as fourth century.

In fact, there's a theory recently espoused that it's probably second century BC. The presence of several Persian words may suggest it's post-exilic, but the possibility of a northern dialectical provenance or Phoenicianizing style remains. The fact is it doesn't fit comfortably in any of the periods involved in the history of the Hebrew language, and so anything we say is in soft lead pencil.

It must remain open. Who wrote this, and when was it written? If the image of Solomon as portrayed in the narrative of kings inspired the characterization of Koheleth, then this book would make the most sense in a time and place where the Israelites, or some portion of the nation, was still governed by a monarchy, which would put it pre-exilic. Could this be a literary caricature of one of Josiah's sons? These were all bad guys, Jehoiakim or Zedekiah.

The conclusion certainly sounds Deuteronomic and may provide a link with a Torah scroll that Josiah's men had discovered in the temple while refurbishing it. This could also be a northern Israelite's spoof on the decadent court in Jerusalem. What can we say about the structure and style of the book? The indiscriminate, erratic structure of the book is evident to anybody who tries to create an outline of Ecclesiastes.

The text jumps from topic to topic without warning. Individual units vary in content from lists of proverbs to highly creative literary pictures as we have it in chapter 12. Many conclude from this that the book is simply a collection of randomly assembled fragments, and there is little point in trying to discover a coherent plot.

Although the overall message of the book appears to be pessimistic, the present form though is punctuated by contradictory, positive affirmations of the value of life, the joy that's to be found in human endeavor, the importance of committing oneself to God. Could the same person have spoken out of both sides of his mouth so blatantly? The book itself is constructed of two parts, the autobiography of Koheleth 112-127, which is filled with pessimism and skepticism, and the orthodox assessment of the frame narrator 11-11 and 12-8-14. So like the book of Job, we've got a frame that we've got sections, short sections that frame the bulk of the book.

The so-called hopeful passages 2-24-26, 3-12-14, 3-22, 5-18-20, 8-15, 9-7-10, 11-7-10. I mean, they're scattered throughout. Could it be that these are statements of resignation, not optimism? Between this frame, the perspective jumps back and forth as the person describes his personal experimentation to find meaning in life.

Hopeful statements interrupt pessimistic and depressing comments. Life seems to be filled with contradictions for Koheleth. Hevel does not mean simply vanity, emptiness, but also absurdity, senselessness.

The word characterizes his reaction to contradictions. First, regarding toil and pleasure, the contradiction, toil is absurd and without advantage, yet it provides wealth and may be a source of pleasure. But why is it absurd, and how is it good? Second, regarding wisdom, the contradiction, the value of wisdom and knowledge is both to be affirmed and denied.

But what is to be affirmed and denied? What can be known, and why should it be known? Third, regarding justice and theodicy, the contradiction, life is unjust, but God is just. But what then is the moral quality of the world? I mean, there are all sorts of contradictions in this book that we have to wrestle with, and that the author is wrestling with. What is the message of the book? In my interpretation, the message of the book is bursting the bubble, finding meaning and joy in every phase of life by adopting a theocentric worldview.

By way of introduction, the search for meaning and profit in life preoccupies middle-class North Americans. Meaning is commonly associated with self-esteem and self-fulfillment. Traditionally, this goal has been pursued by pride in one's work, pride in the products of one's work, materialism, identification with the winner, vicarious pride as in sports, levity and revelry, mood-altering drugs and sexual experimentation, pride in one's intellect, education, living for the moment.

This is how we've tried to find meaning. The growing awareness in our times of the futility of these enterprises is reflected in the prevalence in our own day of despair and rejection, the number of attempted suicides, cynicism, and the drive to experiment in activities that are increasingly bizarre and dangerous. But this problem affects every age.

Pop psychologists speak freely of the crisis of adolescence, the crisis of growing independence, the crisis of marriage, the crisis of middle age, and the crisis of aging. I mean, no matter what phase of life we're in, we're preoccupied with crises, and if we weren't before in COVID times, we certainly have all wrestled with this. All this discussion raises the suspicion that this preoccupation with crises may turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The more we talk about it, the faster it spreads. In fact, living in a constant state of crisis is made to look normal. A person begins to wonder, what's wrong if I do not experience some kind of tension all the time? The contemporary preoccupation with the search for meaning renders the book of Ecclesiastes one of the most relevant in the First Testament.

