Ecclesiastesby Philip E. Satterthwaite
Imagine a preacher standing at a busy crossroads. He watches the passers-by, all of them intent on their business. He is bewildered: ″I don't get it! I just don't get it! Why are these people rushing around like ants? What do they hope to achieve?″
Imagine a lecturer preparing to deliver his opening lecture of the term. He is a known expert on his topic. Hundreds of students are waiting to hear what he will say. But his opening words are completely unexpected: ″What's it all about? What does it all mean? I can't make sense of anything!″
The opening of Ecclesiastes is designed to shock us. The first verse introduces ″the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem″ (Ecclesiastes 1:1); that is, apparently, Solomon, the famously wise king of Israel. We know Solomon as the principal author of the Proverbs, a book full of godly wisdom. We know him as a great king of Israel, whose prayer at the dedication of the Jerusalem temple showed such insight into God's dealings with Israel (1 Kings 8). But in today's passage, it seems that Solomon has no wisdom to impart, no insights to share, nothing to say except that he cannot make sense of what he sees going on around him.
The NIV translates the Teacher's first words (Ecclesiastes 1:2) as ″meaningless . . . utterly meaningless!″ The underlying Hebrew word means ″vapour″ or ″breath″. It is used 38 times in the book3, with a number of different connotations: ″futile″ or ″pointless″ (e.g., 2:23); ″hard to grasp″ or ″bewildering″ (e.g., 8:14); sometimes it suggests the brevity of life (e.g., 11:10). It is the most important recurring term in Ecclesiastes, a metaphor and motto that colours the thought of the entire book.
In 1:2 the Teacher is saying that life-everything he sees happening around him-is hard to grasp. The Teacher clearly believes in a creator God (5:1-7; 12:1). But strikingly, he does not make God the starting point of his teaching (contrast Proverbs 1:7). Instead he begins with this strong declaration of bewilderment. The Teacher, as later chapters will make clear, finds the world a frustrating and often incomprehensible place. For him life is like a riddle or puzzle with many of the pieces missing. Try as he may, he cannot make complete sense of things. We might translate Ecclesiastes 1:2: ″A riddle . . . a complete riddle . . . everything is a riddle!″
Now remember: this is simply the Teacher's opening statement, a sweeping generalisation designed to grab our attention. He has much more to say about life than this! But we should reflect: do we sometimes find life bewildering? Then we can take comfort from the fact that the rich, famous, and wise King Solomon seems to have felt the same. Let us read on, in the following days, to find out what the Teacher has to say about the issue he has raised so clearly in Ecclesiastes 1:2.
3Gerhard Liskowsky, Konkordanz zum Hebräischen Alten Testament (Stuttgart: Württembergische Bibelanstalt, 1958), 378.
Does the Teacher's opening statement shock or puzzle you? Or does it comfort you (because you have sometimes felt the same way yourself)?
Christians follow Jesus, who is ″the way and the truth and the life″ (John 14:6). Does that mean we are spared the kind of bewilderment the Teacher expresses here?