About the Author
J. I. Packer (1926–2020) served as the Board of Governors’ Professor of Theology at Regent College. He authored numerous books, including the classic best seller Knowing God. Packer served as general editor for the English Standard Version Bible and as theological editor for the ESV Study Bible.
Lane T. Dennis (PhD, Northwestern University) is CEO of Crossway, formerly called Good News Publishers. Before joining Good News Publishers in 1974, he served as a pastor in campus ministry at the University of Michigan (Sault Ste. Marie) and as the managing director of Verlag Grosse Freude in Switzerland. He is the author and/or editor of three books, including the Gold Medallion-award-winning book Letters of Francis A. Schaeffer, and he is the former chairman of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. Dennis has served as the chairman of the ESV (English Standard Version) Bible Translation Oversight Committee and as the executive editor of the ESV Study Bible. Lane and his wife, Ebeth, live in Wheaton, Illinois.
Dane C. Ortlund (PhD, Wheaton College) serves as senior pastor of Naperville Presbyterian Church in Naperville, Illinois. He is an editor for the Knowing the Bible series and the Short Studies in Biblical Theology series, and is the author of several books, including Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers. Dane lives with his wife, Stacey, and their five children in Naperville, Illinois.
Read an Excerpt
Ecclesiastes states powerfully and repeatedly that everything is meaningless ("vanity") without a proper focus on God. The book reveals the necessity of fearing God in a fallen and frequently confusing and frustrating world.
People seek lasting significance, but no matter how great their accomplishments, they are unable to achieve the significance they desire. What spoils life, according to Ecclesiastes, is the attempt to get more out of life — out of work, pleasure, money, food, or knowledge — than life itself can provide. This is not fulfilling and leads to weariness, which is why the book begins and ends with the exclamation "All is vanity." This refrain is repeated throughout the entire book.
No matter how wise or rich or successful one may be, one cannot find meaning in life apart from God. In Ecclesiastes, the fact that "all is vanity" should drive all to fear God, whose work endures forever. God does what he will, and all beings and all of creation stand subject to him. Rather than striving in futile attempts to gain meaning on our own terms, what truly is significant is taking pleasure in God and his gifts and being content with what little life has to offer and what God gives. (For further background, see the ESV Study Bible, pages 1193–1196; available online at www.esvbible.org.)
Placing It in the Larger Story
Like the other Wisdom Literature in the Bible, Ecclesiastes is concerned with imparting wisdom and teaching people to fear the Lord. However, Ecclesiastes serves as a balance for the practical wisdom of Proverbs. Although Ecclesiastes finds practical wisdom beneficial, it comes to it along a more reflective path. Where Job asks for personal vindication, Ecclesiastes shares in Job's intensity but its search is for happiness and something that will endure. Ecclesiastes is consistent with the rest of Scripture in its explanation that true wisdom is to fear God even when we cannot see all that God is doing. We can leave it to him to make sense of it all.
Ecclesiastes describes the meaninglessness of living without God. We see that God created the world and called it "good." But despite this original goodness, humanity fell into sin, and all creation was subjected to the curse of God. This brought into the world meaninglessness, violence, and frustration. Graciously, God did not leave his creation to an endless round of meaninglessness. God's response to sin is to redeem, renew, restore, and recreate. The Bible traces this history of salvation from beginning to end. While this process starts immediately after the fall, God's rescue mission culminates in Jesus Christ, who has rescued us from the meaninglessness of the curse that plagues us. Christ rescues us from the vanity of the world by subjecting himself to the same vanity of the world. He who is God chose to subject himself to the conditions of the world under covenant curse in order to rescue the world from the effects of that curse.
"Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity" (Eccles. 1:2).
"Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity" (Eccles. 12:8).
"Whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him" (Eccles. 3:14).
Date and Historical Background
The book of Ecclesiastes is named after its central character, Qoheleth (translated "the Preacher" in the ESV). Qoheleth is the Hebrew title translated Ekklesiastes in Greek.
Traditional Jewish and Christian scholarship has often ascribed authorship to Solomon (10th century BC), since the book describes the Preacher as the "son of David, king in Jerusalem" (1:1) and as someone who was surpassingly wise (1:16) and had a very prosperous reign (2:1–9).
