Understanding the Old Testament - Lesson 27


Through Ecclesiastes, you'll consider life's existential questions and the pursuit of wisdom. Through Solomon's introspective journey, you'll confront the futility of life without acknowledging God's sovereignty. Despite the apparent meaninglessness of human endeavors, the book underscores the importance of fearing God and obeying His commands as the cornerstone of true wisdom. Ultimately, Ecclesiastes serves as a poignant reminder of the significance of recognizing God's role in our lives and finding purpose beyond the temporal pursuits "under the sun."

Miles Van Pelt
Understanding the Old Testament
Lesson 27
Watching Now

I. Introduction to Ecclesiastes

A. Placement within the Hebrew Bible

B. Name and Authorship

C. Purpose and Overview

II. Content and Structure

A. Prologue: Ecclesiastes 1:1-11

B. Wisdom Experience: Ecclesiastes 1:12 - 12:7

C. Epilogue: Ecclesiastes 12:8-14

III. Themes and Message

A. Vanity of Life "Under the Sun"

B. Search for Meaning and Profit

C. The Role of God in Understanding Life

IV. Examination of Wisdom

A. Skeptical Approach to Wisdom

B. Use of Experience and Observation

C. Comparison with Proverbs' Instruction

V. Theological Implications

A. Perspective on God's Existence

B. Instruction for Living Without God

C. The Gospel Promise within Ecclesiastes

VI. Application and Conclusion

A. Understanding Life's Meaning with God

B. Embracing Hope and New Creation

C. Invitation to Embrace the Creator

  • Engage with the Old Testament to grasp its Gospel-centered nature. From Genesis to Ecclesiastes and Psalms, discover foundational truths, wisdom, and insights on suffering. Strengthen your faith and find enduring hope in God's Word.
  • Gain insight into the Old Testament's theological core, centering on Jesus Christ. Explore its diverse genres, languages, and authors, unified by Jesus as its focal point. Understand how biblical evidence supports Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, shaping interpretation.
  • In this lesson, Dr. Miles Van Pelt provides the thematic framework for the Old Testament. The Old Testament's thematic core is the Kingdom of God. Through this lesson, you'll understand its covenantal nature, from pre-temporal arrangements to various administrations like redemption, works, and grace, unveiling God's salvation plan in Christ.
  • Discover the intricate covenantal structure of the Bible, revealing its theological depth and unity, from the division of the Hebrew Bible to its mirroring in the New Testament, all centered around Jesus Christ.
  • Gain insight into the Pentateuch's covenantal structure, Moses' authorship debate, and evidence supporting it. Understand its significance as the foundation of Israel's relationship with God and its relevance for biblical theology.
  • Through this lesson, you will understand the theological, structural, and thematic intricacies of the book of Genesis. You'll grasp its role as a foundational text in both the Old and New Testaments, exploring themes of covenant, creation, fall, redemption, and the fulfillment of promises. You'll gain insights into the genealogical structure of Genesis, its portrayal of key biblical figures like Adam, Noah, and Abraham, and its connection to the overarching narrative of the gospel.
  • Exodus reveals Yahweh's promise—"I will be with you"—unfolding divine presence and covenant. It anticipates Jesus as fulfillment—a better Moses and Tabernacle—ushering in God's eternal presence among humanity.
  • Studying Leviticus unveils the intricate system of laws and rituals at Mount Sinai. It explains sacrificial atonement, priestly consecration, purity laws, and the theme of holiness, prefiguring Jesus as the ultimate priest, sacrifice, and source of holiness.
  • Discover the Book of Numbers' insights on Israel's journey, God's faithfulness, consequences of disobedience, and parallels to Christ, cautioning against questioning God's holiness and emphasizing His desire to dwell among His people through the Holy Spirit.
  • Gain insight into Deuteronomy's covenant renewal for Israel entering Canaan, emphasizing obedience, typology, and its relevance for Christian living.
  • Gain deep insight into the former prophets, exploring themes of Yahweh's faithfulness, Israel's unfaithfulness, and the typological significance of the Mosaic covenant. Understand its relation to the Abrahamic covenant and its fulfillment in the New Covenant under Jesus, revealing God's plan for restoration.
  • Joshua unveils Joshua's leadership, divine promise fulfillment in Canaan, obedience's significance, and Jesus as the ultimate fulfiller of God's promises.
  • Discover the Book of Judges, detailing Israel's history and faith journey. Learn about judges as deliverers from oppression and idolatry, portraying parallels with Christ's ministry. Uncover a pattern of uncreation due to idolatry, emphasizing the need for an eternal judge—Jesus Christ—to save from corruption.
