“The words of the Preacher, the son of David, King in Jerusalem.”
The book of Ecclesiastes is one of those interesting little books in the Old Testament that is often quoted but rarely studied closely. Some turn away from this book as it seems to have a quite pessimistic view on life (vanity of vanities!) and others often gravitate to this book because it speaks to them in the midst of their vain attempts at self-satisfaction. It stands as relevant today as it was when Solomon first put pen to paper and while not commonly quoted in the New Testament, the ideas it contains provide an important foundation for the Gospel.
In the Hebrew Bible, this book is called קהלח (Qoheleth) or “the Preacher” or sometimes “the Convener.” Ecclesiastes is taken from the Greek translation of this, drawn from ἐκκλησιαστής (ekklesiastes), referring to a member (or convener) of the church. It is part fo the third section of the Hebrew Bible, known as “The Writings” or sometimes as “The Psalms” and is one of the traditional readings during the festival of the Tabernacles. Since Tabernacles carries with it Messianic overtones, we must not neglect the Messianic nature of this book.
Traditionally this book is attributed to Solomon due to the words of this verse (along with verse 12 below). He identifies himself both as a “son of David” and “King in Jerusalem.” Verse 12 expands on that and identifies him as “King over Israel in Jerusalem.” While this first verse limits the playing field, verse 12 narrows the playing field down to two. We must recognize that in the Hebrew usage, “son of” can extend back generations…thus even Jesus was referred to as “Son of David” (Matthew 1:1; 9:27; 21:9).
Thus, recognizing that a number of kings who ruled from Jerusalem can claim to be “sons of David” we need verse 12, because with the advent of Solomon’s death and the rise of his son, Rehoboam, the northern kingdom of Israel split away and the kings in Jerusalem only ruled over Judah. That leaves just two candidates: Solomon and Absolom. Given the brevity of Absolom’s reign and his violent death, it seems unlikely that he would have written a book like this. That leaves us with Solomon, arguably in his old age, looking back at his folly. Furthermore, references to building projects and wealth are found in chapter 2, which again belong to Solomon’s reign and not to Absolom’s.
And thus we begin an exploration into Solomon’s reflections on life. This book is meant to be sobering, but also to point us to the vanity of our secular humanism and all of the other things that we put into the place of God. And, in a world where people are constantly “redefining” themselves based on the restlessness of their hearts, this book sends a clear message that no matter how we “self-identify” we will never find satisfaction apart from living our our lives as God designed us to do. Again, these words are as relevant today as they were 3,000 years when he wrote them — perhaps even more relevant.
“I, the Preacher, am king over Israel in Jerusalem and I put my heart to investigate and to discover through wisdom all that is done under the sun. It is an evil undertaking that God gives to the children of man to undertake.”
We have already discussed the identification of Solomon as Qoheleth — “The Preacher.” The initial “to be” verb, היה (hyh) is a basic Qal stem in the perfect tense, leading many translators to render this phrase: “I, the Preacher, was king over Israel…” And while that is a perfectly legitimate translation, it implies that Solomon is looking back from a point of view where he is no longer a king — the nature of a completed action. In Hebrew, though, the Perfect can also communicate a state of being, which seems to be more consistent with the historical records that do not see Rehoboam as king until after his father’s death. It is still reasonable to see this book as something Solomon wrote later in life as he looks back at his failures, but he is still doing so as king over Israel in Jerusalem.
With this pronouncement of him being King, we now see the basis from which he observes the world — “everything under the sun.” And his approach is to use wisdom to discern the ways of man. His conclusion is that this is an evil (רַא — “ra”) undertaking. Now, do not let Solomon’s answer rattle you, instead remember his context. Here he is king, raised as a king in a household full of “court intrigue.” He has also been surrounded by wealth all of his life and now he rules over people with whom he could never have begun to relate to their experience…yet, he is called upon to rule over them and judge their affairs — debates between prostitutes over whose baby is theirs and the like.
I have heard that sometimes Judges get weary over judging the same sorts of cases and crimes over and over and over again. Why can’t people just live alongside of one another with a degree of modest civility? I know that as a pastor, I feel much the same way at times, wanting to throw up my hands in exasperation, thinking, “why can’t these people just act like Christians!”
And that is exactly the point, isn’t it. People don’t always behave like Christians and they don’t always act with civility toward one another. People are sinners and make a mess of things and that is why God saves his own by Grace, not by our works (even the “best” of us would fail miserably!). That’s why we cannot just live under the sun with the wisdom of men. We need the Gospel. Perhaps this is why Solomon chose the term “Preacher” to describe himself…a realization that the preaching of God’s Word is what we most need. We need it taught, yes. We need it applied, yes. But we need more. We need God’s word pronounced with authority over us to condemn our sins and then offer us the hope of grace that comes through faith. This is so much more than what a teacher or a judge might happen to do.
In today’s world, preaching is not popular. Churches are shortening the time allotted to it, bringing it down to the level of the people rather than elevating it, they are ignoring law in favor of a spineless grace, and some are eliminating it altogether, replacing it will small-group discussions and teaching time focused only on the basics. While this is surely what people want because they flock to it, it is not what we most need. And people are starving spiritually and they don’t even know it. Sad…no, it is an evil undertaking because it is done “under the sun” rather than commanding people to turn their eyes to the Transcendent Son.