Other scholars think it was a writer later than Solomon. The term "son of David" could be used to refer to anyone in the line of David — it is used of Joseph, for example (Matt. 1:20). Also, the language of the book differs in a number of ways from that found in Solomon's other writings. The Hebrew language used in the book is widely believed to indicate a date later than the 10th century BC.
Strictly speaking, the book is anonymous, given that no personal name is attached to it. Since Scripture is silent on the matter, we cannot be confident in identifying the Preacher. In any case, the book claims its wisdom comes ultimately from the "one Shepherd" (12:11), the Lord himself (Gen. 48:15; Pss. 23:1; 28:9; 80:1).
I. Introduction and Theme (1:1–3)
II. First Catalog of "Vanities" (1:4–2:26)
III. Poem: A Time for Everything (3:1–8)
IV. Fear God, the Sovereign One (3:9–15)
V. Second Catalog of "Vanities" (3:16–4:16)
VI. Fear God, the Holy and Righteous One (5:1–7)
VII. Life "Under the Sun" (5:8–7:24)
VIII. The Heart of the Problem: Sin (7:25–29)
IX. More on Life "Under the Sun" (8:1–12:7)
X. Final Conclusion and Epilogue (12:8–14)
As You Get Started ...
What is your understanding of how Ecclesiastes helps us understand more fully the whole storyline of the Bible? Do you have an idea of how aspects of the book's message are found elsewhere in the Old Testament and fulfilled in the New Testament?
What is your current understanding of what Ecclesiastes contributes to Christian theology? From your current knowledge of Ecclesiastes, what does this book teach us about God, sin, salvation, Jesus Christ, the church, the gospel, and other doctrines?
What aspects of Ecclesiastes have confused you? Are there any specific questions you hope to resolve through this study?
As You Finish This Unit ...
Take a few moments now to ask the Lord to bless you, change you, and help you understand and apply the unique aspects of the gospel to your life.
1 Fear of the Lord – Fear of the Lord is a godly, wise fear that demonstrates awe and reverence for the all-powerful God (Prov. 1:7).
2 History of salvation – God's unified plan for all of history to accomplish the salvation of his people. He accomplished this salvation plan in the work of Jesus Christ on earth by his life, crucifixion, burial, and resurrection (Eph. 1:10–12). The consummation of God's plan will take place when Jesus Christ comes again to establish the "new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells" (2 Pet. 3:13).
3 Fall, the – Adam and Eve's disobedience of God by eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, resulting in their loss of innocence and favor with God and the introduction of sin and its effects into the world (Genesis 3; Rom. 5:12–21; 1 Cor. 15:21–22).CHAPTER 2
All Is Vanity
The Place of the Passage
Ecclesiastes begins with "All is vanity" (1:2) and ends with the same declaration (12:8). The Preacher says that everything is meaningless without a proper focus on God. This theme is established and explained in 1:4–11, with verse 4 providing the thesis: "A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever." People are temporary, but the earth is lasting. Ecclesiastes 1:5–7 gives examples of systems or aspects of the earth that demonstrate this truth. Verses 5 and 6 establish two central metaphors that run through the rest of the book: the wind and the sun. They appear throughout the book in the phrases "striving after wind" and "under the sun." These metaphors emphasize two things: the lasting significance of the earth, and humanity's ephemeral nature by comparison.
People would like to do something new, to be remembered for making a significant contribution to the world; they long and strive for lasting significance but cannot attain it (vv. 8–10). Our efforts are like striving after the wind — attempts for immortality that inevitably fail. One cannot catch the wind — it is here one minute and gone the next, just as fleeting as a human lifespan. All that is done "under the sun" suffers the same fate. We labor under the sun, but will never have the significance or impact that it has. No matter how great their accomplishments, humans will not achieve the lasting significance they desire. Ecclesiastes 1:11 drives home this conclusion.
The Big Picture
This section of Ecclesiastes declares the vanity of everything and the denial of meaning or satisfaction in life, in and of itself.
Reflection and Discussion
Read through the complete passage for this study, Ecclesiastes 1:1–11. Then review the questions below concerning this section of Ecclesiastes and write your notes on them. (For further background, see the ESV Study Bible, pages 1197–1198, or visit www.esvbible.org.)
1. Who is the Preacher, and why is he significant?
2. In Ecclesiastes 1:2, the Preacher (Hebrew Qoheleth) twice employs the phrase "vanity of vanities." The Hebrew term translated here, hebel, can refer to vanity, breath, mist, or meaninglessness and is used more than 30 times in Ecclesiastes. What does this phrase picture?
