The enigmatic book of Ecclesiastes's contribution to the canon of Scripture is distinctive and important. Like the rest of the Old Testament Scriptures, it points to Christ (Luke 24.44), although in a different way to, say, the messianic psalms or the typologies of the temple and the sacrificial system.
Ecclesiastes shows us the frustration of living in a fallen world. It is in some ways an exposition of Genesis 3. The key word is ‘vanity’ or ‘meaninglessness’, which appears at both the beginning (1.2) and the end of the book (12.8), as well as in many places throughout. The emphasis is on the transitoriness of life, and the lack of satisfaction to be found therein – whether through work or pleasure or wisdom. The preacher is determined to tear it all down, everything to which we may turn for ultimate meaning. “Everything is meaningless” (1.2) There is also a frustration at injustice in the world – the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. And while there are hints of an ultimate judgment to right the wrongs (e.g. 3.17), the dominant note is that death marks the end and robs the achievements of life of any meaning.
Within this frustrating world, the preacher calls us to make the best of it: to enjoy our work and seek to live happily the few days we have. We must learn to live with the mystery: wisdom has its limits, we won’t be able to fathom it all out. The conclusion, then is this: life is meaningless and the best we can do is this: fear God and keep his commandments.
Ecclesiastes’ contribution to the canon of Scripture is important: it balances the wisdom of Proverbs and elsewhere which emphasise the order of creation, by reminding us of the disorder of a fallen creation, and the frustration produced by that disorder. It warns us against coming up with simplistic answers, and all-too-pat theodicies. It contributes to the unresolved and incomplete nature of the Old Testament Scriptures awaiting the One who would fulfill them all. Ecclesiastes leaves us with unresolved questions: the conclusion to fear God and keep his commandments is right as far as it goes, but leaves us crying out for something more, some kind of fuller resolution to the problem of the frustration of a fallen world.
This, then, is how Ecclesiastes points to Christ: Jesus is the one who entered into the frustration of the world and by his work overcame it. He experienced in his life the tears, exhaustion and perplexity of living in a world tainted with sin and, more importantly, he conquered the root of the world’s frustration by his substitionary death on the cross. Sin and death defeated through the cross and the resurrection. Thus the unresolved questions of Ecclesiastes are answered: the hopes of resurrection and new creation and the certainty of final judgment, all of which lie in the hands of Jesus Christ, resolve the problems of injustice and death and vanity.
And yet, it is also vital to grasp how the questions of Ecclesiastes are resolved. In fact, we still live in an Ecclesiastes-world of vanity, frustration, injustice and death. There is continuity between the pre-cross and the post-cross worlds, as especially Romans 8.18ff makes clear: the creation is still groaning. What has changed is that Christ’s work has brought a certain hope of final resolution and the inbreaking of that eternal life into the present time. Paul therefore writes with confidence of the “glory that will be revealed in us” as being far beyond comparison with “our present sufferings.”
The frustration of Ecclesiastes is not removed by becoming a Christian but is modified by hope in Christ. We live, therefore, in the tension between the seen and experienced fallen world and the unseen eternal world to come. It is the Christian tension of walking in faith not sight. For the unbeliever, Ecclesiastes functions in a similar way: it describes their own experience of frustration, and, in the context of the whole canon, points to the hope that can be theirs too in Jesus Christ.
This was an assignment I wrote for NTI last August. The tutor added the following helpful comment:
Thanks for this. Good stuff. I don't have much to add. I find it helpful to think in terms of the judgment referred in the closing verses as the imposition of meaning and order on a meaningless and disordered world. We live in a world in which good and evil are meaningless - they seem arbitrarily determined and inconsistently rewarded. But one day God will impose order on the world through judgment. Good will seen to be good and evil will seen to be evil when God judges the world through Jesus.