  • In this lesson, Dr. Miles Van Pelt provides insights into the book of Samuel, exploring its characters, themes, and the transition from judgeship to kingship in Israel. Learn of the significance of the Davidic covenant, culminating in Jesus as the ultimate King of Kings.
  • Gain insights into the Book of Kings, revealing its historical and theological significance. Discover the fulfillment of Davidic covenant, reasons for Israel's exile, and anticipation of the new covenant. Recognize Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment of its promises.
  • This lesson reviews latter prophets' insights into Israel's exile for breaking the Mosaic Covenant, the prophetic office's nature, diverse prophecy genres, and the execution of covenant lawsuits, all pointing to God's judgment and hope for restoration.
  • Explore Isaiah's profound prophetic themes, from redemption to impending judgment. Unravel his life and ministry's context, review the debate around authorship, and learn essential tools for study.
  • Enjoy this lesson on Jeremiah, a second Moses figure, and his prophetic message of repentance, redemption, and a new covenant. Explore the book's chiastic structure, historical context, and theological significance, offering hope amidst Judah's fall.
  • Studying Ezekiel reveals its focus on the glory of the Lord and the temple. You learn of Ezekiel's exile, his visions, and themes like covenant theology, creation, and apocalyptic elements, offering profound insights into hope amidst crisis.
  • Discover insights into the minor prophets' diverse genres and themes, from covenant infidelity to divine restoration. Witness Jonah's repentance narrative and prophetic visions culminating in Christ's fulfillment. Embrace Yahweh's justice and compassion, urging Israel's return, leading to Jesus as the ultimate authority.
  • Understand the structure and themes of the Hebrew Bible's writings section. Explore diverse literary forms, intentional divisions mirroring prophets, and the overarching theme of exile and return, illuminating Israel's covenant journey.
  • Discover the depth of the Book of Psalms: 150 songs divided into 5 books, expressing diverse emotions and worship forms. Explore themes, structure, and practical applications for personal devotion and prayer.
  • Gain insights into human suffering and theodicy through Job's trials. Explore themes of faith, resilience, and God's sovereignty amidst adversity. Discover hope in God's incomprehensible sovereignty amid life's trials.
  • Proverbs is a book of timeless wisdom from Solomon, who was gifted by God. By studying this book, you can learn to navigate life with righteousness and discernment, rooted in the fear of the Lord.
  • Journey through Ruth, where redemption, loyalty, and divine providence intertwine. Ruth, a symbol of strength, aligns with Boaz, embodying ancient customs. Their union shapes history, reflecting the enduring legacy of faith amidst life's complexities.
  • Explore the Song of Songs for insights into marriage and intimacy. It navigates the tension between true love and temptation, advocating for unwavering commitment and passionate intimacy, reflecting God's desired relationship. Discover timeless wisdom for modern-day love and marriage.
  • Ecclesiastes reveals life's futility without God, emphasizing the necessity of fearing Him. Through Solomon's wisdom, it prompts reflection on divine purpose amid existential questions.
  • In Lamentations, mourn the fall of Jerusalem and exile, finding hope in God's sovereignty.
  • The book of Esthers contains themes of providence, hiddenness of God, and faithfulness in exile. You will uncover the intricacies of Esther and Mordecai's roles in the deliverance of the Jewish people, as well as the establishment of the festival of Purim. This study will equip you with insights into how God's providence operates amidst human events, even when His presence may seem concealed, and how faithfulness in exile can lead to unexpected outcomes of deliverance and restoration.
  • Through this lesson on the book of Daniel, you'll gain insights into its structure, themes of faithfulness in exile, comparisons with Joseph, and its significance for understanding apocalyptic literature, providing a comprehensive understanding of God's sovereignty and care for His people.
  • Explore Ezra and Nehemiah for insights into post-exilic restoration, intertwining faith, governance, and cultural renewal. These books point towards a deeper longing for true and lasting restoration and echo themes found in apocalyptic literature such as the book of Revelation.
  • The Book of Chronicles traces Israel's history, emphasizing kingship, priesthood, and divine selection. It anticipates restoration, pointing to Jesus as the ultimate priest-king who fulfills God's promises.

Understanding the Old Testament 
Dr. Miles Van Pelt
Lesson Transcript

Having finished with the Song of Songs, we now come to the book we call Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes. This is the last book in the first section of the writings. Remember, there are 12 books in the writings. The first six deal with life in the land, and the second six deal with life in exile. So we've begun with Psalms, and now we're going to end with Ecclesiastes.

Ecclesiastes is the sixth book in the writings, the last in this subgroup. The name of the book, the Hebrew name for the book is Kohelet, and you're going to hear me refer to the person in the book and the author as Kohelet. It's the Hebrew word, and it means the one who assembles, the one who assembles. Sometimes it will be rendered the teacher, the preacher, or something like that, but we're just going to use the word Kohelet, the one who assembles. 

The English title Ecclesiastes comes from the Greek translation of the word Ecclesia, and perhaps you know that word meaning assembly from some Greek background words. 

Who wrote the book? Well, technically it's anonymous, but the best tradition renders the author as Solomon, who is the great wisdom composer of ancient Israel. He is well known for his ability in wisdom and for his literary production of wisdom literature. He is closely associated with Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes, and like those other books, Proverbs and Song of Songs, the answer to the question posed in the book comes at the end, so we've got the same kind of genre and the same kind of style at work. The opening verse and verse 12 identify this person as Kohelet. Listen to Ecclesiastes 1:1, "The words of Kohelet, son of David, king in Jerusalem." That truly does sound like Solomon to me. Then we have 1:12, I, Kohelet, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. "I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven." The author is desiring for us to understand that this is Solomon who's taking this up. Solomon was the only or the last king who was king over all of Israel and lived in Jerusalem. So, if it wasn't Solomon, it would have been David, but we know that David didn't write wisdom compositions of this nature. Solomon did. 

The explicit message of the book is located in the last two verses of the book. Remember, this is how the Song of Songs worked and Proverbs worked. You also go to the end of Job and you find out the teaching at the end, then you can go back and understand how to read the rest of the book. Ecclesiastes has 12 chapters. The last two verses are 13 and 14. Here we have it. "Now, all has been heard." (He's finished with his argument.) Here is the conclusion to the matter. Fear God and keep his commands, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil." So, once again, we have in Ecclesiastes, even though it seems kind of like an anti-wisdom book, that wisdom is found in this, the fear of the Lord. It's a relational reality. It's a theological reality.Wisdom is found in the fear of the Lord. The fear of the Lord teaches you to obey all that he has commanded and to live in light of his word. 

Now, the basic approach of Ecclesiastes is interesting. The message of Ecclesiastes, as we have already said, is the same as Proverbs. True knowledge, wisdom, and meaning in life begin with and are summarized by, the fear of the Lord. However, the approach to this instruction is not the same as Proverbs. It is an approach designed for the skeptic, for the one who doubts, for the one who's not sure that he can believe what's being said. For the one who wants to test the underlying thesis of wisdom, that wise living begins with the fear of the Lord. So, let's test that proposition.

Do you need to believe in God? Do you need to obey God? Do you need to trust God to truly embrace the way of wisdom? So, this is going to be a wisdom that doesn't deny God, this approach in Song of Songs, but a wisdom that sets God aside, to explore other possibilities. The theme of the book is found in chapter 1, verse 2, and chapter 12, verse 8, and then sprinkled throughout. So, it kind of is an inclusio, or brackets the book as a whole, and it's the well-known expression, vanity of vanities, says Kohelet. Vanity of vanities. All is vanity, or meaningless meaningless, says Kohelet. Utterly meaningless. Everything is meaningless. Vanity of vanities, meaningless and meaningless. Two different ways to translate that particular book. 

So, the theme of Kohelet throughout, or Ecclesiastes throughout, is going to be this, that ultimately life without God is meaningless, vain, a fleeting vapor, not worth its time. Because the perspective of the book is this, under the sun, under the sun, S-U-N. This occurs more than any other expression in the book. More than vanity of vanities, more than there's no gain, more than there's no profit.The author is talking about life under the sun. It occurs 29 times in Ecclesiastes and represents the worldview of the wisdom experiment contained in the central section of the book. Kohelet's use of wisdom appears subversive because it is not rooted in the fear of the Lord, but it is based on experience and observation.

The main question in the book appears to be this, Ecclesiastes 1-3, "What profit is there for a person in all of his labor for which he labors under the sun? What profit is there for a person in all of his labor for which he labors under the sun?" This basic question is repeated in chapter 2 verse 22, chapter 3 verse 9, and chapter 5 verse 16, and it contains two key ideas that are important for understanding the book. The first is under the sun mentioned above, and the second is the notion of profit, profit.