3. At the end of verse 2, the Preacher indicates, "All is vanity." Looking at the rest of chapter 1, why would the Preacher make this statement?
4. In verse 3 the Preacher asks, "What gain is toil?" This question is repeated in various ways throughout Ecclesiastes (3:9; 5:15; 6:11; 10:11). Why is the Preacher questioning the significance of people's work and asserting the pointlessness of life and creation? Should his pronouncements cause us to despair?
5. Verse 11 says that few people make any significant impact on the course of world history, while most live and die in obscurity. How does verse 11 drive home the point introduced in verse 4 and reinforced throughout these poetic verses?
Read through the following three sections on Gospel Glimpses, Whole-Bible Connections, and Theological Soundings. Then take time to consider the Personal Implications these sections may have for you.
LONGING FOR GRACE. This passage highlights the futility of life and creation that we all feel. Due to the tyranny of time that erodes and replaces all that distinguishes human accomplishment, our work can be summarized as "nothing new" (v. 9) and nothing remembered (v. 11). There is a cyclical, rhythmic element to creation that appears futile. Seasons always change. The streams continue to flow, though the ocean never fills. Generations come and go and repeat the mistakes of the past. Meanwhile, the earth stands still and mocks any idea of progress. The passage evokes a longing for grace and meaning. This blanket observation of the futility of human accomplishment makes the heart long for the stark contrast of Jesus' work for, in, and through us that is new and will be forever remembered. When we come to believe in Jesus — partaking of the new covenant that gives new birth, new life, and a new commandment — we enter into a new workforce. Now what we do matters, as it is done for the sake of the gospel and the glory of God (e.g., Matt. 25:40; 26:10–13). In Christ, our labor is not in vain (Psalm 112; 1 Cor. 15:58).
ULTIMATE AND LASTING SATISFACTION. Ultimate and lasting satisfaction is found only in Christ and in enjoying God's gifts through him (Rev. 22:17). Apart from the mystery of our union with Jesus, even the best gifts of creation will fail us. If we neglect God in our pursuit of joy, everything good in life — e.g., health, possessions, sensual pleasures — slips through our grasp or fails to satisfy. But if we see that what we have is God's provision and give "thanks to God the Father"— ultimately through Christ (Col. 3:17) — for all his gifts, then whatever we receive from him is seen as a gift that brings true joy — joy in God. In Jesus' words, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied" (Matt. 5:6). Our labor in the Lord has meaning even when it doesn't feel like it: "Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain" (1 Cor. 15:58).
FUTILITY. Because of Adam and Eve's disobedience in the garden, creation has been placed under the curse of the fall (Rom. 8:20–21). For Adam in particular, the ground he was charged with cultivating would instead produce thorns and thistles (Gen. 3:17–18). This theme of futility can be traced throughout Scripture, as "futility" can characterize nearly anything pursued apart from God. Without God, our thoughts and attitudes are futile (Ps. 94:11; Isa. 16:6; Jer. 48:29–30; Luke 1:51–52; Rom. 1:21; Eph. 4:17–18). Without God, our work is futile (Pss. 39:6; 127:1–2; Hab. 2:13; James 1:11). Without God, our religious activities are futile (1 Kings 18:29; 2 Kings 17:15; Isa. 1:13; 16:12; Jer. 10:5; Acts 5:36–38; Col. 2:20–23). Even Christian religious activities can be futile apart from God (John 15:5; 1 Cor. 3:12–15; Titus 3:9; Heb. 4:2; James 1:22–24). Without God, even our very lives are futile (Job 7:6–7; 14:1–2; Pss. 39:4–5; 89:47; Isa. 40:6–7; James 4:14). Ultimately, God wants to deliver us from the futility that pervades our lives (2 Tim. 2:21; 1 Pet. 1:18), and eventually, he will succeed in doing so by bringing his presence to earth as completely as the waters cover the sea (Hab. 2:14). Then, nothing will be done in futility, for nothing will be done apart from God's loving presence in all of glorified human life.