Kohalath, the autobiographer of the core of this literary work 112-127, wrestles with these problems, but how does he deal with the issue? We may answer that question with a synthetic treatment of the book, focusing on several key issues. Question number one, what was Kohalath's goal in all his experimentation? Well, Kohalath's goal is summed up in the root Y-T-R, Yether, which occurs 18 times in the book. We have variations of the root all over.

Sometimes it appears as a noun, Yithron, which means profit. This is an economic expression. You're keeping a ledger of your expenses and your income, and you're hoping at the end of the week that you've got a profit, and that's what this guy is doing.

He's looking for profit. How can I come out at the end of the week better than I started? Gain. Sometimes it appears as another noun, Yothir, meaning superiority, excess, more than what everybody has, and once it appears as a noun, Mothar, meaning advantage.

What is the advantage in life? Obviously, the key is this root Y-T-R, which is fundamentally an economic term used with reference to a budget surplus. According to the author, his purpose in all his efforts and in human existence itself is to achieve a profit margin when it's all over. That's the aim.

Second, what were Koheleth's assumptions? Well, the underlying assumption of Koheleth is that life is defined specifically in terms of the here and the now. You can count them. Do a statistical study, and you'll find expressions of here and now abound in the book.

The word for time, eighth, occurs 17 times. The word day, 25 times. Under the heavens, you have repeatedly one, three, two, three, upon the earth.

It's the here and now, but most impressively, under the sun, which occurs 30 times scattered throughout the book. Now, there are other expressions for time and this worldly existence. They include references to the boundaries of birth and death, the coming and going of a generation, and the rising and the setting of the sun.

Within this context, all of life must run its course until it is terminated by death. Koheleth's morbid perspective is reflected in the frequency with which he mentions the end of one's life. Death, to die, 2 16 3 2 4 2 7 1 2 17 26 8 8 9 5. Burial, 6 3 8 10.

Return to the dust, 3 20 12 7. Sheol, 9 10. The problem with death is that it shuts off all opportunities for profit. It's over.

It's done. Koheleth's universe was closed, defined temporally by the period between birth and death, and spatially by under the sun, that is, upon the earth. What you see is all you get.

The search for meaning and profit must be conducted within these parameters, indeed within these confines. But what were Koheleth's methods? How did he search for profit under the sun? Koheleth describes for us some of the methods he followed to try to achieve profit. The book opens with a summary statement describing how one may be the keenest observer of natural phenomena, but what does nature accomplish? There is no progress, nothing new under the sun, only a weary cyclical pattern of natural events.


This opening volley declares that the universal natural processes produce no profits. It's all going round and round over and over again. Human history is a part of this profitless existence.

Nothing new is produced as the world turns. It is simply one vicious cycle of activity going round and round but leading nowhere. This doesn't provide much encouragement for the one searching for profit.

Finding no profit in observing the world out there, you can't see it. You get it by seeing it. He attempted to find profit in life by personal experimentation.

In chapters one to two, his personal determination and investment are reflected in first person first person expressions like, I perceived, I said in my heart, I gave my heart to consider. What a narcissist. He pursued profit through several avenues of experimentation.

First, he gave his mind to careful observing and learning, one sixteen to seven. Second, he turned to self-indulgence, levity, laughter, pleasure, and hedonistic excess, two, two to ten. But what were Kohelet's rewards for his efforts? His testimony is dominated by the vocabulary of futility.

First, there is no profit, two eleven. Second, all is hevel, vanity, absurdity, emptiness. That word occurs thirty-three times in the book.

Third, it is all striving after wind which speaks of the elusiveness, the evanescence of profit. A professor of mine used to define hevel as soap bubbles. Soap bubbles of soap bubbles.

It's all soap bubbles. That's what you get. Kohelet's efforts left him totally frustrated and disillusioned.

He hated life, two seventeen, four two, and concluded that all human effort is evil, disastrous. It's a problem. It was part of the futile cosmic system in which he was trapped under the sun.

Many people in our own time have come to this stage in life, having experimented and having tried every means to find happiness and meaning in all phases of life. They conclude that life itself is absurd, meaningless, wasted effort. As the beast dies, so dies the man, three nineteen, with nothing to show for it.

In Shakespearean terms, all the world's a stage, and each one is an actor. It, life, is a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing. Under the sun, a person is locked into an immutable, closed system.

One cannot break out of it. One cannot profit from it. One can find no happiness from it, nor within it.

The key to life is not found within life itself. Personal experience confirms the lesson of history. Life is nothing but a vicious circle, leading nowhere, accomplishing nothing, bringing no satisfaction or meaning.

