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Everything Has Its TimeEcclesiastes
By Edward (Les) Middleton
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2006 Thomas Nelson, Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAll Is Vanity Under The Sun
Before We Begin ...
Before you begin to study Ecclesiastes, what one word (or group of words) can you think of that occurs most often within its pages? In other words, what have you already heard about this book?
Ecclesiastes is an example of Jewish wisdom literature. Can you name any other examples of wisdom literature in the Bible?
The first verse of Ecclesiastes identifies its author as a "son of David." By itself, this verse is not very convincing, but taken together with some of the other verses we examined in the introduction to this study guide (especially 1:12), the overall body of evidence certainly suggests that we are reading the words of Solomon. We therefore will refer to Solomon as the author from this point forward.
The Vanity of Life
The word "Preacher" in verse 1 is given as "Teacher" in some other translations of the Bible. Keep this in mind as you read through the text so that you can decide for yourself which word is a better fit. Is the author teaching or preaching? Or both?
Please read the first chapter of Ecclesiastes and respond to the following questions.
What is the word Solomon uses in verse 2 to establish his theme for the rest of the book?
How would you define this word in a modern context? What do you think Solomon means by it?
Do you think Solomon is referring specifically to those who labor outdoors, such as highway workers and farmers, when he speaks of toiling "under the sun" (v. 3)? If not, what do you think he means?
What is the contrast Solomon sets up between verses 2–4a and verses 4b–7? Works of [what] versus works of [what]?
For extra credit, what famous American author wrote a book with a title based on verse 5? What is that title?
What does the wind do (v. 6)? Does the author mean to imply that wind has a regular "circuit" that it travels every day?
What do you think Solomon means when he talks about the rivers returning to "the place from which [they came]" (v. 7)? Did Solomon believe that rivers could reverse their direction?
How would you restate verse 9 in simpler terms? What is Solomon saying here?
Verse 11 makes a statement that has been repeated many times down through the centuries. One of the most memorable restatements, not necessarily anchored to this verse by its author but still cited many times by those commenting on current events, was uttered by George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
What would be your own restatement of this timeless principle?
The Grief of Wisdom
In the first eleven verses of chapter 1, Solomon laid out what his main theme would be through much of Ecclesiastes—the futility of human effort to achieve anything worthwhile and lasting. Starting in verse 12, he now begins to make his case from four different perspectives, shown in the chart below.
Perspective Reference Human achievement 1:12–15 Human wisdom 1:16–18; 2:12–17 Pleasure seeking 2:1–11 Toil or labor 2:18–6:9
What does Solomon say in verse 12 that helps confirm that he was indeed the author of Ecclesiastes? How many others, who were also sons of David, could make the same claim?
What does he say he set his heart to do (v. 13)?
What theme does Solomon return to in verses 14–15?
What two things does he say cannot be "fixed" (v. 15)?
In verse 16, Solomon provides even more information about himself, saying, "Look, I have attained greatness, and have gained more wisdom than all who were before me in Jerusalem. My heart has understood great wisdom and knowledge" (NKJV).
What did Solomon set his heart to know (v. 17)?
Do you agree with the "wisdom" expressed in verse 18? Why or why not? What qualifying statements might you want to add to Solomon's own words?
Pulling It All Together ...
Solomon begins Ecclesiastes by identifying himself as a son of David. But David had many sons, so this is not exactly a definitive qualification!
Solomon then introduces his main theme, that all of man's striving—by itself—is meaningless vanity.
Next, he sets up a contrast between the efforts of man and the timeless independence of events in the natural realm. No matter what man does, he cannot have influence on the sun or the earth, nor the winds or the rivers.
Finally, he begins illustrating his main theme from personal experience and says that so-called wisdom simply leads to sorrow and grief.
Chapter TwoVanity Of Pleasure, Prestige, And Affluence
Before We Begin ...
Based on your personal experience, do you believe that pleasure, prestige, and affluence automatically lead to moral and spiritual emptiness, or meaninglessness? (This latter word might be closer to what Solomon means by the word "vanity.")
What do you think will be Solomon's answer to the question above?
The Vanity of Pleasure
Ecclesiastes 2 deals with an experiment Solomon conducted in regard to the value of human achievement. According to verse 1, what did he "test" with, and what did he "therefore enjoy" as much as he was able?
What word did he use to describe laughter—presumably his own (v. 2)?