LIFE AS A VAPOR. In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve were subjected to death and decay as a result of the fall. In Genesis 4, their firstborn son, Cain, kills their second-born, Abel. Abel, whose name in Hebrew, hebel, is in fact the word for vanity in Ecclesiastes, is born and dies within 6 verses. His life is but a vapor, a breath exhaled on a cold morning. In Genesis 5, the pace picks up and we rapidly meet men who have sons, grow old, and die — vapor after vapor after vapor. Human mortality is established early on in Genesis.
THE DAVIDIC KING. Ecclesiastes begins with the Preacher described as "the son of David, king in Jerusalem." In Genesis 1:28 we learn that humanity was entrusted with the royal task of "subduing" and having "dominion over" all creation. After Adam, our first king, failed in this calling, God promised that a true and better king would come to conquer evil and restore humanity's rule over the earth. To Abraham and Sarah, God promised, "Kings shall come from you" (Gen. 17:6, 16). This promise was narrowed to Judah's line (Gen. 49:10) and eventually to the line of David (2 Sam. 7:12–16). The hope is sustained with the promise of a son who will rule "on the throne of David and over his kingdom" (Isa. 9:6–7). This points forward to the coming of Jesus, the son of David, who is now enthroned "far above all rule and authority" (Eph. 1:20–21) and who "shall reign forever and ever" (Rev. 11:15).(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Knowing the Bible: Ecclesiastes, A 12-Week Study"
Copyright © 2016 Crossway.
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Table of Contents
Series Preface: J. I. Packer and Lane T. Dennis,
Week 1: Overview,
Week 2: All Is Vanity (1:1–11),
Week 3: Wisdom, Pleasure, and Labor (1:12–2:26),
Week 4: A Time for Everything (3:1–15),
Week 5: More "Vanities" (3:16–4:16),
Week 6: Fear God (5:1–7),
Week 7: Greed and Contentment (5:8–6:9),
Week 8: The Contrast of Wisdom and Folly (6:10–7:29),
Week 9: In the Hand of God (8:1–9:12),
Week 10: Wisdom Is Better Than Folly (9:13–12:7),
Week 11: Remember Your Creator (12:8–14),
Week 12: Summary and Conclusion,
What People are Saying About This
“This Knowing the Bible series is a tremendous resource for those wanting to study and teach the Bible with an understanding of how the gospel is woven throughout Scripture. Here are Gospel-minded pastors and scholars doing Gospel business from all the scripturesthis is a biblical and theological feast preparing God’s people to apply the entire Bible to all of life with heart and mind wholly committed to Christ’s priorities.”Bryan Chapell, Pastor Emeritus, Grace Presbyterian Church, Peoria, Illinois
“Mark Twain may have smiled when he wrote to a friend, “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long letter.” But the truth of Twain’s remark remains serious and universal, because well-reasoned, compact writing requires extra time and extra hard work. And this is what we have in the Crossway Bible study series Knowing the Bibleas the skilled authors and notable editors provide the contours of each book of the Bible as well as the grand theological themes that bind them together as one Book. Here, in a 12-week format, are carefully wrought studies that will ignite the mind and the heart.”R. Kent Hughes, Senior Pastor Emeritus, College Church, Wheaton, Illinois
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“These Knowing the Bible volumes introduce a significant and very welcome variation on the general run of inductive Bible studies. Such series often provide questions with little guidance, leaving students to their own devices. They thus tend to overlook the role of teaching in the church. By contrast, Knowing the Bible avoids the problem by providing substantial instruction with the questions. Knowing the Bible then goes even further by showing how any given passage connects with the gospel, the whole Bible, and Christian theology. I heartily endorse this orientation of individual books to the whole Bible and the gospel, and I applaud the demonstration that sound theology was not something invented later by Christians, but is right there in the pages of Scripture.”Graeme Goldsworthy, Former Lecturer in Old Testament, Biblical Theology, and Hermeneutics, Moore Theological College
“What a gift to earnest, Bible-loving, Bible-searching believers! The organization and structure of the Bible study format presented through the Knowing the Bible series is so well conceived. Students of the Word are led to understand the content of passages through perceptive, guided questions, and they are given rich insights and application all along the way in the brief but illuminating sections that conclude each study. What potential growth in depth and breadth of understanding these studies offer. One can only pray that vast numbers of believers will discover more of God and the beauty of his Word through these rich studies.”Bruce A. Ware, T. Rupert and Lucille Coleman Professor of Christian Theology, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary