Summary – this interpretive summary of Ecclesiastes is, by nature, limited; many components of the chapters are left out because my intent was to summarize an overall picture. No doubt, others will disagree with my summary, and David Dorsey manifestly shows the futility at trying to organize, symmetrically, the book.
Nevertheless, I offer these thoughts with this effort.
I have taken time to study and understand via many books, some of which are from Denny Petrillo (Truth for Today), Michael Eaton (Tyndale), Roland Murphey (Word Biblical Commentary), Ian Provan (NIV Application), Jerry Shepherd (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary-R), of these sources I have found Petrillo, Provan and Eaton to be very useful. It was not long before I made use no longer of Shepherd, but instead included Derek Kinder (The Message of Ecclesiastes). I have used as a primary text the NKJV of the Bible; after reading daily the book in the NKJV and completing the textual study, I read the book daily in the ASV (American Standard Version). I have pursued this study, among other reasons, because of the Euthrypo Dilemma, a dilemma that is generated solely from a perspective of under the sun; it is not addressed in the book, but it generated in me a desire to understand naturalism from the perspective of a wise man considering things under the sun. Man, in his wisdom thinks he understands, but Solomon in his wisdom had a greater wisdom than any man who ever walked on the earth (short of Jesus). His approach to a better understanding of life and its meaning can’t be improved on with anything produced by man. In fact, Will Durant’s book On the Meaning of Life is an illustration of man’s effort to do exactly what Solomon did.
Vanity is from the perspective of (1) under the sun and from (2) one who sought out meaning in life in the natural realm. Solomon does not give thought to these things to which he gives attention as if God does not exist, he does not even contemplate such foolishness. Some have identified and enumerated the vanities’ Solomon speaks of, but I have not done so. In 1:2, Solomon said all is vanity; he does identify specific things and events that are vain, but his all means that all under the sun is vanity (at least that is how I take his meaning). In my estimation, when Solomon said all is vanity, it’s not that he saw no value in some things (for he did), but only the life as lived by man seems to have no purpose, direction or symmetry from the perspective of under the sun. He looks to find “what is good for the sons of man” (2:3). In reasoning out what is the good in life a man is to pursue, for those living under the sun, one is to look at life as God’s gift and work at that in which he is engaged (that is, his occupation, vocation); in that in which he is engaged, he also looks to God for wisdom and comfort in an otherwise empty, without purpose world (2:24-26; 3:12-13). The good in life is associated with work, but what is associated with good can’t be fully realized without a proper response to God (cf. 3:9-11). A life lived in productive work, in production and provision for his family and others is the good for man in life (5:18-20; 9:7-9). With God before him always, his approach to God must be with reverence (5:1-2; 7:18; 8:12; 12:13-14)
CHAPTERS 1 – 6 (interpretive summary)
- If naturalism is all that there is (with the phrase Under the sun), then wisdom’s value is only a little better than folly’s value; trying to grasp meaning in the world is like trying to grab a hold of wind; it is an empty venture. Solomon rejects (1:13) the foolishness (stupidity) of “naturalism is all that there is,” but if one is to argue this way, or live this way, then foolishness reigns within.
- Under the sun, Solomon satisfied his heart’s desire, accumulating many possessions (2:10), but he concluded the value of wisdom over folly is only minimal, for both end at the same destination, the grave (death). Thus, the good in life is fleeting, unless one begins to understand life as a gift from God (2:24-26). “Good” cannot be identified and measured unless one uses a standard that is transcendent of man; that standard must be God, for the only alternative is “not-God.”
- Under the sun, there is a proper time for many things; the actions and emotions of people bring them to recognize more to life than just existence (3:11), but under the sun God tests man so that he can’t figure out the big-picture (who are we, why we are here, where are we going) on his own, if he thinks he can and believe he has, then he realizes he is no better/greater than the beasts of the field (the animal-rights philosophy of life). Jeremiah 10:23 and 17:9
- Under the sun, there exists oppression, laziness, loneliness, and failure to heed wisdom; from a naturalistic perspective (under the sun) all is vain. Even if one did (does) live with knowledge of God, but chooses to live life in this way, then that life is an empty life, even with the strong cord of friendship; this applies all the way up to the life of the king.