What did he say about mirth? That is, what question did he ask?
Fill in the blanks in the verse below, then read it carefully to determine whether Solomon's experiment—as laid out above—was truly scientific.
I searched in my heart how to gratify my flesh with __________, while guiding my heart with __________, and how to lay hold on __________, till I might see what was good for the sons of men to do under __________ all the days of their lives. (Eccl. 2:3 NKJV)
What is your verdict—do you think Solomon was objective? Why or why not?
In verses 4–8, Solomon lists a number of his accomplishments. Compared to other lists of Solomon's possessions in the Bible (see the sidebar "How Wise and How Rich Was Solomon Anyway?" elsewhere in this chapter), this passage isn't especially impressive, but it does help to identify him. Besides, he really wasn't intending to brag here; it seems more likely that he was simply trying to establish his credentials as one who had done much, owned much, and been in charge of much—and therefore knew what he was talking about.
Read this short passage, then list a few of the things Solomon takes credit for in the space provided.
I made my works great, I built myself houses, and planted myself vineyards. I made myself gardens and orchards, and I planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made myself water pools from which to water the growing trees of the grove. I acquired male and female servants, and had servants born in my house. Yes, I had greater possessions of herds and flocks than all who were in Jerusalem before me. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the special treasures of kings and of the provinces. I acquired male and female singers, the delights of the sons of men, and musical instruments of all kinds. (Eccl. 2:4–8 NKJV)
According to the above verses, what did Solomon make or build?
What did he plant?
What did he acquire, or own?
Moving on, in verse 9 Solomon claims, "I became great and excelled more than all who were before me in Jerusalem." What also "remained with" him?
Does this last statement in verse 9 tend to make him more or less believable? Why?
Read verses 10–11, one at a time, and notice the direct cause-effect relationship between the two:
Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, For my heart rejoiced in all my labor; And this was my reward from all my labor.
Then I looked on all the works that my hands had done And on the labor in which I had toiled; And indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind. There was no profit under the sun. (NKJV)
Do these seem to you like the words and conclusions of a man who has done his homework, as we might say today, or (to borrow another modern expression) is he just talking through his hat? Why?
The End of the Wise and the Foolish
In verse 12, Solomon makes it clear that his accomplishments might be duplicated, but they could not be bettered by anyone else—at least, not in his own time and place. What does he then say about wisdom versus folly (v. 13)? Does he still prefer one over the other?
What does he say the fool does (v. 14)?
Even so, what is this "same event" he mentions in the last half of verse 14, which "happens to them all"? He speaks of "it" again in the first half of verse 15. What is he talking about?
What is his conclusion? To what does the word "this" refer in the last sentence of verse 15?
Verse 16 sums up everything Solomon has said in the four preceding verses. Fill in the blanks below to see his conclusion.
For there is no more __________ of the wise than of the fool forever, Since all that now is will be __________ in the days to come. And how does a wise man die? As the fool! (Eccl. 2:16 NKJV)
Solomon expands on the above in the next few verses. For example, what does he say he hated (v. 17)?
Why does he say he hated it?
What does he say he hated in verse 18?
Again, why does he say he hated it? Do these sound like the words of a greedy, ungenerous man, or is something else going on here?
What is the conundrum (i.e., the problem with no clear solution) to which Solomon alludes in verse 19? Why would this trouble him?
Again, what is his conclusion at the end of verse 19?
Pay special attention now to the shift in Solomon's emphasis, from "I" or "my" in verse 18 (and the preceding verses as well) to "he," "a man," and "his," beginning in verse 19 and shown even more clearly in verses 20–21. In verse 20 he talks again about himself; in verse 21 he makes the switch, which he then continues for several more chapters, at least until verse 9 of chapter 6.
This is how Solomon generalized his experiences and the conclusions he drew from them, from those that were personal and private to those that—at least in his own mind—were universal and could be applied to everyone. But if you miss the switch, it's hard to keep track of what's going on!
In general, verses 20–23 expand on what Solomon has already said. For example, in verse 20 he says he "turned [his] heart." In modern English, what does this mean?
Again, in verse 21, Solomon speaks of leaving his heritage to someone who has not earned it. Do you think this is a common sentiment in the present age? What might parents do nowadays to avoid this kind of feeling in their old age—assuming they've had reasonable success in life?
