The book of Ecclesiastes shows us there are no pat answers in matters pertaining to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He does whatever he pleases, which often will look to us like “time and chance” (Eccl 9:11). But his word never fails, his promises are sure, and his commandments are not burdensome. When he sets his affection on you, he gives you the gift of irrational joy in the face of such frustration. Don’t ever give that up or take it for granted, for Jesus died and rose so the pure life of the age to come could invade our present age of frustration.
Proverbs is all about getting us moving in the right direction, toward the Lord and away from ourselves. Job shows us how to keep moving in that direction when everything falls apart. Ecclesiastes completes the triptych of wisdom books, inspiring us to persevere in that journey, despite how frustrating it may be to do so.
Ecclesiastes does not present its divisions nearly as obviously as Job and Proverbs do. The book could almost be considered a lab report, where the wise man presents his findings to a series of inquiries. So the chief markers to look for are the first-person signals, such as “I saw,” “I turned,” and “I considered.”
But with that said, the book’s sections appear to be tightly organized around topics. And within those topics, what appears at first to be linear and uncoordinated ramblings are actually carefully arranged to increase the rhetorical impact.
For example, after the thesis of Eccl 1:2-3, we get a series of four metaphors (Eccl 1:4-7) followed by four interpretations of the metaphors (Eccl 1:8-11). Then we get a narrative reflection (Eccl 1:12-14) with poetic conclusion (Eccl 1:15), followed by another narrative reflection (Eccl 1:16-17) with poetic conclusion (Eccl 1:18).
Working through the book to find those tightly structured units, organized around a single topic, yields the following divisions*:
- 1:1-3: Thesis
- 1:4-2:26: Repetition and gain
- 3:1-22: God’s sovereignty
- 4:1-5:7: Human community
- 5:8-6:12: Wealth
- 7:1-24: Suffering
- 7:25-9:12: Sin
- 9:13-10:20: Wisdom
- 11:1-12:8: Walking with God
- 12:9-14: Conclusion
Even if I’m not exactly right on the exact divisions, the most important thing in studying Ecclesiastes is to follow the argument. It is ultimately a book of truth and wisdom, which seeks to persuade you of truth and poke you into action (Eccl 12:11). So what is that argument?
The book states its chief conclusion (Eccl 1:2) and process (Eccl 1:3) up front. The process of looking for “gain,” or profit, under the sun yields the conclusion that everything is “vanity.” “Vanity” is a squishy concept, which we must grasp if we are to follow the argument. From here, I will use the plainer word “frustration,” which presumes the arguments I offered in this post.
So what are we able to get out of life? Frustration. An endless repetition of old things that will never satisfy. Such frustration is illustrated and explained vividly (Eccl 1:4-11), leading to the twin conclusions that we cannot fix anything (Eccl 1:15), and more knowledge produces more pain (Eccl 1:18). Inspiring, huh?