- Under the sun, walk reverently and with fear before God; doing so means life is understood as God’s gift; the vanities of life that otherwise can’t be explained will all come to an end, and only One can give explanation. As one who recognizes life is God’s gift and puts his mind to work, then thinking on matters that weigh the heart down will be minimal – for one is too busy.
- There is much injustice in the word (Under the sun), even as one lives life as it ought to be lived, with the knowledge of God and accountability. The life man lives on earth is in relation to his mouth (sustaining his physical life), but his soul without wisdom is famished. He sees all about him the evil in the world, taking notice that as God gave, God takes away; he may even “contend” (NKJV) with God about this, but only God is in position to know what is best, what is good, for the rest it is a guess.
Will Durant’s book “On the Meaning of Life” illustrates perfectly man’s futility in searching!
CHAPTERS 7 – 12 (interpretive summary)
- Practical exhortations to living with wisdom Under the sun; happiness without a clear sense/understanding of one’s end is foolish and living in the past will benefit no one (7:1-10). On the other hand, God and His work is worthy of much consideration for His wisdom is a shield of defense like many use money toward the same end (7:11-29).
- Under the sun, practical exhortations continue; a proper approach before the king (government). Justice/judgment from the king’s perspective (8:2-9), judgment from the Lord God’s perspective (8:10-17).
- Under the sun, the value of wisdom is minimal (though there is value), but the one event that happens to all is death, so what is the point of having wisdom? Let your wisdom be in understanding God’s gift to you, which is life, your work and your family (9:1-10). Experiences of life teach the value of wisdom, for not all is fair or reasonable, but occasionally time, chance and circumstances overcome (9:11-18).
- Like C-7, in C-10 are practical exhortations of wisdom’s value. Under the sun (last use of the phrase in Book), wisdom is one’s strength, even in opposition, while foolishness shows itself plainly; wisdom and foolishness are not partial to one’s communal status (10:1-7). There is foolishness in the actions of some (10:8-10), in the words spoken by some (10:11-16) and in king’s way of life (10:17-20).
- Since life should be understood for what it is (cf. 9:10, 11), the best approach is to live it understanding 8:15-17. Eaton, I think, has the idea when he says, “the Preacher has called his readers to take life as from the hand of God, and to enjoy it despite its trials and perplexities” (140), but do not lose sight that in the end, each will give an account to Him who gave life as a gift.
- The vigorous life of youth closes for all; without remembering the Creator when one is old, the one who chose to live without God chose poorly. Be reminded the life given by the Creator, is the life that must answer for itself to the One who gave it. With remembrance, there is still vanity/frustration, but with God the vanity of life is given an answer.
What is the good life? The good life is not in the events and actions of life – whatever value and pleasantry there may be in them – but in understanding that life is God’s gift to the one under the sun, and life lived with this understanding gives direction not self-centered.
From Under the Sun there is No Wrong
From the advantage of under the sun (atheistic materialism or naturalism) man cannot know what the good life is (6:12). Solomon demonstrated this in his reasonings on the matter. Those who try the same will come to the same end, their denials not-withstanding. Let them try! Man can’t know what the good life is (under the sun perspective) because he can’t know what is good, he can only guess at it, and hope his guess is accepted by the many. Even if his guess is accepted by the many, all that really results from this is the accumulated counting of noses of those who concur – strictly arbitrary.
If he can’t know what is good, can he know what is properly called morally good? He cannot. How can he, since the word good is associated with evaluation of what is acceptable? In a fluid society like ours, the acceptable good does not stay anchored; in some behavioral areas of life, the evaluation of what is good from the Lord’s perspective is rejected, while the evaluation of what is good from the satanic perspective is accepted (2 Cor. 4:4).
Thus, homosexuality is not wrong, only something that one disagrees with; thus, polygamy is not wrong, only something that one disagrees with; thus, bestiality is not wrong, only something that one disagrees with; pedophilia is not wrong, only something that one disagrees with; the list goes on.
The reply will certainly be to the contrary; the reply from those who have a naturalistic (under the sun) way in their thinking is to reject this approach, but they can’t tell you why this adoption is wrong. Some will say it’s wrong because it hurts others who are innocent. So! What makes hurting others who are innocent wrong? This is where they fail; in their effort to reply, they argue in a circle. If one says that anyone of these are wrong, from the perspective of under the sun, what is the standard applied to make it wrong, and why should another person adopt that standard so identified?