I had this message in my Inbox yesterday:
"Could you and would you have time to do an introduction to Ecclesiastes? This is an unusual and fascinating book and you could do it justice. Please confirm that you receive. I hate to call you on Sat... Johnny"
I'm a teacher through and through, but there are some times when I don't mind being the student. That tends to happen when the lesson is on something that I don't understand very well--such as the book of Ecclesiastes. All week I'd been studying my Sunday School lesson, thinking, "I'm sure glad I don't have to teach this." Of course, all week, Johnny had been down in Nashville working as a lobbyist in the state legislature, too busy to prepare a full lesson. (Watching Tennessee's legislature takes as much energy and fortitude as watching teenagers, I believe.)
Even Johnny's flattery, "You could do it justice," couldn't break through the hopelessness of my goal. Then again, hopelessness is the theme of the book. I thought I'd share some of the insights with you.
First some context for the study. Prior to Easter, our class was studying the book of Job--man suffers injustice, keeps his faith in God, gets rewarded in the end. It closed with Christ's suffering, first in Gethsemane and then on the cross, and we made parallels between Job and Christ.
This week we began Ecclesiastes, and closed with a study of some of the Resurrection appearances of Jesus. The book of Ecclesiastes reads like an "inside-out" version of the Book of Job. Rather than being a testament of suffering, it is a chronicle of excess--reflections of a man who gained the whole world, only to find the meaninglessness of a life without God's leading.
At the end of Job, the main character has been vindicated by God. By the 2nd chapter of Ecclesiastes, the writer has almost eviscerated all the hope, all the love, all the grace that a believer might expect from God.
Most people believe that Ecclesiastes come from Solomon--and it is fascinating to consider them in light of Solomon's own life story. His kingdom had an auspicious beginning: God appeared to him in a dream and promise to grant any one wish he could make. Solomon asked for wisdom--a wish granted by God, along with wealth, splendor and empire (1 Kings 3.1-15; 4.29-34). Only a few stories of Solomon's wisdom survive in the Bible: his judicious judgment of two women arguing over a surviving child, and his epic encounter with the Queen of Sheba.
The high point of Solomon's career was the dedication of the temple. His prayer of dedication is one of the greatest speeches found in the Bible (1 Kings 8), yet a critical study of the speech shows the seeds of the fall that will soon come. By 1 Kings 11, we learn that Solomon's excesses--his enslavement of his own people, his 700 wives, his 300 concubines have attracted God's wrath. "The Lord became angry with Solomon because his heart had turned away from the Lord," (1 Kings 11.9).
God raises two opponents to harass Solomon in his final years. The mysterious King Hadad of Edom (a survivor of the genocide through which Joab wiped out the nation of Edom in 2nd Samuel 8) gains the sponsorship of Shishak, Pharaoh of Egypt, and tries to invade.
Closer to home, the prophet Ahijah promises Jeroboam ten of the twelve tribes of Israel. When Solomon learns of Jeroboam's goals, he tries to murder him, but Jeroboam escapes to Egypt to await Solomon's demise and the rule of his inferior, vain, and incompetent son, Rehoboam.
This, then, is the context for the book Ecclesiastes. Solomon is hedged in by enemies, and Egypt is on the rise, ready to seize any opportunity to invade and take away everything Solomon has built. Such excess would seem meaningless in this context, wouldn't it?
Wise as he was, Solomon knew the game was up--that his glorious building projects and his wide-ranging empire were "a chasing after the wind." Hindsight shows that within five years of his death, ten tribes would split away under the rule of Jeroboam, leaving the rump nation of Judah to stumble forward another 250 years. Within 15 years, Pharaoh Shishak would sack Jerusalem and carry away many of the treasures so lovingly stored in the temple (including the Ark of the Covenant so celebrated by Solomon's father, David).
Eight chapters in the first book of Kings tells the story of Solomon--only eleven chapters. He appears to me to be a man whose life was squandered with excess and shallowness. Ecclesiastes bears this theme out, leaving us with wisdom, yes, but also a health share of regret for all that Solomon wasted.