The book of Ecclesiastes seeks to answer perhaps the greatest question of man’s existence: What is the meaning of life? What is it worth if lived as an end in itself? Is it possible for man to find ultimate fulfilment in anything that is done under the sun? In short, Ecclesiastes is The Quest for the Greatest Good.

The superscription of the book declares it to be the words of the Preacher (Heb Koheleth). The word Koheleth means ‘one who collects or assembles things’, in this case wisdom (12:9–10). In the Greek Old Testament, Koheleth is the Greek Ekklesiaston from whence the book takes its name.

Authorship and date of writing

Whilst there is no author explicitly mentioned, there can be little doubt that the Preacher of 1:1 is king Solomon. Consider the following:

1:1 Son of David 1 Chron 28:5

1:1 King in Jerusalem 1 Kings 10:2

1:12 Rules over Israel 1 Kings 4:1

1:16 Renowned for wisdom 1 Kings 3:12; Matt 12:42

2:4–8 Great building works 1 Kings 9:10–26

2:9 Greatest king 1 Kings 3:13

7:28 1000 Women 1 Kings 11:3

12:9 Taught knowledge 1 Kings 4:34; 10:2, 8

12:9 Wrote many proverbs 1 Kings 4:32; Prov 1:1

Solomon ruled the united kingdom of Israel between 970–930BC. Given the time taken to accomplish the building activities of chapter 2 and the personal nature of the description of old age in chapter 12, it would seem likely that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes near the end of his life, 935–930BC.

Given the obvious identification with Solomon, one might well ask why the king doesn’t simply name himself at the outset of the book. A consideration of Solomon’s own life probably answers the question. All kings were expressly prohibited from accumulating weapons, wealth and wives (Deut 17:14–20), whereas Solomon flagrantly broke each of these commandments (2 Chron 9:25; 1 Kings 11:3; 2 Chron 1:15). As he grew old and the maturity of years brought the serious issues of life into relief, it appears Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes as something of a confession. He did not live the example he recommends. For that reason, the message was found to be too important to be compromised by his name.

Purpose and structure

Solomon begins the book by stating the problem: life is hopeless (1:2) and futile (1:4–7). Man is born (1:4), he occupies his days in hearing, seeing and working (1:8), he doesn’t ever really discover anything new (1:9–10), and no matter how much wisdom he gains, he can’t pass it on to the next generation (1:11), who simply arise after him to repeat the same cycle and meet the same end (1:4). What then is the purpose of life? If a man simply lived life as an end in itself (without the Truth), is there any way he might attain ultimate fulfilment?

Solomon devoted the better part of his life to answering this question. This quest became the royal experiment of his reign. He gave himself to the accumulation of wealth, women, wisdom, experience and observation. He searched every corner of life (1:13). Nothing was kept from him if it could aid him in answering this question (2:10). The book of Ecclesiastes forms the thesis of Solomon’s experiment, the conclusions of his investigation.

The structure of the book is made difficult by the fact that Solomon appears to return to the same subjects again and again throughout the book rather than dealing with them in a consecutive manner. So, wealth is discussed in chapters 2, 5 and 6, wives in chapters 2, 7 and 9 and wisdom appears in almost every chapter. Questions that are raised early in the book (1:3) come up again (2:22) and again (3:9) and man’s portion in this life is mentioned continually (2:10, 24; 3:13, 22; 5:18, 19; 8:15; 9:9).

But Solomon does not easily find the answers he is looking for. In the hope that wealth and activity would provide him some lasting satisfaction, he embarks on a great building programme (2:4–8). But though he enjoyed his labour while he did it (2:10), once it was completed it did not provide the lasting satisfaction he had hoped for (2:11), and worse, he considered the heir that might inherit all his work after his death and he hated the labour he had done (2:18–20).

The result of this was that Solomon must continue the experiment from a different point of view. Perhaps he had looked for satisfaction in the wrong areas. Perhaps while he had been so distracted by his activities he had failed to notice that others had found the answers he was looking for. So Solomon looks about his kingdom and carefully observes people in other walks of life. Chapters 4–6 give snapshots of people all seeking the same fulfilment that Solomon was looking for and all failing. Man seems completely unable to completely satisfy his desire. Money appeared to offer good possibilities but could not satisfy desire (5:10), ran out quickly (5:11) and became addictive (5:13). Even rich men were not guaranteed happiness if their lives were cut short (6:2) or they had ill health (6:3).

By the time we get to the end of chapter 6, Solomon had been conducting his experiment for many years but was still missing major answers (6:12).

From chapter 7, he begins to pull together the threads of his experiences. Increasingly in the second half of the book, Solomon offers direct exhortations for the believers on the best course of life. Even though the secular activities of life cannot provide man with ultimate fulfilment, there is still value in living life as wisely as possible. The structure then becomes:

The Quest introduced

1:1–11 Introduction

The Quest pursued by personal experience

1:12 – 2:26 Personal experience

The Quest pursued by general observation

3:1–6:12 General observation

5:1–7 Direct exhortation on worship

The Quest pursued by mature reflection

7:1–12:7 Mature reflection

7:1–22 Direct exhortation on better things

9:7–10 Direct exhortation on death

10:1–4 Direct exhortation on wisdom

10:20 – 12:7 Direct exhortation on the day of Opportunity

The Quest concluded

12:8–14 Conclusion

Due to the nature of the experiment, Solomon does not approach his subject matter as we might expect. The book is not structured according to its subject matter but according to Solomon’s approach to the experiment. The experiment is broken into three phases: what Solomon did (personal experience), what Solomon saw (general observation), what Solomon thought (mature reflection). As a consequence of Solomon not finding the answers he was looking for in the early parts of the experiment, many issues arise again in subsequent phases.

Direct exhortations

There are a number of key words in the book. The word “vanity” (something meaningless, transitory) occurs 40 times; the phrase “under the sun” 29 times or its equivalent “under heaven” three times. Life under the sun speaks of life as it now is in the natural world, without God. Believers and unbelievers both live under the sun (naturally speaking), but in contrast to unbelievers, believers “see the sun” (7:11; 11:7); that is, they understand the purpose and the limitations of this natural life. Unbelievers live exclusively “under the sun”.

Another important distinction is the presence of the second person pronouns (thee, thy, thou) in the book. Wherever these words occur, Solomon is addressing himself to the believers. These are the “Direct exhortation” sections of the book. It is noteworthy that, with one exception, the phrase “under the sun” does not occur in the “Direct exhortation” sections but that the phrase “see the sun” does. The only exception is in Ecclesiastes 9:9 when describing death, which happens to all under the sun (believers and unbelievers alike).

The greatest good

Although Solomon experimented with life’s opportunities in his quest for fulfilment, he did not do so in ignorance of God. All along he knew God existed (1:13) and had created the situation he was trying to explain. But the best way to appreciate the value of the Truth is to consider life without it. This, then, was Solomon’s approach.

The problem is, man was created by God for the purpose of learning the Truth and developing an appreciation of divine things. To enable man to appreciate eternal principles, God created him differently to the animals. Man’s disposition ascends whereas that of the animals descends to the earth (3:21). Man has “the world” (niv “eternity”) in his heart (3:11), whereas animals do not.

This means that man will continue to search for satisfaction in everything he does but the only true satisfaction he will ever find is when he applies his mind to divine things. In exploring this, Solomon exposes the conflict between man’s desire for fulfilment and a life in which nothing is ever fulfilled. At the end of the experiment Solomon concludes: “Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole man” (12:13).

The interesting thing about the book of Ecclesiastes is that God never told Solomon to conduct this experiment. Despite the overwhelming validity of Solomon’s conclusion, this was an experiment that never should have happened. It almost cost Solomon the Truth; it certainly cost him his longevity (he died at about 60; see 1 Kings 3:14), Rehoboam was a casualty of the Quest and the nation was buckling under heavy taxation.

The truth is that Solomon did not discover anything new. Five hundred years earlier, Moses had already written the words of Ecclesiastes 12:13 (Deut 6:2). But every generation thinks it will discover something new. In this Solomon was no exception (1:11). The exhortation to the believers must surely be this: Moses had the answer. Solomon confirmed it. Don’t repeat the experiment a third time!