Is there then no hope at all for Koheleth, or anyone else for that matter? Many find hope in the series of positive affirmations that punctuate an otherwise, to them, hopelessly pessimistic verdict on human life. The common denominator in all of these, whether it's 2, 24 to 26, 3, 9 to 14, 5, 8 to 20, and the list goes on of these positive statements, the common denominator in all is the challenge to eat, drink, and be merry, and to find some measure of enjoyment in one's work. These are part of the divine order of things, given to us by God to be enjoyed as his gifts, yes, even in a fallen world.

But we must recognize that in the end, when this futile life is over, we face the, shall we bracket, unwelcome prospect of answering, yes, to God. While some interpret these as resigned admissions that life under the sun is hopeless and futile, and they should actually be viewed, I think, as optimistic statements. In and of itself, under the sun, between life, between birth and death, yes, in and of themselves, life has no more meaning for the human than for a creature, a critter, a brute animal, to be sure.

But Qoheleth acknowledges that life need not be experienced only in and of itself. What then is the message? Enter the narrator, the orthodox believer who had in his hands the confessions of Qoheleth. He read this thing that Qoheleth had produced.

He can recognize the truthfulness of much of Qoheleth's conclusions. However, finding the final skeptical and pessimistic verdict intolerable, and fearing that the readers of Qoheleth will miss the glimmers of hope inside, he added his own framework to the text cast in third person. In this framework, he affirmed Qoheleth's experience 1.1 to 11, but he also offered a way out, 12.8 to 14, for the original autobiographer, Qoheleth, and the modern reader.

In his conclusion, the narrator places a new lens in the glasses of the reader, a lens with which we may make sense of life and secure our well-being. In these two little parts taken together, he reaffirms three basic dogmas of the first testament, each of which had been questioned by Qoheleth. First, the fear of God is indeed the first principle of wisdom.

Second, order and meaning are found in obedience to the revealed will of God read the ending. And third, ultimately, all will account to God for every action committed under the sun. This means that under the sun is not a definition of all reality.

Given this perspective, the fundamental and permanent lessons of the book we may affirm. First, in the fear of God, we understand that the vanity of the present world is the result of the fall, 729. It doesn't take faith to recognize the vanity of life, but it takes faith to understand it.

This is the fallen world in which we live. Second, in the fear of God, we find the basis of personal ethics. We do indeed live in the light of God's judgment, 119, and we relate to him in humble submission.

Third, in the fear of God, we find meaning in worship. Chapter 5 verses 1 to 7 is an interesting text. In a rare reference to official religion in a wisdom text, Qoheleth had intimated that worship is not simply empty ritual, but an opportunity for a real encounter with God.

When you go into the presence of the Lord, let your words be few. Listen for God. Fourth, in the fear of God, we may view all work and its products as gifts from God for fallen humankind to be enjoyed.

Work is not actually just a futile enterprise in search of happiness. To be human is to work if we recognize that God is in this picture and that we are his images governing the world for him. Five, in the fear of God, we may experience life, every phase of it to the full.

All of life is indeed a celebration. Every day is a gift. Every breath is a gift.

This is a far cry from the long faces we see in the shopping malls and the grumpy people we encounter on the freeways. If there's anything our world needs today, it is an infusion of the sense of God's presence. It is a theological perspective on life.

Apart from the lens of the narrator, Qoheleth's verdict is totally correct. All is absurdity, soap bubbles of soap bubbles. It's all soap bubbles.

But the final author offers the way out. The solution to the apparent futility of human experience is found in recognizing that under the sun doesn't define everything. Beyond human existence and cosmic existence, there is God to whom we are invited to relate.

Recognizing God in every area of life, that is the source of life, and to him all humans eventually return. We do indeed have the capacity to find meaning in life, but it is discovered by abandoning the search under the sun and casting ourselves on God. In other words, in simpler words, the key to happiness cannot be found by searching for it.

If a person's goal in life is to find happiness, meaning, self-fulfillment, he or she will be deluded, frustrated. This preoccupation with meaning and profit is not only self-defeating, it is Canaanite. The challenge for us as servants of God and as children of the Heavenly Father is to open the windows of this box, this closed system in which men and women without God are trapped.

The search for happiness in life is futile by definition, and if looking out for yourself is all that you are preoccupied with, you will not find joy. As my mother used to teach us, joy, Jesus, others, and you put yourself into the picture last. We are here for God, and we are here for others and not for ourselves.

In the immortal words of Saint Augustine of Hippo, you have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it comes to rest in you. Therein is fulfillment and satisfaction for all eternity. To God be the glory.