A Commentary in Simple English on Ecclesiastes

(Revised May 2005)

Introduction

'Ecclesiastes' is not an easy book. The name 'Ecclesiastes' is itself a hard one. It does not help us at all. So you can think about this book as 'The Teacher'. The very first verse in the book tells us that it is mostly what the Teacher said. It may be even more help if we think of the Teacher as the 'Arguer'.

Do not give up too easily when you read this book of the Bible. By the time you are halfway through the book, you will smile at some of the things that the Teacher says.

The book does not tell us that the Teacher was Solomon, the king of Israel. [0.1] It does tell us these things: -

  1. That the Teacher was the son of David. (1:1)
  2. That he was king in Jerusalem. (1:12)
  3. That he was rich and strong. (2:4-8)
  4. He was a very wise man (1:16,17; 12:9)

Now all this would be true about Solomon. It would not all be true about anyone else. Solomon lived almost a thousand years before the time of Jesus. That is three thousand years ago. This is one reason why 'The Teacher' is not easy. It is a very old book. There are things in this book that Solomon could hardly have said.

Now look at 12:9. This verse will tell us what to look for in The Teacher. There will be 'proverbs'. These are wise sayings, which people pass on to one another. The Teacher took great care when he put them together. So we can look for this shape when we read the book: -

  1. The words of the Teacher. He will tell us what he wants to ask himself.
  2. Then there will be two or more 'proverbs' or wise sayings. We must not always expect these proverbs to agree with each other.
  3. Then the Teacher will tell us what he thinks.

We shall not often find all three of these parts together. Then at the start and the end there are some 'poems'. Your Bible will show you that many parts of the book are poems.

So this is a book of 'Wisdom'. There are other 'wisdom books' in the Bible. Job and Proverbs are books of 'Wisdom'. Now in some parts of the world we still find this kind of 'Wisdom'. China is a good example. [0.2] Anyone who knows this kind of 'wisdom' will be able to read this book easily. You may see at once what it means. You will not need anyone to explain it to you.

This is what these 'wise men' were like.

  1. Religion did not fill up their lives. There is not much about Jewish religion in this book. The writer only seems to know the first three chapters of Genesis. There is nothing about the way that God brought Israel out of Egypt at the 'Exodus'. The wise men in other nations would not have worshipped false 'gods'. They would not use magic.
  2. They tried to find out what the meaning of life was. They thought things out.
  3. They watched people. They tried to learn lessons from what people did. They tried to learn lessons from what happened to people. They tried to find some rules. These rules would be true more often than not.
  4. These rules then became their 'proverbs'.
  5. They did not say much about God. This does not mean that they did not believe in God. You will find that the Teacher says that he sees something 'under the sun'. He means: 'if you leave God out of your thoughts'. He uses the Hebrew word 'Elohim' for God. He does not use 'Jehovah' (or 'Jahweh'). The name Jehovah has the idea in it of the God who made Israel His own people. God Himself does not speak at all in this book.

It may help us to understand the Teacher if we think about the Book of Job. There, in the first two chapters and the last chapter, we have the story of Job. Then in between, chapters 3-37 are long speeches by Job and his friends. They argue with each other. None of them is quite right in what they say. In chapter 38 God begins to speak. Then in chapter 42:1-6, Job answers God. The argument is about sin and suffering. This is not the question in the first two chapters. There the question is: 'Is Job God's servant? Is he really a good man?'

Now when we look at the Teacher, we find that he argues with himself. Unlike Job, he does not have any friends to argue with! This goes on from 1:12 to 12:8. Another voice speaks to us in 1:1-11 and in 12:9-14. We also hear this other voice in 7:27. We shall call this other voice 'the writer'. The writer heard what the teacher said. He honoured him and wrote down what he heard.

The Teacher cannot agree with himself. So we shall not agree with all that he says. In the same way, we shall not agree with all that Job's friends say.

'The Teacher' can help Christian people today. When we become Christians, God gives us new hearts. He gives us light in our minds. Soon, we forget the old thoughts because the light in our minds is so much better. Yet there are still plenty of people who are not Christians. Some of them think about life. Some of them want to know what life means. The Teacher can help us to look at these people. He will teach us how to help them. Sometimes he will tell us that they ask the wrong questions. He may tell us that he can find no answer.

So as we go through the book, we shall suggest what we can say. As Christians, we should be able to find answers, even though the Teacher could not.