What profit is there in life? P-R-O-F-I-T, not P-R-O-P-H-E-T like Isaiah, but what gain or profit is there under the sun? The Hebrew word here for profit is a commercial term referring to surplus or gain, but it has a wider meaning in Ecclesiastes when used concerning wisdom. When two things are compared, the term refers to an advantage one thing has over another. Okay, so for example, what profit is there or what gain is there by being wise over being a fool because both die and give up everything? Okay, when profit is used by itself, it refers to any net gain that allows one to get ahead in life or the desired result produced by effort or labor.

Okay, it is imperative to see that the answer to the question in 1:3 comes in chapter 2 verses 10 through 11 where a very important distinction appears. Kohelet considers all of his activities and concludes that there is no profit or gain under the sun. Life without God is meaningless because the mode of instruction here is not divine revelation, but rather experience. In the book of Proverbs, the question, how do you know, is answered because I learned it. Kohelet approaches wisdom differently in Ecclesiastes. He stresses the role of experience and the use of independent rational intelligence for drawing conclusions about life.

It is not anti-God per se. God is mentioned in the book, for example, in chapter 3, chapter 5, chapter 9. However, the book does not allow the existence of God to factor into solving the problem of the wisdom experience. So, for example, maybe you know someone who believes in God out there some way abstractly but does not necessarily employ his belief in God to understand life or to solve his problems. This is going here. This type of instruction, I'll just show you, I'm going to use an example outside of Ecclesiastes to show you this type of wisdom instruction. It's from Psalm 73. It's kind of a little bit of a wisdom psalm. It's the psalm of Asaph, and it deals with the whole idea of how you deal with suffering how you deal with life, and how you understand things, where you get stuff from, meaning, where you get meaning. So Psalm 73 verses 1 through 3 begin this way, "Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my foot had almost slipped. I nearly lost my foothold, for I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked." (How can there be a God out there when the wicked flourish?) When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me." Or you could say it this way, when I tried to understand all this by myself, it was oppressive to me. Well, what changed this man's view? "Until I entered the sanctuary of God. Then I understood their final destiny. Surely you place them on slippery ground. You cast them down in ruin. How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by tears, as a dream when one awakes? So when you arise, O Lord, you will despise them as fantasies. Those who are far from you will perish. You destroy all who are unfaithful to you. But as for me now, it is good to be near God. I have made the sovereign Lord my refuge, and I will tell of all of your deeds." 

So here the psalmist is suffering under the oppression of the wicked prospering and his suffering. And then he couldn't handle it. He couldn't explain it until he entered into the sanctuary of God, meaning he was trying to understand it at first under the sun, but then he had to go above the sun into the invisible realm, into the temple of God to make it meaningful to him. So that's the question going on in Ecclesiastes here. How do you make sense of life without God? Or you could put it another way. God has created two realms, the visible and the invisible. The invisible is the true and more significant realm. The visible is kind of the shadowy, copy, temporary realm. And so how do you live a life when you don't recognize the wonder of the invisible realm and God's presence in it? 

The outline of the book is super easy. There are three parts. There's an introduction and a conclusion written in the third person. And then the interior part is written in the first person. So the introduction is here. Chapter 1 verses 1 through 11.Chapter 1 verses 1 through 11, the wisdom prologue. And then the third part is chapter 12 verses 8 through 14, the wisdom epilogue. Then in the middle, chapter 1 verse 12 through chapter 12 verse 7, you have the wisdom experience where you're just going to test all of life and measure it under the sun.

I'm going to test it with women. I'm going to test it with wealth. I'm going to test it with folly, with riches. I'm going to test it with meaninglessness and meaningfulness. I'm going to test it with work. I'm going to test it with prestige and see what all of these things do in his experiment. And in all of these things, it says on several occasions, especially in chapter 2 verses 1 through 11, that his mind and his wisdom stayed with him amid the folly of his pursuits. So he's able to accurately assess what is going on in the psalm. So in some sense, the author, let's say Solomon, is maintaining his wisdom while he's engaging in outright folly to test if it's meaningless or not. That's how you have to read the book. Otherwise, you get lost. It's not a book of despair. It's perhaps one of the most kind of evangelistic books that I would use with a non-Christian to say, let's test your life and see if there's meaning in it. 

