Is Trying to Understand Ecclesiastes like Chasing after the Wind?

Too often we ignore the hard parts of Scripture. Oh yes, in theory we believe that “all scripture is God-breathed and profitable.” But in practice we deny it by avoiding many of the 66 books. We deplore the fact that many churches minimize Biblical prophecy, and by and large restrict their study to Matthew through Jude–“because the Old Testament’s expired, and nobody can understand Revelation.” But I’m not sure we do much better.

“We should read the Bible more, and we should read more of the Bible,” said H. L. Olmstead. And he was right. So one of Word and Work’s goals has been to help folks appreciate, understand, love and live by all of God’s Word. Thus from time to time we concentrate on some of its more difficult parts. We ran issues about the OT in general (“The Old Testament is God’s Word Too”). Also issues with these themes: Genesis; the O.T. prophets; Job; Psalms, Proverbs; the Sermon on the Mount, and Revelation. Now we focus on Ecclesiastes.

“Its Meaning Seems Like Vanity of Vanities to Me”

Of course these articles won’t help you grasp Ecclesiastes unless you read it—the Book as well as this magazine! But if you’ll take time to read the text, then the articles here can help you get a handle on it. Most Christians know only 3 things (if that many) in the book: (1) Solomon’s experiment with many different activities, as he tried to find life’s purpose but only concluded, “Everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” (2) The passage that begins, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven….” (3) The final passage: “Fear God and keep his commandments….” But there is so much more to it! And the careful reader discovers that though its despairing pessimism is what hits you first, there is a whole other side which most people never dream exists. An outstanding Christian writer, James Packer, says Ecclesiastes is his favorite book in the Bible! It has become very precious to me too.

Guidelines in Bible Study

Let me make a few suggestions about studying the Bible in general and Eccles. in particular. 1st, pray. Ask the Author for understanding. Promise Him you’ll follow whatever truths He will reveal to you. This is crucial. 2nd, read the book straight through at one sitting if at all possible. This is a vital practice in Bible study, and more so in this book than most. If you don’t stop to ponder questions as you go, you can read all of Eccles. in 30-50 minutes, depending on your speed (it took me 37 minutes). Ponder later, but not during this fast first reading. During this time try to get the overall mood or thrust of the author–the big picture. Notice in passing the repeated words and ideas; this will reveal his main points. But don’t bother about the questions, obscurities and contradictions that seem to pop up time and again. You’ll deal with them later. This time mainly soak up the atmosphere. And fasten your seat-belt first, for you may never be the same!

3rd, if possible re-read the whole book (or at least large sections of it at a time), marking the main points that grab you this time through. If you use a highlighter, or different colored pens to underline various themes, you will start noticing things you missed at first. For instance, amid the darkness and gloom a puzzling refrain of another sort pops up in chapters 2, 3, 5, 8 and 9. Since it appears at least five times, and adds up to a total of about 15 verses, it is obviously important. (I’ll let you find it for yourself.) As we view life we need to evaluate this approach as well as the more obvious one that says, “Utter futility, utter futility! The whole thing is futile.”

4th, now you’re ready for a paragraph-by-paragraph or verse-by-verse study. Don’t forget to keep praying for enlightenment. Read the passage in one or two other translations if you haven’t already. Ask questions of the text. Think, meditate and review. Keep asking yourself how you can apply what you are learning to your attitudes and daily living. Don’t leave that out.

5th, after experiencing the joy of personal discovery, you reach the time when commentaries can supplement what you have learned. If you use them much before this point in the process, it tends to stunt your ability to feed yourself. You get too dependent on other folks’ study, and do too little of your own. Yet if you ignore commentaries altogether, you lose the benefit of those teachers whom God has specially gifted and placed among His people to build them up. (Eph.4:11-13.)

A 3rd Major Theme

Besides the themes mentioned above, another recurring idea caught my attention: In chapter 3: “Men…cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” “Who knows…?” “Who can bring him to see what will happen after him?” In chapter 6: “Who knows what is good for a man in life….Who can tell him what will happen under the sun after he is gone?” In chapter 7: “A man cannot discover anything about his future.” “‘I am determined to be wise’–but this was beyond me. Whatever wisdom may be, it is far off and most profound–who can discover it?”

In chapter 8: “Who knows the explanation of things?” “Since no man knows the future, who can tell him what is to come?” “No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all his efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its meaning. Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend it.” In chapter 9: “No man knows whether love or hate awaits him.” “No man knows when his hour will come.” In chapter 10: “No one knows what is coming–who can tell him what will happen after him?” In chapter 11: “…You do not know what disaster may come upon the land.” “You do not know the path of the wind….” “You cannot understand the work of God….” “You do not know which will succeed….” Wow–he makes his point, doesn’t he! But what is it? Well, think about it. (Then read James Packer’s article in this issue.) And here’s some additional help from an old Puritan writer: “Never let what you do not know destroy your faith in what you do know.”

In conclusion, here’s a challenge from T. N. Sterrett’s book, How to Understand Your Bible. “We know that God gives understanding in answer to prayer, but it is a mistake to conclude that Bible study is unnecessary. God gave the Israelites water from a rock when Moses struck it with his rod, but this was exceptional. God required Abraham and Jacob to do the hard work of digging wells. The water came from God in answer to prayer, and through hard work. We must not let our natural tendency to avoid work and hard thinking deceive us.”

May God help us to excavate His Word. Happy digging!