In verse 22, it's important to get the emphasis right in order to get the meaning right. The word "has" must be emphasized, meaning "What does a man retain as a reward for all his labor?"
Verse 23 includes one of the few references in the Bible to what we tend to think of as a modern condition only, usually arising from too much work and too much worry. What is that reference, and how does it translate into modern English?
To conclude Ecclesiastes 2, please read verses 24–26, reprinted below, and respond to the question that follows.
Nothing is better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and that his soul should enjoy good in his labor. This also, I saw, was from the hand of God. For who can eat, or who can have enjoyment, more than I? For God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy to a man who is good in His sight; but to the sinner He gives the work of gathering and collecting, that he may give to him who is good before God. This also is vanity and grasping for the wind. (NKJV)
What is Solomon's conclusion, taken from his discussion of his own wisdom and possessions? In the end, what does he say he really values, and where does it come from?
Pulling It All Together ...
Solomon begins chapter 2 of Ecclesiastes by conducting an experiment in regard to what he saw as the value of human achievement.
He then lists a few of his achievements; he admits that others might duplicate them but claims that no one can exceed them.
Then Solomon admits that none of his own accomplishments, great as they might seem to others, have any lasting value.
Finally, he says that the simplest things are really most important—enough to eat and drink and worthwhile work that satisfies the soul.
Chapter ThreeVanity of the Cycle of Life and Death
Before We Begin ...
How do you feel about the well-known quotation "A time to be born, and a time to die"? Does this seem accurate to you, or is it too fatalistic?
Based on what you've read so far, do you think Solomon still seems to worship the true God? Or is he more of a skeptic or a fatalist?
Everything Has Its Time
One of the most familiar passages from all of Ecclesiastes, if not the entire Bible, is chapter 3, verses 1–8. Let us look closely at the structure of this passage to see what is going on behind the words themselves.
First of all, note that verses 2–8 each contain two pairs of polar opposites, with each pair related to the other pair within the same verse. Or are they?
For example, in verse 2 Solomon contrasts birth and death, followed by planting and plucking. The first pair concerns the beginning and end of human life; the second pair deals with the same events in plant life.
But what about verse 5? How would you interpret "gathering" and "casting away" stones, in an era when people were sometimes executed by being stoned to death?
Read through these verses, as arranged by pairs in the following table. Then examine each pair and see if you can find any "linkage" between the two halves of each verse, as we have done for verse 2.
Finally, note that Solomon has arranged this series of opposites in a multiple of seven, meaning seven groups of two. Seven is God's perfect number, usually suggesting completion.
Do you think Solomon thought he'd pretty much covered the territory? And, either way, what additional contrasts, perhaps more directly connected to modern life, might you suggest?
The God-Given Task
Solomon began this chapter with a thesis—that everything has its proper time. He then illustrated it with the seven previous verses. Now he turns back to the question he started with, again asking, "What is the value of anyone's work?"
What three things does Solomon claim that God has done (v. 11)?
What does he then claim is man's appropriate response (v. 12)?
Finally, after explaining in verse 14 that God does what He does so that people should fear Him, how does Solomon conclude this section (v. 15)? What does he say that God will require of us?
Injustice Seems to Prevail
To wrap up this chapter of Ecclesiastes, in verses 16–22 Solomon does five main things:
1. He acknowledges that there is plenty of injustice in the world. Some scholars claim he did this to head off any objections to what he'd said just before, that God's creation is perfect and cannot be improved upon by man.
2. In verse 17 he acknowledges once again that God will "judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time there for every purpose and for every work."
3. He makes it clear one more time that men are like animals in a physical sense. Note that he is not talking about the soul, which sets man apart from the animals. Rather, he says that—just like animals—men come from the dust of the earth, breathe in the air, then eventually die and return to the dust. But again, he is not saying that men are no different from animals—only that they share many physical realities.
4. In verse 21 he asks a question that commentators have been trying to settle for centuries! Is he saying that man is directly connected to God (i.e., that man "goes upward" through his spirit), while animals simply return to the ground, or is he saying that man is truly different from animals, with a different destiny via man's spiritual connection with God? What do you think?
5. Finally, in verse 22 Solomon recommends that we enjoy life in what he appears to consider the certain knowledge that no one "can bring him [i.e., man] to see what will happen after him."
Excerpted from Everything Has Its Time by Edward (Les) Middleton Copyright © 2006 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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