So chapter 1 verses 1 through 11 is prologue. Chapter 12 verses 8 through 14 is the epilogue. And then the remainder of it constitutes that wisdom experience. So let me just read you a few verses here to see just how the book begins. It says, "The words of Kohelet, the son of David, the king of Jerusalem. (And it begins this way,) meaninglessness, meaninglessness, or vanity of vanities, says Kohelet, utterly meaninglessness. Everything is meaningless. What do people gain or profit from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and sunsets and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south, it blows to the north. Round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. All streams flow into the sea, yet it's never full. The place of the stream comes from, to the place the stream comes from, there it returns again." So life is circular and never getting anywhere. Life is circular, never getting anywhere. "Therefore all things are wearisome, more than one can say. No eye ever has enough of seeing, nor does the ear have its fill of hearing." That is life is completely unsatisfying in this way. "What has been will again be, and what has been done will be done again. There is nothing new under the sun." 

Now that's a very popular line in our culture. Oh, there's nothing new under the sun. But you should know from this particular book, that's the godless, that's the godless vantage point. Christians should not be saying there's nothing new under the sun because we know there is something new. Isaiah says, behold, he's doing something new. Or here it says, that which is crooked cannot be straight. And Isaiah says, make straight the path of our God. So remember that when you're reading this stuff, you have to be careful how you quote it because you don't want to take the perspective of the author here in the beginning, because it's a meaningless, in vain perspective. "Is there anything of which one can say, look, this is something new, it was already long ago, it was here before our time. No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not remember those who follow them." Meaning there is no profit because they're just poof and gone.

That's the introduction to the book. Then it says, I'll just read this for you. "I, the teacher, was king over Israel," (and here's what he's doing) "I applied my mind to study and explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind. I have seen all things that are done under the sun, and all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind." So here you have Solomon, the wisest man of all time, figuring out by testing everything that he's seen, that without God, all of life is a chasing after the wind. 

Well, let's just read the final perspective here before we talk about how Solomon has, in some sense, instructed us in the gospel in this book. Chapter 12 verses 9 to 14. "Not only was the teacher wise, but he was also imparting knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. (We know that Solomon did that.) "Kohelet searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true. The words of the wise are like goads. They've collected sayings like firmly embedded nails given by one shepherd. Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them, of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body. Now all has been heard. Here is the conclusion of the matter. Fear God. Keep his commands, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it's good or evil."

So Solomon concludes, or Kohelet concludes, with the imperative here to fear God and keep his commands. Why? Because there is someone who exists over the sun and who is going to come and judge humanity everything that has been seen and everything unseen. It's a sober reminder that the kind of life pursued without the recognition of God's sovereignty and creative force in this world is going to be just meaningless, meaningless. Everything is meaningless. 

How is Ecclesiastes the Gospel promised beforehand? I've got two things here. The first is suggested to me by Richard Belcher in his chapter on Ecclesiastes in a Biblical Theological Introduction to the Old Testament, one of my colleagues, where he writes, "Kohelet accurately describes a world struggling under the effects of the curse of the fall where we've been darkened and we cannot apprehend God without his revelation to us. One of the key words of Ecclesiastes, vanity or hevel, is translated in the Greek Septuagint as a particular word, metiotes.  (You don't have to know that.) The term is used, the same term is used in Romans 8:20 to describe the subject of the subjection of creation to futility. That's the word there, futility. The creation groans as it waits to be set free from the bondage of decay. However, futility will not have the last word because Jesus has taken upon himself the curse of the futility of this life. The power of the new creation is demonstrated in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. There is therefore something new under the sun."

The work of creation has a purpose. Also, I'll just say that Kohelet struggles with frustrations that arise in labor, but remember the exhortation of the Apostle Paul that our labor is not in vain in the Lord. When eating or drinking appear to be the only pleasures in life, according to Ecclesiastes, remember that whatever we do, including eating and drinking, we do for the glory of God, according to 1 Corinthians 10:13. Under the sun, there is something new, but because of the Son of God, we have the miracle of the new.

I'll say that again. Under the sun, there is something new, because of the Son of God, we have the miracle of the new. 2 Corinthians 5:17. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old passed away. Behold, the new has come. There is something new.

There is hope. 2 Peter 3:13. "But according to his promise, we are waiting for a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells." Life under the sun is meaningless, but life with the sun, S-O-N, has all meaning.

The book of Ecclesiastes, I hope, will drive you to embrace the wonder of the creator of the heavens and earth.