No one knows what to do with the book of Ecclesiastes. A look at the history of interpretation demonstrates this fact with painful clarity. For most this book is uncomfortable. On the surface it seems to challenge the fundamentals of the Israelite faith. One man has called it an “embarrassment” to conservative Christians. It is the awkward family member at thanksgiving dinner who keeps saying things that makes everyone blush. It is the black sheep of the biblical family. At least, this is how its troubled readers have perceived the situation.
In reality discomfort is not a helpful gauge for assessing the message of various biblical books. If anything our uneasiness may point to the books veracity rather than potential error. The book of Ecclesiastes is a breath of fresh air we all need to inhale. It is a wise voice that we all need to heed. It’s honesty will assault our delusions. Its candor will resonate with our pain.
The book of Ecclesiastes is a sincere look at all our existence under the curse. We have minimized the ravaging affects of depravity and God’s judging curse. We do not want to believe the depths of our sin, the heinous injustices around us, and the decrepit condition of our world. Genesis 3 is Solomon’s microscope through which he analyzes every facet of life here and now. His findings are honest and transparent. Life “under the sun” in the present age is marked by futility, confusion, brokenness, frustration, and pain. And yet God has provided oases of hope, enjoyment, and peace as we journey through this chaos. The author of this book has a robust faith in the God who has cursed the world and the same God who has devoted himself to restoring it.
Here are three helpful quotes from A.B. Caneday on the right way to read and understand the book of Ecclesiastes. These are all taken from his very helpful article, Qoholeth: Enigmatic Pessimist or Godly Sage? Grace Theological Journal 7.1 (1986) 21-56.
It is precisely because he was a God-fearing man that Qoheleth was capable of giving expression to such paradoxical and anomalous matters without denying the presence of evil in this world or without destroying his belief in God. Qoheleth records a godly man’s reflections upon a cursed world subjected by God to vanity and frustration. It is the character of such a world which accounts for the polarized expression) and paradoxical observations in his book.
Qoheleth upholds the creational design to celebrate life as a divine gift which is to be enjoyed as good, something to be cherished reverently and something in which man delights continually. This, perhaps, is the greatest enigma in Qoheleth—his bold assertion of the meaninglessness of life “under the sun” and his resolute affirmation that life is to be celebrated joyfully….He was a godly sage who could affirm both the aimlessness of life “under the sun” and the enjoyment of life precisely because he believed in the God who cursed his creation on account of man’s rebellion, but who was in the process, throughout earth’s history, of redeeming man and creation, liberating them from the bondage to decay to which they had been subjected.
The enigmatic character and polarized structure of the book of Qoheleth is not a defective quality but rather a deliberate literary device of Hebrew thought patterns designed to reflect the paradoxical and anomalous nature of this present world. The difficulty of interpreting his book is proportionally related to one’s own readiness to adopt Qoheleth’s presupposition–that everything about this world is marred by the tyranny of the curse which the Lord God placed upon all creation. If one fails to recognize that this is a foundational, presupposition from which Ecclesiastes operates, then one will fail to comprehend the message of the book, and bewilderment will continue.
The heart of the matter: Ecclesiastes must be given its voice. If we let it speak without interruption we will find its message strangely comforting and unexpectedly life-giving. Our hearts will resonate with the frustration and futility of life under the curse. We will be refreshed by his tenacious honesty in a world in love with pretending. The verdict that this book is an embarrassment to the Christian faith says more about the readers than the text. The only thing embarrassing is our dogged refusal to look reality in the face. Ecclesiastes helps us do just that.